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Posts Tagged ‘government

“Bureaucracies… are not themselves forms of stupidity so much as they are ways of organizing stupidity”*…

Jumping through hoops for the sake of the hoops…

Not long ago, a New York City data analyst who had been laid off shortly after the pandemic hit told me she had filed for unemployment-insurance payments and then spent the next six months calling, emailing, and using social media to try to figure out why the state’s Labor Department would not send her the money she was owed.

A mother in Philadelphia living below the poverty line told me about her struggle to maintain government aid. Disabled herself and caring for a disabled daughter, she had not gotten all of her stimulus checks and, because she does not regularly file taxes or use a computer, needed help from a legal-aid group to make sure she would get the newly expanded child-tax-credit payments.

A Colorado systems administrator with a chronic medical condition told me that switching jobs had caused an accidental lapse in his health coverage, which led to a cascade of paperwork over responsibility for a medical bill. He estimated that he had spent 100 hours resolving the issue…

In my decade-plus of social-policy reporting, I have mostly understood these stories as facts of life. Government programs exist. People have to navigate those programs. That is how it goes. But at some point, I started thinking about these kinds of administrative burdens as the “time tax”—a levy of paperwork, aggravation, and mental effort imposed on citizens in exchange for benefits that putatively exist to help them. This time tax is a public-policy cancer, mediating every American’s relationship with the government and wasting countless precious hours of people’s time.

The issue is not that modern life comes with paperwork hassles. The issue is that American benefit programs are, as a whole, difficult and sometimes impossible for everyday citizens to use. Our public policy is crafted from red tape, entangling millions of people who are struggling to find a job, failing to feed their kids, sliding into poverty, or managing a disabling health condition.

The United States government—whether controlled by Democrats, with their love of too-complicated-by-half, means-tested policy solutions; or Republicans, with their love of paperwork-as-punishment; or both, with their collective neglect of the implementation and maintenance of government programs—has not just given up on making benefits easy to understand and easy to receive. It has in many cases purposefully made the system difficult, shifting the burden of public administration onto individuals and discouraging millions of Americans from seeking aid. The government rations public services through perplexing, unfair bureaucratic friction. And when people do not get help designed for them, well, that is their own fault.

The time tax is worse for individuals who are struggling than for the rich; larger for Black families than for white families; harder on the sick than on the healthy. It is a regressive filter undercutting every progressive policy we have. In America, losing a job means making a hundred phone calls to a state unemployment-insurance system. Getting hit by a car means becoming your own hospital-billing expert. Having a disability means launching into a Jarndyce v. Jarndyce–type legal battle. Needing help to feed a toddler means filling out a novel-length application for aid.

The Biden administration is expanding the welfare state, through the new child tax credit and other initiatives. Congressional Democrats are crafting a new New Deal. But little attention is being paid to making things work, rather than making them exist. And very little attention is being paid to making things work for the neediest—people short on time, money, and mental bandwidth.

The time tax needs to be measured. It needs to be managed. And it needs to end…

Why is so much American bureaucracy left to average citizens? Annie Lowrey (@AnnieLowrey) explains the enormous cost and points to the remedy: “The Time Tax.”

* David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

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As we sign on to streamlining, we might recall that this date in 1970 was “Black Tot Day,” the last day on which the British Royal Navy issued sailors with a daily rum ration (the daily tot).  In the 17th century, the ration had been beer– one gallon per day– but the the switch was meade the following century to rum in order to cut down on the weight and volume necessary to carry to meet that requirement.  The daily allowance was steadily reduced thereafter, until finally it was eliminated.

And so, on July 31, 1970, the last tot was poured as usual at 6 bells in the forenoon watch (11am) after the pipe of “up spirits.”  Some sailors wore black armbands, tots were “buried at sea,” and in one navy training camp, HMS Collingwood, the Royal Naval Electrical College at Fareham in Hampshire, there was a mock funeral procession complete with black coffin and accompanying drummers and piper.  The move was not popular with the ratings (enlisted personnel), despite an extra can of beer being added to their daily rations in compensation.

220px-HMS_Belfast_7
Measuring out the tot (diorama aboard HMS Belfast)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 31, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Investment in infrastructure is a long term requirement for growth and a long term factor that will make growth sustainable”*…

So it’s a problem that infrastructure here in the U.S. is so very expensive. Why is that?

As Congress argues over the size of the infrastructure bill and how to pay for it, very little attention is being devoted to one of the most perplexing problems: Why does it cost so much more to build transportation networks in the US than in the rest of the world? In an interview in early June, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg acknowledged the problem, but he offered no solutions except the need to study it further.

Biden’s original infrastructure proposal included $621 billion for roads, rail, and bridges. His plan is billed not only as an infrastructure plan but one that would help respond to the climate crisis. A big part of that is making it easier for more Americans to travel by mass transit. The Biden plan noted that “America lags its peers — including Canada, the U.K., and Australia — in the on-time and on-budget delivery of infrastructure,” but that understates the problem.

Not only are these projects inordinately expensive, states and localities are not even attempting to build particularly ambitious projects. The US is the sixth-most expensive country in the world to build rapid-rail transit infrastructure like the New York City Subway, the Washington Metro, or the Chicago “L.” And that’s with the nation often avoiding tunneling projects, which are often the most complicated and expensive parts of any new metro line. According to the Transit Costs Project, the five countries with higher costs than the US “are building projects that are more than 80 percent tunneled … [whereas in the US] only 37 percent of the total track length is tunneled.”

America’s infrastructure cost problem isn’t just confined to transit, it’s also the country’s highways. Research by New York Federal Reserve Bank and Brown University researchers reveals that the cost to construct a “lane mile of interstate increased five-fold” between 1990 and 2008. New construction — widening and building interchanges and building new sections of road altogether — is where the bulk of the problem lies, says one of the researchers, economist Matthew Turner. (The cost of “heavy maintenance” like resurfacing increased as well, but Turner said that’s due almost entirely to the rise in the price of certain paving materials.) 

According to a report by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, the nation’s transit spending “fell by $9.9 billion in inflation-adjusted terms” over the last 10 years. In comparison with similar countries, America spends a relatively small amount of its GDP (1.5 percent) on public infrastructure, while the UK spends 2 percent, France 2.4 percent, and Australia 3.5 percent.

The problem is fundamentally that the US is getting very little for what it builds

Infrastructure: “Why does it cost so much to build things in America?”- this is why the U.S. can’t have nice things. From @JerusalemDemsas in @voxdotcom. Eminently worth reading in full.

Chanda Kochhar

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As we lay the foundation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1886– the anniversary of the date in 1864 the Abraham Lincoln set aside Yosemite Valley as a preserve— that Congress recognized and established by law (24 Stat. L.103), the Division of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture.  Created in 1881 by fiat of the then-Commissioner of Agriculture, it’s initial remit was to assess the quality and conditions of forests in the United States.  In 1891, its mandate was expanded to include authorization to withdraw land from the public domain as “forest reserves,” to be managed by the Department of the Interior– the precursor to America’s National Forest and National Park program.

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“Agriculture engenders good sense, and good sense of an excellent kind”*…

In an influential 1943 essay, Polish economist Michał Kalecki staged a contest between capitalism’s pursuit of profit and its pursuit of power. While the benefits of government-sponsored full employment would benefit capitalists economically, Kalecki argued, it would also fundamentally threaten their social position—and the latter mattered more. If wide sections of the country came to believe that the government could replace the private sector as a source of investment and even hiring, capitalists would have to relinquish their role as the ultimate guardians of national economic health, and along with it their immense power over workers. Kalecki thus saw how the desire to maintain political dominance could override purely economic considerations.

This analysis finds a striking illustration in historian Ariel Ron’s award-winning new book Grassroots Leviathan, which advances a major reinterpretation of the contours of U.S. political economy and the origins of the U.S. developmental state—the government institutions that have played an active role in shaping economic and technological growth. In Ron’s revisionist account, the groundwork for the rapid economic development in the second half of the nineteenth century was less industrial and elite than agricultural and popular. “Despite the abiding myth that the Civil War pitted an industrial North against an agrarian South,” he writes, “the truth is that agriculture continued to dominate the economic, social, and cultural lives of the majority of Americans well into the late nineteenth century.” This central fact—at odds with familiar portraits of a dwindling rural population in the face of sweeping urban industrialization—carried with it shifting attitudes toward the state and the economy, dramatically altering the course of U.S. politics. Far from intrinsically opposed to government, a consequential strain of agrarianism welcomed state intervention and helped developed new ideas about the common good…

How a grassroots movement of American farmers laid the foundation for state intervention in the economy, embracing government investment and challenging the slaveholding South in the run-up to the Civil War: “In the Common Interest.”

Joseph Joubert

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As we hone our history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1952 that Mylar was registered as a DuPont trademark. A very strong polyester film that has gradually replaced cellophane, Mylar is is put to many purposes, but main among them– given it’s strength, flexibility, and properties as an aroma barrier, it’s widely used in food packaging.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 10, 2021 at 1:01 am

“The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, lies in its members’ loyalty to each other”*…

Here’s an exchange on Twitter that illustrates the new schism in politics, from May 2020:

– Michael Gove, UK government minister: Caring for your wife and child is not a crime. (On the topic of an advisor breaking the law on lockdown.)

Commentary from John Holbo, philosophy professor: It really is astonishing how true it is. Conservatism says the law protects in-group members without binding them; while binding out-group members, not protecting them. Mafia logic all the way up and down.

Is it ok to put your family, or your tribe, above the law?

Unlike Holbo, I don’t believe that answering “yes” to that question is a particular conservative or right wing trait. It’s a question that different people will answer differently; it’s a new axis on the political map. Perhaps it’s the new axis.

The Political Compass has been a pretty good model as long as I’ve been politically aware.

(Caveats: I’ve only been paying attention to politics since the early 1990s. And when I look back to say, the 1960s, before the free market ideology took hold, the right seemed way happier to promote state intervention. So I don’t know how it felt back then.)

There are two axes, and you can take a test and end up somewhere on this grid:

Social: authoritarian vs libertarian

Economic: left vs right

But this implies that there’s a kind of universality to policy: it presupposes that everyone is treated the same.

What if that no longer holds true?

The term oikos has framed my thinking for a while. A few years back I read Benjamin Peter’s How Not to Network a Nation which is a great look at why there was never a successful Soviet internet, despite many attempts between 1959 and 1989. From the blurb on the back, the book argues that the American ARPANET took shape thanks to well-managed state subsidies and collaborative research environments, while the Soviet network projects stumbled because of unregulated competition among self-interested institutions, bureaucrats, and others.

Here’s the passage that grabbed my attention (p194 of my edition)

Consider the language of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition – a landmark work of political theory that introduces its disenchantment with normative liberal values with a discussion of Sputnik and the nuclear age, the two ingredients that, once combined, could spell instantaneous planetary annihilation. For Arendt, the distinction between the public and the private is not the liberal economic opposition of the public state and the private market but a classical (Aristotelian) distinction between the public as an expression of the polis (where actors gather “to speak and act together”) and the private as an expression of the oikos (Greek for household and the root of the word economy) (where actors inhabit a domain of animal necessity and are compelled to pursue their own interests for their survival).

So this stuck in my head, and here’s my crude, way-over-simplified way of thinking about it as a framework:

– an oikos view is: it’s morally preferable to favour “people like me”

– a polis view is: it’s morally preferable to treat everyone equally

I was initially baffled when, in 2019, the Brexit Party announced its only non-Brexit political policy: the abolition of inheritance tax. (See the announcement on Twitter.)

Why should this be sole additional policy? Why not remain silent? The oikos vs polis framework helped me. “Brexit” is a classic oikos preference: this country matters more than this bigger union, it says. And if Brexit is the macro, then removing inheritance tax is the micro: tribe over state.

But I want to be clear: oikos is not bad. Like any political preference, it can be wielded for good and ill.

Community is an oikos value! Neighbourhood is an oikos value! Closing the streets to city traffic so kids can play, that’s an oikos value! Mutuality and cooperative organisations… traditionally left wing, but elements of oikos there. EastEnders, the long-running British TV soap about fierce family loyalties: oikos.

The old English aristocracy: that’s oikos all over. As The Institutional Revolution points out… the aristocracy was an economic adaption to a world without reliable communications or measurement. To function, that world required high trust relationships and ways to bind people into high trust relationships. The aristocracy met that challenge for 300 years – and its values of loyalty, honour, family, and so on are oikos values: trust and defend my group over any other allegiance.

Now the right wing ruling class of the UK is closely connected with those old aristocratic families. Is it any wonder they continue to display oikos culture?

Anyway, my conclusion was that oikos is independent of left vs right; independent of owner class vs labour class; independent of being socially liberal or authoritarian…

Self-interest: oikos. Solidarity: polis. (Though it strikes me that fighting the climate crisis will require framing the solution in terms of self-interest too.)

For me, this helps explain the recent election results (where the Tory party was not punished for Johnson’s self-interest) and also the coalition of wealthy elite and working class that carried the “Leave” vote for Brexit…

Perhaps the value of the polis needs to be shored up. Solidarity, equality in the eyes of the law, utilitarianism: these are ideas that need to be re-established.

The right has claimed oikos for its own. That makes sense: it’s a natural fit for neoliberalism (free market economics), and also for small government (because you should look after your own). But I don’t believe this necessarily has to be the case. What should the left fight for in an oikos world? A vital question.

Matt Webb (@intrcnnctd) with a provocative reframing of the political landscape: “Oikos vs polis: a new (but old) axis on the political map.”

See also Cory Doctorow in a similar vein: “Mafia Logic.”

[image above: source]

* Mario Puzo

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As we remind ourselves that the human race is a family, we might recall that it was on this date in 1527 that Florentines expelled the Medici (for the second time) and (re-)established a republic. But, with the siupport of both Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII (Giulio de Medici), the Medici in 1532 became hereditary dukes of Florence, and in 1569 Grand Dukes of Tuscany, and ruled Florence (and much surrounding territory) for two more centuries. 

View of Florence by Hartmann Schedel, published in 1493

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 16, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government”*…

Yes, the private sector deftly turned publicly-funded technologies into commercial successes, and there was a place for individual genius in that. But those successes were also built on long hours by tens of thousands of engineers (many of them immigrants, many of whom went to public schools). The Ayn Rand image of the solo entrepreneur — Hank Reardon toiling alone in his laboratory to invent a new kind of steel — is a pernicious deception.

Myths have their place, and America’s worship of individual innovators inspires real achievement. The opportunity for success attracts the ambitious and those willing to work hard, like my parents, along with millions of others who land on American shores. But the myth becomes a liability when society becomes so enamoured with the idea of individual success that it forgets, and even attacks, the very institutions that enable it…

The efficiency of public-sector programmes can be seen all the time. An American family with an annual income of $52,000 per year pays approximately $16,000 a year in federal, state, and local taxes. In exchange, that family gets roads, public schools, environmental protection, national security, fire, and police. Try assembling that as a package of private services and see what it costs.

Antipathy to government institutions is often called “conservatism,” but it bears no resemblance to any principled tradition by that name. Conservatism is rooted in a respect for institutions. Its intellectual founding father, Edmund Burke, wrote, “Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.” The observation comes from his most famous work, a criticism of the anti-institutional, pro-individualism of the French Revolution and the bloody terror that followed. There is plenty to criticise about the American administrative state, but idolatry of the individual is hardly a true “conservative” critique.

Nor can the current, degraded notion of freedom be found in the works of America’s founders. The premise of the Declaration of Independence is not simply that our rights are “self-evident” but that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” This is to say, the founders respected “government” — they saw the state as a vehicle to guarantee freedom. In the years after the American Revolution, those who fought for liberty spent the rest of their lives progressively strengthening the central government they had formed in order to secure that freedom. Their legacy is the stability and prosperity we have come to take for granted. The exaggerated emphasis on individualism imperils their achievements.

In the U.S., Covid-19 did not find an exceptional country. Instead, the virus found a land of individuals — too many of them poor, overweight, under-educated, and overly imprisoned. It found underfunded institutions and a population teeming with a sense of entitlement rather than community.

What separated America from countries that staunched Covid-19 is neither size nor geography. China has the world’s largest population (Wuhan has more people than New York City). And though many countries that did well are islands, oceans offer scant protection from a pandemic. (The first person to die of Covid-19 in Iceland was an Australian, and the virus reached America from China and Europe, not Mexico or Canada.) No common political system or cultural tradition links the successful countries.

America’s response was inept because the institutions designed to protect the public failed or were enfeebled. At almost every level of society, people chose individual convenience over collective well-being.

What can be done to reverse the country’s self-destructive course, and to repair and prepare? America should use the pandemic as a turning point for renewal. Just as the human immune system develops antibodies from one viral infection to fight off another, Covid-19 presents us with the opportunity to build “societal antibodies” — practices to fend off the contagious disease of selfishness.

The country needs a “Corona Corps.” Similar to the armed forces or the Peace Corps, it would consist of people largely aged 18 to 24, trained and equipped to fight the virus. The Corps would conduct contact tracing, staff testing, and vaccination centers, and work with people required to isolate, providing anything from food delivery to a sympathetic ear. Corona Corps members could not only be paid but could also earn credits to reduce tuition and lower their debt — as well as gain experiences that serve as an on-ramp to jobs post-graduation.Once the virus is tamed, we should transition Corona Corps into a robust national service programme. 

A second reform is our tax system — a government function that is fundamental to all public programmes, but which has been ravaged by our disregard for the state institutions. Allowing the super-wealthy 0.1 percent to enjoy a greater share of spoils while we cut their taxes is not the hallmark of a functioning society. 

Regardless of the tax rules we adopt, administering them requires an efficient institution — and America’s Internal Revenue Service has been severely underfunded. A recent congressional report estimated that a $100bn investment in tax enforcement would take in $1.2trn — yes, trillion — in revenue over the next decade.

But the bigger point is that we must pursue a cultural shift: a renewed recognition of the value of institutions, and of the balance between the individual and the community in a prosperous society. Certainly, people should complain about the arcane and sometimes onerous regulations that hamper entrepreneurship — at the point of contact, institutions often feel like friction, like something to be avoided. Yet we must also recognise that beyond disagreements over the size and specifics of government institutions, those institutions are essential and honourable — as are the people who serve in them.

Individualism is embedded in America’s cultural identity, but it is a sign of national character to act together as a community. 

An excerpt from an essay by Scott Galloway (@profgalloway): “Institutions,” eminently worth reading in full. Indeed, this piece is a slightly-abridged version of “Scott Galloway on recasting American individualism and institutions” in The Economist (but behind their paywall).

See also the apposite (but differently-focused) piece by Scott’s NYU colleague, Davis Stasavage: “Lessons from all democracies.”

* Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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As we seek a middle path, we might recall that it was on this date in 44 BCE, that Casca and Cassius decided that Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) should not be killed with his ally Julius Caesar in the assassination planned for the next day; rather, that he should be waylaid so as not be in Senate at the time. It was the conspirators’ undoing.

They believed Caesar’s death would restore the Republic. But Caesar had been immensely popular with the Roman middle and lower classes, who became enraged upon learning a small group of aristocrats had killed their champion. Antony, as the sole consul, soon took the initiative and seized the state treasury. Calpurnia, Caesar’s widow, presented him with Caesar’s personal papers and custody of his extensive property, clearly marking him as Caesar’s heir and leader of the Caesarian faction. Antony negotiated a crafty compromise with the conspirators… then, on March 20th, gave his famous speech at Caesar’s funeral– which ended with Antony’s brandishing of Caesar’s blood-satined toga… Several buildings in the Forum and some houses of the conspirators were burned to the ground. Panicked, most of the conspirators fled Italy. The few remaining– including Brutus and Cassius– were assigned distant (and relatively menial) posts in Sicily and Asia by Antony “for their own protection”; insulted, they fled instead to Greece.

George Edward Robertson, “Marc Antony’s Oration at Caesar’s Funeral”

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