Monday’s Mtg: Do Government Anti-Poverty Programs Work?

This month marks the 20th anniversary of federal welfare reform. The 1996 law drastically limited assistance under the U.S. govt’s largest welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Since then, a lot of other changes have been made to our anti-poverty safety net. Yes, TANF was gutted, but other programs have been created or expanded to make up the slack, and the whole system is now better targeted to incentive work and to reach the truly needy.

Still, perhaps welfare reform’s main accomplishment was political. It de-weaponized welfare as a high-profile, partisan issue in American politics. Rising poverty and inequality levels may bring it back, but it hasn’t yet. And if it ever does, most Americans will be just as easy to manipulate as before because few of us know anything at all about this part of government. For example, did you know that

  • The biggest and most effective ant-poverty programs by far are Social Security and Medicare?
  • Govt spending per poor American has gone up in recent years – not down as most progressives think?
  • Benefit levels are pretty paltry, and the biggest poverty programs do incentive work – contrary to what most conservatives think?

Given these and many more public misconceptions, I thought it might behoove us to devote an evening to taking a big picture look at how the government combats poverty in America and how effective it is.

I am a bit pressed for time this week (inc. finding you good, analytical links). Here are some discussion questions I will use to guide our meeting on Monday, and some background readings on anti-poverty programs and their effectiveness. My opening remarks will describe the largest federal and state govt anti-poverty programs and make a few points on the issue of effectiveness.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What are the main federal/state anti-poverty programs? How much do they spend and who gets benefits?
  2. What is their purpose? How is aid targeted and conditioned? Temporary v. permanent help? Cash v. non-cash benefits?   “Making work pay” v. helping non-working poor?
  3. (BTW: Why are there so many poor Americans, anyway?)
  4. Effectiveness at…
    1. Reducing poverty and helping the helpless?
    2. Targeting the “right” people.
    3. Incentivizing work?
    4. Keeping social cohesion.
  5. Problems with…
    1. High program costs.
    2. Dis-incentivizing work.
    3. Subsidizing low-wage employers, like Wal-Mart.
    4. Minimizing fraud and abuse.
  6. Past and future:
    1. Did welfare reform “work?” For whom?
    2. Future alternatives to / expansions of poverty programs.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

How much do we actually spend reducing poverty?

Impact of anti-poverty programs –

Conservative POV –

20 years after welfare reform:

Worldwide Poverty –

Next Week (Sept 5):  Will President Obama’s Achievements Endure?

 

Monday’s Mtg: Why Has Economic Productivity Slowed?

It is Econ 101 that ever rising labor productivity is the key driver of modern economies. When the amount of output per worker is higher every year than the year before all of the good stuff that Americans have come to expect is possible. The economy grows steadily with room for higher wages/benefits and consumer spending, business profits, savings and investment, and enough tax revenue for government to meet public investment and social needs. Without rising productivity, the economic pie stops getting bigger and we are all left fighting over the size of the slices. A zero-sum economy begets zero-sum politics, and we all look around for someone to blame.

Sound familiar? It’s starting to happen. Worker productivity roughly doubled in the USA from 1945 to the early 1970s, then slowed down for the rest of the 20th century. But since then it has slowed to a crawl, only growing about 0.5% annually since 2000. In 2016, productivity actually began falling.

Now, maybe the fall is temporary, an artifact of the Great Recession. Maybe it is not happening at all. There is some evidence that the way experts measure labor productivity fails to capture some important improvements in the quality of the goods and services workers produce. Maybe.

But, there I another problem independent of measurement error. Even before U.S. labor efficiency slumped, American workers were not getting paid in line with what they were producing. Since 1973, U.S. workers have become 75% more productive, but average worker compensation (pay + benefits) grew by less than 10%! When liberals say rising inequality is unfair, this is what we mean. It’s not some philosophical judgement of how much people are “worth” to society. How well do you think regular people will fare if, on top of this unfairness, the productivity slump persists and the pie stops growing altogether?

So, this is not a dry topic about formulas and equations. It is about what makes our economy healthy and innovative and how we can ensure that regular Americans share in the wealth they produce.

To keep us focused, I will start us off on Monday with a quick summary of:

  1. What is meant in plain English by labor productivity and what really drives it (opinions differ on the latter); and
  2. The main theories of why it has stagnated recently and whether we have a long term problem.

Then, we can debate any aspect of this broad topic-of-everything we want to discuss. The main driver of productivity in the long-run is technological innovation, but other things matter, too, including public policies.  I hope we can devote a good chunk of time to discussing the growing divergence between worker compensation and productivity. But, keep in mind that any public policies to close that gap need to do so by raising the former, not reducing the latter.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Measuring it: How do they measure labor productivity? Could it be growing faster than experts think?
  2. Ensuring it: What keeps U.S. labor productivity rising; e.g., healthy biz/entrepreneur climate, R&D/Universities, tech innovation, worker edu/skills, government action/inaction?
  3. Problem. Why has productivity suddenly cratered? The recession?
  4. Problem! Is something deeper afoot? Are we entering a prolonged period of “secular stagnation” like we talked about in 2013?
  5. Problem!! Why has pay not kept up with productivity for decades?
  6. Solutions: Which pubic policies might (a) goose worker productivity in the short-term and long-term, and (b) ensure American workers benefit from it? Left vs. right solutions.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Productivity Puzzle –

Solutions?

Next Week: Do government anti-poverty programs really work?

Monday’s Mtg (8/15/16): Does the “Historical Jesus” Matter?

I have been reading a lot of religious history the past few years. So, I thought we could explore the relationship between what have been called the “two Jesuses:” The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History. How do both secular and religious people think about and reconcile the two? Do they even try?

Seeking out the historical Jesus” has been an entire field of scholarly study for more than a century. Since there is almost no mention of the man outside of the Bible, experts analyze the text of the New Testament to try to determine which parts are more likely to be authentic and which might have been added decades later by the Bible’s many authors.

Taken far enough, this method has led some non-Christians to argue that the Historical Jesus was very different from the Christ of Faith. Thomas Jefferson was one such person (albeit he was still a Christian). He rewrote the Gospels for his own use, excising all of the supernatural stuff. No miracles. No afterlife. No resurrection. No claim by Jesus that he was divine. To Jefferson, Jesus was the world’s best ever moral philosopher, but only that. Today, secular people love this notion because they prefer their Jesus as an ethical teacher, not the risen God or Holy Spirit or whatever.

The historical Jesus can also refer to the evidence that he actually did or did not exist, based on clues pulled from non-Biblical sources like Roman historians, archeology, and one’s opinion on how likely it is that the man around whom an entire faith revolves was just made up by men writing less than 50 years after the made-up events. (One of this week’s links below summarizes the arguments against Jesus ever existing. But, FYI, my understanding is that this is a tiny minority POV.)

My interest, FWIW, is broader than just separating historical fact from Apostolic exaggeration. People have been arguing about what Jesus really meant to say for 2,000 years, obviously.  But, I wonder how do Christians and the other great ancient religions deal with the uncertainty inherent in relying on 1,000+ year old sacred texts that might or might not accurately reflect the thoughts of God/their prophets?

On Monday I won’t have much to say by way of introduction. This topic is a bit beyond me. Still, maybe read a few of the links below, or just show up and we can dig in.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (8/22):  Why has economic productivity slowed recently?  Is it permanent?

Monday’s Mtg: Is Obamacare Working? What’s Next?

We last talked about the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare in July 2013 (great links!), as parts of it were still being rolled out.  Three years later all of its major provisions have begun to operate and experts are starting to get an idea of where the law has been successful at achieving its goals and where results have been disappointing and why.

Non-experts like us have a hard time getting any sense of it at all. Obamacare is only dimly-understood by most Americans. The law had to be grafted onto the existing, highly-complex American health care system, so it is very complex. The law’s affects also are nearly invisible to most Americans, largely by design. Complexity and invisibility left a huge opening for clever propagandists to trash the law and attribute every negative development as the beginning of Obamacare’s imminent collapse.

This is a bummer for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is it makes it hard for us to see through the complexity and opacity to draw our own conclusions about the law’s good parts and bad parts (both exist). To help us out a bit, I will start our meeting on Monday evening by reviewing two key contextual points:

  1. The major problems/shortcomings of the status quo ante health care system that Obamacare was designed to fix; and
  2. How the ACA was supposed to do that.

Then, we can go one of several ways. We could discuss each major part of Obamacare in turn, such as the state insurance exchanges, the law’s many new consumer protections, and Medicaid expansion. As we talk I can sketch out some of the latest good news/bad news in each area. Or, we could go big picture and explore whether the ACA has succeeded so far at its three big, broad goals: Achieving near-universal health insurance coverage, controlling health care costs, and improving the quality of medical care. Very ambitious goals.

As we talk, I think it is very important for us to do two things that news stories on Obamacare implementation almost never do.

  • Look at the entire law – not just some piece of it that has experienced recent good or bad developments; and
  • Compare its results to a realistic alternative – either one based on where our health care system was heading before Obamacare or to Republican alternatives (to the extent they even exist – see links).

If you want we can get into GOP alternatives and Hillary’s plans to protect Obamacare’s gains and fix its flaws or expand it. And, yes, there is yet another lawsuit probably heading to the Supreme Court that is aimed at one of the ACA’s major provisions and bringing the whole thing crashing down.

There’s one more thing. The ACA’s shortcomings are particularly tragic, and not just because health care matters so much. Unlike other laws Obamacare cannot be amended at all because Republican lawmakers will not allow it. They want the ACA to collapse so they can “repeal and replace it.” To my knowledge, no major law has ever been held to this standard, expected to work perfectly in its first iteration. Major laws are amended all the time to correct mistakes and adapt to new conditions and unanticipated or even unanticipatable problems. For example, Medicare’s basic fee structure was completely overhauled less than 10 years after its 1965 passage because it wasn’t controlling costs very well, and the program has been modified thousands of times since then.

So, however brilliant or dumb the Affordable Care Act is, we are stuck with it as is. Any insufficiencies in the law (or unexpected adaptation by consumes and businesses) must either be addressed administratively or left to fester, or, if a GOP-controlled Congress is elected, solved or ignored their way.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Review: How was Obamacare supposed to solve the major problems in our health care system?
  2. The Parts: How has implementation of each major moving part of Obamacare gone? What caused any failures and how was implementation of the law adjusted to compensate?
  3. The Whole: Can we declare overall success or failure (or making good/bad progress) on the 3 major goals of ACA: Helping the uninsured, making HC more affordable, improving quality of care?
  4. The Divide: Do liberals and conservatives define “success” differently?
  5. The Future: What’s next in U.S. HC reform?
    • Latest GOP lawsuit.
    • Dem/HRC plans to fix/expand?
    • GOP plans to repeal/replace?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

It’s succeeding:

It’s a mixed bag or it’s failing:

The Future –

 

NEXT WEEK:   Does the “historical Jesus” matter?

Monday’s Mtg: How Far Left Will the Democratic Party Move?

Well, the Democrats seem united, and with a clear strategy, too. As you know, it’s pretty typical for a party’s presidential nominee to tack to the center after the convention. But, it seems the Dems really are going to try to take advantage of the GOP nominating a nut job for president by moving both leftward and rightward at the same time.

As everybody knows, Bernie Sanders’ surprising success resulted in a party platform that is farther to the left than it has been in living memory. As we’ll discuss on Monday, it’s generational changeover that are driving this bus. Millennials are very liberal (or just incoherent?), on both social and economic issues. The Republican Party has no idea how to appeal to young people and the Dems are trying to cement their loyalty for a generation.

But, the Dem convention made it crystal clear (in that showy and repetitive way party conventions do) that Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party wants to expand the Obama coalition, not just replicate it. They are making a play to peel off college-educated White moderate voters from the GOP, a group that’s been loyal to the latter since roughly the Reagan era. If they can pull it off over a few back-to-back elections, the Democrats will have pulled off a rare, historic political realignment that could last decades.

Except…how can the Democrats go in both directions at once? Even if they do so successfully this electoral cycle, can it last? Can the Dems satisfy the growing progressive sentiments of Democratic voters and pick off the low hanging fruit of an increasingly extremist GOP without flying apart from the internal contradictions?

I suggest we grope for tentative answers to these questions the same basic way we did last week when we discussed the future of the Republican Party. In brief opening remarks, I will try to lay out how the basic building blocks of the Democratic Party are changing: Its leadership, institutions, and voting blocs. The “emerging Democratic majority” that was confidently predicted in a well-known 1999 book hasn’t actually emerged in a stable form. But, it might, helped along in the near-term by Trump and in the longer-term by other factors that created Trump (last week’s discussion) and within the Democratic Party (this week’s).

Obviously, the future is too contingent to predict with much confidence. But, I think we can have another great discussion like the one we had picking over the GOP’s bleached bones last week.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What does “progressive” mean right now? Policies: Econ + social issues? Rhetoric? Abstract beliefs like size/reach of govt? Inclusiveness? Exclusiveness?
    –> Is Left/Right too simple a way to describe our politics, or at least many voters?
  2. How liberal are Dem right now, in terms of their (1) elected officials and (2) voters? Has the Party really been moving rapidly leftwards recently?
  3. If so (or if not), why? Leaders, institutions, voters, events?
  4. Is it permanent?
    –>  Will the forces moving Dems leftwards last? Will new trends emerge?
    –>   What about countervailing forces, including the GOP response?
    –>  If Dem coalition gets bigger, must it get more centrist?
  5. Ought: What do you think the Democrats should do (morally + strategically)?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Movement leftwards so far –

  • On economics, both Obama and Dem electorate have moved left.
  • Conservative POV: Really, really left on everything.
  • Wrong. As this graph shows, Dem elected officials even in the House have moved only a little left since 1980. It is House Republicans that moved far to the right.

The future Democratic Party will be…

Next Week (Aug 8):  Is Obamacare working?  What comes next?

Monday’s Mtg on Future of Democratic Party

Tomorrow (Friday) PM I’ll post my usual pre-mtg link-fest.  I was watching all the convention stuff.  It’ll will be a great time to talk about the Dems’ future.

Monday’s Mtg: Trumpocalypse and the Future of the GOP

As I sit here on Thursday night Donald Trump has just finished delivering his shocking, openly authoritarian victory speech at the Republican Party convention. I am beside myself.  I have never been more frightened for my country. The Republican Party has destroyed itself and may destroy us all.

Trump’s speech (and entire campaign) is an audition to be America’s dictator. When he paints his terrifying portrait of a helpless and exploited United States preyed upon by criminals and foreigners, he is describing a nation near its final, apocalyptic collapse and arguing that only he can prevent it. “Law and order” is means one-man rule, Constitution and checks and balances be damned. Make no mistake.

So, what is a group called Civilized Conversation to do? Talk seems so pointless now, so strongly must we all fight to stop this monster and the political party he now speaks for. The election will be close – count on it. This man is guaranteed 45% or so of the national vote and the party he is molding in his image holds more legislative power than at any time since the mid-1920s. I think tonight’s speech is so well-written, passionately-delivered, and rousing that the entire GOP leadership will cave in now to his grotesque spell. For now, it’s Trump’s party, body and soul, an enraged, terrified White nationalist party.

But, hold on. The future isn’t written yet. Only with time will we learn whether Trumpism really is a movement or just a man. I think we can discuss in a civilized (-ish) fashion how the Republican Party is likely to evolve from here. The GOP’s future will depend on many things besides November’s outcome. Leadership. Organization. The corporate, evangelical, and other wings of the Party. Media. Events. Even how the Democratic Party comports itself!

On Monday I will give a brief introduction on what the future of the GOP might depend on. This will be future-focused. For “theories of Trumpism” I refer you to our meeting we had on him last November. It is going to be very hard to turn the Republican Party from this path, given Trump’s immense talent at fear-mongering and persuading a crowd that he has the easy solutions he promises. But, maybe it can be done, and maybe the GOP can be something other than what it has become.

(Oh, and we should also discuss the many ways in which Trump is NOT conservative. The man has shredded conservative orthodoxy on trade, foreign policy, immigration, and much else, and I’m not sure what that signifies and where the Party will go.)

Civilized conversation? Always. But, after that strong-man oration and the crowd’s adulatory response? Saving our civilization is a part of the discussion now, too.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1.  I will write some after I have calmed down a little.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Causes and Lessons of Trumpism –

Future of GOP and Trumpism:

Next Week: The Democrats’ Turn – How far Left will the Party move?

Monday’s Mtg: Native Americans – Are Their Interests Still Neglected?

This is a great topic we haven’t done before. Thanks to Carl for suggesting it.

I know very, very little about Native American social and political interests and issues. According to Wiki, the last U.S. Census counted just under 3 million Native Americans in this country, plus another 2.2 million people that claimed partial native heritage. There are close to 600 recognized tribes, each with a formal nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government.

That sounds like a lot of people, but their numbers are small by America political standards, and several other factors combine to weaken Native American influence. For one, they are the most rural of all U.S. ethnic/racial groups. About 1 million live on reservations, often far removed from the centers of state power. In most states, Native American votes are a rounding error:  They comprise less than 1 percent of the population in most states and more than 5% percent of the population in only 6 states (AK, NM, SD, OK, MT, ND).  It also doesn’t help, I imagine, that many American think casino gaming has made all tribes rich. It hasn’t – not even close.

The social and economic problems affecting Native American communities are legion, of course.  From poverty to poor schools to environmental degradation. Governments at all levels have proven indifferent to and incompetent at handling Native affairs.

President Obama has a very strong record on issues of importance to Native American communities, according to accounts I’ve read. You can read the details below and I’ll summarize them quickly to open our meeting.  Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton made it a point to court Native American votes.  Donald Trump…well, loves to call Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” while the crowd makes mock war woops.  But, there is a conservative POV that Native Americans are too dependent on the federal government for their own good.  I think this is an idea worth discussing, as is the notion of whether progressives have (and should have) abandoned the belief that cultural and economic assimilation is a positive good for minorities like Native Americans.

On Monday night I’ll open our meeting with a little basic information about Native Americans in the United States and some issues that (I’ve read) are of major concern to those communities.  Then, I’ll turn to Carl for his thoughts.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Basic Information:

  • Wiki entry: “Native Americans in the United States.”
  • Part-Native Americans are the largest multi-racial group in the USA, but they don’t think of themselves that way!  Recommended.

Issues:

Politicians/policies:

Next Week:  GOP convention wrap-up –
Trump, Trumpism, and the Doomed Grand Old Party

Monday’s Mtg: Are Californians Environmentally Over-Regulated?

This topic is one that political conservatives worry about a lot. Every time California experiences a recession or the mildest growth hiccup, and every time a high-profile business leaves California for another state conservatives say it’s all because of over-regulation. To me at least, their rhetoric often sounds ideological and a cynical cover for corporate self-interest.

But, not so fast. I think there’s something to this topic, even after discounting for rhetorical excess and partisanship. California has a very dense web of environmental regulations. They affect every aspect of living and doing business in our state. No one serious is saying we should not have clean air and water, safe consumer products, and wetlands. But, perhaps Californians can be said to be over-regulated, especially if “over-regulated” is carefully and specifically defined.

One definition of excessive govt regulation involves marginal costs exceeding marginal benefits. I will explain this basic concept briefly in my opening framing remarks on Monday night. But, basically, the more stringent an environmental regulation is, the higher the costs of implementing it and (probably) the smaller the additional increment of benefits it provides. You can think of the marginal costs and benefit curves as being non-linear to reflect this. At some point the lines cross, and the reg does more harm than good.

This sounds simple, but it’s very hard to compare costs to benefits in a way that gives us confidence we have assessed them right. C/B analysis is not my field, nor is environmental policy. But I’ll explain this basic idea within the level of my competency.

A second type f over-regulation involves the bureaucratic process. The enviro law permitting process in California can be very time consuming and expensive, especially for big projects that require the full Monty environmental impact studies. There is a lot of talk right now in Sacramento about streamlining the processes. Process is one of those boring-but-really-important aspects of government that separates good government from bad, even if it’s hard for non-experts to discuss and gets very little media attention.

A third type is more like mis-regulation. Like the rest of government, enviro laws/regs can and do get manipulated by private interests for their own benefit, usually at the expense of their public good. As the links explain, below, the third party litigation allowed under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is vulnerable to this. (As is our initiative process, that big biz uses to bypass enviro laws they don’t like.)

Huge battles are brewing all over the country over the future of our environment and climate.  As always, Californians will be manning the front lines. At present, the Republican Party has virtually abandoned the environmentalism it used to embrace. That can’t last forever, though. Even if it does, it puts the Democrats in danger. Progressives risk getting too smug about their environmentalism and ceasing to listen to skeptics, businesses, and other good people who bear the brunt of good (and sometimes bad) policy.

I think an honest discussion of the limits of CA’s environmental regulation is very much needed now.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What are CA’s main environmental laws? How do they get enforced?
  2. What is “over-regulation?” Can it have more than one meaning? How can we measure its extent and distinguish valid complaints from false/cynical ones?
  3. If we’re over-regulated environmentally, how did we get that way? How can we safely reverse any over-regulation?
  4. New areas: What do we think of the latest CA enviro laws addressing climate change, energy use, toxins, and groundwater?
  5. Is “technology forcing” regulation a good idea? How do we know if we’re overdoing it?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

[Update – Climate Policy – CA is moving very aggressively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Here is a (very supportive) description of what’s bee done, and here is what to expect in the near future.]

Are we environmentally over-regulated?

Next Week July 18: Are native-American interests being neglected?

Monday’s Mtg: What Does Today’s Science Fiction Say About the USA?

Borg on the fourth of July! Yes, Monday’s topic really is based on the idea that science fiction can be very revealing of American culture and society. I thought it would make a fun summer holiday topic.  That and it let me use that pun.

I know this topic puzzled some of you. Here’s my thinking. I read once that if you want to understand a country’s history or politics or economics, you should read non-fiction. But, if you want to understand a nation’s culture then you must read its fiction, and really try to grok (the first of many Sci-Fi metaphors this week) what it is trying to say about society.

Science fiction in particular, IMO, can tell us a lot about where our cultural zeitgeist is at and where it’s heading. Why? Because sci-fi is speculation about what the future might be and should be like: How we’ll use technology, organize society, and see ourselves.  It also explores who might benefit and suffer under alternate scenarios.  Like all fiction, reflects our cultural zeitgeist.  Perhaps more than other types of fiction, sci-fi helps to frame our big choices and their consequences .

(BTW, to quote Robert Heinlein, “a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” If sci-fi is about what might be, fantasy can be thought of as being about what cannot be.)

Plus, science fiction is wildly popular these days. Sci-fi movies took in nearly one-quarter of U.S. ticket sales in 2015, triple what they did in 1995. TV is awash in sci-fi and mixed sci-fi/fantasy/horror shows, like The Walking Dead and Preacher.

Moreover, the sci-fi/fantasy genres have changed a lot recently. On the bright side, there’s more cultural and international diversity in both authorship, viewership, and plotlines.  But, modern sci-fi has also gotten pretty dark and apocalyptic and it seems more explicitly political and ideological than it used to be, at least to me.  Movie sci-fi  has gotten really, really dumbed-down too, in my opinion, with its superheroes and digital special effects overkill.

Some of these changes reflect changes in the entertainment industry and special effects technology, not cultural evolution or devolution. I’ll explain some of those changes in a brief opening presentation on Monday. Then, we can get our sociology and cultural criticism on.  Or we can talk about Thor, World War Z, or the latest Superman atrocity.  But, please – not Jar Jar Binks.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Why science fiction matters –

Sci-Fi as social/political commentary –

How Sci-Fi has changed recently and why –

Next Week: Are Californians environmentally over-regulated?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.