Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

File Under: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Kip Tew is a lobbyist. The ethical kind. He hadn’t been on the City-County Council very long when he discovered that the city office established to monitor lobbying activities wasn’t working.

And hadn’t been for a good while.

The Mayor’s office hadn’t put anyone in charge of the process. Emails weren’t being returned. The ordinance establishing the office had a huge loophole (if the administration or a member of the council invited someone to testify, that wouldn’t count as “lobbying.”)

So Kip proposed a stronger ordinance; one with teeth. His proposal did several things–beginning, importantly, with making the office subject to an independent commission that would not be beholden to either the Mayor’s office or the Council. The Mayor would get two appointments to this commission, one Democrat and one Republican; the Council would get three, with no more than two from the same political party.

The proposal also added reporting requirements; for example, groups that ran advertisements for or against an issue would have to report what they spent, and it lowered the dollar threshhold for reporting.

All in all, a step toward more transparent, more accountable government.

Yesterday–three days before a hotly contested Council election–the GOP sent out a mailer mischaracterizing the proposal. (No, let me be candid. Mischaracterizations can be inadvertent. This mailer flat-out lied about the proposal, saying it was an effort by a lobbyist to evade scrutiny.)

I am particularly incensed about this because the Indianapolis Star just ran an indignant screed by Matt Tully about a mailing that Tully said mischaracterized the record of Jeff Miller, an incumbent running in a different district. I don’t know anything about that mailing, but I’m willing to believe it was just as offensive and dishonest as the mailing targeting Kip Tew.

But then, Tully didn’t mention this one. And his column was clearly intended to leave the impression that the dirty tricks were all coming from one side.

Let me be clear: this shit is beneath the dignity of either party. It is not excusable no matter who does it. There are too many people who see politics as a game to be played rather than an arena for good-faith differences over policy (and too many reporters who evidently can’t distinguish between genuine disputes over public policy and petty political sniping).

If anyone reading this is voting in Council District #2, I don’t care who you support. (Well, that’s not true; Kip is a good friend of mine, and we discuss policy, which is why I knew what the ordinance in question really says.) But I do hope you will vote based upon actual performance, actual policy positions–and refuse to reward the sort of slime that is too often shrugged off as “politics as usual.”

I do hope that Kip’s intended good deed goes unpunished.

Are You SURE You Want Those Emails?

When I read about this the first time, I was sure it was a story from the Onion.

It wasn’t.

As everyone not living on Mars is aware, the Republicans’ six hundredth Benghazi Investigative Committee (okay, so maybe I exaggerate a bit) forced disclosure of emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server. It turned out that some of those emails were from the prior administration, and one of them– from then Secretary of State Colin Powell to President George Bush–confirmed Tony Blair’s promise to sign on to the Iraq conflict a year before the invasion began… a time when Blair and Bush were assuring their respective countrymen that they were taking great care to confirm the presence of weapons of mass destruction and that no definitive decision to invade had been made.

The British press has made much more of this revelation than the American media, but even here, it has been fairly widely reported. If the members of the Benghazi Inquisition were capable of embarrassment, you’d think they’d rethink their approach. But of course, they aren’t.

Then, this week, we had Clinton’s much-anticipated 11 hour testimony, and a whole series of further embarrassments centered on the committee’s obsession with her emails. (For a detailed “take down” of the day’s effort by a Clinton partisan, you can read this diatribe from Kurt Eichenwald, who noted–among many, many other things–the absence of similar expressions of concern over the twenty-two million Bush Administration emails that mysteriously disappeared.)

The continuing revelations about his brother should keep Jeb! quiet, but he weighed in with a tweet to the effect that the security failures at Benghazi were evidence of Clinton’s “incompetent” foreign policy; that prompted a post at Daily Kos “reminding” Jeb! that his brother’s administration had overseen not just 9/11, but deadly attacks on at least thirteen overseas American embassies and consulates as well as numerous other successful attacks against American diplomatic personnel and their staff.

It’s fair to assume that this week’s hearings did little to sway partisans on either side. But I was struck by a Facebook post by a friend who is a well-respected foreign policy expert at another university–someone I know to be a Republican, someone who has previously shared lukewarm-at-best feelings about Clinton, and who reported watching the whole thing.

If there is one truth that has come out of this ridiculous committee hearing for me, it’s that the search for wrongdoing in Benghazi is a tempest in a tea pot. The death of four Americans in a terrorist attack is a tragedy. But I wish the Republicans controlling Congress would have spent 1/10 of the time and energy (and the $4.7 million) investigating the decision to go to war in Iraq and all the decisions made after that that destroyed Iraq, killed over 4,000 American servicemen and over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Why isn’t that worthy of at least one investigation (let alone eight)?

I think Kevin McCarthy accidentally answered that question.


You Can’t Make This Stuff Up…

If Democrats were creating a caricature of a Republican extremist–a one-dimensional straw man to run against– it would look a lot like Mike Pence. Unfortunately, Indiana’s zealot Governor isn’t a fabrication by the opposition.

As the IBJ reported yesterday,

Gov. Mike Pence announced Monday that he will expand Indiana’s affiliation with a not-for-profit organization that counsels pregnant women against abortion and pushes abstinence as the only method of birth control.

Indiana Right to Life was reportedly gratified. A Google search confirmed the reason why–not only does “Real Alternatives” (the nonprofit in question) confine its “services” to “counseling” against abortion, it also provides “clients” with the horrifying “facts” about birth control. I found a handy little pamphlet explaining why Contraception Is Not the Answer, filled with misinformation and fear-producing “facts.” (Did you know that injectable contraceptives “drastically increase your risk of invasive breast cancer”? No, and neither do medical experts.)

A blogger in Michigan–where their anti-choice Governor has also contracted with Real Alternatives– detailed the organization’s dubious tactics, many of which were documented in an investigation conducted by a Philadelphia newspaper. The reporter visited a Real Alternative clinic, claiming to be pregnant; she was told that abortion would leave permanent psychological damage, that it often leads to depression, and could interfere with her ever having children– claims thoroughly debunked by reputable medical science.

Groups like Real Alternatives exist throughout the country, mostly funded by anti-abortion organizations like Heartbeat International and individual donations. Real Alternatives, though, is funded almost entirely by the state of Pennsylvania — financed, that is, by you, the taxpayer, and it has received tens of millions of dollars since 1997…

That money, City Paper has found, goes to pay for part of the $199,000 salary (including benefits) of the CEO of Real Alternatives, who has no medical experience. It also funds an army of hundreds of “counselors,” non-medically-qualified personnel whose job it is to dispense the organization’s (sometimes outright inaccurate) information — and who, despite lacking the credentials of nurse practitioners or psychologists, cost the state much more per hour for their services than either.

According to Cosmopolitan magazine, which conducted a year-long investigation of the organization’s operations in Pennsylvania,

Real Alternatives’ contract with the state relies on debunked studies that imply abortion leads to breast cancer and clinical depression. Centers are not allowed to advocate for birth control, much less dispense it. The contract’s directives advise pregnancy-center staff to make an “assessment of the client’s spiritual needs” by asking questions like, “How does your faith impact the choices you make?” (One quarterly report from a center to Real Alternatives refers to clients with the aliases “Mary” and “Joseph.”)

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that one in three deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth could be avoided if all women had access to contraceptive services.

Whatever one’s position on abortion, the use of tax dollars to support “clinics” that offer no medical services— clinics that exist solely to lie to women in order to convince them to forego both abortion and contraception–is immoral.

Our fundamentalist Governor is understandably frantic to mend fences with his Religious Right constituency, after reality and Hoosier businesses forced him to sign the RFRA “fix.” In the echo chamber he inhabits, this contract probably seemed like a good way to do that.

In the rest of the state–even among Republicans– not so much.

John Gregg is looking better all the time.


Rent Seeking 101

In our highly polarized political environment, we sometimes overlook areas of agreement between otherwise warring portions of the political spectrum. A recent post at Political Animal pointed to one such area between libertarians and liberals: opposition to “rent seeking” aka “corporate welfare.”

Those of us who genuinely value markets and market economies understand that much of what passes for capitalism these days is anything but, and that the influence of the “haves” is routinely used to ensure that they “have” even more. Libertarians protective of true capitalism and market economics see this state of affairs as undermining the integrity of the economic system; liberals note that it exacerbates the widening gap between the 1% and everyone else.

They are both right. Per a lengthy paper by John Teles of Johns Hopkins, a few examples:

Car dealers, for instance, have a sizable presence in the top 1% of earners, have a major lobbying presence in almost every state capital, and have made contributions to almost every member of Congress. That should not be surprising, because regulations (again, often at the state level) protect car dealerships from competition by limiting direct sales, restricting the termination of franchises, limiting the entry of new dealers, and preventing manufacturers from offering preferential pricing to larger franchisees. Together, these rules, economists Francine Lafontaine and Fiona Scott Morton found in a 2010 study, “almost guarantee dealership profitability and survival,” while simultaneously driving up costs to consumers…..

A concentration of high incomes also characterizes the field of government contractors, such as private-prison managers, defense contractors, and for-profit colleges. All these industries are characterized by dependence on government as a nearly exclusive source of revenue, by extraordinary levels of lobbying, and by asymmetries of power between firms and their government counterparts.

Or consider the field of management consulting, which attracts an extraordinary percentage of Ivy League college graduates. As Christopher McKenna shows in his book, The World’s Newest Profession, the outsized incomes of consultants do not come from their ability to recommend innovative practices to firms. Instead, they come from the rent they extract from performing a legally mandated due-diligence ritual for firms or from performing tasks that could otherwise be done at lower cost by public employees. These are not, in short, meaningfully “private” firms at all, despite their high profitability.

You should really read the whole thing….

There is a compelling case to be made for properly operating market economies—“properly operating” meaning markets operating in economic areas where buyers and sellers have equal access to relevant information (a characteristic that would exclude health care and other goods and services involving inescapable asymmetries of information), and where the sorts of creativity, hard work and entrepreneurial prowess that improve life for everyone are incentivized and rewarded.

There is no case—compelling or otherwise—to be made for the rent-seeking that characterizes American economic activity in the 21st Century.

The Complicated Perquisites of the 1%

It’s amazing what you can learn from research. Recently, the Brookings Institution took note of the oft-made assertion that the corporate tax rate in the U.S. (at 35%) is too high. The usual response is to point out that 35% may be the statutory rate, but many of our largest and most profitable corporations take advantage of tax breaks that substantially reduce–or even eliminate–federal taxes.

This report, however, looked at a different issue.

Corporations used to be the dominant form in which business was done. Partnerships and other “pass through” entities–so named because the income “passes through” and is taxed as the partners’– were far fewer.  In 1980, only 20.7% of all business income was earned by pass-through entities; in 2011, the share had grown to 54.2%.

So a band of number-crunching economists at the U.S. Treasury and some academic partners, with access to far more data than outside researchers can see, set out to answer two simple questions: Who is getting all this partnership income? And what tax rate do they pay? They offered their answer Thursday in a paper presented at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference in Washington.

The findings are significant. And troubling.

*Pass-through business income is even more concentrated among the richest Americans than traditional corporate profits. “Overall, 69% of pass-through income earned by individuals accrues to the top-1%. Corporate income is similarly concentrated, but other business income (typically considered very concentrated) is substantially less concentrated.

* The average federal income tax rate paid by individuals who report pass-through business income was 19% in 2011. In part, that’s because so much of that income is considered capital gains or dividends, which are taxed at preferential rates.

* Across all business entities except for sole proprietorships, the average tax rate of U.S. business income in 2011 was 24.3%, they estimate. That’s lower than is often assumed in debates over corporate tax reform.

* “The migration of business activity out of the C-corporate sector and into the pass-through sector has likely substantially reduced U.S. tax revenue,” the economists conclude. If pass-through activity had remained at the (low) level of the 1980s, then the average tax rate on total U.S. business income in 2011 would have been approximately 28% rather than 24%, and tax revenue would have been at least $100 billion higher.

Who was it who used to say “A billion here, a billion there–pretty soon, you’re talking real money”?