Not getting any link-love from some of my favorite bloggers. Now off the blogroll. On some things I’m thin-skinned. Big guys have feelings too.
So I wrote a post on devolution and forgot to mention that I actually edited a book on the subject. Which sums up my skills at self-promotion.
Jonathan Chait has a useful post on Ryan and notes something else I forgot — that block grants can be used to substitute for own-source state government funds. Suppose you are spending $10 million for job counseling, and your state’s food stamps cost the Feds $10 million. If food stamps are instead provided to the state government as a block grant, they can use it to fund their job counseling and save themselves the ten million bucks. The food stamp recipients still get job counseling, but no food stamps.
Even with full substitution, the Feds are still out the ten million. I maintain that even with no substitution, the level of the grant would still erode over time, given the likely formula devised and the political dynamics of the Congress. That’s the whole point — to reduce Federal spending. It’s also why I find this statement by JC baffling:
The most encouraging thing about Ryan’s plan is that it is not a plan to cut funding for programs benefiting the poor. Instead, Ryan’s poverty plan would keep that overall level constant while shifting funds from some categories to others.
The entire history of block grants argues otherwise. There’s more in my book.
Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation reports data “for the past five years” on July 10, 2014, which past five year period apparently refers to 2007 to 2012. Which reminds me of this bold fresh piece of econometric analysis, provided by the Wall Street Journal editorial page (where else?) during Steve’s illustrious tenure.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Crazy) has a new plan to fight poverty. There is actually a chapter on criminal justice that is worth some attention. Why is there a piece on criminal justice in an anti-poverty report? C’mon, you know! Also there are pieces on job training, regulation, and education.
My interest is in the chapters on the Earned Income Tax Credit and the safety net, but the common theme throughout the report is to convert Federal programs into block grants. A block grant is a fixed pot of money provided to a state or local government for broadly-defined purposes. Ryan’s report is at pains to assert that the conversion would not entail spending cuts. This could not be further from the truth.
The story goes back to the days of Richard Nixon. I told it here. I was not the first to figure out the deal. The short version is that a program or programs converted to a block grant is being set up to wither away. Block grants are designed through formulas to grow slowly or not at all, despite the likelihood that whatever the included programs were aimed at typically costs more to deal with every year. There are also two malignant political dynamics at work. One is that Congress doesn’t like to spend money without a say in what happens to the money. Block grants transfer control to state governments. They have the fun of spending the money, Congress has the fun of raising the taxes to pay for it. The other is that the more vague — “flexible” — the purposes of the grant, the less focused is its political support.
State officials are always happy to play this game because the money is front-loaded. In the initial years the grant is close to what they were getting before, and by the time the grant shrinks, they will be out of office anyway.
The transfer of program responsibility from the Federal government to the states is known as devolution. It is the standard way of attacking domestic spending for social purposes, going back to Richard Nixon’s dismantling of the original, more interesting War on Poverty launched by Lyndon Johnson.
Monday I will go into the plan’s specific anti-poverty provisions.
The election of John McCain or Mitt Romney would have been a disaster. The election of Barack Obama, for whom I voted in both the primary and two general elections, has been a disaster of lesser order. A valid criterion for evaluating Obama is not “Things could have been worse,” or Republicans would have been worse. That is always true. It is too low a bar from any progressive standpoint. The right counter-factual is what he could have done, not some utterly miserable alternative. Nor would I give credit for what should have been minimally expected of him, such as supporting an increase in the minimum wage, extension of unemployment benefits, defending voting rights, or appointing moderate liberals to the Supreme Court. He deserves points for doing things that are difficult, that force him to stretch, not things that are politically obligatory.
Before I launch into my screed, I should acknowledge the main things Obama can take credit for. I’m using the Washington Monthly’s list as a reminder/cheat sheet, though some of what they classify as achievements I would describe as blunders or atrocities. Even comical, in a macabre way.
1. The original stimulus. It was too small, but it was probably the most he could have gotten. It was too heavy on tax cuts, which have less juice.
2. ObamaCare. This is a flawed program, but it is still better than nothing. It’s helping millions of people.
3. Wall Street reform, in the Dodd-Frank legislation. This was also flawed, but my go-to guy on this issue thinks it’s a net positive. This is too complicated to elaborate on in this post.
4. Saved the auto industry.
5. Advanced gay rights, directly in the military and indirectly in the states.
Rather than go negative laundry list, I’d come back to what I see as the main issue. What is the purpose of the Democratic Party? Has the president articulated it? Has he organized on its behalf? I understand he can’t just enact whatever he likes by force of will or oratory.
The purpose of the Democratic Party is to provide for an ample welfare state; to domesticate the lawless, out of control wealthy; to clear a path towards environmentally sustainable economic development; to defend civil liberties; and to judiciously restrict American meddling in the affairs of other nations.
The weapon of first resort for these projects is the president’s own rhetoric, which is obviously under his complete control. If nobody even breathes the reforms we need into words, there is no hope for any adoption by Congress.
You cannot prepare the public for an ample welfare state by upholding the false god of deficit reduction, by alluding to non-existent problems in Social Security, by floating bogus pro-manufacturing tax cuts, by upholding bankrupt nostrums about using “the market” to fix health care and public education, by glossing over the failure of welfare reform, by promoting the Horatio Alger myth, and by pretending that $787 billion was an adequate stimulus package.
You cannot curtail the depredations of great wealth by allowing the miscreants of Wall Street to roam free, immune from accountability, in the wake of their orgy of corrupt practices. You cannot fail to use the crisis as an opportunity to educate the public and ram through legislation, rather than tell bankers “I’m standing between you and the pitchforks.”
You cannot move us towards a sustainable economy and avert catastrophic climate change while boasting of record extraction of fossil fuels, the expansion of off-shore drilling, and bogus ethanol or ‘clean coal’ subsidies.
You cannot defend civil liberties by allowing the burgeoning national security state free reign to ignore the privacy rights of individuals, to concoct fake terrorist plots, to deport record numbers of undocumented immigrants, and to execute American citizens without benefit of due process.
You cannot advance a vision of restraint in foreign policy by prolonging what will prove to be the fruitless occupation of Afghanistan; by deploying the indiscriminate use of lethal force that victimizes innocent people; by grossly exaggerating threats of Iranian nuclear power; by fomenting destabilization in the formerly socialist countries bordering Russia; and by giving the state of Israel a blank check for abuse of the Palestinians.
I’d like to note that in matters of civil liberties and national security, the president’s malfeasance in terms of actual policy, or lack of policy, is entirely of his own making. He can’t blame the Republican Congress for matters over which he has legal authority and actual control.
Now you could say none of this should have been expected of Obama. I might have expected too much myself. I thought he might have a liberal heart. He doesn’t. If somebody becomes head of Exxon, dude is gonna drill for oil, not plant flowers. That’s irrelevant. This is what we need a Democrat to articulate and to organize for. Presently the Democratic Party organization is nothing more than a fund-raising/vote mobilizing machine. It wants electoral power, but it is not interested in advancing democratic political participation. It sends you junk mail asking your opinion so it can use your answers to send you more junk mail later that has been tailored to your answers, to ask for money. They’ve got this down to a science.
A truly democratic organization would be a place where people could go any time to socialize and chew the fat about issues, in conversations as equals. Instead we have election campaigns where all the positions are pre-ordained and supporters are driven like draft horses. We have ludicrous “town halls” that are mere platforms for politicians to pontificate, to always control the microphone, and to reserve for themselves the last word. We have elaborately scripted conventions while protesters outside are penned at a remove into “free speech zones,” if they are not just beaten by police acting on orders from liberal mayors. This is your Democratic Party!
Obama might have initiated a change in course. After the 2008 election he owned the base. He could have mobilized it. But that’s not who he is. His chief operatives, the windows to his soul, are openly contemptuous of progressives. They have gone on to work for an assortment of scumbags, for retrograde causes. There is nothing new here. Could it have been different?
Here is Tom Frank’s take. I’ll let that stand on its own but respond to my friend Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones. Kevin defends the president by noting, accurately, the sadly passive state of public opinion. We all failed. Obama could not have sold out an upsurge that never occurred. This is perfectly consistent with my argument: Obama abdicated a leadership responsibility. As for how great the economic policy was, such that no upsurge was needed, there are actually good arguments that bailing out the ‘too big to fail’ bankers was neither optimal nor necessary. Moreover, the weak recovery implies enormous, possibly persistent economic costs. Kevin seems to think that you can’t accept compromises if you uphold ambitious goals. But of course you can. Republicans in the Senate do it all the time. In fact, sometimes they get just what they want.
Kevin suggests we have a collective failure and it’s unfair or inaccurate to pin the blame on the president. This is actually what an Obama organizer said to me years ago. You want more, go organize for it. Well fuck you, Obama organizer. To whom much is given, much is expected. We gave you the goddamn White House. We had a right to expect more.
With the coronation of Hillary Clinton to the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 all but certain, we are getting flashes in the pan of desperate alternatives: thus far Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. I say desperate because the objectives that are floated seem murky. Everybody seems to acknowledge that Clinton would prevail, so what’s the point?
Let’s put aside the goody-goody, Boy Scout line that a primary contest is to be hoped for because it will help Clinton, or because it is some kind of healthy political hygiene. A useful primary effort should be dangerous.
The sort of campaign that can have some constructive effect is one that imposes costs on the front-runner and by extension, the party’s national elite/big donor/consultant machine. One cost is to compete with Clinton in such a way that she is obliged to do things she wouldn’t otherwise do, spend money and political capital she would prefer to deploy elsewhere. A critique of her centrism that effectively alienates potential liberal supporters is the obvious approach. But this would have to be quite a critique, to discourage support to the extent of depressing turn-out in a general election with very high stakes. To be clear, the ideal outcome is not to sabotage her campaign, it is to force her to commit to positions that are hard to reverse later.
Of course candidates’ primary campaign promises are never worth very much. I have a different, principal objective in mind. The Democratic Party needs to reconsider its purpose, since (like the Republicans) it is presently committed to policies that harm the nation and threaten the very survival of humanity. It needs to abandon the religion of deficit reduction. It needs to get serious about public investment, not content itself with a sprinkling of additional money (on top of a reduced baseline). It needs to reject its love for the corporatization of public K-12 education. It needs to reverse so-called welfare reform. It needs to be serious about climate change, rather than embracing the bogus theme of energy independence. And it needs to get out of the Empire business, not the least of which should include refusing to indulge every new barbarity committed by its Israeli allies.
I don’t see Warren or Sanders as especially dangerous for Clinton. I would support either in a heartbeat. They are fine public servants and invaluable Members of Congress, but they are vulnerable to the popular albeit misguided charge of being too liberal for the country. The guy who could really give HRC grief is not them but . . . Jerry Brown. He could outflank her on both left and right, which is both a curse and an advantage. Unlike these others, and unlike HRC, he has actually run things — the state government of one of the largest economies in the world, twice, plus a challenging local government. He has done real things as a public official. You may not like some of it — I sure don’t — but what has HRC done? She led an abortive health care effort and sponsored some bills in Congress. Really, any fool can sponsor a bill, though it took talent to screw up health care in the 90s. What did she do as Secretary of State, besides make speeches? The talk has been that foreign policy was actually run out of the White House, that HRC was more the figurehead on the ship of state, not the captain or the first mate.
I am not nominating Brown as my preferred standard-bearer. He is not an exemplary progressive figure. I do think he is crafty enough to break open the primaries, to replace formulaic debates about gradations of liberalism and centrist clichés with more interesting conversations whose destinations are not easily predicted. That’s what I mean by dangerous. In that environment, a more free-wheeling discussion could flourish, and perhaps other figures could emerge. The biggest enemy of political enlightenment is predictability. Predictability encourages boredom, and boredom precludes rethinking.