Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘Predator State

A Teacher’s Story

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A friend who is a teacher told me his story after I shared my last post, and I asked if he minded if I shared it. He agreed, so here it is. As I said before, testing is only part of all this. It’s important to understand it in light of the issues discussed in my earlier post.

I teach elementary school in a socioeconomically diverse district in Northern California. Like many states, California is preparing to unveil new online state tests to assess the mastery of the new Common Core State Standards. In the upcoming months, California students will take part in the new online testing. In a wise decision, California has decided to use the 2013-2014 school year as a trial run for the new tests. Individual scores will not be reported to students or their families. Instead, the state will use the massive amount of collected data to assess the new assessments by weeding out poorly designed questions, examining technological difficulties, and by discovering areas of learning that teachers will need to focus on in the coming years. California chose to make this a trial year for the new testing despite threats of reduced federal education dollars made by the US Department of Education. Unfortunately, my district did not make nearly as sensible decisions this year.

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Written by David Kaib

March 12, 2014 at 11:40 pm

Entitlement Means Right

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By U.S. Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Democrats* have gotten at least part of the message–language matters. They know the GOP has long been using language to advance their agenda, and they know they want to as well.  Unfortunately, often this means simply denying Republicans’ framing and offering bloodless alternatives.

A good example involves talk about Social Security and Medicare, lumped together under the term ‘entitlements.’ Political elites (not, it should be noted, limited to Republicans) talk incessantly about the need to ‘reform entitlements’ because, they say, entitlement spending is out of control. To listen to this talk, our greatest threat as a nation is ballooning entitlement spending (not climate change, or inequality, or mass unemployment, or mass incarceration or anything the rest of us actually care about).

Now, this is utter nonsense. I’ve written about this before.  But for now I want to talk about the politics, not the substance.

The standard liberal rhetorical move when faced with this is denial.  Even more than the facts, the typical response denies the label.  “Social Security (or Medicare) is not an entitlement”, they insist.  “It’s an earned benefit.” Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

October 11, 2013 at 9:50 am

National and Social Security and the Right to Eat

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Vegetarian diet

By Scott Bauer, USDA ARS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Section 2 of the National School Lunch Act of 1946 reads,

It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States,  through grants-in-aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of foods and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, and expansion of nonprofit school-lunch programs.

In the hearings for this Act,Major General Lewis B. Hershey testified to Congress that 16% of Selective Service registrants in World War II were rejected from service or placed in the limited service class and that malnutrition or underfeeding played a likely role in somewhere between 40% and 60% of these cases (U.S. Congress 1945). Congress felt the need to remedy this situation and, thus, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), under which the federal government provides cash and commodity aid to states for localities to use in serving warm lunches to students, was seen as a “measure of national security.”

I ran across this in a paper by Peter Hinrichs on the health and educational effects of the school lunch program. It’s striking to think of a program designed to help the poor as a ‘national security’ measure, but it’s true that a great deal of government action in the  World War II and post-War period was justified on this basis. (I’d love to see a geneology of the ideas of social security–which originally meant something far more broad than today’s meaning of Old Age Insurance, and national security, and how the latter overcame the former as the main justification for the welfare state.)

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Written by David Kaib

May 24, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Chained CPI, Social Insurance and Two Kinds of Politics

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Social Security was enacted in response to mass mobilization. It can only be saved through mass mobilization.

The president’s new budget proposal includes both Chained CPI, a cut in Social Security benefits, and cuts in Medicare benefits.  As Shawn Fremstad  notes, the White House’s assurances that the ‘most vulnerable’ will be protected are not to be taken seriously.

It’s troubling for any number of reasons, including that the defenses offered are nonsense.  Chained CPI is arguably a more accurate measure for working people, but the existing measure clearly underestimates inflation for seniors, who spend far more of their income on health care, where costs are rising faster. Social Security doesn’t contribute to the deficit, which doesn’t matter (at least at the moment), and no one actually cares about it, and Medicare costs could be dealt with through costs controls rather than benefit cuts. Read the rest of this entry »

The Definition of Insanity: Democrats Working to Undermine Financial Regulation

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By Scrumshus (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[Updated below]

Erika Eichelberger has a great and depressing story on how some Democrats (and more Republicans), are trying to weaken the major financial regulation legislation Dodd-Frank, passed in response to the financial crisis, before it takes full effect.  This massive legislation requires a great deal of administrative rule making to implement it

A group of 21 House lawmakers—including eight Democrats—is pushing seven separate bills that would dramatically scale back financial reform. The proposed laws, which are scheduled to come before the House financial-services committee for consideration in mid-April, come straight on the heels of a major Senate investigation that revealed that JP Morgan Chase had lost $6 billion dollars by cooking its books and defying regulators—who themselves fell asleep on the job. Why the move to gut Wall Street reform so soon? Financial-reform advocates say Democrats might be supporting deregulation because of a well-intentioned misunderstanding of the laws, which lobbyists promise are consumer-friendly. But, reformers add, it could also have something to do with Wall Street money.

“The default position of many members of Congress is to do what Wall Street wants. They are a main source of funding,” says Bartlett Naylor, a financial-policy expert at the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. “These are relatively complicated [bills]. It’s easy to come to the misunderstanding that they are benign.”

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Written by David Kaib

April 3, 2013 at 10:58 pm

The Grand Bargain, Pressuring Democrats and the Future of Labor

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Greg Sargent has the story on how some of the largest unions, which also are among those who are closest to the White House and most inclined towards emphasizing supporting the Democrats as their central strategy, ‘have the President’s back’ when it comes to taxes and social insurance.

Along those lines, I’m told that SEIU, AFSCME, and the National Education Association are putting together a major push, including TV ads, to pressure Congress to adopt a fiscal cliff approach that doesn’t do any harm to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — and includes higher taxes from the wealthy. If necessary, the campaign might target Dems who stray from these principles.

“We believe this election was a crystal clear expression by working people in this country that the rich need to pay their fair share,” SEIU president Mary Kay Henry told me in an interview. “The new majority needs to continue to hold everyone accountable — Democrats and Republicans — by making sure we back the president’s vision for the country.”

So if it’s necessary, these unions might pressure Democrats.  Let that sink in for a moment.  (Glenn Greenwald  gives a good indication of what will likely happen given past history.  Step one is that liberals declare that they won’t accept any cuts.  It’s never good when he’s insufficiently pessimistic.)  The phrase ‘doesn’t do any harm’ concerns me quite a bit as well.  A better one would be ‘absolutely no benefit cuts.’  That’s the people’s vision, something I’d say is far more important than the president’s vision.

I saw Sargent’s story passed around this past week, and most people seemed to take it to mean these unions were ready to play hardball with recalcitrant Democrats.  No doubt this is what they would like people to believe. But that isn’t what the story says.

Interestingly enough, these were some of the same unions that took out loans in the waning days of the campaign to add to the large sums of money they had already spent to support Senate Democratic candidates.  The Democrats did maintain ‘control’ of the Senate, and even extended their majority.  But unless they jettison the indefensible and unconstitutional filibuster, it’s not clear how valuable a few extra seats are.

Whether Democrats will return the favor, leaving aside whether they are capable of doing so, is another matter.  As Mike Elk put it,

But while labor spent heavily to re-elect Barack Obama, it’s not clear that Obama will return the favor. From failing to pass labor’s key priority, the Employee Free Choice Act (which would have made it easier for workers to organize), to freezing the pay of federal workers, to signing free trade treaties with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama (and now in the process of negotiating the largest free trade treaty ever, the Trans Pacific Partnership, which involves most of the nations on the Pacific Rim), Obama has hardly been labor’s strongest champion. Indeed, rumors are swirling around Washington that Obama might use his second term to strike a “Grand Bargain” in which he would agree to cut Social Security in order to raise taxes and reduce the deficit.

The last sentence is hard to square with Sargent’s story.  The reality is that the White House, along with key Democrats, have been making noise about a Grand Bargain since before Obama took office.  A number of Democrats have been incoherent and shifting – appearing to take stands that would halt this nonsense and then backing away.  Digby has been all over this story from the beginning.  Regardless of the reasons for this, it makes organizing opposition difficult, in a way that taking a clear position would not.  Indeed, Democrats in office as well as commentators have often not been clear on the difference between cutting costs, which is both necessary and popular, with benefits cuts, which are neither.  That said, as Corey Robin pointed out, on election night Obama “claimed that reducing the debt and the deficit—elsewhere they call that austerity—will be a top priority of his second administration.”

It’s also worth noting to that this list of Elk’s is not simply about failing to enact legislation, but includes active efforts by the White House to enact anti-worker policies.  And he doesn’t even mention the most important positive step to support working people the White House could take, yet has failed to – fair contracting.  Among other things, it could actually help to reverse the decline in union density by providing protections for workers in areas not covered by federal labor laws.

This problem is not limited to certain unions.  It can also be found in many liberal constituency groups, like the AARP.  They often share this perspective–that unqualified support for Democrats in both elections and policy will cultivate insider connections, under the belief that this is the most effective route to power.  But if you’re unwilling to challenge those you are negotiating with, how is there any power?  While some believe that Social Security remains the third rail of politics, in part because of the power of the AARP, I think that’s no longer true.  Throughout the election, the AARP ran commercials about the potential for changes in these programs.  You might have thought their opening position was to oppose any and all cuts.  Instead, the commercials insisted that retirees deserved the facts, deserved clear answers about what was going to be done.  Another version said that you’re earned your say, that politicians should listen to retirees, without specifying what exactly they were saying.  These are fairly low bars, and aren’t even close to being met.  But the AARP remains fairly quiet.  And they are not alone.

Part of the problem here is that the whole premise of the policy problem, accepted as unquestionably true by elites, is complete and utter nonsense.  Jamie Galbraith explains what is going on.

That the looming debt and deficit crisis is fake is something that, by now, even the most dim member of Congress must know.  The combination of hysterical rhetoric, small armies of lobbyists and pundits, and the proliferation of billionaire-backed front groups with names like the “Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget” is not a novelty in Washington. It happens whenever Big Money wants something badly enough.

Big Money has been gunning for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for decades – since the beginning of Social Security in 1935. The motives are partly financial: As one scholar once put it to me, the payroll tax is the “Mississippi of cash flows.” Anything that diverts part of it into private funds and insurance premiums is a meal ticket for the elite of the predator state.

And the campaign is also partly political. The fact is, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the main way ordinary Americans connect to their federal government, except in wars and disasters.  They have made a vast change in family life, unburdening the young of their parents and ensuring that every working person contributes whether they have parents, dependents, survivors or disabled of their own to look after. These programs do this work seamlessly, for next to nothing; their managers earn civil service salaries and the checks arrive on time. For the private competition, this is intolerable; the model is a threat to free markets and must be destroyed.

The media’s constant drum beating on this issue reminds me of the push for war in Iraq.  All pretense of objectivity and neutrality is out the window as they relentlessly push for a policy lacking public support but enjoying broad elite support.

We’re heading in exactly the wrong direction.  We should be expanding Social Security and Medicare, not cutting them.  And if unions were interested in garnering more public support, in demonstrating that they will fight for everyone not only their members, taking a strong stand–one that was maintained throughout the process–against any and all cuts would be a great place to start.  Either way, for those of us who care deeply about the idea of social insurance, it’s not enough to get periodic reassurances that someone might not allow cuts to happen or plans to fight them. We have to push all the players to take clear, unambiguous stands.  That means getting aggressive with those who are supposed to be allies.

Written by David Kaib

November 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm, Astroturf, and Small-d Democracy

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Ari Melber owes Marshall Ganz an apology.

Last week the Huffington Post broke a story  about changes at based on leaked internal documents, because the company apparently was not going to make these changes public.  As Melber notes, the changes include ” accept[ing] ‘corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns’ and conservative political sponsorships.”  He suggests this is framed by critics as a betrayal of the sites founding mission (it’s quite clear it’s a pretty radical shift). In the abstract, I can see the point  (although I disagree) of suggesting that providing access without respect to political orientation has value, although even if I concede that the secrecy cannot be defended. Yet even so, that change is only one part.  But Melber’s not offering a ‘here’s what the two sides said’ story here.

If you apply a traditional coalition paradigm, the story is that began by teaming up with a loose coalition of liberal groups, found success, and then left them behind as it grew into a something that looks more like a self-sustaining global technology company than a progressive meetup. That is the story of betrayal and “selling out.

But you can also apply an open-source paradigm, where the value of the system is defined by who it empowers and how it works, rather than any pre-set ideological objectives. Think of Wikipedia, or the bottom-up organizing models of Saul Alinsky and Marshall Ganz. Under this view, is simply expanding its civic services, and the more open, the better. While the open source view has loyal adherents, it is not a conventional ideology. It is a belief in a system.

Navigating a battle between partisan, progressive organizing and decentralized petition drives is, at bottom, like trying to choose between the Democratic Party and democracy.

Did you catch that? What on earth does any of that have to do with “corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns”? Isn’t that the complete opposite of the “open-source paradigm” or of “small d democracy” or “bottom-up organizing”?  And how does progressive values equate with Democratic Party?

The original HuffPo story argued that this move was in response to the controversy over Michele Rhee and Students First, although Melber doesn’t mention it. leadership met in San Francisco this summer to hash out its new advertising policy following a public uproar in July over the site’s partnership with Michelle Rhee, whose organization works in opposition to labor unions. “[W]e looked long and hard at our client policy in the context of our vision. This was the most difficult part of the weekend, but after many hours of discussion and edge cases we ultimately agreed that the current closed approach is simply not feasible,”’s founder and CEO Ben Rattray wrote in an email to staff, which was also leaked to HuffPost by [Campaign for America’s Future’s Jeff] Bryant.


Labor and progressive organizations, which make up a sizable base of’s client list, threatened to pull out over the Rhee situation. After reports that was dropping Rhee and another controversial anti-union group as clients, the site continues to run her petitions.

What better illustration of the problem.  Rhee’s astroturf group uses progressive rhetoric to attack public schools and teachers’ unions, with massive corporate backing. made promises to it users about its relationship with the group, which it failed to make good on, presumably because the relationship was lucrative and was valued above progressive principles.

All this makes a mockery of the sort of organizing the Ganz has championed – and of small-d democracy.

h/t Mike Conrad.

Written by David Kaib

October 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm

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