What’s Wrong with the Democratic Party

Two things that happened this week illustrate much of what’s wrong with the Democratic party.

First, Hillary Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon doubled down on Clinton’s commitment, voiced at the last Democratic debate, to avoid any tax increases at all on the “middle class.”  Second, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) endorsed Clinton for president.

Taken together, these events demonstrate a long-term problem that plagues Democrats and prevents the growth of a truly power-balancing agenda: the prioritization of political opportunism over principled policymaking.  Despite the presence of an increasingly viable progressive alternative, Democrats continue to lean against their own interests in the mistaken belief that it will help them win elections. Then they wonder why we’re stuck with rising inequality and a political system rigged against the majority of the population.

For starters, Clinton’s and Fallon‘s attacks on Sanders’ single-payer health care proposal were wildly misleading.  Fallon cited a scary-sounding statistic about the cost of Sanders’ plan when it would actually save Americans significant amounts of money: taking private insurers out of the mix would lower overall health care costs and thus boost disposable income for most Americans.  Clinton gave a similarly disingenuous description of Sanders’ plan at the debate – she said Sanders would “eliminate Medicare” when he would actually expand it (in fact, Sanders frequently touts his plan as “Medicare for All”).

Fallon is right to insist that “the wealthiest Americans finally start paying their fair share” – higher taxes on the rich could raise a sizable amount of money and are an appropriate first step – but it’s unlikely that policymakers could make the investments America needs without at least some additional contribution from the bottom 96 percent of families, the members of which, at least in Fallon’s mind (see table FINC-07), are all apparently included under the heading of “middle class.”  (It’s also relevant that Sanders, much to Donald Trump’s chagrin, is far more committed to making the wealthy “pay their fair share” than is Clinton, perhaps because wealthy donors bankroll Clinton’s campaign.)

Social Security and Medicare, two of our most important and effective government programs, are financed by payroll taxes that hit the actual middle class, as would be paid family leave legislation introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (of which Sanders is a co-sponsor).  Complaints about taxes that pay for these sorts of programs are supposed to come from Republicans, not the Democratic frontrunner.  The Clinton campaign’s anti-tax rhetoric obscures the fact that social spending is well worth taxpayer dollars; it lends credence to attempts to gut government revenue sources and slash important programs.

Unions can’t be fans of such rhetoric, as it spells trouble in the long-run for both their members and the disadvantaged populations for whom they advocate.  Compared to Clinton, Sanders also has a much better record and equivalent or better policy positions on just about every issue that unions care about.  Yet the majority of national unions to endorse so far have jumped on the Clinton bandwagon (the exceptions are National Nurses United and the American Postal Workers Union).

Why are unions endorsing the candidate less in sync with their interests?  The most likely reason is (what they believe to be) political pragmatism.  It’s natural to want to be remembered as early allies and to want to be as involved as possible in Clinton’s policymaking process; especially if they believe a Clinton victory to be inevitable, unions may view an early endorsement as the best way to curry favor with and influence the platform of the eventual nominee.

This perspective isn’t crazy; the American Federation of Teachers in particular, the first major union to endorse Clinton, has almost certainly had a hand in Clinton’s “evolving” rhetoric on education policy.  Union endorsements probably also played a role in Clinton’s reversal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

At the same time, the unions’ political calculus undermines progressive goals.  It sends a terrible message to both Clinton and the Democratic Establishment: that even in the primary, unions care more about backing the anointed frontrunner than they care about working for candidates who actually fight for their values.  As Glenn Greenwald observed several years ago:

There’s a fundamental distinction between progressives and groups that wield actual power in Washington: namely, the latter are willing (by definition) to use their resources and energies to punish politicians who do not accommodate their views, while the former unconditionally support the Democratic Party and their leaders no matter what they do…Any self-interested, rational politician — meaning one motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle — will ignore those who behave this way every time and instead care only about those whose support is conditional.

Union support for Clinton is also misguided because Sanders can definitely win both the primary and the general election.  He’s significantly more popular than Clinton among independents, White voters, and young people and has better overall net favorability ratings.  While Sanders is currently much less popular than Clinton among Black and Latino voters, that’s in large part due to a lack of exposure and name recognition.  As Cornel West notes, his support should grow “once Black [and, I’ll add, Latino] people find out who Brother Sanders is.”

This year’s primary election is, in many ways, a referendum on the soul of the Democratic party.  Will the party’s main virtue continue to be what it isn’t (as crazy as the Republicans)?  Or will the Democrats begin to live up to the principles they purport to stand for?  We won’t know for at least a few months, but in the meantime, both the Clinton campaign and union leaders should take a long, hard look in the mirror.



Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Labor, US Political System

Hillary Clinton’s Less than Stellar Record on Trade

In this post, Part 4 in a series on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Emilio da Costa describes Clinton’s record on international trade and business issues. Emilio, who holds a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from Stanford, can be contacted on Twitter or by email.

Emilio da Costa

Emilio da Costa

During her career in government, Hillary Clinton has routinely prioritized the interests of corporate profiteers while neglecting the rights of workers. Her support of so-called “free trade” agreements in particular illustrates where her priorities lie.

While in the Senate, for example, Clinton backed agreements with Chile, Singapore, and Oman despite their clear lack of labor protections. As David Sirota and Matthew Cunningham-Cook reported for the International Business Times:

At the time, the AFL-CIO said, “The labor provisions of the Chile and Singapore FTAs will not protect the core rights of workers, and represent a big step backwards.” The union federation also opposed the deal with Oman. Its president, John Sweeney, noted that “the State Department has identified Oman as a destination country for men and women who become victims of  trafficking and forced labor.”

In some cases, Clinton even directly worked against improved labor standards for workers in other countries. In a piece for The Nation, Dan Coughlin and Kim Ives utilize content from cables obtained by WikiLeaks to describe how Secretary Clinton’s State Department lobbied the Haitian president to help multinational clothing retailers undermine a minimum wage increase unanimously passed by the Haitian Parliament:

Contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked in close concert with the US Embassy when they aggressively moved to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers, the lowest-paid in the hemisphere, according to secret State Department cables.

The factory owners told the Haitian Parliament that they were willing to give workers a 9-cents-per-hour pay increase to 31 cents per hour to make T-shirts, bras and underwear for US clothing giants like Dockers and Nautica.

But the factory owners refused to pay 62 cents per hour, or $5 per day, as a measure unanimously passed by the Haitian Parliament in June 2009 would have mandated. And they had the vigorous backing of the US Agency for International Development and the US Embassy when they took that stand.

To resolve the impasse between the factory owners and Parliament, the State Department urged quick intervention by then Haitian President René Préval.

“A more visible and active engagement by Préval may be critical to resolving the issue of the minimum wage and its protest ‘spin-off’—or risk the political environment spiraling out of control,” argued US Ambassador Janet Sanderson in a June 10, 2009, cable back to Washington.

Two months later Préval negotiated a deal with Parliament to create a two-tiered minimum wage increase—one for the textile industry at about $3 per day and one for all other industrial and commercial sectors at about $5 per day.

Clinton’s record is very similar when it comes to the most recent “free trade” agreement – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP has been the subject of well-deserved scrutiny, and not just from “liberals” like the Economic Policy Institute’s Robert E. Scott, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and former US Labor Secretaries F. Ray Marshall and Robert Reich. Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, the economist famous for, among many things, his role in the deregulation of the US financial system, has also raised doubts about the merits of the agreement. Here’s Summers in a surprisingly populist op-ed for The Washington Post:

First, the era of agreements that achieve freer trade in the classic sense is essentially over. The world’s remaining tariff and quota barriers are small and, where present, less reflections of the triumph of protectionist interests and more a result of deep cultural values such as the Japanese attachment to rice farming… A reflexive presumption in favor of free trade should not be used to justify further agreements. Concerns that trade agreements may be a means to circumvent traditional procedures for taking up issues ranging from immigration to financial regulation must be taken seriously…

[The US economy] has supported the greatest economic progress in the history of the world in emerging markets and is working spectacularly well for capital and a cosmopolitan elite that moves easily around the world. But being pressed down everywhere are middle classes who lack the wherewithal to take advantage of new global markets and do not want to compete with low-cost foreign labor. Our challenge now is less to increase globalization than to make the globalization we have work for our citizens.

In that respect, the TPP doesn’t look good. Scott discusses how free trade has historically depressed US wages and why the lack of enforceable currency provisions in the agreement could lead to job losses. Reich and Marshall caution that its “patent provisions risk delaying or even preventing generic competition, thus keeping lifesaving medicine out of patients’ hands.” Warren details how the agreement’s Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions “would allow big multinationals to weaken labor and environmental rules” and why, despite the fact that the “TPP is being hailed as the strongest free trade agreement yet,” our terrible enforcement record when it comes to previous agreements (and the same empty promise being made over and over again) belies that claim.

What does all of that have to do with Clinton? As Sirota and Cunningham-Cook note, Clinton was a strong supporter of the TPP during negotiations:

In a 2012 speech in Australia, Clinton referred to TPP as “the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field. And when negotiated, this agreement will cover 40 percent of the world’s total trade and build in strong protections for workers and the environment.”

But that was just one speech, right? Wrong.

In a 2012 speech in Singapore, Clinton explicitly promoted the TPP as an initiative that “will lower barriers, raise standards, and drive long-term growth across the region.” She also used the collective “we” in describing the work being done on the pact, saying, “we are making progress toward finalizing a far-reaching new trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” She also said “we are offering to assist with capacity building, so that every country in ASEAN can eventually join.” The video of the key part of her speech can be seen here:

In fact, even CNN, which judging from the recent Democratic primary debate seems to unabashedly favor Clinton, published an article listing 45 times that Secretary Clinton pushed the very trade bill that she now claims to oppose.

Her flip-flop, as Sirota and Cunningham-Cook note, is typical:

Clinton has a history of abruptly changing positions on trade policy. When running for president in 2008, she criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement, despite reports that she supported it while her husband was president. Clinton also pledged to oppose a proposed free trade agreement with Colombia. Only two years later, as secretary of state, she backed that deal while her family’s foundation received money from a Colombian oil firm and its founder.

Though she has tried to justify her reversal this time around, her claims are unconvincing. As Tim Lee explained at Vox:

In the interview with PBS’s Judy Woodruff where she came out against the treaty, she cited two specific objections: It doesn’t have language dealing with currency manipulation, and it has provisions that favor big drug companies over patients.

These are totally plausible arguments for opposing the TPP. But they make no sense as reasons for Clinton to change her mind about the treaty.

Why not? Because, as Lee describes, the “pharmaceutical language in the TPP is better than expected” and “currency manipulation was never going to be part of the TPP.”  If Clinton was serious when she lauded the “gold standard” TPP for “free, transparent, fair trade” in 2012, she should be even more supportive of the deal now.  Instead, the minute that the TPP became widely unpopular, she changed her position, saying that it didn’t meet the “high bar” she had set for it.

I can only draw three logical conclusions from these remarkable contradictions:

  1. Clinton had not read the TPP prior to making her “gold standard” statement and was blindly supportive of it.
  2. She did read it, and she honestly believed what she said in 2012, but is now willing to falsely appear critical of it.
  3. She did read it, her statement in 2012 was a total lie, and now it’s in her interest to lie again and appear concerned.

Unfortunately, none of these conclusions give me any reassurance that it would be a good idea to entrust Clinton with more political power.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Business, Labor, US Political System

Digging Deeper Into Democratic Donors

After I argued that labor unions should endorse Bernie Sanders about a month ago, a Hillary Clinton supporter complained on Twitter about this section of my article:

The following meme, describing cumulative donations the candidates have received over the past thirty years, is illustrative:

She voiced two criticisms of the displayed meme. First, she noted that it portrays cumulative donations over the candidates’ political careers instead of the donations they’ve received in 2016.  While this point is true, it’s not very meaningful; in fact, one could easily argue that a cumulative look at donations received over several years provides more useful information about donors than a present-day snapshot.  Either way, my piece stated upfront that the meme displayed cumulative donations.

Second, she complained that the meme doesn’t actually display donations made by the companies listed – instead, it displays combined donations from the organizations’ political action committees (PACs) and from individual employees that are on record with the Federal Elections Commission (individual donations constitute the majority of the totals listed). Though this point is a fine one to make, it also doesn’t mean much – donations from individuals are only declared if the contribution is $200 or more and the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiles the data, has consistently reported it this way.  As I’ve noted before and the organization explains:

Our research over more than 20 years shows a correlation between individuals’ contributions and their employers’ political interests and we have also observed that the donors we know about, and especially those who contribute at the maximum levels, are more commonly top executives in their companies, not lower-level employees.

The meme paints an accurate picture of the fact that Clinton raises a lot of campaign cash from big-money, corporate-affiliated donors.  Sanders, on the other hand, doesn’t.  Those who contend otherwise are wrong.

In the interest of fairness and complete information, though, and because we now have data from the most recent filing period from the Center for Responsive Politics, let’s examine the candidates’ fundraising operations for their 2016 presidential bids more closely.

The first figure below shows the share of money each candidate has raised from small donations (donations of less than $200).  A greater share of small donations indicates more grassroots support for the campaign, while a smaller share of small donations suggests that a candidate is more heavily reliant upon big-money interests.  Over $30 million out of a little more than $41 million total raised by the Sanders campaign comes from small donors, while only about $13 million out of a little more than $77 million total raised by the Clinton campaign can claim the same origin.

Small Contributions

The next figure, like the criticized meme, depicts the larger donations the candidates have received.  Unlike the meme, it focuses solely on contributions to the candidates’ 2016 presidential campaigns.  The fact that corporate donors make Sanders’ list underscores the one legitimate critique of the meme – $200+ donations from individuals at a given company don’t necessarily mean the company has thrown its support behind a candidate.  Yet combined with the first figure, the story here is very similar to that the meme presents: Clinton raises most of her money from Wall Street and other rich donors, while Sanders raises most of his campaign cash from regular people.  Consider, for instance, that Clinton’s campaign has received a total of nearly $2 million in large contributions from individuals associated with the Securities & Investment industry.  That industry barely cracks the top 20 in industry-affiliated donations to Sanders – Wall Street traders appear to prefer Clinton to Sanders by a 40-to-1 margin.

Top 10 Donors

Finally, the figure below (adapted from an earlier post) depicts the amount of money raised on each candidate’s behalf by affiliated Super PACs and Carey Committees, which may be technically separate from the campaign but are in reality closely linked to it.  Clinton has three – Ready PAC (formerly known as Ready for Hillary), Priorities USA Action, and Correct the Record, the last of which has already engaged in dishonest attacks against Sanders.  Sanders has zero.

Super PACs

Sanders does have a much more benign Leadership PAC, Progressive Voters of America, which he founded several years ago to help “elect progressive candidates at the federal, state and local level.”  It has raised slightly more than $16,000.  Two Super PACs have also sprung up to try and support him, but they are unwelcome in Sanders’ campaign, which sent one of them, Billionaires for Bernie, a cease and desist letter.  Clinton, unlike Sanders, has not discouraged unaffiliated Super PACs from supporting her presidential bid.  In other words, while Clinton has tirelessly continued to court the wealthy, Sanders has kept his promise and refused to accept Super PAC support.

I’ve captured the highlights of this more current information in a new meme below.  It clearly has the same punchline as the old one, and may even show a starker contrast between the two candidates’ fundraising operations.

Bernie Hillary Meme

So if you’re not worried about the influence of money in politics or are an affluent donor yourself, Hillary Clinton might be an acceptable Democratic nominee.  But if you want a politician more beholden to the people than to a wealthy few, Bernie Sanders is probably the better choice.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

The Truth About School Funding

Dmitri Mehlhorn, co-founder of StudentsFirst, wrote an article a few weeks ago about school funding titled, “How Money is Spent Matters.”  That statement is obviously true; who could disagree with it?

Unfortunately, the article’s actual argument – that “America’s schools are not underfunded” – is completely false.  This post corrects the record.  Funding for public primary and secondary education in the United States is, in fact, inadequate and inequitable, and rectifying this problem should be a top priority for anyone who cares about improving our schools.

We’re Far From School Funding Equity

But what is adequate and equitable school funding?  Researchers Bruce Baker and Danielle Farie and civil rights lawyer David Sciarra, who produce a National Report Card on school funding fairness, discuss this question at length in their 2015 report.  One of the most important principles they note is that, because “[v]arying levels of funding are required to provide equal educational opportunities to children with different needs[,] finance systems should provide more funding to districts serving larger shares of students in poverty.”

School funding in the United States doesn’t come close to meeting this criterion; as Baker, Farie, and Sciarra show, fourteen states have regressive school funding systems, meaning they allocate less money to schools serving disadvantaged students than they do to schools serving more affluent student populations.  Nineteen other states have roughly equivalent funding between the two types of schools.  Only four states – Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Delaware – score high enough across all of the researchers’ criteria (funding level; funding distribution; effort, or funding as a share of the state’s economy; and coverage, or “the share of school-age children enrolled in public schools and the degree to which there is economic disparity between households in the public versus private education system”) to have their funding systems deemed “fair.”

This analysis likely represents an upper bound on the degree of school funding equity in the United States.  While California appears to have roughly equivalent funding for low- and high-income schools in the report, for example, there are major funding discrepancies between some of the state’s “basic aid” districts, which serve affluent students, and districts that serve lower-income populations.  Within-district variations in spending also go undetected in the report’s metrics, as may situations in which funding that is supposed to follow high-need students doesn’t reach them.

Inequitable school funding is a widely acknowledged problem, so much so that people associated with StudentsFirst – the very organization Mehlhorn co-founded – recognize that addressing it is imperative.  Yet Mehlhorn’s article doesn’t mention the distribution of school funding at all, except when making misleading statements about charter school spending.

Charter School Research Supports Calls for More School Funding

As Baker, Ken Libby, and Kathryn Wiley found in a careful 2012 analysis of charter school and traditional public school spending:

Comparative spending between the two sectors is mixed, with many high profile charter network schools outspending similar district schools in New York City and Texas, but other charter network schools spending less than similar district schools, particularly in Ohio.

Mehlhorn’s counterclaim that charter schools spend significantly less money than traditional public schools likely stems from a 2011 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, but it, like more cursory and flawed studies, may fail to appropriately categorize spending that should be assigned to each type of school.  Transportation funding and spending on food services and special education, for example, can be misclassified in such analyses.

In addition, students in traditional public schools perform just about as well on average as students in charters; as Harvard professor Tom Loveless has explained, the differences in student test score results between the two sectors “are extremely small, so tiny, in fact, that they lack real world significance.”  Mehlhorn’s inaccurate claims to the contrary rely on a completely invalid “months of learning” conversion performed in a recent study of urban charter schools; the study actually shows a tiny difference between the charter and traditional public school sectors (less than .06 standard deviations, or a good deal less than one additional question answered correctly on most tests).

In other words, there’s only one real conclusion that can be drawn about the research on overall levels of charter school funding and average student test scores: arguments touting charter schools as a low-cost solution to boost student achievement are either uninformed or deliberately misleading (especially because the student populations charters serve are typically unrepresentative subsets of the surrounding traditional public school populations, and because many studies don’t distinguish school effects from peer effects).

There is, of course, important variation in the charter sector; some studies indicate that students in some charter school networks do very well.  As Baker, Libby, and Wiley note, however, many of these networks spend substantially more per pupil (sometimes well over 30 percent more) than comparable public schools.  Similarly, the test score gains in New Orleans charters that Mehlhorn applauds came with a substantial price tag, a fact that his article conveniently omits.  The following excerpt from an interview with researcher Doug Harris is instructive on this point:

At the beginning New Orleans was spending about $8,000 more per pupil relative to similar districts. In other words, spending didn’t quite double, but it came pretty close to doubling in the initial years. And then it converged back to the normal, or close to normal rate. Now they’re spending about $1,000 more per pupil than similar districts, whereas before the storm they were spending close to the same as those comparison districts.

Harris doesn’t believe the test score gains in New Orleans were entirely a product of increased funding – he finds that explanation unlikely and thinks “every element of the reform package, including the change in spending, probably contributed in some fashion” – but acknowledges that it’s possible that increased funding played the primary role.  In addition, while Harris thinks there are important lessons to be learned from school reform there, he doubts “you’d see the same effects in other places because the conditions [in New Orleans] were distinctive.”

Either way, to the extent that best practices in certain successful charter schools drive their results, these practices can likely be replicated in traditional public schools that receive more adequate funding, as research by Roland Fryer suggests.  Especially because rapid charter school expansion has often led to harmful side-effects (in New Orleans, the large-scale firing of Black teachers and inattention to community preferences are poignant examples), our efforts are best focused not on promoting charters, but on adequately and equitably funding all schools, thus enabling them to implement best practices that may include but are not limited to better teacher training and support, more competitive teacher pay (to facilitate recruitment and retention), reduced class sizes, extended learning time, expanded tutoring availability, and enhanced extracurricular opportunities.

School Funding Research Confirms How Much Money Matters

There’s also a very strong research basis to support increased school funding – a research basis at least as strong as, if not stronger than, that behind practically any other education policy proposal.  Mehlhorn’s article elevates shaky empirical work from 25 years ago by Eric Hanushek (and work from nearly 50 years ago by James Coleman) to argue that money isn’t particularly important while downplaying the much larger body of more recent and careful research that comes to the opposite conclusion.

In 2012, Baker reviewed dozens of newer, higher-quality studies pertaining to this topic (Mehlhorn’s article mentions Baker’s review, but doesn’t link to it and paints an inaccurate picture of its findings).  As Baker’s review shows:

[T]here are a few things we can say with confidence about the relationship between funding, resources, and student outcomes:

First, on average, even in large-scale studies across multiple contexts, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved and/or higher student outcomes…

Second, schooling resources that cost money, including class size reductions and increased teacher compensation, are positively associated with student outcomes…Further, while there may exist alternative uses of financial resources that yield comparable or better returns in student outcomes, no clear evidence identifies what these alternatives might be…

Third, sustained improvements to the level and distribution of funding across local public school districts can lead to improvements in the level and distribution of student outcomes. While money alone may not be the answer, adequate and equitable distributions of financial inputs to schooling provide a necessary underlying condition for improving adequacy and equity of outcomes.

A new high-quality study by C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson, and Claudia Persico comes to the same conclusion.  Mehlhorn’s article also mentions this study, but misinterprets the results; it mistakenly compares the invalid “months of learning” statistic from the charter school research discussed above (which actually represents data on student test scores) with Jackson et al.’s data on completed years of schooling.

In reality, Jackson et al.’s results are much more striking than most results in education research; the researchers argue in EducationNext that, “for low-income children, a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school is associated with roughly 0.5 additional years of completed education, 9.6 percent higher wages, and a 6.1-percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty.”  While they concede in a follow-up piece that increased school funding won’t “eliminate all differences in outcomes by socioeconomic status,” they contend “that a 22.7 percent spending increase is large enough to eliminate the average outcome differences between the poor (those with family incomes below twice the poverty line) and the non-poor (those with family incomes above twice the poverty line).”

The researchers’ claims here are overstated – they’re extrapolations beyond the actual results that, while less misleading than the “months of learning” statistic, are still misguided attempts to help a broader audience understand research findings – but it’s important to note that the magnitudes are very large relative to the results in most education studies.

It’s also worth noting that even Hanushek, who is one of the only researchers who continues to question the importance of school finance reforms, has never said that money never matters (Mehlhorn’s article gets that point right) and has admitted that schools serving more disadvantaged students should receive more funding.

We Can Afford to Spend More on Public Schools

Some skeptics of increased funding, Mehlhorn included, attempt to compare education spending in America with education spending in other countries.  Mehlhorn writes:

The best, though, imperfect way, to understand how well America is spending money on education is look at how much other nations – most-notably highly-touted Finland and South Korea — spend on their schools.

His article then proceeds to pull numbers from an OECD report to argue that Americans spend more on education than people in other countries, which, according to Mehlhorn, makes it “clear that money isn’t the main problem in American public education.”

The problem, however, is that the numbers in Mehlhorn’s piece are cherry-picked; they don’t actually speak to his argument about public K-12 education spending.  As the OECD report notes, the figures Mehlhorn cites include public and private spending on primary, secondary, and tertiary education – that is, college – including but not limited to spending on transportation, meals, school health services, college dormitories, and “private spending on books and other school materials or private tutoring.”

In general, the OECD data shouldn’t be used for cross-country comparisons; it doesn’t count spending the same way in each country and likely makes US spending appear larger relative to spending in other countries than it actually is.  To the extent that the data can be illustrative, however, the appropriate approach would exclude college costs and private spending and focus on K-12 public school spending as a share of the economy (as opposed to using raw numbers; spending as a share of GDP provides a better indication of how much a country spends relative to what it can afford).  Doing so (see Table B4.1 here) indicates that public spending on primary and secondary education in the United States, relative to GDP, is lower than spending as a share of the economy in Finland, the same as such spending in Korea, and slightly below the OECD average.  Again, the data is flawed, but it likely provides a high-end estimate of United States education spending relative to such spending elsewhere.

Mehlhorn’s article also paints an incomplete picture of historical levels of education funding in the United States.  The fact that K-12 spending has risen in inflation-adjusted dollar value terms over the past 45 years doesn’t tell us anything about whether school spending levels are sufficient, and real spending on practically everything has increased in dollar terms since the 1970s; in fact, real spending should increase as our economy grows.  A more appropriate (though still imperfect; one flaw is that it’s not adjusted for changing demographics) look at K-12 public education spending in the United States reveals that we are spending approximately the same amount relative to the size of our economy that we were several decades ago.

What’s more, K-12 education funding has declined significantly even in real dollar terms in recent years; during the 2014-2015 school year, 35 states were still providing less total state and local per pupil funding than they had been providing before the Great Recession.  Title I funding for low-income schools and special education funding have also fallen since 2010.

Finally, it’s important to remember that even if aggregate funding levels were higher, aggregate numbers don’t speak to the distribution of funding.  We’ve yet to target and sustain increased funding in schools that serve our neediest students.  Especially when it comes to low-income areas, America definitely can – and should – invest more in K-12 public education.

We Should Avoid False Choices and Invest in Kids’ Opportunities

Increased funding, to be useful, must of course be spent in smart ways.  Money by itself isn’t a panacea.  But it’s important to get the facts right: money matters, and it matters quite a bit.

It is incredibly counterproductive to pit increased funding and smart spending against each other (though Mehlhorn’s piece acknowledges “that money spent properly can be helpful in improving achievement,” it balks at the idea that schools need additional funding), especially when schools serving the most disadvantaged students tend to get the fewest resources.  Giving schools more money and making sure they spend that money wisely are complementary, not competing, goals.

Pitting education funding against social insurance and safety net spending, as former Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman did in a recent article, is also absurd.  While it’s true that adequate income support and health care matter most for low-income students and that school-based reforms cannot, contrary to Huffman’s assertion, “be the lynchpin of social mobility in America,” schools are still very important.  Those truly committed to an equal opportunity agenda should stop taking potshots at its components and start getting to work on raising the revenues necessary to implement it.

As David Kirp wrote recently about pre-K programs: “Money doesn’t guarantee good outcomes, but it helps…In education, as in much of life, you get what you pay for.”

In America right now, we unfortunately don’t pay for the education system our students deserve.  Until we do, we won’t get it.

Update (11/5/15): Mehlhorn has written a new article that is supposed to be a response to this piece but that barely attempts to rebut any of the actual claims in it.  Instead, its argument is mostly that the factual errors and omissions that I discussed above are unimportant.

I’ve already explained why many of the article’s sections are misleading, particularly those about the school-funding and charter-school research (Mark Weber has also chimed in on charters), and I’m confident that the vast majority of education researchers (and others who have read the research in question) will agree that my summary is more accurate.

There are a couple topics that are worth slightly more discussion:

1) Mehlhorn devotes a lot of space to attacking Bruce Baker for editorializing. Baker certainly does have strong opinions, but I actually think it’s nice that he’s transparent about his perspective – all researchers have biases, and it’s in many ways preferable to know about them upfront.  Baker’s work is strong and consistent with other recent research.  The research Mehlhorn relies on – from Eric Hanushek, a member of the Right-wing Hoover Institution (note that Mehlhorn does not once mention Hanushek’s affiliation and biases) – is typically much older and a clear outlier (as I explained above).

2) David Dayen recently wrote an excellent piece about why citations of raw numbers for government spending – of the type that appear in Mehlhorn’s piece – are misleading.  I highly recommend it.  Mehlhorn is also mistaken about historical trends in real (inflation-adjusted) spending outside of education; as a quick look at the data for some of the categories he mentions (like certain technologies or defense) confirms, spending on (which is different than prices of things in) these categories has also grown over time (though by different amounts than education spending and not on a per capita basis for defense, which it would have been fine to point out).

One fair point Mehlhorn does make is that inflation-adjusted spending levels have value.  I used spending as a share of GDP above to note that the US spends less on education relative to what we can afford than many other countries and that our education spending relative to what we can afford hasn’t changed much over time.  Those facts in and of themselves don’t necessarily mean that our spending levels are insufficient; they just show that our investment in education is consistent with historical and international norms.  But while it’s fine for Mehlhorn to note that per-pupil spending in the US is up significantly in real terms since the 1970s, that also doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about whether spending levels are sufficient.  We may have been spending way too little in the 1970s, and we still may be spending way too little now.

In any case, Mehlhorn’s note that education spending has increased more than test scores doesn’t say anything, by itself, about the efficacy of that spending.  Student test scores are influenced more by outside-of-school factors than by school-based factors and it’s impossible to know how effective an intervention was without knowing what would have happened in the absence of the intervention.  Maybe test scores would have fallen if spending had remained flat.  We don’t know.  What we do know is that studies that attempt to identify a counterfactual, like Jackson et al.’s, indicate that increased school funding makes an important difference.

As I’ve repeatedly noted, money also has to be well spent.  But while increased funding for schools serving the neediest populations is not sufficient, it is necessary.


Filed under Education

What It Means to be Tough on Wall Street

I nearly spit out the hard apple cider I was drinking when I heard the following exchange during the first Democratic presidential debate:

Anderson Cooper: Senator Sanders wants to break up the big Wall Street banks. You don’t. You say charge the banks more, continue to monitor them. Why is your plan better?

Hillary Clinton: Well, my plan is more comprehensive. And frankly, it’s tougher…

Sure, Clinton’s plan has, as financial systems expert Mike Konczal notes, significantly more “footnotes and wonky details.”  If that’s what “more comprehensive” means, so be it.  But tougher?  More “characterized by severity or uncompromising determination,” as Merriam-Webster’s puts it?

To me, the best, most concise summary of the two candidates’ plans for Wall Street banks thus far comes from former US Labor Secretary and current Berkeley professor Rob Reich:

Bernie Sanders says break them up and resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act that once separated investment from commercial banking.

Hillary Clinton says charge them a bit more and oversee them more carefully.

Which of those options sounds tougher to you?

Konczal also highlights that Sanders, unlike Clinton, “wants to take on the power of the big banks.”  In addition, the two candidates’ approaches to curbing high-frequency trading “is a clear difference, with Sanders taking a more aggressive approach.”

Clinton didn’t possibly expect anyone to believe that she’d be tougher on Wall Street than Sanders, did she?

Imagine my surprise upon opening up a recent Paul Krugman article – expecting the excellent economic and political analysis he so often provides – and seeing that, in the candidates’ dispute “about whose plan was tougher,” he thought “Mrs. Clinton had the better case.”

Krugman points out, as does Konczal, that while Clinton has already laid out details on how she plans to conduct oversight of the “shadow” banking sector, Sanders hasn’t.  Krugman sees a specific plan in this area as more important than a commitment to break up the big banks.  This argument is fine to make, though it’s worth noting that Reich disagrees.

But the more important topic, Krugman argues, is tough-on-Wall-Street credibility.  And what’s baffling to me about his analysis is that he seems to think Clinton has it, a position completely at odds with the campaign finance data and Clinton’s record.

The crux of Krugman’s argument is that, while “there was a time when Wall Street and Democrats got on just fine…with the securities industry splitting its donations more or less evenly between the parties,” that time has passed.  He writes:

[I]f Wall Street’s attitude and its political giving are any indication, financiers themselves believe that any Democrat, Mrs. Clinton very much included, would be serious about policing their industry’s excesses. And that’s why they’re doing all they can to elect a Republican…

Financial tycoons loom large among the tiny group of wealthy families that is dominating campaign finance this election cycle — a group that overwhelmingly supports Republicans. Hedge funds used to give the majority of their contributions to Democrats, but since 2010 they have flipped almost totally to the G.O.P.

As I said, this lopsided giving is an indication that Wall Street insiders take Democratic pledges to crack down on bankers’ excesses seriously. And it also means that a victorious Democrat wouldn’t owe much to the financial industry…

Krugman is right about the overall trends.  A tiny group of wealthy families is contributing millions of dollars to 2016 presidential campaigns, most of it to Republicans, and the balance of hedge fund donations between the two parties has definitely shifted.  But those overall trends mask one crucial exception to the rule: Hillary Clinton.

The Center for Responsive Politics collects data on donations campaigns receive from individuals who work in the “Securities & Investment” industry, which is shown below.  While the organization recognizes that “not every contribution is made with the donor’s economic or professional interests in mind[, there is] a correlation between individuals’ contributions and their employers’ political interests.”  In addition, the “donors [they] know about, and especially those who contribute at the maximum levels, are more commonly top executives in their companies, not lower-level employees.”

Securities & Investment Chart - Updated

As the chart shows, Clinton actually leads all Republican candidates in contributions from this industry.  She has received over 40 times more money than Sanders has from individuals associated with Wall Street.  That’s lopsided giving all right, but it’s lopsided in a much different way than Krugman suggests.

Candidates receive considerably more financial support from Super PACs than from individual donations, but Clinton ranks among the Republicans in this category, too.  Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio outpace her (Bush by a considerable margin), but her $20.3 million in Super PAC money is exactly $20.3 million more than Sanders has received.  While it’s not clear how much of any candidate’s Super PAC money comes from Wall Street, and while I suspect that Clinton Super PAC donors George Soros and S. Donald Sussman are more amenable to basic regulations than their fellow billionaire hedge fund managers who donate to Republicans, it seems plausible that a “victorious Democrat” – if that Democrat were Hillary Clinton – might, in fact, “owe much to the financial industry.”  And that’s before even considering donations to the Clinton foundation.

Super PAC Donations

Those donation profiles suggest that Sanders, despite not having a specific proposal on “shadow” banking yet, is far more likely than Clinton to fight for smart recommendations from folks like Konczal.

I find it especially hard to understand Krugman’s argument in the context of what Clinton touted as a tough-on-Wall-Street credential during the debate:

I represented Wall Street, as a senator from New York, and I went to Wall Street in December of 2007 — before the big crash that we had — and I basically said, “cut it out! Quit foreclosing on homes! Quit engaging in these kinds of speculative behaviors.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t typically think representing a group of rich people and giving them a nonbinding but stern talking to qualifies as particularly tough.  History backs me up on this one – Clinton’s Wall Street lecture doesn’t seem to have worked out so well.

Paul Krugman is a great economist, I love his column, and I understand the point he’s trying to make: he thinks a Democrat in the White House – any Democrat – would be a hell of a lot better than any Republican.

But even if you agree on that point, don’t buy the idea that the practical difference between Clinton and Sanders is trivial.  It’s very large when it comes to Wall Street, where Sanders is tougher by any reasonable definition of the word.

Note (10/22/15): I updated this post with new data from the Center for Responsive Politics; the old graph, which appeared in the original version of this post, is shown below.  At that time (as the original version of the post noted), Sanders had “received so little from the Securities & Investment industry that the Center for Responsive Politics [didn’t] even report it.”

Securities & Investment Donations


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Business

Obama, Hillary, and Imperialism: Drones, Coups, Arms Deals, and Human Rights

In this post, Part 3 in a series on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Emilio da Costa describes actions taken by President Barack Obama and Clinton (in her roles as Secretary of State and Senator) in the realms of civil liberties and foreign policy. Emilio, who holds a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from Stanford, argues that the two of them embraced many of the very same policies Democrats decried under George W. Bush.  In fact, the State Department under Obama and Clinton has in some cases been more hawkish than its Republican predecessor.

Part 2 of the series, which focused on the likelihood that Clinton would meaningfully regulate Wall Street, can be found here.

Emilio da Costa

Emilio da Costa

Obama, Guantánamo, and Indefinite Preventive Detention

Obama’s most egregious hypocrisy has to be his 2007 campaign promise and subsequent 2009 executive order to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp within a year. While expecting a politician in our country to deliver on a campaign promise may in some ways be the paragon of naivete, the disconnect between Obama’s statements and his actions relating to Guantánamo and related human rights issues is absurd. Obama and his defenders claim that Congress blocked the portion of Obama’s budget proposal intended to close Guantánamo, and this is accurate. Similarly, it is true that Obama verbally renewed his commitment to closing Guantánamo in both the 2014 and the 2015 State of the Union addresses. Yet, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of allowing these events to absolve him. Obama’s proposal to close Guantánamo that was blocked by Congress was predicated upon his plan not to, for example, finally give the prisoners fair trials, but instead to just transfer them to a different prison in Thomson, Illinois. Essentially, as Conor Friedersdorf wrote for The Atlantic, “Yes, he wants to close Guantánamo Bay, in the sense that he wants to shutter the island facility in Cuba. But he wants to continue indefinitely detaining people without charges or trial.” Writing for Salon, Glenn Greenwald reminded us that it was not the location of Guantánamo that made it controversial:

What made Guantánamo such a travesty — and what still makes it such — is that it is a system of indefinite detention whereby human beings are put in cages for years and years without ever being charged with a crime. President Obama’s so-called “plan to close Guantánamo” — even if it had been approved in full by Congress — did not seek to end that core injustice. It sought to do the opposite: Obama’s plan would have continued the system of indefinite detention, but simply re-located it from Guantánamo Bay onto American soil.

Considering the details of Obama’s proposal along with the 2013 closure of the State Department office tasked with closing Guantánamo, Obama’s vows to close Guantánamo, like most of his populist presidential rhetoric, were empty political gestures.

But, even though Obama has not been able to close Guantánamo, the notoriously obstructionist Congress cannot take credit for blocking all of his venerable policy goals. For example, Obama has successfully managed to codify legislation permitting indefinite detention without trial. Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 directly violates the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, according to the ACLU. It nullifies the right to be informed of criminal charges, the right to a speedy and public trial, and the right to trial by an impartial jury. Obama’s assurances that “[his] administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens” are not particularly comforting.

Whether or not Obama sticks to his word, the provisions remain for future administrations to take full advantage of, and each of the three NDAAs passed since 2012 have continued to authorize indefinite detention. Highlighting the absurdity of the sweeping authority granted by 2014’s NDAA in a piece for Salon, Natasha Lennard wrote: “we can all be concerned when it is Tea Party blowhard Sen. Ted Cruz who best expresses civil liberties concerns on an issue.” As one of fifteen senators who voted against the Fiscal Year 2014 version of the NDAA, Cruz stated:

I am deeply concerned that Congress still has not prohibited President Obama’s ability to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens arrested on American soil without trial or due process… Although this legislation does contain several positive provisions that I support, it does not ensure our most basic rights as American citizens are protected…I hope that next year the Senate and the House can come together in a bipartisan way to recognize the importance of our constitutional rights even in the face of ongoing terrorist threats and national security challenges.

Among his peers in the Senate, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders also voted against the NDAA in 2014, but Sanders was one of only three members of the Democratic caucus that did so. The other two were Oregon’s Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden whereas, conspicuously, progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken voted to pass the legislation.

To fully appreciate just how ludicrous this legislation is, it helps to look at the way preventive detention is applied in other places. In a 2009 article entitled “Facts and Myths about Obama’s Preventive Detention Proposal,” Glenn Greenwald touched on the political climate surrounding prevention detention and the limits that are applied to this authority in some of our peer countries:

In the era of IRA bombings, the British Parliament passed a law allowing the Government to preventively detain terrorist suspects for 14 days — and then either have to charge them or release them.  In 2006, Prime Minister Tony Blair — citing the London subway attacks and the need to “intervene early before a terrorist cell has the opportunity to achieve its goals” — wanted to increase the prevention detention period to 90 days, but MPs from his own party and across the political spectrum overwhelmingly opposed this, and ultimately increased it only to 28 days.

In June of last year, Prime Minister Gordon Brown sought an expansion of this preventive detention authority to 42 days — a mere two weeks more.  Reacting to that extremely modest increase, a major political rebellion erupted, with large numbers of Brown’s own Labour Party joining with Tories to vehemently oppose it as a major threat to liberty.  Ultimately, Brown’s 42-day scheme barely passed the House of Commons. As former Prime Minister John Major put it in opposing the expansion to 42 days:

It is hard to justify: pre-charge detention in Canada is 24 hours; South Africa, Germany, New Zealand and America 48 hours; Russia 5 days; and Turkey 7½ days.

By rather stark and extreme contrast, Obama is seeking preventive detention powers that are indefinite — meaning without any end, potentially permanent.

I won’t delve into a critical history of Tony Blair, but it should come as no surprise that he was a proponent for preventive detention. On the other hand, it should be eye-opening that Russia, a country that the American media is constantly criticizing for its human rights record, limits its preventive detention power to a period of 5 days.

That Obama initiated indefinite preventive detention while acting as though he wanted to close Guantánamo so as to give its detainees fair trials is one of many reasons why Glen Ford, executive editor of the Black Agenda Report, refers to Obama as “not the lesser of evils, but the more effective evil.” In a 2012 interview with Amy Goodman for Democracy Now, Ford said:

He’s, first of all, created a model for austerity, a veritable model, with his deficit reduction commission. He’s introduced preventive detention, a law for preventive detention. He’s expanded the theaters of war in drone wars, and he’s made an unremitting assault on international law. And I think that possibly the biggest impact, his presidency—and I’m not talking about his—all this light and airy stuff from the convention, but actual deeds—I think probably what will go down as his biggest contribution to history is a kind of merging of the banks and the state, with $16 trillion being infused into these banks, into Wall Street, under his watch, and the line between Wall Street and the federal government virtually disappearing.

Clinton and Military Intervention in the Middle East

Having supported military intervention every time she’s had an opportunity, we can only expect Hillary Clinton to continue with increased American aggression and erosion of civil liberties in the name of imperialism under the guise of the bogeyman national security threat posed by “terrorism.” In a piece for TIME, Michael Crowley discussed Clinton’s “unapologetically hawkish record” in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Iran and includes analysis that brings former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War into the conversation:

In one of the book’s most quoted passages, Gates writes that he witnessed Clinton make a startling confession to Barack Obama: she had opposed George W. Bush‘s last-ditch effort to salvage the Iraq war, the 2007 troop “surge,” because the politics of the 2008 Democratic primaries demanded it…

As Secretary of State, Clinton backed a bold escalation of the Afghanistan war. She pressed Obama to arm the Syrian rebels, and later endorsed air strikes against the Assad regime. She backed intervention in Libya, and her State Department helped enable Obama’s expansion of lethal drone strikes. In fact, Clinton may have been the administration’s most reliable advocate for military action. On at least three crucial issues—Afghanistan, Libya, and the bin Laden raid—Clinton took a more aggressive line than Gates, a Bush-appointed Republican.

Returning to Iraq, nowadays, Clinton is dedicated to clarifying that she considers her vote for the war a mistake. In her 2014 book Hard Choices, she wrote, “As much as I might have wanted to, I could never change my vote on Iraq. But I could try to help us learn the right lessons from that war and apply them to Afghanistan and other challenges where we had fundamental security interests.” However, writing for The Nation, Anatol Lieven argued that Clinton’s ongoing record puts that assertion into question:

Neither in her book nor in her policy is there even the slightest evidence that she has, in fact, tried to learn from Iraq beyond the most obvious lesson—the undesirability of US ground invasions and occupations, which even the Republicans have managed to learn. For Clinton herself helped to launch US airpower to topple another regime, this one in Libya—and, as in Iraq, the results have been anarchy, sectarian conflict and opportunities for Islamist extremists that have destabilized the entire region. She then helped lead the United States quite far down the road of doing the same thing in Syria.

As opposed to just verbally expressing regret or saying that she made a mistake, there was a rare instance regarding the PATRIOT Act in which Clinton actually changed her vote. Whereas in 2001 Clinton voted to pass the legislation, in 2005 she supported a general filibuster against the PATRIOT Act’s renewal. It’s hard to give her credit for this change, however.  Describing her stance on supporting the filibuster, Jeff Bliss and James Rowley wrote for Bloomberg that “Democratic New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton said she opposes the legislation because it doesn’t guarantee her state a large enough share of money for anti-terrorism.” Quelling any uncertainty that her vote may have also had to do with some sort of moral conviction for the protection of civil liberties and privacy rights, Clinton voted to extend the PATRIOT Act in 2006.

Like a true war hawk, there is one issue Clinton has never flip-flopped on; no matter the circumstances, her support for Israel has never wavered. In a 2007 review of Clinton’s record on human rights and international law for Foreign Policy In Focus, Stephen Zunes documented how, as a senator, she went as far as to fly in the face of the UN to fight for special treatment for Israel. When, in 2004, the UN’s judicial body, the International Court of Justice, ruled against the Israeli West Bank Barrier, Clinton responded by, as the Bush administration did with Iraq, seeking to unilaterally oppose the international community:

The ICJ ruled that Israel, like any country, had the right to build the barrier along its internationally recognized border for self-defense, but did not have the right to build it inside another country as a means of effectively annexing Palestinian land. In an unprecedented congressional action, Senator Clinton immediately introduced a resolution to put the U.S. Senate on record “supporting the construction by Israel of a security fence” and “condemning the decision of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the security fence.” In an effort to render the UN impotent in its enforcement of international law, her resolution (which even the then-Republican-controlled Senate failed to pass) attempted to put the Senate on record “urging no further action by the United Nations to delay or prevent the construction of the security fence.”

Eventually, even the Israeli Supreme Court was reasonable enough to admit that, along one route, the wall was disproportionately harmful to the Palestinians relative to its intended purpose, but not Clinton:

The Israeli Supreme Court has ordered the government to re-route a section of the wall bisecting some Palestinian towns, because the “relationship between the injury to the local inhabitants and the security benefit from the contraction of the Separation Fence along the route, as determined by the military officer, is not proportionate.” And yet, Clinton’s resolution also claims that Israel’s barrier is a “proportional response to the campaign of terrorism by Palestinian militants.”

If the Israeli Supreme Court is capable of reconsidering the impact of the wall, and even mandating that a section of it be re-routed, why can’t Clinton begin to temper her ardent support of Israel’s continued subjugation of the Palestinian people? Instead, she takes pride in the wall as a symbol of the unchecked and ever-growing authority of the US and its allies to ignore human rights and international law in the name of terrorism:

A longtime supporter of Israel’s colonization and annexation efforts in the West Bank, Senator Clinton took part in a photo opportunity at the illegal Israeli settlement of Gilo last year, in which she claimed – while gazing over the massive wall bisecting what used to be a Palestinian vineyard – “This is not against the Palestinian people. This is against the terrorists.”

While I drew a similarity earlier between Clinton and Bush’s shared disdain for the deliberations of the UN, it bears mentioning that, regarding Israel, even Bush’s actions were too cooperative for Clinton: “She opposed UN efforts to investigate alleged war crimes by Israeli occupation forces and criticized President Bush for calling on Israel to pull back from its violent re-conquest of Palestinian cities in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.”

More recently, Clinton vehemently defended Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge during which Palestinians suffered the highest number of civilian casualties since the 1967 Six-Day War. Writing for The Huffington Post, Shadee Ashtari offered an insightful comparison of Clinton’s conclusions, made less than three weeks apart, on assigning responsibility for two catastrophic events:

Here’s Hillary Clinton, on the downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine: “I think if there were any doubt it should be gone by now, that Vladimir Putin, certainly indirectly…bears responsibility for what happened.”

And here’s Clinton, on the bombing of a United Nations facility in Gaza: “I’m not sure it’s possible to parcel out blame because it’s impossible to know what happens in the fog of war.”

As Ashtari, rather aptly, puts it in the article’s opening line, “the fog of war may be more of a Rorschach test.” Never mind that Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the UNRWA, the main UN agency in Gaza, stated that UN representatives had informed Israeli forces of the school’s exact location 17 times. To a tirelessly devoted career politician like Hillary Clinton, overwhelming evidence is an afterthought. It is in the interest of the US federal government and corporate oligarchy for Russia to look bad and for Israel to look good, and how Clinton decides what to state publicly is as simple as that.

Unfortunately, though her dedication does go above and beyond the norm, Clinton stands with the majority of American legislators when it comes to backing Israel.  Yet with respect to her history of supporting armed conflict on a broader scale, in the same article referenced earlier by Zunes, he noted that (fortunately?) this is not the case:

Indeed, she has supported unconditional U.S. arms transfers and police training to such repressive and autocratic governments as Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Pakistan, Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Kazakhstan, and Chad, just to name a few. She has also refused to join many of her Democratic colleagues in signing a letter endorsing a treaty that would limit arms transfers to countries that engage in a consistent pattern of gross and systematic human rights violations.

Further emphasizing Clinton’s blatant disregard for human suffering, Zunes wrote:

Not only is she willing to support military assistance to repressive regimes, she has little concern about controlling weapons that primarily target innocent civilians. Senator Clinton has refused to support the international treaty to ban land mines, which are responsible for killing and maiming thousands of civilians worldwide, a disproportionate percentage of whom have been children.

She was also among a minority of Democratic Senators to side with the Republican majority last year in voting down a Democratic-sponsored resolution restricting U.S. exports of cluster bombs to countries that use them against civilian-populated areas. Each of these cluster bomb[s] contains hundreds of bomblets that are scattered over an area the size of up to four football fields and, with a failure rate of up to 30%, become de facto land mines. As many as 98% of the casualties caused by these weapons are civilians.

The Role of the Clinton Foundation in the Global Arms Trade

There is a distinct paper trail connecting donations to the Clinton Foundation to weapons deals from Clinton’s State Department. In the International Business Times, David Sirota and Andrew Perez described how “17 out of 20 countries that have donated to the Clinton Foundation saw increases in arms exports authorized by Hillary Clinton’s State Department” and, on the other side of the deals, “the Clinton Foundation accepted donations from six companies benefiting from U.S. State Department arms export approvals.” Leading the list for defense contractors was Boeing with a donation of $5 million. Perhaps that has something to do with why Boeing was the lead contractor in a deal that resulted in $29 billion worth of advanced fighter jets being delivered to Saudi Arabia, a country that has beheaded 100 people just this year. While it seems obvious that widely publicizing their beheadings gives ISIS more reason to continue carrying them out, the mainstream media of the US is constantly releasing footage of them to help fuel civilian support for the destruction of those brutal savages. So why is there no uproar over the fact that Saudi Arabia beheads its citizens for nonlethal crimes such as adultery, “sorcery,” and “drug receiving?” In a Newsweek article by Janine Di Giovanni, Lina Khatib of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut has an answer that Hillary would never repeat but that is likely in alignment with her values: “Violence by the state is permissible, while violence by non-state actors is not.”

Returning to the numbers, in total, the dollar amount of arms exports to Saudia Arabia authorized grew 97% during Clinton’s tenure at the State Department. Some other countries not known for a sterling human rights record that were part of Clinton’s de facto donations for death machines program included Algeria, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE. Algeria saw its total exports authorized grow 274%, Bahrain 187%, Oman 221%, Qatar 1,482%, and the UAE 1,005%. Not only do Sirota and Perez compile an array of appalling figures, but they also shed light on how fickle the State Department can be with just a little bit of coaxing:

In its 2010 Human Rights Report, Clinton’s State Department inveighed against Algeria’s government for imposing “restrictions on freedom of assembly and association” tolerating “arbitrary killing,” “widespread corruption,” and a “lack of judicial independence.” The report said the Algerian government “used security grounds to constrain freedom of expression and movement.”

That year, the Algerian government donated $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation and its lobbyists met with the State Department officials who oversee enforcement of human rights policies. Clinton’s State Department the next year approved a one-year 70 percent increase in military export authorizations to the country. The increase included authorizations of almost 50,000 items classified as “toxicological agents, including chemical agents, biological agents and associated equipment” after the State Department did not authorize the export of any of such items to Algeria in the prior year.

Obama, Clinton, and the US-Funded 2009 Coup of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya

In the name of the war on drugs, President Obama and Secretary Clinton funded a military coup of the Honduran government. Compared to past US-orchestrated coups in Latin America, we apparently felt no reason to cover this one up: “The US ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, said, ‘We have an opportunity now, because the military is no longer at war in Iraq. Using the military funding that won’t be spent, we should be able to have resources to be able to work here.’” While Honduras has had some of the highest murder rates in the world since the 1990s, shortly after the 2009 coup, Honduras surpassed El Salvador to claim the number one spot, which they have held onto since then. 2012 figures from the UN showed that, apart from Venezuela, which had a rate of 53.7 murders per 100,000 people, Honduras’s rate of 90.4 was more than double the rate of any other country for which the UN had data. While the coup itself did not cause the high murder rate, writing for The Nation, Dana Frank explained the accompanying conditions that did:

The coup, in turn, unleashed a wave of violence by state security forces that continues unabated. On October 22, an enormous scandal broke when the Tegucigalpa police killed the son of Julieta Castellanos, rector of the country’s largest university and a member of the government’s Truth Commission, along with a friend of his. Top law enforcement officials admitted that the police were responsible for the killings but allowed the suspects to disappear, precipitating an enormous crisis of legitimacy, as prominent figures such as Alfredo Landaverde, a former congressman and police commissioner in charge of drug investigations, stepped forward throughout the autumn to denounce the massive police corruption. The police department, they charged, is riddled with death squads and drug traffickers up to the very highest levels…

A vicious drug culture already existed before the coup, along with gangs and corrupt officials. But the thoroughgoing criminality of the coup regime opened the door for it to flourish on an unprecedented scale. Drug trafficking is now embedded in the state itself—from the cop in the neighborhood all the way up to the very top of the government, according to high-level sources. Prominent critics and even government officials, including Marlon Pascua, the defense minister, talk of “narco-judges” who block prosecutions and “narco-congressmen” who run cartels. Landaverde declared that one out of every ten members of Congress is a drug trafficker and that he had evidence proving “major national and political figures” were involved in drug trafficking. He was assassinated on December 7.

“It’s scarier to meet up with five police officers on the streets than five gang members,”   former Police Commissioner María Luisa Borjas declared in November. According to the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (Cofadeh), more than 10,000 official complaints have been filed about abuses by the police and military since the coup, none of which have been addressed…

…Cofadeh and prominent voices in Honduran civil society are calling loudly for a suspension of US and other countries’ aid to the Honduran military and police. “Stop feeding the beast,” as Rector Castellanos famously demanded in November…

As Tirza Flores Lanza—a former appeals court magistrate in San Pedro Sula, who was fired with four other judges and magistrates for opposing the coup—put it: “The coup d’état in Honduras destroyed the incipient democracy that, with great effort, we were constructing, and revived the specter of military dictatorships that are now once again ready to pounce throughout Latin America.”

Despite unprecedented levels of corruption and impunity and heads of state throughout the region having refused to recognize Porfirio Lobo’s presidency, Secretary Clinton and President Obama both turned a blind eye to the nightmarish conditions on the ground and had nothing but praise for the leader of the regime they inserted into power: “The United States hailed him for ‘restoring democracy’ and promoting ‘national reconciliation.’ The State Department and Clinton continue to repeat both fictions, as did President Obama when he welcomed Lobo to the White House in October.” For a more thorough understanding of the events leading up to the coup and the interactions between the Honduran and American government through 2013, Eric Zuesse offers an exhaustive review of coverage on Honduras along with what he considers to be Clinton’s other major foreign policy achievement, her disastrous record in Afghanistan.

Continuing to cover Honduras in 2015, this time for Foreign Policy, Dana Frank argued that, sadly, Lobo’s successor, Juan Orlando Hernández “is a far more brutal and Machiavellian figure than his predecessor” and “is perpetuating an ongoing human rights crisis while countenancing a cesspool of corruption and organized crime in which the topmost levels of government are enmeshed.” Nevertheless:

…despite overwhelming evidence of Hernández’s dangerous record on human rights and security, the Obama administration has decided to lock down support for his regime, and even celebrate him. U.S. development, security, and economic funds are pouring into Honduras, and the White House is going full-court press to push for hundreds of millions more…

Why? Frank offers three reasons: 1) to send a message to the democratically elected center-left and left governments that had come to power in Latin America in the previous 15 years that they could be next, 2) to solidify and expand the U.S. military presence in Central America, and 3) to serve transnational corporate interests in the region. For more detail on the third objective Frank offered, Lauren Carasik wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs describing the details of the “Model Cities” project that would create zones where Honduran law would not apply and, instead, at the expense of workers and the environment, local elites and foreign investors would set conditions to maximize profits. Essentially export processing zones, these sorts of arrangements have been a common facet of international trade since the 1990s, and for good reason, Naomi Klein criticized them extensively in her incredibly informative 1999 book, No Logo. That the project was called “Model Cities” is particularly ironic considering that was also the name of an incredibly ambitious, though widely maligned, federal urban aid program administered as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Foreign Policy

Big Pharma: Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

Martin Shkreli is a man I admire in an odd sort of way.

The recent controversy involving Mr. Shkreli and his price hike of the toxoplasmosis drug, Daraprim, seems to have caused misguided furor towards the 32-year-old CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. He may epitomize a major problem with the pharmaceutical industry but he is simply playing by the rules his pharmaceutical executive contemporaries and predecessors have helped set in place. Much like Donald Trump and his history of bankruptcies, he’d be foolish not to take advantage of every oversight weakness or loophole set up by a corrupt system that affords advantages to those who are shrewd enough and willing to exploit them. The public’s anger is directed at the man and not the system.

If Shkreli were to step down or be forced to resign, do people think that the next CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals won’t be as zealous or brash in exploiting the system? People dislike him for the price hike, but loathe him for the way he defiantly acted in response. If I were a board member I would demand that my CEO rigorously investigate every pathway to make the company more profitable and therefore more financially stable, but I would also want them to exhibit a measure of temperance so as not to attract unwanted public spotlight. It seems as though people would be willing to forgive and forget a less brazen pharmaceutical executive. Every public dollar not claimed by Turing Pharmaceuticals is a dollar that will be spent elsewhere, or heaven forbid end up in the coffers of the competition.

As for the relationship to medical students, pharm and biotech industry sales reps are not seen or heard from during the first two years of our schooling. We are in the classroom and there is no official school-sanctioned time allotted to these groups unless specifically invited by a student organization. There are no events or talks sponsored by companies, and all faculty must divulge any real or perceived conflicts of interest when lecturing.

This changes in the clinical years (third and fourth year) when the students are out and about amongst the physicians, nurses, and patients in the hospitals and clinics. Students are left to their own devices and are sometimes in rooms with Big Pharma reps during presentations for a new product or during demonstrations of a new surgical device. The “good” reps will gravitate towards the students after they’ve made their pitch to the higher-ups and start chumming it up with those at the bottom of the totem pole and those with the least decision-making capacity.

My first encounter with a sales rep was right before entering the operating room (OR). Gowned in scrubs, all entrants into the OR look nearly identical and no hierarchy can be discerned readily, like it can be up on the patient floors. There doctors wear long white coats, nurses wear scrubs, and students wear short white coats paired with a look that can only be described as confident confusion. There the pecking order is clear. The OR is murkier—we’re all wearing blue scrubs so the nurses and students are dressed like the doctors are dressed like the students. The man approached me and asked if I was a student and we began chatting. I assumed this guy was of some import—he was tall, he spoke confidently, and he knew everyone’s name entering the OR. As the conversation shifted from what my first few days at the hospital were like, he started extolling the sophistication and ease of use of this new surgical device that would be employed for this particular operation. Then it hit me that this guy was just a salesman.

He knew who I was, right? Him selling me on his product would do absolutely nothing for his company’s bottom line and his quarterly sales wouldn’t see the slightest uptick whether or not he had ever spoken to me. He gave me his card and told me to be on the lookout for his company’s reps in all my future endeavors. Man, I thought, he was such a nice guy. As the weeks went on I encountered other reps while in the hospital. All of who were just as nice. What an endearing industry.

Drexel had done a superb job at shielding its first and second year students from the influences of third party companies. We had almost no exposure to the sales pitches coming out of the mouths of these charismatic salespeople. We were being released to the world as naïve students. Were these reps being nice for the sake of being nice? Of course that’s a possibility. What’s much more probable, however, is that they are all planting the seeds of merchandising as soon as they are able. I wouldn’t be advising any hospitals to buy any new surgical devices, nor would I be prescribing any meds for a few years, but when the time comes, I will already have that brand recognition stored somewhere in my brain.

As students we are never given formal training in how pharmaceutical companies operate and what we can expect to deal with for the rest of our careers, regardless of our specialty. We have a Business of Healthcare course that does a great job of outlining the history of US healthcare, how it came to be the way it is, and how insurance companies fit into the puzzle that is the US healthcare system. I once believed that it was a good thing that med school limited exposure to Big Pharma, and that this limited access to its students would offset some of the pernicious effects of physicians becoming beholden to a drug company. As our system is set up now, students or recent med school grads will be inundated with free luncheons, demonstrations, and gifts that are designed to both inform and persuade physicians and future physicians to prescribe certain medications. There seems to be real value in these demonstrations, as it is a way for those in healthcare to stay current with advances in research and technology.

The FDA and Big Pharma continue to battle about how much free speech the for-profit pharmaceutical companies can claim when marketing their drugs and devices. Students are not given much information regarding the politics of what is going on in Washington, D.C. It is important to learn about how our healthcare system works and to truly be advocates for our patients, doctors need to be versed in the discussions going on in the capital. Perhaps to steer clear of politics and controversy, medical schools opt to leave this discussion out altogether.

Or perhaps not; in order for physicians to best advocate for our patients and their health, we need to know the rules of the game. Med schools need to find the balance between creating competent, knowledgeable physicians who understand their field very well but that are also aware of all of the players in the game and what’s at stake. I’ve found that many of my colleagues find the political aspect of medicine tedious, boring, and too time consuming to delve into the intricacies of policy creation. It is this lack of knowledge or fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between physicians, pharmaceuticals, and the government that makes doctors more susceptible to persuasion by the sales reps as conflicts of interest in the health practitioner field aren’t readily apparent.

The relationship between pharmaceutical and biotech companies with medical schools shouldn’t be adversarial, but when the goals of the healthcare provider and healthcare-related companies don’t coincide, the physician and the patients need to be made aware. Talks by prominent physicians that are on the payroll of drug companies need to be scrutinized. Papers applauding new breakthrough treatments need to be rigorously investigated because even peer-reviewed journals are not free from bias. There is no ideal time during the course of our education that this information would naturally fit, but it is vital and it should be taught early on so that when we are released into the hospitals we will have practice with critiquing sources and being mindful of current legislature concerning what parties are spending money and where they are spending it. If you set up a system that can be exploited you will attract those that are the best at this exploitation.

It is easy to set the ire and pent up aggravation at a wasteful system onto the figurehead with the likeness of a James Bond super-villian, but the release of the collective frustration still does not change the underlying current of how our healthcare system is run. If we’re not educating future doctors on how to effectively combat an (at best) unfair or (at worst) corrupt system, then who can we rely on to give patients a better handle on their own health?

As far as Mr. Shkreli is concerned, he’s just a example of what can happen when an arrogant, young, former hedge-fund manager gets his hands on a product that people need. He’s willing to be the face of a controversy and actually exemplify to the public how screwy the system is. Like Donald Trump proclaiming to donate heavily to both parties in order to personally benefit, Shkreli is opening our eyes to the nature of business side healthcare. Rather than being angry at why someone would do this, be angry at how someone could do this. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Business, Medicine, US Political System

Organized Labor Should Endorse Bernie Sanders

The National Education Association (the union to which I used to belong) is considering an early endorsement of Hillary Clinton.  This decision, like the American Federation of Teachers’ endorsement of Clinton on July 11, would be a huge mistake.

One reason is that it would violate members’ trust.  As Peter Greene, Steven Singer, and Anthony Cody have noted, teacher voice is too often ignored in education reform conversations.  If the NEA follows the AFT and makes a presidential primary endorsement without ample membership involvement, its teachers will feel silenced by their own union.  Not only would that likely depress voter mobilization efforts and spark a backlash within the union, it also runs counter to the very principles of what a union is supposed to be.

An early Clinton endorsement would also be a mistake because she’s a suboptimal candidate.  While Clinton is far more union-friendly than anyone running for the Republican nomination, her labor credentials are significantly worse than her main challenger in the Democratic primary, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Sanders has been a steadfast union supporter since the 1970s.  His advocacy on behalf of workers as mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the 1980s helped foster the growth of the city’s socially-responsible business culture.  “Thanks to the enduring influence of the progressive climate that Sanders and his allies helped to create in Burlington,” The Nation reported in June, “the city’s largest housing development is now resident-owned, its largest supermarket is a consumer-owned cooperative, one of its largest private employers is worker-owned, and most of its people-oriented waterfront is publicly owned. Its publicly owned utility, the Burlington Electric Department, recently announced that Burlington is the first American city of any decent size to run entirely on renewable electricity.”

Sanders has continued to advocate for the same causes in Congress over the past 25 years.  In 1994, for example, he introduced the Workplace Democracy Act, legislation designed to strengthen collective bargaining rights.  He currently supports the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workplaces to hold union elections, and plans to introduce a new Workplace Democracy Act this fall.  He has “convened annual meetings of labor activists to help them develop more successful organizing and bargaining strategies” and still walks picket lines with workers.

To be fair, Clinton also supports the Employee Free Choice Act.  Her campaign rhetoric is pretty pro-union, and the promises she makes in her video to NEA members don’t sound all that different than those made by Bernie (videos below).

But Clinton’s record is significantly worse than Sanders’.  She served on the board of directors of Walmart – which to this day remains one of the nation’s most notoriously anti-union businesses – from 1986 to 1992, for instance.  According to reports that surfaced in 2008, Clinton sat through dozens of board meetings without ever speaking up on behalf of organized labor.  Instead, she stated that she was “proud of Wal-Mart and what we do and the way we do it better than anybody else.”  Though she has since renounced Walmart’s business practices, Clinton maintains close ties with Walmart executives and lobbyists.  And during her presidential campaigns, she’s surrounded herself with staffers who have troubling anti-union connections.

The following meme, describing cumulative donations the candidates have received over the past thirty years, is illustrative:

Clinton has worse policy positions on key union issues as well.  Bernie Sanders has been a leader in the effort to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a “free trade” deal that could undermine environmental and consumer safety protections and have harmful impacts on workers both in the US and abroad; Clinton, despite recent attempts to distance herself from the TPP, was heavily involved in negotiating and promoting it.  Sanders has been a vocal proponent of a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage by 2020, which workers around the country are campaigning for; Clinton long resisted taking a specific position on the issue and only recently spoke favorably about raising the federal minimum to $12-an-hour.

Sanders’ positions on education issues also tend to be more power-balancing than Clinton’s.  Both candidates have called for universal pre-K and increased college affordability, but while Sanders believes education is a right that should be guaranteed free of charge to all students, Clinton hypocritically opposes free college for “kids who don’t work some hours to try to put their own effort into their education.”  At the K-12 level, Sanders also has a stronger vision and record. After initially supporting the House of Representatives’ version of No Child Left Behind in May of 2001, he voted against the final version of NCLB that year because he foresaw problems with “the bill’s reliance on high-stakes standardized testing to direct draconian interventions;” Clinton, on the other hand, cast her vote in favor of NCLB.  Sanders believes that “the federal government has a critical role to play” in education policy, one that includes “guaranteeing resource equity,” “increased emphasis on a well-rounded curriculum,” and providing “the resources necessary to provide effective professional development;” Clinton might not necessarily disagree, but while Sanders asserts that he will “direct education funding toward the low-income students who need it most” in his response to the AFT’s candidate questionnaire, this commitment is noticeably absent from Clinton’s writeup.

In fact, on practically every topic – from criminal justice issues to health care to foreign policy – Sanders has Clinton beat.  His platform isn’t perfect, but it’s far and away more in line than Clinton’s with what typical Democratic voters profess to want.  As far as I can tell, nobody at the AFT (or NEA) actually argues that Clinton has better policy positions than Sanders; their endorsement processes seem to be driven by the belief that Clinton is more electable.

The problem with that thinking is twofold.

First, Sanders is actually just as electable, if not more so, than Clinton.  In national polls that pit potential Democratic nominees against potential Republican nominees, Sanders and Clinton do about as well as each other.  If Sanders had anything like Clinton’s name recognition, he’d almost certainly outstrip her; among voters who know who he is, Sanders’ favorability is much higher than Clinton’s (see page 5).  He’s shooting up in Democratic primary polls as more and more voters learn about him and now holds sizable leads in New Hampshire, Iowa, and Oregon.  College students prefer Sanders to Clinton by more than a 3-to-1 margin, policy positions like the ones he holds are wildly popular across the board, and his campaign is showing no signs of losing momentum.

Second, the biggest impediment to a Sanders victory is none other than the political calculus the unions seem to be engaged in.  Politicians are electable if people are willing to support them, while concerns about electability generally undermine progressive goals and become self-fulfilling prophecies.  Rather than settling for Hillary Clinton because they – erroneously – think she’s the best that people will buy, unions should rally behind the better candidate – Bernie Sanders – and start selling him to the American public.

Labor for Bernie, a grassroots movement started by rank-and-file union members, could ultimately prove more important than endorsements from the major national unions.  And Sanders already has the support of National Nurses United.  Nonetheless, it’s incumbent upon NEA leadership, and the leaders of other major unions, to start paying attention to why so many union members feel the Bern.  Sanders, much more than Clinton, deserves organized labor’s official support.

Update (10/3/15): The NEA endorsed Clinton – without any explanation of why members should prefer her to Sanders.

Update (10/26/15): For those interested in the analysis behind the updated meme below, which compares donations during the 2016 presidential campaigns alone, see this post.

Bernie Hillary Meme


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Labor, US Political System

Candidates Routinely Threaten Wall Street, Follow Through with Little More than a Stern Scolding

In this post, Part 2 in a series on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Emilio da Costa documents some of the actions that President Barack Obama has taken in the interests of the very wealthy. Emilio, who holds a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from Stanford, argues that Clinton is likely to follow suit – she has much deeper ties to Wall Street than to those whose votes she will be seeking on the campaign trail.

 Part 1 of the series, which focused on Obama’s political appointments, can be found here.

Emilio da Costa

Emilio da Costa

As was required at the time, Obama made promises during his campaign to rein in Wall Street and introduce regulatory reforms to the financial industry. All of the grumbling about Obama’s tax policy being socialist makes it hard to believe the extent to which he supported legislation that so disproportionately benefited the very wealthy. Obama not only extended the Bush tax cuts that he said he would repeal, but in the case of the estate tax, supported the even more regressive policy of lowering the rate and raising the exemption limit in 2010’s $858 billion tax-cut legislation. Although Democrats claim they were forced to compromise on a 35% rate with a $5 million per-person exemption to prevent a worse outcome in the future, if no law were to have passed that year, a 55% rate with a $1 million exemption would have taken effect. When introduced, the exemption limit of $5 million meant that only 0.2 percent of all estates would be eligible to owe any tax, the smallest percentage since 1934 – except for 2010, which Bush’s 2001 tax-cut legislation mandated would be totally estate-tax-free. Days after Obama signed the 2010 legislation, while interviewing Chris Hedges for Democracy Now, Amy Goodman summarized the impacts more generally: “At least a quarter of the tax savings under the deal will go to the wealthiest one percent of the population. The only group that will see its taxes increase are the nation’s lowest-paid workers.” During this interview Hedges argues that “one of the most pernicious things that Obama did in this tax bill was reduce contributions to Social Security, because of course that’s next on the target.” With Obama’s 2013 budget plan having cut Social Security and Medicare by much more than the GOP alternative, it appears Hedges’s predictions were well-founded.

Similarly, Clinton has been diligently working to pander to the masses as a candidate with a tough stance on white-collar crime while at the same time assuring her most devoted backers that they have nothing to worry about. In response to this delicate balancing act she has embarked upon, within days of Clinton announcing her entry into the presidential race, Matt Taibbi wrote a piece for Rolling Stone entitled “Campaign 2016: Hillary Clinton’s Fake Populism Is a Hit.” Few journalists are better suited to the task of exposing a fraud than Matt Taibbi. In typically hilarious fashion (the subtitle of the piece reads: “Pundits say her idealist porridge is not too hot, not too cold, but just fake enough”), Taibbi focuses primarily on Clinton’s position on the carried interest tax break to reveal the way that she, like so many high-ranking politicians, twists her words to manipulate the lower-income and middle-class masses while remaining faithful to the wealthy, high-powered constituency that she actually represents:

“There’s something wrong,” she told a crowd of Iowans, “when hedge fund man­agers pay lower taxes than nurses or the truckers I saw on I-80 when I was driving here over the last two days.”

Oh, right, that. The infamous carried interest tax break, the one that allows private equity vampires like Mitt Romney and Stephen Schwartzman to pay a top tax rate of 15 percent while all of the rest of us (including the truckers Hillary “saw” – note she didn’t say “hung out with Bill and me over chilled shrimp at the Water Club”) pay income taxes.

The carried interest loophole is an absurd, completely unjustifiable handout to the not merely well-off but filthy rich, and it’s been law in this country for about three decades.

Raise your hand if you really think that Hillary Clinton is going to repeal the carried interest tax break.

Whether or not the crowd of Iowans was convinced that Clinton legitimately planned to repeal the carried interest tax break, major media outlets published headlines that took the language from her campaign announcement as evidence that Hillary is a concerned populist dedicated to helping out struggling middle-class American families, until, as Taibbi documents, editorials with a conflicting message began popping up:

“Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street Backers: We Get It,” announced Politico, which polled Democrat-leaning Wall Streeters about the anti-wealthy rhetoric and reassured us that none of them took her seriously.

It’s “just politics,” said one major Democratic donor on Wall Street, explaining that some of her Wall Street supporters doubt she would push hard for closing the carried interest loophole as president, a policy she promoted when she last ran in 2008. [emphasis his]

Failing to follow through on campaign promises is no deviation from convention, and considering her convivial relationship with Wall Street, it’s no shocker that no one is worried that she would actually take any actions to her donors’ detriment. In particular, when it comes to the carried interest tax break, Taibbi demonstrates that there has been a distinctly noticeable pattern forming among Democratic candidates:

Yes, back to that, the carried interest issue. Promising, and then failing, to repeal the carried interest tax break is fast becoming a Democratic tradition, so much so that I’m beginning to wonder if not fixing this problem is an intentional move, designed to ensure that Democrats always have something to run on in election seasons.

In both the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, Barack Obama either decried the tax “trick” or overtly promised to close the loophole.

Obama’s remarks about carried interest pretty much always sound exactly like Hillary’s remarks this week. He gave a Rose Garden speech in 2011, in advance of his race against Romney, in which he rejected ‘the notion that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or teacher is class warfare.’”

Taibbi then remarks on how, instead of holding politicians to their campaign vows or referring to them flat-out as disingenuous manipulation, media outlets tend to give such promises the designation of idealism. That makes the media complicit in politicians’ immunity from accountability:

Editorialists like to talk about the two things, ideals and reality, as totally separate and distinct. Idealism, the stuff of campaign promises, is usually pooh-poohed as “purity politics,” while the cold transactional politics of Beltway dealmaking and incremental change are usually applauded as “pragmatism.”

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Hillary’s first official week as a presidential candidate went exactly as her handlers must have hoped.

At launch she talked a streak of anti-elitist rhetoric that was taken seriously for a few days, until the punditry took the temperature of her populism and declared to it be the right kind: the fake kind, the purely strategic kind.

In the same Politico article that Taibbi referenced above, Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House who now advises billionaire environmentalist hedge-fund manager and donor Tom Steyer, was quoted reiterating the notion that Hillary’s populist claims are totally hollow: “The fact is that any Democrat running for president would talk about this. It’s as surprising as the sun rising in the east.”

Considering Americans’ widespread disdain toward Wall Street banksters, Clinton is keenly aware of the importance of polishing over her strong ties to the financial industry. However, Matt Taibbi isn’t the only journalist that sees through her newfound appreciation for economic populism. Writing for the International Business Times, Andrew Perez and David Sirota looked through the publicly available data to follow the money beyond the baloney. They summarize how Clinton, in a recent speech, “call[ed] for Wall Street executives who engage in financial wrongdoing to be held accountable more than they have been under President Barack Obama.” But a quick look at the financial disclosure data for the Clinton Foundation suggests she would be unlikely to follow through:

Clinton’s outrage, though, did not stop her family’s foundation from raking in donations from many of the same banks that secured government fines rather than face full-scale prosecution. The Clinton Foundation has accepted $5 million worth of donations from at least nine financial institutions that avoided such prosecution — even as they admitted wrongdoing.

In that same speech, Clinton said, “HSBC allowing drug cartels to launder money, five major banks pleading guilty to felony charges for conspiring to manipulate currency exchange and interest rates. There can be no justification or tolerance for this kind of criminal behavior.” If Clinton believes that there can be “no tolerance for this kind of criminal behavior,” then it is a bit strange that, “in 2014, two years after HSBC admitted to major violations of U.S. laws, the firm was the top sponsor at a Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) event, paying at least $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation.” In fact, in addition to the CGI and the Clinton Foundation both having an illustrious record for accepting sponsorships and donations from criminal banks, both Clintons have accepted outrageous speaking fees from them, too.

The HSBC relationship — taking money from a bank after the firm admitted wrongdoing — was not unique. In 2009, UBS avoided prosecution by the Justice Department when it agreed to pay a $780 million fine and admitted to defrauding the United States by allowing American citizens to hide income from the IRS. The Swiss bank has since entered into two more agreements with the Justice Department — one for rigging the municipal bond market and the other for manipulating global interest rates. UBS has paid former President Bill Clinton more than $1.5 million for speeches since 2009, and the firm has given more than $550,000 to the family’s foundation.

In 2010, the British banking firm Barclays entered into a settlement agreement with the Justice Department, and admitted to violating U.S. sanctions by making transactions for customers in countries such as Libya, Sudan and Myanmar. Weeks later, Barclays was  sponsor at the annual CGI event. Barclays has remained a CGI sponsor in the years since, even after the bank paid more fines under a new agreement with the Justice Department for manipulating worldwide interest rates. Barclays has paid the Clinton family $650,000 for speeches since 2009. The firm has given at least $1.5 million to the Clinton Foundation.

Covering a speech Clinton gave on July 13thBen White for Politico reported on, among other things, her continued promise to repeal the carried interest tax break. She also “pledged to both defend existing financial reform and go even further, almost hinting at a need to break up the largest banks, something sure to go down poorly with some of Clinton’s biggest supporters on Wall Street.” However, financial reformers like Dennis Kelleher of Better Markets expect more: “The American people deserve a concrete, specific, comprehensive plan that really protects them from Wall Street recklessness and that she as president can be held accountable for once in office.” Others wonder whether she will “put in place a team of advisers who have a demonstrated history of supporting meaningful reform and tough enforcement, or chooses instead to surround herself with the same crowd of revolving door insiders.” Given the actions of the Clinton Foundation and Hillary’s personal ties to Wall Street, it is no wonder that financial reformers are skeptical she will follow through with policies that are as progressive as her vague pledges.

Click here to read Part 3 of the series.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

A Closer Look at TFA’s Alumni Survey and Data Practices

Teach For America (TFA) recently released a report describing some of the results from its alumni survey.  The report provides interesting information about many alums’ careers.  At the same time, however, TFA’s misleading presentation of the results and the organization’s unwillingness to share the underlying data are troubling.

Consider the following three charts:

TFA Chart 1TFA Chart 2TFA Chart 3

The first of these charts claims to show “the mean value on the measure of total years teaching for each cohort,” the second ostensibly shows both the “mean and median total years teaching, by cohort,” and the third purports to show “the percentages of alumni in each Teach For America cohort that reported teaching 3 or 4, 5 or 6, or more than 7 years.”  A reader could easily think these statistics apply to everyone who joined Teach For America between 1990 and 2010.  But the charts depict statistics only for most TFA alumni who responded at some point to a TFA alumni survey; the two biggest categories of people they ignore are alumni who never responded to a survey and former corps members who did not complete their original two-year teaching commitments (while Raegen Miller and Rachel Perera, the authors of the brief, are clear that only alumni are their focus, the word “cohort” invokes images of all corps members that began teaching during a given year).  In other words, the charts depict results for an unrepresentative subset of the teachers who join Teach For America.

To their credit, Miller and Perera do discuss these issues in footnote 4:

The 23,653 alumni represented here represent about 85 percent of the alumni from the 1990 to 2010 cohorts. While alumni who don’t respond to the survey may be systematically different than those who do respond, the response rate is high enough to bolster the case that our statistics speak pretty well to the population of alumni. The alumni survey is administered only to those who complete their initial commitment to teach for two years. Alumni reporting fewer than two years of teaching on the survey, or more than the number of years possible since their corps year, were excluded from these analyses.

Still, most consumers of these misleading charts, especially when a chart is tweeted or included in a summary blog post, are unlikely to see footnote 4.  The footnote also doesn’t address the fact that TFA’s presentation of their survey results is in some cases downright untrue, as is the case in the following sentence from this TFA media piece: “Among more than 42,000 Teach For America alumni, some 84 percent report working in education or other capacities serving low-income communities.”

This statement is false because, as noted above, TFA does not have reports from the full population of “more than 42,000 Teach For America alumni” (TFA alumni may also incorrectly report that they work in “other capacities serving low-income communities” when they don’t in fact do so, but that’s a different conversation).

The charts below thus attempt to describe what the survey results actually tell us.

Revised TFA Chart 1

Revised TFA Chart 2

Because TFA won’t share their underlying data and declined to comment on this section of my post, the charts present a likely lower bound based on some simplifying assumptions I made: namely, that TFA has usable responses for at least 70 percent of alumni in each cohort (I’m told that response rates are typically lower in earlier cohorts), that fewer than 15 percent of corps members quit TFA before completing their second year of teaching, and that these corps members who quit average 0.75 years of teaching.

We cannot assert with confidence, as the report does, that “of those alumni from cohorts having had abundant opportunity to teach at least 5 years—say, those before 2001— approximately half have done so.”  Instead, with worst-case assumptions about alumni who didn’t take the survey, we know that at least between 34 and 39 percent of alumni from these cohorts taught for that amount of time.  If we include non-alumni in our calculations, as my revised charts show and seems appropriate, the lower bound drops even further (to a little less than one third of the teachers in each corps year).  It also appears to be possible that the majority of TFA corps members teach for two years or fewer.

That doesn’t mean these lower bounds are the actual percentages – in fact, I suspect that the true percentages, while likely lower than the report’s estimates, are closer to what Miller and Perera report than to the lower bounds.  Unresponsive alumni aren’t necessarily less inclined to continue or return to teaching than those who respond to surveys.  I also imagine that some corps members who leave before becoming alumni eventually return to the classroom through other channels.

Furthermore, even if the lower bound is closer to the truth, it’s clear that a good chunk of TFA alumni have extended teaching careers.  And while TFA’s attrition is greater than teacher attrition in general (which is still pretty high), critics sometimes forget that creating lifelong teachers is not TFA’s purpose.  A key part of TFA’s mission is to expose people interested in other careers to the obstacles facing low-income kids – to turn alumni who will go on to work in other fields into lifelong advocates for disadvantaged populations (this goal can backfire – prominent alumni too often undermine social justice efforts – but I believe it is an admirable goal).

The thing is, a thorough and honest look at TFA’s statistics isn’t damning.  The organization has many problems and needs to improve, but its teachers certainly aren’t harming students.  What is damning, however, is TFA’s lack of transparency.

When I requested information on the number of respondents from each cohort, the number of total alumni from each cohort, and the number of total corps members from each cohort – explaining that I wanted to conduct the exercise above – I had a good conversation with Miller that unfortunately culminated in the following response:

I’m afraid we won’t be posting the cohort-level n’s for the main analytic sample featured in Unsung Teaching. The brief does enough to defend the findings as is. In particular, the take-away points are broad ones, spanning many cohorts. And the footnotes document the rather conservative approach. Over 85 percent of alumni from the cohorts portrayed are represented in the analytic sample. At the cohort level, the percentages vary in a pretty predictable way, but none of them is small. Hard generalizations at the cohort level would be defensible, for the most part, but we didn’t go there. The little social media exchange has totally confounded the issue of response rate on the annual survey and the n’s you seek. The reason 85 percent of alumni (from cohorts 1990 to 2010) are involved is that some of the responses come from older surveys than the 2014 one. Using some dated responses improves the generalizability, but it does bias the statistics—downward. People can dispute the value of the work, but there’s not much of an argument to make with the n’s, at least about the brief. Thus, the decision not to share.

Miller makes some good points about the interpretation of the results.  The size of the sample – over 85 percent of total alumni from the studied cohorts – is impressively large.  Additionally, Miller is right to point out that the inclusion of older survey data could bias the results downwards (an alum who had taught for only two years when she filled out the 2010 survey, for example, might have taught more in the time since despite failing to fill out another survey).  But neither of these points provides a justification for declining my request.

The data I (and others, in the social media exchange I believe Miller was referencing) asked for should not be particularly difficult to provide.  Refusing to share it just doesn’t make sense if the data is legitimate – it serves only to make people wonder if TFA has something to hide.

On some level, TFA’s decision here is part of a broader pattern of data misrepresentation.  Many of my colleagues and I observed it on a small scale at TFA’s Institute in 2010 and it’s apparent on a larger scale when TFA propagates bogus statistics about corps members’ impact. Key TFA decision-makers still seem in too many cases to care more about promoting TFA as something that “works” than about honest and accurate assessment of evidence.

Since TFA proclaims that they “welcome independent research efforts to assess [their] impact and inform the continuous improvement of [their] program,” I find these actions to be pretty hypocritical.

Because the vast majority of the TFA staff I know (including Miller) care deeply about educational equity, I also find TFA’s organizational mindset baffling.  As I’ve written before, our students “depend on us to combat misleading claims by doing our due diligence, unveiling erroneous interpretations, and ensuring that sound data and accurate statistical analyses drive decision-making.”  TFA’s disinterest in data sharing does such analyses – and thus low-income students – a disservice.

The simplest fix to these problems is for TFA to appropriately caveat alumni survey results and, more generally, to improve the way they report statistics.  TFA could also use random sampling to obtain more representative data.  We used stratified random sampling for one of our member surveys when I was on the Executive Board of the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA) and it paid major dividends; we could for the first time speak confidently about the generalizability of our results.

Interestingly, the results from SJTA’s random sample closely resembled the results from our pure volunteer survey.  The same could conceivably be true for the findings from Miller and Perera.  It’s just impossible to know without more research.

More importantly, TFA’s misleading data presentation and lack of transparency, combined with TFA’s silence in response to thoughtful critiques in other domains, make it difficult to trust the organization.  For an alum like me who deeply respects almost everyone on TFA staff I know and who thinks TFA could potentially be a strong ally in the fight for social justice, that’s a real shame.


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