Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

47 Senators We Need to Send Home

By  now, anyone who regularly reads this blog is aware of the letter sent to Iran by 47 Republican Senators.

Vice-President Biden’s response was–considering the provocation–temperate.

The Constitution vests authority for international relations in the President, as the Supreme Court has confirmed. Until we elected a President named Obama, there was also widespread political consensus that partisan squabbles stopped at the water’s edge.

The appalling conduct of Congressional Republicans–first, thumbing their nose at the President by circumventing protocol and inviting Netanyahu, and now, with an effort to sabotage delicate negotiations with Iran (and in so doing probably plunge the nation into yet another war)–is surely illegal, if not traitorous.

My friend Bill Groth is a lawyer who has researched the Logan Act, 18 U.S.C. § 953. He reports:

It was passed in 1799 and last amended in 1994. Here’s what it says: “Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.”

In 1936 the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304, noted that the President is the sole constitutional representative of the U.S. with regard to foreign nations.

Even people who detested and despised George W. Bush, who believed his decisions were taking the country down a dangerous, wrong-headed road, never stooped to this level. And while I never expected to agree with Dick Cheney about anything, here’s what he said about the respective roles of Congress and the Executive when the shoe was on the other foot:

[T]hroughout the Nation’s history, Congress has accepted substantial exercises of Presidential power — in the conduct of diplomacy, the use of force and covert action –[M]uch of what President Reagan did in his actions toward Nicaragua and Iran were constitutionally protected exercises of inherent Presidential powers. … [T]he power of the purse … is not and was never intended to be a license for Congress to usurp Presidential powers and functions.”

Elections are the remedy for Presidential decisions with which we disagree.

When elected lawmakers allow their hatred of a President to outweigh their duty to their country, they are unfit for public office.

THAT Explains It….

I’ve never been able to understand the hysteria of Obamacare’s opponents.

I certainly “get” political disputes, policy disagreements, differing approaches to economic analysis…but the mean-spiritedness, the over-the-top vitriol, the consistent lies about what the law does and how it works, and the ongoing contrived legal attacks motivated solely by a desire to deny poorer Americans access to medical care have astonished me.

From whence the paranoia?

A recent story at Talking Points Memo may provide an answer.

In case the situation with the latest Obamacare lawsuit, King v. Burwell, wasn’t surreal enough, along comes the anti-Obamacare lawyer Michael Carvin, and some of his, um, more colorful ideas about why the Affordable Care Act is bad law. Trying to contrast the ACA with the constitution, Carvin characterized the ACA as “a statute that was written three years ago, not by dead white men but by living white women and minorities.”

It’s startling to see an Obamacare opponent so bluntly characterize efforts to destroy the law as a way to preserve white male privilege in this way, much less taking it so far as to suggest the privileges of dead white men count for more than the needs of living women and people of color. But it shouldn’t be. The race- and-gender-based opposition to the ACA has been baked into the fight against it from the beginning, when the bill was very nearly derailed by opponents claiming that it would somehow override federal bans on funding abortion.

Since then, though rarely with as much directness as Carvin, the conservative fight against Obamacare has been about needling the gender- and race-based resentments of the conservative base in an effort to demonize Democratic efforts to create universal health care.

….

Social science, as Paul Waldman showed in the Washington Post last May, bears this out: Attitudes about race and about the ACA are tightly interwoven. Research has shown that negative attitudes about black people increase hostility to health care reform, that opinions about health care reform polarized by racial attitudes after Obama’s election, and that nativist attitudes predicted hostility to health care reform. Research has found that white people with high racial resentment, regardless of their opinion on Obama, view health care reform as a giveaway to lazy black people. You can see why people don’t say these things out loud in public, but the eyebrow-wriggling and hinting has been strong throughout this debate.

The gender-baiting, in contrast, has been way more explicit. Ever since the HHS announced that contraception would be covered as co-pay-free preventive service, conservative media has gleefully portrayed the ACA as a program to give hot young sluts an opportunity to screw on the public dime, an argument that managed to get this narrow provision all the way to the Supreme Court. Never mind that young women with private insurance are no more on the public dime than any other people who have private health insurance. The idea that sexy young things are having fun without you but making you pay for it has been just too provocative for conservative pundits to let facts get in the way.

I’d love to reject this thesis, but its explanatory power is too persuasive.

 

 

Fair Trade

Lest the title of this post confuse you, I’m not talking about the fair trade goods that stock the shelves of shops run by well-meaning nonprofits. That movement—to insure that craftspeople abroad are paid fairly for the goods they make—is well intentioned and important, but it isn’t the subject at hand.

The operation of a market economy—capitalism—rests upon a definition of what constitutes a fair trade. It is usually framed as the amount that a willing buyer and a willing seller, both of whom are in possession of all relevant information, agree is a fair price for the goods or services in question.

There are, rather obviously, economic areas where markets don’t work. Health care (no matter what GOP congressmen insist) is one of those, because the buyer and seller do not both possess all relevant information. Economists call this “information asymmetry.” As a practical matter, when one party to a transaction has important information that the other party doesn’t have, the party with the information has an unfair advantage.

There are other situations where markets can be manipulated. One of the most common involves externalities.

Economists use the term “externalities” to refer to the costs of an economic activity that aren’t paid by either party to the primary exchange, but are instead “offloaded” to someone else—typically, taxpayers. The most common example is pollution: a local factory produces a toxic chemical in the process of manufacturing its widgets, but rather than properly and safely disposing of that chemical and including the cost of disposal in the price of the widget, the factory owner dumps it in a nearby river.

The seller makes a bigger profit, and the buyer gets a better deal on his widget purchase. Meanwhile, we taxpayers pay to clean up the river.

Most of us have no problem identifying this as unfair all around. Such practices distort the marketplace, allowing people who break the rules to profit at the expense of the rest of us.

In today’s economy where the lines between public and private are being increasingly blurred, where private-sector companies ask for—and receive—government subsidies and favorable regulations, where the corporations that can afford well-connected lobbyists enjoy privileges that are unavailable to the mom and pop store on the corner, externalities are harder to detect.

America is in real danger of losing real capitalism. Increasingly, what we have is corporatism, and that’s a very different animal.

Corporatism has been defined as the socio-political organization of a society by corporate interest groups. And all signs are that we aren’t stopping there; the words “oligarchy” and “plutocracy” are more frequently heard in American political discourse these days.

Today’s plutocrats and oligarchs are the rich and superrich who effectively dictate economic policy. And they make the widget factory guy look like a piker.

When markets work as they should, where they should, they really do operate as Adam Smith described; the “hidden hand” improves life for all of us. When the system has been corrupted—when, in transaction after transaction, we socialize the risks and costs and privatize the profits—the only people who prosper are the “haves.” And the greedy.

And that’s not fair trade, by any definition.

When is Private Public, Redux

Federal News Radio (I’m sure you have this station on your Pandora playlist…) reports

Government contractors and subcontractors may have a new avenue to report wrongdoings at federal agencies, if a new rule being floated by the Office of Special Counsel is put in place.

OSC announced Thursday that it was seeking input on a possible revision to regulations covering the disclosure by employees working under federal contracts of wrongdoings taking place at federal agencies.

File this under “We noticed that damn few actual employees currently do the government’s work.” If oversight is going to occur, it needs to occur in places where government work is being done, and that is increasingly in the private and nonprofit sectors.

Contracting is so pervasive–and its problems so numerous–that In the Public Interest sends out a periodic “outsourcing scan.”

The most recent included dozens of entries, from prison riots in Texas protesting inadequate medical care in that state’s privatized prisons, to Pro Publica’s documentation of the lack of accountability and oversight of charter schools (conclusion: “Bad schools have been allowed to stay open and evade accountability”), to a recent report from the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board warning of risks to the public from “public private partnerships.”

Just more evidence–as if any more was needed–that the fervent belief in the superior performance of the private sector has more in common with religion than with evidence.

In both cases, questioning is confused with blasphemy.

Confirming Our Suspicions

A recent, anonymous article titled Confessions of a Congressman has been making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter; its author claims to be a current member of Congress.

Most of the “confessions” are anything but surprising. The influence of money and gerrymandering are obvious to pretty much any sentient being. But the author does flesh out the critique:

It is more lucrative to pander to big donors than to regular citizens. Campaigns are so expensive that the average member needs a million-dollar war chest every two years and spends 50 percent to 75 percent of their term in office raising money. Think about that. You’re paying us to do a job, and we’re spending that time you’re paying us asking rich people and corporations to give us money so we can run ads convincing you to keep paying us to do this job. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that money is speech and corporations are people, the mega-rich have been handed free loudspeakers. Their voices, even out-of-state voices, are drowning out the desperate whispers of ordinary Americans.

Without crooked districts, most members of Congress probably would not have been elected. According to the Cook Political Report, only about 90 of the 435 seats in Congress are “swing” seats that can be won by either political party. In other words, 345 seats are safe Republican or Democratic seats. Both parties like it that way. So that’s what elections are like today: rather than the voters choosing us, we choose the voters. The only threat a lot of us incumbents face is in the primaries, where someone even more extreme than we are can turn out the vote among an even smaller, more self-selected group of partisans.

The author faults a dramatic increase in party loyalty for much of what is wrong with the legislature; he says partisanship has turned Congress into a parliament, and–among other negative consequences–made service on congressional committees or other efforts to develop real expertise in an area of governance irrelevant (you have to vote with your party even if your knowledge of the issue suggests that other options are better).

That revolving door? The one that leads to K street and a lobbying career? It’s the highly desired pot of gold at the end of the public service rainbow.

The author ends by telling us two things we already know: the best and brightest don’t want anything to do with running for Congress; and we desperately need them there.

As he says, Congress has never been more than a sausage factory. The point is not to make it something it’s not: the point is to get it to make sausage again.