Category Archives: Uncategorized

Leaning into Failure: Race, Public Welfare, and Modern Conservatism

The Republican Party is lurching ever farther to the right, hunkering down into a narrower and narrower (white) constituency with an increasingly paranoid, fortress mentality. If we want to understand its appeal, and the dynamic that enables it to attack popular institutions like Social Security and Medicare without being substantially punished for it, we first need to face the root element of that appeal: racism.

Donald Trump has released his third budget, and once again, he broke his campaign promise not to touch Social Security. Once again, the largest vehicle for these cuts is what conservatives have come to regard as the soft underbelly of the system, Disability Insurance. Trump’s budget includes some $25 billion in “savings” from different aspects of Social Security, the largest of which is $10 billion from DI. And yet again, Trump and his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, say they’ll achieve the savings by mounting a strenuous campaign against “disability fraud.”

This is where it gets weird: funds lost through fraud are minuscule compared with the total size of the DI program, and it’s already extremely difficult and time-consuming for anyone to jump through all the hoops necessary to prove they qualify for benefits. Quite a few people die every year before their applications are approved (or not). Realistically, no huge savings will result from Trump’s anti-fraud crusade—but a lot of needy people will be inconvenienced or unjustly denied benefits.

Failure is not a problem when it comes to the budget priorities of the American right, however, because its ideological appeal to its audience is so intensely powerful. At no time, arguably, has this been more easily observable than today, when the president and his party make no pretense of speaking to anyone other than their most hardcore supporters. But what are the roots of this right-populist strategy, and how do they connect with long-time policies like dismantling Social Security and Medicare, which only draw really passionate support from the right and center-right wings of the policy-making establishment?

For some important clues to the answer, a good starting point is Unworkable Conservatism: Small Government, Free Markets, and Impracticality, by political scientist Max J. Skidmore, which appeared shortly after Trump took office and offers many valuable insights leading into the 2020 campaigns. Continue reading Leaning into Failure: Race, Public Welfare, and Modern Conservatism

Prospects for Millennials: What’s Wrong and What Can Be Done

Last month’s National Academy of Social Insurance conference highlighted the grim world Millennials are inheriting. It also gave a platform to some creative solutions that include expanding and creating new social insurance programs. Example: Universal Family Care.

As someone who researches and writes about history, I’m naturally skeptical of the concept of generations. For the most part, “generations” are arbitrary categories that lump together groups of people whose experiences of life are starkly different, muddling our ability to decide the best policies—and politics—for society as a whole.

For “Millennials,” however, I’m inclined to make an exception. The National Academy of Social Insurance made “Regenerating Social Insurance for Millennials and the Millennium” the theme of its annual policy conference at the end of January, and the event made a strong case that this is one generation with distinct needs and a distinct profile.

On the surface, Millennials are still a vastly disparate group. They are the most diverse cohort, ethnically, in American history, Jean Accius, vice president at AARP Public Policy Institute, pointed out in the conference’s opening panel—and this at a time when income and life prospects between racial groups in the U.S. are diverging. But the Academy framed its definition of Millennials—individuals born between 1980 and 2000—in a different and very useful way. What marks them, and colors their lives profoundly, Continue reading Prospects for Millennials: What’s Wrong and What Can Be Done

The realism of Berniecare

Ever since Bernie Sanders released details of his single-payer health care proposal recently, critics right and center have been on the attack against his “revolutionary, unaffordable and unachievable” scheme. In fact, for those who truly want to achieve universal, affordable health care, Sanders’ path is the only realistic way forward.

“Be reasonable: demand the impossible.” So said revolutionary Ché Guevara. [NOTE: I’ve since been corrected; the origin of this slogan was not Ché, but a graffiti encountered during the 1968 Paris uprising. Check it out here.] It’s a lesson much of the Democratic Party establishment needs to relearn this election year.

For instance, Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution. One of the country’s top experts on social insurance and health care financing and a smart political observer to boot, Aaron ran a piece in Newsweek recently that took apart presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s health care reform plan as being “radical in a way that no legislation has ever been in the United States,” vague on details, and technically unfeasible. It’s “a health reform idea that was, is, and will remain a dream,” Aaron writes. “Single-payer health reform is a dream because, as the old joke goes, ‘you can’t get there from here.’”

Continue reading The realism of Berniecare

Of Carrots, Sticks, and Disability

In the world of Washington, incentives—carrots and sticks—seem to be the answer for everything, including how to get people on disability back to work. But a new study suggests the problem is the same one the Americans With Disabilities Act identified 25 years ago: discrimination.

I took a certain amount of impolite criticism for my last post, in which I decried the “veritable national jihad” against disability fraudsters. The amount of abuse in Social Security’s Disability Insurance (DI) system isn’t anything like the monster it’s made out to be, and it’s unfortunate, to say the least, that the just-passed Bipartisan Budget Act throws more resources at ferreting out fraud and creating stiffer penalties for false benefit claims. For calling the vast overreaction to disability fraud a jihad, I was accused of insulting conservatives and indulging in hyperbole.

I’m not sorry to have used strong language to describe a years-long campaign against DI that’s out of all proportion to the size of the problem (would that as much effort was going into exposing and cracking down on the Pentagon’s cozy relationships with its contractors) by people who seem to have no idea of the challenges facing working people with disabilities. (The Washington Post was at it again today.)

But if the goal is to get people back to work who have something to contribute and would be better off for it, the real issue is where “incentives” ought to be applied: to disability recipients? or to their potential employers? Continue reading Of Carrots, Sticks, and Disability

Social Security’s future is being written in the streets of Ferguson

Bernie Sanders’s confrontation with members of Black Lives Matter should teach a lesson to everyone engaged in the struggle to defend Social Security: Unless the campaign for economic equality recognizes the need to prioritize racial equality as well—that racial and economic issues are not separate—preserving and expanding Social Security will become increasingly difficult.

In politics, context is everything. The most passionate advocacy, even for an utterly righteous cause, can sound presumptuous when the advocate ignores another issue more important to the same audience. Witness Sen. John McCain’s recent humiliating treatment by the Navajo, who chased him off their reservation on August 16, when he came to discuss a feel-good memorial to the World War II Code Talkers—but refused to address complaints that he had failed to protect tribal water rights or to oppose a copper mine that’s about to be built on Oak Flat campgrounds, an area of spiritual significance to the Apache.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Sen. Bernie Sanders recently received a similar lesson. On July 18, Black Lives Matter protesters disrupted a Netroots Nation forum in Phoenix Continue reading Social Security’s future is being written in the streets of Ferguson

A Lifeline, Not a Safety Net

What’s the biggest source of income for Americans in the last years of their lives? Whether you live to 65, 75, or 85-plus, no matter if you’re married or single, the answer is the same: Social Security. And in the you’re-on-your-own, 401(k) era, this hard fact is only becoming more so.

More Americans are elderly—over 65—today than at any time in the nation’s history, and more of these older people are living to a really advanced age than ever before. It’s safe to say we collect more data on them than ever before, as well. That means we’ve never had as good a chance to study the financial health of the elderly.

Using data from University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS), sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, the Employee Benefit Research Institute has just released a fascinating analysis of individuals who responded to the HRS survey in 2010 and died before the next, 2012 survey. Continue reading A Lifeline, Not a Safety Net

Why Hillary Clinton Is Beyond the Pale

This is a bit off-topic for this blog, but it has to be said: By her calculated failure to take a stand on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the former secretary of state has made herself absolutely unacceptable as a presidential candidate for working Americans.

It’s crunch time for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the most sweeping multilateral trade agreement since NAFTA. Fast-track authority for the president, gussied up with some face-saving amendments to make it look like Congress will have a real debate when Obama submits the deal to lawmakers later this year, has passed out of committee in both the House and Senate. That means fast-track will be decided upon in a matter of days or weeks.

Continue reading Why Hillary Clinton Is Beyond the Pale

AK Press Needs Your Help

Independent publishers are a bulwark of free speech, free exchange of ideas, and the struggle for a better world. The last thing one of our best indy publishers (and distributors) needed was a warehouse fire.

AK Press, publishers of my book, The People’s Pension, suffered a calamity just 10 days ago when a fire broke out in the printing plant that adjoins AK’s warehouse and offices in Oakland, California. Three days later, the City of Oakland red-tagged the entire building, which means no one can re-occupy it until it is again deemed safe. AK are still waiting to get back in, which means it’s difficult for the publishing collective to take care of day-to-day business. As they announced last week, Continue reading AK Press Needs Your Help

What I Didn’t Hear in the President’s SOTU

Democrats of both progressive and center-right stripe generally gave President Obama high marks for his State of the Union address Tuesday night. When it comes to Social Security, however, he disappointed; merely refraining from supporting cuts to the program isn’t good enough anymore at a time when progressives should be demanding their president back measures to improve it.

“Obama in campaign mode, pushes middle class agenda,” declared Bill Galston, the Brookings Institution’s leading center-right commentator on the economy and fiscal policy. The Wall Street Journal agreed the president’s State of the Union address was a “middle-class pitch.”

Progressives mostly liked the president’s speech as well, except, of course, for his in-your-face demand for fast-track authority to pass another slew of corporate-backed trade deals. “Obama gets some of his swagger back,” Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future wrote.

There were things in the speech for people to like who were looking for signs that Washington cares about working people Continue reading What I Didn’t Hear in the President’s SOTU

Brookings, Social Security, and the welfare state

We’ve had the evidence before us for a long time: Social Security is the most effective—and cost-effective—US anti-poverty program, both for adults and children. So why do recent writings by scholars at the Brookings Institution ignore it?

“Evidence-based decision-making” may be the most popular catch phrase in Washington. The Big Data revolution has convinced The Village—OK, and lots of other strongholds of mainstream consensus thinking—that everything can now be measured, and that the metrics can yield smart, “actionable” decisions. “Evidence” appears to center-right Democrats as the talisman that will bridge the partisan divide and coax Republicans to play nicely with them.

I’m not writing this to step all over the need to measure program effectiveness—like every other secular religion of the past 200-some years, it’s probably true to some extent, just not as true as the true believers often think. What puzzles me, however, is why some evidence grabs the spotlight and some doesn’t.

Continue reading Brookings, Social Security, and the welfare state