When allies are attacked, tyrants are lauded and lies are alt-facts, it is no surprise that the Great Society is now the Society For The Great, and that the War On Poverty is transformed into pogroms to kill the poor off. Jim Wallis, author and founder of Sojourners, writes that “budgets are moral documents”, and the budget proposal published by the administration Tuesday is both fiscally and morally bankrupt.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson kicked off the Great Society in 1964, saying “And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society. It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled”. Beyond programs such as school lunches, health insurance for poor children and educational support for impoverished areas of the country, the Great Society encompassed Medicare, equal-opportunity employment, job training, environmental protections, medical research, and something called civil rights.
By contrast, the 2017 administration has no courage or compassion. The current budget proposal, titled (sardonically?) “A New Foundation for American Greatness”, slashes these programs and more.
Do the math. We are taking $2 trillion from the poor, from job-creating medical and science research and from creation, PLUS printing an extra $3.5 trillion to hand to corporations and the wealthy. Oh, and to build a wall.
“Let them eat fencepost”, indeed.
Since The Great Pumpkin brought up the "horrible" thing that did (not) happen in Sweden a few nights ago, my Swedish friend who lives in Sweden (just so we're clear) and I have been trading emails about the immigrant situation there. Sweden has long had a very welcoming policy toward refugees and immigrants, to the point that people not born in Sweden make up roughly one-quarter of the nation's population. The strain on a society known for its social protections is real and there is serious policy debate about where the limits of generosity are, but there is not a rampant wave of terror-style violence in the country. Here are my friend's comments, complete and unedited.
Every country has its own challenges and expectations from their citizens. When focusing on the humanitarian aspects of sheltering and helping people who have fled wars and hardships I believe my country have done a lot to help. It is a very troublesome situation in both the Middle East and Africa from where we have received most of the 273 000 refugees during the last three year period. Compared to per capita with the USA population that equal around 8 700 000 people or roughly the population of New York City.
Here is the deal-making prowess of the current government: the average family's health insurance costs are about to double. As expected, the Republican “plan” to replace the Affordable Care Act is coalescing around providing tax credits to people who pay privately for health insurance. Other than repealing the ACA and doing nothing, tax credits are the worst-possible option for the majority of Americans and disproportionately benefits the well-off.
Let's use an example of the median American family with $60,000 in annual income and two children. For grins (since there are zero details in the so-called plan), let's assume the proposed tax credits equal the actual cost of a Silver health insurance plan, or $1021/month courtesy of eHealth. In the unlikely event our hypothetical family could pay that premium, that amounts to a tax credit of $12,252, which sounds pretty good at first.
But there two huge problems in this scenario. First, this family's federal tax burden is, at most, $3648. Since the family can't owe negative tax, the actual tax credit benefit is reduced by 70% to $3648. On the other hand, families earning $100,000 and more would receive the full $12,252 credit. In fact, the well-to-do family could upgrade to the Gold insurance package, get more benefits and still deduct the entire premium. In other words, the average family's health is worth 70% less to Republicans than wealthier families.
The other problem is that a tax credit system means we are forced to front all that money to the government for as much as 18 months. Our average family, if they file taxes at the deadline, are going to see that miserly “benefit” maybe in June of the following year. Here is a cash-flow comparison between the subsidized ACA and the proposed tax-credit system:
After subsidies and tax credits, our average family faces a doubling of costs for their health insurance premiums. There can be no doubt that a tax-credit system as proposed by the Republicans will drive families off of health insurance.
Betsy DeVoss, billionaire by birth and a not-worker, not-educator, not-administrator and not-businessperson, had just squeaked by to become head of the Department of Education when Republicans offered up a bill to eliminate the Department. To justify this, they invoked the usual incantations of transferring curriculum and spending decisions to the states. Said the bill's author, Representative Thomas Massie, of the educational backwater that is Kentucky, “Unelected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. should not be in charge of our children’s intellectual and moral development. States and local communities are best positioned to shape curricula that meet the needs of their students. Schools should be accountable. Parents have the right to choose the most appropriate educational opportunity for their children, including home school, public school, or private school."
My disagreement with Rep. Massie and his GOP colleagues is pretty basic – none of what they say is actually true. Parents already have the right to choose public, private or home education, and state and local school authorities already choose curriculum and education and graduation requirements.
So what does the Department of Education actually do? It manages over $1 trillion in assets, 92% of which are student loan receivables. In other words, the DOE is largely a lending institution. It also provides $148 billion in student aid from preschools to trade, postsecondary and veteran education, funds special education and inclusion for students with disabilities, and provides block grants to states for disadvantaged districts and school maintenance. Oh, and the DOE spends roughly 1% of its budget on research, college accreditation and teacher education grants. It directly reduces the cost of education for 32 million students. It does all this with a headcount of 4300 and administrative overhead of less than 3%. For reference, the vaunted JP MorganChase's admin expense ratio is 56%.
Let's play a “what if” game assuming all of these activities fell to the states and play the scenario out. Graduating high school seniors and college students are in limbo for years as states try to develop the capability to service student loans. Then states would have to gain voter approval to issue tens of billions in bonds to finance student loans, including hiring staff. Since 10-year municipal bonds are running at nearly 5% interest while equivalent Treasury notes are at 2.15%, the cost of student loans just more than doubled. That's for states with actual borrowing capacity. Meanwhile, every state has to decide what to about the $3 billion education budget shortfall caused by discontinued federal grants. Do you want your property taxes to triple or close 1/3 of your schools?
No, really, those are your choices. Or you could call your elected representatives to tell them to quit believing we're stupid, cut the crap and keep the Department of Education.
This will be hard. This may be controversial. This is certainly radical thinking and may spark arguments, but today I am going to write something that is truly central to who I am.
My last post was trolled for sympathizing with people being barred from entering the country. A few days ago I saw an interview with an administration adviser who, after being asked if it is right to keep children out of the country, turned the question around by asking the interviewer if he was willing to risk his children's lives by permitting entry for the wrong person. That interview really set me off, but not just for the blatant fearmongering. Here's why.
Behind the adviser's question, and the interviewer's answer, lurks a horrifying calculus: our children, our lives, are worth more than Theirs. The answer to the adviser's question should be an unequivocal "Yes".
I love my children. I love my wife. I love my extended family. I would do anything for them. But my life is no more valuable than that of a Syrian refugee's. My children have no more worth than a Yemeni or Somali young adult. If I am unwilling to risk my life to save another's, I am giving my life more value than that of that person.
As a Christian I am commanded to love all others as I love myself, and I am taught that there is no greater love than to lay down my life to save another. The immigration and refugee ban imposed by the administration, allegedly to spare our lives, is a direct affront to my religious belief.
This does not decrease the value of my life or my family's; it elevates the value of others. People around the world are dying from persecution, from warfare, from hunger, disease, lack of education, and unequal status. Now people will die because of our policy, because of our fear, because of our lack of faith. I will not be quiet about this.
Conservatives like to talk about religious freedom and American exceptionalism. Banning people from our freedoms because of their religion is exceptional only in its cowardice.
33 When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. 34 Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.
- Common English Bible
There are moments and events in life that define and shape the person you become. I am not thinking of the slow accumulation of daily experiences that paint careful brushstrokes in life's portrait, but those instances when an entire can of paint is flung at your canvas. Moments that permanently color the conception of “you”, moments that forever mark a schism between who you were and who you are.
One of those moments for me came in 1981 when I was 21, traveling throughout Europe. I had participated in an overseas study program in Germany during the fall semester and decided to take the spring semester off to explore more of the continent. No longer part of a program, I was free to go where I wanted, I thought.
I was wrong. One of the places on my mind to visit was the Hermitage Museum, one of the world's most renowned art collections. The Hermitage is in St. Petersburg, Russia. Except, in 1981, St. Petersburg was called Leningrad and Russia was the seat of power of the Soviet Union. 1981 was also during the first term of President Ronald Reagan, who had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire”.
As an American, getting an entry visa to the Soviet Union would have taken forever and then only after completing reams of paperwork. But there was another way. Cruise ships from Helsinki, Finland offered visa-free day tours to Leningrad. Seizing this opportunity, off I went, by myself, from Germany to Helsinki and on to the Soviet Union.
Disembarking the boat into Soviet border control, the officer carefully examined every page of my passport, flipping back and forth through the stamp-filled pages. After a seeming eternity of this, he turned and said something to a comrade. Almost immediately there was shouting all around me, accompanied by jabs to the ribs from the butts of automatic rifles as I was prodded into a detention cell. Terrified doesn't begin to describe my feelings.
Detained! I spent nearly 3 days in that cell, under military guard. I was repeatedly questioned, mostly in Russian which I didn't understand, and my belongings searched. I was accused of being a smuggler, a subversive and a spy. I was strip-searched, twice.
Late in the second day I was visited by a representative of the American consulate. He also questioned me, but he did tell me why I was detained. My Resident Permit in Germany had expired and, on a school trip to East Germany (a satellite Soviet state) the prior semester, my passport had not been stamped when I left. I was officially in Europe illegally and, in the eyes of the Soviets, had not left East Germany through a legal border control point. 15 hours later I was pushed at gunpoint onto another Finnish cruise ship, where I was placed in another cell, under Soviet guard, until I was shoved off the boat in Finland with the totally unnecessary warning to not attempt to enter any Soviet state again.
Being detained in a strange place, where I didn't speak the language, when I didn't know why, was a life-changing experience. Yes, at that time there were Americans spying on the Soviet Union. Yes, there were Americans attempting to smuggle contraband into East Germany and smuggle defectors out. I was not any of those. I was a naive college student who hadn't made sure my documents were in order.
This experience transformed me from a person who accepted authority to someone who is deeply suspicious of the powerful. I chafe at and question authority, whether in the guise of a person or an institution. I am very reserved about discussing my motivations for doing things, even with my wife. And, I must admit, my feelings toward Russians are prejudiced to this day. This experience has had a lasting, profound, and deleterious effect on my life.
And so my heart breaks for those people who, at the whim of our leader, have been detained and summarily shipped out of the country. Back to places that are dangerous for them. Back to places that may not be home, back to places that may be away from their families. How will this experience change them? What will their attitudes about us, about me, be? In what ways will their lives be changed?
Yes, there are a very few people from these countries who have committed violence against Americans. But those instances are not even a rounding error when compared to the violence Americans perpetrate on each other. This policy is wrong. It is scapegoating at its worst. It is authoritarian in concept and execution, undemocratic, and un-American. Ironically, it is deemed legal due to a 1952 law passed to justify keeping suspected Communists out. How long will it be before another Wisconsin elected official of Irish descent oversees a new House Un-American Activities Committee, this time targeting Muslims?
Fraud and discrimination at Wells Fargo have cost the company's shareholders a quarter of a billion dollars. As punishment, head of Community Banking Carrie Tolstedt will be paid $125 million to retire. The fines - $185 million for account fraud, $55 million for ADA discrimination, and $3.5 million in student loan fraud – are staggering, but not nearly so much as the lack of accountability for the company's senior officers.
Wells Fargo is firing 5300 employees in response to their fraud of illicitly opening millions of customer accounts in the division Ms. Tolstedt leads. CEO John Stumpf claims the fraud was not systemic or due to the culture of the company and CFO John Shrewsberry claims “a few” employees were underperforming and trying to meet their sales performance targets.
I would not classify 5300 employees as “a few”. As an organizational change expert I do not accept that fraud is not part of the Wells Fargo culture. Corporate culture is largely determined by two factors – leadership behavior and performance compensation systems. When that many people are breaking the law for years there exists a culture of corruption and a compensation plan encouraging unchecked illegal behavior.
Indeed, Wells Fargo recognizes and is eliminating part of the problem by axing sales targets from the pay plan. But what does it say to employees when low-level workers are fired and the executive accountable for the division repeatedly breaking the law gets to walk away with a $125 million reward?
Lost in this week's spectacular yet inevitable revelations that Wells Fargo illicitly opened millions of unauthorized customer accounts is the company's illegal treatment of people living with disabilities.
Wells Fargo was ordered to pay $16 million in compensation and fines in 2011 in a settlement for denying access to facilities, products and services to people with disabilities. Why am I bringing this up now? Because, 5 years later, the discrimination is still going on.
As part of launching my businesses I have unsuccessfully tried to open small business accounts with Wells Fargo using the internet, telephone, and in person. They will not accept my computer speech as my voice, do not accept electronic signatures, and I can't get in their branches. By their on admission, 5 years after their settlement, Wells Fargo has made fewer than one-third of their branches accessible.
What really burns me, though, is that head of Community Banking Carrie Tolstedt is retiring after this year with a $125 million bonus.
Being unemployably disabled gives Steve time to ponder the world. With 25 years of business consulting experience and a Masters of International Business, some of these ponderings are credible.
Current events, crushed.
It's a deep, dark abyss in this mind. The pressures at these depths compress normal thought into rock candy for the grotesque creatures I call Ideas.
Thoughtful commenters welcome; all others go away and buy a thought you can take out in public.