The Politics of Distrust


I define myself as a fiscal conservative with a social conscience, because I want to address budget deficits and income inequality at the same time.  There is so much divisiveness in politics these days that liberals accuse me of favoring austerity while, at the same time, conservatives accuse me of being soft on welfare.
The author Jay Cost has an article, “The Politics of Distrust” on this topic in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.  He says that the principal cause of this distrust is “the stubborn torpor of the American economy.”
Capture0According to Mr. Cost:

  • For roughly half a century after WWII economic growth averaged 3.6% a year.
  • Over the past 14 years, real growth has averaged only 1.7%.
  • Persistently weak economic growth has contributed to our sour civic mood in three important ways:
  1. It has prompted voters to turn against the incumbent party time and again.
  2. Underwhelming growth has heightened anxieties about economic anxiety – liberals blame the unfairness of market-based capitalism and conservatives blame the corrupting hand of government – in taxation, regulation and monetary policy.
  3. Finally, weak economic growth has damaged the credibility of the experts – the experts failed to foresee the slowdown of the early 2000s, failed to anticipate the housing bubble, failed to predict that economic growth would remain weak after it burst, and failed to implement policies to return it to our postwar norm.
  • These trends amount to a comprehensive assault on the political equilibrium of the past half century. During the postwar era public policy could evolve because broad agreement existed. Now the consensus has vanished and we are left with gridlock, indecision and drift.
  • The tonic to this stalemate is as obvious as it is elusive: economic growth that approximates the levels of the late 20th century.

Perhaps surprisingly there is a fair amount of agreement between liberals and conservatives on how to speed up economic growth. This will be the subject of my next post.

Barack Obama vs Paul Ryan: Who Is Moving Us in the Right Direction?


“If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day.  If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.”
Chinese Proverb

Several weeks ago my post, “How to Improve America’s Welfare System,” described a new proposal from the House Budget Committee (Chair, Paul Ryan) to let selected states experiment in consolidating separate federal programs such as SNAP, TANF, child-care and housing assistance programs, into a new composite Opportunity Grant Program.  The idea is to let participating states choose qualified providers who would then be held accountable for moving people off of assistance, out of poverty and into productive employment.
CaptureA recent report from the Tax Foundation compares what families pay in taxes with what they receive in government benefits.  In 2010, 60% of American families (with incomes up to $86,000) received more in federal benefits than they paid in federal taxes.  However in 2012, this percentage grew to 70% (those families with incomes up to $109,000).  In other words, the trend under Obama is for more people to be net receivers of benefits than net payers of taxes. There are two basic problems with this trend towards more and more benefits for more and more people:

  • As it stands right now, we’re making people more dependent on government programs. Instead we should be helping them become more independent and more capable of supporting themselves on their own. This would improve their quality of life.
  • Our federal government is spending way too much money and not collecting enough tax revenue to pay the bills. According to report after report from the Congressional Budget Office, the trajectory of growing debt is getting much worse and the problem will become harder and harder to rectify as we continue down this path.

My natural inclination is to be optimistic that our political process will respond to this bleak current path we’re on and that things will be turned around before we have another financial crisis.  But it is easy to imagine a course of events where this does not happen.
It’s clear what we need to do but how will this get done?


How Not to Help Black Americans


“It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges.”                                                                  Booker T. Washington, 1856 – 1915

How do we lift up the black underclass, the school dropouts, gang members, and drug dealers who become criminals and spend their lives as a drag on society?  The Wall Street Journal’s (black) editorial writer, Jason Riley, addresses this question in today’s paper, “How Not to Help Black Americans”.  As he says “Upward mobility depends on work and family.  Government policies which undermine the work ethic – open-ended welfare benefits, for example – help keep poor people poor.  Why study hard in school if you will be held to a lower academic standard?  Why change antisocial behavior when people are willing to reward it or make excuses for it?”
A few days ago, Robert Balfanz, the Director of the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, wrote in the New York Times, “Stop Holding Us Back”, that even though 80% of Americans now graduate from high school, 33% of the nation’s African-American and Latino young men will not graduate.  Half of these non-graduates go to a total of just 660 high schools out of a total of 12,600 high schools in the country.  He suggests the following:

  • Refocus such high-poverty high schools in order to identify by the middle of ninth grade the students most likely to drop out.
  • Set up early warning systems so that adults can step in at the first sign that a student is in trouble.
  • Employ additional adults to support students who need daily nagging to succeed, especially during the key transitional years in sixth and ninth grade.

Capture Such a plan has been instituted in the Chicago Public Schools as described in “Preventable Failure”.  As the above chart shows, it has led to dramatic improvement in the on-track rate of at-risk ninth graders in CPS.
These two school programs, in Baltimore and Chicago, represent what we should be doing to help all minorities, especially blacks, succeed in life.  Resources provided for such programs will do much more to eliminate poverty than expanding conventional welfare.

Why Debt Matters II. “Go for the Heart”


The author and lecturer, David Horowitz, has just published a little pamphlet,”Go for The Heart: How Republicans Can Win” describing how conservatives are being outmaneuvered on the campaign trail.
Capture“Year after year the Democrats’ campaign themes are monotonously familiar. They rely on scaring the voters by accusing Republicans of the same imaginary crimes: Republicans are a party that wages war on women, minorities, and vulnerable Americans. They don’t care about the vulnerable and the poor. Their policies inflict pain on working families to benefit the wealthy few.”
“ ’Caring’ is not one among many issues in a democratic election. It is the central one. Since most issues are complex and require too much information, voters care less about policy than about the candidates themselves. Above everything else they want to know who they can trust. Far more important to voters than a particular policy, they want a candidate or party who cares about them.”
“Behind Republican campaign failures lies an attitude that reflects an administrative rather than political approach to election campaigns. Such an approach focuses on policies for running the country and fixing problems rather than the political aspect of the electoral battle.”
In other words, fiscal conservatives must make a compelling moral case why it is so important to stop spending money that we don’t have.

  • By piling up more and more debt year after year, we are creating a huge burden for future generations. Is this the legacy we want to leave for our children and grand- children?
  • If we do not control the growth of entitlement programs, we are endangering their very existence. It’s ordinary people with average incomes who will need Social Security and Medicare when they retire. It’s our moral obligation to keep these programs sound for their sake!
  • Boosting the economy with lower tax rates has nothing to do with helping the rich. In fact, it’s the rich who benefit from the tax loopholes and preferences which must be eliminated to pay for these rate cuts to benefit the people who really need them!
  • Insisting on a work requirement for welfare recipients is demonstrating the tough love that they need to gain the dignity of becoming productive citizens. We need to give them a hand as well as a handout!

These are just a few examples of ways that conservatives can address the debt and deficit issues in a positive, and non-punitive, manner. Thanks to Mr. Horowitz I will attempt to take this approach consistently from now on.

Is It Mean Spirited to Cut Food Stamps?

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, columnist William Galston writes “In Defense of Food Stamps” that “food stamps reach their intended targets, poor and near-poor Americans. The large increase in the program’s cost over the past decade mostly reflects worsening economic conditions rather than looser eligibility standards.  Since 2000 the number of individuals in poverty has risen to 46.5 million from 31.6 million.”
Mr. Galston also states that “the number of able-bodied adults without dependents receiving benefits under the food stamp program has risen to nearly 5.5 million from under 2 million since 2008 even as work requirements for those individuals have been relaxed.  Here the critics have a case: the federal government should reconsider the waivers of current requirements it has extended to 44 states and the District of Columbia and it should consider toughening those standards.”
Congressional Republicans have proposed cutting $40 billion from the food stamp program over 10 years, or $4 billion per year.  Since the total food stamp budget is $80 billion per year, this amounts to a 5% cut.  And this 5% cut is directed precisely at those 5.5 million able-bodied adults without dependents.  Expecting these people to find a job, even if minimum wage, in return for receiving food stamps, is not asking too much.  It is really just “tough love” more than anything else.
Putting a substantial portion of these 5.5 million able bodied adults back to work would also be a big boost to the economy.  One of the biggest drags on the economy at the present time is the low labor participation rate which has dropped from about 66% to 63% since the recession began in 2008-2009.
Trying to make the food stamp program more cost effective is really just an example of what should be done across all programs of the federal government, routinely, as a matter of sound operating procedures.  It is unfortunate that ideology and political partisanship get in the way of such common sense!

Are Welfare Benefits Too High?

The CATO Institute has just released a new study “The Work Versus Welfare
Trade-Off: 2013”, which analyzes the total level of welfare benefits on a state by state basis.  The authors, Michael Tanner and Charles Hughes, show that welfare pays more than a minimum-wage job in 35 states and, moreover, in 13 states, it pays more than $15 per hour. The authors recommend that Congress and state legislatures strengthen welfare work requirements, remove exemptions from working and narrow the definition of work.  Also many states should consider shrinking the large gap between the value of welfare and work by reducing current benefit levels and tightening eligibility requirements.
Clearly welfare benefits as well as disability payments, through the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program of Social Security, have grown too large and have become a disincentive for many people to find a job.  Getting something for nothing is a moral hazard which induces an attitude of entitlement and helplessness.  It also causes the labor force participation rate to shrink and therefore hurts the economy.
Tightening up welfare payments and disability income are among the many actions
which Congress could take to speed up economic growth and lower government
spending.  We need more representatives in Washington who understand that change is needed and who can advocate effectively for policies which will get this done!

Why it’s So Hard to Get the Long-term Unemployed Back to Work


Earlier this month the economist Edward Lazear had an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal “The Hidden Jobless Disaster”, pointing out that, even though the unemployment rate has been dropping for the past four years, the employment-to-population ratio has stayed stuck at 58.5%.  This low labor participation rate means that many workers have dropped out of the labor force and stopped looking for work.  In fact the disability rolls have grown by 13% since 2009 and the number of people receiving food stamps has grown by 39%.  These disincentives help to explain why the proportion of long-term unemployed is still so very high at 37%.
The WSJ reported in April, “Workers Stuck in Disability Stunt Economic Recovery”, that the federal disability rolls have jumped from 7.1 million in December 2007, when the recession started, to 8.9 million today, which is 5.4% of the civilian workforce.  This exodus to disability costs 0.6% of GDP, a sizable chunk when GDP is only growing at an annual rate of about 2%.  Furthermore only 0.5% of federal disability recipients return to work in a given year compared to 20% for private, employer sponsored, disability recipients.
Two conclusions can be drawn from this data.  First of all, the federal government should be much stricter in establishing and enforcing work requirements for all public welfare recipients, including those on disability.  This should be noncontroversial but it won’t happen unless Congress and the President take the initiative and make it happen.
But even more important, our national leaders need to get far more serious about boosting the economy to get many more millions of the unemployed and underemployed back to work.  Fundamental tax reform would help the most but targeted deregulation and expanded foreign trade would also help a lot.  The Republicans have the strongest, free market, argument on this basic and high priority issue and they should hammer away at any Democrats, including the President, who are dragging their heels on it!

Should Welfare Recipients Be Required to Work?


On June 18, 2013, Lawrence Mead, Department of Politics and Public Policy, New York University, testified before Congress, “Making Welfare Work”, that even as the number of Americans receiving welfare has dramatically increased in recent years, welfare programs are failing to provide sufficiently strong incentives for the recipients to find work.  This has contributed to the fact that “the share of our population that is employed has recently fallen sharply compared to several European countries” such as Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
Mr. Mead shows that there are three main reasons for this: “(1) work tests in the major income programs are still limited, (2) we have neglected the problem of poor men, and (3) the disability programs are diverting too many Americans from the work force entirely”.  He points out that the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 required that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program put 50% of their cases in rigorous “work activities” by 2002.  This led to a dramatic reduction of the AFDC/TANF rolls by more than two-thirds. But since then exemptions and waivers have sharply limited the specific work activity demands which mobilized welfare recipients to hold jobs.
Even with the currently high unemployment rate, there are plenty of low-paid, low-skilled jobs available, which are suitable for welfare recipients.  After all, even a low-paid job may well provide the opportunity to learn skills as well as to develop better work habits. Congress clearly needs to strengthen work requirements for welfare.  And the incentives need to be right so that these workers keep more pay than they give up in benefits.
Putting more welfare recipients back to work will not only help control the federal budget but also give our economy a boost by increasing the size of the workforce!