Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

“Privatizing” Our Schools

I devoted a fair amount of my academic research to the issue of privatization, and I largely agree with the periodic analyses on the “In the Public Interest” website.

Confounding the issue is the fact that what Americans call “privatizing,” is really something quite different: contracting out.

Margaret Thatcher privatized many of her country’s industries–she sold them off to private-sector operators, who then owned them and paid taxes (and in some cases went bankrupt and out of business). In the U.S., by contrast, we “privatize” by encouraging government agencies to contract with for-profit and non-profit organizations to manage government programs. 

In other words, a program that government is obligated to provide continues to be paid for with tax dollars, and government remains responsible for ensuring that it is operated in a manner that’s consistent with the Constitution, the terms of the contract, and (ideally, at least) the public interest.

My research convinced me of three things: 1) while contracting may be appropriate under some circumstances, it is not the panacea that so many politicians seem to think. Sometimes it makes sense, often it doesn’t.  2) the cost savings that are touted by privatization advocates are largely mythical, the result of omitting what it costs government to manage these contracts–or the even greater costs of failing to manage them. And 3) far from shrinking the size of government, as proponents seem to believe, contracting actually expands both the size and scope of government, while at the same time making that expansion less visible and government less accountable.

Bottom line: contracting out doesn’t usually save money, and the ability of government to monitor those with whom it contracts has proved to be less than ideal, to put it mildly.

Also, in far too many situations, contracting has become the new patronage.

I have written pretty extensively about the issues involved, including Indianapolis’ unfortunate flirtation with “privatizing” under former Mayor Stephen Goldsmith. 

Years of research have taken much of the bloom off the privatization rose, but of course, as readers of this blog are well aware, there is one area in which proponents stubbornly continue to insist upon benefits that have proved imaginary, while studiously ignoring numerous and troubling negative consequences. 

That area is public education.

“Florida Man” DeSantis isn’t the only ideologue  pushing a voucher program, but an article in the linked website  revolved around a set of concerns explored by a Florida  newspaper :

With Tallahassee “poised to bleed billions from public classrooms through a sweeping expansion of private school vouchers,” The Sun Sentinel lays out some of the problems this will bring:

If a private school wants to teach children that Jesus rode dinosaurs and call it geography, the state has no say.

If a private school wants to expel an honor-roll child for being gay, that child is out of luck.

If a private school wants to teach students in a building rife with code violations, students will just need to bring buckets on rainy days. Or fire extinguishers.

If a private school wants to hire teachers with a criminal background, or teachers repeatedly fired from previous jobs, or teachers who have no training in teaching, who in the state has the authority to stop them?

If a private school abruptly closes mid-year, who takes care of the students?
The answer? No one.

These are not scenarios limited to Florida. You can find troubling examples of each of them in existing voucher programs in Indiana and elsewhere. 

Most of us understand–and budget numbers confirm– that voucher programs bleed dollars from public schools that need those resources.

I don’t know about Jesus riding a dinosaur, but multiple investigations of private religious schools accepting vouchers have found creationism  substituted for science instruction. Many of those same schools proudly and publicly decline to accept gay students, or even non-gay students who have two mommies or two daddies.

In Ohio a few years ago, David Brennan, a politically well-connected businessman, opened a chain of schools in order to profit from that state’s then-new voucher program; students didn’t learn much, and several of the schools were found to have multiple, dangerous code violations.

In Indiana, we’ve had voucher schools that suddenly closed, leaving parents and students high and dry.

Forgive me for sounding like a broken record, but there was a reason Americans  established public schools. Public schools are intended to teach more than “reading, writing and arithmetic.” They are intended to create informed and engaged citizens–to advance e pluribus unum by pursuing what is termed the civic mission of the schools.

Heedless of the educational failures and lack of accountability, the World’s Worst Legislature is planning to expand Indiana’s already out-of-control school privatization. No wonder Indiana ranks 43d in the percentage of citizens with  bachelor’s degrees–and  worse, lacks legislators having common sense.

Telling The Truth About The War On Trans Children

Indiana isn’t the only state waging war on trans children, their parents and the medical providers trying to help them. At a time America (and the whole world, for that matter) is facing innumerable challenges–climate change, Putin’s war in Ukraine, a re-ordering of world power generally, etc.–today’s GOP has fixated on the “threat” posed by defenseless children.

About those claims that Republicans are defending “parental rights”– it seems the GOP only defends parents who share their constipated views of the world.

Want to ban some books? Make life difficult for LGBTQ children? The GOP will empower you! Want to allow educators and librarians to share books that other parents consider appropriate? Want to be supportive of your child struggling with gender dysphoria? Not so fast!

In Red Texas, being supportive of your child’s transition has actually been defined as child abuse.

Kentucky recently passed a bill not unlike a handful of hateful measures on their way to passing in Indiana. The bill limits medical care related to gender transition services for minors and punishes providers who assist their minor patients. It also prohibits “a public school counselor, school-based mental health services provider, or another public employee from aiding or assisting in the provision of gender transition services for a person under the age of 18 years.”

During the debate preceding Kentucky legislators’ lopsided vote to make life more difficult for trans children, a state representative named Pamela Stevenson gave an impassioned speech in which she told the ugly–but undeniable– truth.

 “I’m not even sure how we got here, but as a 27-year military veteran, I fought so that all people could have freedoms, not just the ones I liked,” said Stevenson, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel.

When a co-sponsor of the bill said she’d written it to “protect children from irreparable damage,” Stevenson had a withering response.

“Don’t tell me it’s about irreparable harm because you’re not doing anything for the children that are hungry,” Stevenson said.

“You’re not doing anything for the children that are in foster care being abused. You’re not doing what needs to be done for the little black kids who are experiencing racism every day. It is not for irreparable harm. It’s because they are not like you. And as a mother, how dare you interfere with one of the most intimate relationships.”…

If you were really, really concerned about children, I could give you 100 other things you could do to make sure that every kid in Kentucky thrives. Let’s try giving them water out in the rural areas, potable water. Let’s try Medicare and Medicaid, so they can go to the doctor. Let’s try getting the kids off the street that are homeless and sleeping with snow as a blanket. I was born at night, but not last night. This is not about what you say it is.”

What I find so depressing about these attacks on vulnerable children is the likely reason for this particular culture-war focus: America’s current acceptance of LGBTQ+ citizens and same-sex marriage. Polling regularly confirms that acceptance; Gallup fielded a 2022 poll that showed 71% of Americans agreeing that same-sex marriages should enjoy the same rights as opposite-sex ones.(That’s a staggering figure: These days, seventy-one percent of Americans probably don’t agree that the Earth is round.)

Since gay folks came out of the closet, most Americans have discovered that they know gay people and that they aren’t any different from the rest of us. Trans people, however, are rarer and still considered “exotic”–or in Republican-speak, fair game.

We no longer live in the “good old days” when Republicans could generate turnout with hysterical warnings about same-sex marriage or other attacks on LGBTQ folks generally–these days, such broad-based attacks are too likely to create backlash. But the GOP isn’t going to abandon its most effective strategy–generating fear and hatred of the “other”–so the party has narrowed its focus to Drag Queens and trans Americans.

Human Rights Watch  is just one of the organizations that has documented the extent of discrimination and violence experienced by the trans community. Those reports are depressing and sobering, but the viciousness of the attacks on children is particularly disgusting.

As Axios has explained, these bills are part of a larger, “carefully coordinated campaign by the far right and religious conservatives to attack trans people in the wake of their failures to stop marriage equality and pass anti-trans bathroom bills over the past decade.”

After all, if a few kids kill themselves as a result–tough. All’s fair in politics and culture war.



GOP: Climate Is A Dirty Word

The other day, I was doing the “housewife” thing–which included cleaning bathroom toilets–and because I am a nerd of the first order, the sight of soapy water swirling down the drain made me think of the GOP.

When “Republican” was the name of a political party that had a policy agenda, a major part of that agenda was protection of the free market and a pretty sustained pushback over government ‘s business regulations. (Barry Goldwater famously proclaimed that government didn’t belong in either your boardroom or your bedroom…but of course, Barry is now considered a RINO.)

Most GOP lawmakers acknowledged the need for government regulations that were necessary to provide an economic “level playing field”–the sorts of regulations meant to prevent unfair business practices, corruption and collusion, and/or harm to the public. The policy arguments focused on the extent and necessity of those rules– matters about which people could have good-faith disagreements.

Those were the good old days!

Axios recently reported on the GOP’s eagerness to tell private businesses what they can and cannot do, and their preferred rules have absolutely nothing to do with bad behavior by their targets. Quite the contrary.

Republicans in Congress have teed up the first veto of the Biden presidency. Curiously, the vetoed bill has nothing to do with children’s books, unisex bathrooms, or even fiscal policy. Instead, it focuses on stock-market asset allocation.

Why it matters: The environmentally conscious global consensus of institutional investors is highly unlikely to be derailed by U.S. political point-scoring. But no good can come from the way in which investment officers increasingly need to navigate a political gantlet.

Driving the news: Both the House and the Senate this week passed legislation overturning a Labor Department rule designed to ensure that fund managers remain capable of considering environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors when making investments.

The aim of the bill was not to change the law — a veto was always certain — but rather to create a 2024 campaign issue. Politicians like Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, characterize the Department of Labor rule as creating “regulations to invest retirement money in far-left liberal causes.” That’s false — the rule mandates nothing at all — but Republicans are hoping it might prove an effective attack vector all the same.

The article quotes an NYU law professor–an expert on environmental law– opining that the  bill “has to be the ne plus ultra of hysterical overreaction to any policy with the word climate in it.”

As the Axios report notes, the GOP is politicizing a “decidedly anodyne” Department of Labor rule that is, in fact, a “laissez-faire attempt to reiterate that investors are free to follow any investment thesis they like.” In other words, a rule aiming to strengthen what used to be Republican orthodoxy.

Climate change is probably the biggest risk facing global markets over the long term. Investors therefore have a clear financial incentive to invest in the companies that are best placed to mitigate or adapt to climate risk, as a way of maximizing their own long-term returns.

There is always a fiduciary reason for ESG investments, but a Trump-era rule tried to discourage such strategies anyway. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute were unenthusiastic about the Trump administration’s stance.

The Department of Labor rule the current bill tries to overturn was written to make it clear that investors don’t need to fear the potential ire of regulatory agencies when they adopt ESG investment frameworks.

It bears emphasizing that the rule the GOP wants to overturn amounts to a promise that, if your business wants to take climate risk into account, government won’t punish you for doing so.

But today’s Republicans insist that concern for climate is a “far left” marker. Today’s GOP has totally abandoned its previous respect for private enterprise and limitations on  legislative authority. The party used to be animated by the libertarian principle that government should be limited to protecting citizens against harm. Americans can and do differ about the nature of the harms that justify government intervention, but things like caring about the environment, reading the “wrong” books, or loving the “wrong” people, were not (at least officially) among them.

Some of this anti-climate fervor reflects the worries of fossil fuel companies, of course, and those companies are big donors to the GOP lawmakers driving this exercise.  Still, we shouldn’t dismiss the political motives behind this propaganda. As the Axios article notes, Republicans are trying to reach swing voters by labeling anything climate-conscious as being part of a far-left agenda.

If recognition of climate change is “leftist,” my belief that words have fixed meanings is  swirling like the water around the drain in my toilet…


Health And Debt

I was fascinated by a recent column in which Paul Krugman examined the geographical clustering of low credit scores.

Krugman was deconstructing some recent research showing what he described as a “big band of credit-score calamity that stretches across the American South.” The research confirmed that, in virtually every part of the South and across all demographic groups– every race, every income bracket —  credit score are low.

Low credit scores penalize people in a number of ways. As Krugman notes,

The region’s poor credit means Southerners are paying more to borrow money, assuming they can qualify for loans at all. That sets them back in everything from car and home purchases to credit card rewards.

But why the South?

Many of us would suggest the influence of racism. But that turns out not to explain the phenomenon.

Our first guess about what might be happening here involves race. Almost 3 out of every 5 Black Americans live in the South, and they make up almost 20 percent of the region’s population. Centuries of slavery, sharecropping, apartheid and exclusion from many elite educational institutions left some Southern Black folks with little credit and even less collateral.

When researchers ran the numbers, the Blackest parts of the South had roughly the same credit scores as the least-Black areas. And their scores were far lower than places with similar Black populations outside the South. So while race may play a role, it’s clearly not a defining factor.

Well, what about poverty? The South has the highest poverty, lowest income and lowest education rates of any region in the U.S., and counties with lower income and lower college graduation rates are likely to have lower credit scores.


Even some of the South’s biggest, most dynamic cities — think Atlanta or Dallas — have the same below-average credit scores as their more rural Southern neighbors. Within every income bracket, the typical Southerner has a lower credit score than someone who lives in the Northeast, Midwest or West.

So–if it isn’t racism and it isn’t poverty, what explains this phenomenon?

The answer, it turns out, is America’s refusal to follow virtually every other modern nation and offer national health care. Medical debt is the reason credit scores are so low in the South.

It turns out the South has the highest levels of medical debt in the country.

Of the 100 counties with the highest share of adults struggling to pay their medical debt, 92 are in the South, and the other eight are in neighboring Oklahoma and Missouri, according to credit data from the Urban Institute. (On the other side, 82 of the 100 counties with the least pervasive medical-debt problems are in the Midwest, with 45 in Minnesota alone.)

And sure enough, when you look at areas across the nation where adults are struggling to pay down medical debt, they have similar credit scores.

This raises an obvious question: why is this problem concentrated in the South?

One answer is that the South is simply less healthy than any other region. Data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services shows that among Medicare recipients, the population for which we have the best data, those in the South are substantially more likely to suffer from four or more chronic conditions. And poor health tends to go hand in hand with people having overdue medical debt and poor credit scores.

Poor health isn’t the only factor–Red State policy choices are a huge contributor.A recent analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that medical debt “became more concentrated in lower-income communities in states that did not expand Medicaid. The share of residents with overdue medical debt is more strongly linked to a county’s credit score than any other factor– including debt related to car loans, credit cards and student loans.

Last year, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued a scathing report finding that medical debt is “an unexpected, unwanted, and financially devastating expense” that is “far less reliable and predictive of people’s ability to pay their bills” than other kinds of borrowing.

The lack of national health insurance–or even Medicaid availability–means that folks in the South pay higher rates on mortgages and car loans, and have more trouble getting credit.

But there are social as well as individual costs involved.

Insecurity fosters anti-social behaviors. When a serious illness means you might lose your house or go bankrupt—you tend to take those worries out on others. Research shows that countries with better social safety nets are more tolerant of differences in race, religion and sexual orientation, and some studies have suggested that Canada’s lower rate of gun violence can be attributed to their stronger social safety net.

But national health insurance would be “socialist” and Southerners wouldn’t want that…




The Way We Are

Persuasion’s Yascha Mounk recently interviewed Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Kleinfeld’s response to a question about interpreting the midterm results, and whether those results showed a rejection of  extremism and election denialism, was–in my opinion–an important summary of just where we Americans find ourselves politically, and although it was rather lengthy, I’m quoting it in its entirety:

The election showed that with a gigantic amount of work on behalf of many, many organizations, you can move a tiny percentage of independent and right-leaning swing voters away from election denialism and real authoritarianism in swing states. That mattered a lot, because it means that the 2024 election will be free and fair. But what it didn’t do was fundamentally shift the dynamics in the Republican Party. While Trump might be losing steam, Trumpism, Christian nationalism, othering people to build your base with wink-and-nod authoritarianism, is still alive and well. We’re seeing DeSantis do it. We’re seeing other front runners do it. We saw candidate intimidation. We still saw election deniers win in deep red states. We have about 16 states now where there’s trifectas—a state in which the governor, the attorney general and both chambers of the legislature (basically all of your major executive roles that would control elections) are all of one party. In about 15, maybe 16 states, those are all Republican and a number of election deniers were elected to those positions. It’s worth remembering that the Jim Crow South was only 11 states, really, in its full form of election suppression against African Americans and poor whites. It doesn’t take the entire United States to have an authoritarian enclave somewhere. The role of the RNC in Arizona was notable. Arizona is really the only place we saw any kind of election violence, with the supervisor of Maricopa County elections going into hiding. An RNC phone call seems to suggest that the Republican National Committee was possibly threatening that the mob would be released if certain things didn’t happen. 

A significant minority of Americans continue to embrace “Trumpism, Christian Nationalism and ‘othering'” and the most obvious question is why?  Those of us who follow politics and policy answer that question with various allocations of racism, anti-intellectualism and (especially) fear of loss–loss of privilege, loss of social dominance.

As Kleinfeld highlighted, attacks on the bases of America’s governing philosophy are being nurtured and encouraged by today’s GOP. 

Devoted Republicans with whom I worked “back in the day”–when the GOP was a very different animal– bemoan the reality that the party that bears that name has no resemblance to the party we once knew. The lack of  two respectable, adult parties in America’s two-party system is more than troubling for a multitude of reasons, many of which I have previously explored, but in a recent column, Jennifer Rubin discussed a  consequence that had not occurred to me: the GOP’s disdain for objective fact attracts voters and candidates who also believe facts to be irrelevant and governance beside the point.

Rubin calls this “politics as performance art,” and references GOP fabulists besides George Santos. She says that Republicans have moved on from the party’s lies about climate change, vaccines and voter fraud — they’re increasingly lying about themselves.

Granted, it would be hard to beat Santos for lying, and no one else (to the best of our knowledge) comes close. But not for lack of trying. Rep. Anna Paulina Luna has claimed to be Jewish– to have been raised as a “Messianic Jew.” (Messianic Jews aren’t Jews, for one thing, and it seems her father was Catholic and her grandfather fought for Nazi Germany.)

She changed her last name from Mayerhofer to Luna, and The Post found no evidence for her claims that her father was incarcerated for long periods. Other claims that she was traumatized by a home invasion in 2010 did not check out, either.

Rep. Andrew Ogles is not an economist, despite claiming to be one during his campaign-he has no degree in economics and was never employed as an economist. He also wasn’t a “trained police officer and international sex crimes expert,” as claimed; he was actually a volunteer reserve deputy. (Shades of Hershel Walker…)

It isn’t only in folks running for Congress. Arizona’s Republican attorney general investigated election fraud, then buried the findings when  no evidence emerged. (The documents were just released  by his Democratic successor.)

If it is “harmless exaggeration” to fabricate a life story, and “politics as usual” to insist that your election loss was due to vote fraud, what are assertions that “those people” want to replace White Christians, or that “woke” people are indoctrinating your children?

When such people hold office, how can we hope for governance based upon evidence and reason?