Category Archives: Public Policy

The GOP’s Preexisting Condition

 

It is not true that the preamble of the Senate Republican health care plan consists solely of a villainous mustache twirl. Nor does it conclude with an evil cackle. In between, though, the bill is cartoonishly mean spirited. Here’s the short version: It proposes chucking millions of poor people off of their healthcare plans while providing a massive tax break for the rich. It does raise the question of who, exactly, Mitch McConnell had in that secret lair writing this thing.  Dick Dastardly and Gargamel, maybe?

Enough of McConnell’s own troops blanched at the bill’s kid show villainy that a vote planned for this week was immediately punted to sometime else. After months of secret confabs and assurances of a bigger-er and better-er healthcare plan, the Senate Republicans basically said screw it and belly flopped into the same steaming pile of political doo-doo their House colleagues just perfumed themselves with. Whatever the ultimate fate of healthcare reform in this Congress, both chambers have now made one thing crystal clear: Despite years of high-horsing on the issue, the Republican Party doesn’t have a freakin’ clue about what it should do about healthcare. It is pretty unanimous in proclaiming that Obamacare must go. But as lots of people like lots of parts of Obamacare–no preexisting conditions, keeping kids on parental plans, and retaining Medicaid expansion—making it go without ticking off a lot of people is getting increasingly hard.

What congressional Republicans are trying to do doesn’t make a whole lot of political sense. The basic task they’ve set for themselves is to replace an increasingly popular program with something that is definitely different, but tries to do the same thing, at least enough so that people won’t notice the new plan leaves the elderly, the infirm and the poor less well-off while benefiting the wealthy.  Hmm. Good luck threading that needle. Thus far, the strategy of repeal and replace advocates basically boils down to promising moonbeams and bubble love while delivering not just tough medicine, but not much medicine at all. The GOP rhetorically favors what it legislatively opposes. It is entirely against Obamacare, but is for its central policy objectives. It is against people losing coverage, but crafts legislation guaranteeing that they will. It promises a better plan, which is so bad that it doesn’t want anyone to read it. How the heck did the Republican Party managed to paint itself into such a ridiculous corner?

Well, here’s the scoop. It’s no secret that the Republican Party doesn’t like Obamacare. What seems to have gotten lost in all the through-the-looking-glass world of healthcare politics is that the Democratic Party didn’t like it much either. If you actually want to understand the risible, farcical state of healthcare politics in the United States, that’s a critical and often overlooked fact. The fight over Obamacare is not, as it is so often portrayed, a battle between the left and the right. It’s the left trying to get the right to take yes for an answer, while the right absolutely refuses and instead insists on going through with an epic self-inflicted ass whooping.

What the Democrats really wanted was not Obamacare. What they wanted (and still want), was a universal, single-payer system. In other words, something where you’d be dunned a payroll tax which would support a sort of Medicare for everyone program. Most other industrialized democracies have some version of this. Yet back in 2009/10, even in the warm after-glow of their freshly minted congressional majorities, Dems knew they were never going to get what they wanted. Single-payer smacked of socialized healthcare, which guaranteed full-throated Republican opposition and made the politics, at best, tricky. But single-payer also threatened the interests of a lot pretty powerful groups—insurance companies, for-profit hospitals, swaths of healthcare professionals—who saw that approach as diminishing their livelihoods, or even extinguishing them entirely. That made the politics not just tricky, but pretty much impossible.

So back in 2009 the Dems controlled Congress and the White House—just like Republicans do now—and they wanted to do something about healthcare. They especially wanted to do something about the millions of Americans who had no coverage at all, but their preferred policy, a single-payer system predicated on compulsory social insurance payments, was a non-starter. So what Plan B that might actually be feasible? What the Dems hit on was, wait for it, a Republican plan. That became what we know as Obamacare. It’s true. The basic ideas behind Obamacare had been floated for decades by the GOP. Back in the 1970s the Nixon administration tried to push a program that looks very much like Obamacare. In the 1990s a Senate plan was backed by a who’s who of Republican heavy hitters that, among other things, proposed individual mandates, insurance markets, subsidies for those who couldn’t afford premiums, and a ban on preexisting condition exemptions. In 2006 Massachusetts actually adopted a state-level forerunner of Obamacare, requiring all its citizens to purchase health care, providing subsidies for those who couldn’t afford coverage, and mandating employer provide plans. The governor who championed it was Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican Party presidential nominee.

All the stuff that the Obamacare repeal and replace squad has railed against for years – the individual mandate, a massive expansion of the federal Medicaid program, scads of government dough to subsidize insurance premiums – are mostly Republican ideas. Don’t take my word for it. Fox News said more or less the same thing. For Democrats Plan B was largely Republican Plan A. The Dems tried to shoehorn something in between those two points on the not entirely nutso assumption it provided a shot at substantive bipartisan reform.

Didn’t work out that way, did it? The Republican Party was all for its ideas unless Democrats—especially Obama–were also for them. They sure as heck weren’t taking yes for an answer from that crowd. So the GOP took powder, had a hissy, and, pretty cynically, went after the major legislative achievement of Obama’s first term with spectacular alternative-facts like Sarah Palin death panel fairy tales.

Completely cooked up horror stories aside, the truth is there’s plenty to criticize about Obamacare. Even for its supporters it has always been viewed as more of a least bad feasible option rather than an end all and be all. But it’s hard to make any improvements if one side resolutely insists the entire thing reads like the script of Omen III, even if that same side wrote most of the script. And that’s pretty much how the GOP got itself in the fix it is in. It hasn’t got any better ideas than Obamacare because Obamacare was its best healthcare idea. This whole wave-the-bloody-shirt, anti-Obamacare crusade has, no doubt, been politically useful, but it also means the Republican Party has spent the better part of a decade knocking the stuffing out of its own thoughts and theories on healthcare policy.

It’s slowly seems to be dawning on GOP leaders (President Trump excepted) that it might not have been such a good idea to make its most promising healthcare policy proposals politically toxic. They have screamed long and loud that Obamacare is a disaster and given a chance they’d prove they can do better. That got them out of the political wilderness. But now they are out of ideas.

They may also find themselves out of luck. The standard GOP policy fallback—whatever the problem is, cut taxes—is not going to work here. The Republican Party had a good political run by demonizing Obamacare. That’s about to end because the electorate called its bluff and said, “okay you win, whaddaya you got?” The answer they’ve come up with–a waffle between warmed over Obamacare and Dickensian-levels of cold-heartedness—is not exactly what the doctor ordered.

Upside Down Politics

We humans are a disagreeable bunch. Put two of us together and give us the job of making a decision that’s binding on both and sooner rather than later you’ve got an argument. What movie to watch, what pizza toppings to order, what color curtains to buy, whatever the issue at hand we’ll find a way to bang heads about it. And that’s just two of us. Imagine trying to split hairs among 320 million opinions on really important stuff like tax rates, social security, and access to healthcare.

Luckily for us we have a specialized set of institutions to handle these big collective conflicts. That’s basically all a representative democratic system is, just a big conflict management mechanism. That mechanism has worked pretty well in the United States, repeatedly showing itself strong enough to handle Defcon Level Three magnitudes of dissent without the wheels coming off.  Sure, there’s plenty of sturm and drang during election season, and ample rations of finger pointing and policy caterwauling by opposing political teams in between full-on ballot box clashes. In the normal course of things, no big deal. Democratic systems swallow  differences, masticate them into the bitter paste of compromise, and digest them into a painful legislative bowel movement. Everyone agrees that the end result stinks, but, boy, it sure makes everyone feel better.

That process works best, though, when disagreement takes a particular form. Take any given policy issue—gun control, taxes, education, welfare, whatever—and imagine different preferences on what the government should do about that issue. Take gun control as an exemplar. The range of opinions on gun control is massive. On one end is the firm belief that government should not regulate guns at all, that the only thing standing between us and jack- booted totalitarian dystopia is Uncle Fester and his private stash of military-grade weaponry. On the other end is the equally firm belief that Uncle Fester is a nut bag. He’s not making anyone safer, including himself. His concealed shooter will never bag the baddies of his fevered Chuck Norris delusions, but there’s a decent chance it’ll blow off his own butt cheek while he’s dropping trou in the Walmart crapper. For folks on this end of the spectrum, the government should control access to things that go bang very tightly, maybe even regulate them out of existence.

In between those two extremes there’s a lot of room for degrees of difference, a sort of gun regulation policy dial with multiple settings. I’m not suggesting that any one of those settings is better than the other, I’m just saying consider what that big range of opinions looks like.  Because the distribution of preferences on gun control, or any other issue, can take on very different shapes. And that shape helps determine how, or even if, our democratic institutions can handle our disagreements on that issue. What political scientists would consider a nicely behaved shape would look something like this:

This is a normal curve, and in reality a lot of policy preferences (and a lot else in the world) roughly approximate this distribution. If opinions on policy issues look like this in the general population and that distribution of preferences is actually represented in a legislature, then representative democracy is in business. If we take this shape as representing preferences on gun control, on one end of the distribution we’ve got libertarian firearm fetishists and on the other we’ve got fainting daisies who want trigger locks on Nerf guns. Most opinions, though, are piled up in the middle, i.e. most people think guns should be regulated, but not to the point that gun ownership is onerous to the average law abiding citizen. Because that center is where most opinions (and most votes) reside, representative legislatures will naturally gravitate to that as the law making sweet spot.

The problem is that on many issues, that particular distribution of preferences doesn’t exist, at least not as they are represented by legislators. These days most lawmakers are elected to office as tribunes of the right or left, and do not represent the beliefs of the moderate and less ideological center. Well, no worries, our democratic institutions can deal with that. Say we do not have one normal distribution of preferences, but two distinct distributions, one for conservatives/Republicans and another for liberals/Democrats. So the range of opinions we might actually see represented in a legislature look something like this:

 

Here there really isn’t one middle ground, but two. The average conservative lawmaker prefers something fairly distinct from the average liberal lawmaker. Things tend to get a lot more partisan and contentious in this situation, but as long as those two curves have a reasonable amount of overlap a legislature can still converge to a point in between the two sets of average preferences. True, getting there can involve a lot of nasty kicking and screaming. Both sides are more likely to describe the resulting law or policy as snatching bread from the mouths of babes and mothers than a reasonable half-a-loaf. But compromise is still possible. Friction on the democratic gears might be high, but the machine itself grinds on.

That friction gets higher the further those two distributions move apart. In the extreme case the two curves cease to overlap and there’s no middle ground at all. People standing on the extreme tails closest to each other might be able to talk to each other, but the rest of their tribe isn’t going to let their wacko moderates actually build bridges to the other side. In this sort of a situation the democratic machine tends to just lock up.

That’s bad enough, but what we’ve got today is something even worse. On a lot of issues we’ve got upside down politics. Take a look at the first figure and imagine it upside down, something like this:

This inverted normal curve would represent a situation where preferences are split in two and piled up at the extreme ends of the distribution. Not only is there no middle ground between the two sets of preferences, there’s no middle ground on either side. The distribution of preferences now falls into a dichotomy—you’re either with us or against us. Here compromise isn’t the normal price of dealing in democratic politics, it’s surrender. Any attempt to accommodate the other side’s interests represents unforgivable apostasy.

Disagreements characterized by an inverted preference curve are intensely resistant to compromise. This is the politics of first principles, where the other side doesn’t simply have a different point of view, the position they hold is morally repugnant and they must be defeated, not bargained with. Democratic institutions aren’t designed to deal with this, they basically just lock up. The only way to unfreeze the machine is for one side to get a big enough majority to ram its preferences through without any input from the other side. Of course if the other team wins come next election, they’ll ram through exactly the opposite. This can be even worse than a complete lock up because the system is redlining as it lurches from one extreme to the other. At some point the engine will burst a gasket or throw a rod and the whole thing will blow up like my extended mechanical metaphor.

Does this mean there’s no hope for a more civil polity? Hardly. That upside down curve is an uncomfortably accurate description of contemporary policy legislative preferences in Congress and an increasing number of state legislatures. What it doesn’t describe – at least not yet – is the shape of public opinion among the actual electorate. On most issues, peoples’ beliefs still look pretty normally distributed (picture 1), or at most as two reasonably distributed sets of preferences with plenty of overlap (picture 2). So why do we have legislators practicing upside down politics (picture 3)? The simple answer is we let the people on the far end of the distribution pick our legislators. It’s those guys who actually bother to show up in primaries and determine our choices in a general election.

If we want the system to get back to working better then we in the big not-so-ideological middle need to vote in lawmakers who actually represent a reasonable distribution of preferences. Is that likely to happen? Right now I doubt it. But it’s high time the voters threw the system a normal curve.

Trumpcare Treats the Winner’s Curse

I’m a political centrist receptive to certain conservative arguments, but since big chunks of the Republican Party took the cuckoo train to looney town I’ve had a hard time finding common ground with the GOP. This past week, though, I’ve been surprised to find myself sharing certain attributes with the House Republican caucus on a critically important political issue. To be specific, like most Republicans in that chamber I have neither read the American Healthcare Act of 2017 (ACA) nor do I have an inkling of its real implications.

I’m not surprised I know jack about the ACA. My general impression is that it’s a tangle of bosh and baloney, the sort of legislative sneaky beaky undertaken by partisan bagmen and interest-group special ops. But who knows. It’s a heavy read (full text here) and it’d take days for me to parse out even its broad-stroke ramifications. I can’t be bothered because we professional observers of politics just have too much else on our plates these days. The Trump White House’s typical daily schedule of a morning Twitter calumny, a noon-time peccadillo, the three o’clock scandal, the five o’clock firing, all topped with a busy evening of minions competing for victory in the arch madness bracket, just doesn’t leave us much time for anything else.

So there, I admit I know diddly about ACA except what’s reported in the media, and I’m pretty skeptical about that because I guarantee most of the professional gum-flappers haven’t read the bill either. If you and I lack a full and nuanced understanding of a complicated piece of legislation, though, it’s not supposed to be a big deal. We have tribunes representing our collective interests and they get paid to pay attention to these details on our behalf. So it’s galling in the extreme to discover that scads of them just voted to re-order a sixth of the nation’s economy and adjust the probabilities of millions getting health care coverage without reading any of the fine print or, I’m pretty sure, even the large-print Cliff’s Notes cheater card.

And it really does seem to be the case that many cast votes for this bill while being unburdened by any real understanding of its potential consequences. There was no independent analysis of its costs, no hearings, and it was being heavily amended the night before it was frog marched out onto the House floor for a vote. The ACA was the legislative equivalent of a 300 pound churro and there’s no way anyone choked that down in a few hours. This was never going to end well and it didn’t. Republicans initially took a victory lap, crowing that the ACA was the dog’s bollocks plus a bag of chips. Then reporters started asking all the high-fiving gloaters what was actually in the bill and what did it all mean and the umming, and ahhing began. It became pretty clear, pretty quickly that whatever was in the bill, it was at best a half-baked dogs breakfast and almost certainly political kryptonite for the GOP.

Late-night comedians pounced, and the sheer ineptitude of some of the spluttering gas passers who yayed the proposal nearer to law would be funny if the issue wasn’t so serious (here’s John Oliver making the point). A dawning recognition that they’d just dropped themselves into five fathoms of poo sent the Gang that Couldn’t Toot Straight slinking home for recess and hoping voters didn’t notice the stink. The few Republicans brave enough to face their constituents this week got the rotten tomatoes treatment, egged on by Democrats who were busily organizing schadenfreude squads. Most GOP House members just laid low, only mingling with constituents whose sycophancy qualified as a pre-existing condition. As for the rest of the voters, the GOP crew mostly seemed to be hoping they’d suffer a mass attack of convenience amnesia and forget what a colossal cock-up the House just made of things.

Well, good luck with all that. The real question is why did the House Republicans do this? Forget all the bumpf and babble about how the bill is going to be a huge improvement on what we currently have. Outside the House, even most Republicans don’t buy that. Plenty of GOP Senators, for example, are treating the bill the House just handed them like it was the towel used to clean up after an epic case of the bad-churro squits.

Any way you cut it, the ACA is bad press, bad politics, and almost certainly bad policy. Yes, the jury is still out on exactly what the bill costs and how it will shape health care access and delivery, but the uncertainty is mostly about whether it’s merely awful or catastrophically dire. Voters are ticked at House Republicans, pretty much the entire swath of healthcare-related interest groups are ticked at House Republicans, and even Senate Republicans are ticked at House Republicans. It seems puzzling that the majority of an elected legislative chamber would load both barrels, pull the trigger and perforate their lower extremity with such deliberate gusto.

I think the primary reason for the eagerness to commit this self-inflicted wound boils down to a variant of the winner’s curse. To social scientists, the winner’s curse technically describes the tendency of people to overpay in auctions of common value. Roughly translated into actual English, that basically says that people who aren’t fully aware of the value of something (or its cost), tend to bid up its price. This leads to buyer’s regret, the feeling you get after blowing a hole in your wallet on something that turns out not to be the dog’s bollocks and a bag of chips. That’s the winner’s curse.

And that’s what I think House Republicans have on healthcare. Over the past eight or nine years they have ridiculously bid up what they can fork out for a healthcare plan. They’ve argued Obamacare is a disaster that’s failing and that only they can fix the problem and win the nation a shiny new, super-duper most-definitely-not-Obamacare health plan. Complicating their bid was the spreading realization among voters how much they liked at least bits of Obamacare, especially stuff like preventing insurers from denying coverage, requiring coverage of pre-existing conditions, and keeping children on parental coverage into their mid-20s. And the millions who got healthcare thanks to Medicaid expansion definitely want to keep that.

Well, no worries said the Republicans, you can have all that, plus you won’t have to pay for it. That’s a pretty damn high bid and as long as Obama was in the White House the GOP didn’t have to worry about having it called. Then they won. Everything. And having so fervently promised their frothing base how Obamacare was all death panels and socialist overreach, they had to make good on their bid or look like pikers of the highest order. Problem was, all they had to back their bid was the political equivalent of wooden nickels and monopoly money. They had to lay their currency down, of course, burning through pretty much all their political capital to purchase the bill they so desperately wanted. And finally having closed the sale on an Obamacare repeal they now own it. Indeed, as Nancy Pelosi said, they positively “glow in the dark” with it. They are also belatedly starting to realize their shiny new phosphorescent purchase isn’t worth what they paid. In precise political terms its value is diddly and squat.

Carrying that into the next election really is likely to be a curse, one Republicans cast upon themselves by winning.

Smeared Science

A doctor walks into his practice’s waiting room and finds a man who tells him, “Doc, I have shingles.”

The doctor replies, “Shingles is a serious condition, but I know how to treat it.” And without performing any physical examination, ordering any diagnostic tests, or asking any questions to prepare a preliminary case history, the doctor starts writing prescriptions. The list includes antivirals, pain killers and the best balms and salves the pharmaceutical arts can offer. The doctor hands the prescriptions to the man and says “use these to fix the problem.”

The man takes the prescriptions, scratches his head and says, “Uh, okay, if you say so, I’ll use these to fix the problem. But what do you want me to do with the shingles?”

Now the doctor is confused. “Shingles? What do you mean what should you do with the shingles?”

“The shingles in my truck,” says the man. “I’m here to fix your roof.”

There’s an alarming and increasing number of elected officials who remind me of that doctor. These are lawmakers offering policy prescriptions without fully understanding the issue at hand and having only a dim grasp of how the solutions they are so eager to implement actually relate to the problem. They can often be spotted by their fondness for the phrase “I’m not a scientist, but …” What follows is usually the sort of twaddle that not only convincingly confirms the lack of lab coat cred, but also hints at a deep commitment to abetting alternative-fact moonbeam production. So in that spirit, let me just say that I’m not a phrenologist, but I’m pretty sure the knots on the lumpy heads blathering such babble and balderdash are not there to increase grey matter carrying capacity.

I’m not sure exactly when it became respectable to be anti-science, but boffin bashing has definitely gone mainstream. While America has always taken a perverse pride in its anti-intellectualism, just lately things seem to have progressed from needling the nerds to actively hunting them down. They once roamed across our social landscape in their thousands, rattling their horn rims, fiddling with slide rules, and engaging in arcane mating rituals involving hot Bunsen burners and flashy pocket protecter displays (a lot of scientists are involuntarily celibate). Not anymore. The people currently running the federal government—from the president on down—have pretty much declared open season on scientists. They are being systematically deprived of their primary source of nourishment–research grants–and being subjected to public censure, denunciation and even humiliation.

Near as I can figure, science has attracted this ire because it keeps supplying political discourse with an unending streams of data and facts that are irritating and inconvenient to a large swath of ideological policy preferences. This is particularly notable on—but far from limited to—science’s nosy parker prognostications on climate change. Science has reached a consensus conclusion that human society’s two-century long carbon fart is having a noticeable effect on the atmospherics of our collective planetary elevator (here’s 12,000 scientific studies with gory details). This sore distresses fossil fuel types and their political minions who were hoping the rest of us wouldn’t notice the stink, much less start agitating for the government to consider the corks-in-bungholes option.

The upshot of science’s insistence that the facts aren’t pointing in the same direction as certain ideological policy preferences leads to not just political discomfort, but to some truly jaw dropping acts of sophistry. For example, Jim Inhofe, a United States Senator, quite seriously argued that one unseasonable DC snowstorm convincingly disproved those 12,000 climate studies (he brought a snowball into the chamber to prove his point). So who’s correct on climate change? Well, on one side you’ve got a sizeable city’s worth of weather nerds sporting more advanced degrees than a thermometer. This lot have spent decades analyzing oceans of data and trying to sort signal from noise in peer reviewed research. And on the other you’ve got a legislator clutching a compacted fistful of frozen precipitate whose specious wuffling is not doing Bill Nye’s blood pressure any favors.  (BTW Jim, if you’re looking for extra meaningless data points, we had a very hot day hereabouts back in February).

That sort of comparison doesn’t put certain policy agendas, or certain policy makers, in a flattering light, and that fact almost certainly explains the attempt by the current leaders of the federal government to push science into the dark. That movement is truly scary. There are plans afoot to seriously cripple the scientific enterprise at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and even the National Institutes of Health (!). Academic labs at all the major research universities are facing cutbacks. The list of agencies and scientific research projects nervously awaiting the chop is depressingly long and is going to insulate public policy from sound science in a whole raft of critically important issue areas.

The only good news is that with science out of the way policymakers won’t have all those annoying empiricists mucking up their prescriptive plans with substance and knowledge. This will allow government policies to be pursued on the basis of good old fashioned ideological shamanism. Yep, that should work out well. Not.

There are those who might say that this is all being too hard on certain policy perspectives, and is being way too deferential to science and scientists who, let’s face it, are not always super-consistent in their conclusions and have been known to make a boo-boo or two. Fair enough, it is true that science is not correct 100 percent of the time, and it is equally true that perfectly competent and legit scientific studies can still reach conclusions that are incorrect. Plus we still haven’t got flying cars, meals in a pill, and I’m not sure if eggs are good for us this week or if they’re still avian cholesterol and cancer bombs. Yeah, sometimes scientists definitely got some ‘splaining to do. That is no reason, however, to substitute fact-fogging charlatanism for what is, for all its faults, the greatest knowledge producing process ever conceived.

The bottom line is that shooing science away from governance and public policy might usefully serve the political agenda of one side or the other in the short term. In the long term, though, substituting politics for science is to substitute blind faith for insight, soft ignorance for hard knowledge, and flights of political fancy for grounded reasoning. In short, if policymakers ignore and de-prioritize science they become that doctor in the waiting room instructing someone to fix a hole in the roof with prescription paper. And what with the climate changing and all, that’s likely to get us all wet.


The Big Problem With Tax Reform

It’s that time of year when millions of Americans can be found gazing disbelievingly at their tax returns and having sudden attacks of small-government conservatism.  It’s not just the fiduciary ouchie of Uncle Sam’s annual pocket book pinch that stirs up pique and vexation. Most people get that taxes are a necessary evil and we all have to cough up something. Less understandable is why the obligatory villainy has to be so damn unfair and complicated.

There’s no doubt we need tax reform. The United States tax code is currently a codex of bean counting hieroglyphics that not only takes our money, but also mocks our incomprehension. The cryptic incantations tax accountants annually sprinkle over spreadsheets animate the government’s extended palm alright, but they also raise the middle finger of its other hand.  This gets us all steamed. None of us really understand what’s going on, but we’re all pretty sure we’re getting shafted and that something really should be done about that. Well, be careful what you ask for. Something is about to be done.

The problem we have right now is not the clear need for tax reform, but the people who are about to take on the task. This would be President Trump and his (cough) loyal troops controlling Congress. Now under normal circumstances I’d be okay with the GOP taking point on a tax code touch up. But we’re not talking about a bunch of establishment and main street types with a strong sense of noblesse oblige taking on the job. Nope. Who we have chomping at the bit to blue-pencil the government’s revenue rulebook is a motley collection of corporate chiselers, Ayn Rand fanboys, and pettifogging market militants shilling little more than libertarian moonbeams. This will not end well.

A big part of the problem seems to be that this group has bought into the broadly shared assumption that tax reform is easy. It’s not. For example, most people who are not rich think those on the upper end of the income scale are a bunch of tax dodging ripe sucks. So the obvious and fair thing to do is just adjust the rules to squeeze a few more shekels out of the fat cats and silk stockings. And, fair enough, this crowd clearly has access to feats of tax dodging prestidigitation not available to mere mortals slogging through their 1040s with nothing more than coffee and a cheap calculator. But the rich already pay most of the taxes. The folks at the tippity-top of the remuneration pyramid—the 1-percenters—pay roughly half of all the income taxes collected.  The top 50 percent of earners pay pretty much all of the federal government’s income tax revenue. Roughly half of Americans pay zilch in income taxes, mostly because they haven’t got much income to tax—these are the working poor, the elderly living on social security and the like.

So, what’s a fair adjustment here? Shove more of the burden onto the wealthy? Well, it’s no secret where the sympathies of the Republican tax reform principals lie. They want income tax cuts, which basically means the moneybags will be paying less. Does it mean the poor will be paying more? Probably. The Trump administration is already trying to get rid of Meals on Wheels. If they’ll take away a hot meal from granny, I doubt they’d have scruples about skimming off her Social Security check too. And good luck with that. Regardless of the specifics, any demographic shift in tax burden—inevitable in any major tax reform–is going to be politically explosive.

Well, what if we forget about who is paying and what constitutes a fair share. Let’s just try to simplify the tax code, which all agree is a convoluted thicket of rules and laws, credits and deductions, all of it held together with loopholes and bookkeepers’ chewing gum. Why not just ditch all this deduction and exemption jazz and go with a flat tax, an idea that still has plenty of supporters in the GOP? Let’s say you pay 20 percent of everything you earn over $50K, and tack on another percentage point or two for income levels that get progressively north of that. That makes things simple, right enough. But that too is almost certainly going to bring about a big shift in tax burdens—under most flat tax proposals the rich are paying less and the bottom half are paying more. And we’re right back to the big political stink of the last paragraph.

Well, maybe we could just prune out some stuff. Problem there is where you see a thorn ready for the shears, others see a rose. Pretty much every group you care to mention has a big chunk of the tax code dedicated to its own self-interest. For example, the middle class loves the ability to deduct mortgage interest from income, a perk that costs the federal government nearly $100 billion in revenue every year.  Good luck prying that prized bennie out of the hands of middle-class homeowners. Those folks vote. Well, what about ending the deduction for state income taxes? Texans would be fine with that because they don’t pay state income tax. On the other hand, folks with state income tax rates at or near double digits—Iowa, California, Minnesota and New York—are going to howl because they’ll get dunned extra.

In fact, all reform paths lead to pretty much the same political pong – somebody is going to feel gulled and they are going to raise a stink. That inevitably leads to liberal applications of emollient special breaks, and exemptions, and exceptions … in other words just the sort of special interest sugar boogers that gets people all worked up in the first place. Here’s the bottom-line: the real problem with our tax system is not its complicated rules or its inequitable distribution of revenue burdens.

You see, we want a lot of stuff from government—social security, health care, education, the 82nd Airborne, interstate highways, crop insurance, someone to catch the baddies, and someone to help when Hurricane Obvious blows through and leaves that tree hugging smartass saying “I told you building in a floodplain was a bad idea.” All of that costs, in technical terms, a crap ton of dough, and most of us would prefer somebody else popped for it. That is the central, unavoidable problem of any attempt at tax reform: We want a lot from government and we want someone else to pay for it. Russell Long, a United States Senator from Louisiana and well-known tax law wonk, once summed up the central conundrum of tax reform in three lines of doggerel:

Don’t tax you

Don’t tax me

Tax that feller behind the tree

And there you have it. Tax reform is always sold on the promise that the fellow behind the tree is a mooch and we can make things right by making him pony up his fair share.  But there is no fellow behind the tree. Until everyone gets that, tax reform is always going to be political nitroglycerine. Before we try to rewrite the tax code what we really need is a grown-up conversation about what we want from government and what we are willing to pay for it. Then, and only then, can we meaningfully get down to the business of figuring out how to split the tab fairly.

Political scientists don’t know much (see our predictions on Trump’s electoral prospects). But we are pretty confident that we are not going to get that conversation. What we’re going to get is what usually happens with major tax reform efforts—a political bun fight that leaves everyone ticked off and convinced they are stuck paying for somebody else’s dessert. The only real guarantee is that whatever tax reform flummery the GOP whips up, that fellow behind the tree is not paying for it. Just you and me.

 

The False Options of School Choice

 

School choice is basically the idea that Walmart shoppers know more about public education than teachers do. Put parents in a big box of buyer options, the argument goes, and they’ll follow the fluorescent light of consumer desire right to the Tickle-Me Elmo score of educational excellence. Or something like that. It’s hard to keep track because the justifications for ditching traditional public schools flit around a bit. There’s the untie-the-market’s-invisible-hand idea, the parents-know-best idea, and, of course, the giving-teachers-unions-the-middle-finger-would-feel-so-good idea.

Regardless of the digits and dabs manipulating the choice argument, it’s all premised on the dubious notion of systemic public school failure. To listen to some people, public schools stink on ice. Period. If that’s the premise then there’s nothing to be lost by blowing up these failure factories. If all public schools do is suck up property taxes and turn out illiterates who get owned by the Latvians on international test comparisons, let’s just tear ‘em down and start over. Among the most vociferous of these sort of critics is Betsey Devos, secretary of the Department of Education, who thinks public schools are a “dead end.”

Not to worry, though. Public schools may be spinning ever faster around the scholarly sink hole, but the Fed-Ed poo-bah has the solution: School choice. Now, school choice can actually mean a lot of things. The mild version is public charters. These are boutique public schools within public schools, distinguishable from the standard article primarily by greater regulatory freedom and a lot of Teach for America, Thousand-Points-of-Light, let’s-really-teach-these-kids-something earnestness.

On the other end of the spectrum, the full Monty version of choice is a voucher system. This really does mean blowing up public education as we know it and it’s the option that Devos seems likely to champion as the nation’s top education official. In a pure voucher system there is no such thing as a public school. Parents get a coupon—a voucher—that they can cash in at any vendor doing business in the big mall of educational service provision. Competition for the cash those coupons represent will be fierce, and as everybody knows the only way to win in the Darwinian world of an unregulated market is by providing a better product with superior customer service. I mean, just look at what it did for air travel.

There’s really only two problems with Devos’ diagnosis of public education’s ills and her favored policy fix. First, she appears to know shockingly little about public schools and how they are run and evaluated. If you think that’s harsh, take a gander at her ignominious Senate hearing performance for yourself.  Second, she seems to know even less about the iffy results from the clinical trials of schools that have swallowed the magic market medicine she’s prescribing.

Here’s a news flash: the nation’s public education system isn’t failing, at least not any more than usual. Chicken Littles have been yipping and yowling about the deficiencies of schools at least since the Rooskies launched Sputnik. Way back in the fifties the Reds put an aluminum beach ball in orbit that could say “bing,”  a big technological accomplishment for the time. More to the point, public schools were faulted for not producing boffins with enough of the right stuff to make American satellites that said “bing.” Rather than buckling down and putting Ivan in his place, the coddled capitalist teens populating sub-par junior highs were apparently using their slide rules to flick boogers at each other. Don’t try to follow the logic here, it was a weird time.

Public schools have been routinely bashed pretty much ever since. They got flogged for the ills of the hippy-dippy sixties and the druggy seventies, with everything from forced busing and desegregation to whole language learning and the new math denounced for undermining the Republic. In the eighties the Reagan administration got the fantods and issued a scary tome called A Nation At Risk, whose basic precis was that 7th graders had cashed in their slide rules for calculators but only to employ them as technologically superior booger flickers. The cry of public school failure went on into the nineties and the aughties as school choice became a real thing and places like Milwaukee started implementing honest-to-god voucher systems.

Now, there’s no doubt that bad public schools exist—as a journalist and as an academic I’ve witnessed some firsthand. But there is also a ton of pretty decent to truly outstanding public schools, and by my accounting these make up the strong majority of the public education system. Somehow that gets lost. Someone sees pictures of a struggling inner-city school or reads that Finnish high schoolers kicked Yankee ass in the latest International Nerd Olympiad and all the good stuff falls out of view. We’ve got to upend the system to save our future.

People of Devos’ ilk have spent decades saying public schools are so bad we need to institute a system of choice to make things better. Yet in doing so they not only are conveniently ignoring the fact that the big majority of public schools are doing just fine, they are even more conveniently blind-eyeing a very long list of studies showing that school choice variants at best are no better than public schools, and not uncommonly are actually worse.

I know a little about the mountain of research done on the efficacy of school choice because I spent the better part of a decade hanging off its north face trying to belay down to the base camp of rational policymaking. I wrote a dissertation, two books, and a bunch of scholarly and popular articles, talked to teachers, students, parents, administrators, policy wonks and policymakers, I testified before state legislatures, talked to teachers unions and parents groups, crunched numbers and dissected data. If you’re really bored you can find the Cliff’s Notes summary of my years of work analyzing school choice here. It’s all pretty dated by now, but here’s a New York Times article on the three most recent big studies on school choice. They all conclude choice programs are pretty much a flop as a general policy tool to improve academic performance.

I predict the latest studies will have about as much impact on the choice debate as my humble contributions did, which is to say not much at all. School choice advocacy is remarkably resistant to empirical evidence of its shortcomings and to the many successes of public education. I’m pretty convinced that’s because this debate is not about the performance of schools at all. That’s just cover and justification. All the hoo-hah and debate is really about what schools are for. Many (not all) advocates of choice are anti-public schools not because of their supposed failure to get the literacy and numeracy of the nation’s youth up to snuff, but because of their inclusive e pluribus unum social mission. They want schools that exclusively transmit their particular religious, social and political values, and not just the values that are broadly agreed on by the collective. If they can get that and epic SAT scores, great. Educational performance, though, is just the gravy. The real meat of the choice argument is really about ideology, and that can be consumed raw and satisfy with or without the condiments.

I also predict that public schools will not be severely wounded by the choice brigade, even though one of their own now occupies the nation’s top educational office. The biggest problem advocates of choice have is that the vast majority of Americans went to a public school, live near a public school, know a public school teacher, and interact with public school students. And while some of them, or more accurately us, are indeed in trouble—sometimes big trouble—most of us and our public schools are doing at least fair to middling. And we’re probably not going to give that up for the dubious promise of getting the option to pick out our very own Tickle-Me Elmo education miracle. When push comes to shove, I’m betting that’s a choice we’re just not going to make.