Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

Conservative Myths – Dependency

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

The basic construct of democracy is that candidates campaign for votes. The candidate that gets the most votes wins the office.

Since this is a representative democracy, candidates try to give voters a sense of how they are going to behave if they get elected. This gives voters an opportunity to select those candidates that they feel would best represent them.

What has happened over the years is that this country has divided into two dominant parties. It would be convenient to say that conservatives are served by Republicans and liberals by Democrats, but that is a fairly recent development. The Republicans of Lincoln were the liberal party and the Democrats were the conservatives. The politics of race transformed the South into solid Democratic territory as the result of the white backlash to the civil war. The Democratic Party itself under FDR became significantly more liberal, but continued to hold its southern wing together by ignoring the plight of southern blacks. Kennedy and Johnson lead the legislative charge for civil rights in the 60’s. Racial politics caused another seismic shift during the 70’s when Nixon’s Southern Strategy embraced angry white men unhappy with Johnson’s civil rights activism. That strategy was expanded by Reagan who widened the Republican tent to include the evangelical vote that helped elect Carter.

The result is that we now have two parties that are pretty far apart ideologically. Both have their sets of beliefs. This particular post is going to look at some of the myths that are at the foundation of conservatism. There are likely some myths at the foundation of liberalism too. I’ll try to find some of those too.

Dependency
The myth is simple. Cash assistance for the poor prolongs their poverty. Reagan pledged to free the poor from the spider’s web of dependency by cutting their benefits. This allows those who believe in this myth to claim that eliminating benefits is really a compassionate act.

Fortunately there is no data to support this claim.

In fact, much to the contrary, cash assistance is common place in the rest of the world. 119 countries have at least one type of unconditional cash assistance. The US has none. In 52 additional countries the cash transfers require simple acts like enrolling your children in school. The only cash assistance available in this country is Temporary Aid to Needy Families. It has a huge bureaucracy whose sole role is to make sure that the aid is TEMPORARY.

MIT studied seven cash transfer programs in Central and South America and found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work”.

The World Bank 2014 report came to a similar conclusion regarding their cash assistance programs in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

In this country, a UC Berkeley study found that welfare payments did not increase single motherhood.

Though welfare as we know it was eliminated by Bill Clinton in 1996, the claim that welfare produced generations of dependents also failed the fact check. 40% of welfare recipients were off welfare within two years. Two thirds were off welfare within 5 years.

What about benefits?
More cash welfare improves the longevity, educational attainment, nutritional health, and adult income of poor children.

How about the results of cutting welfare?
Initially it appeared to encourage a lot of people to get jobs. But as soon as the Clinton boom faded, so did the jobs. Whatever gains the poor made during that period now appear to be the result of a strong economy and the expanded earned income tax credit.

Zombie Politics
This is one of those ideas that simply won’t die. This myth is buried so deep in the conservative mind that facts really don’t matter.

Paul Ryan proposed eliminating the last remaining vestiges of federal assistance and replacing it with block grants to the states who impose tough work requirements on the beneficiaries.

Summary
There is no data suggesting that cash payments to the needy are abused.

There is no data suggesting that reducing payments somehow provides a greater incentive to work than poverty itself.

There is plenty of data that suggest that those who suffer most from poverty are those who have the least ability to change their condition – children. There is also data that shows investing in poor children produces adults that are less dependent on the government because they are healthier, better educated, and more likely to be tax payers.

So why do we persist in an idea that is both cruel and foolish?

Because conservatives are more afraid of someone getting something that they don’t deserve than they are of injuring someone who is innocent. As a result, those who represent conservatives have found that if they blame the poor for their condition, they get more votes than the candidates who suggest that welfare could be an effective strategy to combat poverty.

Hopefully the next generation will not be so short sighted and hard hearted.

The Empire Strikes Back

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

There are plenty of frightening things about Trump’s campaign.

What is most frightening is his xenophobic appeal to nativism. It has given voice to an ugly white bigoted segment of society that has always been there, but was not discussed in polite company. These are the neo-nazi white supremacist racists who have enjoyed resurgence over the past eight years because a black man was in the White House. They were able to scream their bigotry in the public square because conservative Republicans claimed it was all politics. The worst stuff imaginable was suddenly fashionable among those who opposed the President because of his politics AND his race.

While they weren’t looking, however, conservatives have discovered that Trump is not just a racist, which they understand. He is also a populist. Worse yet, he is a rich populist, which seems an oxymoron, but doesn’t seem to disturb his followers. Even more terrifying to the conservative Republican establishment, his populism hasn’t just targeting illegal immigrants. It has also targeted bloated corporations who have had their way for too long and CEO’s who have been packing it in at the expense of their workers.

This is a very interesting turn of events. Ever since Reagan coopted the evangelical political movement awakened by Carter, Republican candidates have run on a whole platform of social issues. Once elected, however, they only delivered on the fiscal issues that were most important to their big money backers. Over the years everyone assumed that social conservatives actually cared about all of these fiscal issues too. Turns out that those supporting Trump don’t really care about the reducing taxes, expanding federal programs, and state’s rights. They understand the impact that big money has had on politics and are just as unhappy about large corporations and high income CEO’s as they are about illegal immigrants. Trump, running as a conservative Republican, hates free trade deals, loves Medicare and Social Security, wants to punish big companies that ship their jobs overseas, wants to tax CEO’s with cushy comp packages, and pledges to hold boards more accountable for their crony capitalism. In that regard Trump is MUCH closer to Bernie Sanders than he is any other candidate on the Republican ticket.

As Paul Krugman points out

The influence of big-money donors meant that nobody could make a serious play for the G.O.P. nomination without pledging allegiance to supply-side doctrine, and this allowed the establishment to imagine that ordinary voters shared its antipopulist creed.

But Mr. Trump, who is self-financing, didn’t need to genuflect to the big money, and it turns out that the base doesn’t mind his heresies. This is a real revelation, which may have a lasting impact on our politics.

The empire has inevitably begun to strike back.

The Club for Growth, that mainline supply side shill for political big money, is raising money to start running ads against Trump because of his tax policy.

Their hope is that they are going to be able to convince enough conservative Republicans that Trump is not their friend. This is going to be really interesting because the moment those ads begin to run I predict his poll numbers will improve. Rather than vilify Trump, these attacks from the conservative Republican establishment will validate what Trump has been saying all along. Those that have been sitting on the sidelines not sure that Trump is the real deal will realize that the Republican establishment, whom they also don’t trust, DOES take him seriously. They believe that he is dangerous. They recognize that he isn’t going to succumb to their influence. And finally, the establishment is terrified of what will happen to them if Trump is elected. This attack will be the sort of endorsement some of those on the sidelines have been waiting for. Trump will use these attacks to double down on his message of change. He will say, “If you really want to see changes, rather than the same old three card Monty that the Republican Party has been running, vote for me”.

If Trump is able to prove that these sorts of attacks will backfire and that organizations like the Club for Growth no longer have the weapon they claimed, the Republican Party will enter a brave new world. They will be required to really debate fiscal policy on the basis of what is best for the voters rather than what is best for their big money interests. If that occurs, we could really see a Presidential election where Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both agree that the wealthy should pay more taxes, corporations should be penalized when they ship jobs offshore, trade pacts should benefit US workers, the social safety net should be strengthened because it benefits those that depend on it, and healthcare should be available to all at a cost that all can afford.

Compare this to the tax plans of the rest of the clowns on the Republican candidate bus.

Cruz, Paul, and Carson all favor a flat tax. Easy math says that the flat tax has to be somewhere around 25% in order to fund the government at current spending levels. Paul is at 14.5%. Carson at is 10%. Cruz hasn’t said. Beyond that, the flat tax is a huge give away to the wealthy who are paying significantly more in taxes today.

Huckabee is proposing a consumption tax. This federal sales tax would add $.23 to ever $1 spent on anything or an effective rate of 30%. The problem is that economic think tanks across the political spectrum say that it wouldn’t even come close to funding the government at its current level of spending.

Bush’s tax plan is the most interesting just because it is so weird. He has already promised that supply side economics will produce 4% growth for as far as the eye can see. But the details of the plan make that naïve prediction seem rational. Here are some quotes from a good article on the subject from fivethirtyeight.com

Bush’s plan offers an unlikely combination of solutions to the problem of slow growth.

He wants to cut the income tax rate and eliminate the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax — all policies that would benefit mostly the wealthiest Americans. At other times, he sounds like a populist, calling for the closing of loopholes that benefit corporations and hedge fund managers. And at others, he sounds like a policy wonk, arguing to shift tax policy in a way that encourages companies to build rather than borrow.

There’s no way to calculate yet what impact Bush’s proposals would have on the federal deficit, for example, or exactly how much more or less specific groups would pay in taxes. He hasn’t identified the corporate loopholes he would close or said whether closing them would fully offset his proposed cut to the headline corporate income tax rate.

The summary is that this is a politically motivated plan that borrows something from every other candidate including Clinton and Sanders, bundles it all up in a big confusing bag, and then wraps it in a bow of promised 4% growth. The reality once you strip everything away is that it is the same old voodoo economics that Reagan was forced to abandon, Bush I rescinded, and Bush II used to turn a surplus into a deficit.

The reality, at least for the moment, is that there are a lot of angry white voters out there who are unhappy with the Republican establishment. There are also a lot of frustrated progressive voters out there who are eager for a candidate willing to mount a full throated defense of progressive principles. Trump and Sanders are riding these respective waves. It is unclear whether those waves will propel both candidates to their party’s nomination, but the political establishment is becoming very uneasy with this populist uprising.

Trump and the Crazy Train

Friday, August 14th, 2015

There is certainly one thing that you can say about Trump – he is entertaining.

What people aren’t talking about is the fact that ALL of the Republican presidential candidates are in one way or another just as crazy as Trump.

Trump represents an interesting populist anti-establishment uprising that has surprised the party establishment, the media, and Trump. He is also the natural evolution of the “money votes” economy. Rand Paul was on the right track when he said that Trump is “used to buying politicians”. He has simply taken the next step of by passing the middle man and representing his own interests. Whether he is able to translate this into a nomination is yet to be seen.

He gained momentum by demonizing undocumented workers. He fanned the flames of xenophobia by claiming that Mexico was deliberately sending their most dangerous citizens to us to deal with.

All of the rest of the candidates were dragged along to support Trump’s claim that there is a crisis at the border. Rubio tried to distance himself from his previous support of a path to citizenship. Walker also changed his tune. Christie called his previous support a “garbage idea”. Even Trump had flipped from his earlier support of path to citizenship. Only Kasich, Hackabee, Carson, and Paul have resisted the urge to jump on the “we’re being overwhelmed with criminals” bandwagon.

The problem is that fact checkers call this claim false. Illegal immigration peaked in 2007 and has actually declined since. Deportations hit an all time high in 2013 of 400K. Most of those were convicted of crimes in this country. More robust border enforcement has not only dramatically reduced illegal immigration, but it has also discouraged undocumented workers from leaving this country for fear that they won’t be able to get back in. The result is a fairly stable population of undocumented workers in this country of 11M. Their children, at least those born here, will automatically be citizens. If these trends continue, within thirty years the number of undocumented workers will drop by 50% without any other actions on our part.

So the only value in building a bigger wall is that it will likely provide some jobs for those that the wall is intended to keep out.

How about abortion?

Trump flipped from his previous support of abortion.

Rubio lied about never supporting exceptions to abortion.

Bush questioned whether, “we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”

Huckabee said he would ignore the Supreme Court and declare that a “baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.”

Santorum, who has built his political career on his opposition to abortion, took the opportunity to question Carson’s character because Carson used fetal tissue in his medical research. “When you start to see some of these cracks, I think it may show whether the person is really someone who’s going to take on an issue and be strong on it when they get into the very difficult position of being President of the United States.” An interesting attack from the guy who recently failed a significant test of character when he had to choose between politics and his religious faith on the topic of climate change.

How about healthcare?

Trump flip flopped in his previous support for single payor.

All promise to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better. NONE have said what that something better would be other than some discussion that health savings accounts would be nice.

How about the use of our military in the Middle East?

Rand Paul is the only one who would not put “boots on the ground”.

Fiorina lied when she claimed that the US wasn’t arming the Kurds. We are doing it through the Iraqi government.

How about the economy?

Jeb promises that he can deliver 4% growth off into the future based on his experience in Florida and his belief in supply side economics. The reality is that he presided over a huge real estate bubble in Florida. When it burst, shortly after he left office, 900K of the 1.3M jobs he claimed to create vanished. Funny the same thing happened to his brother’s supply-side experiment.

Many economists think that 4% is just out of our reach because of the demographic headwinds of the baby boomer retirement. You really have to believe in the fairy dust of supply side economics to project that we would touch 3% as a result of government policies.

Christie claimed some big job numbers, but his state ranked 44 out of 50 in job growth.

Walker did not elaborate on his failure to deliver the 215K jobs he promised would appear as a result of the massive tax cuts he gave business. Instead he talked about job growth and job participation numbers. What he didn’t say is that these were the same numbers that existed prior to his election.

Huckabee solves everything with a consumption tax. One of the advantages of that tax is that even “illegals, prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers” would be paying this tax. He claims that tax will generate 6% growth. I have to admit that 6 is better than 4 which is certainly better than 2, but just changing the tax policy won’t do it. You have to get more workers which just isn’t going to happen unless there is also a radical change in immigration policy which is not part of Huckabee’s plan. Even if you got more workers, you would also have to have a significant change in productivity because wages would have to track this growth in order to get more money into the economy. Huckabee hasn’t even thought of this because his consumption tax shifts most of the tax burden to the poor. All he has thought about is that 6 is better than 4.

Then there is Doc Carson, who suggest that we should all tithe 10% of income instead of pay taxes. When asked whether or not it would work, he said that if it worked for God, it will work for us.

Summary

In this context it isn’t surprising that Trump is having the success that he has been having. The reality is that the only half-way serious candidate in this train full of clowns is Kasich. Not surprisingly he is the most moderate of the bunch and as a result, the least likely to get the nomination.

This speaks volumes about what the Republican Party has become. This is no longer the party of George HW Bush or even Ronald Reagan. It has become the party of paranoia and extremism as the old white angry men, who have been the party’s backbone, struggle with the reality that they are no longer in control. They failed to defend marriage from the onslaught of gay rights. They failed to prevent the rollout of what they see as another big entitlement program in Obamacare. Black people are demanding justice. Hispanics have discovered the power of the ballot box. Even the Pope disagrees with their abortion obsession. And women are no longer content with staying home and raising children. They not only demand a career, but also equal pay for equal work.

These guys are growing tired of the effort required to hold back the flood of scientific evidence supporting human-caused climate change. Their dam has sprung so many leaks that they are running out of fingers to plug them. Coal-based electrical generation is not only polluting, it is expensive. The most economical and highest performance car is all electric, made in this country, and sold direct over the internet. The world is changing under their feet and there appears to be little they can do to prevent it except perhaps support someone who is willing to give voice to their fears and frustrations – Donald Trump.

Poverty and the Social Safety Net

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

Here’s a quick recap of what we have learned so far.

Conservatives have developed a set of narratives to explain why our best efforts to eradicate poverty have failed. These narratives all revolve around a central core claim that programs which attempt to assist people in need actually perpetuate that need. That’s because, according to this “logic”, aid of any sort reduces the incentive to work. The foundation of this view is that if the poor were willing to work as hard as the middle class they would quickly join the middle class. Lately there has been another twist to this point of view. If the middle class were willing to work as hard as the wealthy, they would be wealthy too. These views are consistent with the conservative moral foundation that hates that possibility that anyone might be able to “cheat” the system.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center for example found that three-quarters of conservatives believe that the poor “have it easy” because of government benefits. Only 1 in 7 believe the poor lead “hard” lives.

We have gone through a very interesting eight years where a lot of these assumptions were tested.

During those eight years the ranks of the poor swelled as many previously middle class people lost their jobs, their homes, and their savings. They were forced to file for unemployment, food stamps, temporary need to dependent families, and many of the other assistance programs that are the target of conservative scorn.

Now we are finally emerging from this long period of economic decline.

If the conservative theories are correct, those who were out of work for a long period of time and receiving benefits, should be demonstrating some dependence because of the corrupting influence of those benefits. We should be able to see evidence of that dependence in a reluctance to return to work.

One example would be the number of people on food stamps. That should remain high even as the unemployment rate goes down.

Guess what?

The number of people filing for food stamps has gone down at pretty much the same rate as unemployment.

The same thing is true regarding the claim that poor women have children in order to support themselves with the meager benefits provided for mothers with dependents. If that actually was a strategy, we would see the birth rate among the poor go up during times of high unemployment. Instead the birth rate among the poor went down, just like it did in the overall economy.

We’ve also seen that the behavioral effects of poverty cross racial lines. As more poor people fell into poverty over the past 8 years, their families disintegrated too. They saw increases in drug use, violence, and crime. They also experienced declining health. While life expectancy among the wealthy has gone up, life expectancy among the poor has gone down.

The real answer is much simpler.

If you want people to demonstrate middle class values, you have to provide them middle class jobs.

If you want to reduce the ranks of the generationally poor, you have to break down the barriers that institutional racism use to literally wall off poor minority communities from prosperity.

Finally, we have to have an honest conversation about the value of a social safety net in preventing people from falling into poverty. The psychological and physical damage they suffer in that condition can make it difficult for them to recover.

Here are just a few examples from a study by the Federal Reserve.

Poverty is an issue for our elderly. 25% of the elderly depend entirely on Social Security benefits. 50% get more than half their income from Social Security. That’s because 30% of the rest of the population have no retirement savings or plan at all. That same percentage of people report that they went without some medical care over the past year because they couldn’t afford it. 25% reported that they or someone else in their immediate family had experienced some degree of financial hardship over the past year. 47% said that they would not be able to handle an unexpected expense of $400 or more.

That’s why those Republican states who have refused to expand Medicaid continue to put their populations of working poor at a terrible risk. They remain literally one medical emergency away from bankruptcy.

Hopefully all of this will be included in the discussions of income inequality that I hope will be part of this election year cycle.

The poor are not to blame for their condition. We are.

We have created a system that makes it very difficult for those who fall into poverty to ever get out.

We keep the working poor on the knife edge of financial collapse.

We keep the black community imprisoned in economic and physical ghettos with an asymmetrical police and legal system that punishes them for not demonstrated middle class values. Then we are shocked when every ten years or so the ghettos explode in violence and frustration.

The data is there.

The changes are obvious.

All that is lacking is the will for conservatives to overcome their bias and have an honest an open discussion about how to address the root causes of poverty rather than simply blame the poor for their condition.

Institutional Racism

Friday, May 15th, 2015

In the previous post, I made the claim that institutional racism in the form of asymmetrical law enforcement and judicial bias were two of the three motivating factors driving the current demonstrations and violence in black communities across the country.

I suspect that some might dispute the claims of asymmetrical law enforcement or judicial bias, but the numbers here are undeniable. Blacks have many more encounters with police than whites on a per capita basis. They get arrested way more than whites. They are incarcerated at a much higher rate for the same crimes. They receive longer sentences for the same convictions. Ferguson was just one example of collusion between city government, law enforcement, and the judiciary to extort money from the black community for petty infractions. That’s institutional racism.

Another aspect of institutional racism created the ghettos where the vast majority of the black population live. These communities not only have substandard housing, but also no jobs and a very low percentage of home ownership.

Home ownership is the middle class wealth engine. Blacks don’t have access to that engine because they don’t have access to the middle class jobs that can support home ownership. They also don’t have access to that engine because, until the 70’s, they were not able to get mortgages for houses in middle class neighborhoods. Federal Housing policies prohibited it. That’s institutional racism.

Ned Resnikoff dug into the history in an MSNBC piece.

Disparities in homeownership are a major driver of the racial wealth gap, according to a recent study from Brandeis University. According to the authors of the report, “redlining [a form of discrimination in banking or insurance practices], discriminatory mortgage-lending practices, lack of access to credit, and lower incomes have blocked the homeownership path for African-Americans while creating and reinforcing communities segregated by race.”

For those of you unfamiliar with redlining, banks had different policies for different parts of the city. Those policies effectively priced black consumers out of white neighborhoods by charging blacks more to purchase a home in those neighborhoods than they would charge a comparable white customer.

This practice began in 1934 with the National Housing Act which established the FHA and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. This later agency created “residential security maps” which assessed the risk of real estate investments in different parts of major cities. Black neighborhoods were designated high risk and denied funding. This dramatically reduced both home ownership in black neighborhoods as well as commercial investment.

Speculators stepped into the void left by banks, often with the support of local government.

When selling on contract, the speculator offered the home to a black purchaser for a relatively low down payment – often several hundred dollars would suffice. For bringing the home within the reach of a black purchaser, however, the speculator extracted a considerable price. In the Commission on Human Relations study, the percentage increase in the cost of the home from the speculator’s purchase price to that of the black consumer ranged from a minimum of 35% to 115%; the average increase was 73%.

The next step toward the ghettos that we know today was block busting.

After the riots of the 60’s, whites began to leave inner city neighborhoods for the “safety” of the white suburbs. They took their businesses, jobs, and purchasing power with them. Speculators accelerated that white flight through various tactics intended to convince white home owners that black families were moving into their neighborhood. Realtors and speculators were able to purchase the houses at deep discounts and then convert them to multi-family dwellings that generated significantly more income for their owners.

As neighborhoods transformed from predominantly owner occupied low density to predominantly renter-occupied high density, property values declined. Property tax revenues which are based on property values and which fund local schools also declined. As jobs and purchasing power left neighborhoods, the small business services associated with that purchasing power also left. Neighborhoods that once were vital and sustainable, deteriorated. Whites associated this decline with black pathology. It was in fact a logical result of intuitional racism.

During the 60’s public housing projects were also placed in these same segregated economically depressed neighborhoods as a compromise with conservatives who opposed them completely. These projects were doomed from the start because they also failed to address the fundamental issue of jobs. Instead they simply concentrated all of the pathologies associates with poverty in a smaller geographic area. Gangs, violence, and drug use all became associated with the black family experience rather than the underlying economic conditions that were in fact the root of that behavior.

When you wall-off a whole community from access to the wealth building tools of employment, access to capital, and home ownership – they are unable leave their impoverished areas. Their poverty has a whole set of pathologies that accompany it. This cultural dysfunction and deep generational poverty defines life in the prison that our policies built. Conservative Republican leaders starting with Nixon turned this into a political strategy. Nixon was content to simply play on the same fears of whites that made the block busters wealthy. Reagan was the one who expanded the meme that blacks were dangerous. He convinced angry white voters that the blacks imprisoned in the ghettos that institutional racism created are themselves responsible for the conditions under which our government’s policies have forced them to live.

O brother, where art thou?

Pathology Versus Economics

Friday, May 8th, 2015

Responses to racial unrest, most recently in Baltimore, aren’t surprising given what we know about conservatives and liberals. Conservatives focus on rioters calling them thugs and feign surprise at the violence. Liberals on the other hand point to asymmetrical law enforcement in white and black neighborhoods and question why cops are killing so many unarmed poor kids.

Here’s a little history to try to figure out what is going on.

This country was founded on slavery. The slave trade in North America grew right along with European colonization. It was written into our founding documents right along with inalienable rights. The United States fought a civil war to force an end to slavery in southern states. That ended two hundred years of institutionalized and constitutional slavery.

A war weary country, however, failed to eradicate institutional racism. Whites successfully regained the political and economic power that they lost briefly during reconstruction. They exercised that power with impunity for another 100 years until the civil rights movement began to win a series of Supreme Court victories. The pinnacle of that movement was the voting rights legislation passed during the Johnson administration.

Coincident with that legislation was widespread racial unrest. During that period of time there were two seminal studies on poverty and racism.

The Moynihan Report in 1965 blamed the violence on poverty. They blamed poverty on pathological and cultural deficiencies in black families. This report shifted the onus from institutions and policies to families. It coined the term “benign neglect” in recommending that government had done pretty much all that it could to. Rights had risen as far as the study’s authors felt they could. Fixing families required an attitude adjustment by government and blacks. Government had to stop trying to supplement poor incomes. Instead government should encourage poor black families to fix themselves.

The Kerner Commission Report in 1968 took a much more scientific approach. It was based on extensive interviews of all those involved in rioting – young black men, shop owners, police, citizens, leaders, and elected officials. That report said the root cause of rioting was institutional racism. The solution to racial unrest was simple and obvious – social justice and economic redistribution. People rioted because they felt oppressed by the police, persecuted by the courts, and taken advantage of by the business community. Provide those same people good jobs, fair law enforcement, and color-blind courts; and everyone will happily live a peaceful law abiding life.

The riots of the 60’s also terrified white people. They fled the cities for the suburbs and took their jobs with them. Nixon and Lee Atwater invented the Southern Strategy in 1968. It played on white fears. Republicans successfully mined white backlash and rage right up until Obama’s election in 2008.

Reagan famously put another twist on the Moynihan report when he claimed that poverty itself was the result of dependence. He invented the specter of the welfare queen living large on the state. He based that characterization in a bi-racial con artist who was hardly a black stereotype. But the narrative was more powerful than the reality, and a whole series of reforms all the way through Clinton dismantled the social safety net for the poor that was part of the Great Society’s War on Poverty.

So what is the reality? Pathology or Economics.

As always the numbers give us some insight.

Let’s start at the same place that Reagan started, with the welfare queen. Everyone is familiar with this claim. Poor minority women bear lots of children so that they can live off government assistance rather than work. Let’s put aside for a moment the fact Clinton eliminated this sort of permanent assistance. There is a much simpler way to blow up this myth. If it were true, we should be able to see increases in the birth rates of poor black families during difficult economic times. We have just gone through the most difficult 8 years since the Great Depression. The birth rate in poor black families plummeted just like it did across the rest of the socio-economic spectrum. In other words, while there may be individuals who successfully defraud the government, aid to the poor does not create a pathological dependence which encourages women to, in effect, “live” off their children.

The great sociologist William Julius Wilson argued long ago that widely-decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities. His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar ways.

If that’s true, we should be able to see the same social disruptions in white families over the past eight years. If you go look at the numbers, it’s there. Lagging wages — actually declining in real terms for half of working men — and work instability have been followed by sharp declines in marriage, rising births out of wedlock, and more across the racial spectrum.

As Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution writes: “Blacks have faced, and will continue to face, unique challenges. But when we look for the reasons why less skilled blacks are failing to marry and join the middle class, it is largely for the same reasons that marriage and a middle-class lifestyle is eluding a growing number of whites as well.”

The pathology of “bad choices” that conservatives have used to blame the poor for their condition is now being replicated in large segments of the poor white population. They have suffered the same economic displacement over the last eight years that blacks have experienced for generations. That includes shorter life spans, increased violence, broken families, increased drug abuse, less education, decreased home ownership, increased financial instability, and increased chronic illness.

Conservatives cluck about the failure of minority communities to adopt middle class values, but those values depend in large part on access to middle-class jobs. Those jobs are simply not available in poor communities and the poor can’t afford to move to where the good jobs are. Instead you have the spectacle of a Detroit man who spends all his non-working hours getting to and from his minimum wage suburban job.

Finally, you have Republican leaders like John Boehner suggesting that the riots in Baltimore are evidence of the “50 years of failed Democrat policies”. While it is clear that he is reaching back to the Great Society, half of those 50 years Republicans were in the White House. So if policies are to blame, that blame should be shared equally by Republicans and Democrats.

The numbers again come to our rescue here. In this case, Paul Krugman.

Federal spending on means-tested programs other than Medicaid has fluctuated between 1 and 2 percent of G.D.P. for decades, going up in recessions and down in recoveries. That’s not a lot of money — it’s far less than other advanced countries spend — and not all of it goes to families below the poverty line.

Despite this, measures that correct well-known flaws in the statistics show that we have made some real progress against poverty. And we would make a lot more progress if we were even a fraction as generous toward the needy as we imagine ourselves to be.

In other words, the problem was not too much money. They problem was not enough money, and perhaps money spend on the wrong things.

So where does this leave us?

The “pathology” that has been the mainstay of Republican pronouncements about race and poverty from Ronald Reagan through John Boehner are not supported by the facts. Instead of dependency, we have predictable effects from job loss, mass incarceration, and economic disruption.

Instead of a post racial society, we have the daily experience of young black men who are targeted by the police and persecuted by the justice system.

Instead of confronting the realities of the living conditions that we have forced the poor to endure, conservatives use the myth of pathology to absolve society from taking meaningful action. The myths of the welfare queen, Willie Horton, middle class values, and personal responsibility allow us to ignore the fact that we have effectively walled off poor communities from prosperity.

Baltimore is a good example. It spent $130M over the last 20 years in an attempt to transform one of its poorest neighborhoods. While well intentioned, 1000 new affordable houses, new schools, and new clinics did not attract the employers necessary to support the families in those new houses. Without jobs, the neighborhood eventually reverted back to the same despair, crime, and drug abuse that every other job-poor neighborhood displays. Just fixing housing, schools, and healthcare, regardless of how much money is spent, isn’t enough.

“Having a well-maintained home doesn’t get at the larger issues that prevent self-sufficiency,” said DeLuca, the Hopkins sociologist. “The labor market and drug markets really destabilized Sandtown.”

The problem is institutional racism reflected in over-zealous law enforcement and lack of opportunity in the only neighborhoods that poor black people can afford to live.

The solution is jobs.

The rest is just myth and the conservative pathology of confirmation bias born of moral fundamentalism.

Gimmicks and Tricks

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

We do not rely on gimmicks or creative accounting tricks to balance our budget.

This statement is in the introduction of the Republicans 2015 House budget.

This document declares that the most important thing that the country can do is balance the budget.

If you are doing a double-take at this point, so was I. Balance the budget? What about the party that last month said that they should make the poor their top priority. Or the party that said six months ago that the most important thing was to defeat ISIS? Or the party that for the past five years has been trying to repeal Obamacare?

Nope, we are now dealing with the party that says balancing the budget is the most important thing.

So I guess it should be no surprise this Republican budget not only fails to balance, but also includes a spectacular set of gimmicks and creative accounting tricks.

Here’s my list.

Dynamic Scoring – this is the CBO rule change passed by Republicans in September. What this means is that the CBO must now include economic impacts when determining the cost of a particular bill. In the past, the CBO simply projected cost and revenue without any attempt to determine how a particular piece of legislation would affect the economic models that are already in place. Using this new scoring, the Republican budget “gains” an additional $147B in mystery money.

Overseas Contingent Operations – This is a $90B Defense slush fund to allow Republicans claim that they are still abiding by the Sequestration cuts when they really aren’t. To make matters worse, $20B of the $90B is supposed to be offset by future spending cuts which were unspecified.

Obamacare Repeal – Republicans propose to repeal all of the benefits of Obamacare and the taxes that pay for them. The budget assumes that this is a wash, but there are $1T in tax revenues that aren’t accounted for, and the last CBO scoring had Obamacare reducing the deficit.

Missing $500B – The budget claims to save $5.5T over 10 years, but the fine print suggests that Congress is only responsible to find $5T in savings.

Other Mandatory Programs – Republicans cut $1T from this category without specifying which programs were going to be cut and by how much.

Medicare and CHIP fix – This long overdue bi-partisan plan will cost $141B over the next 10 years. It was not included in the Republican budget.

What about the poor?
Those are the people both Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz said should be better represented by the Republican Party. This budget includes deep cuts to food stamps and Medicaid. Rough estimates are that this budget would double the number of Americans without health insurance and that’s before the additional promised $1T in cuts. The stark reality is that there isn’t that much left to cut unless you include Social Security and Medicare.

Spending on government programs other than Social Security and Medicare would fall to 7.2 percent of GDP in 2025 — 40 percent below the average of 12.2 percent of GDP over the past 40 years, and far below the previous post-World War II low (which was 9.4 percent of GDP in the late 1990s). In short, the federal government outside Social Security and Medicare would gradually become a shell of its former self.

Fiscal Responsibility?
During the financial crisis, Republicans pointed at the big deficits and big stimulus programs as irresponsible. In the context of deficits hitting 10% of GDP, the Tea Party took up the cry for a balanced budget.

Today the deficit is 2.7% of GDP, exactly where the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction committee suggested it should be by 2015. As long as the economy continues to grow at or near 3% a year, the debt as a percentage of GDP will go down without any additional government spending cuts.

Summary
If the Republicans were serious about reducing the debt and balancing the budget, they would not have resorted to smoke, mirrors, and bad math. Instead this is a political document intended to appease the radical right of the party. If they did succeed in passing it, it would never survive the President’s veto. If it did somehow make it into law, Republicans themselves would fail to implement the social program cuts contained in the budget. There are too many Republican senators up for re-election in blue states in 2016.

Instead this budget was best described by conservative Republican congressman Ken Buck.

I don’t know anybody who honestly believes we’re going to balance the budget in 10 years. It’s all hooey.

There you have it – another example of how seriously Republicans take their new responsibility to govern.

Jeb Bush’s Social Darwinism

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

The effort by the state, by the government, ought to be to try to create catastrophic coverage, where there is relief for families in our country, where if you have a hardship that goes way beyond your means of paying for it, the government is there or an entity is there to help you deal with that. The rest of it ought to be shifted back where individuals are empowered to make more decisions themselves.

This is how assumptive 2016 Republican Presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, summarized his replacement for Obamacare.

While we don’t have all of the details, there is a lot to parse in this particular statement.

At first blush, the discussion of catastrophic coverage is at the heart of the Republican message.

Bush advocates replacing the ACA “with a model that is consumer-directed, where consumers, where patients, have more choices … where the subsidies, if there were to be subsidies, are state administered … where people have more customized types of insurance based on their needs; and it’s more consumer-directed so that they’re more engaged in their decision making, and they have more choices than what they have today.”

This was the same message the Romney presented when asked about healthcare for the poor during the 2012 campaign.

Well, we do provide care for people who don’t have insurance. If someone has a heart attack, they don’t sit in their apartment and — and die. We pick them up in an ambulance, and take them to the hospital, and give them care. And different states have different ways of providing for that care.

That is the healthcare system that we had. One where those who couldn’t afford insurance could receive the most expensive form of care our healthcare system had to offer. Those that attempted to pay those bills often ended up bankrupting themselves. Most of those bills were passed on to those with insurance through higher hospital costs.

Catastrophic Coverage
Catastrophic coverage as envisioned by Mr. Bush is just one step away from this model. The stated goals are to make insurance more affordable by introducing high deductibles and cost sharing. In the minds of conservatives, this makes people more thrifty healthcare consumers, since much of the cost of everyday care is coming out of their pockets. The reality is that high deductible plans in many cases are not much different from no coverage at all. They discourage people from seeking preventative care.

While high deductible plans may flow some additional dollars into the hands of hospitals for the expensive emergency room visits that will result from failure to employ preventative care, it will not mitigate the financial risk of those who have a medical emergency. That’s because, as this graph shows, fewer than half of those who are likely to purchase these plans have the money to pay the deductible if in fact they DO experience a medical emergency that their plan covers.

high deductible

Individual Customization
The second problem in Bush’s unraveling of Obamacare is wrapped in the clothing of “more customized types of insurance based on their needs”. This is another conservative hot botton. They have a philosophical problem with the way that insurance works. They feel that people should be free to purchase only the amount of insurance they feel they need without regard to the risks or costs. They don’t seem to have a problem with Banks requiring homeowners to insure their homes up to a particular standard in order to get a mortgage. But they do have a problem with the government setting minimum standards on the sorts of healthcare coverage insurance companies must offer. Bloomberg explains that government standards preserve large risk pools which effectively reduce the costs for everyone.

Republicans are really saying that people should be free to avoid carrying insurance for problems they don’t expect to have (a bout of depression, maybe, or a stroke that requires rehabilitation) or don’t want to help pay for (pediatric and maternity care for men with no children, say). The former view shifts costs onto the unlucky; the latter shifts costs onto women and parents. Both undercut the purpose of insurance, which is pooling risk. Neither saves money. Yet in the abstract the argument sounds compelling. And it’s going mostly unchallenged.

Single Payor
What IS interesting in Bush’s plan is the suggestion that the government either directly or indirectly is the source, or underwriter of these catastrophic plans. This particular statement goes WAY further than Obamacare toward the single-payor socialism fears that birthed the Tea Party. Under Obamacare, the government does not issue insurance. The insurance comes from private companies. Those companies are regulated, but they ultimately get to set their own rates and determine in which markets they are going to participate and which populations they are going to target. The government only offers to subsidize the cost to purchase that insurance for those who don’t have the means to purchase that insurance on their own.

Obamacare is market-driven. The government works to make the insurance market in every state sufficiently lucrative that consumers in every state have choices. It has no mechanism to compel an insurance company to offer coverage in any particular state. Participation by insurance providers is entirely voluntary.

If the government is going to guarantee that every individual is able to purchase some form of catastrophic insurance at a rate that they can afford, who is going to provide that insurance? Who decides what that rate is? Who decides what the minimum coverage should be? How to do you handle the “free riders”, or does everyone get a minimum plan paid for by the government whether they like it or not? How does Bush plan to pay for all of this? A new tax?

That’s how Medicare works. One plan for everyone paid for by a payroll tax. We don’t require seniors to enroll in Medicare, but 85% of seniors do. Medicare doesn’t cover all expenses, but it does allow most seniors to retire without the worry of having to pay increased medical costs.

Summary
Jebcare is not a REAL plan. It is simply a set of talking points that allow Jeb Bush to appeal to the reptile brain of the Republican Party without actually working out any of the details.

Republicans DO NOT want to offer any kind of subsidized care for anyone. This isn’t an issue of cost or efficiency. Obamacare has already demonstrated that this approach saves money and improves health.

This is about philosophy. Republicans are social Darwinists who feel that poverty is the appropriate punishment for bad decisions made by people or their parents. Disease, in their minds, is just another motivation for making better decisions that should be preserved if we want to have a more responsible society. The rich are the vanguard for this righteous society. Their success is proof of their character.

Those of you who read the Bible, might recognize some similarity to the Pharisees. They felt that poverty and disease were punishments God meted out on the sinful. Jesus rejected that whole philosophy. Instead he reminded his disciples that His work (and the future work of all Christians) was to enlighten the world to a new way of thinking where love is the rule.

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. Matt 9:1-5

There is obviously a lot of work still to be done.

Reaction to Obamacare Good News

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

The CBO came out with one of their periodic reports on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

Here is the headline of the report.

The ten year projected cost for the ACA has gone DOWN 11%.

The first reason for that cost reduction is that the cost of insurance premiums is rising at a lower rate than what was originally projected. As a result, the cost to subsidize insurance for those who can’t afford to pay the full amount on their own is going down.

The second reason is fewer people overall are signing up for insurance that includes government subsidies (Medicaid or subsidized private insurance). That’s because companies are not canceling healthcare coverage for their employees at the rate originally projected by the CBO. That reduction is about 3M people.

The net is that by 2025, there will be more people with insurance than the CBO originally projected, which is also good news.

cbo graph
There is some controversy on why healthcare costs are growing more slowly. The administration suggests that it is the result of cost saving provisions of the ACA. Conservative sources suggest that it is the result of a weak economy and have been predicting a bounce back as economic growth heats up again. The CBO commented on this in their report.

such a bounce back seems less likely in light of the further slowing of spending growth observed in the most recent data.

BTW, this report only focuses on the cost side of the leger. The agency discontinued their analysis of the budget impact of this particular bill. Instead they pointed to their normal comprehensive deficit reporting as a source for those looking more detailed information. They did, however, provide this guidance when they made their announcement last summer.

the agencies have no reason to think that their initial assessment that the ACA would reduce budget deficits was incorrect.

What is also reliable are the conflations by conservative media sources who refuse to acknowledge that the law is actually working.

Here’s a sample.

Forbes (a long time ACA opponent) chooses the headline “CBO Downgrades Obamacare’s Enrollment And Subsidy Projections” for this same news. Rather than focus on the big news which is the cost savings and the fact the corporations are not laying off employees because of the law, they suggest that the law is failing to meet the original projects that the CBO put in place. Rather than admit that slowing growth in premium costs is a good thing, Forbes says “Obamacare’s premiums: Much higher than before, but lower than CBO projections”. Then they go on to quote their own statistics from a conservative think tank rather than the CBO in order to support that claim. They finish up the article with a suggestion of how much better things would be if a different plan were in place.

The Washington Times is always good for a laugh. Their headline reads, “Obamacare exchange customers set for significant premium spikes, CBO predicts”. They go on to cherry pick the CBO report in an effort to make their case. But the CBO did not predict a spike in premiums. They predicted that premiums would rise SLOWER than what they had previously predicted.

So I guess we should not be surprised that those who choose to live inside the right wing news bubble will continue to insist that the law, as Jeb Bush recently described it, is a “monstrosity”.

Jeb’s plan is replace Obamacare with government-backed catastrophic coverage for those who experience a medical crisis. For everything else, folks should just pay out of their pocket. The challenge, of course, is that the best medicine and cheapest care is the preventive care that is practiced in the primary care physician’s office. The most expensive and least effective care is that practiced in the Emergency Room as the result of a medical crisis.

We’ll dig into Jeb’s plan in another post.

The bottom line is that this is more good news for the country. The ACA is working even better than originally envisioned. The predicted avalanche of layoffs as corporations come under the ACA requirements regarding insurance did not happen. The “spikes” in premiums did not happen. Premiums are going up at the lowest rate in recent history. And finally, the predicted explosion in federal deficits as a result of the subsidies included in the bill hasn’t happened. The projected costs of the bill are going down because healthcare is becoming more efficient under ACA rules.

The real tragedy of our current partisan political environment is that we can’t even welcome good news anymore. All news goes through the filter of whether or not it is good for your particular political tribe with precious little thought about what might be good for the country.

Teddycare

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

Ted Cruz is trying to position himself for a run at the 2016 Republican nomination for President.

He has already endeared himself to the Tea Party based on his government shutdown strategy.

As with many who need to retain their conservative bona fides while attempting to appeal to a broader audience, Ted has a problem. His actions and words are often at odds with one another.

In an attempt to distance himself from the last Republican who ran for President, Ted said this at a recent Koch Brothers event.

The central narrative of the last election, what the voters heard was, ‘We don’t have to worry about the 47%.’ I think Republicans are and should be the party of the 47%.’

Just as a reminder, the 47% reference here was Romney’s description of those dependent on the government and, as a result, unlikely to vote for him.

Here’s what Ted has done to help the 47% over the last couple of years.

Government Shutdown
This was an effort to defund Obamacare which provides insurance for a large percentage of the 47%. The government shutdown took a $24B bite out of the ecomony and , according to Mark Zandi from Moody’s, slowed the recovery that we are now experiencing by at least two quarters. It also furloughed thousands of federal employees without pay, though they were eventually paid. Federal contractors also furloughed thousands of employees without pay. They never received their lost pay. Small businesses suffered delays in payments and frozen SBA loans which caused them to lay off workers too.

He later defended his action saying:

As a result of that fight, millions of Americans rose up and demanded we stop the disaster that is Obamacare. Together, we elevated the national debate. And now, the misguided healthcare law is more unpopular than ever.

Immigration Reform
Ted also opposes any immigration reform that would provide a pathway to citizenship. He supports deportation of Dreamers.

Minimum Wage
He opposes any increase in the minimum wage.

Each of these positions makes life for the 47% worse. So it does call into question how he plans to become a champion of the poor and middle class.

Now he wants us to believe that he can provide a reasonable alternative to Obamacare. He remains convinced that “every last word of Obamacare must be repealed”. His alternative is designed to address the 7.5M that could lose coverage if the Supreme Court strikes down subsidies for those who have purchased insurance through the federal website.

The administration has done absolutely nothing to prepare for an upcoming Supreme Court decision that could leave millions of Americans unable to afford insurance thanks to this failed law.

Republicans must offer the American people alternatives that lower costs and break the status quo that favors big government and big health care business over hardworking Americans.

Before we dig into this just a couple of points about how insurance works.

Insurance companies make money by spreading the risk of a claim over a large population of insurance customers. The larger to pool of people unlikely to make a claim, the lower the rates for everyone in the pool. Obamacare works because it adds WAY more healthy people to the insurance pool than sick people.

This “pool” business model also introduces a bit of counter intuition with regard to competition. The bigger the pool, the lower the cost. That means that competition actually increases insurance company costs because the pool now has to be split among competitive companies. The number of insurance companies that any particular state can support depends on that state’s population. Increasing the number of choices for consumers (by allowing buying outside state boundaries) will actually reduce the number of in-state choices consumers have, particularly in smaller population states.

Here are the major points of Teddycare.

Allow people to purchase health insurance across state lines
His claim along with other Republicans is that increased competition would lead to lower premiums. This is disputed by experts. That’s because the cost of insurance is driven by the cost of healthcare, and not the marginal costs to operate their companies.

Eliminating state boundaries will return us to a world where healthy people can get very cheap insurance that they never use and ill people, if they can find insurance, won’t be able to afford it.

Insurance is regulated on a state by state basis rather than nationally. Allowing consumer to buy insurance from any state they choose will encourage at least some states to compete for that business by weakening their regulations. We’ve seen the same thing in credit cards where most companies are headquartered in Delaware or South Dakota where consumer protection laws are weak.

Repeal the individual mandate
Obamacare was able to implement requirements to insure everyone (healthy or sick) by requiring everyone (healthy or sick) to purchase insurance. This increases the pool of healthy people enough to actually offset the costs to offer the same plans to sick people. The result that we’ve seen is that the the rate of premium increases we saw before Obamacare have now slowed.

Eliminate the marketplaces
This reduces the ability for consumers to easily shop for plans on an apples to apples basis. Plans are complicated and even with the requirements that a marketplace impose, comparisons are still difficult. Remove the marketplace and very few consumers will be able to make informed decisions. They will instead have to return to insurance brokers who will help drive the cost of insurance up.

Remove the subsidies
Subsidies also widen the pool and make sure that care is being provided at the lowest cost location, a physician’s office rather than the highest cost location, the ER.

Eliminate protections against pre-existing conditions
Insurance companies will simply refuse to offer coverage to the very sick. The very sick will exhaust their own resources, declare bankruptcy and qualify for Medicaid. Tax payers foot the bill.

Eliminate parents’ ability to carry their kids on their insurance until age 26
Kids who age out of their parents’ plans will simply not purchase insurance. Rates go up because the pool is less healthy

Allow insurance companies to cap lifetime benefits
For the first time in our history, bankruptcies because of medical costs went down in this country because of Obamacare. This will cause them to go back up again.

Ted Cruz isn’t offering an alternative to Obamacare. He is simply returning us to the insurance system that existed before Obamacare. This was the system that was failing the 47% and threatening to bankrupt the country with out of control increases in healthcare costs. This was the system that left many people one serious illness or accident away from financial ruin. This was the system where the most vulnerable in our society had the least protection. This was the system where tax payers where forced to carry the burden for 30M uninsured.

I doubt that this will ever be introduced as a piece of legislation because it then can be scored by the CBO. That will reveal it as the fraud that it really is.

That does seem about right for the party that wants to “lower costs” for “hardworking Americans”. That’s really the code word here. We’re not talking about the 47% anymore. We’re talking about the 85% who have insurance and have been brainwashed into believing that extending care to another 27M people must be costing them something.

That’s what Teddycare is all about, fear mongering and Big Lies. One thing you CAN say about Ted Cruz, he is consistent.