Austerity : A Propagandist’s Weapon

Investigating the federal budget blueprint promoted by the Trump administration of late certainly wouldn’t suggest candidate Trump had even the slightest populist inclinations, to say nothing of promising universal healthcare and a more relaxed student loan schedule.  Serious policy analysis from various agencies and organizations declare his budget to be a sharp, deep kick to the solar plexus of the poor rural whites, a constituency which, according to Bloomberg, largely carried its bitter class enemy to electoral victory.  Budget chief Mick Mulvaney assures us that all of this is in the interest of prioritizing the “taxpayer” rather than compassion for the recipients of soon-to-be decimated social programs; that is, as analyst Noam Chomsky cleverly puts it,

Tough love is just the right phrase: 
love for the rich and privileged, tough for everyone else.

Notably, education, housing, human services (above and beyond the ACA repeal underway), and labor agencies will face erosion; among the biggest losers are

  • the poor with cuts to food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families (TANF), and housing subsidies,
  • children with cuts to the children’s health insurance program (CHIP),
  • the disabled with cuts to social security disability insurance, contravening Trump’s promise to protect social security and medicare,
  • women with cuts to healthcare and family planning services if they even mention abortion,
  • college students with cuts to student loans,

and so on.   Social security disability insurance is of particular note, as candidate Trump and traditional conservative dogma suggests rampant fraud. In reality, SSDI fraud occurs in no more than one percent of cases, despite a media campaign to marginalize the disabled and eligibility requirements more stringent than anywhere else in the developed world, tying with Japan, Canada, and South Korea.  Though we could spend some time unearthing every ghastly, despicable policy choice and respective consequences to the population in what appears to be one of the most malevolent, destructive budgets offered by any administration in recent memory, I’d rather discuss the broader economic dogma of austerity, both in fact and in form, to which we’ll return.

A former teacher and dear friend of mine remarked recently that the costs of her health insurance, provided through the Texas Teacher Retirement System, are skyrocketing, “thanks to the Texas legislature [and those] who only vote on issues like abortion or bathroom use.”  In fact, I need not look far among my own friends and family to find victims of an increasingly austere social policy, including retirees, disabled family members, and the like.  It turns out that even those who supported Trump very much so will not escape unscathed, as suggested in earlier posts.  Particularly of note to me are rare agency reports praising Trump’s budget : the conservative Heritage foundation dispatched their usual lockstep ideologues to praise slashing aid for the poor in the interest of meeting economic projections, bolstering the already grossly over-funded military in overestimating non-nuclear threats to our safety, and building of exceedingly costly walls along borders to protect us from the imagined terrorism of Mexicans.  An analyst named Adam Michel, in admittedly what is a shock even to me, repeats the tired, heavily disproved supply-side argument that tax cuts increase revenue; some years ago, Neera Tanden pondered rather lucidly this seemingly immortal economic theory, if one can dignify it with a legitimate scientific label.  Trump’s melodrama around corporate tax rates is particularly Quixotic, considering that the share of the federal budget funded by corporate taxes has fallen to ten percent over the last sixty years, according to Americans for Tax Fairness, and so many of the largest corporations pay no taxes at all.  Speaking of Quixotic hysteria, Heritage complains that the military budget isn’t receiving a sufficiently large bump to combat our imagined enemies; we’ve discussed previously how military spending is mostly state capitalism, or transfer of public monies to corporations largely unconstrained by Lippman’s “meddlesome outsiders,” so we’ll leave it at that.

More troubling than the expected bias from Heritage is an op-ed I found on CNN by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former chief of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  He concedes early that Trump’s budget is a mixed bag yet omits any specific criticism, rather defending the heavy-handed assumption that entitlements are out-of-control, and thus must be curtailed to support programs envisioned by the “Founders… as the actual responsibilities of government,” including security, research, and the like.  That is to say, retiree pensions and programs supporting the vulnerable members population must be subjected to stark economic constraints to offer incommensurate support for Holtz-Eakin’s interpretation of what the government should be doing : pouring money into private firms for defense research, weapons manufacture, and so on.   Though this catastrophizing around entitlements may seem isolated amidst a sea of negative analyses of Trump’s disastrous budget, it is in fact a persistent and essential feature of the austerity dogma, one tinging even more balanced critiques of his budget.

Austerity is an economic policy which mitigates national debt and capital shortages through either increases in taxation or slashing of government spending, usually social spending or entitlements.  John Maynard Keynes, perhaps the most influential economist of the depression years and co-architect of the financial regulatory apparatus codified in the Bretton Woods agreement, famously quipped,

the boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity,

as discussed by political scientist Mark Blyth in his book Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea.  As Blyth illustrates, nations have nonetheless attempted to implement austerity measures often at the wrong time, such as during recessions, depressions, and the like, often to cataclysmic consequence.  On the more moderate side of error, Franklin Roosevelt implemented austerity in 1937, much too early in the Great Depression to salvage the meager restoration of money flow.  On more extreme examples, we have starvation of third world nations through both transfer of debt from corrupt, undemocratic leaders to the unwitting population and neoliberal antilabor policies driving wages down and forcing migrant workers and farmers off the farms and into crowded factories with diminished protections and standards, as we’ve seen in Pinochet’s Chile after the CIA-backed overthrow of Salvador Allende, various Latin American countries through violent overthrows, Argentina, China under trade policy with Europe, Japan, and the US, Mexico under NAFTA, north Africa, and the like; Riad Azar discusses the uncomfortable relationship between neoliberalism and authoritarianism in many of these cases.   Elites in these nations generally tell their populations that times are tough, thus we must all give up a little luxury here and there to cover debts.  In the past forty years, we’ve experienced the same here in the United States; president after president has asked us to surrender more and more of the entitlement programs enacted under the New Deal, citing imminent fiscal meltdown and an absurd promise that somehow cutting taxes on the rich will more than meet the shortfall.  Paul Krugman, economist at the New York Times, lambasted the theoretical support for austerity in an article for the New York Review of Books a few years ago, demonstrating flaws in the arguments of austerians and exhibiting data from the international monetary fund (IMF) demonstrating both the disastrous results of austerity measures in Greece, Portugal, and other European countries, and the low cost of deficits for nations capable of expanding their own currency, the USA being a principal example.  So if so much evidence abounds weighing against austerity, why does it persist?

Krugman cites Andrew Mellon’s suggestion to President Herbert Hoover at the beginning of the Great Depression to

liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers,
liquidate real estate... 
it will purge the rottenness out of the system.
High costs of living and high living will come down.
People will work harder, live a more moral life.
Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will
pick up from less competent people,

indicating a belief that the depression was a natural consequence of the largesse of the 1920s.  Naturally his position among the banking elite of the day obscured from his sight that income inequality was stark in that roaring decade, rivaling today’s lopsided wealth distribution; the Americans hit hardest by the Great Depression were those farmers victimized by the Dust Bowl, poor city dwellers, and, of course, marginalized minorities, most of whom weren’t participants in the immoral ways torturing Mellon’s lily-white soul.  Krugman cites this example, along with The Great Deformation, David Stockman’s multiple-page content-free rant against economic excesses, and others as the innate need for elites and others to interpret the goings-on of economics as a “morality play,” despite Keynes’ claims to the contrary.  Austerians, Krugman contends, grasp at any opportunity to fortify their central thesis, expecting that punishment is in order to correct the moral balance of society.  With even a cursory glance, one can find striking evidence of a desire to excise reliance on government services among Trump supporters, elitists, and the like: for nearly thirty years, I’ve listened to the Trump supporters in my family bemoan abuses to the system by black recipients of welfare, despite years worth of nonpartisan General Accounting Office (GAO) studies suggesting that most recipients of welfare are on the rolls less than two years, and those remaining are mostly elderly and children.  Most seriously, entitlements intended to buttress the poor make up an almost trivial amount in the budget: food stamps alone account for maybe three percent, depending on how one counts it.  Any analyst serious about cutting expenditures should tackle the most obvious offender, the military.

Krugman and Blyth offer an excellent critique of austerity within an economic framework, but my thinking is that the problem is actually far more elementary.  As suggested earlier, military spending is an undemocratic transfer of wealth to corporations, somehow magically shielded from the harsh, requisite market principles applied to retirees, the disabled, and so on.  A confluence of interests largely explain the pervasiveness of the dogma, including

Circling back to Holtz-Eakin’s claim, even argued in the Washington Post op-ed included above, that entitlements will run out of gas in a few decades, I’m astounded by the almost cultish adherence to market ideology, which taken to its natural conclusion, leads to a key, immoral tenet of austerity : liquidity over livelihood.  Human life apparently isn’t worth a balanced budget.  In any case, I would argue that even without Krugman’s rather elegant take-down, the theoretical underpinnings collapse by virtue of sheer hypocrisy: somehow defense, very much overblown and over budget well beyond necessity, as repeatedly discussed by peace activist David Swanson, enjoys exemption from the natural law of markets, it would seem.  Even more absurd is that avaricious financial institutions somehow earn special dispensation, such as a sizable bailout in 2008 following a crisis of their own making, to say nothing of the economic protectionism of the Gilded Era, the post-war years, and the Reagan years, discussed previously, and that the super wealthy should receive enormous tax cuts at the expense of social programs on the merits of the debunked supply-side thesis as they did in 1982 and 2002; somehow, we’re told, these unusual events perfectly harmonize with the inscrutable free market ideology.  The alarmist perspective of extremists, the Republicans, (and some centrists, the Democrats) in our government holds that despite experiencing enormous growth in wealth over the past four decades, the top tier must receive more than those below, and furthermore democracy cannot overcome the natural order of market ideology.  That is, once entitlements run aground as currently financed, there simply is no way to transfer monies downward, as this would violate the sacred natural order.  No amount of votes or popular pressure should overcome this dastardly outcome, so naturally, elderly and disabled people, along with children unfortunate enough to be born into poverty, should simply suffer.

Frankly, only an imbecile would assent to these ludicrous notions.  First of all, there is no natural law of markets, well-argued by Kerry Anne Mendoza.  Second of all, there is no shortage of capital.  To create the obvious analogy to hopefully emphasize this point, suppose one hundred people are marooned on an island without outside help and no way to escape, yet the island offers enough food and water to support these hundred people.  Further, consider that by some fluke exactly one person on that island manages to control 90% of the precious food and water, yet since he’s unwilling to share even a crumb with his fellow inhabitants, a shortfall in the next year is a guarantee for the remaining 99.  What law of markets or private property justifies the greed of one person at the expense of the others?  To sketch the analogy further, suppose the other 99 inhabitants perform most of the work to accumulate the food and water over time, yet they cannot partake without his magnanimous permission.  As outrageous and unrealistic as this may sound when the problem appears so concretely, it is precisely what we’re facing with the entitlements crisis.  Compounding the lunacy of the hysteria is that money isn’t a precious, limited resource like drinkable water, breathable air, and consumable food stuffs; it’s a construct, or an abstraction designed to provide an intermediary exchange for goods and services, something which the US can expand and contract freely as it has since the founding of the Federal Reserve.  And even without artificially inflating capital, there is plenty to go around.  I’ll repeat, as this is crucial : there is no real shortage of capital.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a surplus of morality and principle where most of this capital lives; in its place is a malignant, metastatic greed leeching resources and wealth away from the workforce and vulnerable recipients of these entitlements; I’m reminded of a quote by Martin Wolf, economic correspondent for the Financial Times, repeated by Chomsky,

an out-of-control financial sector
is eating out the modern market economy
from inside, just as the larva of the spider
wasp eats out the host in which it has been laid.

The irony here is the far-right hysterics’ fanaticism with apocalypse doesn’t seem to extend to the real threats : terminal nuclear war and ecological disaster; instead, I feel their motives are clear.  Like those textile mill workers of 120 years ago, we can lament in this second gilded age

the new spirit of the age...
gain wealth... forget all but self.

We need not surrender now.

 

 

 

Trump : Symptom or Cause?

The major news in recent weeks has featured prominently the ongoing investigation into Russia’s manipulation of last year’s presidential election, the possible complicity of Trump’s campaign in said manipulation, and Trump’s repeated snafus, contradictions, and rather astonishingly public twitter meltdowns. With so much ground to cover, it can be a bit difficult to decide where to begin.

If ever there were an argument against the fitness of a particular holder of the office, we have a collection of problems whose astonishing proliferation parallels the severity:

and the list continues. We have a dangerously unstable man occupying the White House with the power to intimidate, imperil, and harass with minimal Congressional oversight. In fact, the Republican response to each new abuse of power, though glacially warming from their lackluster tepid beginnings, contrasts immensely with mass hysteria among Congressional Republicans during Clinton’s sex scandal or Obama’s healthcare proposals, nicely captured by the analysts at the morally bankrupt Fox news. Certainly it evokes the astonishingly forgiving attitude of arch-conservative faith leaders such as Pat Robertson toward Trump when damning Access Hollywood tapes surfaced, recording his sexual objectification of women as things to abuse at his pleasure.  Robertson, like his high-minded counterparts of the past complicit in the Nazi ascent, offers spiritual cover for Trump even amidst major scandals.

The mainstream media, though largely responsible for placing Trump in the center seat with high-volume, free news coverage throughout 2015 and 2016, somehow found its voice once Trump slithered into the White House with a slight advantage in the obsolete electoral college, no doubt because of his incessant attacks on the press. Nonetheless, what bothers me most about the current state-of-affairs is not the alleged collusion, which I’d easily wager truly did happen (think : Trump entreated Russia to steal Hillary’s emails, not to mention the snowballing investigation mentioned above), nor is it the insanity of Trump himself, a condition so blatantly obvious that mental health professionals around the world, including three university professors who implored Obama to institute a mental fitness test for incoming presidents, and country have drifted from the Goldwater rule, an APA convention designed to depoliticize psychology.

Trump’s shenanigans and abuses of power, together with the ineffective, simpering cronies in Congress, uncover some of the more fearsome deficiencies in the American government. A continuing dialog by CBS with a group of voters tracks the evolution of public viewpoints since the election, revealing a remarkable characteristic among Trump’s most ardent loyalists : they believe law enforcement and government agents should swear an oath not only to uphold the U.S. Constitution, but offer unconditional support to the U.S. President. Though this received very little press coverage, it struck me with great alarm, as I recall learning even as an elementary school student in social studies that the principles of freedom articulated in the Constitution greatly exceeded any one leader in authority; though the transition into adulthood taught me how unfairly protectionist elite sectors happen to be, quite striking for example in the application of austere, lofty market principles to the poor and vulnerable while greedily hiding behind the nanny state to guarantee a good, yet non-market outcome, hearing even lower middle class and perhaps poor people hope for some sort of totalitarian pledge to an office of increasingly diminished constraint frankly frightened. In fact, the cavalier attitude of Trump’s strongest supporters, both in Congress and the population, toward his many abuses of power, incompetence, violations of the emoluments clause, leveraging his position to enrich companies owned by him, his daughter, and his son-in-law, nauseating affection for vicious, murderous dictators such as Putin, Duterte, and Erdogan, and highly suspect entanglements with foreign agencies indicate either deeply entrenched partisanship or discouraging ignorance. An obvious example was in questions lobbed by Senators James Kennedy, John Cornyn, and Ted Cruz at Sally Yates about Trump’s ill-fated, first amendment-violating Muslim ban, in defiance of the purpose of her testimony, a discussion of Russian interference into the election, to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Kennedy mocked her by asking, “Who appointed you to the supreme court?”, blathering rather idiotically that no agent sworn to uphold the Constitution can argue with or overrule a despotic president ordering violations of that same document. It certainly gives one pause to consider that the racist underpinnings of Trump’s bans fly in the face of a multi-hundred billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the key source of “Wahabized” Sunnis fueling ISIS, according to regional expert Patrick Coburn. Obama had previously blocked such a sale because of the atrocious Saudi record of human rights violations, something a toady such as Kennedy might not know. Of course, though the ignorance of a petty sycophant in the Senate may be an acute example of the brokenness of the system, it hardly tells the whole story.

The House of Representatives harriedly passed a bastardization of healthcare reform in a desperately rushed, craven attempt to hand Trump some meager legislative victory before the Congress Budget Office could offer a sobering analysis delivered for the first variant of Trumpcare. I watched in utter astonishment as Representative Mark Sanford admitted not reading the entire bill; others confessed they simply wished to punt healthcare to the Senate. Honestly, I’ve often wondered how it was possible that public approval of the branches of the federal government negatively correlates to the democratic quality of the branch; that is, the House is the most hated, followed by the Senate, then the Supreme Court, then the White House. Yet listening to men whose only job is to propose, amend, read, understand, and approve/disapprove legislation affecting the entire country concede that their constitutional oaths to office, purported devotion to constituency, and their juicy six-figure salaries are meaningless in the face of a tantrum-throwing imbecile so set on any victory that slicing the throats of his own supporters with cuts to Medicaid, student loan subsidies, small business subsidies, and elimination of ACA protections seems perfectly reasonable. The worshiped, fabled checks-and-balances of our government, as usual, are only as powerful as the people enforcing them. So far, no success, despite the carefully laid out responsibilities of each branch listed in the Constitution, let alone the more serious constitutional pressure valve of impeachment.

Speaking recently to an educated family member whose devotion to Trump defies imagination, I attempted to outline the case for such an impeachment, suggesting that a narcissistic conman with near unconstrained war-making power and a profound ignorance of climate science can harm not just the vulnerable and the poor, largely unimportant to my relative, but also his own children’s chances of decent survival. His two retorts, utterly stunning, included a dismissal of corruption and abuses of power of both Trump and, appropriately parallel, Nixon as “not really a big deal,” and that all existential threats to humanity are resolvable through “population control.” That is, if there were fewer people on planet earth, nuclear weapons would magically no longer pose a threat. Though the effects on climate from exponential gains in population are noteworthy, it seems almost as ludicrous as simply asking the sun to turn down the heat, as it’s impossible to solve a population problem in the near term without anything short of genocide. I reminded him that the distribution of consumption and massive pollution of militaries and multinationals are more appropriate targets in mitigating ecological disaster. He even proffered population control as a means of ensuring enough employment for everyone, expressing loyalty to an outdated and outmoded economic paradigm derided by former Greenpeace CEO Paul Gilding as unsustainable. Even more astonishing is that my family member receives most of his salary through government safety net programs, seemingly oblivious to the self-inflicted wound supporting Trump’s heartless, destructive budget proposals happens to be, as mentioned above.

Much public discussion of impeachment has appeared in light of more recent revelations, including a courageous act by black Representative Al Green to call for and draw up articles; he has since received threats of murder and lynching, steeped in racial epithets.  Yet despite Trump’s turbulent relationship with media, it isn’t hard to pinpoint the two key weaknesses in the fourth estate’s watchdog role : Trump’s not-so-state-of-the-union address and his unilateral dropping of MOAB in Afghanistan and the bombing of a Syrian airfield. In each of these cases, the media tried, I think genuinely, to support him moments before the eruption of a new scandal. In the case of the former, they seemed excited he was behaving “presidential” by sounding less insane in his speech, demonstrating their societal function of continued subservience to power; in the case of the latter, violent military action tends unfortunately to generate a rally-around-the-flag effect, despite being an obviously impeachable offense. Intriguingly, Obama refused to act unilaterally in Syria because of threats by Congress to impeach him, yet the Republican leadership and mainstream media welcome with euphoria a completely ineffective airstrike which imperils relations with Russia and other players in the region. Also, MOAB, the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever created, devastates anything within a mile of its target, a vicious and malevolent display of aggression against an almost totally destroyed country. Of course, I’d agree if Obama had acted as such, he should have been impeached. In fact, every president since the second world war should have faced impeachment for some military action or another (think the invasion of Iraq, the drone assassination campaign, and so on), raising perhaps one of the most disconcerting developments in the past eighty years.

In the post-war era, Congress and the Supreme Court have increasingly broadened war-making powers of the President under the guise of national defense, offering

"[t]he President shall be Commander in Chief of
the Army and Navy of the United States, and of
the Militia of the several States, when called
into the actual Service of the United States"

as crucial constitutional support. Yet something happened at the conclusion of the second world war unforeseen by the framers: with the beginning of the nuclear age and the Anthropocene epoch, mankind for the first time was uniquely positioned to extinguish itself. The President of the United States, the single most powerful person in the most powerful institution to ever exist, can precipitate terminal nuclear war with the tenuous argument that it is necessary to provide the common defense. Dangers have abounded in the past, including orders by Nixon’s chief of staff Alexander Haig that no last minute nuclear strikes should occur without approval from himself and Henry Kissinger as the Nixon presidency collapsed under Watergate. We’ve discussed near-misses such as the Cuban missile crisis and Operation : Able Archer before, but the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is certainly worth remembering.

Watching as scandal after scandal shreds public institutions further, it again reminds me to ask why we need these institutions in the first place. Obama prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all previous administrations combined, and Democrats and non-Trump Republicans cheered, such as denouncing Edward Snowden to be a traitor after he revealed a mass surveillance operation leveraged by the NSA against the American population. Now, whistle-blowers from within the so-called “deep state” reveal information almost daily that acquaint us with the desperately precarious position in which we find ourselves, and the media and many Democrats cheer. The fact remains that though one can argue “state secrecy” as justification for concealing any information in the name of security, it again illustrates a fundamental distrust of the population that government representatives and elite media generally share. Leaks have always been an essential feature of elite power systems desperate to self-sustain even at odds with institutional charters, as Carl Bernstein pointed out in a recent op-ed. Certainly the decades-old “state secret” argument dovetails nicely with John Yoo’s doctrine on near constraint-free torture even against children and with white supremacist Stephen Miller’s claim that Trump’s authority “cannot be questioned”

Trump therefore happens to be especially acute in the danger he represents, but the problem persists as systemic; after all, if he’s guilty of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, aren’t all or most of his cabinet, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Devin Nunes, and the like? They too either refuse or offer tepid support to investigate what should be substantive news; admittedly, the U.S. has interfered through violence, subversion, subterfuge, and a host of other mechanisms in elections across the globe throughout are history. It certainly isn’t as fun when someone else does it to us.  Analysts argue back and forth as to whether his obstructions carry the requisite criminal intent, an almost laughable debate considering that quashing an investigation into your own possible criminality is by definition criminal intent.  It’s worth noting that even highly respectable analysts such as Glenn Greenwald suggest the possibility of no smoking gun in the case since Trump would be rather stupid to draw attention to himself in firing Comey; of course, he tacitly ascribes a rationality to Trump obviously missing when one applies even layperson psychology.  So we have a crazy, destructive narcissist running the White House, laying bare frailties of the crumbling public institutions before our very eyes.  How do we fix it?

An apparent strategy, and perhaps not beyond what is achievable in light of the many abuses of the White House, is to substantially curtail the power of the executive, increase the size of both the Supreme Court and Congress, and (with greater difficulty) adjust the Constitution to match the needs of a modern society. Watching as the media and Congress wait with breathless abandon for the president to set the agenda is laughable; why does the White House set the legislative agenda? How can corrupt gerrymanderers in North Carolina who think arguing that partisan advantage justifies racial discrimination garner a single vote from the Supreme Court, let alone those of Alito, Roberts, and Kennedy? How is it that the U.S. Senate can sit idly by while Trump, a serial liar, continues to violate the Constitution and obstruct investigations into his own corruption? If we survive the time Trump is in office (and I’m increasingly convinced that time will be very brief), we should try to solve the serious inadequacies of our system, and that right soon.

Book Review : The Submerged State

Donald Trump’s spectacular healthcare debacle in the past month generated a remarkably improbable coalition of opponents, heralding the haphazardness, the callousness, and the sheer incompetence of both the conman and his cowardly rank-and-file. The laughable so-called freedom caucus objected because the replacement for the Affordable Care Act would still offer help to anyone at all; moderate Republicans feared increasing backlash as their constituents, Trump supporters included, have gradually come to discover just how essential elements of the bemoaned “Obamacare” are in meeting their medical needs; Democrats, appropriately, oppose the demise of what serious analysts continue to depict as Obama’s “signature domestic achievement;” liberals of course oppose funneling money away from healthcare for the poor upward to comfort the wealthy. One need only ponder the proposed replacement superficially to begin to understand clearly the rationale behind such astonishing obstruction.

Among the proposals are

  • Medicaid expansion freezes in 2018 or 2020, conspicuously following midterms,
  • elimination of mandate fees largely underwriting the program, indicative of a fundamental lack of understanding of how insurance, private or otherwise, is designed to work,
  • reduction or dissolution of other taxes paid by income earners over the $500K/yr threshold,
  • increases to tax rates on middle and working class people,
  • replacement of out-of-pocket assistance with a questionable age-based assistance framework, likely quite harmful to poor older Americans just below 65 years of age and younger Americans with chronic health conditions,

and the list goes on and on.

Rates of uninsured and overall cost of coverage are uncontroversially projected to increase under the Trump plan, though Secretary Tom Price of the Health and Human Services Department insists rather disingenuously otherwise. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan actually bested both Trump and Price by claiming, rather ludicrously, that loss of coverage and higher costs are qualitatively better, as they represent more “freedom” for Americans.

Though we’ll defer a thorough treatment of the hodge-podge mess that is the American for-profit medical insurance system for now, suffice it to say that our faltering system is a scandal among industrialized nations. Virtually every western democracy offers its citizens a better healthcare deal than does the United States of America; these deals are hardly utopian, but the margin for improvement in America is something of a chasm. Physicians for a National Health Program articulate a sound strategy for moving the United States’ system closer to that of the civilized world. More absurd and fantastic is the propaganda machine claiming hysterically that free market principles require special protection in a domain which would never have existed without immense government intervention, beginning in the 1930s with tax exemptions for Blue Cross and other institutions evolved from the American Hospital Association, continuing with tax policy intended to form an employment-based health insurance and pension systems, and crescendoing with Eisenhower extending tax exemptions to virtually all health insurance companies by signing the Revenue Act of 1954.

Medical research is topical of late, as Trump promises to vanquish the evil largesse of the National Institutes of Health. Astonishingly, an acquaintance and physician who receives NIH grants has applauded Trump’s proposed demolition of public health and medical research, disparaging the agency as liberal advocacy for (paraphrased) sickle cell anemics in the ghetto, fat diabetic thugs in the barrio, and alcoholic obese Indians rotting on the reservation, rather than those who “might contribute to society.” Setting aside the strawman that is the rather grotesque racist commentary and elitist assessment of what is and what isn’t good for society, his further remarks extolling privately-funded research dovetails with Speaker Ryan’s bizarre pronouncement that dying without medical care in bankruptcy is tantamount to dying with the dignity only the truly free can know. First, it’s important to note that much of private medical research is possible because of public subsidies, either in the form of tax policy, drug revenue through artificial constraints on Medicare’s ability to regulate drug prices, direct payouts, and transfer of the results of purely public, long-term, high-risk research into private hands once effectiveness is assured, all of which contradict directly the freedom argument. Further, as a public agency, answerable to the executive, Congress, and the American people, the NIH presents a distribution of grant topics each year, most of which aren’t a boon to what my friend may consider enemies of the American way of life. And though the balance of research and development between private and public organizations has shifted in recent years, the distinctions listed above stand, as well as a lack of public accountability and conceivably a greater susceptibility to bias in experimentation in private agencies beholden to quarterly shareholder reports.

This is but one of many examples worth examining as part of what Suzanne Mettler of Cornell calls the submerged state. Her eponymous text of said state discusses the often hidden roles the federal, state, and local governments play in everyday life, be it healthcare, infrastructure, business, education, or homesteading. Certainly the astonishingly large subsidies by the federal government in the high tech sector over the past several decades and throughout American history are among the best kept secrets from the population; for everything from telephony to airplanes to computers to highways to the internet, one can trace roots to very large public subsidies either into the university system, both government and private research labs, transfer of intellectual property and massive tax subsidies to large multinational corporations, among others. The balance of public investment has shifted over the past several decades as part of the larger propaganda around market systems. For instance, Eisenhower, a Republican president from 1953 to 1961, wrote to his brother Edgar in November 1954,

"Should any political party attempt to
abolish social security, unemployment insurance,
and eliminate labor laws and farm
programs, you would not hear of that party
again in our political history. There is a
tiny splinter group, of course, that believes
you can do these things. . . . [But] their
number is negligible and they are stupid."

Richard Nixon, perhaps the last liberal president yet also a Republican, directed the formulation of the EPA and the NOAA, targets of team Trump’s deregulation and anti-environmental fanaticism. Ronald Reagan stumbled to victory touting free market virtue, yet his administration was more protectionist than all post-war presidencies combined, as boasted in an understatement by James Baker; during his terms, transfer of public funds into real estate, insurance, and financial institutions freshly deregulated under Nixon skyrocketed, guaranteeing enormous gains for top income earners (Trump included). As usual, austerities associated with market principles apply only to the poor and those incapable of winning the game while nanny state protectionism, aptly named by economist Dean Baker, belongs within reach of the elite sectors. So why do so many in the population hold public institutions in such low regard, as frequently measured by polling agencies?

Mettler’s research is quite revealing of the shift in public attitudes on the role of government. In particular, citizens tend to be more aware of programs which affect them directly according to studies conducted by Mettler and Matt Guardino discussed at length in her book. Anecdotes aside (think of the citizen famously ordering Representative Robert Inglis of South Carolina to keep his “government hands off my Medicare“), poorer working class folks tend to understand the earned income tax credit (EITC), whereas they’re largely ignorant of the regressiveness of the home mortgage interest deduction (HMID) and retirement savings accounts deductions. Mettler concludes that presenting citizens with more information, irrespective of income level, tends to shift attitudes in favor of more egalitarian tax policy.

I should mention that the submerged state isn’t simply happenstance; at the conclusion of the second world war, virtually all economists subscribed to the Keynesian approach of “priming the pump;” that is, eliminate risk of further depressions and recessions with wealth circulation through massive government spending. Businessweek and the Wall Street Journal editorialized that of the two choices, social spending versus military spending, military spending was superior in that it suffered no democratizing effects while comfortably funneling public subsidies upward, as articulated by analyst Noam Chomsky.

Of the many examples Mettler gives, she includes a discussion of Obama’s 2009 stimulus package. Unknown to many working class people is that they received a tax cut that same year to push the economy forward; even more unknown is that the secrecy was intentional, as the Obama camp needed the working class people to spend the cut rather than save it, so the dispersal was gradual and almost imperceptible through the year. Obama seemed to follow in Lippman’s elitist tradition of aiding the “bewildered herd” and “meddlesome outsiders” while limiting direct participation since they’re unfit to make policy decisions themselves, yet this isn’t a law of nature. One can envision a system in which the public can make such decisions for themselves.

Mettler demonstrates, as suggested above, that exposure to more detail on regressive social spending reduces ignorance and bolsters support for more progressive measures; she cites earlier work by Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter to further the claim that political literacy is by no means uniform, but rather correlates rather strongly with engagement; opinions shift freely in the presence of more detailed information, as confirmed by John Sides’ work on the estate tax. She also explains the remarkable reinstatement of direct government lending in student borrowing after the financial crisis, a progressive victory for American students. Indicative of the deeply embedded propaganda around markets and the role of government, Republican John Kline hysterically decried the measure as a “government takeover of our classrooms,” despite the near-constraint-free avarice of a runaway banking system pocketing enormous sums off of young working class people trying to better themselves with education. The reforms within Family Federal Education Loans (FFEL), according to Mettler, are substantial yet represent a missed opportunity for Obama to more publicly expose and diminish the submerged state; he spent more time persuading Americans, lobbyists, insurance companies, and the like to support the Affordable Care Act without drawing sufficient attention to other domestic achievements.

In summary, her book presents a thoughtful, well-documented analysis on both the deleterious effects of the submerged state (such as curtailed democracy, popular ignorance of policies, limited participation) and its antidote: increased political engagement. I’d certainly agree that’s a start.

A Perfect Storm : The Rise of Donald Trump Part One

Donald Trump’s apparent electoral victory two weeks ago stunned both supporters and opponents, as the preponderance of pundits and analysts assumed that even the much maligned, frustratingly incremental, uncharismatic, scandal-dogged Hillary Clinton couldn’t lose the election to an anti-science, narcissistic, vengeful, vulgar, greedy billionaire with a penchant for fomenting hate for immigrants, Muslims, and people of color, even if he offered a phony message of hopeful populism.  I, by contrast, was somewhat more skeptical of the polling numbers, as errors in likely voter modeling or the influence of the social desirability phenomenon could easily push results over the margin of error. Nonetheless, I shared the shock and frankly the fear as swing state after state fell to a candidate I’d considered to be more of a carnival attraction than a serious statesperson. How could this happen, what does it mean, and what can we do? These are critical questions both his supporters and opponents need be asking; reasonable answers may not be the knee jerk ones. We begin with investigating the context in which a person such as Trump could be elected, deferring the second and third questions for subsequent articles.  This post also defers deeper, more detailed discussions on a host of important issues so that we may cover more of the highlights.

Despite Clinton carrying the lead in the popular vote by perhaps two million, a little less than half of those who voted, a substantial fraction, seem to believe Trump can actually improve their lives. Peppered amongst scattershot claims he’s made on the campaign trail, he correctly depicted so-called free trade agreements such as NAFTA and the TPP as destructive; he correctly observed the plight of American workers through deindustrialization; he correctly derided the governing elite as nepotistic, disingenuous, petty, and heretofore incapable of meeting the needs of the working class in a populist appeal. The Democratic leadership faltered easily, ignoring highly suggestive evidence that Clinton simply didn’t cut it against the Republican contenders and more seriously marginalizing a populist candidate in Bernie Sanders who represented one of the largest grassroots movements in history; his favorability and electability, along with his fervent young supporters, were ridiculed early on by party insiders, yet many analysts and strategists concede an easy victory for him against Trump. Sanders offered genuine populism and helped energize a new generation of young voters with promises of universal healthcare and tuition-free college, proposals the American media condemn as fantasy and pie-in-the-sky, despite many proofs-of-concept in other western democracies.

Many of the grievances of the white working class, perhaps Trump’s biggest constituency, are legitimate yet have been long ignored by both political parties. Predating this election is a decades-long decline in income mobility and the standard of living; the postwar boom generated historically unprecedented wealth and security for working class people, precipitating a true middle class and birthing the so-called American dream. Anecdotally, my grandfather, descendant of poor farmers in Indiana, managed a decent job in a purchasing supply company in the late 1940s with no more than a high school diploma; he could buy a house, cars, and send his children to college. This simply isn’t the case now, and American workers know it. Fueled by scornful elitism from the ruling class and an utter lack of articulate response to their genuine cries for help, they’ve abandoned trust in fundamental public institutions such as schools, governments, and the media, not all of which is unjustified.  Analysts in 1994 predicted that NAFTA would perpetuate the offshoring of manufacturing jobs largely begun in the 1970s with the financialization of the economy. The media’s concentration into just a few multinational companies corresponds with little airing of the problems plaguing middle America.  Even Clinton herself snubbed Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”  A vacuum generally won’t remain as such for long: Trump and many who preceded him have offered easy explanations for their woes; these answers are crazy, but coherent, fanning flames of hatred and further mobilizing a lightly-sleeping, subsurface deeply nativist ultra-nationalist sector of the population extant since the founding and forever awaiting a deliverer who can save white America. Part of my family fits the bill, I’m sorry to say; I’m all too familiar with the rhetoric and the mindset.

In short, he’s stated explicitly, or sometimes intimated, that illegal immigrants imperil our families and steal our jobs, that Obama is a non-citizen illegitimate president sympathetic to Islamic terrorists, that people of color are destroying their own communities and stealing elections, and that he can bring back the good old days when our economy was driven more by honest industry and production than corrupt financial institutions. Indeed, Trump’s ascent has emboldened this nativist sector, paralleling a cascade of hate-crime related incidents across the country according to the Southern Law Poverty Center. Hate and white supremacy groups brag that Trump is their guy, and though most people who support Trump for his promised populism probably aren’t among them, they’ve nonetheless tolerated his hate speech in the hopes that this populism is genuine. As a result, the baseless allegations of voter fraud against people of color which are deeply rooted in historical efforts at disenfranchisement incited violence at the polls and voter intimidation of poor minorities. The historical record should be clear on many of Trump’s wild claims; voting fraud is almost impossible to execute successfully, and Trump’s repeated utterances of having evidence simply must be intentional falsehoods, a handy trick any politician or sleazy salesman can brandish quickly. Obama’s citizenship is simply public record; his record on atrocities and crackdown on whistleblowers should easily demonstrate no support for Islamic terrorists or alleged sympathizers.  Illegal immigration, largely a feature of deleterious effects of our disastrous free trade policy, interventionism, and climate change on Central and South America, is nothing more than a wedge issue cravenly designed to fan flames of hatred among workers whose share of mutual interests dwarf those with the masters.

Media coverage also appears to have played a role in Trump’s ascent, as the months leading into the primary season and campaign featured heavy, disproportionate coverage by major American news outlets of the spectacle that is Trump; one measure indicates that the empty podium awaiting Trump’s arrival received more airtime than did all of Sanders’ rallies during the summer and fall of 2015.  Similar patterns emerge among other media giants.  Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, bragged at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference in San Francisco early this year that though disproportionate coverage of Trump “may not be good for America, […] it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I got to say.” Trump’s showmanship, bellicosity, and willingness to say on air the unthinkable seem to have generated heavy ratings, moving us perilously closer to virtually substance-free political debates and campaigning.

In short, a perfect storm of economic uncertainty, remarkably unfavorable opposition, a fundamental, immoral failure of the political class to meet the needs of the citizenry, and a sharp decline in the public trust has led to the rise of a fascist-lite kleptocrat celebrated by hate groups, anti-science zealots, and Christian supremacists for his selection of a myopic fundamentalist running mate, cabinet choices whose competencies for their respective jobs-to-be are inversely proportionate to their bottom lines, and profound disdain for immigrants and climate science.  Our next article will focus on what these critical choices mean.