A Great Opportunity for the Democrats

Having fifty votes in the Senate and the Vice President gives the Democrats a chance to make real progress and seriously damage the radical right. From Greg Sargent of The Washington Post:

In the early morning hours on Friday, Senate Democrats passed a measure laying the groundwork to move President Biden’s big economic rescue package via the reconciliation process, by a simple majority. Republicans are already thundering with outrage.

The move does indeed pose a serious challenge to Republicans. But it’s one that runs deeper than merely moving toward passing this one package without them. It also suggests a reset in dealing with GOP bad-faith tactics across the board — and even the beginnings of a response to the . . . ideology loosely described as “Trumpism.”

First, the new move suggests a growing recognition that the conventional understanding of how “bipartisanship” works has things exactly backward — and that Republicans have manipulated the public debate on this topic for far too long.

For instance, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is already denouncing this move. The minority leader railed that Democrats have “set the table to ram through their $1.9 trillion rough draft,” adding: “notwithstanding all the talk about bipartisan unity, Democrats are plowing ahead.”

McConnell’s underlying claim is that Democrats should allow their plan to be subject to a supermajority requirement via the filibuster [of 60 Yes votes] to facilitate bipartisanship. The idea is this: If a partisan majority [in this case, the 50 Democrats plus the Vice President] can’t pass things by itself, it must reach out for bipartisan support [from at least ten Republicans] . . .

This is a scam. The reality is the other way around: In McConnell’s hands, the filibuster has actually made bipartisanship less likely.

By preventing a partisan majority from passing things, McConnell has created the conditions for withholding the support necessary to enact them, for the instrumental purpose of casting Democratic presidents (such as Barack Obama) as failed conciliators.

This has worked as follows: GOP senators have withheld support regardless of the concessions made to win them over, because they calculate the president’s party will take the political hit for failing to make bipartisan deals.

The paradox here is that using reconciliation — moving to pass something by a simple majority — actually could bolster the conditions for good-faith bipartisanship. GOP senators who might be gettable will no longer have a built-in incentive to oppose a particular bill. It’s likely passing anyway, so the lure of helping [their own] party by opposing it — because the Democratic president will get blamed for failure — isn’t nearly as strong.

Under those conditions, Biden actually would have an opening to negotiate with Republicans in the quest for bipartisan support. In the conditions McConnell wants, the incentives for moderate GOP senators point in the other direction.

Whether Biden actually will end up negotiating down to win a few Republicans is an open question. But the point is, in McConnell’s cynical scenario, this would be nothing but a fool’s errand, because it would be far less likely to work.

McConnell’s other basic idea — that a supermajority requirement protects the minority — is also nonsense. Adam Gurri makes a key distinction between protecting the rights of the minority party and protecting those of minorities of voters. The latter are protected by many other veto points in the system. Protecting the minority party’s rights by subjecting all Senate business to a supermajority requirement is only about facilitating its ability to obstruct.

Senior Democrats have begun to articulate the idea that the true way to revitalize faith in government — and in democracy — is by successfully delivering on big-ticket items. Achieving bipartisan cooperation for its own sake will do far less to address deep civic division and disillusionment than robust and effective action on behalf of the common good.

The Biden plan now will be written by Congress. But the new move lays the groundwork for passage of a package that could spend as much as $1.9 trillion. . . .

In an interesting column, David Brooks suggests that such large-scale spending could begin to accomplish “social repair.” We should spend far more than what’s merely needed to fill the “output gap.” We should spend to address the deep inequalities and injustices revealed by the pandemic and longer-term structural ills such as flat wages and regional stagnation. Undershooting here, Brooks notes, carries far greater moral and civic risks than overshooting.

I’d go further: Such an approach also contains the seeds of a broader answer to Trumpist populism. Success in using robust government action to charge up the recovery and get the coronavirus under control — including sinking medical resources into rural America — could clear political space for Biden to restore humanity to our immigration system and sanity to our international climate efforts.

Spending effectively toward the common good might begin to defang destructive zero-sum nationalist appeals. That could pave the way for a “new synthesis” that combines bolder progressive economics with a refusal to backpedal on issues that Democrats have long seen as politically perilous in the face of right-wing populist demagoguery. Biden’s ambitious actions so far on immigration and climate suggest just this understanding of the moment.

All this might sound overly optimistic. And there are countless ways Democrats can screw this all up. But the early returns suggest they are constructively breaking with old ways of thinking. And that could portend a serious long-term challenge to the Trumpified [Grotesque Old Party].

Unquote.

Senate Democrats can change the Senate rules whenever they want. They just need the courage to do so (and the cooperation of their least progressive members).

This Is How Government Is Supposed To Work

When giving poor families help buying food, should the government err on the side of caution (we don’t want money to be wasted) or generosity (we don’t want poor families to miss out)? The Biden administration knows the answer. From Politico:

Millions of low-income households with children are about to get more help buying groceries during the pandemic under a new policy released Friday by the Biden administration.

The backstory: Congress last spring launched Pandemic EBT, a program that aims to replace free and subsidized meals kids normally get at school. After schools broadly shut down last year, billions in aid was sent out to low-income families with school-aged children on debit-like EBT cards that can be used to buy food, but this school year the program has been bogged down in bureaucracy.

As POLITICO reported last month, the vast majority of households eligible for assistance haven’t seen any P-EBT payments several months into the school year, even though Congress re-upped the program in September — a failing that has kept roughly $2 billion in aid from going out to families each month.

The Agriculture Department, which oversees school meals and P-EBT, released guidance today that makes it easier for states to get aid to more families — and at a higher payment rate than under the [previous] administration.

“We want to put more money into the hands of people with kids,” said Stacy Dean, deputy under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.

What’s new: The changes unveiled Friday allow states to simplify how they figure out which children are eligible for benefits. The administration also outlined how to get P-EBT benefits to children who are younger than school age for the first time — an expansion of the program Congress asked for in last month’s aid package.

“We’re hoping that it will make it easier for states to implement the program,” Dean said in an interview.

The political context: Congress last month directed USDA to simplify the program, but Friday’s guidance and the increase in aid also marks a significant ideological shift at USDA.

During the Trump administration, the mandate was more to err on the side of caution, to put in place policies that focused more on individually verifying which households were eligible for P-EBT and for how many days — a task that was so administratively complicated with some schools open, some online-only, and some a hybrid, that it delayed the program from being implemented at all.

Under the Biden administration, the mandate is more to err on the side of getting more aid out quickly to as many low-income households as possible, even if it means inadvertently including some kids who are doing in-person learning.

What it means: The new policy means that soon many households that are already participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — still known to many as food stamps — will get additional benefits if they have children under the age of six.

It also means all families eligible for P-EBT will receive more aid. The reimbursement rate for replacing school meals is being bumped up by about $1 per day, bringing it up to $6.82 per child, per day of school missed — which adds up to just over $136 per child, per month. . . .

The USDA is encouraging states to retroactively apply the increase in benefits to the entire school year, which means that if a household already received P-EBT aid for August and September, for example, they could be owed nearly $20 more per child, per month.

Most states are not ready to roll: Just nine states and territories have been approved so far to restart paying out P-EBT benefits: Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Ohio, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Vermont and Tennessee. [The Agriculture Department] said it has received plans from 22 states and territories, with more expected in the coming weeks.

Helping Helps

The Biden administration and House Democrats are working on legislation that would send monthly checks to people with children:

In one draft of the proposal, the IRS would deposit checks worth $300 every month per child younger than 6 and $250 every month per child age 6 to 17. This would give parents $3,000 per year for each child between the ages of 6 to 17, and $3,600 per child under age 6. . . .

Eligibility for the benefit, similar to the stimulus checks, would be based on family income for the prior tax year and be phased out at a certain income amount . . . 

Paul Krugman thinks it’s a very good idea: “it could, among other things, cut child poverty in half”:

America stands out among wealthy countries for its failure to provide much help to families with children. U.S. expenditures on family benefits as a share of G.D.P. are less than a third the rich-nation average. Largely as a consequence, we have a much higher rate of child poverty than our peers.

Our stinginess does a lot of harm. Economists have shown that previous extensions of aid to families with children, like the gradual rollout of food stamps in the 1960s and 1970s and the expansion of Medicaid in the 1980s, didn’t just improve children’s lives in the short run; children who received the aid grew into healthier, more productive adults than those who didn’t receive the aid. By not doing even more for children, we are stunting their future, and that of the nation as a whole.

And aid to children would achieve what proponents of the tax cut promised but failed to deliver: an improvement in America’s long-run economic prospects. If the children we help today grow up into healthier, more productive adults than they would otherwise — which they will — that will eventually mean higher G.D.P.

And aid to children would also indirectly help the budget, because those children would later pay more in taxes and be less likely to call on safety net programs. These fiscal benefits might even be big enough that helping children pays for itself, and in any case they mean that the true cost of aiding children, even in narrowly fiscal terms, would be less than it might appear.

All in all, then, increased aid to families with children is a really good idea. It would immediately improve millions of Americans’ lives, it would make us stronger in the future, and it would have only modest budget costs. 

By “modest”, Krugman means it would cost around half of the 2017 Republican tax cut, which mainly benefited the rich. Of course, there will be Republican opposition:

We’ll surely hear some version of the standard conservative argument that any policy reducing misery reduces the incentive to be self-sufficient — you know, unemployment insurance encourages people to stay unemployed, food stamps encourage them to be lazy, and so on. Making this argument about a broad-based program to help children will be hard, but they’ll find a way.

He discusses a broader issue in his NY Times newsletter:

What should we do about Americans with low income — and their children? Should we make a new push to reduce or eliminate poverty, and if so, what should it involve?

. . . As with everything else in modern America, the two parties have starkly different positions on this issue. . . . I don’t believe that the Republican position on this, or for that matter on any major policy issue I can think of, reflects a good-faith attempt to figure out what works best. But the expressed views of the parties do show a big divide about how the world works.

The Republican view is basically that anti-poverty programs aren’t the solution, they’re the problem. How so? When you have “means-tested” programs — programs that are only available to people with sufficiently low incomes, or that phase out as income rises — you are in effect imposing high marginal tax rates on the relatively poor. That is if, say, a single mother manages to increase her earnings from $15,000 to $20,000 a year, she will find much of that extra $5,000 taken away in the form of reduced benefits.

This high de facto taxation, conservatives say, discourages efforts to break out of poverty. And they also say that it fosters a culture of dependency. So they argue that to help the poor we should, well, offer them less help.

Progressives don’t deny that incentives can matter. To use one of my favorite examples, countries that offer generous benefits to people who retire early, like France, end up with many people, you guessed it, retiring early.

But economists on the center left generally argue that the disincentives created by anti-poverty programs are exaggerated, and that the main thing actually trapping people in poverty is a lack of resources: It’s hard to get an education, start a business, even move to a place where jobs are available, when you have no money in the bank and are living hand-to-mouth.

Also, being poor imposes a lot of cognitive stress: It’s hard to focus on self-improvement when you’re constantly worrying about where the next rent check will come from or how to pay medical bills.

If you see resources as the main problem for the poor, the answer to poverty is to provide more resources; this doesn’t just improve the lives of the poor in the short run, it also increases their chances of breaking free of the poverty cycle.

This is the kind of debate that should be settled with evidence. And for what it’s worth, there is growing evidence that the resources view of poverty is much closer to the truth than the incentives view. . . . This is especially true for programs that help families with children, which seem to improve the lives of those children long after they’ve matured past receiving aid.

Where We Stand with the Vaccinations

The vaccine is out there. It’s not being administered fast enough. But now there’s a plan. From The New York Times [with commentary included]:

President Biden’s promise to administer 100 million vaccines by his 100th day in office is no longer a lofty goal; it is attainable at the current pace at which shots are going into arms. In fact, some experts have suggested that the president’s ambition is far too modest. [His ambition is to get the whole country vaccinated; his promise was to do 100 million by late April.]

Federal data shows that the United States is already administering about one million doses a day, and even doubling that rate would not cause the country to fall short of distribution capacity or supply. . . . 

Mr. Biden made the 100-day pledge in early December, before any vaccine had been authorized for use in the United States. At the time, experts called the goal “optimistic” given their concerns about manufacturing and distribution capacity.

Since then, two vaccines have been approved and the United States has secured contracts for deliveries of doses through July. And while some jurisdictions have said that they are running out of doses, states and U.S. territories are using only about half of the shots that the federal government has shipped to them, on average. . . .

Pfizer and Moderna have pledged to deliver a combined 200 million doses by the end of March, with an additional 200 million doses to be delivered by the end of July.

Under those circumstances, it is feasible that up to two million doses could be given per day, and Mr. Biden’s goal of 100 million shots could be reached by early March.

But ramping up vaccinations will not be easy. And national supply and distribution figures do not reflect the often complicated local realities.

“The complexity of administering vaccines may grow over the coming weeks as we open up a lot of new provider sites,” said Dr. Julie Swann, an industrial and systems engineering professor at North Carolina State University who was an adviser to the C.D.C. during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

Getting shots in arms has already been hard, Dr. Swann noted. Providers get little notice of how much vaccine they will receive, making it difficult to plan and set up appointments. Estimating demand can be tricky too, which means that vaccines may be used more quickly in some locations than others, leading to wasted doses.

“The administration needs to be both fighting immediate fires and putting in the infrastructure to make this work better, too,” Dr. Swann said [which is what the president and his staff are doing, three days after the inauguration].

Unquote.

The new administration has issued a “National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness”. This is the summary of the plan to “mount a safe, effective, comprehensive vaccination campaign”:

The United States will spare no effort to ensure Americans can get vaccinated quickly, effectively, and equitably. The federal government will execute an aggressive vaccination strategy, focusing on the immediate actions necessary to convert vaccines into vaccinations, including improving allocation, distribution, administration, and tracking. Central to this effort will be additional support and funding for state, local, Tribal, and territorial governments — and improved line of sight into supply — to ensure that they are best prepared to mount local vaccination programs. At the same time, the federal government will mount an unprecedented public campaign that builds trust around vaccination and communicates the importance of maintaining public health measures such as masking, physical distancing, testing, and contact tracing even as people receive safe and effective vaccinations. To mount a safe, effective, comprehensive vaccination campaign, the United States will:

  1. Ensure the availability of safe, effective vaccines for the American public.
  2. Accelerate getting shots into arms and get vaccines to the communities that need them most.
  3. Create as many venues as needed for people to be vaccinated.
  4. Focus on hard-to-reach and high-risk populations.
  5. Fairly compensate providers, and states and local governments for the cost of administering vaccinations.
  6. Drive equity throughout the vaccination campaign and broader pandemic response. Launch a national vaccinations public education campaign.
  7. Bolster data systems and transparency for vaccinations.
  8. Monitor vaccine safety and efficacy. Surge the health care workforce to support the vaccination effort.

The plan is only 200 pages long.

Yeah, we’re finally getting an administration that’s competent and wants the government to work. Patience is a virtue.

Biden’s Questions for His Top Science Adviser

Joe Biden plans to make the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy a Cabinet-level position for the first time. Last week, he sent a letter to Eric Lander, the geneticist who will hold that position, asking how the United States should address scientific and technological issues in the coming decades. I’m sure the president-elect didn’t write every word, but he put his name on it:

In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authored a letter to his science advisor, Dr. Vannevar Bush, posing the question of how science and technology could best be applied to benefit the nation’s health, economic prosperity, and national security in the decades that would follow the Second World War. Dr. Bush’s response came in the form of a report, titled Science—the Endless Frontier, that would form the basis of the National Science Foundation and set the course of scientific discovery in America for the next 75 years.

Those years have brought about some of the most consequential scientific advancements in human history with America leading the way. But three quarters of a century later, the contours of our lives have changed. . . . And the nature of discovery itself has changed by leaps and bounds—reaching celestial heights, and microscopic complexities, that were unimaginable not so long ago.

For this reason, I believe it is essential that we refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years, so that our children and grandchildren may inhabit a healthier, safer, more just, peaceful, and prosperous world. This effort will require us to bring together our brightest minds across academia, medicine, industry, and government—breaking down the barriers that too often limit our vision and our progress, and prioritizing the needs, interests, fears, and aspirations of the American people.

President Roosevelt asked Dr. Bush to consider four specific questions. Today, I am tasking you and your colleagues with five. My hope is that you, working broadly and transparently with the diverse scientific leadership of American society and engaging the broader American public, will make recommendations to our administration on the general strategies, specific actions, and new structures that the federal government should adopt to ensure that our nation can continue to harness the full power of science and technology on behalf of the American people.

1. What can we learn from the pandemic about what is possible—or what ought to be possible— to address the widest range of needs related to our public health?

Even as we work urgently to overcome the coronavirus pandemic, we must learn from this moment by grappling with the challenges, inequities, and opportunities we’ve seen in order to better prepare for the future. How can we dramatically improve our ability to rapidly address threats from pathogens, including emerging pandemics, potential bioweapons, and antibiotic resistance? How can we dramatically speed our ability to develop and conduct clinical trials of therapies for other types of diseases like cancer? How can we enable the rapid sharing, with patient consent, of health information to build a smarter and more effective healthcare system? . . .

2. How can breakthroughs in science and technology create powerful new solutions to address climate change . . .?

Climate change represents an existential threat that requires bold and urgent action. But at the same time, the necessity of solving it also presents us with an extraordinary opportunity to make groundbreaking investments in our infrastructure, enhance America’s resilience, promote environmental justice, and create new cutting-edge industries and millions of good-paying jobs that will advance American leadership for generations to come.

Achieving our commitment of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will require deploying existing, cost-effective clean energy technologies manufactured in America; drawing on innovative solutions to capture and store carbon; and spurring American technological ingenuity to develop new zerocarbon technologies that can reshape the marketplace. . . .

The United States has a long, successful, and bipartisan history of using federal research, purchasing, and policies to help jumpstart critical industries—including, for example, when we pioneered and led the semiconductor industry. How can we refresh that model to deliver a healthier, safer, more prosperous, and sustainable future for our children, while preserving our natural environment for future generations?

3. How can the United States ensure that it is the world leader in the technologies and industries of the future that will be critical to our economic prosperity and national security, especially in competition with China?

. . . New technologies are emerging in increasingly rapid cycles that promise to transform our lives. Each arrives with a distinct set of promises and challenges—and each carries the capacity to dramatically impact job creation, equity, and national security. Other countries—especially China—are making unprecedented investments and doing everything in their power to promote the growth of new industries and eclipse America’s scientific and technological leadership. . . .

What is the right level of national investment, and what are the pillars of a national strategy that will rapidly propel both research and development of critical technologies? What structures, infrastructures, and policies are needed to accelerate the path from research laboratories to development projects to the marketplace? How can we strengthen and expand the connections between academia, industry, and government . . .? And, importantly, how do we ensure that technological advances create rather than diminish high-quality jobs?

4. How can we guarantee that the fruits of science and technology are fully shared across America and among all Americans?

The benefits of science and technology remain unevenly distributed across racial, gender, economic, and geographic lines. How can we ensure that Americans of all backgrounds are drawn into both the creation and the rewards of science and technology? How can we ensure that science and technology hubs flourish in every part of the country, driving economic development in every American hometown? How can we ensure that advances in medical science benefit the health of all Americans, including substantially reducing racial and socioeconomic health disparities?

5. How can we ensure the long-term health of science and technology in our nation?

Science and technology have flourished in the United States because of a rich ecosystem of people, policies, and institutions. This ecosystem must be nurtured and refreshed . . . How can we protect scientific integrity within government—and make government a premier destination for scientists and technologists to work? . . . How can we ensure the United States will remain a magnet for the best and brightest minds throughout the world?

I believe that the answers to these questions will be instrumental in helping our nation embark on a new path in the years ahead—a path of dignity and respect, of prosperity and security, of progress and common purpose. They are big questions, to be sure, but not as big as America’s capacity to address them. I look forward to receiving your recommendations—and to working with you, your team, and the broader scientific community to turn them into solutions that ease everyday burdens for the American people, spark new jobs and opportunities, and restore American leadership on the world stage.