Our American Discourse, Ep. 4: The Ethics of Governing

Democracy is a dialogue. It requires our leaders to ask, to listen, and to react. Good governance thus hinges on conversation and consent—and whether we like it or not, conflict. Planners and policymakers have to balance competing needs, never more so than in today’s polarized environment. How do they do the right thing? Does such a thing even exist? Citizenship demands that we engage with these uncomfortable questions, especially in this troubled era.

In this episode, we find sagacity and even humor in the hard work of ethical governing with Lisa Schweitzer.

Prof. Schweitzer is an associate professor of urban planning in the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. She teaches classes in city life and structure, justice in public policy, and public transit. Her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. She blogs regularly, provocatively, and wittily at lisaschweitzer.com.

To listen to this episode of Our American Discourse, click the orange arrow in the Soundcloud player at the top of this post. Or you can download it and subscribe through iTunes, Soundcloud, or Google Play.

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“Our American Discourse” is produced by Aubrey HicksJonathan Schwartz, and myself, and mixed by Corey Hedden.

The Grand Republican Strategy: We Win, You Pay!

On a recent trip to London, I got into a conversation with a wealthy oil and gas investor about climate change. He didn’t disagree we need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, he said. His job is to make sure the lights in our homes still turn on while we make the transition.

Fair enough, I said. Would you support a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program to speed up the transition?

“Sure,” he said, to my surprise, without hesitation. “As long as the revenue is spent on new technologies, and not given away to poor people.”

Ah. There’s always a catch.

At first, I thought it was a strange caveat, especially since we’d just got done talking about income inequality, an issue that he seemed quite concerned about. It wasn’t until I saw the Republican presidential hopefuls unveil their new economic plans that it all made sense:

I really want to do the right thing, he’s saying, as long as I don’t have to pay for it.

Carbon Tax BurdenThe reason for his concern, by the way, is that poor people have to spend a higher percentage of their income on oil and gas than rich people, so the burden of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program would fall the hardest on them. Many people think that’s unfair since (a) they’re already strapped for cash and (b) they’re not the ones profiting from all the carbon emissions. So progressive proposals usually include a rebate of some sort to ease their cost.

Our friend the oil-and-gas investor would rather give that money to — surprise, surprise — corporate America.

This, I realized, is the grand strategy of the new “reformocon” movement in the Republican party. No longer can a Republican run for president without admitting that the government must do something about our nation’s most pressing problems — but neither can he ask his friends in the One Percent to pay for it. Thus is born a new slogan: We win, you pay!

Mike Lee and Marco Rubio, two of the leading reformocons in the Senate, put this strategy to the test earlier this month when they released an ambitious tax plan centered around an expansion of the Child Tax Credit for middle-income households. Sounds great, right? Rather than cutting government spending for the middle class, these Republicans want to spend more. Heaven knows they could use it, after decades of dismal income growth. But who will pay for it?

Certainly not the rich. The Lee-Rubio plan eliminates taxes on investments, where they get most of their income, and it lowers the corporate tax rate and the income tax rate for the top bracket. Add it all up, and it turns out to be an enormous tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and barely any relief for everyone else.

Republican Budget CutsAnd what happens when all these tax cuts increase the budget deficit by $400 billion a year? Well, if recent history is any indicator, these same Republicans will scream “Crisis!” and demand spending cuts. If you’re wondering where those cuts will come from, look no further than the latest Republican budget, which gets two-thirds of its cuts from programs that help low- and moderate-income households. It scorches their budgets by 40 percent!

So, who will pay for the reformocons’ new plans? You know who.

No sooner had the ink dried on Marco Rubio’s deceptive debut than his presidential competitor Jeb Bush announced, in a speech about income inequality, that he would abolish the federal minimum wage.

Among the reformocon movement, Jeb Bush is not alone in this desire. You may wonder how they can expand the Child Tax Credit in one breath and abolish the minimum wage in the next, since the two policies are basically intended to help the same people?

It’s very simple really, once you understand the “we win, you pay” principle. Wages are paid by corporations. Tax credits are paid by…well, you just saw who, and it ain’t the corporations.

So, for the reformocons: Tax credits, good. Wages, bad.

The most egregious example of this strategy is our first official presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, who’s advocating a “flat tax,” charging the same rate to everyone, regardless of their income. For that to work, he’d have to raise taxes significantly on most Americans in order to cut them significantly for the richest Americans because the only way to raise the same amount of revenue is to find a rate somewhere in the middle of what the two groups pay now. It’s basic arithmetic.

But you never hear the reformocons talk about arithmetic in their speeches. They talk about inequality and upward mobility and the American middle class. They talk about all sorts of expensive new plans, and they never mention that there’s a catch.

They can’t mention the catch because it undermines the entire point of their reforms. If they win, you pay. And if you pay, they’re not helping you after all.

So, who are they helping? You know who.

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This op-ed was originally published in the Huffington Post.

New Data Settles the Debate: Obamacare Is Making Health Insurance More Affordable, Not Less

Change in Obamacare Premiums, 2014-2015

It’s that time of year again.

No, not the holiday season. I’m talking about Obamacare season.

In the second year of our new annual tradition, the exchanges are open for enrollment, which begs the question: What have we learned since last time? Were the naysayers proven right, or did Obamacare really make health insurance more affordable, as was intended?

With a new year of data to answer these questions, once more into the breach we go…

At this time last year, the inaugural enrollment period was not going well. The website was malfunctioning, people were losing plans they wanted to keep, and the media was running scare stories about “sticker shock.” I argued, on the contrary, that the website would get fixed in a hurry, most people were getting better plans, and the exchanges were actually reducing the cost of health insurance.

The first prediction was clearly vindicated. The website got fixed, and 8 million Americans enrolled.

The second prediction was also a victory for Obamacare. Before the exchanges opened, 16.4 percent of Americans were uninsured. A year later, only 11.3 percent were uninsured.

And this isn’t only due to the Medicaid expansion. In states that did not expand Medicaid, the uninsured rate fell from 18.2 percent to 13.8 percent. Clearly, the exchanges didn’t just replace old plans. They created new ones for people who didn’t have any.

They didn’t reduce coverage. They expanded it.

And according to the latest Gallup poll, the people who got that coverage are just as happy with it as the people with non-exchange insurance — and the people on the exchange are actually happier with their costs than everyone else.

Which brings us to the third prediction. This one was more controversial.

Earlier this year, I analyzed the many studies of pre- and post-Obamacare costs and came to the conclusion: “On average, Obamacare clearly lowered the cost of health insurance.”

Two of the experts who wrote one of those studies, Paul Howard and Yevgeniy Feyman, disagreed with me. They argued that I misinterpreted their estimates by comparing Kaiser’s estimate for all ages to their estimate for 27-year-olds. But they’re the ones who made the mistake. Apparently, they misread the Kaiser estimate I cited, which referred to 18-to-34-year-olds, not all age groups. I chose this estimate specifically because it was comparable to theirs.

Then, they cited other studies that used the same faulty methodology that they used, and they claimed that I “ignored” those studies — when in fact I explained exactly why those kinds of studies were inaccurate.

Finally, they suggested that I was conflating premiums before subsidies with the cost after subsidies, overlooking the price paid by taxpayers. At this point, I was wondering whether they even read my original article, where I made a clear distinction between the two. The evidence suggested, I wrote, that the average premium increase before subsidies was small — maybe zero. And even if it did increase, that increase was due to people buying more generous plans because now they could afford them. And the point of the subsidies was to make health insurance costs go down for the people who needed it the most — which is exactly what happened.

Whew. You can see what I meant when I said it was controversial.

The good news is, now we have a second year of data to settle the debate, and this data is better because we can compare the same level of plans with the same amount of coverage on the same exchanges, apples-to-apples, as opposed to the pre-Obamacare plans, which were all over the map. Literally.

The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation has examined the “benchmark” silver plans in major cities in all 50 states, and they’ve found that the monthly premiums have increased 2 percent, on average, since last year. That is slower than health insurance premiums have grown in any year since we’ve started recording the data. Only a couple years ago, health insurance costs were growing 5 percent per year. During the Bush administration, they were growing more than 10 percent per year. Two percent is unheard of.

And that’s only the average. In nearly half of those cities, premiums are falling on the exchanges. That’s unprecedented. Health insurance premiums almost never fall. And when you compare premiums after subsidies, 90 percent of cities are paying less than they did last year!

Now, maybe you still don’t like Obamacare. Maybe you’d prefer a simpler, cheaper system. (Who wouldn’t?) But there is one thing you simply cannot deny: Over the past year, health insurance has become more affordable for the non-group market, and the result will be better health care for millions of Americans who need it and wouldn’t have it if Obamacare didn’t exist.

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This op-ed was originally published in today’s Huffington Post.

The Minimum Wage Shows Why (and How) We Should Vote Today

It is time for the states to lead.

Every once in awhile in the history of this great country of ours, the federal government just can’t get the job done. Partisan gridlock, constitutional uncertainty, public distrust all play a role. But one of the great strengths of the American system is that the states — those laboratories of democracy, as Louis Brandeis called them — can act when Washington will not. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, health care reform, gay rights: All started at the state level.

This is one of those times. Our national system is inert. Our national leaders are mired in the muck of inaction.

And yet there is hope. For today is Election Day, and on this day, we will elect 36 governors. This is no time to stay home when the polling places are open. This is a time to choose leaders who will act where Washington has not.

I can think of no better example of the choice we face as a country today than the minimum wage.

After World War II, Congress set the minimum wage at approximately half the average wage in the country. In today’s dollars, it was over $10 an hour. Earning the minimum wage, one full-time worker could support a family of three above the poverty line.

Today, the federal minimum wage is $7.25, less than 36 percent of the average wage. It’s so low that it can’t even keep a family of two out of poverty.

Unlike Social Security or Medicare payments, the minimum wage is not indexed to the cost of living. Only Congress can raise it. The last time they did so was 2009. Democrats proposed raising it again earlier this year, but the majority of senators opposed it.

The feds have failed to act. It’s time for the states to lead.

And we have ample evidence that they can. Twenty-three states already have minimum wages higher than $7.25. Five states — Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota — have an initiative on today’s ballot to increase theirs.

But not everyone is onboard.

“I don’t think it serves a purpose,” said Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker last month.

“I don’t think as governor I want to be the cause of someone losing their job,” said Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor in Texas, in explaining his opposition to raising the minimum wage. Pennsylvania’s Republican governor Tom Corbett made a similar argument when stating his opposition last year.

At least they pretended to know what they were talking about. When Republican Governor Rick Scott was asked what Florida’s minimum wage should be, he said, “How would I know?”

These men are on today’s ballot in four of our nation’s largest and most influential states.

And they are tragically out-of-step with the lessons of economic history. In a recent study, the economists Hristos Doucouliagos and T.D. Stanley survey the vast research that economists have done measuring the impact of the minimum wage in recent decades — 64 papers in total — and they find “little or no evidence” that minimum wage increases caused job losses.

On the contrary, raising the minimum wage is a clear boost to the economy. In another recent paper, the economist Arindrajit Dube found that raising the minimum wage significantly reduces the poverty rate, a finding that is consistent with the other 12 studies economists have published in recent years measuring the same effect in different ways.

Only a politician severely out-of-touch with the modern economy could think otherwise. Today’s corporations don’t have to cut back jobs when wages rise. They have to cut back profits, which are at an all-time high. In the long run, they might not have to cut back anything. Higher wages lead to higher productivity, better health, fewer strikes, lower turnover, and higher consumption, which in turn leads to more demand for their products and therefore higher profits.

Individual companies may not want to raise wages if their competitors won’t, but when everyone does it, everyone benefits.

Trying to save money by keeping the minimum wage low is like trying to improve your health by starving yourself. It’s classic shortsighted behavior, hardly the visionary leadership that we’d like to see in the governor’s mansion.

That’s why today’s election matters. In this age of do-nothing politics, it’s easy to despair, but we must remember the intent behind the design. The same founding fathers who created a federal system that resists radical change also created a state system that encourages experimentation. Today we celebrate their creation, and we direct its attention to the challenges of our time.

If the feds do not act, the states will. We the voters will make sure of it.

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This op-ed was originally published in the Huffington Post.