Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Community–Lost And Found

A friend recently shared a Substack newsletter with me (requires subscription but no $$), knowing that the topic–the nature of community formation– was one that concerned me.

He and I have discussed a contention that I have also shared on this blog–my belief that the evisceration of local news, especially the demise of widely-read local newspapers, has diminished what the shared article labeled “horizontal communities.” In other words, the communities that previously formed among residents of the same neighborhood, city or town.

The author didn’t see this as a problem.

 In fact, I think the kind of communities we inhabit has simply changed. In the past, our communities were primarily horizontal — they were simply the people we lived close to on the surface of the Earth. Increasingly, though, new technology has enabled us to construct communities that I’ve decided to call vertical — groups of people united by identities, interests, and values rather than by physical proximity.

Had I been “physically close” to the guy who wrote this, I might have “physically” harmed him.

The bulk of the essay was a love-letter to the Internet, which has allowed billions of people to form communities that ignore geography in exchange for similar “identities, interests and values.” In other words, our ability, thanks to technology, to find people with whom we agree.

Can you spell “polarization”?

The great virtue of those disdained “geographical” communities was precisely the requirement that we find common ground with people unlike ourselves–and that we share an awareness of the multiple ways in which we differed and/or agreed and the various ways in which the local physical and political environments affected us all.

As I used to tell my students, “back in the day” when most residents of our city accessed news provided by the daily newspapers (yes, that’s plural–Indianapolis once had three), those residents inhabited a common information environment. Even if they only picked up a newspaper in order to get the sports news, or listened to a radio or television news personality who relied heavily on what reporters for the local papers had written, they saw the same headlines or heard the same “breaking news” and basically occupied a similar reality.

That common reality empowered local democracy.

Was there a report that city police had engaged in unwarranted brutality? That too many  of the local thoroughfares were filled with potholes? That a member of the local City Council was opposing funding for the library? That crime rates were increasing? (Add your own examples.) Such reports require local political changes–changes that require collaboration among members of those local “horizontal” communities.

If citizen A is determined to elect someone who will fix the streets, s/he needs to work together with citizen B, with whom s/he doesn’t necessarily share other goals or values. That collaboration has a number of beneficial consequences, among them the creation of what sociologists call “bridging social capital.”

“Bonding” social capital is defined as the strong relationships that develop between people of similar background and interests–your family and friends and those Internet acquaintances with whom you share an important identity. “Bridging” social capital describes the connections that link people across the cleavages that typically divide societies (think race,  class, or religion). It builds ‘bridges’ between diverse people.

Without bridging social capital, diverse societies disintegrate.

I do not mean to diminish the value of many of the “vertical” communities enabled by the Internet. Those connections can and do widen our horizons. But we cannot ignore the substantial, troubling ways in which those vertical communities polarize  and divide Americans. And we absolutely cannot and must not abandon our focus on the “horizontal” environments within which we live and work.

The mere fact that we live adjacent to one another doesn’t create a horizontal community. In order for residents of city A or town B to constitute a genuine community, those residents need to occupy a common reality–they need to agree that those holes in the roadway are potholes that need to be filled. Then they need the ability to bridge their other differences in order to work together to repair and/or improve their shared environment.

When citizens lose access to common credible, adequate local information,  they lose an  essential element of the bridging social capital that is the foundation of democratic self-governance.

The White Supremacy Party

In a recent newsletter, Robert Hubbell summed up the path Ron DeSantis is pursuing–the path he clearly believes will garner him the GOP’s Presidential nomination.

Amid the torrent of reporting on Ron DeSantis’s attack on critical race theory and intersectionality, the quiet part is often left unsaid. So let me say it: DeSantis’s educational agenda is code for racism and white supremacy. (Other parts of his agenda seek to erase the dignity and humanity of LGBTQ people.) DeSantis’s invocation of “Western tradition” is meant to suppress knowledge regarding the people (and contributions) of Asia, Africa, South America, Oceania, and the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. See Talking Points Memo, DeSantis Makes 2024 Ambitions Clear As He Pours Gasoline On His ‘Woke’ Education Fire.

 Given DeSantis’s generalized ignorance, his call to focus on “Western tradition” is a slippery slope that will inevitably lead to the discussion of unpleasant truths about America. For example, the enslavement of Black people was a “tradition” in North America for 246 years—and the abolition of that evil practice is relatively recent (155 years ago). So, a college course that honestly addresses the Western “traditions” of North America should include an examination that the role of slavery played in the economic, social, and political development of America.

The New York Times, among other outlets, has covered DeSantis’ various attacks on “woke” instruction, noting that it is part of “An unrelenting assault on truth and freedom of expression in the form of laws that censor and suppress the viewpoints, histories and experiences of historically marginalized groups, especially Black and L.G.B.T.Q. communities.”

The Times didn’t mince words.

Under Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE” law — which would limit students and teachers from learning and talking about issues related to race and gender — Florida is at the forefront of a nationwide campaign to silence Black voices and erase the full and accurate history and contemporary experiences of Black people….

The same reasons that the “Stop WOKE” law is blocked from enforcement in university settings hold for elementary and secondary schools. As a federal judge ruled in November, the law strikes “at the heart of ‘open-mindedness and critical inquiry,’” such that “the State of Florida has taken over the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to suppress disfavored viewpoints.”

The most important point made by the Times–and confirmed by DeSantis’ obvious belief about the most effective path to the Republican nomination–is that it is nakedly racist and homophobic.

It is no longer plausible to maintain that the GOP base is composed of anything other than White Christian Supremacists.

DeSantis is currently the most shameless panderer to that base, but the evidence is nation-wide–and public education is currently the favored target. After all, if children are taught that all people are human and that America hasn’t always treated “others” that way, they might grow up to be “woke.” 

DeSantis is simply doing publicly what GOP officials in other states are doing somewhat more circumspectly. Examples abound.

Think the voucher movement is about giving children educational options? Think again. There’s a reason that so many of these programs lack accountability–here in Indiana, SB 305 vastly extends the availability of vouchers–but places the program under the “oversight” of the State Treasurer–not the Department of Education. It has no mechanism for assessing educational value.

In Ohio, laws presumably governing home schooling failed to shut down a Nazi home schooling curriculum.

Antifascist researchers known as the Anonymous Comrades Collective first identified the couple, who participated in a neo-Nazi podcast under the names Mr. and Mrs. Saxon, as Logan and Katja Lawrence of Upper Sandusky in Wyandot County. The group’s work was the nexus for a story about the couple in Vice News.

Their Telegram channel, started on Oct. 23, 2021, is called Dissident-Homeschool. It features suggested content that is racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic, as well as factually inaccurate. It includes cursive practice sheets with quotes from Adolf Hitler, suggested content about Confederate General Robert E. Lee and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which included an unfounded conspiracy about Jewish people. The Telegram channel offers a suggested math lesson with a story problem attributing crime to different races.

There’s no way to tell how many other “home schoolers” use that channel or similar materials. I see nothing in Indiana’s voucher proposal that would allow the state to monitor for such use–or for that matter, educational value of any kind.

Well-meaning Americans tend to look at the various movements of Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and others as outliers, a few twisted individuals who have succumbed to ignorance and hatreds that nice people largely relegate to the past.  

DeSantis recognizes what those well-meaning folks don’t: ignorance and racism elected Donald Trump, and–if enough votes can be suppressed– may well lift him into the Oval Office too.

What’s The Matter With The GOP?

Remember Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank took a hard look at that state’s politics and political culture and drew some conclusions that engaged the punditry for months.

More recently, the “chattering classes” are focusing on a somewhat similar question: what is the matter with the GOP? (I know, I know–everyone reading this has multiple responses, incorporating varying degrees of hostility.) Ezra Klein recently considered that question more analytically, in an essay in the New York Times titled “Three Reasons Why the GOP Keeps Coming Apart at the Seams.”

As he began,

For decades, the cliché in politics was that “Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line.” The Democratic Party was thought to be a loosely connected cluster of fractious interest groups often at war with itself. “I don’t belong to an organized political party,” Will Rogers famously said. “I’m a Democrat.” Republicans were considered the more cohesive political force.

If that was ever true, it’s not now. These days, Democrats fall in line and Republicans fall apart.

Klein considered, and dismissed, several possibilities: after all, small-donor money, social media and nationalized politics also affect Democrats , who have responded very differently.

Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination in 2008, but rather than exiling the Clintons to the political wilderness, he named Hillary secretary of state and then supported her as his successor. In 2020, the party establishment coalesced behind Joe Biden. When Harry Reid retired from the Senate, he was replaced as leader by his deputy, Chuck Schumer. When Bernie Sanders lost in 2016, he became part of Schumer’s Senate leadership team, and when he lost in 2020, he blessed a unity task force with Biden. Nancy Pelosi led House Democrats from 2003 to 2022, and the handoff to Hakeem Jeffries and Katherine Clark was drama free.

So why has the Republican Party repeatedly turned on itself in a way the Democratic Party hasn’t?

Klein offers three possibilities–all of which are clear contributors to the present chaos.

The first is the long-standing and awkward alliance between donors and the party’s ethnonationalist grass roots. You can see the conflict playing out in attitudes toward immigration–businesses need immigrants for a wide variety of reasons, while the Christian Nationalists who dominate the party base want to keep Black, Brown and non-Christian people out. As Klein notes, the party elders who once moderated between those factions have “outsourced” most traditional party functions– fundraising to PACS and messaging to  right-wing media–and can no longer act as mediator.

So that’s one explanation for what happened to the Republican Party: It’s caught between a powerful business wing that drives its agenda and an antagonistic media that speaks for its ethnonationalist base, and it can’t reconcile the two.

The second reason is that the memberships of the parties has changed.

Republicans are increasingly the non-college party. When Mitt Romney got the nomination in 2012, the G.O.P. was basically split between college and non-college whites. That’s gone. The Republicans have just lost a huge chunk of professional, college-educated voters — what you would have thought of as the spine of the Republican Party 40 years ago has just been sloughed off.

Today’s Democratic Party is now the party of the cities and the suburbs. The GOP  has  become more rural and more non-college educated, less invested in social stability and institutions, and much more inclined to rock the boat.

The morphing of the once “Grand Old Party’ into whatever it is today (a comprehensive label escapes me) offers us a third reason for the GOP’s internal chaos:

When I asked Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior writer at National Review, what the modern Republican Party was, he replied, “it’s not the Democratic Party.” His point was that not much unites the various factions of the Republican coalition, save opposition to the Democratic Party.

“The anchor of Democratic Party politics is an orientation toward certain public policy goals,” Sam Rosenfeld, author of “The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era,” told me. “The conservative movement is oriented more around anti-liberalism than positive goals, and so the issues and fights they choose to pursue are more plastic. What that ends up doing is it gives them permission to open their movement to extremist influences and makes it very difficult to police boundaries.”

Klein points out that opposition to communism once kept Republicans committed to a positive vision of the role of government.

There is an irresolvable contradiction between being a party organized around opposition to government and Democrats and being a party that has to run the government in cooperation with Democrats.

Bottom line: Today’s Republican Party is a tribe of people who are against–against Democrats, against “woke-ness” and “elitism,” against diversity, against change, against government.

No wonder it can’t govern.

 

 

What Is WRONG With These People??

I know, I know. I’ve been uttering that same, unanswerable question for a number of years now. And actually, the question isn’t “unanswerable” –it just requires a long list of answers, because there’s a lot wrong with them.

So what has set me off this time? Lots of things, actually, beginning with Iowa legislators’ effort to punish people for being poor. (Calling John Calvin…)

Republicans in the Iowa House introduced legislation this month that would impose a slew of fresh restrictions on the kinds of food people can purchase using SNAP benefits,

If the bill passes, needy Iowans will no longer be able to use their SNAP benefits to purchase a long list of items:meat, nuts, and seeds; flour, butter, cooking oil, soup, canned fruits, and vegetables; frozen prepared foods, snack foods, herbs, spices– even salt and pepper.

The bill will end up affecting fewer people, though–the legislature also wants to set new asset limits; those limits would make it much harder for families to even qualify for SNAP. (While SNAP is a federal program, the states administer it.).

Apparently, only two Iowa organizations support this mean-spirited bill: a rightwing group called Iowans for Tax Relief, and the Florida-based Opportunity Solutions Project. That group is part of a national organization of “conservative think tanks and bill mills bankrolled by rich donors who think if you just make poor people hungry and sick enough, they’ll utilize their bootstraps.”

Note for social Darwinists: it you’re going to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it helps to have boots.

The fact that the referenced opportunity-to-starve project is based in Florida brings me to another jaw-dropping bit of news: DeSantis’ most recent constitutional travesty.

Florida’s Republican governor and presidential aspirant Ron DeSantis has made a name for himself by harassing Black voters, setting up a system to sue teachers for teaching race in ways that might offend Whites, singling out LGBTQ youth (while gagging teachers) and engaging in extreme gerrymandering to reduce the voting power of minorities.
 
Now he’s gone full-blown white supremacist, banning the College Board’s Advanced Placement for African American studies course from Florida’s schools.

The White House Press Secretary called the move “incomprehensible,” but I find it entirely comprehensible–DeSantis is continuing to pander to the racist base of the Republican Party in his methodical quest for the GOP’s Presidential nomination. I know what’s wrong with Ron DeSantis; what I want to know is: what’s wrong with the Republican base whose votes he is chasing?  (Okay, okay–I know what’s wrong with them, too.)

I’ve already reported on several of the Indiana legistature’s insanities, but Hoosiers do have company in the feverish race to become Mississippi. Eleven Red states have introduced bills to forbid transgender teens from accessing health care;  and several (including Indiana) are toying with measures to eliminate income taxes (funding teacher salaries and state services, paving streets and fixing bridges–those things are all socialism!) 

In North Dakota, Republicans have introduced a bill that would jail librarians for keeping books on their shelves that include images” depicting gender identity or sexual orientation,” and another bill would bar organizations in the state from using trans people’s pronouns.

A Wisconsin lawmaker wants to label single parenting “child abuse,” and Oklahoma  Sen. Ralph Shortey wants to ban “food or any product intended for human consumption which contains aborted human fetuses.”  (The article says there’s no word yet on whether he’s going to follow up with a ban on Soylent Green…)

Oklahoma also brought what has been called the “every sperm is sacred” bill, for the old Monty Python sketch, which, in the spirit of granting personhood at the moment of conception, would deem any waste of sperm (as in, for example, masturbation) “an action against an unborn child.” This month a local Delaware council approved a similar resolution. 

There is much, much more state-level insanity–and  I won’t even begin to list what Kevin McCarthy’s Keystone Kop majority has been up to (or perhaps “down to” is more appropriate) during the past week. Or what new revelations have emerged about George Santos–or whatever his real name is.

The available examples range from despicable to ludicrous–and most have absolutely nothing to do with actual governing. The one characteristic they all share is an autocratic belief that elected officials have the right to use their positions to impose their own beliefs on other Americans, including those who disagree–no matter how divorced from the desires of their constituents (or, for that matter, from reality) those beliefs may be.

It makes me wish that Marjorie Taylor Green had been right. If I had that space laser, I know just where I’d use it… 

 

Health Care One More Time

Republicans love to accuse government of waste and fraud while pointedly ignoring waste and fraud in the private sector. (I always think of that biblical phrase about ignoring the beam in one’s own eye...if you want to talk about fraud, Senator Scott….).

That disconnect is particularly obvious when it comes to America’s incredibly wasteful insistence on private sector health care. Several years ago, I was on a university research team looking at certain aspects of Indiana’s health care environment. I no longer recall the outlines of our investigation, but I do still remember my shock at learning that–at that time–seventy percent of all American health care costs were being paid by some level of government.

It wasn’t just Medicare and Medicaid, or the CDC, or the numerous federal programs aimed at specific diseases. State and city governments support local hospitals for the indigent, and other local programs; more significantly, the millions of people in the U.S. who work for a government entity–universities, police and firefighters, schoolteachers, etc. etc.–have health insurance paid for by tax dollars.

What really blew my mind was the realization that the money government was already spending would be enough to cover almost all of the costs of a national health care system if we simply reduced the enormous amounts spent–wasted– on duplicative paperwork and insurance company marketing and overhead.

What made me think about that long-ago epiphany was an article from The Fulcrum sharing “shocking statistics” about American healthcare.

The first was the number of people on Medicaid. (Not Medicare–Medicaid.) Most of us think of publicly funded healthcare as something offered by Canada and countries in Europe, not the adamantly “private” U.S.

The shocking truth is that most of the U.S. population will soon be on some form of government-sponsored health insurance. Right now, 158 million Americans (nearly half of the nation’s 330 million population) are covered by a combination of Medicare, Medicaid and subsidized enrollment in the state and federal exchanges. Experts predict that percentage will climb.

Within that population is an even-more shocking statistic: According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), enrollment in Medicaid surpassed 90 million in 2022.

This program, traditionally linked to a small population of Americans in poverty, will serve more than 100 million people in fiscal year 2023 (or 1 in 3 insured Americans). Since 2020, Medicaid enrollment has jumped 30% thanks to expansion programs in several more states under the Affordable Care Act and Covid-19 public health emergency funding.

The article highlighted several problematic consequences of that staggering figure, especially the difficulty experienced by enrollees in finding primary care doctors.

The second statistic concerned individuals who aren’t on either Medicare or Medicaid.

Since 2000, medical costs have risen each year by 4.85%, significantly outpacing the 2.85% annual increase in GDP.

With healthcare premiums rising at a faster rate than revenue, businesses have made up the difference by transferring the financial burden to employees in the form of high-deductible health plans.

In 2022, despite below average healthcare inflation, U.S. employees paid a shocking 10.4% more in out-of-pocket healthcare expenses than the year before.

Already, medical costs are the No. 1 cause of bankruptcies in the United States. If a recession ensues as many economists predict, millions more workers and families will suffer economic hardships.

Number three? Forty-eight percent of those eligible for Medicare choose Medicare Advantage.

“Traditional” Medicare, enacted by Congress in 1965, continues to use a fee-for-service reimbursement model—one that pays doctors and hospitals based on the quantity (rather than quality) of medical services they provide.

In 1997, Congress created an alternative program called Medicare Advantage (MA). Unlike traditional Medicare, this option is “capitated.” That means the federal government pays healthcare providers an annual, up-front fee based on the age and health status of the enrollees.

Supporters of MA say that capitation incentivizes doctors to keep patients healthy without over-treating and over-testing them.

However, there are some downsides. Although seniors enrolled in MA enjoy more predictable annual costs and added benefits such as eyeglass coverage, they have fewer choices when selecting doctors and hospitals.

I found that last observation interesting, since most people who oppose national healthcare insist that Americans value choice more highly than cost. Apparently, we don’t.

The article concludes by reminding readers that healthcare inflation has exceeded GDP growth for half a century. The U.S. spends more than twice as much as the next most expensive nation for health care, and the last time I looked, American healthcare was ranked 37th. Meanwhile, employers and families are increasingly finding the costs out of reach.

These statistics just confirm that ideology can kill. (If you doubt that, look at the disproportionate number of Republicans who died of COVID because they refused to be vaccinated.)

Clinging to the belief that we aren’t already “socialized”–and very inefficiently– costs all of us a lot of money.