Expectations

Why do we elect who we elect to lead us? How do we elect them? What is it about the representative democracy that makes our elections so interesting?

Take a look at the 2016 presidential elections. While Hillary Clinton won the popular vote (65.8M to Trump’s 62.9M), Donald Trump won the election by securing 306 of the 538 electoral votes. So though a majority of Americans voted for someone else, Donald Trump became this country’s 45th president.

The electoral college system has been hotly contested before, especially in the wake of 2000 election, where George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in a narrow victory.

But the electoral college/popular vote debate was also on display following the 1876 election, in which Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel J. Tilden over a matter of twenty contested electoral votes; and also in 1888, when Benjamin Harrison won over Grover Cleveland.

The 1824 election proved interesting as well, with it marking the “final collapse of the Republican-Federalist political framework.” (http://www.ushistory.org/us/23d.asp) Andrew Jackson won the electoral vote, ninety-nine to John Quincy Adams’s eighty-four. But Jackson’s votes only amounted to 43% of the electoral college, and did not secure him the presidency.

It was then that the choice fell to the House of Representatives, under the Twelfth Amendment. In what was decried by Jacksonian supporters, the corrupt bargain gave Adams the presidency, and he in turn nominated House Speaker Henry Clay as Secretary of State.

If we, in a majority vote, elect someone who then isn’t the winner, where does the burden lay? With the system? With the candidates? With the voters?

Maybe we’ll see a change to the system in the coming years. Maybe it’s time.

It’s the “W-Word”!!!

The W-Word? What in the world is that?

W-E-L-F-A-R-E

Welfare. Certainly many a number of opinions on it.

So, sometime over the last week I was playing cards. We usually play once or twice a week. At this game topics range from business affairs, the political landscape, entertainment; whatever happens to come up. There are some strong opinions expressed. Oftentimes there’s no small amount of agitation. And yet sometimes I get filled in on things I may have missed.

During this particular game, the discussion of President Trump’s war on welfare to work was brought up. I was admittedly not familiar with this aspect of his policy, so I started where I always start when it’s time to begin research: Google.

Basically, it comes down to the Trump Administration’s budget proposal, which shows significant cuts given to various welfare programs, and requirements proposed for recipients to either work or volunteer if they are able to do so. Well, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

But what is welfare?

definition (Oxford Collegiate Dictionary):
1wel•fare \ ‘wel-,fare\ n [ME, fr. the phrase wel faren to fare well] (14c) 1: the state of doing well esp. in respect to good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity 2 a: aid in the form of money or necessities for those in need b: an agency or program through which such aid is distributed
2 welfare adj (1904) 1: of, relating to, or concerned with welfare and esp. with improvement of the welfare of disadvantaged social groups (~legislation) 2: receiving public welfare benefits (~families)

And that seems okay – caring about the well-being, happiness, fortunes, and prosperity of others.

Yet, anytime legislation is created to focus on the public good, there are going to be conceptions of winners and losers.

What of American policies in welfare?

Early welfare systems in America were based on the British “Poor Laws”: “These laws made a distinction between those who were unable to work due to their age or physical health and those who were able-bodied but unemployed. The former group was assisted with cash or alternative forms of help from the government. The latter group was given public service employment in workhouses.”

Changes were made throughout the 1800s, including a push to use caseworkers to evaluate claims. According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, “During the Great Depression of the 1930s, local and state governments as well as private charities were overwhelmed by needy families seeking food, clothing, and shelter. In 1935, welfare for poor children and other dependent persons became a federal government responsibility, which it remained for 60 years.”

This “federal government responsibility,” known as the Social Security Act, was enacted to provide for the general welfare by establishing a system of Federal old-age benefits, and by enabling the several States to make more adequate provision for aged persons, blind persons, dependent and crippled children, maternal and child welfare, public health, and the administration of their unemployment compensation laws; to establish a Social Security Board; to raise revenue; and for other purposes.”

Welfare history continued to be made when in 1996 President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Under the act, the federal government gives annual lump sums to the states to use to assist the poor. In turn the states must adhere to certain criteria to ensure that those receiving aid are being encouraged to move from welfare to work. Though some have criticized the program, many acknowledge it has been successful.

Which finally brings us into the current charged political climate. Under the Trump Administration’s budget proposal (introduced now nearly two months ago), the proposal was for the reduction of spending to welfare programs “from food stamps to tax credits and welfare payments by $274 billion over a decade, largely by tightening eligibility for these programs, according to administration officials.

According to Statistic Brain, who pulled stats from the US Dept. of Commerce, the number of Americans receiving welfare government (non-Medicaid) assistance was 67,891,000 in 2016. This breaks down into roughly:

  • 41 million people on SNAP
  • 10 million on unemployment
  • 7.5 million individuals living in a home that receives housing assistance
  • 4.3 million received TANF (during previous 12 month period / graphic below shows TANF from 1996-2010)
  • 4.5 million received some other type of assistance

 

families-receiving-welfare

This remains a hotly debated topic, with arguments on both sides. Each can give statistics to back their case, such as:

“Three quarters of households using SNAP contain children, seniors, or people with disabilities, said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Without SNAP, the country would have had 3 to 4.5 million more people in poverty during the recession, she said.

or:

“In December 2014, in Maine, the local government chose not to renew its waiver of the Welfare to Work program. At the time, there were 13,332 people who were claiming Stamps and were not exempt from the program; by March, the number of claimants had dropped 80%! More than 9,000 people had decided (or coincidently happened) to either get a job or choose to not claim.

The thing is, I can find statistics from different research organizations, and the results appear contradictory. It’s all in how the information framed. If it comes down to a matter of policy, than the proposed welfare to work provisions seem okay. If it comes down to a consideration of citizens, maybe not so much. For me, I’ll always err on the side of helping those in need, even though there may be some who would take advantage of that.

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”
Mahatma Gandhi

When debating is all we can hope for

The Senate voted this week to begin debate on repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The vote ran 51-50, with Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voting against, giving Vice President Mike Pence the tie-breaking vote. Later that same day, the Senate voted against comprehensive repeal of the Act in a 43-57 vote.

There was major discussion of partisan politics, including John McCain here, decrying partisan fighting after having to return to vote following his brain cancer diagnosis and biopsy.

“I don’t think any of us feels very proud of our incapacity. Merely preventing your political opponents from doing what they want isn’t the most inspiring work.”

Wednesday saw another rejection of repeal, and discussions moved to a more modest “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, even though House Republicans warn that such policy will be “dead on arrival”. Even still, this tactic fell upon unsympathetic GOP Senators, and all attempts made this week were squelched.

The problem isn’t with a bill, or a desire to repeal. It’s an inability to communicate with one another. Americans are used to policies falling short at both local and national levels. But Americans deserve to know that our politicians are at least trying to talk to each other about how to make a better nation, and a better world.

As we watch the political drama unfold, week in, week out, it is apparent that the current environment is untenable. Something is going to give, and likely give soon.

 

Contentious is the brand

Another week, and another political topic I’ve tasked myself with coming up with. Several ideas sped past my desk over the past few days (incarceration levels, oil pipeline, greenhouse emissions), but I want to do more extensive research on each of these.

It’s difficult to produce content that remains somewhat level-headed, when the right rails against the left, the left against the right; vegetarians against meat-eaters, vegans against both; organic vs. Monsanto; etc., etc., ad nauseum.

When did having an opinion make a person …?

In this book I’ve picked up to start reading, Tibet, the format is contrasting essays by people advocating both sides of the contentious issue as to whether Tibet should have autonomy, or should the People’s Republic of China maintain control.

This book, one in a series titled “Opposing Viewpoints”, has this to say about considering opposing viewpoints:

“In our media-intensive culture it is not difficult to find differing opinions. Thousands of newspapers and magazines and dozens of radio and television talk shows resound with differing points of view. The difficulty lies in deciding which opinion to agree with and which ‘experts’ seem the most credible. The more inundated we become with differing opinions and claims, the more essential it is to hone critical reading and thinking skills to evaluate these ideas.”

So where is the civil in civic discourse? This is a question I’ve been pondering for some time. The greatest minds in American history at least opened up to listen to the opposing side. They may have remained unpersuaded following their interactions, but at least they listened.

“The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this.”

-John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Title II Protections of Net Neutrality

Using any previous ruling as a basis for the extent and prevalence of internet activities is misguided. The technology is rapidly surpassing anything policy-makers could have envisioned even ten years ago. When the 1998 Telecommunications Act was approved by President Clinton, more than 90% of American households maintained landlines. By 2014, that number had dropped to just over 50%, the bulk of that drop occurring between 2004 and 2014 (statistics from the CDC and the US Census Bureau). Considering a drop of nearly 40% in just ten years, it’s conceivable that landlines be irrelevant within the coming decade.

20150226_Landline_FO.jpg

That leaves primary communication capabilities entirely reliant on wireless and internet infrastructures. And the cost-benefit analysis must be equitable and profitable for companies providing such services, as well as for consumers using those services. However, the term service can be misleading in the context with which it is used.

Right now it’s apparent that the focus is on internet as a service. In reality it is more like the route on which services are provided. When the term “communication superhighway” was popularized by then-Vice President Al Gore in the 1990s, it was more than mere hyperbolic language. Consider the free flow of traffic on the web, and how advertisers can set up banners (much like billboards) for visitors and users to see. It is just as beneficial for all users to have access to any sites, much the same way that roads allow clear paths throughout the United States. Limiting net neutrality, the very principle of which is the requiring the same speed and terms with which all internet traffic travels, could be devastating to entire markets of the internet.

In all situations of early, unregulated technological advancements, consumer backlash has led to governmental oversight and regulatory policies and agencies. The Communications Act of 1934, regulating telephony in its nascent stages. Likewise, the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act (“Cable Act”) of 1992, protecting consumers of unfair practices in cable pricing, and made way for competition in the home entertainment market.

Protection acts are created to ensure fairness and promote new entries into the marketplace. Both the Cable Act and the 2015 Open Internet Order were policies enacted in response to problematic regulation (the former rectifying policies introduced in the 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act, the latter tackling the Telecommunications Act of 1996).

Even in the post-Communications Act era, new technologies led to competitors entering the market, thus improving the experience for users nationwide. For instance, the advent of microwave technologies created improvements in long-distance communications. Under the former monopolistic environment, such competitors may have never been able to get a foothold, and innovations may have been stalled, or even stifled.

When new technologies are introduced to usurp the internet as the primary means of communication, and it certainly will, though as to what form it is going to assume is as of yet unclear, policy changes will be necessary. But at this time it is in the Country’s best interest to maintain net neutrality.

Any rollback of net neutrality could greatly alter the communication landscape of the nation going forward. Knowing this, prior to 2015 the FCC made previous attempts at introducing net neutrality policy. The Courts rejected two earlier attempts and told the agency that if it wanted to adopt such protections it needed to use the proper legal foundation – Title II. Which they turn responded did, by creating the 2015 Open Internet Order.

The argument that the Title II classification reduces the amount of infrastructure investment is flawed. Francis J. Shammo, Executive VP and CFO of Verizon, told shareholders at the 2014 fourth quarter holdings call that the change “does not influence the way [they] invest.” That they would continue investing in networks and platforms, increasing their infrastructure.

Additionally, there are free speech concerns over the adoption or eradication of any guidelines that would prevent companies from blocking or limiting content from websites they deem questionable. As there are currently few alternatives to accessing websites, companies could, in theory, completely undermine entire business models that operate solely on the internet.

Net neutrality is good for internet users, and the free-flow of democratic ideas.