Daily Digest - September 17: Who's Taking Part in Our Unequal Democracy?

Sep 17, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Fighting Inequality in the New Gilded Age (Boston Review)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Fighting Inequality in the New Gilded Age (Boston Review)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Sabeel Rahman reviews three new books that ask who is engaging in democracy and how they are doing so in light of today's economic inequality.

Home Free? (New Yorker)

James Surowiecki looks at Utah's Housing First and Rapid Rehousing programs as examples of a better approach to solving social problems: investing in prevention.

At the Uber for Home Cleaning, Workers Pay a Price for Convenience (WaPo)

Lydia DePillis compares HomeJoy, an app-based cleaning service, to traditional services that count workers as employees, complete with worker's compensation for a job that involves harsh chemicals.

Do State Retirement Pensions Belong with Wall Street Hedge Funds? (The Guardian)

Suzanne McGee looks to current arguments in Rhode Island to explain why the high risks and high fees associated with hedge funds make some pension managers think twice.

‘A National Admissions Office’ for Low-Income Strivers (NYT)

David Leonhardt says Questbridge, a non-profit connecting low-income students to full-ride scholarships at top universities, has an innovative approach that is shifting the admissions process.

Americans' Stagnant Incomes, in Two Depressing Charts (Vox)

Danielle Kurtzleben looks at new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which confirms that U.S. household income remains stagnant and income inequality hasn't shifted either.

New on Next New Deal

Wall Street Swindled Local Governments, Too. Here’s How They Can Get Their Money Back.

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Saqib Bhatti explains how Wall Street harmed municipalities with risky interest rate swap deals, and argues that those deals may have been illegal and should be fought in court.

Share This

Daily Digest - September 12: Students Shouldn't Go Hungry on College Campuses

Sep 12, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

How One Student is Fighting the College Hunger Crisis (MSNBC)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

How One Student is Fighting the College Hunger Crisis (MSNBC)

Ned Resnikoff profiles Yvonne Montoya, President of the Santa Monica College chapter of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, and her work to get food stamps accepted on campus.

A Tour of the Roosevelt Family's New York (WSJ)

Sophia Hollander speaks with Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow David Woolner about the Roosevelt legacy in New York through fourteen sites across the state, in light of the upcoming Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts.

Measuring the Impact of States’ Obamacare Decisions (WaPo)

Jason Millman looks at a new study on how costs varied for people buying insurance based on their states' approach to the Affordable Care Act. States with successful exchanges had the lowest costs.

Why Co-ops Are the Future of the American Economy (AJAM)

Worker-owned businesses should appeal to liberals and conservatives alike, writes Matthew Harwood, because conservatives see ownership as building self-sufficiency and liberals appreciate the higher wages.

The Inflation Cult (NYT)

The investors and economists who continue to insist that runaway inflation is coming to destroy the U.S. economy are a sign of just how polarized our society has become, writes Paul Krugman.

Allentown Bets Big to Shed its Former Image (Marketplace)

Tommy Andres looks at how tax incentives structured through a Neighborhood Improvement Zone have begun to revitalize Allentown's downtown.

Share This

Daily Digest - September 9: Block Grants Won't Solve Poverty -- They'll Make It Worse

Sep 9, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

The Republican Playbook for Cutting Anti-Poverty Programs (The Nation)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

The Republican Playbook for Cutting Anti-Poverty Programs (The Nation)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert write that block grants, like those that make up Paul Ryan's anti-poverty proposal, effectively freeze funding for their programs.

Can Republicans Be Convinced to Help Improve the Affordable Care Act? (TAP)

Looking at Mike Konczal's suggestion for improving the Affordable Care Act, Paul Waldman says that more specific proposals will force Republicans to act.

Democrats Have a Depth Problem. It’s Largely Their Own Fault. (WaPo)

Aaron Blake blames Democrats for not investing in developing young leaders, as the Republicans have done for 25 years, and credits groups like the Campus Network for starting to build that pipeline.

Ferguson Sets Broad Change for City Courts (NYT)

Frances Robles reports on the changes announced at Ferguson's first city council meeting since Mike Brown's death, including a cap on how much of the city's budget can come from court fines.

Dignity (New Yorker)

William Finnegan profiles one McDonalds employee on her work and her labor activism as she struggles to support her kids on $8.35 an hour, her wage after eight years on the job.

This Is What It's Like To Sit Through An Anti-Union Meeting At Work (HuffPo)

Dave Jamieson reports on recordings published by the Teamsters in which employers claim over and over that unions just want employees' money, not to improve the workplace.

Share This

New Piece on Where the ACA Should Go Next

Sep 5, 2014Mike Konczal

In light of the increasingly good news about the launch of the Affordable Care Act, I wanted to write about what experts think should be next on the health care front. Particularly with the implosion of the right-wing argument that there would be something like a death spiral, I wanted to flesh out what the left's critique would be at this point. Several people pointed me in the direction of the original bill that passed the House, the one that was abandoned after Scott Brown's upset victory in early 2010 in favor of passing the Senate bill, as a way forward.

Here's the piece. Hope you check it out.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

In light of the increasingly good news about the launch of the Affordable Care Act, I wanted to write about what experts think should be next on the health care front. Particularly with the implosion of the right-wing argument that there would be something like a death spiral, I wanted to flesh out what the left's critique would be at this point. Several people pointed me in the direction of the original bill that passed the House, the one that was abandoned after Scott Brown's upset victory in early 2010 in favor of passing the Senate bill, as a way forward.

Here's the piece. Hope you check it out.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

Share This

Daily Digest - August 26: Corporations Shouldn't Get a Free Pass on Tax-Dodging

Aug 26, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Cutting the Corporate Tax Would Make Other Problems Grow (NYT)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Cutting the Corporate Tax Would Make Other Problems Grow (NYT)

Jared Bernstein counters recent suggestions for eliminating the U.S. corporate income tax by pointing out the extreme difficulty of capturing that revenue through personal income taxes.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz proposes more viable reforms to the corporate income tax.

Stigmatizing Poor Kids in Our Public Schools (PolicyShop)

Matt Bruenig suggests that free lunch at school is the target of so much ire because it's seen as a "poor people thing," even though public schools are themselves a welfare program.

When Workplace Training Programs Actually Hinder Workers (The Nation)

The low-structure, free-choice-based model of the Workforce Investment Act limits its effectiveness, writes Michelle Chen, since it doesn't allow for prioritizing funding for the best training programs.

Another GOP State May Be Signing up for Medicaid, and the Reason is Obvious (LA Times)

Michael Hiltzik says the money being left on the table is finally proving enough to get Republican governors like Wyoming's to push for Medicaid expansion even though it's part of Obamacare.

Back to School, and to Widening Inequality (Robert Reich)

Kids who live in poor neighborhoods are at a disadvantage when it comes to school funding, writes Robert Reich, so economic inequality hobbles these students from an early age.

Central Banks to Lawmakers: You Try Growing the Economy (WaPo)

Ylan Q. Mui reports that the general attitude coming out of the annual Jackson Hole gathering was that monetary policy can only do so much, and legislatures need to step it up.

Cities Can Ease Homelessness With Storage Units (City Lab)

Kriston Capps looks at an innovative program in San Diego that creates stability by providing homeless people with transitional storage where they can safely leave their belongings each day.

Share This

Daily Digest - August 19: With Inequality, It's Women and Children First

Aug 19, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Among the Poor, Women Feel Inequality More Deeply (NYT)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Among the Poor, Women Feel Inequality More Deeply (NYT)

The burden of inequality falls more heavily on poor women, says Patricia Cohen, because they are more likely to be raising a family and get little support for the "second shift" of household management.

Blame Employers, Not Workers, for Any Skills Gap, Economist Says (WSJ)

Josh Zombrun looks at a new working paper from a University of Pennsylvania economist, which argues that employers who complain about lack of skills are accountable for refusing to provide training.

The Hunger Crisis in America’s Universities (MSNBC)

Ned Resnikoff reports on how colleges across the country are tackling rising food insecurity. Many are looking to Michigan State University, home of an established campus food pantry, for guidance.

A Co-op State of Mind (In These Times)

Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo looks at the rise of worker cooperatives in New York City in light of the City Council's new $1.2 million initiative to support and grow such enterprises.

What Does the Fed Have to do with Social Security? Plenty (AJAM)

Dean Baker notes that Federal Reserve policy can influence unemployment rates, and when more people work, especially in low- and middle- wage jobs, Social Security revenues increase.

How Outdated Parking Laws Price Families Out of the City (CityLab)

A-P Hurd argues that requiring developers to build parking lifts the costs of housing out of the affordable range for most families. Hurd looks at a more family-friendly urban housing model.

New on Next New Deal

Curbing Campus Sexual Assault is Not About the Money

Campus Network's Hannah Zhang responds to critics of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act who call the bill's fines outsized to the problem of sexual assault on campuses.

Share This

Daily Digest - August 15: Social Security at 79

Aug 15, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Social Security Marks 79th Birthday with Declining Service (WaPo)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Social Security Marks 79th Birthday with Declining Service (WaPo)

Joe Davidson says that the Social Security Administration continues to aim for providing "the best possible service for the American public," but budget and staffing cuts have hampered that goal.

  • Roosevelt Take: Campus Network member Brian Lamberta calls for eliminating the cap on Social Security taxes to ensure the program's sustainability through Millennials' retirements and beyond.

Starbucks to Revise Policies to End Irregular Schedules for Its 130,000 Baristas (NYT)

In response to an article in The New York Times about a single mother's struggle with erratic scheduling, Starbucks plans to revise its scheduling practices to improve worker stability, writes Jodi Kantor.

Why the Minimum Wage Issue is a Win-Win for Obama (MSNBC)

Timothy Noah explains that if Congress won't pass a minimum wage increase, then Democrats have an easy wedge issue for the 2014 elections, which is especially important as they fight to hold the Senate.

Education Alone Is Not the Answer to Income Inequality and Slow Recovery (TAP)

Many economists are emphasizing education as a way to spread the economic recovery beyond the 1 percent, but Robert Kuttner argues for a job-creating solution instead: infrastructure investment.

It's Time to Pay Prisoners the Minimum Wage (TNR)

Josh Kovensky argues that using prison labor as a cost-cutting measure is ineffective and creates unexpected costs, particularly relating to the dependents of prisoners.

When Your Employer Doesn’t Consider You an Employee (AJAM)

The recently proposed Payroll Fraud Prevention Act would help balance power in the workplace by ensuring workers know their rights as employees or contractors, writes Malcolm Harris.

Why it’s No Easy Task to Determine What the GSEs Should Charge for Their Guarantee (MetroTrends Blog)

Laurie Goodman, Ellen Seidman, Jim Parrott, and Jun Zhu lay out the difficulties in determining what fees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should charge for guaranteeing mortgage-backed securities.

Share This

Daily Digest - August 11: Big Business's Frenemy in the White House

Aug 11, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Your Call: The U.S.-Africa Summit and Corporate Taxes (KALW)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Your Call: The U.S.-Africa Summit and Corporate Taxes (KALW)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal discusses President Obama's interview with The Economist, and explains the administration's relationship with big business. His segment begins at 34:00.

Libertarian Fantasies (NYT)

Paul Krugman says that the libertarian vision of society bears little resemblance to reality, and references Mike Konczal's recent piece on libertarians and basic guaranteed income as an example.

Paul Ryan's Magical Poverty Tour (AJAM)

Susan Greenbaum points to an existing welfare block grant – the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program – as proof that Ryan's plan would not serve enough of the eligible families.

Franchise Association Sues Over Seattle’s $15 Wage (MSNBC)

The law requires large businesses, including franchisees, to raise wages faster than smaller ones. Franchisees claims this discriminates against their business model, reports Ned Resnikoff.

Decline in 'Slack' Helps Fed Gauge Recovery (WSJ)

Pedro da Costa explains how the gap between economic resources we have and those that we use, particularly in the labor market, is influencing Federal Reserve decisions about interest rates.

Fed's Fischer Calls U.S. and Global Recoveries Disappointing (Reuters)

Howard Schneider reports on Federal Reserve Vice Chair Stanley Fischer's concerns regarding how central banks must respond to the possibility of permanently slowed growth post-recession.

‘Eat Your Vegetables’ Is Easier for Low-Income Mothers Who Get Help (Pacific Standard)

A new study shows financial incentives at farmers' markets do work to increase vegetable consumption, writes Avital Andrews, which makes a strong case for government nutrition incentives.

Share This

Daily Digest - August 8: The Man with the Misguided Anti-Poverty Plan

Aug 8, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Paul Ryan’s Magical Thinking (The Baffler)

Paul Ryan's belief that poverty is rooted in personal failure isn't the only problem with his anti-poverty plan, writes Ned Resnikoff. It's also impractical to implement and too easily abused.

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Paul Ryan’s Magical Thinking (The Baffler)

Paul Ryan's belief that poverty is rooted in personal failure isn't the only problem with his anti-poverty plan, writes Ned Resnikoff. It's also impractical to implement and too easily abused.

An Interview With the President (The Economist)

While discussing corporate responsibility in this wide-ranging interview, President Obama points out that companies profess to care about social issues, but only lobby for their tax breaks.

Let's Do It! Let's Bring Back Earmarks! (HuffPo)

Ending earmarks has done nothing to reduce American cynicism about government's motives, and has contributed to congressional gridlock, writes Jason Linkins.

When U.S. Companies Skip the Country to Dodge Taxes, Their Shareholders Can Foot the Bill (Quartz)

Since shareholders are hit with a capital gains tax bill when companies use inversion (merging with a foreign company) to avoid taxes, Tim Fernholz says raising those rates could slow the problem.

These 7 Charts Show Why the Rent Is Too Damn High (MoJo)

Erika Eichelberger and AJ Vicens lay out the data explaining shifts in rental housing. They say that reducing government's role in housing finance could direct funds toward affordable rental housing.

New on Next New Deal

Without Public Investment, the U.S. Will Fall Into Chaos

In her video speculation for the Next American Economy project, Sarah Burd-Sharps, Co-Director of Measure for America, predicts that fiscal moderates will push public investment out of fear of a more costly future.

The Pragmatic Libertarian Case for a Basic Income Doesn't Add Up

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal says that Matt Zwolinski's case for a basic income guarantee makes faulty assumptions about what government is already providing through welfare.

Share This

The Pragmatic Libertarian Case for a Basic Income Doesn't Add Up

Aug 8, 2014Mike Konczal

Cato Unbound has a symposium on the “pragmatic libertarian case” for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), as argued by Matt Zwolinski. What makes it pragmatic? Because it would be a better alternative to the welfare state we now have. It would be a smaller, easier, cheaper (or at least no more expensive) version of what we already do, but have much better results.

Fair enough. But for the pragmatic case to work, it has to be founded on an accurate understanding of the current welfare state. And here I think Zwolinski is wrong in his description in three major ways.

He describes a welfare state where there are over a hundred programs, each with their own bureaucracy that overwhelms and suffocates the individual. This bureaucracy is so large and wasteful that simply removing it and replacing it with a basic income can save a ton of money. And we can get a BIG by simply shuffling around the already existing welfare state. Each of these assertions are misleading if not outright wrong.

Obviously, in an essay like this, it is normal to exaggerate various aspects of the reality in order to convince skeptics and make readers think in a new light. But these inaccuracies turn out to invalidate his argument. The case for a BIG will need to be built on a steadier footing.

Too Many Programs?

Zwolinski puts significant weight on the idea that there are, following a Cato report, 126 welfare programs spending nearly $660 billion dollars. That’s a lot of programs! Is that accurate?

Well, no. The programs Zwolinski describes can be broken down into three groups. First you have Medicaid, where the feds pay around $228 billion. Then you have the six big programs that act as “outdoor relief” welfare, providing cash, or cash-like compensation. These are the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), housing vouchers and the Child Tax Credit. Ballpark figure, that’s around $212 billion dollars.

So only 7 programs are what we properly think of as welfare, or cash payments for the poor. Perhaps we should condense those programs, but there aren't as many as we originally thought. What about the remaining 119 programs?

These are largely small grants to local institutions of civil society to provide for the common good. Quick examples involve $2.5 billion to facilitate adoption assistance, $500 million to help with homeless shelters, $250 million to help provide food for food shelters (and whose recent cuts were felt by those trying to fight food insecurity), or $10 million for low income taxpayer clinics.

These grants go largely to nonprofits who carry out a public purpose. State funding and delegation of public purpose has always characterized this “third sector” of civil institutions in the United States. Our rich civil society has always been built alongside the state. Perhaps these are good programs or perhaps they are bad, but the sheer number of programs have nothing to do with the state degrading the individual through deadening bureaucracy. If you are just going after the number of programs, you are as likely to bulldoze our nonprofit infrastructure that undergirds civil society as you are some sort of imagined totalitarian bureaucracy.

Inefficient, out-of-control bureaucracy?

But even if there aren’t that many programs, certainly there are efficiencies to reducing the seven programs that do exist. Zwolinski writes that “[e]liminating a large chunk of the federal bureaucracy would obviously...reduce the size and scope of government” and that “the relatively low cost of a BIG comes from the reduction of bureaucracy.”

So are these programs characterized by out of control spending? No. Here they are calculated by Robert Greenstein and CBPP Staff.

The major programs have administrative costs ranging between 1 percent (EITC) and 8.7 percent (housing vouchers), each proportionate to how much observation of recipients there is. Weighted, the average administrative cost is about 5 percent. To put this in perspective, compare it with private charity. According to estimates by Givewell, their most favored charities spend 11 percent on administrative costs, significantly more than is spent on these programs.

More to the point, there isn’t a lot of fat here. If all the administrative costs were reduced to 1 percent, you’d save around $25 billion dollars. That’s not going to add enough cash to create a floor under poverty, much less a BIG, by any means.

Pays for Itself?

So there are relatively few programs and they are run at a decent administrative cost. In order to get a BIG, you’ll need some serious cash on the table. So how does Zwolinski argues that “a BIG could be considerably cheaper than the current welfare state, [or at least it] would not cost more than what we currently spend”?

Here we hit a wall with what we mean by the welfare state. Zwolinski quotes two example plans. The first is from Charles Murray. However, in addition to the seven welfare programs mentioned above, he also collapses Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and social insurance more broadly into his basic income. If I recall correctly, it actually does cost more to get to the basic income he wants when he wrote the book in 2006, but said that it was justified because Medicare spending was projected to skyrocket a decade out, much faster than the basic income.

His other example is a plan by Ed Dolan. Dolan doesn’t touch health care spending, and for our purposes doesn’t really touch Social Security. How does he get to his basic income? By wiping out tax expenditures without lowering tax rates. He zeros out tax expenditures like the mortgage interest deduction, charitable giving, and the personal exemption, and turns the increased revenue into a basic income.

We have three distinct things here. We have the seven programs above that are traditionally understood as welfare programs of outdoor relief, or cash assistance to the poor. We have social insurance, programs designed to combat the Four Horsemen of “accident, illness, old age, loss of a job” through society-wide insurance. And we have tax expenditures, the system that creates an individualized welfare state through the tax code.

Zwolinski is able to make it seem like we can get a BIG conflict-free by blurring each of these three things together. But social insurance isn’t outdoor relief. People getting Social Security don’t think that they are on welfare or a public form of charity. Voters definitely don’t like the idea of scratching Medicare and replacing it with (a lot less) cash, understanding them as two different things. And social insurance, like all insurance, is able to get a lot of bang for the buck by having everyone contribute but only take out when necessary, for example they are too old to work. Public social insurance, through its massive scale, has an efficiency that beats out private options. If Zwolinski wants to go this route, he needs to make the full case against the innovation of social insurance itself.

Removing tax expenditures, which tend to go to those at the top of the income distribution, certainly seems like a good way to fund a BIG. However we’ll be raising taxes if we go this route. Now, of course, the idea that there is no distribution of income independent of the state is common sense, so the word “redistribution” is just a question-begging exercise. However the top 20 percent of income earners will certainly believe their tax bill is going up and react accordingly.

So?

Zwolinski is trying to make it seem like we can largely accomplish a BIG by shuffling around the things that state does, because the state does them poorly. But the numbers simply won’t add up. Or his plan will hit a wall when social insurance is on the chopping block, or when the rich revolt when their taxes go up.

The case for the BIG needs to be made from firmer ground. Perhaps it is because the effects of poverty are like a poison. Or maybe it will provide real freedom for all by ensuring people can pursue their individual goals. Maybe it is because the economy won’t produce jobs in the capital-intensive robot age of the future, and a basic income will help ensure legitimacy for this creatively destructive economy. Heck, maybe it just compensates for the private appropriation of common, natural resources.

But what won’t make the case is the idea that the government already does this, just badly. When push comes to shove, the numbers won’t be there.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

Cato Unbound has a symposium on the “pragmatic libertarian case” for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), as argued by Matt Zwolinski. What makes it pragmatic? Because it would be a better alternative to the welfare state we now have. It would be a smaller, easier, cheaper (or at least no more expensive) version of what we already do, but have much better results.

Fair enough. But for the pragmatic case to work, it has to be founded on an accurate understanding of the current welfare state. And here I think Zwolinski is wrong in his description in three major ways.

He describes a welfare state where there are over a hundred programs, each with their own bureaucracy that overwhelms and suffocates the individual. This bureaucracy is so large and wasteful that simply removing it and replacing it with a basic income can save a ton of money. And we can get a BIG by simply shuffling around the already existing welfare state. Each of these assertions are misleading if not outright wrong.

Obviously, in an essay like this, it is normal to exaggerate various aspects of the reality in order to convince skeptics and make readers think in a new light. But these inaccuracies turn out to invalidate his argument. The case for a BIG will need to be built on a steadier footing.

Too Many Programs?

Zwolinski puts significant weight on the idea that there are, following a Cato report, 126 welfare programs spending nearly $660 billion dollars. That’s a lot of programs! Is that accurate?

Well, no. The programs Zwolinski describes can be broken down into three groups. First you have Medicaid, where the feds pay around $228 billion. Then you have the six big programs that act as “outdoor relief” welfare, providing cash, or cash-like compensation. These are the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), housing vouchers and the Child Tax Credit. Ballpark figure, that’s around $212 billion dollars.

So only 7 programs are what we properly think of as welfare, or cash payments for the poor. Perhaps we should condense those programs, but there aren't as many as we originally thought. What about the remaining 119 programs?

These are largely small grants to local institutions of civil society to provide for the common good. Quick examples involve $2.5 billion to facilitate adoption assistance, $500 million to help with homeless shelters, $250 million to help provide food for food shelters (and whose recent cuts were felt by those trying to fight food insecurity), or $10 million for low income taxpayer clinics.

These grants go largely to nonprofits who carry out a public purpose. State funding and delegation of public purpose has always characterized this “third sector” of civil institutions in the United States. Our rich civil society has always been built alongside the state. Perhaps these are good programs or perhaps they are bad, but the sheer number of programs have nothing to do with the state degrading the individual through deadening bureaucracy. If you are just going after the number of programs, you are as likely to bulldoze our nonprofit infrastructure that undergirds civil society as you are some sort of imagined totalitarian bureaucracy.

Inefficient, out-of-control bureaucracy?

But even if there aren’t that many programs, certainly there are efficiencies to reducing the seven programs that do exist. Zwolinski writes that “[e]liminating a large chunk of the federal bureaucracy would obviously...reduce the size and scope of government” and that “the relatively low cost of a BIG comes from the reduction of bureaucracy.”

So are these programs characterized by out of control spending? No. Here they are calculated by Robert Greenstein and CBPP Staff.

The major programs have administrative costs ranging between 1 percent (EITC) and 8.7 percent (housing vouchers), each proportionate to how much observation of recipients there is. Weighted, the average administrative cost is about 5 percent. To put this in perspective, compare it with private charity. According to estimates by Givewell, their most favored charities spend 11 percent on administrative costs, significantly more than is spent on these programs.

More to the point, there isn’t a lot of fat here. If all the administrative costs were reduced to 1 percent, you’d save around $25 billion dollars. That’s not going to add enough cash to create a floor under poverty, much less a BIG, by any means.

Pays for Itself?

So there are relatively few programs and they are run at a decent administrative cost. In order to get a BIG, you’ll need some serious cash on the table. So how does Zwolinski argues that “a BIG could be considerably cheaper than the current welfare state, [or at least it] would not cost more than what we currently spend”?

Here we hit a wall with what we mean by the welfare state. Zwolinski quotes two example plans. The first is from Charles Murray. However, in addition to the seven welfare programs mentioned above, he also collapses Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and social insurance more broadly into his basic income. If I recall correctly, it actually does cost more to get to the basic income he wants when he wrote the book in 2006, but said that it was justified because Medicare spending was projected to skyrocket a decade out, much faster than the basic income.

His other example is a plan by Ed Dolan. Dolan doesn’t touch health care spending, and for our purposes doesn’t really touch Social Security. How does he get to his basic income? By wiping out tax expenditures without lowering tax rates. He zeros out tax expenditures like the mortgage interest deduction, charitable giving, and the personal exemption, and turns the increased revenue into a basic income.

We have three distinct things here. We have the seven programs above that are traditionally understood as welfare programs of outdoor relief, or cash assistance to the poor. We have social insurance, programs designed to combat the Four Horsemen of “accident, illness, old age, loss of a job” through society-wide insurance. And we have tax expenditures, the system that creates an individualized welfare state through the tax code.

Zwolinski is able to make it seem like we can get a BIG conflict-free by blurring each of these three things together. But social insurance isn’t outdoor relief. People getting Social Security don’t think that they are on welfare or a public form of charity. Voters definitely don’t like the idea of scratching Medicare and replacing it with (a lot less) cash, understanding them as two different things. And social insurance, like all insurance, is able to get a lot of bang for the buck by having everyone contribute but only take out when necessary, for example they are too old to work. Public social insurance, through its massive scale, has an efficiency that beats out private options. If Zwolinski wants to go this route, he needs to make the full case against the innovation of social insurance itself.

Removing tax expenditures, which tend to go to those at the top of the income distribution, certainly seems like a good way to fund a BIG. However we’ll be raising taxes if we go this route. Now, of course, the idea that there is no distribution of income independent of the state is common sense, so the word “redistribution” is just a question-begging exercise. However the top 20 percent of income earners will certainly believe their tax bill is going up and react accordingly.

So?

Zwolinski is trying to make it seem like we can largely accomplish a BIG by shuffling around the things that state does, because the state does them poorly. But the numbers simply won’t add up. Or his plan will hit a wall when social insurance is on the chopping block, or when the rich revolt when their taxes go up.

The case for the BIG needs to be made from firmer ground. Perhaps it is because the effects of poverty are like a poison. Or maybe it will provide real freedom for all by ensuring people can pursue their individual goals. Maybe it is because the economy won’t produce jobs in the capital-intensive robot age of the future, and a basic income will help ensure legitimacy for this creatively destructive economy. Heck, maybe it just compensates for the private appropriation of common, natural resources.

But what won’t make the case is the idea that the government already does this, just badly. When push comes to shove, the numbers won’t be there.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

Share This

Pages