When The Emperor Has No Clothes…

Yesterday, the Republicans’ much-hyped replacement of the Affordable Care Act went down in flames.

There are multiple lessons to be drawn from the legislative fiasco we’ve just witnessed, although I am doubtful the people who most need to learn those lessons are capable of doing so.

The first–and most obvious–is that Donald Trump presides (in the words of David Gergen, who has served both Republican and Democratic Presidents) over an incompetent and delusional Administration. “I actually think this may be the worst hundred days we’ve ever seen in a president.”

As one wag commented, William Henry Harrison had a better second month.

Political commentators have repeatedly catalogued the myriad ways in which Trump is unsuited for the Presidency–including but not limited to his emotional and mental instability, lack of intellectual curiosity and ignorance of the structures and operations of government. Those deficits translate into an inability to understand that Presidents–unlike CEOs of closely-held corporations–cannot simply issue orders to Congress, a co-equal branch of government, and expect compliance.

The art of a legislative “deal” is distinctly different than the art of developing a parcel of real estate. A successful Presidency requires skills that Trump neither possesses nor understands.

Then there is Paul Ryan, who has long been lauded as the Republicans’ policy wonk. The lesson here is that in a group of midgets, even a short guy looks tall. Ryan has had seven years to craft a replacement for Obamacare; clearly, he spent none of that time considering what such a replacement should look like. Ryan has been “defrocked”–shown to be all political posturing and no policy chops. The bill he tried to peddle to his fractious caucus was an abysmal piece of legislation–a “steaming pile of excrement” in the words of one Republican lawmaker.

Even if Ryan had possessed the skills credulous pundits have attributed to him, however, it probably would not have been possible to bridge the deep divides within the GOP. The aptly-named “lunatic caucus” wants nothing less than a government retreat from any participation in healthcare, including Medicaid and Medicare. The moderates–mostly elected from more competitive districts– understand that such a retreat is neither possible nor desirable, and wanted legislation that they could have described as improving upon the ACA.

The only thing the two factions agreed upon was that they were being asked by a President with a 37% approval rating to vote for a measure supported by 17% of voters.

Congressional Republicans are hopelessly divided between the radical ideologues produced by 2011’s extreme gerrymandering (who don’t give a rat’s patootie what their party’s leadership wants) and the GOPs (somewhat) more traditional representatives.

The third lesson, then, is that It will only get worse.

The Party of No is no longer capable of getting to yes.


The Big Con

My husband and I were discussing the Council’s current standoff with the Ballard Administration–a dispute triggered by Ballard’s refusal to share budget information with the Council and other elected officials. That conversation brought back memories from our days in the Hudnut Administration; the then-Controller, Fred Armstrong, made himself available to Councilors, Department heads, the media….pretty much anyone who was interested in the intricacies of the budget. Fred would go on and on, explaining the numbers, funds, sources…

I don’t think anyone understood a word he said. I know I didn’t. It was the classic “bury them in bullshit,” and he was great at it. (He was also an incredibly competent public servant.)

Fred knew that most people don’t understand public finance. Our widespread fiscal ignorance is why Paul Ryan has been taken seriously, despite a budget that David Stockman, among others, has described as a “fantasy” and “devoid of credible math.” (Stockman, for those of you too young to remember, was Ronald Reagan’s very conservative Budget Director.)

Today’s candidates are counting on our ignorance of the most basic axioms of taxation and government revenue. It isn’t just that–as a colleague of mine put it recently–half of them clearly don’t know the difference between a marginal and effective tax rate. It’s that they engage in wishful, magical thinking.

Yesterday, I saw an ad for Mike Pence in which he promised to cut taxes “across the board,” and to establish an office of regulatory affairs that would resist federal regulations and return federal dollars.

I can’t decide if Pence is really that stupid, or he just thinks voters are.

There are legitimate issues around regulation–what is enough, what is too much. Reasonable people can differ over their assessments of particular rules. There is a pretty broad consensus that banking regulations were too lax, and that lack of oversight led to the Great Recession; there are certainly other areas where ham-handed regulatory policies have been distinctly unhelpful. But taking a position that all regulation is bad and must be resisted is insane. What about nursing home regulations that protect grandma from abuse? What about food and drug regulations that keep dog feces out of your beanie-weenies, or water purity standards, or building codes, or….Well, you get the point.

And how about that “cutting taxes across the board” and “sending the money back to the feds” promise?

Just how does our “I wanna be your governor” Pence propose to fund anything Indiana needs? Federal dollars pay for our roads, augment our (increasingly inadequate) police forces, and provide medical care for the indigent. They feed schoolchildren and support special education programs. Federal dollars fund small businesses (yes, it turns out that even the angry guy in the anti-Obama commercial who insists that he and his sons built their business all by themselves had an 800,000 SBA loan). The federal government funds 33% of Indiana’s budget; if we sent that money back and cut taxes, Indiana’s government would come to a screeching halt.

The Ryans and the Pences of this world are counting on our ignorance. They are con men, hustlers secure in their (unfortunately reasonable) belief that voters don’t know where their tax dollars go, don’t recognize when they themselves benefit from government programs, and have no idea how their government works or what it does.

Con artists are successful because they tell us what we want to hear, because they promise us we can have something for nothing. The ugly truth is that the people who fall for the con are the people who want to believe they can get something for nothing.

Pence and Ryan are as reputable as that Nigerian banker who will send you a million dollars if you can just front him a few thousand.


File Under “Kick Them When They’re Down”

The more we see of Paul Ryan’s “innovative” budget proposal, the more mean-spirited it gets.

Take Food Stamps–another target for “savings.” According to Meteor Blades over at Daily Kos, Ryan would change food stamp dollars to block grants, which would be funded at only 80 percent of the current level of spending. “That means cuts of $127 billion between now and 2021. To achieve that would require dropping millions of low-income Americans from SNAP rolls or cutting their benefits or some combination of both. Ryan doesn’t specify. This “reform”—astonishing what gets that label these days—would also impose new restrictions on recipients, including time limits on how long they would be eligible to receive food stamps.”

We are just beginning to emerge from the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression. Thousands and thousands of hardworking, taxpaying Americans lost jobs and home, and a significant number of people who had always been self-sustaining found themselves on food stamps. Their needs, however, cannot compete with the need to protect the Bush tax cuts for the top 2% of earners.

Ryan’s defenders will claim that these historically low tax rates will generate investment and translate into jobs. The evidence against that is overwhelming and compelling.

This is really an effort to dismantle the remnants of our already dangerously frayed social safety net–by self-proclaimed “Christians” who have no understanding of their own religion’s teachings, and no empathy for anyone who doesn’t look just like them. And it is unforgivable.


Who Do They Work For?

Theoretically, members of Congress work for us–for “we the people.”

Whatever the theory, it’s clear that many of them think they work for those whose campaign contributions put them in office. To take just one recent example, ask yourself who would benefit from Paul Ryan’s much ballyhooed new budget proposal to replace Medicare with subsidies allowing the elderly to purchase insurance in the private marketplace? It doesn’t take a genius to answer that one: the beneficiaries of those subsidies would be the insurance industry.

I’m sure it is simply coincidental that insurers are among the most generous of campaign contributors.

As the Congressional Budget Office analysis pointed out,

A private health insurance plan covering the standardized benefit would be more expensive currently than traditional Medicare. Both administrative costs (including profits) and payment rates to providers are higher for private plans than for Medicare. Those higher costs would be offset partly but not fully by savings from lower utilization stemming from two sources. First, private health insurers would probably impose greater utilization management than occurs in Medicare. Second, private plans might restrict enrollees’ ability to purchase supplemental insurance plans; enrollees would thus face higher out-of-pocket costs than they do in Medicare, and that increased cost sharing would encourage lower utilization. On net, for a typical 65-year-old in 2011, CBO estimates that average spending in traditional Medicare will be 89 percent of (that is, 11 percent less than) the spending that would occur if that same package of benefits was purchased from a private insurer.

In other words, this plan would cost the government more money. To the extent there would be any “savings,” they would come from shifting costs to the individuals covered.  Protecting the disabled and elderly from those costs, of course, was the original purpose of Medicare. Essentially, this program would screw over the recipients and give a windfall to the insurance companies.

What is amazing to me is how utterly bald-faced this proposal is. Have we really convinced the American people that giving more and more to the “haves” at the expense of the most vulnerable is in the national interest? I was never a fan of the Robin Hood theory of government–robbing the rich to give to the poor–but I am appalled by the current “reverse Robin Hood” ideology, where we rob the poor to benefit the rich.

Well, we certainly know who Ryan works for. And it isn’t us.