The U.S. Welfare State – Too White, Too Old, Too Republican?

My libertarian Internet friend Will Wilkinson has a post that deserves some comment. He claims the U.S. welfare state’s benefits go disproportionately to old white Republicans. I suggest some over-simplification here. I’ll note as a preamble that Will’s roost – the Niskanen Center – is an interesting outfit that broke away from the more conventionally libertarian Cato Institute. Your genuine libts at both places do useful work on national defense, law enforcement, and civil liberties.

My summary characterization of Niskanen, frankly not based on much exploration, is that unlike the Cato people, they are congenial to social insurance and public assistance. This is a welcome shift.

Anyway, back to the issue. Will has a bar chart that shows spending on the biggest Federal benefit programs as a share of total Federal spending. In these terms, the biggest programs are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He lists Social Security Disability Insurance separately.

Will’s focus is the secret love of old white Republicans for the benefits they receive from the largest programs, as well as arbitrary distinctions between “stuff we deserve” and “stuff those people don’t deserve.” This is well-taken. I might cite a book on this topic, The Hidden Welfare State by Christopher Howard. A Google search on that title yields a wealth of additional material.

One of my objections is that the claim of disproportionate benefit by race is exaggerated in several respects. The simplest pertains to the cases of Medicaid and SSDI, both of which disproportionately benefit the poor in general and, in the case of SSDI, non-white recipients.

The second stems from Will’s gloss on the nature of social insurance. Social insurance is a hybrid of aid based on both contribution and need. So yes, the bulk of social insurance goes to elderly because it is founded on replacing earnings of those who can no longer work, including their dependents.

Since the young’s needs are not based on some interruption of their work history, they don’t come in for much aid focused on retirees. The predominance of Social Security and Medicare benefits for the elderly is a feature, not a bug. The same goes for the extent to which benefits for old age and survivors (but not disability) are weighted on white elderly; it stems from the insurance/contributory of the program. They earned more, they get more. Again, a feature, not a bug.

It’s always possible to dial up the need factor in social insurance for the sake of helping minorities or lower-earning workers in general. One needs to balance that objective with political considerations. Political support for social insurance rests on the pillar of contributions. “I paid for these benefits.” (Of course, nobody had a choice as to whether to make ‘contributions,’ since they come in the form of payroll taxes.) Those who have earned less due to historical discrimination by race or gender will contribute less and get less in benefits. Again, a feature, not a bug. Even so, lower earners do get some advantage in benefits, compared to their contributions, relative to higher earners.

What’s incontrovertible is the neglect of the young in poor families, of all races. Absent the protection of social insurance, they are mostly left to depend on public assistance in the form of food stamps, housing benefits, and cash welfare. Food stamp benefits (officially, “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” or SNAP) have held up relatively well over the decades, housing not so much, while cash welfare, thanks to the 1996 “reform,” has been decimated.

My beef with the metric underlying the chart – and a good chart tends to dominate the commentary in which it’s embedded – is that the more salient consideration is benefits relative to need, not as a share of public spending.

Of course, aid to the young is egregiously low in this respect as well, but aid to the elderly is not necessarily so. After all, the average Social Security check is about $1,500 a month. Hardly enough to live high on the hog if that’s your only source of income, which is true of most retirees. Shares of government spending would be more relevant if it was possible to say that the total of devoted resources was correct and it was only the division of the pie that was wrong.

Another example: the level of unemployment benefits in the chart looks minuscule. The data is from 2015, seven years after the Great Recession. I’d be happy to see higher benefits now, but once again, what matters is the outlay compared to need, where ‘need’ is premised on both wage levels and social-redistributive considerations, as above.

In general, when we reduce analysis of social welfare to simple dollars, we risk missing the underlying purposes of aid. A generous interpretation of such purposes is called for.

As for Will’s ‘Republican’ bit, I’d say that’s 75% trolling. But why not.

P.S. Right on cue, Google drops a turd in my ad space. It’s their world, we’re just living in it.


Are blogs over?

I hope not. If you’re not too busy on Facebook or Twitter or whatever, give us a hello.

A few updates. I moved out to the country with my new bride (#3), and I like it a lot. I retired from the Federal government — the Government Accountability Office — at the end of this past May. I joined the Democratic Socialists of America, though I haven’t done anything besides go to a few marches and meetings.

Lately I’ve written for The Baffler, The Daily Beast, The Boston Review, In These Times, Democracy Journal, and a batch of newspapers. I’ve also started a book. My post-employment income is modest, so I’m always looking for gigs. Uber is a possibility. Maybe pet-sitting.

I had a doggie but had to give him up. He is doing well with a new family. His name is Tut. Here he is:

I started a new website with my buddy Robert Dreyfuss — ThePopulist.Buzz — consisting of proper news and commentary. Bob is a prolific journalist, me not so much on either the prolific or the journalist part. Here I’ll be commenting in a less formal way on whatever strikes my fancy.

I don’t get out much, by choice. This blog is the way I hang out. I’ll see you around, so to speak.


The DNC road show came to Baltimore

And I sat through a day of it so you didn’t have to. The purpose was to rally the troops and showcase candidates for Democratic National Committee leadership positions, especially the high-profile battle for the chairman position. The main contenders are Rep. Keith Ellison from Minnesota and Obama’s Secretary of Labor Tom Perez of Maryland. Ellison was a leading supporter of Bernie Sanders, while Perez endorsed Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination.

It was the first time I had ever been to one of these things. I may not be cut out for retail politics. The tedium and banality were daunting at times, but there were some good parts too. It was very well attended, and the audience was turned on.

The chairman candidates did a question and answer session. Both Perez and Ellison stuck to stump speeches. Perez made me think of someone coming from the somewhat genteel political setting of the Peoples Republic of Montgomery County, MD, where I lived for most of 36 years, trying to be earthy, and coming off as a little manic. Ellison is more of a natural politician. There wasn’t much content from either. Ellison had more of a Bernie echo about him, making frequent references to working people. Both brought big followings; Ellison’s looked bigger. There was a passel of other candidates, about whom more in a bit.

Of all of them, Perez is the only one who has run a big organization. Administrative capability for the others is more of a mystery. I suspect that, as for other elections, a person’s speech-making ability is over-weighted in voters’ decision-making. Running the DNC requires more than the ability to give a rousing speech. At the same time, since the next presidential primaries are years away, the DNC chair will get quite a bit of face-time in the media and has to be able to deliver the Democrats’ messages well. Being able to talk is important.

Perez is about as liberal as you can get and still have decided to endorse Clinton over Sanders. Now he can say all the right things, though during the primaries he talked a lot of rot about the futility of progressives’ demanding free stuff.

The campaign for Perez was an obnoxious echo of the Clintons’ evil gossip tactics in the primaries. Perez supporters ventilated rumors that Ellison was an anti-semite (he is a Muslim). We might have heard that about Sanders if not for, you know . . . Even Ellison’s ancient traffic tickets were brought into the mix.

A few of the other candidates were impressive. My favorite was the mayor of South Bend, IN, one Pete Buttigieg. He happens to have been a Clinton supporter. His line was to reject ‘factions,’ which makes sense for this DNC competition but would jolt the bullshit meter for anyone on the left. My spies tell me he hopes to be a compromise candidate if Perez and Ellison are deadlocked. Problem is nobody knows who the hell he is.

The other interesting guy was Ray Buckley from New Hampshire. He was non-partisan in the Bernie v. Hillary sense but seemed to have more of a grip on the organizational issues facing the DNC and more political experience. I liked it when he blasted people for thinking voters would reject Trump for his vulgarity when their own precarious economic situations are paramount among their concerns.

Jaime Harrison from SC sounded pretty sharp and competent. He and Buttigieg are relatively young. My opinion is that Buttigieg, Buckley, or Harrison would all do good jobs. The others were forgettable. In any case, the ideological struggle — Perez and Ellison as proxies for Clinton and Sanders — is still paramount.

One consensus among all the candidates that ought to interest uncritical Obama supporters was that Barack Obama screwed up, big time, in his handling of Obama For America (later ‘Organizing for America’). This was a debacle for the party and as it has turned out, for the country. The story is told in The New Republic by Micah Sifry. As we all remember, Obama put together an awesome ground game to win in 2008 and 2012. Then he just left it to disintegrate in the mistaken belief that such grassroots mobilization had no place in his vision of bipartisan political harmony. The Republicans responded to his olive branch by trying to rip his throat out.

Another consensus was that the party needed to integrate with all the protests going on, though exactly how was not clear. Everybody was for strengthening state parties, nourishing the grass roots, making the DNC and its workings more transparent. In this latter regard, my colleague Bob Dreyfuss tells me the only way to find out who is on the DNC is by writing a letter to one of the officers. It is not posted anywhere on the web. Buckley had been on the DNC but said he never could find out what the H was going on.

Another point of agreement was that the Clinton campaign dwelled on Trump’s undeniable perversities, rather than the merits of DP policies. You could also read this as a criticism of the Clintons’ decision to pretend that Trump was uniquely awful among Republicans. As we are seeing from day to day, most of them are no less awful. Hell, they gave him money, voted for him, and ignored his thieving ways. A broader critique of the Republicans’ depraved agenda might have lead to a better result. It’s hard to see how it could have gone any worse.


The Anti-Trump Grassroots Rundown

(Updated) We’re observing some chin-stroking to the effect that demonstrations, even gigantic ones, will be inadequate in blocking the medley of egregious policies oozing from the White House. The fact is that there is a lot of organizing going on, some of which can be credited with producing the impressive turn-outs we have been seeing, not just in big cities but in many other locales, off the beaten track. How far off? How about Antarctica.

Whenever I see some dilettante going off on how demonstrations are not a substitute for organizing, I am going to put up a link with the information that follows, a catalog of grassroots efforts, in alphabetical order. Undoubtedly it will be incomplete. If you know of ones I’ve left off, please post them here and I will maintain a running list.

When Nixon invaded Cambodia (geezer recollection alert), my entire campus rose up. People  took over the student center, and it became a hive of organizing. It was totally fragmented. All sorts of different schemes were being cooked up. One was to boycott Coke. I forget the exact argument. At any rate, the purpose of this post is not to tell anybody what to do or not do. My own choice is indicated below.

My friend Joshua Holland provides more information on the array of initiatives at The Nation. I have pillaged his article to update the list below.

#AllOfUs2016. Anti-Trump/anti-Wall Street.

#KNOCKEVERYDOOR. “Organizing against Trump and the Republican agenda” by canvassing. Be the one who knocks.

Americans for Democratic Action. Venerable liberal group that I used to be in and will probably join again. Pro-Sanders, but connected to the liberal Members of Congress, most of whom endorsed Hillary. Sad!

Americans Take Action. Impeach Trump. If you needed one, here’s a bill of particulars.

Black Lives Matter. Not kidnapping white kids and torturing them.

BYP100. Black youth project.

Campaign Zero. Deray McKesson’s project to address police misconduct. Useful wonky proposals.

Cosecha. Focus on the undocumented. Daily calls for mobilization.

Democracy for America. Founded by Howard Dean, now run by his brother.

Democratic Socialists of America. Founded by Michael Harrington, long ago, now recruiting like crazy. (I joined.)

IfNotNow. Jewish resistance.

Impeach Trump Now. Self-explanatory. It’s the humane alternative.

Indivisible. “A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. Former congressional staffers reveal best practices for making Congress listen.” This has become a huge effort in a very short time.

Jewish Voice for Peace. Defense of Palestinian rights, against the Zionist occupation. (I’m a member.)

Justice Democrats. Why not you? Run for office.

Movement 2017. Directing contributions to smaller, local groups.

Movement Match. Take an online quiz, get suggestions on which groups to join.

OPERATION 45. Doing an FOIA blitzkrieg of Federal agencies.

Organizing For Action. This was the Obama vehicle that was basically shut down once he was elected. Bad mistake. Now it is waking up.

Pantsuit Nation. Enraged Hillary people forming local groups on Facebook, some of them closed to block harassment. Search on FB to find them. Chances are a friend can get you in if your local group is closed.

Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Been at this for a while.

Progressive Democrats of America. Begun with alumni of the Dean and Kucinich campaigns of 2004.

Public Leadership Institute. Aiding the defense of reproductive rights in the states.

The Pussy Hat Project. Activist knitting circles. I am not making this up. Supplying hats to the masses.

Run for Something. Focused on millennials, otherwise self-explanatory.

Scientists’ March. Real scientists to protest Trump. Sadly, economists not allowed to participate.

SwingLeft. Flip the House. Does it ever need it.

Townhall Project 2018. Go to your congresspersons’ local “town hall” meetings and torment them.

Unite for America. Calls itself “cross partisan,” which triggers my bullshit detector. But probably anti-Trump, so that’s something.

Women’s March on Washington. On short notice they organized one of the biggest set of marches in history. Connected to local affiliates, and still running.

Working Families Party. Active in some states, huge in New York. (I know, I know.)

Many more here. I can’t vouch for all of them. The ones above are all legit. Some I like more than others, but YMMV.

Have fun and kick ass.



“But Obama . . . !!”

(No longer the president)

Some friends like to remind us that Hillary voted for fences and Obama deported lots of folks and did something or other with Trump’s seven bad Muslim countries.

Walls, fences, what’s the difference? I don’t see any. 2,000 miles or 700, who cares? You can build them inefficiently or otherwise, the ideas are the same. Ditto on deportations. Many or not as many, in stand-alone terms the principle is the same. I’ve always said Bush’s Iraq war was facilitated by Bill Clinton’s sanctions regime. We could go on. Horrible GOP policies often have precursors in bad Dem policies.

What’s actually central is the question of intra-Dem criticism in the midst of this glorious anti-Trump/GOP uproar. It has a place for purposes of pointing a way forward, but it can also be a distraction. The way it has tended to come up has mostly been the latter. If we’re serious, we would like to know about a progressive immigration policy and contrast that to the current atrocity.

Everybody is screaming about Trump’s Executive Order. Great. What is the value of the history lesson about Obama’s 7 nation whatever-it-was? I see none. Show me a progressive alternative, keep that in the foreground, and if Obama/Clinton people want to take issue, let it be their problem.

I am all about moving the D party forward. The way to do it is with constructive proposals, not backbiting. That only helps the bad guys.


The Day the Shit Came Down (‘TDTSCD’)

That was a hippie meme, back before there were memes, or the Internet, or cell phones, or personal computers. TDTSCD was a premonition of a future memory. When hippies were radical and Richard Nixon was president, fears abounded that he would cancel the 1972 elections and send everybody to camps. (Instead he cheated and won the election. For the second time.) I don’t think anybody really believed it, but it reflected the feeling that democracy did not rest on firm foundations.

Nixon went down hard, so things were not as bad as they appeared. Now we contemplate a new political apocalypse. Is it worse?

The speed with which the Administration’s combination of mendacity, malevolence and incompetence has manifested itself is daunting. The ease with which his spokespersons lie and evade responsibility transcends previous norms. We hear that court orders are being ignored or discounted as irrelevant. So far, the number of critical Republican Members of Congress could fit into a compact car. Please, don’t tell me you saw everything that’s been coming. You didn’t.

The day after New Year’s, I participated in an online debate with John Feffer at In These Times. The subject was whether Democrats in Congress should deal with Trump on an infrastructure bill. I took the affirmative side of the debate, on the dual grounds that jobs are still desperately needed, and rejection of a genuine proposal would wreck the Democrats politically. I also said that such dealmaking would be impossible if Trump poisoned the well with egregious attacks on immigrants and minorities. As it turns out, that’s where we are now, after just one week of his presidency. So the question of mass, full-spectrum non-cooperation comes to the fore.

I also put up a tweet to the effect that Trump wouldn’t last six months, that a banana peel is in his future. What has been magnified since the election is seemingly irrefutable evidence that the president is a deeply defective human being. I’m not talking about his crappy conservative policy nostrums. I’m talking about him as a person. The details need not be recapitulated. I believe the edifice of his political power is exceedingly fragile for this reason. If we keep pushing, it should be possible to send it tumbling to the ground. Any number of scenarios are conceivable in this most inconceivable political moment.

You’ve all heard the idea of the ‘wisdom of crowds.’ Information possessed piecemeal by individuals congeals in the social realm and works its will. The social realm in this case includes the outraged public, mobilizing civil society, disturbed elites in academia, politics, business, and national security. I make no claim to know exactly what will happen. I only know this: Trump is going down. It will be time to think about President Pence.



I felt obliged to get back online. Explanation hardly seems necessary.

In the past I’ve benefited from assistance in HTML programming. I’d be interested in more help in the future on this score. I could also use advice on all manner of newfangled social media. I never got past Facebook and Twitter.

I am not yet asking for monetary support. That will change before the year is over.

My big new project is www.ThePopulist.Buzz, with my ancient friend Bob Dreyfuss. Bob has written for all the lefty journals of consequence. We hope to go live in a couple of weeks. Details are forthcoming.

I had open heart surgery in 2015 to fix a valve. It worked, and I’m feeling fine. Hope you are too.

I did write some pieces recently for The Baffler, one for In These Times, and some months ago, a guest post at Kevin Drum’s place on Mother Jones. Use the Google machine and you should be able to find them.

I’ll be in touch.



Coming to ‘Chimerica’

Chimerica at the Almeida Chimerica at the Almeida ChimericaThese days I go to the theater once in a blue moon. The last time I wrote a review of a play was in 1971, when I patronized a coffee house theater in New Brunswick, NJ. In college I majored in English lit, founded an arts supplement to our college daily (the storied Rutgers Daily Targum), and did what I could to boost the theater. Subsequently I left the realm of Culture for Social Science. Don’t laugh.

I realize now I can’t be much of a theater person. I’m too misanthropic. When the audience titters at lame jokes, it irritates me. I’d rather be alone to drink in the play or movie without disturbances.

The title of the play is from a neologism coined by Niall Ferguson, about which, or whom, the less said the better. The play doesn’t depend much on NF’s cartoon economics. The initiating premise is the search by a photographer for the man in the famous picture standing in front of a line of tanks at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. I won’t rehash the plot. I hate when reviewers do that. I prefer to discover it on my own, if I decide to see the movie or play.

This play is long, over three hours. It takes its own sweet time, too. Despite that, I was never bored. One reason is that the staging is ingenious, what they do in a small space. It’s multilevel and multimedia. You have to be there to appreciate it, so I won’t try to describe it.

A lot of the dialog is loud, trite, and rapid. It was often hard for me to follow. If I got hold of a script for the play I would read it, and maybe think better of it. A fair amount of the dialog is in Chinese. I get that it is not supposed to be comprehensible to English speakers. It’s just that these interludes, of which there are more than a few, are unedifying.

There are stock characters — the crotchety newspaper editor. The cynical, hard-bitten reporter. The evil secret police. (I don’t mean they aren’t evil, just that they are predictable.) In that last regard, if you’re going to have brutal Chinese soldiers, they should look like goons, not junior high school students.

Some of the acting is good, some not. The lead Chinese, a teacher, is mostly wooden, occasionally weepy. The American photo-journalist is operatic. The British business lady is the best. The lesser characters did better.

The material they have to work with is not great. The story is thin and takes a long time to unfold. I thought it was soapy; maybe I’m too unfeeling (see ‘misanthrope’ above). One critic described it as a ‘pot-boiler.’

The grasps for profundity in re: what the U.S. and China have to do with each other are lost on me. China is capitalist and still brutally intolerant of dissent. The U.S. ‘loses’ jobs to China. (Actually, the U.S. gives jobs to China and could replace them, with the appropriate policies. Unlike Ferguson, I’m an economist.) Journalism is morally deficient. Tiananmen was horrible. Okay.

The GF points out that of all the shortcomings of China that might be keyed upon, smog does not necessarily belong on top of the list. China has been undergoing an industrial revolution with many beneficiaries, but also many casualties. The U.S. is complicit in both. In this respect, China and the U.S. have a lot in common.

Chimerica is playing at the Studio Theater in Washington, D.C.