On Billionaires and Charity

One of the most common arguments in favor of the existence of billionaires is the “but they give so much to charity” argument. I have a lot of problems with this, and in this video, Anand Giridharadas and Hasan Minhaj go through most of them.

When I talk to people who oppose universal healthcare, they often talk about how terrible the taxes are. My counter, generally, is to reframe health insurance premiums, and medical bills at the point of service as taxes. On the surface, there’s the similarity of coercion. If you don’t pay, you’ll be made to suffer. In the case of health care, not paying means you can’t get care you need, or you go into massive debt just to stay alive.

There’s a flip side to it as well, though, as the video mentions. The money we pay to private insurers, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies doesn’t just vanish. It gets concentrated into the hands of a pretty small number of people, who then use it as they see fit. With the amount of wealth concentration, we now have people and corporations wielding the financial power – which can VERY easily translate to political power – of small countries, or of governmental departments. And unlike with the government, we don’t even have the pretense of the people having a say in how billionaires spend their money.

Unfettered wealth hoarding leads to various forms of feudalism. Even if you take the misguided view that a universal healthcare system gives more power to the government, what it’s actually doing is taking power from feudal lords against whom we have no recourse, and giving it to a body over which we have at least some influence.

Even ignoring the shifts in economic power that come from that change, that’s an increase in power for the everyday person.

The government of the U.S.A. continues to suffer from GOP sabotage campaign

Anyone who pays attention to the interaction of politics and science knows that most members of Congress have roughly the same understanding of science as an average 12 year old. That level of ignorance is understandable, in a child, and and even in those areas of employment that require expertise outside of the scientific realm, but when it comes to legislators, whose job it is to deal with issues like climate change, medicine, and science education, it’s a serious problem. That said, it has never been possible for any legislator to be an expert in all areas on which they legislate, and the degree to which that is true has increased at the same rapid pace as has our understanding of the universe, over the last couple hundred years. It would seem to be an insurmountable problem – the sheer breadth of knowledge required to govern any country responsibly dwarfs the ability of any single person to learn.

The solution we’ve come up with is layers of delegation. To begin with, each legislator has a staff who help them with research and writing. Beyond that, there are agencies, at both state and federal levels, tasked with carrying out the application of laws, and with collecting relevant data to make that task easier, and to inform changes to those laws. In its ideal form, this setup allows for a legislator to pass a fairly general law, stating that, for example, grain storage has to meet certain standards for safety – testing for mold and bacterial contamination, and storage containers made of materials that won’t end up poisoning the person eating the food made from those grains. As time passes, and we learn more about the relevant biology and chemistry, our understanding of how best to manage those concerns will change. Rather than having a bunch of generalist lawmakers who’re dealing with a thousand other problems on top of the question of safe grain storage, the USDA has been tasked with managing the issue to meet the end goal – safe grain at reasonable prices for the American people, and the people of other countries to whom we export food. The USDA, in turn, is sub-divided so that the people working on grain storage don’t need to be experts in the storage of meat, or milk, or fruit – they can focus all of their efforts on getting the grain issue right. That means doing research. It means inspecting farms, silos, and shipping facilities. It means checking the research done by industry and by third parties. It means funding research into unanswered questions, or funding research to confirm earlier results.

While “bureaucracy” has become a dirty word in some circles, this sort of thing is a great example of how all of this “red tape”, and these thousands of workers actually improve both the function of government, and the overall wellbeing of the population. They also make it harder for corporations to increase profits through “externalizing” the expenses and dangers in question by cutting corners, and putting lives at risk. This, of course, is the origin of right-wing “pro-business” propaganda. For people who value money over human life, a well-informed agency that has the manpower, resources, and authority to make sure they’re not keeping mold at bay by spraying the grain with anti-fungal treatments that also make humans sick, represents a serious problem.

The GOP has long been the political arm of the Cult of Cash, and their fight against all forms of oversight has been tireless, and lethally effective. Now, under Trump, they’re taking their dirty tactics to new levels, and are forcing out huge numbers of agency workers. The loss of  knowledge, experience, and expertise could take decades to replace, even if the Left manages to take and hold power for the next 50 years.

From Trump didn’t just move our agencies. His administration gutted us, published in the Washington Post:

This office, once full of life, sits nearly empty because Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue decided that two of USDA’s research agencies would be moved out of Washington on only three months’ notice. My agency, the Economic Research Service, is an institution that publishes data and research about U.S. agriculture, some of it politically inconvenient. If an agency starts to publish data that is unflattering to the administration, you can’t close the agency or slash its funding because members of Congress from both parties count on its scientific analysis. You can’t fire federal workers for doing their jobs. So you transfer them, on short notice, 1,000 miles away, and they all leave the government in droves. That’s exactly what Perdue did, costing taxpayers as much as $215 million dollars of lost research.

During one of many farewell parties for departing staff, people shared stories of how they came to work for USDA. One woman tearfully recalled how, as an Army veteran living in the heartland, she was rebounding from a series of setbacks and got the news that the federal government needed her specialized skills in Washington. She found a second family and a new beginning at ERS. Another woman, hailing from Ohio, recounted her story of how she answered an ad in Jet magazine for entry-level federal work in Washington. She was regularly promoted, joining the ranks of dedicated civil servants who keep federal offices functioning, in service of the American people.

For these women and many of their colleagues, the move is shattering. One former employee with multiple sclerosis was forced to relocate, leaving behind their network of doctors. New parents juggled caring for an infant with an unplanned move. The community that supported others, including me, through medical hardships and other struggles, has been fragmented by the abrupt transition.

We were told to uproot our entire lives, allegedly so we could “be closer to farmers.” But there are plenty of farmers here in the D.C. area. One ERS economist was forced to liquidate a working farm in Maryland, an entire life’s work, as a result of this move. The public transportation network in Washington allows workers to take commuter trains in daily from the rural areas that define the landscapes of Virginia and Maryland.

Washington attracts workers from all over the United States, allowing rural America a seat at the table. We are the people of rural America, residing in and around Washington.

USDA brags about the Economic Research Service being a crown jewel of the department and a world-class research organization. But ERS is nothing without its people. Of all the highly qualified scientists, researchers and support staff with specialized jobs working at the top of their field, Perdue told 200 of them that they could move to Kansas City immediately or lose their jobs.

On Sept. 30, the report date ordered by Perdue, only 16 people from ERS relocated to Kansas City. As for the rest, most didn’t quit being civil servants — they simply took new federal jobs. Around 80 found jobs elsewhere in government, in places such as the State Department, the Pentagon, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census Bureau and the Department of Veterans Affairs — places that value the kind of talent that the USDA spent decades nurturing. Of my remaining colleagues, nine took jobs in academia, and nine were lost to the private sector. More than 50 of those who would have been required to move were instead forced into early retirement.

Perdue did not move the Economic Research Service to Kansas City. He gutted it. ERS leadership remains in Washington, as do the employees handling congressionally mandated reports, including myself. Three quarters of the workforce were told to uproot and go to Kansas City so swiftly that there was no time for an orderly transfer of missions and research. There are stacks of reports and research completed with no staff left to publish the results. Data sets are abandoned, and a generation of scientific expertise extinguished.

The ERS isn’t gone, but its ability to serve the American people has been heavily – and deliberately – damaged.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has been allowing workers to do their jobs without coming into the office for several years now, but under the Trump administration, that’s ending. The claimed reasoning is that this will improve the SSA’s ability to serve the people, but as an American Federation of Government Employees official points out, the problems this is supposed to solve don’t come from SSA workers not being physically in the office, and they may not even have space for all of the workers now being ordered to change how they do their work:

“The problem is that the agency is not staffed properly, and that’s something that comes from the top,” Jackson said.

In the meantime, AFGE said the change in telework policy will have a negative impact on employee morale, productivity and their well-being. And it’s concerned the agency may not have the office to space to accommodate all SSA employees at all times.

“When offices are remodeled… they were planned according to the staff number and according to the people who were in the telework program,” Jackson said. “If you have 20 people in an office and 10 of them telework, they’ve only built out offices or workspaces for 10 people. If you cancel this in a week, you have to put all these people into a space that’s really built for 15 or 10. Where are you going to put them?”

The amount of time for the transition was extended, but questions remain about why this change is happening, and what considerations were made in deciding on it – questions that are now being asked by Democrats in the House of Representatives:

“While the SSA Operations Telework Pilot has existed for nearly six years, SSA apparently did not adequately evaluate the pilot and has not articulated its future plans for telework,” the lawmakers wrote. “Management’s failure to properly evaluate telework performance metrics while it was in a pilot phase should not be the rationale for suspending telework in its entirety.”

Democrats instructed Social Security to provide the rationale for ending the program, as well as what the agency has done to address the concerns of employees affected by the change. They also asked the agency how it plans to measure the impact of ending telework on productivity and customer service.

This is all of a piece with the perverse Republican habit of appointing people to committees and positions who are openly hostile to the missions of those entities. It also fits with their long-standing strategy of making the government work as badly as possible, to bolster their political efforts to destroy parts of it that cause problems for them, or for their donors. Rick Perry, famous for incompetently promising to dismantle the departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy, was put in charge of the Dept. of Energy, at which point it became obvious even to him that he hadn’t a clue what that department actually did.

There are many aspects of most governments that I’m not fond of, but I think the appropriate response to that is to work to improve things, to make the government better serve the people it supposedly represents, and to use it as a tool to empower those people. The Republican vision, conversely, seems to be that the government’s primary role is to create, empower, and support an aristocracy, and to serve their whims, no matter what facts must be ignored in the process, and no matter the harm done to everyone else.