Donnie in the Room

(with apologies to Ernest Lawrence Thayer)

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for Republicans that day.
They’d promised for six years that they’d repeal the ACA.
But when the caucus gathered, and they looked from man to man
They knew that not a one of them had ever had a plan.

“I’d counted on a veto,” said a rep from Tennessee.
“The blame Obama always took would fall on Hillary.
Then Pennsylvania went for Trump, and Michigan the same.
And now we run the government, we can’t just play a game.”

A colleague from Wyoming was equally concerned.
Shaking his head sadly, he stated what he’d learned.
“My hopes from the beginning always had one little flaw.
I’d pictured making speeches, never thought I’d write a law.”

Neither had the others, though they often said they would.
They knew what programs shouldn’t do, but not the things they should.
Then said a man from Texas, “We’ll never have success.
We got so used to saying No, we’ll never get to Yes.”

“I know,” said Ryan hopefully, “that’s sometimes how it feels.
But Donnie wrote the book about the art of making deals.
I know agreement’s hard to find, and deadlines closely loom.
But we can still succeed if we get Donnie in the room.”

Oh Donnie! Clever Donnie! How everyone agreed.
The plan that he campaigned on was just the one they’d need.
It ended it all the mandates! It set the markets free!
And still it covered everyone, from sea to shining sea!

“It offers better treatment,” noted one committee chair.
“And cheaper,” said another, “I know cause I was there.
You should have heard the cheering. I thought the roof would fall.
And Mexico will pay for it! No, wait, that was the wall.”

But just how would he do it? That wasn’t in their notes.
It wasn’t in the speeches that he made while seeking votes.
It wasn’t on his website, and they recognized with gloom.
They’d never reproduce it without Donnie in the room.

So Ryan checked the White House, but Donnie was away.
He wasn’t in Trump Tower, and he hadn’t been all day.
Ivanka took his message, “Call me when you can.
We can’t repeal ObamaCare without your TrumpCare plan.”

When the President returned his call, he sounded tired and mean,
As he contemplated bogey from the bunker on fifteen.
“Write whatever bill you want. I really couldn’t tell.
Content doesn’t matter, Paul. It’s all in how you sell.”

“But what about the plan you had, the one in the campaign?”
“I only planned to have a plan, that’s no cause to complain.
Grasp this opportunity, and you’ll know what to do.
I sold all the voters, now you get to come through!”

So Ryan then picked up his pen, and wrote a plan so good
It didn’t do a single thing that Donnie said it would.
And as the caucus read it, they all wanted to vote No,
Both from the left, and from the right, and from the CBO.

The Speaker counted noses, and he always came up short.
And for the ones who criticized, he had no good retort.
But Ryan still was smiling as he sorted hateful mail.
For Donnie, clever Donnie, would soon complete the sale.

Trump was back in Washington with all his awesome charm.
He flattered and he compromised and twisted by the arm.
“Those whip counts are fake news,” he said, “we’ve got the votes and more.
Everyone will back me when we take it to the floor.”

Oh, somewhere in a favored land, the people get their way,
And illness leads to treatment, even if you cannot pay.
And somewhere leaders pass the law that makes their promise real.
But there’s mourning in the caucus, Donnie could not close the deal.

The Shelter of America

It’s fitting that we gather here each year to celebrate St. Patrick and his legacy. He, too, was an immigrant. And even though he is, of course, the patron saint of Ireland, for many people around the globe, he is also the symbol of — indeed, the patron of — immigrants.

Here in America, in your great country, 35 million people claim Irish heritage, and the Irish have contributed to the economic, social, political, and cultural life of this great country over the last 200 years. Ireland came to America because, deprived of liberty, deprived of opportunity, of safety, of even food itself, the Irish believed.

And four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp, we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and we became Americans. We lived the words of John F. Kennedy long before he uttered them: We asked not what America can do for us, but what we could do for America. And we still do.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny
Friday, at the White House, standing next to Donald Trump

This week’s featured post is “Still a Muslim Ban, Still Blocked“. Next Sunday at 11 a.m. I’ll be speaking at First Parish in Billerica on the topic “The Born-Again Unitarian Universalist”. But I’m not canceling next week’s Sift. I plan to put out a weekly summary without a featured post.

This week had too much news

You kind of expect a flurry of news when a new administration takes office, but we’re two months in, and it’s not dying down. This week and next both include way too much for the average American to keep track of:

Got all that? I probably left something important out. (Oh, there are a bunch of stories about how Trump is enriching himself through the presidency and special interests are doing business with him to curry favor, if you care about things like that.)

I’m reminded of the late 80s when the Soviet Union was falling apart. One afternoon I heard a radio announcer say, without the slightest touch of irony, “In other news, today the Parliament of the Ukraine declared its complete independence.”

Friday, Rachel Maddow had another way of bringing this point home: She covered a juicy Navy bribery scandal that includes “prostitutes, $2,000 bottles of wine, fancy cigars, and lavish meals”, but can’t break through to the front pages because there’s too much else going on.

Everybody was talking about the Trump budget

Politics is all fun and games until you have to start writing down numbers and adding them up. Until then, you can fantasize about “massive” tax cuts, eliminating the national debt, big job-creating infrastructure projects, better and cheaper healthcare for everybody, taking better care of our veterans, an impervious border wall, more coal-mining jobs, and all the rest. I mean, why not? Nobody’s paying for anything yet, and each promise exists in its own universe, independent of all the others.

It’s like when college students pile into a car and head to their favorite restaurant. During the drive, they can picture the piles of great food they’re going to order. Only after the waitress distributes menus do they have to ask each other: “Does anybody have any money?”

As I said above, Trump’s budget does nothing about the deficit. During the campaign, he considered our $20 trillion national debt to be threat to national survival, but now not so much.

The overall shape of the deficit looks like this: Obama inherited a large deficit from Bush, increased it to deal with the Great Recession, and then shrank it until 2015, when it started to grow again. You may or may not consider the debt to be a serious problem. (I think it’s a symptom of problems rather than a problem in itself.) But you can’t seriously claim it’s an existential crisis that magically goes away as soon as a Republican takes office.

So far, the increased defense spending doesn’t come with any new strategy, and nobody’s too sure exactly what the money will be spent on. It’s as if dollars could go out and defend the country without manifesting as equipment or soldiers.

Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering just how much the U.S. already spends on its military. This chart comes from 2015.

Of those seven countries, four are our allies: Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, France, and Japan. India is more-or-less neutral towards us, and only China and Russia are rivals or potential enemies.

As for the cuts, it’s going to take a while to work out exactly who will be hurt by them. At this stage, we’re mostly seeing totals that will go to various departments and program offices, and can’t be sure exactly how those cuts will be distributed. But what the administration is admitting to is outrageous enough. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said:

Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward. We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.

On after-school food aid to poor children:

About after-school programs generally: They’re supposed to be educational programs, right? That’s what they’re supposed to do; they’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home get fed so they do better in school. Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that. No demonstrable evidence they’re actually helping results, they’re helping kids do better in school.

On the one hand, there’s just the hypocrisy angle here: When did the Trump administration become evidence-based? What evidence is there that increased defense spending will make us safer, or that charter schools improve education, or that anything else they want to spend money on works?

But then there’s just the disconnect from any sense of morality. What are we doing here? Feeding poor kids stuff that is reasonably nutritious and not very expensive. What’s the downside of that? At worst, maybe we’re also feeding some not-as-poor kids whose parents could afford to feed them without our help. Does that seriously bother anybody? As Mother Jones points out, there’s plenty of general research connecting nutrition to performance. If we don’t have specific proof that this particular program is boosting grades — and I’m just taking Mulvaney’s word here — how big a problem is that? If at-risk kids are getting fed, isn’t that result enough?

In general, the Trump budget points out something I’ve been harping on for years: Conservatives portray the federal government as this sinkhole that your money flows into without doing anyone any good. But when they start trying to cut the budget — and we’re not even talking about the kinds of cuts that would be needed to balance the budget or start paying down the debt — they can’t do it without taking away people’s food and healthcare.

The budget continues the pattern of the ObamaCare replacement bill: Trump screwing the people who elected him. I wonder how the voters of Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin feel about the 97% cut in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or what West Virginians think about eliminating the Appalachian Regional Commission. If you’re old and trying to stay in your home, you may suffer from elimination of the Community Block Grant program, which (among other things) helps fund Meals on Wheels.

Transportation to rural areas is going to be hit: The budget cuts the Essential Air Service program that keeps rural airports open. My hometown of Quincy, Illinois (which voted 3-to-1 for Trump) sits at the very end of a twice-a-day Amtrak route to Chicago; I’ve got to wonder if that will survive.

I’ve also got to wonder how the rural areas that Trump called “forgotten” are going to attract new employers if they become more isolated. Imagine being a small-town mayor making a pitch to a major corporation. How do you spin losing your airport and rail connection?

The New Republic thinks Trump voters won’t care about his betrayal of their interests. We’ll see.

It’s not just climate change: The government is cutting back on scientific research across the board.

“Who’s going to pay for the Wall?” Trump used to ask his crowds, who would yell back “Mexico!” The whole time he was probably thinking: “You are, suckers.

and blocking the Muslim ban again

I covered this in the featured post.

and the CBO’s devastating report on TrumpCare

Ezra Klein discusses not just what the CBO said, but what Paul Ryan then replied. His own summary: “The more help you need, the less help you get.”

and the President’s unhinged ranting

I’ve been trying to ignore Trump’s claim that Obama had wiretapped him. It’s not that I’m unwilling to believe anything bad about Obama, but I need some bit of evidence first, and Trump’s tweets are not evidence. I think the mainstream media is way too easily distracted by Trump’s ridiculous tweets.

But he is the president, and he stuck with his accusation, so Congress felt obligated to check it out. Wednesday, Devan Nunes, the Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee stated his conclusion:

Are you going to take the tweets literally? And if you are, then clearly the president was wrong.

The next day, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a joint statement:

Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.

This is noteworthy, because it’s the first indication that some Republicans in Congress hold their duty to the country higher than their loyalty to the President. May this hopeful sign blossom and bear fruit.

Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer compounded the problem by expanding the accusation to include GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s equivalent of the NSA. This, he said, quoting Fox News’ Andrew Napolitano, is why there might be “no American fingerprints” on the taps. GCHQ rejected this as “utterly ridiculous”. Rick Ledgett, second in command at the NSA called it “arrant nonsense” and told the BBC: “Of course they wouldn’t do it. It would be epically stupid.” Not even Fox News would stand by the claim. Fox anchor Shepard Smith reported:

Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano’s commentary. Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now-president of the United States was surveilled at any time, in any way. Full stop.

A British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported:

Intelligence sources had earlier told The Telegraph that both Mr Spicer and General McMaster, the US National Security Adviser, have apologised over the claims. “The apology came direct from them,” a source said.

And New York Daily News added:

James Slack, [Prime Minister Theresa] May’s spokesman, said Friday that the White House has promised not to repeat the line. He added that the British government told the U.S. the claim was “ridiculous” and should be ignored.

But Spicer subsequently denied there had been any apology, saying “I don’t think we regret anything.” Trump himself denied any responsibility for the claim:

We said nothing. All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. You shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.

Think about what this means: Trump is denying that either he or his spokespeople have any responsibility to know what they’re talking about, or to verify that what they claim is true.

For me, then, this story has turned a corner. It is no longer about anything Obama did or did not do. It’s about our President’s mental condition, and whether anything he says can be relied on. I agree with Josh Marshall:

If someone says aliens landed in their backyard and has a similar lack of any evidence whatsoever, we call that person a liar or a crazy person. We say it’s not true. Full stop.

I find myself thinking about the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy spoke to the American people, to our allies, and to the rest of the world, telling them that because of intelligence sources not publicly available, he had come to certain conclusions and was taking action that could lead to nuclear war. Many Americans were frightened by that speech, but I imagine few thought, “He’s making all that up.”

If Trump were to make a similar speech today, about, say, North Korea, how could we not wonder if he was making it all up? How could our allies not wonder? That inherent lack of credibility in the White House makes us all less safe.

but the best news of the week came from Europe

In the Netherlands, many thought Geert Wilders would continue the nationalist/xenophobic winning streak of Brexit/Trump. But it didn’t work out that way. Current Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party won 33 seats in the Dutch Parliament, with Wilders’ party second with only 20 seats.

Wilders’ positions are actually quite a bit more extreme than Trump’s were here. He wants to ban the Quran, close mosques, and completely stop immigration from Muslim countries.

Iowa’s white supremacist Congressman Steve King is a fan. He tweeted:

Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.

This is nothing new for King, who keeps a Confederate flag on his desk and has made other outrageous racial comments in the past. Not so long ago, such statements would have made him a pariah, but not in today’s Republican Party.

Angela Merkel was in town this week for an awkward meeting with Trump. Afterwards he tweeted:

Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!

As The Washington Post points out, this is nonsense. There is no proposal for Germany or any other country to pay protection money to the United States, and Germany has never agreed to such a thing.

and you might also be interested in

The quote at the top comes from this video of Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny at the White House. How is it that the leader of Ireland understands American values so much better than the leader of America?

Vox tells you way more about CAFE standards (Corporate Average Fuel Economy, the rules that make gas mileage on new cars keep going up) than you probably wanted to know. Very short version: Obama set high fuel-economy standards and Trump wants to lower them, but Obama’s standards are pretty well locked in until 2022. The 2022-2025 standards would be easier to lower, but even that gets really complicated because there are three entities involved: the EPA, the Department of Transportation, and the State of California, which has a waiver that allows it to create its own standards (which other states could adopt) if the federal ones seem too lax. Trump could try to cancel California’s waiver, but that is an arcane process of its own.

and let’s close with something meta

The Venn diagram of Venn diagrams.

Still a Muslim Ban, Still Blocked

Judges have traditionally assumed that the executive branch is best equipped to deal with national security and foreign affairs, and so courts should defer to the judgment of the President in those areas. But what if the President is acting in bad faith?

Last week I characterized the second version of Trump’s Muslim ban like this:

the revised ban is more orderly than the original, and won’t produce the same kind of drama … but the essence is the same: It’s still a Muslim ban.

The new ban avoided the chaos and obvious due-process violations that made the original so easy for the courts to strike down. So the next round of cases would have to go to the heart of the matter: Does the order arise out of an unconstitutional intent to discriminate on the basis of religion?

The three-judge appellate panel that upheld the temporary restraining order against the original ban had reserved judgment on the religious-discrimination claim, reasoning that the due-process violations already justified a TRO. I suspect it did this to preserve the unanimity of its ruling, which made a stronger statement than a 2-1 decision. (In the face of that unanimity, Trump decided to revise that ban rather than appeal to the Supreme Court.)

To justify a religious-discrimination finding (i.e., one based on the First Amendment’s prohibition against the government establishing a religion, known as the Establishment Clause), a judge would have to reach outside the text of Trump’s executive order and connect it both to the previous attempt at a Muslim ban, and to the anti-Muslim bigotry in Trump’s campaign. I wondered if judges would have the guts to do that.

This week, two did: one in Hawaii and the other in Maryland. The new order was supposed to take effect at midnight Thursday morning, but Wednesday evening a federal judge in Hawaii issued a temporary restraining order blocking it nationwide. “Temporary” means until his court has a chance to hold more complete hearings on the case, and quite likely until all appeals are resolved. Judge Derrick Watson wrote:

Because a reasonable, objective observer — enlightened by the specific historical context, contemporaneous public statements, and specific sequence of events leading to its issuance — would conclude that the Executive Order was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion, in spite of its stated, religiously-neutral purpose, the Court finds that Plaintiffs, and Dr. Elshikh in particular, are likely to succeed on the merits of their Establishment Clause claim.

Because it’s the second time around, some issues are easier, like standing: Who is sufficiently harmed by the executive order that they have grounds to sue? In this case, the State of Hawaii sued, claiming the same standing that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had already recognized the State of Washington having: The state operates a state university system, which recruits both students and faculty from the banned countries. Since Hawaii falls within the 9th Circuit, that doesn’t have to be argued again. (But there is a wrinkle: The new ban contains a more detailed process for obtaining waivers, so if this is the basis of standing, it can be argued that the case is not yet “ripe”: Perhaps the states need to wait and see how their recruited students and faculty fare in the waiver process. Judge Watson does not appear to consider this argument.)

Judge Watson also recognized the standing of Dr. Ismail Elshikh, a Muslim-American of Egyptian descent who lives in Hawaii and is the imam of the Muslim Association of Hawaii. Dr. Elshikh claims that his Syrian mother-in-law will be hindered from visiting his family in Hawaii, and also that he, his family, and his organization will suffer from the stigma that the order casts on Muslims in general.

In order not to violate the Establishment Clause, a government action must satisfy three criteria, collectively known as the Lemon Test. Judge Watson concluded that the Muslim Ban failed the first test: having  “a primary secular purpose”. (Here’s an example of secular purpose that passes muster: It’s OK for Medicaid funding to pass through Catholic hospitals, because the government’s primary purpose is to pay for medical care, not to promote Catholicism.)

Watson acknowledges that the text of the new executive order is “religiously neutral”. In other words, it does not mention Islam or any other religion by name. It applies equally to all residents of the six targeted countries, and does not apply to the majority of the world’s Muslims, who live in other countries. But he quoted the 9th Circuit’s opinion on the original ban:

It is well established that evidence of purpose beyond the face of the challenged law may be considered in evaluating Establishment and Equal Protection Clause claims.

and says that

The Supreme Court has been even more emphatic: courts may not “turn a blind eye to the context in which [a] policy arose.” … A review of the historical background here makes plain why the Government wishes to focus on the Executive Order’s text, rather than its context. The record before this Court is unique. It includes significant and unrebutted evidence of religious animus driving the promulgation of the Executive Order and its related predecessor.

Judge Watson traces the history of Trump’s explicit call for a Muslim ban, including his admission that his subsequent policy of “extreme vetting” was the Muslim ban in a new form.

Mr. Trump replied: “The Muslim ban is something that in some form has morphed into a[n] extreme vetting from certain areas of the world.” When asked to clarify whether “the Muslim ban still stands,” Mr. Trump said, “It’s called extreme vetting.”

Watson acknowledges the Trump administration’s point that judges should not look too hard for “veiled” and “secret” motives that make an action by the political branches of government unconstitutional. But he argues that there is nothing veiled or secret going on: The anti-Muslim motive has been front and center from the beginning, and the path from Trump’s original goal of a “Muslim ban” to the current order has likewise played out in public, in what he describes as “plain words”. Therefore:

Any reasonable, objective observer would conclude, as does the Court for purposes of the instant Motion for TRO, that the stated secular purpose of the Executive Order is, at the very least, “secondary to a religious objective” of temporarily suspending the entry of Muslims.

The Maryland ruling by Judge Theodor Chuang lays out similar logic. He cites many of the same public statements, and also the process by which the orders have been written:

the history of public statements continues to provide a convincing case that the purpose of the Second Executive Order remains the realization of the long-envisioned Muslim ban.

… In this highly unique case, the record provides strong indications that the national security purpose is not the primary purpose for the travel ban. First, the core concept of the travel ban was adopted in the First Executive Order, without the interagency consultation process typically followed on such matters. … The fact that the White House took the highly irregular step of first introducing the travel ban without receiving the input and judgment of the relevant national security agencies strongly suggests that the religious purpose was primary, and the national security purpose, even if legitimate, is a secondary post hoc rationale.

Second, the fact that the national security rationale was offered only after courts issued injunctions against the First Executive Order suggests that the religious purpose has been, and remains, primary.

Both opinions cite McCready County v ACLU, a 2005 Supreme Court ruling. Every time a court banned the Ten Commandments displays in McCready County’s schools and courthouses, they’d install new ones that supposedly fixed the problems the courts had cited. The case is a paradigm of a particular kind of denseness: when officials think they can achieve an unconstitutional purpose if they just get the details right.

McCready County and its religious-right fans kept reading judicial rejections as blueprints for designing the next attempt in the series, but eventually the series itself became evidence of an intent to endorse Christianity. The County argued that only the latest display mattered, and the Court shouldn’t consider the history of how they came up with it. Justice Souter disagreed:

But the world is not made brand new every morning, and the Counties are simply asking us to ignore perfectly probative evidence; they want an absentminded objective observer, not one presumed to be familiar with the history of the government’s actions and competent to learn what history has to show.

I think of McCready County’s religious displays (and the Muslim ban) like the carousing husband who believes his wife should be happy because he’s cleaned up all the telltale signs that have made her mad in the past: “I brushed the long hair off my suit, I cleaned the lipstick off my collar, I used mints to cover the alcohol on my breath … what do you want from me?”

Meanwhile, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals as a whole decided not to reconsider the decision of the three-judge panel of its members who blocked the original executive order. But five of the 25 active judges signed an opinion denouncing that ruling. The opinion was written by Jay Bybee, who you may remember from his previous job: As Deputy Assistant Attorney General under George W. Bush, he signed the famous “torture memos” that OK’d waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques. (We’re never going to forget that, Jay. If you live to be 100, the headline on your obituary will still read: “Signer of Torture Memos Dies”.)

On the Lawfare blog, Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institute has an interesting analysis: He thinks judges are giving less deference to Trump than they would to an ordinary president, because they see him as untrustworthy.

Perhaps everything Blackman and Margulies and Bybee are saying is right as a matter of law in the regular order, but there’s an unexpressed legal principle functionally at work here: That President Trump is a crazy person whose oath of office large numbers of judges simply don’t trust and to whom, therefore, a whole lot of normal rules of judicial conduct do not apply.

In this scenario, the underlying law is not actually moving much, or moving or at all, but the normal rules of deference and presumption of regularity in presidential conduct—the rules that underlie norms like not looking behind a facially valid purpose for a visa issuance decision—simply don’t apply to Trump. As we’ve argued, these norms are a function of the president’s oath of office and the working assumption that the President is bound by the Take Care Clause. If the judiciary doesn’t trust the sincerity of the president’s oath and doesn’t have any presumption that the president will take care that the laws are faithfully executed, why on earth would it assume that a facially valid purpose of the executive is its actual purpose?

And finally, speaking of crazy people, Mike Huckabee thinks Trump should just ignore the court orders, like Andrew Jackson did when he expelled the Cherokee nation from Georgia.

One measure of how far wrong things have gone is the number of shameful episodes in American history that are being cited as precedents. Here: the Trail of Tears. Previously, the Japanese internment as justification for a national Muslim registry.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I still am still trying to figure out how to deal with the higher volume of news since Trump took office. At first I thought it was just a new-administration thing. Presidents always have a bunch of stuff they promised to do “on Day 1”, but eventually things settle down to the administration making one big push at a time and its enemies trying to gin up one big scandal.

But now we’re two months in, and it’s not settling down. In the Trump administration, there are literally a dozen possible scandals brewing, any one of which might turn into something major. The many conflicts of interest don’t even seem to be scandals any more; they’re just events. Trump and his people are also trying to reform healthcare, pushing a budget whose outrages I still have not fully grasped, and trying to break the tie on the Supreme Court. They’re battling the courts over their Muslim ban. They’re running a continuous disinformation campaign against the media. And then from time to time Trump starts some totally unnecessary drama, like his baseless claim that Obama wiretapped him, which has somehow morphed into an international incident.

Beyond just keeping up with the day-to-day, we need to understand the deeper currents that push events along, like the white-nationalist influence on both Trump and his base, the combination of ambition and distrust that characterizes Trump’s relationship with the old Republican establishment and conservative ideologues, the efforts of Democrats and other liberals to organize the grass-roots resistance, and the long-term effect on democracy of a degradation of public discourse.

It defies condensing. I regularly blow past the word-count I aim for each week, while simultaneously feeling like I have left out too much.

So, this week I mainly focused on the courts: I’d been wondering whether judges would be willing to block Trump’s Muslim ban on establishment-of-religion grounds, now that the new version has cleaned up the obvious due-process violations. Two did, and that should start a new round of appeals. The featured post looks at the arguments they made in “Still a Muslim Ban, Still Blocked”. That should be out before 9 EDT.

The weekly summary will futilely attempt to cover everything else: budget, ObamaCare repeal attempt, the Dutch rejecting their own Islamophobic fascist, the wiretap claim, and all the other stuff that would dominate the news cycle in a normal week, but is slipping my mind for the moment. It should come out sometime between 11 and noon.

Basic Goals

The GOP’s real problem, in terms of passing legislation, isn’t that the party can’t agree on specifics, or that legislators need to bargain their way toward a compromise that gives everyone something they want. It’s that they don’t agree on, or in some cases even have, basic goals when it comes to health policy.

Peter Sunderman,

This week’s featured post is “Poor People Need BETTER Heath Insurance than the Rest of Us, Not Worse.

This week everybody was talking about TrumpCare

So there finally is a TrumpCare bill. Unfortunately, the promised unicorns and fairy princesses are not in it.

The Congressional Budget Office analysis is supposed to come out today, and it is widely expected to show that many millions of people will lose their coverage. Millions of others who continue to have “health insurance” of some sort will find that it costs them more and doesn’t cover as much as an ObamaCare policy did.

I could spend my entire weekly word budget telling you what’s wrong with this bill, but other people already have. Not only don’t liberals like it, but neither do conservatives, doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurance companies, neutral experts, the AARP, or just about anybody else. If you’re rich, your taxes will go down. If you’re young, healthy, and middle-class, your net insurance costs (after government subsidies and tax credits) will probably be lower than under ObamaCare. But if you’re anybody else, you’re going to be worse off.

The people who will be hurt the most are — wait for it — the Trump base: rural working-class people nearing retirement. They join the long list of folks who have trusted Trump and gotten screwed: banks and investors who loaned him money, contractors who worked on his projects, Trump U students, and people who lost down-payments on Trump Tower Tampa condos that never got built, just to name the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

It’s all summed up in a great graphic from the NYT’s Upshot blog. The people who lose the most voted for Trump over Clinton 58%-39%.

It will be interesting to see if these voters face reality and admit what has happened. During the Clinton impeachment, I remember saying that Bill had never lied to me about anything I cared about. (I never cared whether he had sex with “that woman”.) I imagine many Trump voters feel the same way about their guy: Sure, he lied about the size of his inaugural crowd, and releasing his tax returns, and maybe some other stuff, but they never cared about any of that.

This, they should care about. But will they?

Ezra Klein does a good job of analyzing how the bill got to be so bad.

The biggest problem this bill has, the more I read it, is that it’s not clear why it exists, what it’s trying to achieve, what it makes better. In reality, what I think we’re seeing here is that Republicans have lost sight of what they were trying to achieve in the first place. They are trying so desperately to come up with something that would allow them to say they’ve repealed and replaced ObamaCare, that they’ve let repeal and replace become not just a political slogan, but a goal.

Criticizing ObamaCare has been easy these last eight years, particularly if you make things up (like Death Panels). But forming a consensus view of the government’s proper role in healthcare, and figuring out how to translate that vision into a piece of legislation — that’s hard. So for eight years, Republicans have been skipping that part. And now it shows.

“It says our health insurance is being replaced by a series of tweets calling us losers.”

So the message going out to congressional Republicans now isn’t “This is good, and here’s how you explain its goodness to your constituents.” It’s “This is what we might be able to pass, and if we can’t pass something we’re all screwed.” No one is enthusiastic about this bill (other than the billionaires with their tax cut), but Ryan, Trump, et al are counting on desperation to make even the most recalcitrant Republicans hold their noses and stay in line.

That could work, but here’s the most likely failure path: Conservatives in the House force the bill to be even more draconian, so that when it reaches the Senate, Republicans from blue or purple states have enough cover to vote against it. The bill’s margin for error is slight: Since it offers no concessions to liberal values, congressional Democrats are likely to remain united against it. So 21 Republican defections in the House or 3 in the Senate are enough to sink it.

I doubt they will, but this would be a good time for Democrats to propose the changes they would like to see in ObamaCare. Such a bill wouldn’t pass, of course, but it would put a stake in the ground for 2018.

Here’s a thought: The various legitimate problems ObamaCare is having — like regions where only one or two insurers offer policies, so it’s easy for them to raise premiums — couldn’t all that be fixed by sticking a public option back into the program? You could even set it up so that a public option would only be triggered in places with insufficient competition.

and the revised Muslim ban

A week ago, Trump signed an executive order replacing his Muslim ban, which had been blocked by the courts. The Guardian summarizes what is the same and different, and lets you read the 23-page text if you’re so inclined.

In general, the revised ban is more orderly than the original, and won’t produce the same kind of drama:

  • It stops new visas from being issued to people from six (not seven) Muslim-majority countries, but honors existing visas. So the conflicts happen in distant offices, not in American airports where demonstrators can congregate.
  • Green-card holders are unaffected this time, so people who already have perfectly legal jobs and lives in America will be able to cross the border.
  • Iraq isn’t one of the listed countries any more, so victims won’t include people who worked with our soldiers there.
  • It takes effect on March 16, rather than immediately when published, so the federal employees who have to enforce it will have time to figure out how it works rather than getting briefed quickly in the middle of the night.

So the rough edges are gone, but the essence is the same: It’s still a Muslim ban. And that’s going to make for an interesting court case, because it will hang on how willing judges are to examine the intent behind the order. The administration will argue that the order’s specific provisions fall within the legal powers of the president, and the ban’s opponents will have to argue that its intent and effect is to discriminate based on religion.

Trump campaigned on banning Muslims from entering the country, which would be an unconstitutional establishment of religion. His first order was an poor attempt to disguise the Muslim ban, and the second order smooths out problems in the first. But the original purpose is still there. His supporters can claim that this is just a small subset of Muslim countries, but the intent from the beginning has been to establish a precedent that can be expanded: If a six-country ban is OK, what about nine? Fifteen?

The non-religious justifications for the order have always been paper-thin. But intent is always a difficult thing to establish, and it will take guts for a court to say openly that the President of the United States is bullshitting. A judge would always rather find a procedural flaw, as judges did with the original ban. But Hawaii has set the ball rolling by filing suit. claiming that a Muslim ban is a Muslim ban.

The central issue for the Trump base has always been nostalgia for an America clearly dominated by straight white Christians. That’s why they want a wall and that’s why they want a Muslim ban. If there were no terrorist threat, they would still want a Muslim ban.

Tweeting in support of the xenophobic, anti-Muslim candidate in the upcoming Dutch elections, Iowa Congressman Steven King wrote:

Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilisation with somebody else’s babies.

and the U.S. Attorney firings

Friday, Attorney General Sessions asked for the resignations of all the U.S. attorneys who were held over from the Obama administration, including one that Trump had specifically said could stay on. In some circles this is being covered as if it were scandalous, but at this point it’s not quite at that level. U.S. attorneys are political appointees, and usually do get replaced by a new administration. The Clinton administration replaced all 92 at once in 1993, but usually a number of them stick around to handle ongoing cases before they resign. About half of the Obama USAs were already gone, and the Trump administration had seemed content to let them drift out at their own pace. (No one, for example, has yet been nominated for the jobs of any of the 46 just asked to resign.) So the abrupt change of course is a cause for speculation, but is not in itself extraordinary.

and corruption

Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone admitted to being in contact with Guccifer 2.0, which is believed to be responsible for hacking the DNC emails and “is believed by the U.S. intelligence community to be a cover identity for Russian intelligence operatives.” Stone described the contact as “innocuous”.

The lies continue to unravel. This week, fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn retroactively filed as a foreign agent, having received more than half a million dollars to represent the government of Turkey while he was advising the Trump campaign. Worse, the transition team that OK’d Flynn’s appointment had been told about this possibility both by Flynn’s lawyers and by Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings.

Vice President Pence was the head of the transition team, and yet he told Fox News’ Brett Baier Thursday “Hearing that story today was the first I had heard of it.” That can’t be true, and yet (like Attorney General Sessions’ lie to the Senate) he volunteered it without being asked.

Where did that money from Turkey go? Some of it paid a retainer to the retired FBI agent who started one of the Clinton-scandal stories three weeks before the election. Why Turkey would care about torpedoing Hillary Clinton’s campaign is still a mystery.

and you might also be interested in

Courts seem increasingly inclined to strike down gerrymandering plans. Friday, federal judges ruled that Texas’ map illegally discriminates against Hispanics. This follows a similar ruling in January concerning Wisconsin.

The WaPo published two maps that illustrate one way congressional districts could be simpler and more natural.

The economy continues on its recent path of good-not-spectacuar growth, adding 235K jobs in February. The unemployment rate returned to the 4.7% low it hit in December.

When asked about Candidate Trump’s claims that Obama’s low unemployment numbers were “phony” and “fiction”, Sean Spicer replied:

I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly. They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.

Both Spicer and the roomful of reporters laughed, because the President tacitly admitting that he has repeatedly lied is so hilarious.

Mike the Mad Biologist commented on the constant lying that so many now just accept as a normal feature of the Trump administration:

What happens in a crisis where people need to trust Il Trumpe? Suppose a nasty strain of influenza were to hit or some other immediate public health crisis were to occur? If he says, you need to do X, will people trust him? While politicians have always stretched the truth, Trump’s lies are constant and ongoing. How could we possibly believe what he is saying?

And SNL made a similar point in its alien-invasion sketch.

I thought I covered this when it happened, but Google says otherwise: In mid-February, the Washington Supreme Court considered the appeal of a self-described Christian florist who was sued for refusing to sell flower arrangements for a same-sex wedding, and ruled 9-0 against the florist. The ruling is a good lesson on where the law currently stands on these so-called “religious freedom” cases, i.e., the ones where someone is claiming religion as a legitimate basis for discrimination.

Cases like these revolve around two claims: (1) The refused service constitutes “speech” of some sort, and so this refusal to speak is protected by the First Amendment. (2) The discrimination is not against gays per se; it’s against their action in attempting to get married.

On the first, the Court wrote:

The Supreme Court has protected conduct as speech if two conditions are met: “[(1)] [a]n intent to convey a particularized message was present, and [(2)] in the surrounding circumstances the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it.”

So it’s not enough that in the florist’s own mind her refusal was intended to avoid making a statement she didn’t believe. The Court was not convinced that people who saw the floral arrangements would interpret them as the florist’s endorsement of same-sex marriage.

On the second, it ruled that “some conduct is so linked to a particular group of people that targeting it can readily be interpreted as an attempt to disfavor that group”, and quoted a Supreme Court opinion that “[a] tax on wearing yarmulkes is a tax on Jews”.

The latest right-wing conspiracy theory is that leaks, protests, and other opposition to Trump is being organized by an Obama-led “shadow government”.

My response to this idea is like the response economist John Maynard Keynes had during the Depression to the notion of an international bankers’ conspiracy: “If only there were one.”

and let’s close with some folk art

Some people stack wood, but others make an art out of it.

Poor People Need BETTER Health Insurance than the Rest of Us, Not Worse

In every other aspect of life, we assume that the poor can get by with fewer goods of lower quality than the rest of us consume. But when it comes to health insurance, the exact opposite is true.

One common assumption runs through all our anti-poverty programs: The poor and less well-to-do don’t need to live as well as the rest of us. So public housing consists largely of small, poorly appointed apartments in bad neighborhoods, not mansions or suburban ranch houses. It is considered scandalous if food stamps are used to buy luxury foods like steak or lobster, and several states have put long lists of restrictions on how welfare benefits can be spent (even if there’s little evidence they were ever being spent that way). Conservative media often expresses surprise at how many poor families have ordinary modern conveniences like refrigerators and dishwashers, not to mention Xboxes or iPhones.

In its extreme manifestations this attitude becomes petty, but there is also some widely held common sense behind it: If I’m going to pay taxes to support someone else’s lifestyle, at the very least they shouldn’t live better than I do.

So it’s no surprise that the same idea has percolated through to healthcare policy. It’s not controversial that Medicaid patients lack the same choice of doctors as the rest of us, and may have to wait longer for an appointment. And when ObamaCare offered to subsidize health insurance for families with incomes beyond the Medicaid cut-off (which it tried to increase, but was thwarted in 19 states), the fact that many families could now only afford “bronze” plans, with high co-pays and deductibles, wasn’t a big issue: Shouldn’t they be happy to have health insurance at all?

Now that Republicans control Congress and the presidency, even ObamaCare’s bronze plans are considered too luxurious. Their ObamaCare replacement bill calls for the Medicaid extension to be phased out beginning in 2020, and its block-grant provision puts financial pressure on states to throw more and more people off of Medicaid as the years go by. Health-insurance subsidies for the working poor and lower middle class will be turned into tax credits based on age, not income, and generally made smaller. Regulations will be relaxed so that insurance companies can offer plans with fewer benefits and higher co-pays and deductibles — and presumably lower premiums. Economic necessity will force many low-income families (who will have less government help) into these low-premium, low-benefit, high-co-pay policies, or to forego health insurance altogether.

For many middle-class and upper-class Americans, these facts do not set off alarm bells. After all, it’s just common sense that the poorer people have to get by with less. What’s the advantage of making money if those with lower incomes get the same quality of health insurance we have?

In this article I want to argue that health insurance is a unique commodity, and in this instance our common sense is just wrong: The poorer you are, the better your health insurance needs to be. In this one situation, it’s the poor who should get the mansions and lobsters, while the rest of us occasionally make do with less.

I understand how outrageous that sounds. And in order explain why, I’m going to have to back up and explain the basic logic of insurance in general.

1. Even good insurance is usually a bad deal. The first thing to understand about insurance is that, if it’s going to work at all, it has to be a bad deal for most of the people involved.

That’s easiest to see in the case of fire insurance. The reason fire insurance works is that most people’s houses never burn down. If that weren’t true, if houses were burning down left and right, then insurance companies would have to charge astronomical rates that most people couldn’t afford. But it is true, so fire insurance is affordable.

My parents, for example, were homeowners for almost 60 years, and never filed a fire-insurance claim. Year after year, they paid the insurance company, and the insurance company never paid them. What a crummy deal!

Most homeowners are like that. And even the ones who do file a claim or two in their lifetimes probably still lose out: They have a little kitchen fire that requires replacing some cabinets and countertops — but nothing like the value of a lifetime’s worth of premiums.

So fire insurance is not an investment. Unless you’re planning an arson fraud, you don’t buy it expecting to come out ahead.

Even so, it’s not a stupid thing to do. The reason you buy fire insurance is to protect your vision of the future. The odds of your house burning down might be small, but a house is such a large portion of your net worth that losing it would be catastrophic. Without insurance, not only couldn’t most people rebuild anything like their original home, but everything else they had planned to do with their money — retire, pay for their kids’ education, and so on — would be up in smoke as well. The life they had envisioned before the fire would be over.

2. How much insurance you need depends on how tight your finances are. Whenever you buy an electronic gadget, the store will also try to sell you some kind of insurance. Maybe they’ll call it a “buyer’s protection plan” or an “extended warranty”, but basically it’s insurance: If something bad happens to your new phone or computer or TV, they’ll replace it.

Like all insurance, it’s a bad deal for most people. Unless you’re incredibly unlucky or accident-prone, over your lifetime you’d be better off saving up that extended-warranty money and replacing broken gadgets yourself.

But there’s a situation where you might want to pay for the insurance anyway: Imagine you’re buying a very expensive camera to start your own photography business. You’ve stretched yourself really tight to start this business, so tight that if that camera broke, you wouldn’t be able to replace it and your fledgling business would go down the tubes. Now camera insurance starts to resemble fire insurance on your house: You need it to protect your vision of the future.

In general, the right question to ask when you’re thinking about insurance is: “If I don’t have insurance and the Bad Thing happens, what happens next?” If the answer is: “I’ll replace what I’ve lost and life will go on as before”, then you don’t need insurance. But if it’s “Important aspects of my vision of the future will have to change”, you do. So a typical middle-class American doesn’t need an extended warranty on a $100 camera, but does need fire insurance on a house.

3. If you’re rich, you can do without. This aspect of insurance is hard to wrap your mind around, because it works backwards from most of the other expenses in life. For most goods and services, you expect that if you got richer you’d buy the higher-priced version. If you’re living on mac-and-cheese now, you imagine that if you got rich you’d eat filet mignon. You’d trade in your 10-year-old rust-bucket for a new BMW. The apartment you share with friends would become a sprawling private mansion, and so on. You don’t picture doing without anything.

But rich people can afford to forego insurance that poor and middle-class people need. Think about it: If you own ten houses and can afford to buy ten more, why should you insure any of them? If one of them burns down, it’s like the $100 camera: you’ll just replace it and life will go on. Insurance is a bad deal you can afford not to make.

One place where middle-class people run into this consideration is with collision deductibles on their car insurance. If you have a high deductible, you’re essentially buying less insurance, so your premiums go down. If you can go a number of years without an accident and put aside what you save in premiums, you’ll easily cover a higher deductible.

So a high deductible is a good deal if you can afford it. If you have the money lying around, a $1,000 deductible on your repair bill can be an annoyance soon forgotten. But for the working poor and even many in the middle class, an unexpected $1,000 expense can be catastrophic: You can’t repair the car at all, and then you can’t get to work, and then your life spirals down the drain of poverty.

So a well-to-do person can afford to have less insurance, but a lower-income person needs more.

4. No matter what you owe, bankrupt is bankrupt. For someone who doesn’t have sufficient savings or credit, high-deductible collision insurance can be as bad as no insurance at all. Where a middle-class person might pay $1,000 of a $10,000 repair and be glad to have insurance, a minimum-wage worker could be driven into bankruptcy by a $1,000 expense just as surely as by a $10,000 expense. And bankrupt is bankrupt, so the difference between no insurance and high-deductible insurance becomes completely invisible.

5. Poor people’s bodies work just like rich people’s bodies. One thing that hides poorer people’s greater need for insurance is that richer people own more expensive stuff. So even though a millionaire family could replace an ordinary middle-class house without breaking a sweat, it probably lives in a well-furnished-and-decorated mansion that it can’t easily replace. Ditto for the new Mercedes compared to a burger-flipper’s aging Ford. So even though the rich have many more resources with which to replace losses, the increased scale of their possible losses means that they probably spend more on insurance than the poor do.

But that reasoning doesn’t apply when you talk about health insurance. A rich guy’s body works just like a poor guy’s body. It’s prone to the same diseases and accidents and breakdowns. (Maybe more, because poor neighborhoods are likely to be more polluted, and low-paying jobs are often riskier than high-paying jobs. Not many mine owners have died of black lung disease.) If she’s going to have the same chance to survive, a poor woman’s breast cancer needs the same treatments as a rich woman’s, and those treatments cost just as much to provide.

6. What is real health insurance? Having health insurance should mean that your vision of your financial future is protected against a health catastrophe. In other words, if you get sick:

  • You get the care you need.
  • You don’t go bankrupt paying for it.

(Even if you get the care you need, you still might die or wind up unable to work, and that might wreck your vision of your family’s future. But that’s death and disability insurance, which is different topic.)

Most discussions of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. ObamaCare) center on the number of uninsured: By some estimates there were 49 million Americans uninsured before the ACA, and that number has come down by something like 20-25 million. Similarly, the percentage of Americans who tell Gallup that they’re uninsured has dropped from 18% in 2013 (before ObamaCare fully took effect) to 10.9% at the end of 2016.

What the uninsured rate ignores, though, is that many of the people who thought they were insured before the ACA only had insurance only up to a point. Millions had policies with annual or lifetime caps on the benefits, or provisions that allowed the insurance company to drop them if they got too sick. In other words, they were covered if they broke a leg slipping on the ice, but they still faced bankruptcy if they waged a multi-year battle with cancer or an expensive chronic disease like MS or HIV.

The best article about this is a Time cover story from March, 2009: Time‘s reporter on the healthcare-reform beat, Karen Tumulty, recounted how her brother thought he was insured until he was diagnosed with a chronic kidney disease.

When we talk about health-care reform, we usually start with the problem of the roughly 45 million (and rising) uninsured Americans who have no health coverage at all. But [Tumulty’s brother] Pat represents the shadow problem facing an additional 25 million people who spend more than 10% of their income on out-of-pocket medical costs. They are the underinsured, who may be all the more vulnerable because, until a health catastrophe hits, they’re often blind to the danger they’re in.

… While Pat had been continuously covered since 2002 by the same company, Assurant Health, each successive policy treated him as a brand-new customer. In looking back over Pat’s medical records, the company noticed test results from December, eight months earlier. Though Pat’s doctors didn’t determine the precise cause of the problem until the following July, his kidney disease was nonetheless judged a “pre-existing condition” — meaning his insurance wouldn’t cover it, since he was now under a different six-month policy from the one he had when he got those first tests.

The ACA did several things to turn kinda-sorta insurance like this into real insurance: eliminate caps and cancellations, as well as waivers that allowed insurance not to pay for pre-existing conditions. But there’s still a flaw.

7. Deductibles and co-pays. Just like car insurance, a healthcare policy might have a deductible: The company will only start paying after you’ve covered the first $500 or $5000 of your healthcare expenses for the year. The policy might also require co-pays: If you have 10% co-pay and run up a $1000 bill, you have to pay $100 of it.

Put together, those are called “out-of-pocket costs”, and they work just like the deductible on your car insurance: By accepting a higher out-of-pocket cost, you’re buying less insurance, so you’ll be charged a smaller premium.

And since insurance is a bad deal for most people, buying less insurance is a good deal for most people if you can afford it.

If you’re a middle-aged middle-class person and you have to pay the first $5,000 of the $200,000 treatments that cure your cancer, you’ll use the money you were saving for your next car or vacation, or get a home equity loan, or tap your IRA — and thank God you have insurance. If you’re too young to have established yourself financially yet, maybe you’ll stretch your credit cards and your middle-class parents will have to pitch in, but you’ll cover the $5,000 somehow.

Now suppose you’re a minimum-wage worker with no savings, no house, no credit, and no IRA, whose parents are in no better financial shape. To you, $5,000 is an astronomical sum; you can’t pay it, so you’ll have to go bankrupt. And bankrupt is bankrupt, whether it’s for $5,000 or $200,000.

So financially, your insurance has done you no good at all.

8. What does “affordable” really mean? ObamaCare caps out-of-pocket costs, but at a level that can be unapproachable for the working poor and lower-middle-class. The 2017 out-of-pocket limit is $7,150 for an individual or $14,300 for a family. That’s fine if you’re healthy, reasonably well off, and could afford a lower-out-of-pocket plan, but figure that you’ll come out ahead in the long run by buying less insurance. But if you’re forced into that plan because that’s the largest premium you can cover, you’re in a Catch-22: The only plan you can afford to pay the premiums on is one that you can’t afford to use.

Fortunately, the designers of ObamaCare took that into account (at least up to a point).  If your income is below a certain level — currently $29,700 for an individual and $60,750 for a family of four, increasing with each additional family member — you qualify for an additional out-of-pocket cost reduction: Below 4/5 of that number, the 2015 limit was $2,250 for an individual and $4,500 for a family, then increasing to $5,200 and $10,400. (Presumably, the 2017 limit has gone up with inflation, but I couldn’t lay my hands on it.)

I still have trouble imagining how a person making $23,760 a year comes up with $2,250, but at least it’s less than $7,150.

But that reduction is part of the income-based subsidies that are going away under TrumpCare. (This was hard to track down, but the web site has a TrumpCare page that says: “The bill … gets rid of out-of-pocket cost assistance.”) So if you could imagine someone near the federal poverty limit wriggling through the Catch-22 of ObamaCare, that door is shut under TrumpCare.

9. TrumpCare slams the door on the working poor. For now, the very poor still have Medicaid, which is designed to have low out-of-pocket costs. But TrumpCare eventually jettisons federal responsibility for Medicaid, instead giving the states block grants whose value will not keep up with healthcare inflation. So whether Medicaid will remain as usable as it is now will depend on what state you’re in.

But those just above the Medicaid level — the people who get subsidies in the ObamaCare markets now — are going to wind up without usable insurance. Because they are less well off than the average American, their need for insurance is greater: They need not just coverage, but coverage whose out-of-pocket costs they can handle. A policy that would be fine for a rich or middle-class family will do them no good at all.

The relaxed regulations on coverages and out-of-pocket costs will probably bring premiums down somewhat, but that will only create the illusion of health insurance. Many will still face the horrible choice between foregoing treatment and going bankrupt. In other words, they won’t really be insured at all.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I guess I finally have to stop saying that the Republicans have no plan for replacing ObamaCare: Their replacement legislation is out now, and it doesn’t do most of the things they claimed it would. Trump has endorsed it, despite the fact that it doesn’t do any of the things he promised during the campaign. Remember? “Better healthcare for more people at a lesser cost.”

Anyway, I don’t have to do a post outlining what’s in the bill and how bad it is, because lots of more qualified people have already done that. I’ll link to them in the weekly summary. Instead, the featured post is going to make an outrageous claim: The poorer you are, the better your health insurance needs to be. We’re so used to making the assumption that the poor should get by on less than the rest of us — smaller apartments, lower-quality food, fewer luxuries — that we automatically carry it into discussions of healthcare. So we end up arguing about how much worse low-income people’s health insurance should be instead of how much better.

In order to justify that claim, I’ll go back to first principles and write what is essentially a primer on insurance, including such stuff as why you need fire insurance on your house but you probably don’t need an extended warranty on your camera. Expect that to come out between 9 and 10 EDT.

The weekly summary will organize a bunch of other people’s analyses of TrumpCare, and also of the revised Muslim ban. I’ll briefly cover the U.S. attorney firings, and developments in the administration’s various brewing scandals. And I’ll note a question other people have raised: Now that the public has learned to discount or ignore most of what the President says, what’s going to happen if there’s a real emergency like an Ebola outbreak or a Fukushima disaster? There are certain situations where the public is inclined to panic, and it needs trusted leadership to calm it down and get everybody to do some simple things to save lives. But we don’t have trustworthy leadership. Expect that around 11.

Worrying About Progress

If you’re worried that technological progress will lead to mass unemployment — and especially if you think this process is already underway — you should be very interested in what the Federal Reserve does.

Timothy Lee

This week’s featured post is “Jobs, Income, and the Future“: Technologists worry that robots are going to make most humans unemployable, and economists scoff at that worry. Who’s right?

I was in Florida last week, where I spoke to the Unitarian Universalists of Lakewood Ranch. This group is only a year-or-so old, so I raised the question “Why Be a Congregation?

This week everybody was talking about Russia again

It’s hard to restate the situation more succinctly than Paul Begala:

1 Russia hacked Dems
2 Leaks were timed to aid Trump
3 Trump aides had contact w/Russians
4 They lied about contacts

Nope. Nothing here

So far, we have a lot of circumstantial evidence suggesting a quid-pro-quo relationship between the Trump campaign and the Putin government, but nothing that rises to the level of proof. For some reason, though, Trump’s people all start obfuscating, misdirecting, and lying whenever the subject comes up, and his allies in Congress really, really don’t want to investigate it.

That’s the mystery. Disgraced National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had to resign when it came out that he lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador (and got Vice President Pence to lie for him). And this week we found out that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied during his confirmation hearings about meeting the Russian ambassador. These are serious matters: Lying to the FBI (Flynn) and to Congress (Sessions) are both crimes. (I’m waiting for Republicans to start chanting “Lock them up!”, but so far there are no charges, and Sessions continues to be our top law-enforcement officer.) So why take those risks unless there’s something serious worth hiding?

I have to agree with Josh Marshall:

[B]ig, big scandals work like this. People who don’t even appear to be that close to the action keep getting pulled under for what seem like needless deceptions. The answer is usually that the stuff at the center of the scandal is so big that it requires concealment, even about things distant from the main action, things that it would seem much better and less damaging simply to admit.

He also makes an interesting point about cover-ups:

We’ve all heard the old saw: It’s never the crime, it’s the cover-up. This is almost never true. Covering scandals for any length of time is enough to tell you that. People are generally able to make judgments about how much trouble they’re in. We think the ‘cover up’ is worse than the crime because it’s actually very seldom that the full scope of the actual crime is ever known. The cover up works better than you think. The other reason the cover up is a logical response is that it usually works. You only find out about it when it doesn’t. So it’s a good bet.

Another Trump campaign person changed his story about how the Republican platform plank on Ukraine was softened in Russia’s favor. At the time he claimed Trump and then-campaign-manager Paul Manafort weren’t involved, but now he says they were.

Marshall makes his best attempt at an “innocent explanation” of what we know about Trump and Russia: Basically, Trump went through a period in the 90s where the only investment capital he could raise came from Russian oligarchs, and given his what’s-good-for-Trump-is-good-period narcissism, he came to share an oligarch’s worldview: Putin good, sanctions against Russia bad, and so on. Putin recognized the value Trump could have for him, and did his best to put Trump in the White House.

The administration’s response to the Sessions revelation, instantly picked up by Fox News and individual Trump fans commenting via social media, was that Democrats have also met with the high Russian officials, as if that were the problem. Chuck Schumer pointed out the lameness of this retort by volunteering to testify under oath about his 2003 encounter with Putin, and daring Trump and his people to do the same about their meetings.

The second response is to throw out a bright shiny object to distract everyone: Trump’s so-far baseless claim that President Obama wiretapped him in Trump Tower. Not only has he not explained why we should believe this, he hasn’t even said why he believes it.

Notice the response he never gets close to: If there really were no story here, he could score a lot of points with a defiant, bring-it-on attitude towards an investigation.

The Washington Post gets a legal opinion about Sessions’ false testimony to Congress:

Under Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Sections 1001 and 1621, perjury before Congress is punishable by up to five years imprisonment. To prove that offense, a prosecutor would have to establish that Sessions’s answer was false, that he knew it was false when made and that the subject matter of the answer was “material” to the congressional inquiry in which he was testifying. Those elements all appear to be present.

From Vox:

and Trump’s speech to Congress

It’s kind of amazing how low the bar is for this guy. He reads a speech off a teleprompter that doesn’t sound totally crazy — but does misrepresent a number of material facts — and pundits are thrilled. It’s as if I got arrested for indecent exposure, but because I keep my pants zipped in court, the jury decides I must be a changed man.

NPR’s reporters do a good job of annotating the text:

President Trump very slowly and emphatically used the term “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe the threat facing the nation. It is a term he used constantly during his presidential campaign. By repeating it Tuesday, he may be rebuking his own national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who reportedly told his National Security Council staff last week that the term may not help efforts to enlist the support of Muslim allies in the fight against ISIS because ISIS terrorism is actually “un-Islamic.” Former Presidents George W. Bush and Obama shared McMaster’s view.

“Radical Islamic terrorism” plays well among Trump’s base, and in this administration domestic politics will always come before national security.

The reason the phrase is bad framing should be obvious if you translate it to Christianity, or some other religion you feel more sympathy for. If you’re a Christian, “radical Christianity” sounds like it ought to be a good thing. (For that matter, if you’re a humanist, “radical humanism” sounds pretty good.)

ISIS and other jihadist groups argue that they practice the “real” Islam, and that all the more liberal or pro-Western Muslims are compromisers who bend the true word of Allah to the worldly powers. If we call their ideology “radical Islam”, we’re validating their claim, and helping them recruit young Muslims.

Another important annotation:

although Trump has cited the danger of attacks by people traveling from the countries affected by his travel restrictions, all the lethal attacks by radicalized Muslims in the U.S. since 2001 have been carried out by U.S. citizens or people who were in the country lawfully.

From the speech:

I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American Victims.  The office is called VOICE –- Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement.  We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.

One of the common techniques of bigotry is to treat misdeeds by the targeted group as somehow special, and so stereotype the group by those behaviors. So, for example, terrorism by Muslims is different than terrorism by Christians, sexual abuse of students by gay teachers is different than abuse by straight teachers, and so on. Here, Trump is continuing to build on the theme of his convention speech last summer, that undocumented immigrants present some special crime threat.

The reality is that any large-enough group of people will include criminals. If we separated out all the Americans named Donald, I’m sure we’d find that some are rapists, some are killers, and some (I assume) are good people. That separation would promote the (probably unfair) impression that people named Donald are somehow unsavory.

This is yet another fascist resonance in the Trump administration. Andrea Pitzer tells Amy Goodman:

Back in Nazi Germany there was … a Nazi paper called Der Stürmer, and they had a department called “Letter Box,” and readers were invited to send in stories of supposed Jewish crimes. And Der Stürmer would publish them, and they would include some pretty horrific graphic illustrations of these crimes, as well. And there was even a sort of a lite version of it, if you will, racism lite, in which the Neues Volk, which was more like a Look or a Life magazine, which normally highlighted beautiful Aryan families and their beautiful homes, would run a feature like “The Criminal Jew,” and they would show photos of “Jewish-looking,” as they called it, people who represented different kinds of crimes that one ought to watch out for from Jews.

But having said that, I need to balance with this quote from “Godwin’s President” by Chris Ladd:

Trump is not Hitler. Hitler was someone else’s sin, someone else’s dragon unleashed. Trump is what Hitler represents, the embodiment of our nightmares, a living vision of a nation at her lowest, darkest, and most suicidally dangerous. Darkness that we once confined in our collective national basement we’ve now loosed on the world.

America’s shadow is not necessarily as dark as Depression-era Germany’s shadow.

but I decided to think about things other than Trump

The featured post looks at the long-term issue of the future of work and income. Ordinary macroeconomic policy should be enough to maintain more-or-less full employment for now, but eventually we’re going to need some kind of basic income program. Making that work will be a social problem, not just an economic problem.

Ross Douthat makes a conservative case for (admittedly limited) reparations to descendants of slaves. He offers this concession as part of a deal to end affirmative action.

Occasionally you’ll see lists purporting to be large numbers of scientists who don’t believe in climate change. The sheer number of names is supposed to prove that climate change is still a hotly contested scientific issue.

In The Guardian, John Abraham (who actually does research on how to monitor the climate) takes a closer look at one such a list of 300 names. He finds what you always find: The people listed are “scientists” only in the weakest and most general sense. They have degrees or jobs that are somehow related to science or technology, but no particular expertise in climate research.

Within the community of actual climate-science experts, it is a settled fact that the Earth is getting warmer and that burning fossil fuels is an important cause.

Sam Brownback’s Kansas tax experiment might be on its last legs. In February, the Republican-controlled legislature voted for a large tax increase, which Brownback vetoed. The House managed a 2/3rds majority to override the veto, but the override fell two votes short in the Senate. So, for now, no tax increase.

However, that veto does not solve the underlying problem: Absent a tax increase, Kansas faces a major budget shortfall. And that situation got worse Thursday when the Kansas Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the current spending plan falls short of the legislature’s responsibility under Article 6 of the state constitution to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

In the UK, the Churches Conservation Trust owns a lot of abandoned churches, many of them centuries old. Rather than just let them sit there, the CCT has begun promoting “champing” — camping out in old abandoned churches. They provide beds and electric candles, though their ad says nothing about the possible ghost problem.

I spent my week off in Florida, where I happened to attend a lecture by Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton. I learned something simple about 9-11, which I was amazed I hadn’t heard in the previous 15 years: an answer to the question “Why were so many of the 9-11 hijackers Saudis?”

Haykel’s answer: because Bin Laden picked them that way. He did that for two reasons: (1) At the time it was easier for Saudis to get visas than people from other Muslim countries. (2) He wanted to drive a wedge into the U.S./Saudi alliance.

Also while in Florida, I got to see a sandhill-crane chick for the first time. The adult sandhills are absolutely fearless in the face of humans, and see no reason not to claim a new suburban development as their territory. While out for walks near the friends’ house where I was staying, I would occasionally turn my head and find myself a few feet from a sandhill giving me an eye-to-eye stare, and showing not the slightest hint of alarm.

But they’re a bit more reclusive during hatchling season, so it was only on my last day before heading home that I caught a glimpse of this youngster, a straw-colored fluffball not all that different from chicken hatchlings, albeit with a longer neck.


and you might also be interested in

As governor of Indiana, Mike Pence conducted public business over a private email account, and got hacked. Chris Hayes commented:

This is going to be a very bitter pill for all those voters for whom server management was their top issue.

I could fill the Sift every week with hypocrisy stories like this, where issues that were considered vital to the survival of the Republic before Trump took office now seem not to matter. In a few weeks, Trump will most likely produce a budget that the CBO will analyze as having a big deficit, and we’ll see whether Tea Partiers are alarmed by that or not. I predict not. All that 2010 rhetoric about going the way of Greece will be left unplugged.

To me, such examples just underline what does matter, which I spelled out two weeks ago: identity politics. The Trump base voter is nostalgic for an America where white Christians are dominant, where genders and gender roles are clearly defined, and where languages other than English are heard only inside certain big-city ghettos. All other issues are tactical; positions on them can turn on a dime.

For example, this is why terrorism by Muslims is a huge deal, but terrorism by white racists is not. Terrorism is a tactical issue; the core issues are about identity: race, language, religion, and gender roles.

One point of building the Keystone XL Pipeline was that it was going to use American steel. “Going to put a lot of workers, a lot of steelworkers, back to work,” Trump said. But that was then, this is now.

One of the more ominous things that happened these last two weeks was when Customs and Border Protection agents boarded a domestic flight from San Francisco to New York and demanded to see everyone’s ID. The Atlantic‘s Garrett Epps can find no legal justification for this, and pledges to refuse to present his documents if he winds up in this situation.

The EPA is undoing Obama’s standards for vehicle emissions and gas mileage. Because climate change is a myth, so why do anything to try to mitigate it?

The EU Parliament voted to drop the United States from its visa waiver program. Immediately, this does nothing, because the actual decision would be made by the European Commission. But it is a step in the direction of requiring Americans to get a visa before visiting Europe.

I read this as a shot across the bow: Inside the US, we discuss our immigration and trade policies in a one-sided way, as if we can treat other countries however we want and they’ll just accept it. But if we disrespect or disadvantage foreign visitors, immigrants, and products, American visitors, immigrants, and products will be disrespected and disadvantaged in return.

Tuesday, Attorney General Sessions announced a policy change: The Justice Department will no longer be “dictating to local police how to do their jobs, or spending scarce federal resources to sue them in court”.

In other words, there will be no future investigations like the ones Obama’s DoJ did into Ferguson or Baltimore or Chicago police. So the next time there is a police killing like Michael Brown or Freddie Gray or Laquan McDonald, the fix will be in from the beginning. Local police can run a cover-up instead of an investigation, and not worry about anyone looking over their shoulders.

Conservatives often ask why it’s necessary to have a Black Lives Matter movement, or why it’s not sufficient to affirm that “all lives matter”. It’s because to people like Jeff Sessions, the lives of young black men like Brown or Gray or McDonald don’t matter. If police want to kill them, it’s no big deal.

A local pastor gives his account of taking his 11-year-old daughter to Trump’s rally in Melbourne, Florida on February 18. He seems not to have been a Trump supporter, but wanted his daughter to take advantage of the rare opportunity to see the President of the United States in person.

I’m trying to separate how I actually feel about this man and his campaignisms. I know why people voted for him; I know why people voted against his opponent. But, at the end of the day, what I felt from his leadership in this experience was actually horrifying. There was palpable fear in the room. There was thick anger and vengeance. He was counting on it. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it would not have taken very much for him to have called this group of people into some kind of riotous reaction.

Now, not everyone in the room was a part of the angry mob mentality – I looked around the room and saw many people who could quite easily be folks from my neighborhood, folks from my church, folks who were planning to go grab a bite to eat at Cracker Barrel afterwards. Folks who truly wanted to see America “great.” The people who support the Republican Party want to see some needed changes in the government – the people that were there for that reason, are by and large good folks. But those are not the people the President was inciting – they are not the people he was leading. He was rallying the angry, vigilant ones.

and let’s close with something sadly amusing

Patrick Stewart and Stephen Colbert star in “Waiting for Godot’s Obamacare Replacement“.

Jobs, Income, and the Future

What “the jobs problem” is depends on how far into the future you’re looking. Near-term, macroeconomic policy should suffice to create enough jobs. But long-term, employing everyone may be unrealistic, and a basic income program might be necessary. That will be such a change in our social psychology that we need to start preparing for it now.

Historical context. The first thing to recognize about unemployment is that it’s not a natural problem. Tribal hunter-gatherer cultures have no notion of it. No matter how tough survival might be during droughts or other hard times, nothing stops hunter-gatherers from continuing to hunt and gather. The tribe has a territory of field or forest or lake, and anyone can go to this commonly held territory to look for food.

Unemployment begins when the common territory becomes private property. Then hunting turns into poaching, gathering becomes stealing, and people who are perfectly willing to hunt or fish or gather edible plants may be forbidden to do so. At that point, those who don’t own enough land to support themselves need jobs; in other words, they need arrangements that trade their labor to an owner in exchange for access to the owned resources. The quality of such a job might vary from outright slavery to Clayton Kershaw’s nine-figure contract to pitch for the Dodgers, but the structure is the same: Somebody else owns the productive enterprise, and non-owners needs to acquire the owner’s permission to participate in it.

So even if unemployment is not an inevitable part of the human condition, it is as old as private property. Beggars — people who have neither land nor jobs — appear in the Bible and other ancient texts.

But the nature of unemployment changed with Industrial Revolution. With the development and continuous improvement of machines powered by rivers or steam or electricity, jobs in various human trades began to vanish; you might learn a promising trade (like spinning or weaving) in your youth, only to see that trade become obsolete in your lifetime.

So if the problem of technological unemployment is not exactly ancient, it’s still been around for centuries. As far back as 1819, the economist Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi was wondering how far this process might go. With tongue in cheek he postulated one “ideal” future:

In truth then, there is nothing more to wish for than that the king, remaining alone on the island, by constantly turning a crank, might produce, through automata, all the output of England.

This possibility raises an obvious question: What, then, could the English people offer the king (or whichever oligarchy ended up owning the automata) in exchange for their livelihoods?

Maslow. What has kept that dystopian scenario from becoming reality is, basically, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As basic food, clothing, and shelter become easier and easier to provide, people develop other desires that are less easy to satisfy. Wikipedia estimates that currently only 2% of American workers are employed in agriculture, compared to 50% in 1870 and probably over 90% in colonial times. But those displaced 48% or 88% are not idle. They install air conditioners, design computer games, perform plastic surgery, and provide many other products and services our ancestors never knew they could want.

So although technology has continued to put people out of work — the railroads pushed out the stagecoach and steamboat operators, cars drastically lessened opportunities for stableboys and horse-breeders, and machines of all sorts displaced one set of skilled craftsmen after another — new professions have constantly emerged to take up the slack. The trade-off has never been one-for-one, and the new jobs have usually gone to different people than the ones whose trades became obsolete.  But in the economy as a whole, the unemployment problem has mostly remained manageable.

Three myths. We commonly tell three falsehoods about this march of technology: First, that the new technologies themselves directly create the new jobs. But to the extent they do, they don’t create nearly enough of them. For example, factories that manufacture combines and other agricultural machinery do employ some assembly-line workers, but not nearly as many people as worked in the fields in the pre-mechanized era.

When the new jobs do arise, it is indirectly, through the general working of the economy satisfying new desires, which may have only a tangential relationship to the new technologies. The telephone puts messenger-boys out of business, and also enables the creation of jobs in pizza delivery. But messenger-boys don’t automatically get pizza-delivery jobs; they go into the general pool of the unemployed, and entrepreneurs who create new industries draw their workers from that pool. At times there may be a considerable lag between the old jobs going away and the new jobs appearing.

Second, the new jobs haven’t always required more education and skill than the old ones. One of the key points of Harry Braverman’s 1974 classic Labor and Monopoly Capital: the degradation of work in the 20th century was that automation typically bifurcates the workforce into people who need to know a lot and people who need to know very little. Maybe building the first mechanized shoe factory required more knowledge and skill than a medieval cobbler had, but the operators of those machines needed considerably less knowledge and skill. The point of machinery was never just that it replaced human muscle-power with horsepower or waterpower or fossil fuels, but also that once the craftsman’s knowledge had been built into a machine, low-skill workers could replace high-skill workers.

And finally, technological progress by itself doesn’t always lead to general prosperity. It increases productivity, but that’s not the same thing. A technologically advanced economy can produce goods with less labor, so one possible outcome is that it could produce more goods for everybody. But it could also produce the same goods with less labor, or even fewer goods with much less labor. In Sismondi’s Dystopia, for example, why won’t the king stop turning his crank as soon as he has all the goods he wants, and leave everyone else to starve?

So whether a technological society is rich or not depends on social and political factors as much as economic ones. If a small number of people wind up owning the machines, patents, copyrights, and market platforms, the main thing technology will produce is massive inequality. What keeps that from happening is political change: progressive taxation, the social safety net, unions, shorter work-weeks, public education, minimum wages, and so on.

The easiest way to grasp this reality is to read Dickens: In his day, London was the most technologically advanced city in the world, but because political change hadn’t caught up, it was a hellhole for a large chunk of its population.

The fate of horses. Given the long history of technological unemployment, it’s tempting to see the current wave as just more of the same. Too bad for the stock brokers put out of work by automated internet stock-trading, but they’ll land somewhere. And if they don’t, they won’t wreck the economy any more than the obsolete clipper-ship captains did.

But what’s different about rising technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence is that they don’t bifurcate the workforce any more: To a large extent, the unskilled labor just goes away. The shoe factory replaced cobblers with machine designers and assembly-line workers. But now picture an economy where you get new shoes by sending a scan of your feet to a web site which 3D-prints the shoes, packages them automatically, and then ships them to you via airborne drone or driverless delivery truck. There might be shoe designers or computer programmers back there someplace, but once the system is built, the amount of extra labor your order requires is zero.

In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark draws this ominous parallel: In 1901, the British economy required more than 3 million working horses. Those jobs are done by machines now, and the UK maintains a far smaller number of horses (about 800K) for almost entirely recreational purposes.

There was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.

By now, there is literally nothing that three million British horses can do more economically than machines. Could the same thing happen to humans? Maybe it will be a very long time before an AI can write a more riveting novel than Stephen King, but how many of us still have a genuinely irreplacable talent?

Currently, the U.S. economy has something like 150 million jobs for humans. What if, at some point in the not-so-distant future, there is literally nothing of economic value that 150 million people can do better than some automated system?

Speed of adjustment. The counter-argument is subtle, but not without merit: You shouldn’t let your attention get transfixed by the new systems, because new systems never directly create as many jobs as they destroy. Most new jobs won’t come from maintaining 3D printers or manufacturing drones or programming driverless cars, they’ll come indirectly via Maslow’s hierarchy: People who get their old wants satisfied more easily will start to want new things, some of which will still require people. Properly managed, the economy can keep growing until all the people who need jobs have them.

The problem with that argument is speed. If technology were just a one-time burst, then no matter how big the revolution was, eventually our desires would grow to absorb the new productivity. But technology is continually improving, and could even be accelerating. And even though we humans are a greedy lot, we’re also creatures of habit. If the iPhone 117 hits the market a week after I got my new iPhone 116, maybe I won’t learn to appreciate its new features until the iPhone 118, 119, and 120 are already obsolete.

Or, to put the same idea in a historical context, what if technology had given us clipper ships on Monday, steamships on Tuesday, and 747s by Friday? Who would we have employed to do what?

You could imagine, then, a future where we constantly do want new things that employ people in new ways, but still the economy’s ability to create jobs keeps falling farther behind. Since we’re only human, we won’t have time either to appreciate the new possibilities technology offers us, or to learn the new skills we need to find jobs in those new industries — at least not before they also become obsolete.

Macroeconomics. Right now, though, we are still far from the situation where there’s nothing the unemployed could possibly do. Lots of things that need doing aren’t getting done, even as people who might do them are unemployed: Our roads and bridges are decaying. We need to prepare for climate change by insulating our buildings better and installing more solar panels. The electrical grid is vulnerable and doesn’t let us take advantage of the most efficient power-managing technologies. Addicts who want treatment aren’t getting it. Working parents need better daycare options. Students could benefit from more one-on-one or small-group attention from teachers. Hospital patients would like to see their nurses come around more often and respond to the call buttons more quickly. Many of our elderly are warehoused in inadequately staffed institutions.

Some inadequate staffing we’ve just gotten used to: We expect long lines at the DMV, and that it might take a while to catch a waitress’ eye. In stores, it’s hard to get anybody to answer your questions. But that’s just life, we think.

That combination of unmet needs and unemployed people isn’t a technological problem, it’s an economic problem. In other words, the problem is about money, not about what is or isn’t physically possible. Either the people with needs don’t have enough money to create effective demand in the market, or the workers who might satisfy the needs can’t afford the training they need, or the businessmen who might connect workers with consumers can’t raise the capital to get started.

One solution is for the Federal Reserve to create more money. At Vox, Timothy Lee writes:

When society invents a new technology that makes workers more efficient, it has two options: It can employ the same number of workers and produce more goods and services, or it can employ fewer workers to produce the same number of goods and services.

Jargon-filled media coverage makes this hard to see, but the Federal Reserve plays a central role in this decision. When the Fed pumps more money into the economy, people spend more and create more jobs. If the Fed fails to supply enough cash, then faster technological progress can lead to faster job losses — something we might be experiencing right now.

So if you’re worried that technological progress will lead to mass unemployment — and especially if you think this process is already underway — you should be very interested in what the Federal Reserve does.

Another option is for the government to directly subsidize the people whose needs would otherwise go unmet. That’s what the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid do: They subsidize healthcare for people who need it but otherwise couldn’t afford it, and so create jobs for doctors, nurses, and the people who manufacture drugs, devices, and the other stuff used in healthcare.

Finally, the government can directly invest in industries that otherwise can’t raise capital. The best model here is the New Deal’s investment in the rural electric co-ops that brought electricity to sparsely populated areas. It’s also what happens when governments build roads or mass-transit systems.

When you look at things this way, you realize that our recent job problems have as much to do with conservative macroeconomic policy as with technology. Since Reagan, we’ve been weakening all the political tools that distribute the benefits of productivity: progressive taxation, the social safety net, unions, shorter work-weeks, public education, the minimum wage. And the result has been exactly what we should have expected: For decades, increases in national wealth have gone almost entirely to owners rather than workers.

In short, we’ve been moving back towards Dickensian London.

The long-term jobs problem. But just because the Robot Apocalypse isn’t the sole source of our immediate unemployment problem, that doesn’t mean it’s not waiting in the middle-to-far future. Our children or grandchildren might well live in a world where the average person is economically superfluous, and only the rare genius has any marketable skills.

The main thing to realize about this future is that its problems are more social and psychological than economic. If we can solve the economic problem of distributing all this machine-created wealth, we could be talking about the Garden of Eden, or various visions of hunter-gatherer Heaven. People could spend their lives pursuing pleasure and other forms of satisfaction, without needing to work. But if we don’t solve the distribution problem, we could wind up in Sismondi’s Dystopia, where it’s up to the owners of the automata whether the rest of us live or die.

The solution to the economic problem is obvious: People need to receive some kind of basic income, whether their activities have any market value or not. The obvious question “Where will the money for this come from?” has an obvious answer “From the surplus productivity that makes their economic contribution unnecessary.” In the same way that we can feed everybody now (and export food) with only 2% of our population working in agriculture, across-the-board productivity could create enough wealth to support everyone at a decent level with only some small number of people working.

But the social/psychological problem is harder. Kurt Vonnegut was already exploring this in his 1952 novel Player Piano. People don’t just get money from their work, they get their identities and senses of self-worth. For example, coal miners of that era may not have wanted to spend their days underground breathing coal dust and getting black lung disease, but many probably felt a sense of heroism in making these sacrifices to support their families and to give their children better opportunities. If they had suddenly all been replaced by machines and pensioned off, they could have achieved those same results with their pension money. But why, an ex-miner might wonder, should anyone love or appreciate him, rather than just his unearned money?

Like unemployment itself, the idea that the unemployed are worthless goes way back. St. Paul wrote:

This we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.

It’s worth noticing, though, that many people are already successfully dealing with this psycho-social problem. Scions of rich families only work if they want to, and many of them seem quite happy. Millions of Americans are pleasantly retired, living off a combination of savings and Social Security. Millions of others are students, who may be working quite hard, but at things that have no current economic value. Housespouses work, but not at jobs that pay wages.

Countless people who have wage-paying jobs derive their identities from some other part of their lives: Whatever they might be doing for money, they see themselves as novelists, musicians, chess players, political activists, evangelists, long-distance runners, or bloggers. Giving them a work-free income would just enable them to do more of what they see as their calling.

Conservative and liberal views of basic income. If you talk to liberals about basic income, the conversation quickly shifts to all the marvelous things they would do themselves if they didn’t have to work. Conservatives may well have similar ambitions, but their attention quickly shifts to other people, who they are sure would lead soulless lives of drunken society-destroying hedonism. (This is similar to the split a century ago over Prohibition: Virtually no one thought that they themselves needed the government to protect them from the temptation of gin, but many believed that other people did.)

So far this argument is almost entirely speculative, with both sides arguing about what they imagine would happen based on their general ideas about human nature. However, we may get some experimental results before long.

GiveDirectly is an upstart charity funded by Silicon Valley money, and it has tossed aside the old teach-a-man-to-fish model of third-world aid in favor of the direct approach: Poor people lack money, so give them money. It has a plan to provide a poverty-avoiding basic income — about $22 a month — for 12 years to everybody in 40 poor villages in Kenya. Another 80 villages will get a 2-year basic income. Will this liberate the recipients’ creativity? Or trap them in soul-destroying dependence and rob them of self esteem?

My guess: a little bit of both, depending on who you look at. And both sides will feel vindicated by that outcome. We see that already in American programs like food stamps. For some conservatives, the fact that cheating exists at all invalidates the whole effort; that one guy laughing at us as he eats his subsidized lobster outweighs all the kids who now go to school with breakfast in their stomachs. Liberals may look at the same facts and come to the opposite conclusion: If I get to help some people who really need it, what does it matter if a few lazy lowlifes get a free ride?

So I’ll bet some of the Kenyans will gamble away their money or use it to stay permanently stoned, while others will finally get a little breathing room, escape self-reinforcing poverty traps, and make something of their lives. Which outcome matters to you?

Summing up. In the short run, there will be no Robot Apocalypse as long as we regain our understanding of macroeconomics. But we need to recognize that technological change combines badly with free-market dogma, leading to Dickensian London: Comparatively few people own the new technologies, so they capture the benefits while the rest of us lose our bargaining power as we become less and less necessary.

However, we’re still at the point in history where most people’s efforts have genuine economic value, and many things that people could do still need doing. So by using macroeconomic tools like progressive taxation, public investment, and money creation, the economy can expand so that technological productivity leads to more goods and services for all, rather than a drastic loss of jobs and livelihoods for most while a few become wealthy on a previously unheard-of scale.

At some point, though, we’re going to lose our competition with artificial intelligence and go the way of horses — at least economically. Maybe you believe that AIs will never be able to compete with your work as a psychotherapist, a minister, or a poet, but chess masters and truck drivers used to think that too. Sooner or later, it will happen.

Adjusting to that new reality will require not just economic and political change, but social and psychological change as well. Somehow, we will need to make meaningful lives for ourselves in a work-free technological Garden of Eden. When I put it that way, it sounds easy, but when you picture it in detail, it’s not. We will all need to attach our self-respect and self-esteem to something other than pulling our weight economically.

In the middle-term, there are things we can do to adjust: We should be on the lookout for other roles like student and retiree, that give people a socially acceptable story to tell about themselves even if they’re not earning a paycheck. Maybe the academic idea of a sabbatical needs to expand to the larger economy: Whatever you do, you should take a year or so off every decade. “I’m on sabbatical” might become a story more widely acceptable than “I’m unemployed.” College professors and ministers are expected to take sabbaticals; it’s the ones who don’t who have something to explain.

Already-existing trends that lower the workforce, like retraining mid-career or retiring early, need to be celebrated rather than worried about. In the long run the workforce is going to go down; that can be either a source of suffering or a cause for rejoicing, depending on how we construct it.

Most of all, we need to re-examine the stereotypes we attach to the unemployed: They are lazy, undeserving, and useless. These stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies: If no one is willing to pay me, why shouldn’t I be useless?

Social roles are what we make them. The Bible does not report Adam and Eve feeling useless and purposeless in the Garden of Eden, and I suspect hunter-gatherer tribes that happened onto lands of plentiful game and endless forest handled that bounty relatively well. We could to the same. Or not.

The Monday Morning Teaser

A few years ago I established the practice of cancelling the Sift on Mondays following Sundays where I spoke in a church. The Sunday/Monday expenditure of energy seemed like too much for me. But in those days I only spoke two or three times a year, so I needed the breaks anyway. This year my speaking schedule has picked up, and I seem to be cancelling about one Sift a month, which I think is too much. It throws off my rhythm, and creates doubt in readers’ minds about whether there is a Sift this week or not.

So in March I’m planning to try something different: When I speak in a church on March 26, I’ll follow on the 27th with half a Sift: a weekly summary, but no featured post. We’ll see how that works.

Anyway, I’m back this week with another one of those long articles I’ve been thinking about for a while: “Jobs, Income, and the Future”. If you’re sick of reading my articles about the Trump administration, this one’s for you.

For years, I’ve been reading stuff by two kinds of people:

  • economists, who think job-destroying technologies have been a constant part of the economic landscape for centuries, and consequently believe that fiscal and monetary policy can deal with the new waves of job destruction that will come from robotics and artificial intelligence;
  • technologists, who say it’s different this time — AI and robotics challenge not just individual professions, but the fundamental economic competitiveness of human beings. Ultimately, then, we need to move away from a job-based economy into some other method of supporting everyone, like a basic income.

My uncertainty comes from the fact that both types are saying what their profession always says: Technologists always think it’s different this time, and economists never believe it. But no system lasts forever, so someday it will be different. Are we there yet or not?

What I come around to believing is: almost. Right now, proper macroeconomic policy is still capable of bringing us to full employment in decent jobs — though not if we continue on the market-worshiping path we’ve been on the last few decades. But the Robot Apocalypse is coming, and will require the kind of social change that we need to start working on right away.

That post still needs a little work, so let’s predict it appearing around 10.

Sadly, the weekly summary takes us back to the world of Trump: Russia, his speech to Congress, rolling back Obama’s climate-change initiatives, taking the Justice Department out of the business of reining in racist local police, reneging on his promise that the Keystone Pipeline will use American steel, and so on.

But there are also a few non-Trump items: I learned something new about 9-11, Brownback’s low-tax Kansas experiment stumbles towards an ending, and I took a cute picture of a sandhill crane chick. The closing is Patrick Stewart and Stephen Colbert doing “Waiting for Godot’s ObamaCare Replacement”.