Democrats: Learn How to Read Polls

Democrats nationally have a massive shutdown hangover, having been rolled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who pretended to promise something about a vote on the DACA fix next month. Now comes the backlash from both sides: Dems on the left are furious at the party’s leadership for caving, while moderates bemoan the whole idea in the first place, of holding government hostage for a DACA fix. In the end Chuck and company folded because when you go eye to eye with the Mitchman, you discover you can’t win a staring contest with a corpse. But the real problem is that Schumer failed to foresee the obvious problem with their strategy: you can’t hold a hostage for ransom if nobody gives a shit about the ransom.

OK that’s a little strong, I don’t mean to imply that nobody cares about the dreamers. But the polls that are most frequently cited on this issue were used to misconstrue reality. We have heard from Dem and lefty talking heads for days how outrageous it is that congressional Republicans won’t come around on a DACA fix when it’s something everybody wants. This claim is typically paired with a poll result like this one from CBS News earlier this month showing 87% of Americans favor letting dreamers stay, including eight in ten Republicans (and almost nine in ten independents).

Impressive bipartisan numbers, to be sure, but strong support for a position does not equal strong motivated interest in an issue. Many Dems will say hold on, it depends who you ask: while Republicans supporting a DACA fix in large numbers aren’t willing to risk a government shutdown to accomplish it, the Democratic base was. But no, it really wasn’t. Actual support within the party for the shutdown gambit was tepid — not even 60-40 among Dems in the CBS poll, and independents were split down the middle. As recently as November a Morning Consult poll found that only 44% of Democrats saw the DACA fix as a priority (down from the low 50s a couple of months prior).

There is more than ample evidence that while almost everyone gives the pro-dreamer response to pollsters when asked about dreamers, relatively few care all that much about the larger issue in which it is embedded: immigration. By “care all that much” I mean regard it as a public policy priority. There are numerous examples but I’ll cite just a few. In a broad survey of issue priorities early last year, Pew found that fewer than a third of Democrats and Dem leaners viewed immigration as a priority. When people are asked to name the most important problems facing the country, immigration gets single-digit support in recent Gallup surveys. Before the 2016 election immigration was in the single digits as an issue priority, and after the election it remained in the single digits (various polls compiled here). And importantly, those who identify with the GOP aren’t all that fussed about it either. A POLITICO/Harvard poll last fall found fewer than half of Republicans saw limits on immigration as a very important priority, and fewer than a third of independents do.

I cite all of these data not to mount an argument that the DACA issue isn’t significant or that the actual humans behind the acronym don’t matter. Of course it is, and of course they do. My point is that mattering in human terms and mattering in policy terms are two different things, and it appears that Democrats badly stumbled with the shutdown because they seem unable to fathom the distinction. Republicans, on the other hand, did. Here’s how White House legislative affairs chief Marc Short played it on one of the Sunday shows: Democrats are willing “to deny funding to 2 million troops who are serving our country, tens of thousands of Border Patrol agents trying to protect our country, over an issue that’s not even in this bill.” The nugget of the weekend’s endlessly repeated GOP argument (because let’s face it they are so damn disciplined about that) was essentially that Democrats are holding government hostage over an irrelevancy.

Dreamers are not irrelevancies, but outside the core Trumpian base, broad public interest in immigration as a pressing high-priority concern is an irrelevancy. On that basis the Republican robo-argument was, in the context of public opinion, actually pretty sound. By Sunday even Chuck and Nancy had figured out how to read a poll; cue the cave.

The lesson in this for Democrats is not so much about policy or humanity, but (as usual) about messaging. If the party is going to “govern” (when you control nothing scare quotes are the only way to go) as though an issue like immigration matters more than anything else, it had better figure out how to mount a compelling persuasive argument for that. People know who the dreamers are, people want the dreamers to stay, but, alas, they don’t actually care enough to value the ransom over the hostage. Smart kidnappers do the math before they make the grab.

A version of this post appears at the Nashville Scene.

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What’s Worse Than Cancer? Taxes!

taxchopTwo different op-eds applauding the legislature’s phased repeal of the Hall income tax popped up on The Tennessean‘s website over the weekend, overtaxing (semi-intended) the ability of headline writers to find different ways to say the same thing. One piece (“Repeal of Hall Tax Will Bolster Tennessee’s Economy“) is by Raul Lopez of a PAC called Latinos for Tennessee, the other (“Hall Tax Repeal Will Benefit Tennessee’s Economy“) is by Joe Horvath of the America Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Virginia-based public policy outfit bankrolled by big business and right-wing foundations that pushes its corporatist conservative agenda in state legislatures. The Hall repeal measure awaits action from Gov. Bill Haslam — the bill hit his desk today — who has spoken approvingly of cutting the tax but isn’t so crazy about eliminating it; still, a veto seems unlikely.

Certainly there are valid grounds for quarreling with the Hall tax, which is just another cog (and a relatively small one) in the convoluted wheel that is Tennessee’s dysfunctional tax system. But the op-eds by Lopez and Horvath are quite remarkable in their combined ability to advance the most preposterous notions of the nature and role of taxes in Tennessee’s economy.

The Lopez column basically parrots the relentless illogic of the market-conservative Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market anti-tax outfit that longs for the libertarian paradise of a future Tennessee in which nobody pays taxes or has health insurance. Citing Beacon, Lopez acknowledges that the Hall tax revenue accounts for less than one percent of the state budget, but at the same time calls repeal “absolutely vital in order to ensure that our state remains competitive.” If it’s “absolutely vital” that we repeal a tax with such minor budgetary impact to stay competitive then we have bigger problems than just the Hall tax.

ALEC’s Horvath traffics in the same kind of trickle-down fantasy dogma, with a dose of cause-effect sophistry thrown in. He approvingly quotes Senate sponsor Mark Green’s bizarre assertion of a “lack of investment in Tennessee due to the Hall tax.” Yes I’m sure many firms are choosing not to invest here because we have a tax on investment income (like most states) that accounts for a tiny part of the state budget. Horvath applauds Tennessee’s ranking of seventh among the states in ALEC’s “economic competitive index,” which gives props to states for having low taxes and services, low wages, hostility to labor, and a tort litigation system tilted in favor of businesses over consumers and workers. Yep, we’re competitive all right.

Horvath says for states to be competitive their “crushing tax burdens” must make way for private industry. What neither of these guys mention, of course, is that Tennessee’s brand as a destination for investment is one of low and regressive taxation that punishes the poor and fails to adequately fund essential services (like education and health care). According to figures compiled by the independent Tax Foundation, our “crushing tax burden” has us ranked 45th among the states in taxes as a share of state income and 44th in tax collections per capita (47th in overall revenue/capita). We lead all states in having the highest combined state and local sales tax rates, which is what really burdens Tennesseans of limited means. And let’s not forget that for all the right-wing talk of how much we are oppressed by Washington, Tennessee is a taker not a maker: we rank 3rd among the 50 states in the percentage of state revenue that comes from federal aid. Oh, and we’re also a top 20 state in income inequality.

It’s lovely in the abstract to be (and be perceived as) a low-tax business-friendly state, but to isolate an analysis of taxes from a larger conversation about public services and social progress is ludicrous. Is it really controversial to surmise that a significant corporation contemplating investment in Tennessee is going to pay a lot less attention to the phasing out of the Hall tax than to the current and future state of our systems of education, environmental quality, and public health?

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Baldfaced Lies at the Legislature

I realize I’m becoming a bit of a broken record documenting the shameless lies and propaganda that dominate the Beacon Center of Tennessee’s messaging on “Insure Tennessee.” But since our state lawmakers insist on giving Beacon a platform to spread their nonsense, someone has to call bullshit. Consider it called.

At this morning’s Senate Health and Welfare Committee hearing on Insure Tennessee, committee members were shown this slide by the Beacon Center’s Justin Owen, who was appearing before the committee to describe the various forms of apocalypse that will ensue if the legislature approves Medicaid expansion.

BeaconSlideCrop

Owen wants to argue that Medicaid expansion puts stresses on the system that end up harming the most vulnerable individuals already covered, and the slide was an attempt to suggest there there is evidence for this alarming prediction in the experiences other states that have expanded Medicaid. There’s just one problem with the slide: Every claim it makes is factually incorrect.

You see five claims in that slide. Let’s take ’em one by one.

Arizona – dropped coverage for transplants? It is true that Arizona made some drastic cuts that included reducing Medicaid coverage for some transplants, but this occurred in 2010, before Obamacare took effect and a full three years before Arizona actually approved Medicaid expansion in 2013. And oh by the way, Beacon doesn’t want you to know that Arizona restored funding for those organ transplants for Medicaid patients in 2011.

Arkansas – denied drugs for cystic fibrosis patients? It is the case that Arkansas’ Medicaid program last year decided to deny access to the drug Kalydeco, which costs around $300,000 per year, triggering a patient lawsuit. What the Beacon Center conveniently omits adding, however, is that a few months later a state review board comprised of doctors and pharmarcists recommended that restrictions on the use of Kalydeco be eliminated, a recommendation that the Arkansas Department of Human Services has said it intends to adopt.

Oregon – stopped coverage for cancer treatments? This claim has its roots in a bogus chain email that made the rounds in 2013. PolitiFact Oregon has thoroughly vetted this and rates it a “pants-on-fire” lie: “Older patients diagnosed with cancer need not worry that treatment will be rationed or denied under the Affordable Care Act. The claim is based on an inaccurate reading of a bill that went nowhere.”

Maine – stopped treating brain injury patients? It is preposterous to attribute any change in coverage in Maine to Medicaid expansion given the basic reality that Maine is not participating in Medicaid expansion. It’s governor Paul LePage has been an unyielding advocate of shrinking Medicaid, not expanding it.

Rhode Island – implemented premium for disabled children? This refers to a proposal floated by Rhode Island’s governor early last year that would charge a $250/month premium to parents with kids in the state’s Katie Beckett program for severely disabled children. What the Beacon Center conveniently neglects to mention is that state lawmakers scoffed, the premium proposal was scrapped, and if you visit the Rhode Island Katie Beckett eligibility page you learn that “There is no cost to families.”

That Beacon slide on display for Tennessee lawmakers this morning had no title. It need one: “Things in other states that didn’t happen but if I can fool you into thinking they did maybe I can scare you into opposing health insurance for the working poor.”

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Right Track? Nation’s Worst? What’s the Diff?

CFCoverTennessee state house speaker Beth Harwell picked an odd week to write an op-ed (in this morning’s Tennessean) declaring that “Tennessee is on the right track” — unless she equates “on the right track” with “among the nation’s worst.” Because “among the nation’s worst” is precisely and appropriately how Tennessean reporter Shelley DuBois sums up the state’s standing in a new Commonwealth Fund report comparing states on dozens of measures of health care access, quality, costs and outcomes.

The report titled Aiming Higher (full text pdf here), which covers the period 2007-2012, finds widespread gains among states in areas that were getting a lot of policy attention, such as child immunizations and hospital readmissions, but on the down side rising costs and declines in access to care. In comparisons of states, Tennessee comes out rather badly. Skimming through the report’s various charts and graphs (pdf), this is easy to see.

Exhibit 12: Percent of adults who went without care because of cost, Tennessee ranks 10th from the bottom, unchanged from 2007.

Exhibit 16: Mortality amenable to heath care, Tennessee is in the bottom 10 for both black and white residents (they do that one by race).

Exhibit 8: Tennessee has the 16th highest rate of Medicare 30-day readmissions.

Exhibit 3: An overall state scorecard summary of health system performance across five dimensions (access and affordability; prevention and treatment; avoidable hospital use and cost; health lives; equity) ranks Tennessee’s 40th, in the bottom quartile.

Two bright spots: Exhibit 6 shows Tennessee ranks 11th in percent of children receiving all recommended vaccine doses, and Exhibit 11 shows Tennessee in top third of states in percent of children with insurance.

Perhaps these weak results mask improvement, making it possible to couch them in Harwell’s “on the right track” optimism. Is that plausible? Not so much. The CF report captures trends in Tennessee on 34 indicators, and finds improvement on 12 of them, worsening on 10, and no change on the rest — pretty much a wash. With the state’s ongoing stubborn refusal to entertain Medicaid expansion, it’s hard to look at the data here and predict upward movement in Tennessee’s health care quality and outcomes anytime soon.

“Right track” indeed.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Questions for Marriage Equality Foes

A new poll last week showed a striking continuation of the dramatic shift in national public opinion toward broad acceptance of same-sex marriage. The trend is hard to miss:

Source: Washington Post-ABC News poll

Source: Washington Post-ABC News poll

This latest Post/ABC poll also finds that 61 percent favor allowing same-sex couples to adopt children, and 81 percent say businesses should not be allowed to refuse service to gays and lesbians. And there’s an accelerating body of judicial opinion to go with public opinion: In the wake of last summer’s Supreme Court ruling on DOMA we’ve seen federal judges striking down gay marriage bans in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah and Texas, along with state court rulings in New Jersey and Mexico.

Here in Tennessee, of course, a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage enacted in 2006 remains in effect, although a federal lawsuit of the sort that has worked in these other states is in process.

All of which raises the question: What is going through the minds of stalwart opponents of marriage equality as they digest these developments? The Family Action Council of Tennessee’s David Fowler is among those trying to stop the tide from coming in. Some questions for Mr. Fowler:

[1] Mr. Fowler, you are fond of reminding us that a very large majority of Tennessean voters “approved our constitutional definition of marriage” and that most still say that “marriage is between a man and a woman.” Both of these things are true, but while geographic splits on same-sex marriage approval do show the South lagging other regions, it’s no longer a minority view even here, and it isn’t hard to fathom which way it’s trending. Do you look at the polling data, Mr. Fowler, and honestly convince yourself that this shift happening everywhere is not actually occurring here in Tennessee?

Source: Washington Post-ABC News poll

Source: Washington Post-ABC News poll

[2] You have written that if federal court decisions like the one in Ohio ultimately extend to Tennessee, “a conflict will immediately arise between what the federal government, through the courts, will require Tennessee to recognize as a marriage and what Tennesseans voted to recognize as a marriage.” Is your grasp of constitutional law and the Fourteenth Amendment so tenuous that you will regard federal court decisions striking down bans on same-sex marriage as inciting conflict between federal law and Tennessee voters? Do you believe, accordingly, that the 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia invalidating state laws prohibiting interracial marriage was wrongly decided?

[3] You wrote last summer that “if same-sex marriage advocates want equality, then the burden is on them to prove that a same-sex union is essentially the same as a heterosexual union in all regards. Otherwise, everyone knows that there is nothing ‘unequal’ or ‘unfair’ about treating two different things two different ways.” Do you really believe that threats to equal protection under the law are taken seriously only if those in a social category denied equal protection can prove that they are just like those whose rights are protected “in all regards”? So black people have to be able to prove they are like white people “in all regards”? Muslims have to be like Christians “in all regards”? Women have to be like men “in all regards”?

The fact is, Mr. Fowler, that you and your organization cling to a viewpoint support for which is rapidly deteriorating everywhere. Do you imagine that Tennessee will somehow defy the trend and become a heterosexual oasis of bigotry? You are free to believe these things, of course, but why not just admit publicly what you no doubt understand privately: that opposition to marriage equality almost certainly will not outlast judicial momentum toward a Supreme Court ruling that throws Tennessee’s constitutional ban under the bus of history.

So what’s your end game, Mr. Fowler? Will you help usher Tennessee into the 21st century by hopping on the bus now in a gesture of humility and humanity? Or do you choose to remain defiantly in its path, somehow imagining that everyone else is going to suddenly wake up from a Fourteenth Amendment nightmare and reclaim bigotry and discrimination as righteous paths to Tennessee’s glorious future?

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


FedEx Thou Doth Protest Too Much

fedexboxA cranky op-ed by a FedEx executive in today’s Tennessean calls the paper out for its “deeply flawed and erroneous report insinuating that FedEx is less than a full-rate taxpayer.” FedEx VP Michael Fryt is responding to a recent Tennessean story about the DC-based Citizens for Tax Justice’s analysis of Fortune 500 companies that paid no federal income taxes during at least one year since 2008. FedEx made the list twice, for having “paid” federal income taxes at a rate below 0 percent in both 2009 and 2011. As The Tennessean further reported, FedEx paid an effective federal income taxrate of 4.21 percent over the five year period of the study.

Blasting the CTJ report as “compiled by a heavily biased, partisan advocacy group,” Fryt asserts that FedEx “is a full-rate taxpayer and that we pay all the taxes owed to local, state, federal and foreign governments.” Declaring that “the effective income tax rate for FedEx has been no lower than 35 percent in each of the past 20 years,” Fryt calls the analysis misleading because it takes accelerated depreciation into account (as well it should), and he criticizes The Tennessean for printing the story “without contacting us.”

What Fryt and FedEx are doing here is blaming the messenger (two of them, actually) and responding with their own conveniently misleading version of events. But the careful reader will note that something Fryt and FedEx are not doing is denying the empirical truth of the CTJ’s findings.

How is it, you may ask, that the CTJ report can show FedEx paid less than 0 percent (meaning, received a rebate) in federal income taxes in two separate years while a FedEx executive insists that “the effective income tax rate for FedEx has been no lower than 35 percent in each of the past 20 years.”? Both statements can’t be true, right? Someone must be fibbing here?

Not necessarily. The key here probably lies in Fryt’s careful wording, “the effective income tax rate for Fedex…” Note the absence of the word “federal” between “effective” and “income.” Corporations pay not just U.S. federal taxes on income, but also state as well as foreign income taxes. That same CTJ analysis reporting FedEx’s effective rate of 4.2 percent in U.S. federal income taxes between 2008 and 2012 found that the company paid a much higher rate (57.7 percent) to foreign governments on its overseas pretax income. My assumption is that FedEx is counting all forms of income tax (that omission of the word federal is presumably no accident), and in so doing hopes to lead readers to believe that the zero tax years and astoundingly low effective average federal tax rate revealed by CTJ and reported by the Tennessean are factually inaccurate. But if you read Fryt’s op-ed carefully you’ll notice that he never actually repudiates the accuracy of CTJ numbers. Why? Because he can’t.

As mentioned above, Fryt and FedEx righteously assert that the firm pays all taxes owed to all governments. This is a classically defective straw-man argument; nobody claims otherwise, and neither the CTJ analysis nor the Tennessean story intimated that FedEx isn’t meeting its obligations under the law. As far as I’m concerned FedEx is a great American company, one that treats its people well and plays by the rules. A key aim of the CTJ analysis is to show the extent to which copious loopholes and tax breaks legally enable corporations to minimize their income tax obligations.

Fryt concludes his op-ed with familiar corporate whining that U.S. corporate income tax rates are among the highest in the world, creating a tax system that “is seriously flawed and hurts U.S. economic growth and competitiveness.” He’s right that statutory corporate tax rates in the U.S. are among the world’s highest, but it’s also the case that the actual rate large profitable corporations pay is typically less than half the statutory rate.

Fryt and FedEx may not like hearing these realities when they are foisted upon them (accurately) by a “heavily biased, partisan advocacy group.” Ok, then, how about that leftist commie Warren Buffett: “It is a myth that American corporations are paying 35 percent or anything like it…corporate taxes are not strangling American competitiveness.”

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


At the State Capitol: More Religion! As Much as Possible!

churchstatestreetsIn their ongoing quest to ensure that religious expression is never far from center stage in Tennessee’s public schools, our elected guardians of spiritual zeal down at the state capitol (masquerading as the House Education Committee) today take up the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act (HB1547/SB1793). The measure, which could have been titled the “Make Schoolchildren Commingle With As Much Religion As Humanly Possible Act,” would require that local school boards adopt policies letting students express religious beliefs in all kinds of settings: assemblies, athletic events, pep rallies, graduation ceremonies, and even school day opening announcements. (“The Lord, who by the way frowns upon the idea of one world government, wants you to know that the Model U.N. Club will meet after school today in room 301.”)

Viewed as a whole, the bill comes off as a way to compel kids to listen to religious messages (which may well conflict with their own beliefs) in school as often as possible. But the especially pernicious part of HB1547 is its approach to classroom activities — you know, that pesky learnin’ stuff the schools are supposed to be doing between prayer meetings.

The bill incorporates a lengthy “model policy” that local school boards could adopt to come into compliance with its requirements. Here’s the full text of Article IV of that model policy, titled “Religious Expression and Prayer in Class Assignments” (emphasis added):

A student may express the student’s beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of the student’s submission. Homework and classroom work shall be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school. Students may not be penalized or rewarded on account of religious content. If a teacher’s assignment involves writing a poem, the work of a student who submits a poem in the form of a prayer (for example, a psalm) should be judged on the basis of academic standards, including literary quality, and not be penalized or rewarded on account of its religious content.

There is an obvious contradiction built in to those middle two sentences. On one hand, a teacher can judge a student’s work by “ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance,” but on the other hand the teacher cannot penalize “on account of religious content.” So the student who incorporates creationist notions into an assignment on paleontology or developmental biology or cosmology is … what? Evaluated in a science class as scientifically incompetent, but then not penalized for it? What does that even mean?

This bill is clearly just the thing we need to beef up Tennessee’s national educational reputation. Hell, even the most notorious conservative interest group in America ranks us in the bottom 10 of states in its Report Card on American Education. And by the way, I can’t be penalized for that last sentence, since it did open with “hell,” which qualifies, of course, as “religious content.”

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.