We Need to Reverse the Neoliberal Coupon Welfare State

Mike KonczalI finally got around to reading Mike Konczal’s excellent paper (from two years ago), No Discount: Comparing the Public Option to the Coupon Welfare State. It looks at neoliberal policy where rather than providing services directly, the government gives people coupons (generally called “vouchers”) to buy whatever it is on the open market. The most notable recent example of this is Obamacare.

Note that I said these are neoliberal policies. In general, conservatives are for such policies too. But I don’t think it is any secret that conservatives generally want to use such policies as a way to destroy the programs the same way they do with block grants. A good example of this is discussed in Konczal’s paper: unemployment.

The idea would be to create “personal accounts” where part of anyone’s salary would go into an account to be used (until it was exhausted) to cover for unemployed periods. Konczal noted that unemployment insurance has all the common advantages of government provided programs like efficiency[1], as well as none of the disadvantages of vouchers. In particular, the whole “personal accounts” system would create a whole extra layer of private bureaucracy to go along with the government bureaucracy.

But to get an idea of the general idiocy of the neoliberal approach to welfare, you can’t do better than Konczal’s blog post introducing the article, New Paper: Against the Coupon State. Since I have such a great love of libraries, this example really appeals to me:

Imagine if current neoliberal policymakers had to sit down today and invent the idea of a library. What would it look like? They’d likely create a tax credit to subsidize the purchasing and reselling of books, like much of our submerged welfare state. They might require a mandate for people to rent books from approved private libraries run by Amazon or Barnes and Noble, with penalties for those who don’t and vouchers for those who can’t afford it, like the recent health care expansion.

Or maybe they’d create means-tested libraries only accessible to the poor, with a requirement that the patrons document how impoverished they are month after month to keep their library card. Maybe they’d also exempt the cost of private library cards from payroll taxes. Or let any private firm calling itself a library pay nothing in taxes while exempting their bonds from taxation and insuring their losses by, say, paying for books that go missing. You can imagine them going through every possible option rather than the old-fashioned, straightforward, public library, open to all, provided and run by the government, that our country enjoys everyday.

Given this, why do we even consider such neoliberal approaches to problems? I think it has almost nothing to do with solving the direct problems. I think the business community spent many decades salivating at all the money in various welfare programs from Social Security onward. And they started asking themselves, “How can I get a slice of that?” So they began spinning this lie that if the private sector were involved: poof! Suddenly everything would be more efficient. But that not only wasn’t true, it had nothing to do with the impetus of the neoliberal policy.

We all know what the New Democrats brought to us: acceptance of social liberalism and an embrace of economic conservatism. It was libertarianism lite.[2] And that’s why I push against the Clintons and Obamas of the Democratic Party. These policies aren’t effective. What’s more, they aren’t popular. Your average American is just the opposite: socially conservative and economically liberal. But these policies are popular among the big spending donors.

And they are destroying our country—not just by eliminating economic liberalism but also by causing the Republican Party to go off the deep end. The modern Democratic Party is more conservative on economic issues than the 1972 Republican Party. What did the New Democrats think was going to happen when they took this hard right turn on economics? It was predictable that the Republicans would get lost down the rabbit hole of conservative-land.

So we are left with ever decreasing support for coupons like food stamps. But the rich are doing better than ever. This trend needs to reverse.


[1] I often think that conservatives claim so shrilly that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector because they know what a crock it is. Regardless, in these cases, the government has many advantages over the private sector.

[2] The fact that actual libertarians didn’t rush to the Democratic Party after Bill Clinton was elected should tell you all you need to know about the real motivations of that movement.

The Rebirth of Debtors’ Prison

Debtors' Prison

Thomas Edsall wrote a great article at The New York Times yesterday, The Expanding World of Poverty Capitalism. The base story is not exactly breaking news, but the situation only gets worse. Basically, we have a system where state and local governments don’t feel like they can raise taxes so they raise funds in ways that don’t require it. And these ways are highly regressive taxes by another name.

We have been seeing a perfect example of this in Ferguson. Last year, just over 20% of the city’s revenues came from court fines. This is almost double what it was just two years before. That’s money that comes almost exclusively from the poor. But the government can claim it isn’t a tax increase. And in a technical sense, it isn’t. But what it is is a system that is far worse. Another fun fact from our friendly Ferguson police department is that these fines are applied far more to blacks than whites.

But the issue is much bigger than this. The problem seems particularly bad in Georgia, but that is doubtless just because the innovations of this laboratory of democracy haven’t fully made it out. Rest assured: they are coming to a red state near you, and parts have already arrived. Of particular concern are private probation companies. Instead of the government paying for probation officers and all that, the poor souls caught up in the system are just sent to these private companies, which they must pay. According to Human Rights Watch, there is “virtually no transparency about the revenues” of these companies. The poor just pay and the government doesn’t care.

But the great thing about them is that if someone on probation isn’t able to pay the private company, the company can have them sent to jail. If this sounds like debtors’ prisons, that’s pretty much true. Think of Georgia as a pilot program. Of course, there have long been debtors’ prison type laws in the United States. In the simplest of cases, if people on supervised probation are not able to pay their fees they will go to prison. This is clearly wrong, as it would never happen to a rich person. But what’s new here is that private companies are using the criminal justice system to imprison people who don’t pay what the companies think they are owed.

I think it is fair to say that this only gets worse over time. And as more and more government functions get privatized, we will see more of this. And at some point, it will only seem natural that people go to jail when they can’t pay their debts to Citibank. And what’s this business about bankruptcy? After all, throughout my life it has gotten harder and harder to get bankruptcy. Even though that’s bad for the economy as a whole. It’s great for credit card companies and that’s all that matters!

The bigger issue here is that the political elite just get better and better at shifting the cost of government from the rich to the poor. I’ve argued for a long time that the rich may talk about a flat tax, but they would never be satisfied with it. As it is, total tax burden in this country is only slightly progressive. But what they want is a regressive tax system. It isn’t about fairness. It’s about power. And the rich have power and the poor don’t.

But let me leave you with Thomas Edsall’s hopeful words:

What should be done to interrupt the dangerous feedback loop between low-level crime and extortionate punishment? First, local governments should bring private sector collection charges, court-imposed administrative fees, and the dollar amount of traffic fines (which often double and triple when they go unpaid) into line with the economic resources of poor offenders. But larger reforms are needed and those will not come about unless the poor begin to exercise their latent political power. In many ways, everything is working against them. But the public outpouring spurred by the shooting of Michael Brown provides an indication of a possible path to the future. It was, after all, just 50 years ago—not too distant in historical terms—that collective action and social solidarity produced tangible results.

Perhaps. But the truth is that our political system is designed to make it as hard as possible for the poor to participate in our democracy. But I still have a little hope that we can overcome this.

Michael Brown Was No Pelican

Michael BrownOn Monday, The New York Times published an article by John Eligon, Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise. And as usual, Ta-Nehisi Coates was there to call foul, Michael Brown’s Unremarkable Humanity. He was particularly upset with the sentence, “Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life.” It is a problematic framing.

Coates noted that that he was much the same at that age. Humans are humans—none of us are angels at any age. What’s shocking is that, in my experience, all teenage boys are horrible at least some of the time. And what’s happened to Michael Brown is that he’s had a narrative developed for him that denies his humanity. (In Eligon’s defense, he’s trying to do exactly the opposite of this.) Various parts of his life have been crammed into a stereotype. And whether we want to admit it or not, that stereotype is “frightening young black man who deserves to be killed.”

Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart did a great segment, “Race/Off.” It’s about the coverage of the Michael Brown killing by Fox News and it shows how disconnected it is from reality—or rather, just how determined it is to find, “Cop good! Unarmed black man baaad!” Of course, at the Bundy Ranch, it was, “White bigot good! Cops baaad!” But whatever. There is also a nice response to the “Why don’t black leaders care about black-on-black crime in Chicago?!” conservative meme. (Note: on social media you constantly hear conservatives talk about crime in Chicago, even though it doesn’t have the highest crime rate. Why is it mentioned? Because Chicago is the favored example of Fox News and other conservative media outlets. They are just parroting what they’ve heard.)

It’s very interesting that Fox News got Mark Fuhrman to come on and say, “The only racial divide that is created here is created by the race baiters.” I know if I were covering a white cop killing an unarmed black teen, my go-to man would be the racist cop from the OJ trial. But what most struck me in this segment was the one commentator who said, “You know who talks about race? Racists!” That’s textbook racial demagoguery. It is meant to shut down discussion. And it is the conservative take on racism, “If we pretend racism doesn’t exist, it doesn’t!”

Ta-Nehisi CoatesNote that this is the network that talks excessively about race. Since the shooting, Bill O’Reilly has done little but talk about cultural dysfunction in African American communities. They can’t seem to talk about young black people without complaining about sagging pants. (In my community, most white boys have sagging pants too, so I hardly think it says anything other than that black kids are not long for that fashion trend.) So Fox News wants to talk about race. Their issue is talking about it in any way that would indicate that it isn’t just a problem with blacks.

In this context (which is far bigger than Fox News and the rest of the conservative media), of course Michael Brown is reduced to a stereotype. Note how it was reported from the beginning. His behavior at the convenience store was what would have been reported as shoplifting under normal circumstances. But it was reported as a robbery. “Robbery” implies a weapon as well as the taking of cash. So why wasn’t it reported as shoplifting? I think we know the answer: shoplifting is something a lot of kids do; shoplifting is a minor crime; shoplifting is not dehumanizing.

As a society we tend to see our own children as the complex creatures they are. If our children are caught shoplifting or vandalizing or almost anything else, we don’t label them as bad and forget them. But as a society we do it to their children, especially when they are black. And in this case, we have a police department with a very big motivation to paint Michael Brown in that way, and the media have just followed along. So in this way, noting that he was “no angel” is problematic. It’s technically true, but it is also technically true that Michael Brown was “no pelican.” But no one feels the need to point out that the dead teen, like all other humans, was not a member of the “genus of large water birds comprising the family Pelecanidae.”

Rebecca Clarke

Rebecca ClarkeOn this day in 1886, the great violist and composer Rebecca Clarke was born. Sadly, she didn’t write all the much—her longest piece is the twenty odd minute Rhapsody. But because of this, it is all the more notable just how complex her tonal pallet is. The Rhapsody is especially intriguing given the way it supplements her traditionally impressionist style with atonal elements. But unlike Schoenberg, these elements come and go—adding to the dramatic structure of the piece. It’s quite an amazing work:

Clarke faced what can only be described as comical sexism. In 1918, she performed a recital with a number of new pieces by her. One of the pieces, Morpheus was credited not to her, but to “Anthony Trent.” The critics all praised it and ignored the ones she had put her own name to. Now, it is true that Morpheus is a heartbreakingly beautiful piece, but undoubtedly it would have been criticized for that very fact had it been presented under Clarke’s own name. Here it is; it is a wonderful piece:

The following year, she entered her Viola Sonata into a composition competition. She ended up tying with the great composer Ernest Bloch. There was much speculation at the time that “Rebecca Clarke” might be a pseudonym used by Bloch. According to Wikipedia “or at least that it could not have been Clarke who wrote these pieces, as the idea that a woman could write such a work was socially inconceivable.” Of course, even at that time there were great female composers, most notably (for me), Germaine Tailleferre. But facts never stand in the way of prejudice.

Here is a performance of the Viola Sonata with Molly Carr on the viola and Yi-Fang Huang on piano:

Happy birthday Rebecca Clarke!