Thursday, April 10, 2014

American Aristocracy?
Social mobility in America is at all time lows, significantly lower than mobility for our European allies.

Are we really spending our time fighting for our aristocratic team against theirs.  Have we let democracy atrophy into a mere spectacle distracting us from the wizard pulling the strings behind the curtain?  Am I mixing metaphors?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Equal Pay Long Past Due
President Obama did the right thing requiring employers to report compensation data by gender, since transparency hurts no one and is likely to shine a light to dispel some darkness.  At the same time, I am not happy that the president chose to frame his comments around the dubious 77% figure.  Yes, using this figure makes it easier to capture attention, but choosing to use accurate-but-misleading sound-bites undermines the possibility of effective democratic deliberation.  Slate coverage was decent on this.  Ruth Marcus too.

It would be difficult to exaggerate my disappointment with the Speaker.  So much could have been done to help American families, and to strengthen American government (but that was the problem wasn't it John?) at a time when we need just that.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Nation of Takers?

Nicolas Kristof gets it right here in an editorial published on March 26, 2014.

In the debate about poverty, critics argue that government assistance saps initiative and is unaffordable. After exploring the issue, I must concede that the critics have a point. Here are five public welfare programs that are wasteful and turning us into a nation of “takers.”

First, welfare subsidies for private planes. The United States offers three kinds of subsidies to tycoons with private jets: accelerated tax write-offs, avoidance of personal taxes on the benefit by claiming that private aircraft are for security, and use of air traffic control paid for by chumps flying commercial.

As the leftists in the George W. Bush administration put it when they triedunsuccessfully to end this last boondoggle: “The family of four taking a budget vacation is subsidizing the C.E.O.’s flying on a corporate jet.”

I worry about those tycoons sponging off government. Won’t our pampering damage their character? Won’t they become addicted to the entitlement culture, demanding subsidies even for their yachts? Oh, wait ...

Second, welfare subsidies for yachts. The mortgage-interest deduction was meant to encourage a home-owning middle class. But it has been extended to provide subsidies for beach homes and even yachts.
In the meantime, money was slashed last year from the public housing program for America’s neediest. Hmm. How about if we house the homeless in these publicly supported yachts?

Third, welfare subsidies for hedge funds and private equity. The single most outrageous tax loophole in America is for “carried interest,” allowing people with the highest earnings to pay paltry taxes. They can magically reclassify their earned income as capital gains, because that carries a lower tax rate (a maximum of 23.8 percent this year, compared with a maximum of 39.6 percent for earned income).

Let’s just tax capital gains at earned income rates, as we did under President Ronald Reagan, that notorious scourge of capitalism.

Fourth, welfare subsidies for America’s biggest banks. The too-big-to-fail banks in the United States borrow money unusually cheaply because of an implicit government promise to rescue them. Bloomberg View calculated last year that this amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of $83 billion to our 10 biggest banks annually.

President Obama has proposed a bank tax to curb this subsidy, and this year a top Republican lawmaker, Dave Camp, endorsed the idea as well. Big banks are lobbying like crazy to keep their subsidy.

Fifth, large welfare subsidies for American corporations from cities, counties and states. A bit more than a year ago, Louise Story of The New York Times tallied more than $80 billion a year in subsidies to companies, mostly as incentives to operate locally. (Conflict alert: The New York Times Company is among those that have received millions of dollars from city and state authorities.)

You see where I’m going. We talk about the unsustainability of government benefit programs and the deleterious effects these can have on human behavior, and these are real issues. Well-meaning programs for supporting single moms can create perverse incentives not to marry, or aid meant for a needy child may be misused to buy drugs. Let’s acknowledge that helping people is a complex, uncertain and imperfect struggle.

But, perhaps because we now have the wealthiest Congress in history, the first in which a majority of members are millionaires, we have a one-sided discussion demanding cuts only in public assistance to the poor, while ignoring public assistance to the rich. And a one-sided discussion leads to a one-sided and myopic policy.

We’re cutting one kind of subsidized food — food stamps — at a time when Gallup finds that almost one-fifth of American families struggled in 2013 to afford food. Meanwhile, we ignore more than $12 billion annually in tax subsidies for corporate meals and entertainment.

Sure, food stamps are occasionally misused, but anyone familiar with business knows that the abuse of food subsidies is far greater in the corporate suite. Every time an executive wines and dines a hot date on the corporate dime, the average taxpayer helps foot the bill.

So let’s get real. To stem abuses, the first target shouldn’t be those avaricious infants in nutrition programs but tycoons in their subsidized Gulfstreams.

However imperfectly, subsidies for the poor do actually reduce hunger, ease suffering and create opportunity, while subsidies for the rich result in more private jets and yachts. Would we rather subsidize opportunity or yachts? Which kind of subsidies deserve more scrutiny?

Some conservatives get this, including Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma. He has urged “scaling back ludicrous handouts to millionaires that expose an entitlement system and tax code that desperately need to be reformed.”

After all, quite apart from the waste, we don’t want to coddle zillionaires and thereby sap their initiative!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Passing the Torch?  Let's Hope Not
Michael Hiltzik, columnist for the LA Times, takes Abby Huntsman, next generation talking head on MSNBC’s The Cycle, to task for replicating (however clumsily) older generation rants designed to mislead the public, in this case about the solvency of Social Security. 

This is a good illustration of how one can be wrong without lying, which is much more common in politics, since straight-out lying is usually the ineffective bumbling of someone without political skills.  Harry Frankfurt’s brilliant (and short) essay, OnBullshit, drives this point home powerfully.

Hiltzik notes that Abby Hunstman’s claim that “the system will be bankrupt by the time you and I are actually eligible to get these benefits. … Would you rather have 80 percent of what you have today, or nothing at all?” are not shared by leaders on either side of the aisle, and are designed to be fundamentally misleading.

“Where Huntsman got this idea is a mystery because no one who understands the program, from progressive supporters of Social Security to its conservative critics, says anything like that.

The most dire projections of the program’s future say that “doing nothing about it” — no benefit cuts, no tax increases — will leave the program still able to pay 75 percent to 80 percent of scheduled benefits. Not “nothing at all.” And that 75 percent to 80 percent would still be much more per month 75 years from now than retirees get today.”

The basic pattern of politics is an ongoing struggle to expand the scope of some conflicts and contract the scope of others.  Elites struggle with each other to displace one conflict with another on the public agenda or reframing how we think and talk about a conflict on the agenda.

This is a struggle to attract the attention of selected constituencies, because mobilizing them is expected to impact the outcome of conflicts…in this case, conflict over Social Security Reform (and by extension, mute and ignore conflicts kept off the agenda).  Let's hope HItzik's more data-driven reframing of the conflict prevails.

Friday, March 21, 2014

An Educated Citizenry Benefits Everyone
For those who look back at our founding generation with admiration, because they defeated the most powerful military on the planet to establish an innovative and progressive form of government, designed to support our individual liberty in ways that would boost our general welfare.  I am one of those who believes we should take great pride in our Constitution and the federalist system it created.

Our founding generation placed great value on the importance of a government strong enough to protect private property, structured to check ambition with ambition, and based on the proposition that individual liberty and collective prosperity are only connected when we structure society to support and encourage and protect the vigorous contestation of ideas that JS Mill puts at the core of creating and preserving freedom in his classic essay On Liberty.

Benjamin Franklin said that "The good education of youth has been esteemed by wise men in all ages, as the surest foundation of happiness both of private families and of Commonwealths.  Almost all governments have, therefore, made it a principal object of their attention, to establish and endow with proper revenues, such seminaries of learning as might supply the succeeding age with men qualified to serve the public with honor to themselves and to their country."

Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Washington and more disagreed about many things, but not about the importance of protecting property; neither about the importance of investing in public higher education--for the individual students and their families, but more importantly for the security of our nation and the support of the free market.

And it was not just the founding generation.  The Civil War generation and the 'greatest generation' after WWII made land grants and the GI Bill priority investments: an educated citizenry has been a top priority for every generation of American leaders.

Until recently.

From our founding until the 1980s America had an increasingly high quality educational system, for decades the best on the planet.

In the 1970s Pell Grants covered 80% of the cost (tuition, room & board) of attending a four-year public university.  In 2012, they cover 31%.

Between 1990 and 2010 State support for college students decreased 26%.  In that same period, tuition increased 113%.

Faculty salaries have just kept up with inflation and the quality of educational facilities on campuses has declined as the exploding number of highly paid administrators shifted funds to pay for football stadiums, fancy rec-centers, and a wide range of services only tangentially related to teaching and learning.

At this point we are at a cross roads.  We can continue on this path and watch a proud legacy and powerful national resource disappear.  Or we can wake up and come together, right and left, Republicans and Democrats, Greens and Libertarians, North and South, faculty and administrator to figure this out.

We are no longer the world's only dominant economy, so it stands to reason that like federal, state, and local big and small businesses, universities need to tighten our belts.  If we cannot pay our own bills, the lights will go off.  Plain and simple.

The leaders who have slowly hollowed out our higher education system need to partner with faculty to save a national treasure.  At a university, job one is to meet our students where they are to help them get to where they want to be...and no plan to do this that is not faculty-driven can succeed.  (Unless success is increasing administrative positions and salaries.)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Let's Focus Less on Testing and More on Thinking
Joanna Weiss of the Boston Globe explains how an MIT Professor of Composition successfully scuttled a decade-long effort to require an essay as a part of the SAT test.  Turns out scores on the essay, that has been required for the past nine years, correlated highly with number of words written. 

Not all that surprising, as Weiss asks
“How many of us could write coherent deep thoughts in 25 minutes or less? (One student Perelman knows blew the test by taking a precious 10 minutes to collect his thoughts.) And when graders are expected to read between 20 and 30 essays every hour — at a $17-per-hour salary — it’s pretty clear they won’t be delving into content, much less grammar.”

According to Weiss, Perelman “won the battle, but he isn’t finished. There’s more to change about testing, and more to fight.”
“Perelman, now a research affiliate at MIT, has set his sights on ‘robo-scoring’ software, under development, that would take humans out of the essay-grading process altogether. (Could machines do any worse? Probably, yes.)

He also wants to knock the five-paragraph essay off its pedestal. You know the format: topic paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, a neatly wrapped conclusion. It’s a staple of what Perelman calls ‘McLearning’ — easy to evaluate and master, and not especially compatible with actual thinking.

‘You need to train students that the universe doesn’t nicely divide,’ Perelman said. ‘Everything is not three different things.’”

We should write more, teach writing seriously, and support teachers who teach writing.  Robo-scored SAT essays send all the wrong messages.

The Daily Show helps us see more clearly...these are not the three points you were looking for...

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Regulating our thinking about regulation
Pay attention you!  We are watching...

Cass Sunstein demonstrates clearly that we should be paying attention to the elite struggle over how to frame—how to think and talk about—the relationship between government regulation and economic prosperity. 

The term “job-killing regulations” has been used so often that in some circles it seems to have become a single word. Many Republicans believe that regulations are job-killing by definition.

Sunstein reviews the competing perspectives and concludes that “it isn’t possible to predict, in the abstract, whether regulations will kill jobs or create jobs. That’s an empirical question.” With normative implications.

Then, going further, he suggests that even these two competing positions might get it wrong, just as Cornell West does when he reframes our conversations about race. 

The latest evidence, outlined in an important new book, Does Regulation Kill Jobs? suggests that the polar positions are wrong.

With claims that Obamcare kills jobs likely to be a central pivot point in the next two election cycles, this question is one we should start thinking about to insulate ourselves from the prevailing, and unproductive, ways elites frame this question for us.  Sunstein provides a very useful introductory primer, concluding that we need to take the question seriously.

A lot more remains to be learned, but two things are clear. First, there isn’t much direct evidence to date that regulation has caused significant job losses in the U.S. Second, some regulations do cost jobs, and they create real and sometimes long-term human hardship as a result. In deciding whether and how to proceed, regulators should take account of that hardship — and try to minimize it.

Eugene Robinson reminds us that like political and economic structures interact with behaviors…culture is also a structure and 12 Years a Slave winning the Academy Award for best picture is a structural punctuation mark we should pay attention to, because it mobilizes within us forces that will clarify the history of our present.  Reminding us that the free market has always been more of an invisible handshake.

Robinson praises Hollywood for finally taking “an unflinching look at slavery,” adding that it is “past time for the rest of the country to do the same…..  [And that the] success of 12 Years a Slave may be a significant step toward our collective liberation.”

I called [slavery] the nation’s Original Sin because slave owners, including the Founding Fathers, knew very well that they were sinners. Owning slaves was a matter of economics — one could hardly be expected to run a plantation without them — and personal luxury.

James Madison called slavery “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man” — but did not free the slaves he owned. Thomas Jefferson believed slavery should be ended in the future — but continued to own slaves throughout his lifetime. 

Patrick Henry, who said “Give me liberty or give me death,” believed that slavery was “evil” — but would not free the men and women he owned because of “the general inconvenience of living without them.”

Robinson and Sunstein are worth reading today because both push us to see beyond the surface, beneath the presenting conflicts designed to distract and divide us, to see the relationship between structure and agency, to see how changing the way we think/talk about a conflict (reframing, displacing one way of thinking about it with another) cannot but have a powerful impact on outcomes.

For the average reader, hearing that new regulations in CA will require eggs sold there to come from chickens with larger pens, the presenting conflict is all we hear or think about…and that puts us at a distinct disadvantage.  Conflicts compete.  And presenting conflicts have been made salient, publicized, in order to capture the attention of some publics, mobilizing them to see and think and talk about politics in particular ways. 

Check out this very ordinary NPR story about the egg regulation and you will see that ‘the rest of the story’ changes the meaning of the entire story and reframes how we should think about politics, regulation, power and subordination in this case and in general.

California Legislature passed a law requiring that all eggs sold in California be raised in cages that are almost twice as large as most chickens have now.  Five other, egg producing, states sued with the lobbyist for the pork industries in these states taking the lead in pushing the states to sue. 

The pork lobbyists are “worried that restrictions on cramped pig stalls…may come next.”  In an odd twist on nullification, ultra-conservative Iowa Representative Steve King recently tried to nullify the California legal effort by amending federal law.

But a coalition of animal welfare organizations and environmentalists killed the King amendment, according to Maxwell.

"They couldn't win legislatively, so they're going to try a judiciary track to pre-empt state's rights to regulate health and safety and animal welfare: King amendment round two," says Maxwell.

Again…why is this not criticized as greedy plaintiffs seeking a government handout through the litigation lottery?  On the other hand, maybe this regulation is severe over-reach, just not something farmer can do and make a profit, since the cost of the larger cages is about one cent per egg?  Except last year the United Egg Producers (lobbyists for egg producers) partnered with the Humane Society to say ‘yes we can.’

Jo Manhart, with the Missouri Egg Council, says egg producers had agreed to a uniform national standard with their old adversary the Humane Society. The resulting Egg Bill drew lots of support but ran into a wall of opposition from the meat industry.

"They did not want this deal to go through because they felt it would affect them later on, and I think it would," Manhart says. "So, that's dead."

The death of the Egg Bill, and the King amendment, set up the current lawsuit in a U.S. District Court. And the ruling will almost certainly be appealed.

If we all read it the story about the presenting conflict, and not the conflicts behind that to compromise (that were derailed by King and now a lawsuit), we are likely to read the story as an illustration of crazy government over-reach denying our freedoms, just as the storytellers intended.