dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

dotCommonweal Blog

Capitalism Without Tears

Here is a tiny but very interesting article, especially considering its source.

With capitalism,

...profit margins should naturally mean-revert and oscillate. The existence of fat margins should encourage new competitors and pricing cycles that cause those margins to erode; conversely, at the bottom of the cycle, low margins should lead to weaker players exiting the business and giving stronger companies more breathing space. If that cycle doesn't continue, something strange is taking place.  

We can discuss this. Regarding the articles I recently wrote about the Obamacare Co-Ops, one of the problems here may be that there has now been so much monopolization in capitalism that new players can simply not afford the costs of entering the market to compete. And what this would mean, of course, is that the "free market" is both disappearing and incapable of being recovered by anything other than political (as opposed to economic) activity.

On a related note, the head of Goldman Sachs has been watching Bernie Sanders and he doesn't like what he sees.

For many, this will count as a ringing endorsement.

On the subject of a President Hillary Clinton, Mr. Blankfein is coy.

In the Borough of Former Churches

Walk down almost any block in the part of Brooklyn where I live and it’s possible to see a building that once had a religious connection now being used for something else. Arches and spires are obvious indications of former houses of worship, but sometimes a Latin inscription above the lintel or a stone cross on the roof are the only evidence of original purpose. One statistic says twenty Brooklyn churches have been converted into condominiums over the past twenty years, but the scope and pace of redevelopment makes that count seem conservative, or outdated. In the few square blocks around me there are at least five such conversions, of varying degrees of luxury. Some years ago an acquaintance of mine, much bolder than I, confronted a resident leaving one of these buildings. “So how does it feel living in a deconsecrated church?” she demanded. No response was forthcoming—an exhibit of self-restraint, I think now.

I’ve officially lived just over half my life in what is still called the borough of churches, and, full disclosure, my wife and I even once looked at an apartment cantilevered into the sanctuary of a stately stone structure on what realtors still call “a lovely tree-lined street.” We’d just had our first child; we liked the neighborhood; we didn’t want to move to New Jersey. If the place was overpriced then, there’s no way to describe it now. And anyway, how would it have felt to live in a deconsecrated church?

Conversion and reuse is nothing new, obviously, and it’s not just churches—the structure too expensive to maintain, the lot too valuable to hold onto—that have come to function as something else. Parish schools and rectories, convents and hospitals: these also succumb to prevailing demographic and economic pressures, or, depending on your outlook, are made monetizable. People with ties to the community once defined by such places will naturally feel different about this than those who are seeking a home in a coveted neighborhood with good schools; both see it differently from the developer who’s swooped in to tap the financial exponentialities.

Novelist Colm Tóibín has said it was the very sense of the Irish having disappeared from these streets that helped him render so indelibly the environs of 2009’s Brooklyn (the film version of which was released last year)—that and having made himself a regular at a nearby church's 9 a.m. Sunday Mass. Just over a century ago the immediate neighborhood held the largest single concentration of Italians in the country, but by 1998, in the phrasing of the official history of the local parish, “many had left the railroad apartments of South Brooklyn for the lawns and pitched roofs in Long Island, Staten Island, [and] New Jersey.”

Read more

Obamacare in Flames - Part Three - The Plague on All Our Houses

The Attacks on both Obamacare in particular and our healthcare system in general are fragmented and hard to talk about in a very systematic manner. People have specific things that they think are great and that they think are terrible. They focus on these to criticize or glorify the whole. I find this infuriating. To fix things, we have to know exactly how things work, and what and what doesn't work well. My response, then, will be broken into parts which I hope will make sense when you put them all together.

The questions are whether Obamacare has been worth it, can it survive, should it be replaced, and what should replace it.  To answer these questions, I think we have to go back to some basic concepts. Hold on. It's going to get ugly.

Read more

Obamacare in Flames - Part Two - Mama Don't Want No Market Playing 'Round Here

"We can't really subsidize a marketplace that doesn't appear at the moment to be sustaining itself" —Stephen Hemsley, CEO, United Healthcare

It's a commonplace in American business that the difference between a brilliant statement and a stupid one usually depends on who is saying it. When Steve Hemsley asked his C-Suite crew why it looked like United Healthcare would be losing half a billion dollars on Obamacare in two years, I doubt anybody said "Gee, boss. I guess the marketplace must not be sustaining itself." Or if someone did, they're certainly not working there anymore.

Read more

Obamacare in Flames - Part One - The Strange Life and Sudden Death of the Co-Ops

"As the camel falls to its knees, more knives are drawn" —Bedouin Proverb.

Despite the fact that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has significantly reduced the number of uninsured in the United States, it has also failed to live up to its promises and has seen a great number of failures. The number of uninsured is still high, premiums are growing, networks are narrowing, insurers are losing money, and the Co-Ops, set up as a significant innovation of the program, are failing and will continue to fail everywhere.

In this hot election season, this has brought out enemies on the Left and the Right. The Left wants Obamacare dumped and replaced with a single payer system. The Right just wants it dumped.  Both sides attack the program with cherry picked examples that are nonsense and half truths. It's like watching a mud wrestling match where you know you hate one of the wrestlers, but you can't tell them apart anymore.

I am going to post three articles where I try to get to the bottom of what is really happening. I find the sniping on the Right and the Left mostly useless, but also infuriating. The system is broken and Obamacare has revealed all of the cracks. In the first article, I will talk about the Co-Ops and why they had to fail given the structure of the current insurance system. In the second, I will discuss what's going on with market risk and how the big insurance players, despite their massive resources and sophistication, also found themselves sucked into the whirlpool. In the third article I will talk about what we can and can't do about it.

***

The Affordable Care Act contained a provision to establish and fund the creation of 50 statewide non-profit insurance Co-Ops. There were several reasons for this. First, there was the concern that the current commercial insurers would not enter the ACA marketplace in large enough numbers to support millions of newly insured. Second, it was rightly believed that insurance markets in the United States tend to be dominated by one main insurer and the Co-Ops would add badly needed competition. Third, the Co-Ops were a compromise meant to forestall a government run "Medicare" option that might have a potential to move the entire country towards single payer insurance. And last, many people unclear of the concept of not-for-profit and citizen boards of directors in the United States thought that the Co-Ops would be less greedy and more consumer friendly.

Because the funding for this program was prematurely and summarily cut during one of our GOP manufactured budget crises coupled with Red State resistance to the idea itself, only 23 Co-Ops were eventually established. Of these, half have failed outright. Most of the rest are very weak and a significant number of these have been quietly put under some form of direct regulatory control. With the sole exception of the Maine Co-Op, the Co-Op program will fail unless radical measures are taken (which I will outline in article three).

The provision of all that sweet, sweet government money ($1.6 billion) drew into it two kinds of speculators. The first were the normal kind who wanted a crack at The Big Federal Pie. The second consisted of people who wanted the program to succeed for various political and occupational reasons. Most, but not all, were blinded by the fact that the mass establishment of these Co-Ops was probably the riskiest start- up venture in American history. While the insurance risk factors played a part in this (and the risk factors are what people focused on) I will argue that structural factors played a bigger role in creating risk here and I will try to outline these as briefly as I can.

A. Creating a Network

One of the main things that insurance companies do in the United States is obtain discounted rates from providers. These rates and their terms are set by individual private contracts. Insurance companies and providers are always recontracting with each other, hoping to gain an advantage. Any insurance company's contracting staff will be large and well funded with the latest complex modeling software and contract language software. And this will be true of any insurance company that already has a well developed network.

The insurance company will try to get the best terms and steepest discounts and then will aggregate these discounts to find an average discount so that it can begin to design its different benefit packages and price them. (It is also necessary to know in what way its member population uses the providers, but I will discuss this later).

The Co-Ops started out with no networks at all, no contracting staff or infrastructure, and a mandate as THE state Co-Op to be prepared to cover any member in the entire state.

What most Co-Ops did was to create "instant networks" by using what is called a "rental network." A rental network is a broad, usually multi-state network that has a very shallow discount with a large number of providers. They are usually used in cases where a business (typically a hospital) will want to create a quasi-network for its own employees, where these workers will get a steep discount for using their own hospital and hospital owned doctors, but will also get some sort of small discount should they go somewhere else. Rental networks are not meant to be used as full networks by insurance companies, because their discounts are so small that they can't compete with regular insurance companies with their own sets of contracts.

The Co-Ops plan was to start with the rental network in order to establish an "adequate" network per the state regulatory rules of wherever they were located, and then as quickly as possible, recontract the providers within it with their own more deeply discounted contracts on their own terms. If they did this quickly enough, they would have a network that would cover everyone, but they would also be able to eliminate the main rental contracts with their own competitive ones.

In practice, given the magnitude of the task and the fact that they were literally starting with nothing, they had no idea how long it would really take or what Co-Op contracts would actually be in place when the Co-Ops "went live" and actually started taking on new members. So in their business planning, they worked backwards from what they knew to be the average discount in the state to the average discount of the rental network. From this they created a fairy tale business plan and sent this to the regulators for approval. No one at either end of this chain believed the plan, which is why the Co-Ops were expected to lose money for the first one to three years of their existence until they could get a real network together. The vast majority of Co-Ops lost money in the first two years, even those that did not fail, because (in part) they simply could not build the network they needed. They had no market clout and their contracting infrastructure was mostly immature.  

B. Building an Infrastructure

Modern health insurance companies have massive expensive IT infrastructures. It is commonly said in the insurance business that insurance companies are now basically IT companies with insurance companies attached to them.

The core of the infrastructure is the claims payment system. This system has to be able to adjudicate electronically all claims per all the various separate provider contracts that an insurance company has. The claims system also has to be integrated with the member enrollment system, the billing and payment system, the banking system, the accounting system, the hospital contracting system, and the member services system. All of these are separate things. The work of the large insurance companies is to have all of these systems "in house" and seamlessly integrated with each other. For the Co-Ops, all of these separate systems had to be rented from separate vendors. It was the integration of these systems, which were generally not designed to be integrated, that was usually done in house. For many of the Co-Ops, some of the systems weren't even designed to do what the Co-Ops needed them to do, either in their basic functioning or in the volume of transactions that were required. And in some cases, multiple versions of a system were needed. For example, there were cases where a Co-Op needed one enrollment system for individual members and another for employer group members.  Both needed to be integrated with the rest of the system. Against this, the Co-Ops generally had inadequate staffs and had to rely on consultants who themselves were often inadequate, although terribly expensive.

To add to this, the Federal government was building its own enrollment and claims system from scratch (the latter not to pay claims but to do member level claims risk calculations) and required the Co-Ops and anyone else participating in Obamacare to able to integrate with their systems.

As you can imagine, there were massive, expensive, service affecting integration problems within the Co-Ops, within the government (which hit the news), and between the Co-Ops and the government. The Co-Ops did not figure these costs in their start up planning, and why should they have? No one had ever done this before.

C. Building a Staff

The Co-Ops had several staffing problems right from the beginning. The first was the acquisition of qualified management.  Co-Ops were, by definition, start up companies and risky ones at that. The best executives and managers in the insurance industry could tell how risky they were, if only by listening to their own senior managers panicking about Obamacare. Not many people were willing to leave safe well developed jobs late in their careers to join a Co-Op at any price. This was not only true of the executives but also the middle managers. And even those seasoned executives and managers who did come over had little experience starting an insurance company from scratch. Nor did they have the "turnaround" experience they would need to fix the inevitable mistakes. And there was another problem with capital. While the Co-Ops were relatively well funded, with a Federal capital development fund that was separate from the claims guarantee fund, the manager found problems with how to spend the money. Aside from the fact that at the beginning there did not exist such things as purchasing departments, which meant that that the Co-Ops (having to build up quickly) were screwed by almost everyone they did business with, they had trouble figuring out how to staff up. They couldn't take their time, which caused hiring standards to slip. But they also didn't know if they should staff up quickly against the possibility of small enrollments (and therefore risk spending to much right off the bat) or staff up slowly against the possibility of high enrollments and therefore risk being understaffed and having basic service issues). What usually happened was the worst of all worlds. They didn't anticipate the integration problems, so they didn't staff for them. They tried to forestall permanent staffing, so they outsourced a lot of things they should have taken in-house right away. In some cases, especially in the second year of Obamacare, their membership increased dramatically over the course of a month or two and they found themselves very understaffed against the volume of membership. The IT integration problems, the staffing quality and quantity problems, the in-sourcing of activities and the inevitable initial mistakes all had to be addressed in "real time" as the Co-Ops were providing health services to actual people. And they had to do this while painting rosy pictures to the Boards of Directors (who being appointed from the membership often had no idea how insurance companies worked to begin with) and regulators who were often hostile towards them.

The impossibility (there, I've said it) of constructing an adequate and competitive provider network in the face of major insurance companies, creating a fully integrated claims, enrollment, and financial structure, and a well trained, well organized experienced staff made working conditions at the Co-Ops stressful as they lurched from one catastrophe into another. The level headed leaders who actually thrive in this kind of environment turned out to be rare. So the lights began to go out to a chorus of "I told you so" from politically motivated groups who had their own reasons to want the Co-Ops to fail.

But what about the major established insurance companies with solid networks, infrastructures, and stable well trained staffs? When they entered the Obamacare market, what happened to them?

Here the question of risk enters the picture. With the Co-Ops' basic structural problems, we can look at the questions of pure insurance risk as the coup de grace. But how did the sophisticated risk experts at places like Blue Cross and United Healthcare manage to also shoot themselves in the face?

 

 

Is Bernie Sanders Anti-Immigrant?

When Bernie Sanders released the details of his “Medicare for All” single-payer healthcare proposal ahead of the Democratic debate last week, the plan was widely panned by journalists and pundits as an unserious, pie-in-the-sky idea that could never possibly see the light of day. But it was perhaps even more audacious than many of its critics realized: in contrast to the Affordable Care Act, whose drafters deliberately excluded undocumented immigrants from being eligible for coverage in order to avoid stepping into an even bigger political minefield than the one they were already in, Sanders’ policy advisor Warren Gunnels confirmed to reporters that the senator envisions an expanded Medicare being open to at least some of those living in the country illegally.

This is almost certainly one of the boldest pro-immigrant positions espoused by a major party candidate in recent history. A casual observer might reasonably infer from his willingness to take such a stand that Sanders must be the clear favorite of those who lobby on behalf of immigrant rights. Yet throughout the campaign, he has been dogged by criticism of his immigration recordfrom the left.

Read more

The State of the Union's Anxiety

On the night of September 11, 2001, I got a phone call from a relative who’d seen IRA bombings in London, which she recounted in talking to me about what had happened in New York and Washington earlier that day. Not that these were comparable, she said, but terrorism was an unfortunate reality and that people in places likely to be targeted should be watchful, not scared. I agreed in principle but, with smoke hanging over my neighborhood and rumors still rampant, fear was tough to put aside.

President Obama’s response to Americans’ worry over terrorism—which by some reports is higher now than it has been since the weeks following 9/11—is portrayed on the right as singularly out of touch and insensitive, and even among some supporters as something less than adequate. The issue is getting specific attention in the run-up to his State of the Union address tonight (the last SOTU of his presidency), with some wondering whether he will use the occasion to challenge notions of his perceived indifference to anxieties and concerns over terrorism. But if he does, how should he do it?

The New York Times today explains the difficulty a president faces in appealing to reason, noting what Obama most likely won’t say: that “Americans are more likely to die in a car crash, drown in a bathtub or be struck by lightning than be killed by a terrorist” and that the “Islamic State does not pose an existential threat to the United States.” And there is no way he could say that “a certain number of relatively low-level terrorist attacks may be inevitable” and that Americans may have to adapt to it, as Israelis have, or as my relative said that night in 2001, Londoners had.

It would be good, though, if the president was able to say these things, and more.

Read more

When 'Aggression' is Police Protocol

Imagine you’re a woman in your late twenties with a job at a multinational software company. You play soccer as a hobby and come home after a game one night to find you’ve locked yourself out of your apartment. It’s around 11:15 by the time the locksmith has let you in, and you’re taking off your shoes when you hear a voice and a barking dog near your front porch. You go to the window, pull back the blinds, and see a man pointing a gun at you. You step back from the window and hear the man say, “Come outside with your hands up!” What do you do next?

Correctly assuming it was the police who ordered her outside, Fay Wells of Santa Monica, California, obeyed. Writing in the Washington Post about the September 6 incident, Wells describes how officers commanded her down from her porch at gunpoint without answering her repeatedly asked question: “What’s going on?” Only after they searched her apartment did officers explain why they were there. But none of them could give Wells, who is African American, a satisfactory explanation as to why there were nineteen of them, and they assured her it had nothing to do with race. “The fact is,” she later told NPR’s Ari Shapiro “the first time that they interacted with me, they had guns drawn, which just felt incredibly aggressive and not like they were trying to assess the situation.”

Shortly after Wells's piece appeared in the Post, Santa Monica police chief Jacqueline Seabrooks released a statement on the incident, affirming the claims Wells made—yes, the department sent nineteen police officers and a K-9  to investigate a 9-1-1 caller’s claim that a Latino man and two girls, “possibly Hispanic” were attempting a break-in “using tools”—and defending that protocol. “In smaller communities, like Santa Monica,” Seabrooks explained “a response of this type is not uncommon.”

Unfortunately, in incidents involving women of color, such responses by law enforcement seem to have become common in recent months, with police acting aggressively in non-criminal, non-confrontational encounters and escalating them into violent ones. 

Last July, twenty-eight-year-old Sandra Bland, who after refusing to put out her cigarette in the course of a Texas traffic stop was pulled from her car, threatened with a Taser ("I'm going to light you up," Trooper Brian Encina was recorded on dashboard-camera telling her), arrested without being told why, and pushed face-first into the grass. She was found hanging in a jail cell three days after the stop; her death, officially ruled a suicide, is currently being considered by a grand jury. The month before that, McKinney, Texas, officer Eric Casebolt, responding to reports of an unruly pool party, was videotaped grabbing fifteen-year-old Dajerria Becton by the hair, throwing her to the ground, sticking his knee into her back, and shoving her into the grass, yelling “on your face!” —then pulling his gun on other teens. And in October, video captured Richland County, South Carolina, deputy Ben Fields flipping a slumped high school student out of her desk, wrestling her to the ground, then dragging her across the floor of the classroom.

As a white woman it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine an interaction with police officers like these, or the one that Fay Wells describes. I’m more likely to be assumed as a victim of a burglary than a burglar. It’s hard to believe that an officer who hadn’t identified himself would continue to point a gun at me after I’d put my hands up and obediently followed his order. In fact, if I'm honest, I reflexively hesitate to attribute aggressive response and escalation by police offices to race at all—because it's easy for me to deny. And I’m not alone. A survey by McClatchy-Marist from December 2014 showed 50 percent of whites have “a great deal of confidence in the police to gain the trust of those they serve” compared with only 22 percent of African Americans.

Having been on the receiving end of an aggressive and unnecessarily escalated response has permanently changed how Fay Wells feels about the criminal justice system despite assurances from the Santa Monica police that they only intended to keep her safe.

The Santa Monica police department is currently reviewing what happened at Wells's home. Chief Seabrook says the incident is “reminiscent of those Rorschach-style images where it depends on your perspective whether you see a blob of ink.” Others might see it as indicative of a different pattern, in which disproportionate response by police—operating with wide discretion and little accountability—is actually putting certain women at much greater risk.

Drawing Boundaries around 'Arms'

In an article some forty years ago on abortion, John Noonan calls line-drawing “the ordinary business of moralists and lawmakers.” In the wake of the San Bernardino massacre, line-drawing has seemed to me all the more urgent, though I’m tempted to despair, even in this season of Advent (of waiting, waiting, waiting), over the capacities of our democratic representatives in this regard.

That said, today brings what strikes me as some good news: the Supreme Court’s 7-2 refusal to hear a Second Amendment challenge to an Illinois ordinance banning semiautomatic assault weapons and large capacity magazines.

Read more

Follow the (Really Big) Money

Something I’ve never quite been able to figure out about the powerful individual financial interests behind charter schools is just why those backers are so keen on charters and, correspondingly, so supportive of massive cuts in the funding of public education. One theory is that they stand to profit from the adoption, purchase, and licensing by charter schools of various educational products and services in which they have a stake. And yet that doesn’t seem to fully explain the fervor they exhibit for their cause; something is missing from the equation, no matter the stated desire to address (contestable) claims about an educational system in “crisis.”

Evidently, it’s also a mystery to Michael Massing. Why, the former executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review asks in The New York Review of Books, “have so many billionaires concluded that charter schools are the best way to fix the system?” And, just as importantly: “What are the implications of having such a small group with so little expertise in the field of education exercising such influence in it?” Because he doesn’t have the answer, he proposes a way to work toward one: harness digital technology for a new form of journalism that would  “lift the veil off the super-rich and lay bare their power.”

Billionaires, as Massing doesn't need to remind us, are “shaping policy, influencing opinion, promoting favorite causes,” and not just when it comes to education. More than ever before the super-rich are pouring their money into national and state political races, and funding targeted campaigns on discrete issues like regulatory and tax “reform,” climate science, and even foreign diplomacy—all as they manage to shield themselves from scrutiny. Yet journalists, Massing states, “have largely let them get away with it.” His proposal: “[B]roadly based [websites] dedicated to covering the power elite,” at which data on spending by billionaires is collected, collated, and tracked, the information presented in regularly updated tables and charts, and linked to the latest news about which member of the 1 percent is contributing money (and how much) to which cause or politician.

Massing distinguishes his envisioned operation from social-media-enabled grassroots reporting and well-intentioned but undersized watchdogs like Muckety and SourceWatch. He calls for sufficiently funded, nonpartisan organizations with dedicated staff committed not just to breaking the story but also to pursuing it, so that the nexus of wealth and policy is fully exposed as the danger it is to American democracy. There necessarily remain questions about implementation and effectiveness, but for now it represents as good a plan as there is for publicizing information that urgently needs to be publicized.

How urgent is illustrated by one recent example: a New York Times article this week on the influence of billionaires in the 2014 election of Illinois governor Bruce Rauner and the policies he’s pursued since.

Read more

Black Millennials & the Racial Wealth Gap

Mel Jones writes in the Washington Monthly about an issue I and many of my peers are familiar with: how to pay off student debt and other bills in a not-so-great economy, yet somehow build a financial foundation for the future. Her experience, however, is fundamentally different from mine, in that as a person of color she must also contend with what’s come to be known as the “second” racial wealth gap—the second phase in a “financial disparity that stems from continuous shortfalls in parents’ net worth and low homeownership rates among blacks,” which, Jones explains, “works to create an unlevel playing field.”

Since owning a home accounts for over 50 percent of wealth for blacks (compared with 39 percent for whites) and since black Americans are five times less likely to inherit wealth than white Americans generally (7 percent to 36 percent), low homeownership rates among black Americans, which often are the result of discriminatory lending practices, are a large contributing factor to the racial wealth gap. In addition, Jones points out, “[T]he most recent housing bust is estimated to have wiped out half of the collective wealth of black families—a setback of two generations,” resulting in essentially an exponential setback for millennials of color.

Jones cites a recent study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on the dynamics of wealth accumulation that found an estimated 20 percent of personal wealth can be attributed to formal and informal gifts from family members, especially parents. But blacks and Hispanics starting their careers are not likely to get such a boost. Moreover, they’re already starting at a disadvantage, given that they take on higher levels of student debt than their white peers, “often to pay for routine expenses, like textbooks, that their parents are less likely to subsidize,” Jones writes. They also often have to work while in college, thus missing out on opportunities to connect with classmates and forge the professional ties that might help them later.

I know I wouldn’t be where I am without “formal and informal gifts from family members,” before, during, and after college. I wouldn't have been able to make decisions toward furthering my professional career if I couldn't, for example, stay on my family’s cell phone plan or receive help covering the cost of an apartment security deposit. Understanding that there are inherent long-term benefits in being able to choose career development over routine expenses is one part of understanding what in current discourse is calledprivilege.” As Jones puts it simply: “If you have to decide between paying for a professional networking event or a cell phone bill, the latter is likely to win out”:

When this happens once or twice on a small scale, it’s not a big deal. It’s the collective impact of a series of decisions that matters, the result of which is displayed among ethnic and class lines and grounded in historical privilege.

Read more

A Nation of Refugees (e.g. Cruz and Rubio) and Immigrants (Most of the Rest of Us, e.g. Ryan and McConnell)

Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Committee on Migration: "I am disturbed, however, by calls from both federal and state officials for an end to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. These refugees are fleeing terror themselves—violence like we have witnessed in Paris. They are extremely vulnerable families, women, and children who are fleeing for their lives. We cannot and should not blame them for the actions of a terrorist organization." Whole Statement

Politico: "Christian groups break with GOP over Syrian refugees"

NYTimes: "G.O.P. Governors Vow to Close Doors to Syrian Refugees"

How Far Should They Go?

Being a big fan of big government, I don't stop to ask, "Why Do They Want to Do That?"

This morning I stopped and asked when I read: "Public Housing Nationwide May Be Subject to Smoking Ban." The Dept. of Housing and Urban Development has long urged smoking bans in public housing, but it has left rule-making and enforcment to local authorities. Now the Dept. is insisting on a nation-wide ban in all public housing (New York City is cited as the biggest slacker). Is a mandatory no-smoking rule in public housing a wise move on the part of the FEDS? Would the ban be enforced in the nation's finest public house, the White House?

Another example: a school in Palatine, Illinois: a transgendered student plays on a girl's sports team and uses the girl's locker room. The school has provided a curtain behind which the student can change her clothes. The U.S. Dept. of Education argues that the school district "violated anti-discrimination laws when it did not allow a transgender student who identifies as a girl and participates on a girls’ sports team to change and shower in the girls’ locker room without restrictions." The curtain would have to go. Would the FEDS be prudent to hold off and see how local officials manage?  "Illinois District Violated Transgender Student’s Rights."

Boo Who at Yale

DotCommonweal readers may be forgiven for thinking that I’m obsessed with this topic, but events keep conspiring to focus public attention on the subject of political correctness and campus speech codes. And each time they do, I recall Jean Raber’s post to one of my earlier entries, in which she asked, in effect, What do people mean when they refer to “political correctness?”

What they mean is being amply illustrated on campuses this fall. I’ve already written about the turmoil at Wesleyan University, where students effectively sought to shut down the school paper after it ran an op-ed, written by a 31 year old undergraduate and Iraq War vet, critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently I wrote about various campus dust-ups over the issue of Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation.

Now Halloween is gone, but the Boo! controversy is continuing to convulse Yale University with events politically lurid enough to have been torn from the pages of a Tom Wolfe novel. The flap began when several students at one of Yale’s residential colleges complained to their house masters about what a downer it was to receive guidelines from Yale’s administration concerning Halloween costumes. Yale undergraduates live in dorms known as colleges; the residences have live-in advisors – typically faculty members – who play an in loco parentis function. The masters at Sillliman College are Nikolas and Erika Christakis; he is a physician and sociologist, she is a lecturer in childhood development and education. After fielding the complaint from dorm residents about the Halloween costume guidelines, she sat down and composed a lengthy and conspicuously thoughtful email in which she essentially agreed with them that the University should relax and, well, let Halloween be Halloween. Speaking, she said, as a child development researcher, she asked aloud, “What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?” and argued for basing costume decisions on individual prudence rather than administrative fiat. “[I]f you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended,” her email counseled. “Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” She sent the email to residents of Silliman.

And then all hell broke loose.

Read more

In Search of a 'Civil-Rights Republican'

Those who lived through it may find it hard to believe that Wednesday, November 4, marks just the thirty-fifth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s election as president: All the praise, adoration, and incantatory recitation of his name in the time since make it feel a lot longer than three-plus decades. With election season underway, greater public devotions become obligatory, not only but especially when candidates debate against the backdrop of an Air Force One replica in the eponymous presidential library, where Reagan's name was mentioned forty-five times.

With the GOP’s national standard bearer having lost five out of six popular elections after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, the party looked briefly into the mirror and issued a report on how to stop alienating voters it needed to win the White House. The recommendations were commonsensical and have thus been forgotten. Building walls, cutting taxes on the wealthy, demonizing Obama, demonizing Obama voters—these have much more appeal, and besides, Ronald Reagan.

Frustration with the Republicans’ continued inability to lure African American voters—their continued futility all but guaranteed in 2016—has prompted Theodore R. Johnson to offer an eminently reasonable, if less eminently realistic, prescription. Writing in The National Review, he calls for a civil-rights Republican, a national figure “strong on bedrock conservative principles as well as civil-rights protections [who] will win the support of black voters at levels the party hasn’t seen in generations.” I say reasonable, because Johnson premises his call on what the party itself might consider an inconvenient truth: “The stark polarization of the black electorate is a function of the evolution of [Republican and Democratic] stances on civil-rights protections. Period. There is no mystery here.” Republicans, he says, operate according to a fundamental misunderstanding of African Americans and what motivates their voting decisions; Republicans have accepted and perpetuated the “false narrative” that black voters support Democrats because they expect unearned benefits; Republicans “ignore history” when they point to the Constitution as a guarantor of civil rights given the failure of the 14th Amendment to “prevent the ‘separate but equal doctrine’ or statutory Jim Crow.” Johnson states that yes, voter ID laws passed in the aftermath of Shelby v. Holder have made “made voting more difficult for many blacks.” He points out that Republican attempts at outreach are “repeatedly undone by inadvisable strategic communication choices and a basic callousness about the black experience in America.” Not just reasonable, but almost bracing, in the pages of The National Review.

But realistic?

Read more

Paul Ryan, the Right's Kind of Family Man

Mark Shields, appearing on PBS Newshour Friday night , expressed genuine respect for Paul Ryan’s desire to preserve the time he has with his family should he become, as seems likely, House speaker next week. “Admirably,” Shields said, “he wants to spend time with his children, who are in their formative and teen years.” Sympathies dispensed with, he then made the obvious observation, with a dose of sarcasm for good measure. “Would that he would extend this to all parents. And I’m sure he will, now that he’s about to be speaker.”

Paid family and parental leave, as many know, is something the Republican Party has consistently opposed. When President Obama appealed for family-leave legislation in his 2015 State of the Union address, the GOP either laughed it off with ignorant jokes about “European economies” or made their familiar noises about “over-regulation” and “federal mandates” suffocating American businesses. That line of thinking stretches back pretty far. For illustrative purposes, let’s look only to 1993, when the Family Medical and Leave Act–which mandated twelve weeks leave, unpaid, for illness and a new child–became law under the Clinton administration. “America’s business owners are a resilient bunch, but let there be no doubt, [this legislation] will be the demise of some,” predicted one lawmaker. “And as that occurs, the light of freedom will grow dimmer.” That was Republican Representative John Boehner of Ohio, whom Ryan is about to replace as speaker. If nothing else, the consistency of the messaging across the decades can be appreciated.

Ryan has not only internalized that messaging, of course, but owing to acknowledged policy prowess has perhaps more than any GOP lawmaker worked to enshrine such miserliness.

Read more

Dorothy Day & the Gravediggers vs. Cardinal Spellman

Over at the New York Times's Taking Notes blog, Teresa Tritch has retold a fascinating episode in American Catholic history involving one of the four Americans Pope Francis upheld as examples to follow in his speech to Congress, Dorothy Day.

In the winter of 1949 some 250 gravediggers who were employed by the Archdiocese at Calvary Cemetery went on strike, demanding a forty-hour work week (they'd been working forty-eight hours) and an increase in hourly wages. Cardinal Francis Spellman repeatedly denied their requests and work stopped for months as "strikers picketed at the cemetery gates" and "unburied coffins were placed in temporary graves under tarpaulins."

The archdiocese initially responded by disparaging the union leaders and threatening to fire striking workers. Several weeks into the strike — with nearly 1,200 coffins unburied — it resorted to strike-breaking by bringing in seminarians to bury the dead. The New York Times reported that the cardinal said that the union was communist-dominated and that the strikes were “unjustified and immoral” and an affront to the “innocent dead and their bereaved families.” He said he was “proud” to be a strikebreaker because the duty to bury the dead outweighed laws against strikebreaking.

Enter Dorothy Day, who not only advocated for a raise in the gravediggers' wages but questioned the cardinal's moral judgment.

In a letter on March 4, 1949, [Day] said the strike was about the workers’ “dignity as men, their dignity as workers, and the right to have a union of their own, and a right to talk over their grievances.” She endorsed a wage high enough to help the gravediggers raise their families and meet “high prices and exorbitant rents.” She asked the cardinal to go to the union leaders, “meet their demands, be their servant as Christ was the servant of his disciples, washing their feet.”

Only after the stikers dropped their affiliation with the "communist" union (United Cemetery Workers of the Congress of Industrial Organizations) and joined the American Federation of Labor was the strike settled, with the archdiocese increasing a 3 percent raise in wages to 8 percent, and the gravediggers continuing to work forty-eight hours a week. As Tritch concludes:

An editorial in the Catholic Worker in April 1949 said that from the start, the paper had said “the strike was justified” and, despite the outcome, “we say it still.” It also noted that the strike could have been avoided if the workers had been treated “as human beings and brothers.”

The same could be said of strikers today, including the employees of federal contractors and fast food workers in the Fight for $15, who want decent pay from powerful employers and bargaining power in their dealings with them.

It is right and just for Pope Francis to urge Americans to recognize the greatness of Dorothy Day. By elevating her, he elevates her cause: dignity for working men and working women.

The whole thing is worth a read.

Kindergarten Redshirting

A front-page article a few weeks ago in my hometown newspaper, the Hartford Courant, investigates a pet peeve of mine: kindergarten redshirting. The state of Connecticut is looking into curtailing the practice.

For those unfamiliar with sports terminology, “redshirting” is the practice, prevalent in college football, of having a freshman repeat a year (the red shirt is a practice jersey, meaning he doesn’t play in games) so that he can grow physically, work out in the weight room, and be a more dominant player when he restarts as a second-year freshman the next season.

From college sports this practice has trickled all the way down... to five-year-olds. In my state, Connecticut, the age cut-off for any grade level is January 1st, meaning that the slightly older kindergartners are five in the fall and six in the spring, while the slightly younger ones are four in the fall and five in the spring. More and more parents whose children fall on the younger end of the spectrum (full disclosure: my fourth-grade daughter has a January birthday, so she’s on the older end) are keeping them out of kindergarten for a year, so that instead of being the youngest in class, they begin as the oldest. Some of these “redshirt kindergartners” are as old as seven by the time they finish kindergarten.

Read more

The Cheating Kind

Volkswagen’s installation of software for circumventing emissions standards in at least 11 million cars worldwide is just the kind of thing that makes people think of “business ethics” as a contradiction in terms. It doesn’t help that the auto industry as a whole has a long and tarnished history of such behavior. From the hard-to-handle Corvairs that helped launch Ralph Nader to fame, to the exploding Pintos of the 1970s, to more recent examples involving ignition cutoffs, unintended acceleration, and malfunctioning airbags—defects their respective manufacturers often knew about but kept secret—sneaking substandard, potentially dangerous products into showrooms seems as much a part of the deal as offering undercoating. Not every recall notice is compelled by a government agency’s post-sale discovery of a sometimes deadly defect. But enough are to remind us why regulations and regulatory agencies are needed. Is this also the place to bemoan the rarity of severe and enforceable punishment, including damaging fines and criminal penalties?

A few things stand out about the Volkswagen revelation. First, it seems to many a kind of personal betrayal: Why did they do it? Timmons Roberts at the Brookings Institute gets to this, writing about his “long love affair” with VWs dating back to childhood, a love affair now soured. Anyone who grew up in or around families (or had college friends) with VW buses, or learned how to drive stick-shift in an old Beetle, would probably understand.

Read more

Pope Francis to Congress: Be Your Best

This morning Pope Francis delivered a stirring address to the U.S. Congress—the first of its kind—in which he carefully, but firmly urged legislators to draw on the rich history of this nation to build up the common good. Largely avoiding the harsh rhetoric he cautioned bishops against yesterday, he prodded America to remember what has made it great: welcoming the stranger, cooperating with those of diverse commitments, working toward the common good. Ensuring the commonweal “is the chief aim of all politics,” according to Francis, who once weighed a career in political life. He acknowledged that defending the dignity of all, working to ensure the well-being of all citizens, especially “the most vulnerable,” is not an easy task. Yet, he continued, that is the responsibility, indeed the vocation, to which every lawmaker is called. This was a speech of fundamental ideas—of political theory, of anthropology, of theology. But it was anything but airy. Francis talked in specifics. He talked immigration, he talked capital punishment, he talked arms control, he talked climate change.

The pope’s audience, however, was not limited to those in the room. He characterized his message as an invitation to enter into a dialogue with all Americans: the elderly who, while retired, “keep working to build up this land”; the young, who strive to “realize their great and noble aspirations” yet face “difficult situations”; and everyday workers, who labor not simply “to pay their taxes,” but “in their own quiet way…generate solidarity.”

Francis used the stories of four great Americans to drive home his message of solidarity with the planet and all its people: Abraham Lincoln, who defended liberty; Martin Luther King (who featured in Francis’s address at the White House), who sought to ensure the “full rights for all [our] brothers and sisters”;  Dorothy Day, who devoted her life toward “the cause of the oppressed”; and Thomas Merton, who serves as an example of our “capacity for dialogue and the United States.”

Read more