Saturday, September 29, 2012

REPUBLICANS ATTACK 47 PERCENT OF THE FRANCHISE AND THEN SOME


I wonder whether I am alone in having reached a tipping point in responding to the Republican Party and, yes, Republicans who aid and abet it.  I include in the Republican Party and as Republicans the Tea Party and its members.

I have long and increasingly been disgusted and outraged by GOP officials’ and members’ willful or inadvertent ignorance; their contempt for knowledge and expertise; their denial of facts and reality; their distortions, misrepresentations, smears, and lies; their mean-spiritedness, small-mindedness, and smut-mouthedness; their callousness, malice, and cruelty; their racism, misogyny, and homophobia; their cynicism and hypocrisy (especially of the Christian variety); and their responsibility-evading projection of their failings onto others.

My tipping point is the GOP’s efforts at national and state levels to subvert the 2012 election by disenfranchising citizens not likely to support its candidates.  In presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s now-infamous words, “47 percent” will never vote for him because veterans, seniors, women, students, minorities, etc., etc., see themselves as “victims,” are dependents of the state, have a sense of entitlement—this from Mitt (and Ann) Romney!—to its benefits, and take no responsibility for themselves.  In addition to this 47 percent are other Democrats, many Independents, and even a few Republicans—decent white, middle-class Americans who respect themselves , respect others, and share a sense of moral affinity with all Americans.  These people are not targets of Republican efforts at disenfranchisement, but they will become “collateral damage” in the future if the GOP’s efforts succeed.

On the basis of spurious, unsupported claims of voter fraud, Republicans in control of state legislatures and governor mansions have passed legislation to suppress the vote by groups more inclined to vote Democratic than Republican.  Identification is relevant to voter integrity, but not administrative, new-Jim-Crow-type obstacles and costs to it; curtailed locations, days, and hours for voting are relevant only to voter suppression.

These state efforts, like ALEC-inspired legislation, have not been isolated aberrations, but coordinated parts of a concerted program to disenfranchise voters.  For the National Republican Committee has just been caught with a sizeable contract to a firm to conduct fraudulent voter registration efforts in several states.

In Florida, Republicans have been sending paid agents pretending to register voters to sign up Republicans only.  This GOP-sponsored illegal activity is notable because the Republican-controlled state government passed legislation making voter registration by non-partisan organizations like the League of Women Voters so fraught with difficulties and penalties that they stopped their work.

Florida is only one state; the NRC contracted with the same firm to undertake similar efforts in a half dozen or so other “swing states.”  The Colorado Republican Party has abruptly fired this firm.  Meanwhile, the Ohio Tea Party, with Koch brothers’ money—the Tea Party is a green-bucks, not a grass-roots, movement—is challenging the registration of college students, minorities, and others.  More news will detail additional abuses.

Caught in the act, the NRC has immediately cancelled its $3 million contract for these services.  Such a response is better than none at all, though it is greatly marred by the usual lie that the DNC does the same thing.  (Remember how Republicans reviled ACORN on trumped-up charges of voter fraud and tried to link it to the Obama campaign?)  Even so the NRC deserves little credit, for it did not spend millions without knowing—in fact, stipulating in the contract—the services purchased by its money.  The speed with which it withdrew its hand from the cookie jar when it got caught does not deny that it was, and knew it was, stealing cookies.

The GOP is a long way from their usual “dirty tricks.”  Republicans are systematically engaged in betraying their allegiance to, and violating, the most basic principles of democracy.  Republicans no longer believe in government by “the consent of the governed,” and its Tea Partiers have never believed in the Boston Tea Party cry “no taxation without representation.”  The Republican Party, with its Tea Party caucus, is attempting to subvert not only a free and fair election, but also democracy itself; and thereby transforming itself into a subversive organization.  Republicans who vote for party candidates in this election, whatever they feel about the candidates or think about their positions, aid and abet its subversive efforts and may be suspected of placing party above patriotism.

CON JOB: PRIVATIZING GOVERNMENT


       Privatization is not a new concept—it got its start under Ronald Reagan—but it has become one driving force behind conservative—today, read: Republican and Tea Party—approaches to government.  It is a con job; whatever can be said about privatization in theory is invariably falsified by practice, at usually greater cost to the public.

The theory is simple.  Privatizers and political supporters allege that government is bloated by waste, fraud, and abuse in performing certain government functions, and often bungles their execution.  They assert that businesses can perform these functions more efficiently than, and at least as effectively as, government agencies can perform them.  They argue that businesses can save money doing the same job for a profit—all at the same time.  Because it seems too good to be true, it is too much to believe.

In addition, privatizers and political supporters use the cover of promises to achieve savings and sustain quality to conceal a political agenda to make government smaller.  When conservatives undertake comprehensive assessments of opportunities for privatization, they use pretexts of efficiency and effectiveness to propose shrinking or eliminating government programs and roles not to their liking, like Social Security or Medicare.

I know something about privatization from experience with Republican initiatives to promote it.  In the early 80s, the Reagan administration chartered the Private Sector Survey on Cost Control, commonly known as the Grace Commission, to review the performance of government agencies and to recommend ways to shrink, eliminate, or privatize many of their functions and programs in the name of effectiveness and efficiency.  The Commission operated through a number of sub-committees, each of which reviewed the functions or programs of one agency or a set of related agencies.

I served as the editor-in-chief of the sub-committee reports and, in that capacity, was in frequent communication with the subcommittee chairs.  Almost all complained about pressure from Commission officials to make recommendations to cut functions or programs because of disagreements with policies, not pragmatic considerations of effectiveness or efficiency.  They also complained about officials revising reports to state recommendations which the subcommittees had not approved and did not accept.  When Commission officials tired of hearing me report these complaints from the field, they fired me.  In the end, the Grace Commission produced a report which Congress ignored.  In every instance, its predictions of greater savings or larger deficits were proven wrong, by large margins of error, even as the government continued business as usual.

A few years later, the Republican-dominated Board of Supervisors of Fairfax County, VA, chartered a Blue Ribbon Committee to do for the county what the Grace Commission had tried to do for the country.  It also chartered one committee specifically focused on privatization.  To operate within the requirements of open-government laws but to minimize public observation, the committees gave short and hard-to-find notice, published no agendas, and met on private property.

Nevertheless, I attended every meeting of the privatization committee.  Although I was initially unwelcome and ignored, the chair soon allowed, then invited, me to speak at later meetings.  After many inconclusive deliberations, I offered a rationale for privatization which included a simple framework for calculating when circumstances made privatization sensible; however, the framework also made it unlikely.  The chair appreciated my comments; he acknowledged that my prodding helped him recognize that politics made privatization an undesirable option because, to his and almost every other committee member’s surprise, it was neither effective nor efficient in most cases.  The committee adopted my position but found itself reviled by Republican True Believers at the Committee’s final meeting.  Nevertheless, privatization went nowhere.

The arithmetic of privatization is simple.  It assumes, as noted above, that federal and state governments have budgets so bloated that business can do many of their jobs as well or better for less—and thereby save taxpayer dollars—and make a profit.  But the numbers rarely work out to support the claims of would be privatizers.

Of course, the numbers depend on the goods or services covered by the contract, its scope, and its duration.  In this general discussion, my numbers, all percentages of and in addition to the face value of the contracts, are guesstimates, but my arithmetic is certain.  First, as a purchaser of goods or services in the public interest, the government retains responsibilities and incurs annual costs (staff, equipment, and facilities) of 5 to 10 percent to administer contracts monitor performance.  Second, the government incurs one-time transfer costs for each contract of 3 to 10 percent.  Third, companies expect to make 5 to 12 percent annual profit.  Fourth, a meaningful savings of taxpayer dollars is at least 5 percent.  So, at the extremes, government bloat would have to be between 18 and 37 percent of its budget for the function.

The existence of bloat on this magnitude is easy to claim and hard—indeed, virtually impossible—to prove.  So privatizers usually make unfounded or dishonest claims in expectation of support from those who want smaller government, smaller government budgets, and lower taxes; yet want the same level and quality of services.  However, what privatizers promise to deliver and what the public receives are often two different things.  In the end, privatizers make the public pay a premium for its false hopes of improved government effectiveness and efficiency, without reduction of quality.

Invariably, companies seek to improve profits by cutting costs: short-cuts, less time per task, lower wages, fewer or less capable and motivated employees—thus, a reduced level of effort and a diminished quality of performance.  Many companies manipulate or falsify their records or pressure government officials.  Efforts to influence—the word is “bribe”—government inspectors are commonplace when they assess performance.

Let me close with three instances of privatization which show larger-than-necessary expenses for additional benefit.  The purpose appears largely, if not entirely, political: to put money in the hands of the private sector simply to honor capitalism without regard to economic consequences.

Until recently, the federal government assumed the risks and the attendant costs of providing funds to banks for college loans to students.  The banks in turn administered the loans, at a handsome profit.  The Obama administration analyzed the costs and found that the cost to the government could be greatly reduced by cutting out the banks, who were acting and profiting, as middlemen.  Accordingly, it assumed full responsibility for college loans and used the substantial savings to increase the funds available for Pell Grants.  In short, privatization served profiteers, not the public.

A more remarkable instance is the government’s role, or lack of role, in health care, an industry already privatized.  Until the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), private insurance companies covered the health care of a majority of under-65 Americans in one way or another but excluded about 50 million because of high premium costs or pre-existing conditions.  Nevertheless, despite having a paying and generally healthy clientele, these companies dedicated usually more than 40 percent of every premium dollar to overhead and profit.  Overhead included costs not only for processing claims, but also for finding ways to deny claims and terminate clients.  The new law not only requires coverage for all—thereby eliminating those overhead costs to patients—, but also limits overhead and profit to 20 percent of every dollar of coverage—a significant reduction of waste, fraud, and abuse in private insurance companies.  So “unprivatization” will save—it already is saving—clients’ money.

A third instance of privatization, the Republican proposal to privatize Social Security, I have discussed in a previous blog, “Class Warfare—Who’s Winning?”  I provide the link—http://firstimpressionssecondthoughts.blogspot.com/2012/09/class-warfare-whos-winning.html—and summarize it here.  The results of privatizing Social Security will be increased administrative costs and greater risks.  Aggregate brokers fees will far exceed government administrative costs, and investors’ portfolios are at risk from the ups and downs of the stock market, but beneficiaries are guaranteed their monthly benefits through good times and bad by the full faith and credit of the government.

Privatization does not change the role of government; government responsibilities remain government responsibilities.  It does not reduce, and may increase, the total workforce required by the government function.  It does not reduce, and may increase, the costs to the government: payments for its residual administrative and monitoring duties, and payments to the company for contract costs and profits.  It does not ensure, and may jeopardize, the quality of contract performance because of company profit-enhancing devices.

Bottom line: privatization accomplishes nothing which it purports to accomplish for the benefit of the public.  First, it results in greater expense and poorer performance.  Second, it serves to make private businesses parasites living off the government and, like parasites, doing the government and public no good.  Third, conservatives want privatization to help undermine government functions and programs which serve the public and which the public, by democratic means, has decided what functions and programs government should perform or provide.  When conservatives use privatization to subvert what the public has decided democratically, they make “con” a part of what it means to be “conservative.”

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

COUTURE ON LEAVE--WHERE DOES IT LEAVE NMSU?


The headline is striking: “NMSU President Couture on leave; few details from university.”  But it is not surprising, only saddening.  Intelligent, attractive, personable, she attempted a job beyond her managerial competence—she lacks the temperament—; under the thumb of the real powers at the university—Ben Woods and Bruce Kite—; and in thrall to the longevity bonus—please them or lose it.

Her record is undistinguished.  NMSU remains mired in mediocrity, both academic and athletic, with morale low and faculty leaving.  Ever upbeat in her pronouncements, she undertook no meaningful reforms; indeed, the word “reform” has never been part of her vocabulary in her public statements.  New programs were essentially ad-hoc, stop-gap efforts to (appear to) make improvements.

She misdirected large sums of money away from the missions of this land grant college: teaching, research, and service; and into a persistently weak football program which has little public support and less hope of improvement.  As president of the Western Athletic Conference, she has presided over its decline and apparent demise.

As presiding officer of the NMSU conglomerate of campuses, she paid little attention to the community colleges on the grounds that she trusted her subordinates.  Her hands-off approach to management, which also ignored the basic requirements of supervision and accountability, enabled Don Ana Community College to grow like a business but allowed it to lose sight of its clientele.  Thus, after years of suspect performance, the nursing program finally lost its accreditation, with damaging effect on the careers of enrolled students, the hopes of would-be students, and sacrifices of family and friends, and the community, whose need for trained health-care personnel will grow as the population, especially the elderly population, grows.

If Couture returns from leave to resume leadership of NMSU, let us hope—I certainly hope—that she commits to do the job for which she was hired and which needs to be done.  She will have to resolve to undertake the reforms, mostly academic, which NMSU requires; to resist the pressures to preserve the status quo and protect the interests of the powers-that-be; and thereby to deserve a legacy as the leader who showed NMSU the path to future improvement.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

ROMNEY, AMERICAN ROYALIST


       People surprised by Mitt Romney’s off-the-record, but secretly recorded, statements on Obama voters and Palestinians (and, others in whatever future comments Romney may make)—all insulting, callous, and wrong—surprise me.  For Romney has long shown contempt of, indifference to, and ignorance of others unlike him in economic class, social status, or political position—attitudes common, though not universal, among wealthy, privileged, sheltered people with little or no experience beyond the confines of boardrooms, country clubs, and gated communities.

If Republican had a clue, they would stop urging Romney to try to show the “real Mitt Romney,” as if he were a truly warm, fuzzy person pajama-less at bedtime.  He is nothing of the sort, and the advice merely urges him to pretend to be someone he is not—and to fail—which is one reason why they themselves do not like him.  Give it up; he is who he is, a man of situational ethics with matching relativistic rhetoric, and ambition.

One omission to all the reactions to his statements also surprises me.  All of them seem to be capable of confirmation or refutation by fact.  Yet no one on either side of the political spectrum has asked what seems to me to be obvious questions about them: From whence come these categorical, unqualified generalizations?  What sources of information are the basis for his statements?  Do these statements reveal this potential president as informed and insightful?

The interesting fact, to which many commentators are calling attention, is the mixed composition of this 47 percent: soldiers on active duty combat zones, retired seniors, the involuntarily unemployed, students attending college on loans, hundreds of millionaires (including, perhaps, Romney himself!—wonder what those hidden returns show about his annual income tax payments), and the poor, the ill, and the otherwise disadvantaged.

So how the h-e-double-hockey-sticks does he know that all people who support Obama constitute a class, that all members of this class lack personal responsibility, that all think themselves “victims,” and that all believe themselves entitled to a long list of things?  Romney’s statements go beyond generalizations to stereotyping and disclose their maker as a prejudiced—a pre-judging—person and someone who appeals to others also prejudiced.  (Romney just joined a lot of Southern white women to a lot of urban black women as “welfare queens.”) 

Of course, a candidate for the presidency who harbors prejudices against almost half of all Americans is not likely to take their concerns seriously if elected president.  But Romney is right about one thing: many of them are less concerned about the national debt than about their debt.  They are trying harder to deal with their debt than Romney and Congressional Republicans, including Paul Ryan, his (under three-hour marathon) running mate, are trying to deal with the national debt.  Romney would not raise $1 dollar in taxes to cut $10 in spending, and, for the sake of political advantage, Ryan has voted at every opportunity to reject Obama’s efforts at deficit reduction.  Truth be told, Republicans like a growing national debt; it gives them something to get all pious about and to run against, like sin.

As Romney earlier indicated that he does not care about the poor (they have a safety net, which, however, Ryan and he wish to shrink or shred), so he indicates that 47 percent of the American people, many statistically in the middle class, which he professes to care about, are not his concern.  So we cannot expect Romney to propose or support legislation which would benefit them.

The same kind of prejudice dangerously biases his foreign policy.  Romney asserts that Palestinians—all of them, apparently—do not want peace—again, what makes him think so?—, so he has no reason to try diplomacy to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  His belief is tantamount to saying that he does not want peace between them.  No friend of Israel—and American Jews should not view him as a friend—would adopt a kick-the-can-down-the-road policy about the hostile situation which is harmful to both sides and prompts so much anti-American feeling far beyond Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.  Everyone knows that the situation is dangerous, difficult, dynamic, complex, and seemingly intractable.  But Romney, who touts American leadership, declares that he is unwilling to exercise it and strive for peace in everyone’s interest.

Which points to larger questions: aside from wanting to fulfill his ambition to be president, what does Romney want to achieve as president, for whom, and how many?  Is there any consistency, coherence, even common sense to his positions?

Commentators on both sides have overlooked another important point in Romney’s disparagement of the 47 percent.  They have been so busy analyzing the ugliness, incoherence, and inanities of his comments that they have overlooked their anti-democratic leanings.  For eight decades, bipartisan majorities in both chambers of Congress have passed, and administrations of both parties have signed, economic and social legislation to address the needs of almost all Americans.  That legislation has served the rich, the poor, and those in the middle, with tax loopholes for some matched by tax abatements for others.  If some pay no federal income taxes because of tax laws, did not Romney himself say that he would not be qualified for the presidency if he did not take advantage of the tax laws?  So the pot is calling the kettle “dependent.”

When Romney and Ryan speak of the “dependency” of others, they merely indicate their contempt for many Americans and a disregard of democratically defined goals of democratically enacted legislation.  What Romney’s speech and Ryan’s support of it signify is the GOP’s desire not only for a new economic order, but also for a new political one.  That order is taking shape in state governments controlled by Republicans, with their efforts to curtail the franchise and limit the right and ability of many of the 47 percent to vote.  (Will they also take the country back to a property qualification to vote?)

How ironic that the Republican Party, now controlled by the Tea Party, should disregard the colonialists’ pre-revolutionary rallying cry “no taxation without representation” and the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  For all their chest-beating about American principles, values, and the Constitution, these self-professed patriots reveal themselves to be latter-day Tories.  Whatever else he may be, latter-day or not, Romney is, and acts like, a royalist who favors monarchy.