Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Paul Ryan's new attempt to conceal his attack on the social welfare system

Image: Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) (source)

Much noise was generated recently about Paul Ryan's supposed evolution on poverty. Every year, Ryan designs his ideal budget for the federal government, always calling for deep cuts to the social welfare system. In more recent iterations of his budget, he focused almost all of his enormous cuts to the social welfare system on antipoverty programs, leaving the parts of the social welfare system used by the nonpoor--like Social Security and Medicare--basically unscathed.

But when Ryan released a poverty plan last week, it featured restructured antipoverty programs--without reduced budgets. Was this an unprecedented change of heart--even a mea culpa--by the Republican wonk-in-chief? Had he reached a new understanding of poverty? Some thought so. Here, for example, is Ezra Klein's gullible write-up of Ryan's poverty plan entitled Democrats should welcome Paul Ryan's poverty plan. At the end, he concludes:
There will be charges of hypocrisy against Ryan's plan, and they're merited: his poverty plan and his budget cannot coexist in the same universe at the same time. Conservatives who spent the last few years cheering Ryan's budget are now cheering his poverty policies need to ask themselves some hard questions.

But more important than the contradictions in Ryan's plans is their progression: Ryan is refocusing himself and, perhaps, the Republican Party on reducing poverty by making the government's anti-poverty programs work better: that's a project that's both more important for the country and more amenable to compromise. Democrats should welcome it.
To his credit, Klein later interviewed a very skeptical Bob Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, who douses cold water on Klein's hope for an evolution on poverty by Ryan and the Republicans. (Klein should be lauded for his willingness to post interviews with people who convincingly refute each point of his previous columns; most would instead double down.)

Greenstein argues that every word of Paul Ryan's plan is designed to sound like a reform of antipoverty programs--plans to make them work better with the same amount of funding--but are actually designed to create opportunities to gut them in years to come. Ryan's poverty plan is a Trojan horse--a vehicle secretly designed to make a reality the deep cuts to the social welfare state he envisions in his budgets.

Paul Ryan is certainly capable of this type of deceit. As I wrote previously, deceit is utterly foundational to his career. He would be a complete unknown if he hadn't cloaked all of his budget proposals in lies. Each one of the budgets he prepares every year utilizes confusing baselines or incomplete information to hide what he actually wants to do: gut the social welfare state. Ryan's consistent efforts to win support by confusing voters and pundits reveal that even Ryan knows how unpopular his intentions are. His efforts to cloak in his 2010 budget the destruction of Medicare and taxes increases on 95% of all Americans are particularly amusing. Ryan wouldn't be a major figure if he promised budgetary miracles while delivering tax increases on 95% of Americans and a hollowed-out Medicare; he's only a major figure because he promises budgetary miracles while concealing tax increases on 95% of Americans and a hollowed-out Medicare.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Just how culturally/ethnically homogeneous is Scandinavia?

Image: Cars ablaze during racially motivated rioting outside of Stockholm in 2013. Sweden is more diverse than most European countries, including the UK, France, and Germany. (source)

The first post on this issue dealt with the idea that social democracy can only occur in a society that is already harmonious and prosperous. As we saw, this view is made untenable by the experiences of Finland. The Social Democrats in Finland were first voted into power following a bitter civil war in which 1% of the population perished and a significant number died from mistreatment in prison camps; this followed nearly 700 years of occupation by foreign powers, two incredible famines, and various gruesome wars between Sweden and Russia that used Finland as a convenient battlefield. Social democracy succeeded through two wars with the Soviet Union in which a significant percent of the population died and over 10% of the population was permanently displaced from their homes. And it succeeded in spite of an economic depression in the 1990's.

This post deals with the question of race/cultural/ethnic/religious homogeneity. That a social democracy can only occur in a place that is homogeneous is a widespread view--both in popular imagination and in otherwise reputable sources. As an example of this idea in a mainstream publication, Ivy League professor of higher education Marybeth Gasman writes:
One of the speakers, Cecile Hoareau of the University of Maastricht, presented a paper pertaining to equity across Europe and as expected, according to her research, those countries with the greatest level of equity in higher education were Finland, Sweden, and Norway. These same countries have been the subjects of quite a few essays written in the United States as of late. All of these essays hail the Northern European countries as role models in both K-12 and higher education. And they are. In all of these countries, education is public, free, and high levels of equity have been achieved. These countries are proud of their success and should be. Their success leads to one central question: How can this success be replicated? While I think this is an important and admirable question and I also think that there are important lessons to learn, people tend to forget that Finland, Sweden and Norway are homogenous [sic] countries...One of the secrets of success in homogenous [sic] countries is that they are homogenous [sic].
Unlike the ignorant Internet comments that unwittingly sparked these posts, she tries to make a slightly more subtle, yet no less racist point. Scandinavian education is indeed very equitable--that is, the worst performing students don't do that much worst than the best performing students. Education inequity is a massive problem in the United States.

But the problems of Gasman's piece are many, and we'll take each of them in turn.

How far can the strength of homogeneity really advance a society?
Gasman greatly exaggerates the power of ethnic, cultural, or racial homogeneity:
Reflecting on Delpit's ideas, people are more comfortable taking care of and educating people who are similar to them in terms of race and culture. One of the secrets of success in homogenous [sic] countries is that they are homogenous [sic]. People feel comfortable with the government providing resources to the general public because the general public looks like them. Unlike these Scandinavian countries, the United States is hugely diverse and we often think that people of our race and class work harder and know best.
As discussed in the previous post on this issue, if homogeneity is so important, what do we make of homogeneous states like West Virginia? West Virginia has a population over 90% non-Hispanic white; their education system is the envy of no one. If cultural homogeneity is such a strength, why are the many US states that are over 90% non-Hispanic white not beacons of educational equity? Many African countries are well over 90% African; many Asian countries are well over 90% Asian. Clearly, homogeneity is--at best--a small part of the story.

In a similar vein, I wrote previously about the large minority groups in Kerala, a thriving social democratic state of India, and do not need to repeat those arguments here. If minorities are so toxic to welfare states, why can Kerala thrive despite having such large minority groups?

Sweden is one of the most diverse countries in Europe
For this section, we'll focus on Sweden, which is the most ethnically diverse of the Scandinavian nations. Gasman writes:

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Racism masquerading as critiques of social democracy

Image: In popular imagination, Finland was always a harmonious, prosperous society. This painting by Eero Jarnefelt (Under the Yoke, 1893) captures some of the poverty and oppression of Finnish society in recent history (source; click on image for larger view).

In reading a silly article about the Finnish education system giving their students 15 minute breaks to run around outside for every 45 minutes of teaching--and how Finland's education system is the best in the world in part because of this practice, not in spite of it--it became obvious how outright racism is the typical explanation of the success of social democratic programs:

The cultural, genetic, or racial superiority of the Finns, apparently, decides their fate as the world's best primary and secondary students. Another commenter makes more of an effort to veil his racism:

This commenter at least tries to cloak his racism in the cultural legacy of slavery and Jim Crow era policies, a fundamentally racist argument utterly demolished by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

It's important to note that this point of view is usually limited to ignorant Internet comments, since it becomes quite obviously untenable with even cursory research. The PISA tests compare student achievement in different countries. Finland tops the PISA rankings, with Sweden close behind. Norway, another Scandinavian social democracy, ranks surprisingly low. Clearly, there is something special about Finnish educational policies, not their society.

Additionally, if homogeneity at a national level is so important, then it's as though the black children in Chicago's south side are so evil that they are able to negatively influence the performance of white students in West Virginia. West Virginia has a population over 90% non-Hispanic white; their education system is the envy of no one.

Nevertheless, unsupported arguments that the success of the social democracies are owed in part to their ethnic homogeneity go unchallenged in respectable publications. I wrote previously about an otherwise insightful essay on the problems of the Brazilian health care system, which begins:
In other words, universal healthcare looks very different in Brazil than it does in, say, Scandinavia. Finland, for example, provides free healthcare to all its citizens, but the country is smaller and more homogeneous than the state of Minnesota.
But the article is about issues of underfunding and physicians not wanting to practice in the jungle. Not a shred of evidence is marshaled to defend the idea that ethnic homogeneity is necessary for social democratic programs succeed. I wrote:
If cultural and ethnic homogeneity are necessary for universal social welfare programs, how are Social Security and Medicare so successful in the United States? Social Security taxes get deducted from my paychecks even though my coworkers are black, white, Asian, and Latino. My grandmother's Social Security benefits get deposited in her bank account each month even though she doesn't share the same religion as her neighbors.
Such arguments show--at best--stunning ignorance; at worst, thinly veiled racism. These views conveniently ignore Scandinavian history as well as the resounding success of social democracy in Kerala, a state in India with large minority groups.

This issue is too much to cover in a single post, so I'll break it into four parts. Here, part 1 will examine the case that social democracy can only exist in a country that is already wealthy, cohesive, egalitarian, and/or harmonious. As we shall see below, Finland is a perfect example of an oppressed, divided nation that nevertheless succeeded as a social democracy. Part 2 will take on the contention that social democracy can only succeed in a place that is culturally, ethnically, religiously, or otherwise homogeneous. Part 3 will make the case that social democracies succeed because of the strength of their social welfare policies, and for no other reason. Part 4 will tie these ideas together by comparing the quality of life indicators in the American city with the highest poverty rate--Detroit--versus those of Finland on the eve of its transition to social democracy. Conditions in present-day Detroit are indeed appalling, but 1920's Finland was a far more impoverished and divided society. If backwards Finland can transform itself into a country with the lowest infant mortality rate in the entire world, Detroit can obviously undergo a similar transition.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Obama and undocumented immigration, ctd

This article basically confirms everything I previously wrote about Obama and undocumented immigration--that he could act, but was choosing not to, and that only adversarial political pressure would make him change his mind.

Patrick L. Smith provides much-needed context on Obama's stunning ignorance and paternalism surrounding this issue:
“Do not send your children to the borders,” President Obama said in a television interview the other Sunday. “If they do make it, they’ll get sent back. More important, they may not make it.” 
I find this remark not short of disgusting for its several subtexts. Central American parents are so stupid and loveless that they must be instructed to care for their offspring. Their decisions are calculated — suspect, that is. These mothers and fathers are ignorant of the dangers facing their emigrating kids. The best place for them to be is in the environment — to which no reference — they are escaping on orders from the calculating parents.