Welfare for the Wealthy?

June 6, 2013

Yesterday, I read a piece by Mark Bittman on the current state of The Farm Bill in Congress.  He notes that enormous sums are being directed to ‘support’ farmers (not all farmers) who are quite wealthy, and calls this “welfare for the wealthy.”  I agree with his analysis for the most part, only taking issue with his sarcastic references to “the food system,” and “industrial agriculture.”  Industrial ag, thanks to the Green Revolution, keeps a lot of the world’s population from starving to death, but that’s another discussion.  I am finding myself, however, very weary of the term “welfare for the wealthy”.

This term is used by liberal critics of government policies that favor the wealthy, those who clearly do not need our favoring.  It’s not just farmers:  the military-industrial complex is another target often tarred with this brush.  What bothers me so much about it these days is that it  sets up a false equivalency between the poor takers of welfare, and the rich takers of subsidies.  The point is, these policies must be bad:  they’re welfare!  But for the rich!!  We all know how bad welfare is.  That’s why we cheered when Bill Clinton ended it, at least as we knew it…

That’s all garbage.  Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), aka Welfare, goes mostly to children.  Mostly to white children, a fact that is lost on those who rant with Saint Ronnie about welfare queens driving Cadillacs and feasting on food stamps.  It was never more than a tiny part of government expenditures, and it did, and still does, what’s left of it, tremendous good.  I don’t see much in common between a program that gets food and income support to struggling families with one that is fine tuned by highly paid lobbyists to direct rivers of cash from Congress towards their clients for…not growing stuff?  Growing stuff where they shouldn’t grow stuff?  To pay insurance to the farmers when their ill advised crops fail, the ones they were subsidized for growing?  And so on…

The term welfare for the wealthy implies that the problem is welfare.  Welfare directs money towards those with the least resources and power in our society.  The problem is that those with the most resources and power have been increasingly successful in turning our economy, a collective enterprise, into their cash cow.  That’s their idea of farming.

Alas, certainty…!

April 24, 2013

From the SINTEF report on the debate over the human impact on climate change:


To illustrate the way that scientific, political and ethical concerns are mixed in the debate on Anthropogenic Global Warming, this report used the by now famous quote from Gro Harlem Brundtland, that “doubt has been eliminated“,and that “it is irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral to question the seriousness of the situation” as a point of departure. The goal of the report was to enter this debate and battlefield of arguments and take stock of the debate about anthropogenic (man-made) global warming. Based on the present review of this debate there are several conclusions to be drawn. The first and simplest one is that considered as an empirical statement, the assertion that doubt has been eliminated on AGW is plainly false. Although as documented the level of agreement in the scientific literature that AGW is occurring is quite extensive,the magnitude of dissent,questioning and contrarian perspectives and positions in both scientific discourse and public opinion on the question of AGW evidently contradicts such a proclamation.

Prison State

April 17, 2013


I read The New Jim Crow some months ago, but put aside my posting on it because it is simply too depressing, but prisons were on my mind again this weekend when I heard a talk by David Rothenberg at our local public library.  He is the founder of The Fortune Society, which provides support for ex-offenders who want to reclaim their lives after doing their time – more on that later.

I have commented before (here and here) on the American prison-industrial complex, but this book was extraordinarily powerful:  not because it said anything surprising, but for the detailed manner in which it documented the rise of the War on Drugs, the crudely political appeals it employed, the systematic racial bias found in the effects of its policies, and the punitive and devastating impact it has on African-American and Latino populations in the country.

For crimes which rarely result in the incarceration of young white men, young black men are being sent to jail in incredible numbers, and for long periods, and while there, in crowded and often inhumane conditions, they are simply warehoused.  Then, eventually, they are sent home.  The rising rate of imprisonment, shown below, has not been linked with any reduction in crime, and most of the victims are non-violent offenders.  When released, they are subject to a wide array of fines and restrictions that shocked me – new details – in their resemblance to practice in 17th and 18th century Europe:  For example, it was news to me that convicted criminals must pay the costs of their trials!  (Only in these drug cases.)  Not to mention that all their property can be confiscated.  A new class of debt-fine-peons has been created that is peopled by men already at a severe handicap for reclaiming their lives through gainful employment.


The two charts following clearly indicate the remarkable position of the USA regarding imprisonment of its own citizens.  What is it about the USA that requires that we incarcerate people at nearly seven times the rate of China, France, or Australia?  The second chart below indicates the clear racial bias of the War on Drugs:  there is ample evidence that drug use and related criminal activity is no higher, it may be lower, among citizens of color than among whites, yet their rate of conviction and imprisonment is many times higher.  The problem is obvious, and it is only sustained by a system in which there is money to be made off of the prison system and political hay to be made.

Michelle Alexanders’ book is perhaps most interesting in her history of the political side of the War on Drugs, which got going under Reagan.  It was a great Republican theme, Law and Order, that allowed all sorts of coded appeals to racism no longer legitimate with the formal end of segregation and Jim Crow.  It worked wonders, and it’s not dead yet.  It doesn’t matter that we have an African-American president:  he’s not bucking this system much, and he talks about ‘shared sacrifice‘  as he advocates cutting social welfare programs.

I searched for negative commentary on the book out of curiosity regarding the response of conservatives.  I found little!  Most of the negative reviews were from leftists who felt that the author had not gone far enough in her critique.  (She may agree with them, but she clearly stated that she had very specific goals for this book, i.e., to expose the unfairness and destructiveness of the War on Drugs and our incarceration policies.)  I did find one review in Forbes, or a business journal like that, and it was generally favorable!  The author had clear libertarian leanings, and some of those people are not happy with these policies.  Indeed, Alexander points out that many conservatives initially resisted Reagan’s declaration of war on drugs because it would expand Federal power into the arena of state law enforcement.

090601-hmfj-chart-4 (1)

Incarceration Rates

David Rothenberg’s talk was moderated by former governor of NJ, Jim McGreevey.  He spoke of his career in show biz, and he’s a great storyteller.

You can hear him  Saturday mornings on WBAI, a local super-left-wing station that I rarely listen to since it’s filled with ranting and absurd propaganda, where he plays Broadway tunes and discusses social issues.  His organization is named for a play he produced in the 60s that was one of the first to honestly portray the brutal conditions in prisons:  the ensuing discussions of the show, including participation by ex-convicts, inspired him to create the agency that has expanded and is a model today.

Sorry, Dave, but you get an F.

April 5, 2013

There was a report in the paper today about a joint project by MIT and Harvard that has produced new freeware to grade written answers to exams.  This will, they say, free up professors for other tasks.  Hmm…

Years ago, I entered a contest sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers on the topic of whether or not Ethics and Professionalism could be usefully measured as part of the engineering licensing exam process.  I suggested that an essay be required, not an obvious answer for those in the engineering profession.  I won the contest – I think there was one other entry in the entire USA – and I got a paid trip to Denver to present my essay to an ASCE conference:  pretty fun for a student with no money at the time.  Now that engineering-numeracy model is come back to bite me, or us!

Why yes!  Why shouldn’t a machine be able to grade short essays and written answers?  Everyone with a school-age child knows about ‘rubrics,’ those itemized lists of things to be accomplished and presented in the student’s submission to receive a decent grade on the project.  Perfect for programming. 

I wonder if the machine will grade philosophy exams?  Or creative writing too?  Easily done if we reduce education to teaching for a test, not to mention a test that a machine can grade, but then, we’re halfway there already what with the reign of the SAT and standardized testing in grade school. 

Here we confront the central tension in education:  for most people, in and out of the power elite, it’s simply a production process to enhance economic output, employability, etc. etc.  Okay, nothing wrong with that.  It also helps to solidify the status quo while you’re at it.  But then, there’s always that other  element of education that favors questions, critical thought, play, humor, imagination and wit, and all sorts of  un-measurable things.  And no use pining for the good old days when higher education was restricted to an elite few:  reading accounts of it in memoirs makes clear that there is no need for machines to produce a completely stultifying, mechanical education system!

Boehner: Le roi fainéant

March 1, 2013

From the New York Times today:

Among those who placed him in his post and could conceivably remove him, the test of his leadership seems to be how little action he takes. In a closed-door meeting and subsequent news conference this week, Mr. Boehner said the House was done negotiating over spending cuts until the Senate “begins to do something.”

From Wikipedia:

Roi fainéant, literally “do-nothing king” and so presumptively “lazy king“, is a French term primarily used to refer to the later kings of the Merovingian dynasty, after they seemed to have lost their initial energy. They were considered and portrayed “useless” by Carolingian kings and even early modern historians, though current historical opinion is more nuanced.

Nattering Nabobs of Non Sequitur

January 28, 2013

Is it just me, or am I right in thinking that the Republican Right has reached new heights, plumbed new depths of pure illogic and nonsense?  I am thinking of two statements from two articles in today’s NYTimes that were on the same page of the printed version. Firstwe have the whiz-kid Paul Ryan shouting about how Obama wants to effect the “political conquest” of the Republican Party.  Well, here’s hoping!  Anyway, the article  goes on to say this:

On Sunday, in a stinging rebuke to Mr. Obama, he said that had Hillary Rodham Clinton beat him to win the Democratic nomination in 2008 and gone on to win the presidency, “we would have fixed this fiscal mess by now.”

“I don’t think that the president thinks that we actually have a fiscal crisis,” he said. “He’s been reportedly saying to our leaders that we don’t have a spending problem, we have a health care problem. That just leads me to conclude that he actually thinks we just need more government-run health care.”

Is Ryan speaking well of the same Hillary Clinton who made government controlled health care, single-payer at that, her top priority during her hubby’s first term?  And who was demonized by the Republicans for it?  Does he think she doesn’t think we have a major health care problem?  Or is he convinced that she would have dealt with our financial crisis better because of what she learned at the side of her similarly vilified husband, who happens to have run the only budget surplus this country has seen in recent history.  And who was a Democrat.

Then we have the other piece focused on the other intellectual leading light of the Right, Eric Cantor.

After successfully engineering the latest debt ceiling vote last week, Mr. Cantor flew to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he road-tested those themes as the lone House Republican leader rubbing elbows with the international élite.

Citing a struggling single mother with a gifted child in a poor city neighborhood, he told Davos attendees, “We need to create some type of competitive mechanisms” to help her escape the bad schools she is stuck with.

I imagine that a lot of those intellectually élite representatives of countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, China, Japan, and so on, are going to be thinking, “Why don’t you Americans just improve your public education system?”  I’d love to hear about the “economically competitive mechanisms” that are going to bring entrepreneurs running to serve the needs of communities with lousy schools, especially the run-of-the-mill students there.  (After all, it’s only in Lake Woebegone that everyone is above average).  Maybe the same corporations that are doing so well serving our out-sized prison population.

Deficit Scare Tactics

January 24, 2013

Yeah, that Krug.  When he’s right, he’s right!

To say what should be obvious: Republicans don’t care about the deficit. They care about exploiting the deficit to pursue their goal of dismantling the social insurance system. They want a fiscal crisis; they need it; they’re enjoying it. I mean, how is “starve the beast” supposed to work? Precisely by creating a fiscal crisis, giving you an excuse to slash Social Security and Medicare.

The idea that they’re going to cheerfully accept a deal that will take the current deficit off the table as a scare story without doing major damage to the key social insurance programs, and then have a philosophical discussion about how we might change those programs over the longer term, is pure fantasy. That would amount to an admission of defeat on their part.