You probably are working harder and longer

Pete Ross, talking about Bernie and other countries that spend more domestically:

“That way no one has to live in fear of losing out in the lottery of life. That’s what social democracy is, and those of us who live in them recognize that what we have is pretty damn great.”

This sort of thinking is common outside America, and one that Bernie supporters hang their hat on. They’re not wrong insisting that instead of spending money on foreign matters we should spend it here. But a guy in Australia doesn’t get to claim a high horse for that country’s high domestic spending. The reality is Australia and other nations get to have high domestic spending precisely because the United States is picking up the tab for their defense. Canada, for instance, would be a much different place if they knew we weren’t here. Just as Indianapolis would be a much different place if Carmel would just pay for all our police officers.

This behavior is so pervasive even Barack Obama is pissed, urging NATO allies to increase their funding for defense based on their GDP (which is a really dumb measure: on what planet does it make sense to say “I must spend X% of my income on Y”? That’s like walking into a car dealership and saying, “I must spend $25,000.”)

Anyway, I was recently reading about the research of economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst, “Measuring Trends in Leisure [PDF]”. They measured the stuff Americans do from day to day between 1965 and 2005.

“Aguiar and Hurst document what they call an increase in “leisure” that primarily affected men with low education. In the first survey, in 1965-66, men with college degrees and men who had not completed high school had nearly the same amount of leisure time per week, with just a two-hour difference. They were only an hour apart in 1985. Then something changed. “Between 1985 and 2005…men who had not completed high school increased their leisure time by eight hours per week, while men who had completed college decreased their leisure time by six hours per week.”

In other words, if you’re sitting around feeling like you’re doing a lot more work and others are doing quite the opposite, you’re probably right. More Americans, particularly low-educated men, are just plain spending more time goofing off. This research indicates college-educated people are working more hours and producing more, while the bottom has gone the other way. On a chart it almost looks like half the country is working twice as hard to make up for the opposite decrease on the other end.

And here in America, where our culture derives from four virtues of honesty, industriousness, family, and religiosity, goofing off pisses people off in the “industriousness” virtue and part of the “honesty” virtue. No one wants to work all day just so some other guy can coast along. That feeling is so pervasive a lot of people can’t get past the fact our own uncle is drowning in medical issues. This is why Trump/Cruz supporters are so mad, even if they’re the ones most likely goofing off the most.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m aware a lot of people don’t goof off and just have a hard time in life. But it doesn’t change the fact most people know more people who are plain lazy than people who have been bankrupted through medical bills or student loans. I say that as someone who lost a mother to a $2 million tumor.

And to be clear: this kind of leisure activity people are doing isn’t even what you could describe as active leisure, like reading a book or exercising. It’s mostly watching TV.

We’ve found ourselves in a cultural deadlock between not wanting to support lazy people and caring about the truly unfortunate. But apparently we spend all our time working to support a big military so every other country can have high domestic spending. This is a tough nut to crack in either direction for Bernie or Trump/Cruz.

And this increase in useless leisure on the low end and the decrease in available time on the high end probably leads us to a lot more problems, like low civic engagement, low community involvement, and less time building worthwhile relationships.

A nugget in the idea of giving poor people money

Sheilla Kennedy has a piece on welfare recipients receiving cash assistance and not actually, as Doug Masson put it, spending it “sinfully or whatever we’re afraid of”.

This reminded me of a story from NPR a few years ago on a similar experiment in Kenya through GiveDirectly, a charity that just straight up hands cash, no strings attached, to poor people. The thinking being, “poor people know what they need, and if you give them money they can buy it”.

But to some veterans of the charity world, giving cash is worrisome. When we first reported on this we spoke with Carol Bellamy, who used to run UNICEF, and who said people might spend the money on things like alcohol or gambling.

To see whether this was actually happening, researchers did an experiment. They surveyed people in Kenya who received money from GiveDirectly, and a similar group of people who didn’t get money.

The results from the study are encouraging, says Johannes Haushofer, an economist at MIT’s Poverty Action Lab who was one of the study’s co-authors.

“We don’t see people spending money on alcohol and tobacco,” he says. “Instead we see them investing in their kids’ education, we see them investing in health care. They buy more and better food.”

People used the money to buy cows and start businesses. Their kids went hungry less often.

Back at UNICEF, they were surprised and “impressed” at the results. Though there are two caveats: people were just as sick as they always were, and school attendance and results didn’t dramatically change. And to add to that: researchers are skeptical this will actually help in the long run. Short term, yes, this sort of thing does do well. Long term, maybe not so much.

This leads me to two philosophical nuggets. The first: how annoying is it that someone from a different culture, background, experience, and place in life would be so inclined to tell other people how to live and what’s best for them, and actually be in a position to influence that?

Before I get to the second philosophical nugget, a brief interlude:

I do not know how to make a million dollars in a year. I theoretically know from a mathematical expression that it would require earning $2,739 a day, or about how much a lot of people make in a month. But I do not currently possess a mechanism for earning that much money in a year. Though I intend to be in my golden years thanks to investments and savings that I hope will someday pay off.

I am, however, keenly aware of how I can earn between $0 a year and $80,000 a year in 2016. On a slightly loftier scale, I know how I could probably earn $100,000 a year within a few years.

Which leads me to this conclusion about myself: I am not yet worth a million dollars. I can hear someone out there opining that my life has more value, how could I possibly put a dollar amount on my existence, and why would I even think such a thing. But the practical side of me plainly recognizes this.

The world is neither better nor worse for having me in it. Most everyone, including myself, are just not that special, and the marketplace agrees accordingly by delivering to you and me the wages we currently earn. I make exactly what I’m capable of, apparently, and while I continue to try and learn and grow and be better, that takes time, energy, and a concerted plan on my part. As we go along, we learn what it takes to earn $20,000, $40,000, and so on per year. Plus, we come to value the effort it took to go from $30,000 to $40,000.

Now back to my aforementioned second philosophical nugget: could it be that giving money to people doesn’t work in the long-term because recipients don’t know what to do with it? That their intentions are entirely incorrect?

I can now hear someone out there groaning because they think I think poor people don’t know what to do with money. That’s not necessarily true, but this does raise logical questions:

  1. How much money should a person receive?
  2. For how long?
  3. Doesn’t it seem logical that some people will just choose to “give up” and live off such a payment?

I say number 3 knowing people, alive today, who do exactly that. You probably do, too. And those people are aggravating. Because you know your money is just being thrown at them in the current hodge-podge of pre-specified “relief buckets” we have today with minimal effect.

And we do have a body of research on what happens when you reward one group with a tremendous windfall: lottery winners. And that frequently fails them, largely because they don’t know how to handle it, it overwhelms them, and in some ways, ruins their life. As the NY Times put it, people “lose their values”.

The advice our grandparents gave us still holds true: remember the value of a dollar, how hard it is to earn it, and be humble. This is the crux of a lot of fiscal conservative thinking: I worked really hard to earn this dollar, and I will gladly pay for the effective, efficient use of a portion of it for things that helped me along the way (schools, clean water, etc.), but I and I alone will decide what to do with the rest. If that means being generous with it (as people should be), by donating it to a church, a nonprofit, or my pet cat, that is my decision. And I am closer to the decision to know the impact and effectiveness of that dollar.

So when I hear ideas about giving cash to people, sure, $30,000 is a far cry from $2 million, but the values stay the same. The root of the problem still exists. The people you’re around are still there. Like operating a needle exchange without ensuring treatment options for drug addicts, nothing really changes in the end, does it? Except maybe some slightly higher or lower polls or statistics in a couple spots.

Why do Republicans worry about immigrants so much?

I’ve been doing some homework lately on political history and beliefs. Things like, “Why do Republicans worry about immigrants so much?” As in, why are Republicans more concerned with immigrants learning to speak English and “act American” than most Democrats?

To the best of my ability from scouring books and threads and editorials and other sources, I’ve formed a reason that makes some sense: immigrants may dilute understanding of the country’s founding and endanger the nation. This is viewed as immigrants not being patriotic enough, loyal enough, or dedicated enough to a unified America.

This notion seems to come from early days of the republic and came to a head around the time of mass Irish immigration. The belief being, “The country is very new, we here are all of the belief we’re better off without a King. What happens if too many people come here and don’t hold that belief?”

It’s not unreasonable that a fledgling American democratic experiment even as late as the 1860’s might sincerely concern itself with the notion of “dilution”. “We all literally came here to get away from that form of government. We’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to change that.” This is how America’s melting pot theory actually came along as a compromise: you can maintain your customs (we might even come to really like some of them), but this is how our government works. So you can have your cultural-pluralism, but assimilate on a few things, too.

Today this has mutated into more xenophobic arguments. There’s no amount of immigration from, say, Syria, that’s ever going to overtake our democracy with Sharia law. And concerns over draining social services is likely a red herring due to a glut in the market that gets filled. Of course there’s a startling rise in foreign applicants for public benefits once you open it up to them.

If you feed yourself a heavy diet of news on mass immigration, that problem seems much larger to you. However, I’m not convinced the people most vocal about prohibiting immigration are also the same people who understand the historical context. One can also argue that given this crux of the issue, that the American experiment is fragile, it would seem almost insecure to think we’re still insecure today after generations of case law, rulings, policies, and establishment.

I have more faith in the republic today. I have more faith that it will continue to withstand challenges to its principles of democratic rule, for example, than early pioneers and civil-war era citizens likely did.

Maybe the Republicans are on to something by eliminating the DOE

I was playing with an interesting mental riddle the other day: is higher education a regressive tax particularly harming the poor? I think maybe so.

To noodle with this question, consider this: who are the people most likely to attend publicly-funded universities in Indiana? These are largely middle and upper-income households. The people least likely to attend these universities are much lower incomes.

Despite Pell Grants and other aid, low income students aren’t being admitted into Indiana universities at a huge rate. In fact, IU and Purdue both rank in the top 10 of universities nationally that admit far fewer low-income students than they could be. They cite lack of state funding that forces them to look at out-of-state and other more lucrative students to keep budgets in check. More on that in a minute.

Also consider this notable impact: nearly half of the students who graduate from an in-state public university in Indiana will be gone within 5 years. We’re spending about 12% of our annual budget on higher education now, almost tied with state healthcare spending. K-12 represents almost half of all budget expenditures in Indiana as of the last budget. And millions are being spent on out-migrating people.

So students who attend an Indiana university are likely able to access loans and credit to borrow now on the promise of future income. And they are most likely to leave in 5 years, excepting some professions (law students stay in Indiana to the tune of about 70%).

This means the richest Hoosiers gets the benefit and the poorest see almost none of it. Half of those wealthier individuals will leave. Which can be for a lot of reasons, but one big one is lack of job access in their chosen degree program. The poorest among Hoosiers are paying taxes into a system with doors they cannot unlock.

Everyone who wants to take part in higher education should be able to do so. Keeping with our recent theme on conservatism for progressiveness, Republicans are lacking a vision here. Democrats can very clearly say, again, “We’ll just cover that for you”, through taxation on higher income brackets distributed down to lower income brackets. That continues to rely, however, on the idea that schools will rise to the task of admitting lower-income students, as I mentioned earlier.

Anecdotally, that seems unlikely. Schools operate like quasi-business/nonprofit/government operations with all the benefits of all three and the downsides of none. Their competitiveness for more research, more facilities, and more prestige is admirable, but is an unrelenting burden on Hoosier accessibility and incomes.

IU Bloomington and IUPUI have repeatedly called for more facility funding. To which Sen. Luke Kenley has rightly said in Ways and Means, “It’s awfully hard to justify giving you more money for buildings when they all sit empty in the morning, on Fridays, and weekends.” School officials have responded by basically saying “students don’t come to class” in those times, so they don’t bother.

Well bless their hearts. Perhaps we can take the opportunity to educate young adults that professional adults get up every morning, including Fridays, and show up presentable before 9 am.

At Ivy Tech, the situation is more dire in that they’re building buildings with a dismally low graduation rate. Here, IU and Ivy Tech are getting the benefit of government funding, but not the downsides of their business performance. Again, all the benefits of being a business, a nonprofit, and a government operation, with the downsides of none. This raises public costs, decreases accessibility for students (maybe I do want to take a class at 6 am, and again at 6 pm, and get done twice as fast), and improves nothing.

There’s no political will to get funding completely removed from public universities. But there’s not enough money to fully fund them (certainly at the state level) for everyone either.

This strikes me as a real turd of a system like healthcare where we’re dancing between two extremes so much so it doesn’t work very well at all for anyone. Like I’ve said for healthcare: either go full-free-market or fully-subsidized single payer. We’re dancing in a muddy no-mans land there and in education.

The Republican vision on this should be clear: universities have the duty and responsibility to educate young adults across all income levels in Indiana, without placing a regressive tax on anyone. Students should attend schools that they can actually afford. To get there, we should encourage schools to act on their own and remove at least one of their three protected provisions. Instead of being a business/nonprofit/government operation, remove the government portion that comes from additional funding. The 12% line-item in the budget for higher education could be used, instead, for quality-of-life improvements Indiana so desperately needs. Things like trails, conservation, streetscape improvements, and blight removal.

Or, keep the 12% line-item and lets encourage competition in the market for universities in Indiana by instead funding students, at percentage levels based on income (so that, say, students in households earning $100,000 a year aren’t getting additional funding), like we do with the Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP), which is seeing interesting and promising early results in controlling costs and buy-in. Even the Obama Administration is looking at HIP as an experiment worth having.

This is also where Republicans should be more clear about their intentions in removing federal regulation. Claims to “eliminate the Department of Education” isn’t just a move to remove a line item from the federal budget. It’s about letting states set their own standards. Foregoing discussion at the K-12 level for now and sticking to higher education, if a state such as Indiana wanted to create a curriculum for, say, bio-sciences or agri-business, it should be able to do so. The result is a mechanism where curriculum can be tailored to a state’s own strategic plans and strengths with the intended result of lowering out-migration and improving business effectiveness. Letting states and schools build market-driven programs around their own needs can help them attract and retain talent.

Like federal DOE requirements, funding would also need modified at the federal level. Schools currently have a seemingly endless bucket of money to pull from each year have little motivation and cause to lower and check their spending, further ballooning costs. Again, we’re dancing in the murky middle. Either go full-subsidy for everyone (with obvious questions of where that money could possibly come from) or go full-free-market.

Republicans should be articulating that with their vision money follows students (like it does in K-12), students have buy-in to some extent (like with HIP), Indiana could create high-quality programs tailored for its own workforce and attract talent, and reduce brain drain while improving access and fairness in public costs.

Trump supporters have a point

Yesterday Doug Masson and Aaron Renn had a spirited discussion about Trump supporters on Twitter. Broadly about whether supporters know what they’re doing and if Trump is reasonably the person most likely to make their lives better.

This hearkens back to my post earlier this week about progressivism vs. conservatism and how Republicans have failed to share a vision that actually makes people sit up and listen. Trump is closest to articulating it, even if he mostly says nothing concrete. He’s at least reciting and admitting problems, where others aren’t. The bar was set very low and he set it slightly higher by at least talking about some things.

What are those things?

  • Loss of manufacturing jobs
  • Quick and steady diversification of the population
  • Relatively heavy tax burdens with no clear benefit from expenditures

I’ll leave it at those three because this is the Internet and you have other things to read. My point here is Republicans have largely failed to articulate meaningful solutions to these problems. And people who scoff at Trump supporters as expendable pawns must recognize that’s not very supportive or nice, either.

There hasn’t been much articulated well enough for people with limited time to understand. So it doesn’t get talked about. Things are reduced to petty issues and problems that no one really cares about.

I say this from experience, because while Aaron has talked to his dad in New Albany about why he supports Trump, my dad also no doubt supports Trump a few miles up the road in Salem. Why would someone do that? Because Trump at least re-states the problem that impacted him greatly: “The jobs are all in Mexico and China”, “The neighborhood isn’t as nice anymore”, “There’s too much drug violence”, etc.

To a guy like my Dad and many Trump supporters, things distil very neatly:

  • “My job went to China. Therefore, if we just make it so companies can’t offshore so easily, my job will come back and things will be fine again.”
  • “Drugs are everywhere. We know it’s from Mexico. If we could just shut the door on that, things will be fine again. Plus, they took jobs, too, so why do we even need to care about them.”
  • “My insurance was fine at my last job. If we could just bring that back, things will be fine again.”

“Make America Great Again” isn’t about race or gays or whatever for most people (I said most, not all. We’re being too simplistic when we paint with that big a brush). It recalls that time 20 years ago when rural communities had factories that paid well because profits were high and things were great for themselves. People are selfish beings, let’s not gloss over that. But also American. Guys like my dad genuinely just want the opportunity to work, provide, live securely and just be left alone.

The truth is we have all kinds of jobs available. Just not in those rural spots anymore because rural places don’t offer much anymore. They lack things new American manufacturing can only find in cities: big airports, highways, broadband, bigger talent pools, etc.

All this is to say Republicans aren’t acknowledging those problems. If you’re somebody who left high school and started making $20/hr with the promise that things were going to be great forever, and suddenly it’s not because companies have to make common sense decisions about their own well-being, you’d be mad, too.

I know someone is reading this and saying, “Yeah, well, it’s systemic.” Sure, there are things that are a problem. And Republicans have largely ignored that, too.

  • People like my dad didn’t develop a desire for education. Because they didn’t need to for 50 years.
  • These same kinds of people don’t have much access to educational opportunities (libraries, adult learning, etc.) even if they wanted to.
  • The work they’re offered to “retrain for” is often so wildly out of line with what they know and makes government programs look out of touch. My dad loaded trucks for 35 years. Now you want him to go back to school, do a bunch of fractions and basic algebra at the age of 58 and be, what, a nurse practitioner?

No, Trump supporters aren’t stupid. Ignorant of some things, yes, but they’re not stupid. They feel like you might feel if, in 20 years, the Internet just vanished in a span of 5 years.

To be clear, I don’t think Trump has much of a clear vision for what, exactly, he’d do to help people. I don’t think anyone does, and that in and of itself is the Republican vision: “In a land of personal freedom and liberty, you have the right to do as you please. In many cases, that’s going to involve a lot of work.” And by “lot of work”, that’s learning all about fractions and algebra and technology and the Internet and a bunch of other stuff you never had to deal with before.

Can we all admit how terrifying that must feel? Can we all agree that is like saying to you, dear reader, “Sorry about your job and that you have no money anymore. I guess you can become a brain surgeon now.” Yes, that sounds ridiculous to some degree, but you get the point, right?

At this point they just want to know what to do and they want someone who will just tell other people (like Mexico) to screw off. “What’d you ever do for me? Nothing. So screw off.” Obviously Mexico does provide value to us through all sorts of imports and exports, but again, put yourself in their shoes for a minute.

What could Republicans articulate that might help? I’m not entirely sure there’s much, largely because a large swath of those people are between a rock and a hard place physically and emotionally. You can’t take someone who’s barely literate and make get them into spreadsheets in a year. Or two. Or maybe ten. They don’t have that much time.

Democrats have a very clear, “We’ll just pay for everything now” response to this. Which is pretty darn clear about what that means: healthcare, college for your kids, retirement, we’ve got that covered. Republicans ought to be strengthening the things that can make people empower themselves (more on that in another post). Because to guys like my Dad, “I don’t want you to just give me these things. I want to be able to provide for myself like I always used to.” It’s demoralizing, for better or worse.

Additionally so when you’re told to pay for these things your taxes have to go up. To a group of people who live in places without access to broadband Internet, or little to no library service, or weak cellular coverage, or a tiny hospital or 1 or 2 doctors, and what money you do makes goes to the Federal Government for things you’re never going to see a benefit from. That’s rough. So we don’t get to be confused why they’re angry. It’s obvious, and you would be, too.

My dad doesn’t need free college. Even if he wanted to go he can’t because what’s he going to do? Drive 2 hours to IU Bloomington every day? Drive 90 minutes to Ivy Tech to enroll in one of a few programs? At that point he doesn’t need an education, he needs gas and a new truck. Are we just going to pay for that, too? My dad just wants the government to “bring some factories in” (his actual words). Which it can’t do. So he’s always going to be upset about that. Like if, in 20 years, you and I were voting for the guy who would “turn the Internet back on”.

The best we can do to insure against this in the future is making sure people recognize the new deal: “Things will change. You will have to adapt. So learn to be adaptive and don’t stagnate. People, like businesses, will fail hard and slow if you stagnate.”