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The Poverty Industry

[ 5 ] August 29, 2016 |


I have a review of Daniel Hatcher’s The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens up at the Boston Review. Hatcher explores the utter outrage of how states and corporations combine to essentially steal public money that should go to foster children, nursing home residents, and other vulnerable people. It’s quite infuriating and I was happy to be able to write about it.

A leading corporate perpetrator of the poverty industry, in Hatcher’s telling, is MAXIMUS. Founded in 1975, the company works with governments around the globe as a private contractor for government aid programs. The company was found guilty of intentionally creating incorrect Medicaid claims while in a revenue maximization contract with the District of Columbia, and had to pay a $30 million federal fine in 2007. Yet its methods are so intensely profitable—for both states and itself—that it continues to win more state contracts. Hatcher uncovered MAXIMUS emails to Maryland officials in which it warned that the state was losing out by not pocketing more money intended for poor children; in the same email, it offered to help in that process.

Companies that arose in the military-industrial complex, including Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin, are now helping to create the poverty-industrial complex by going into this profitable revenue maximization business themselves. These companies make money if they can remove children from welfare rolls. A whistleblower lawsuit revealed that WellCare—a company that had already paid a $10 million fine for defrauding Florida’s Medicaid and Healthy Kids programs, and that has acknowledged illegal campaign finance contributions—held a celebratory dinner after removing 425 babies from state welfare rolls, lessening its financial responsibility and increasing corporate profits. WellCare had to pay a $137.5 million settlement to the Justice Department to settle that lawsuit.

As Hatcher explains, there are a number of ways for states to make money off of foster children. For example, the state can declare them disabled and therefore eligible for Social Security benefits. The state then names itself their trustees and gets to keep the money. Hatcher argues that the same is true for children receiving veterans’ benefits. For example, a guardian state can manufacture ways to increase the administrative costs of managing and dispersing benefits so that it can add those charges to the federal government’s tab. It may also seek to place children in its care with foster families rather than find a relative who can care for the child because it then profits from continuing to administer benefits for the child. It might put children in its care on prescription drugs to sedate their behavior so it can reduce staffing costs and charge for the medicines, even if their behavior can be managed without sedation. Tragically, states often treat vulnerable children in their care as cash machines.

Poverty contractors regularly act of their own accord even when the state has no vested interest, as with child support cases. Cases of unpaid child support arise overwhelmingly from dire poverty: most in arrears are destitute fathers who simply cannot afford to pay, and most claimants are destitute mothers who cannot afford to go without their payments. The Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement reports that over one-quarter of child support debt—$28.5 billion—is owed to the government. But states do not make a tremendous amount of money from child support via their entitlement to a portion of the money owed. That is because the cost of administering child support collection is often more than the amount the state saves from children who no longer need state support. Thus, it makes no financial sense for the state to pursue restitution. Although the amounts companies will collect per case are also small, the poverty companies, like debt collection companies, have a business model of relentlessly pursuing even tiny debts, so they prosecute delinquent fathers, absorbing much of the collected money.

Children are not the only victims of such schemes. States routinely use nursing homes as funding sources or opportunities for budget slashing. A popular strategy is to sedate relatively healthy elderly patients in order to reduce staffing costs. At one Connecticut nursing home, two-thirds of residents were found to be under the influence of antipsychotic drugs despite having no condition that warranted their use. An Indiana company, Health and Hospital Corporation, used revenue maximization strategy to take over formerly public nursing homes. Ten of the seventeen homes HHC purchased in 2003 fared worse on state report card scores by 2010, several of which were also on the federal government’s list of “most poorly performing homes.”

States also outsource probation services and court fine collections, juvenile detention centers, and hospice care—usually with similarly extortionary results.

Is it too early to start drinking?


Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

[ 9 ] August 29, 2016 |


To mark the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, Barack Obama vastly expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which was originally created by George W. Bush to claim he had done something for conservation. This is now the largest piece of conserved territory on the planet, now over 582,000 square miles of ocean.

Papahānaumokuākea is a sanctuary for endangered species, including blue whales, short-tailed albatrosses, sea turtles, and the last Hawaiian monk seals. It contains some of the world’s northernmost and healthiest coral reefs, considered among the most likely to survive in an ocean warmed by climate change. The seamounts and sunken islands of its deeper waters are inhabited by more than 7,000 species, including the oldest animals on Earth—black corals that have lived for more than 4,000 years.

In all, a quarter of the creatures living in the monument are found nowhere else. Many more have not yet been identified—such as a ghostly little white octopus, recently discovered, that scientists have dubbed Casper.

It’s certainly true that it’s politically easier to create an oceanic monument (although awfully hard to police I’d guess so I’m curious how successful keeping big commercial fishing boats out of there will be) than a land monument. And thus it’s basically impossible to visit, although a visit to Midway could be pretty cool for the war stuff. But that’s OK. As the oceans change rapidly between climate change and overfishing, keeping some parts of it as pristine as possible is certainly a good thing. Of course, even at 582,000 square miles, many fish will swim right out of them.

Marine biologist Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, said Obama’s announcement buoys hope that the United States can lead the way to a global network of marine-protected areas large enough to save and restore the oceans. These “blue parks,” as Earle calls them, “are not a luxury – a place to go and have a good time,” she said. “Resilience to climate change is dependent upon having significant areas of natural protection—for biodiversity and for all the things that hold the planet steady. This is vitally important to protect our life-support system.”

I guess I’m a bit skeptical about this globally because of a) resources to police fishing over vast areas and b) the impact of climate change and ocean acidification to wipe out most species. But why not try? It’s certainly a good idea if nothing else.

The Further Adventures of Jill Stein, SUPERGENIUS

[ 54 ] August 28, 2016 |


Jill Stein has finally come out with a statement on the key issue of the day: the killing of Harmabe the Gorilla by the Cincinnati Zoo back in May.

Critical issues here! I love that whatever Jill Stein decides to say is official Green Party policy. What makes this all the more weird is that she backdated the statement to read June 1. Why? Earlier today, this statement did not say June 1. Then people started mocking it. So someone added a date of June 1.

Maybe Stein just wants to be offered the VP slot for the Harambe campaign.

This is a truly competent individual here. Please let the left do better in 2020.

Pitch perfect

[ 36 ] August 28, 2016 |

© Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for 2015

When asked to explain why tRump is calling Clinton a bigot, Chris Christie did the Right thing and lied.

“I’ll tell you this, this type of discourse in the campaign is just unwarranted. But it was started by Ms. Clinton. Ms. Clinton has started the idea of calling Donald Trump those types of names. And the fact is that, once you are the person — and Ms. Clinton is the person who injected this type of commentary into this race — once you inject that type of commentary into this race, you can’t then sit back and start complaining about it.”

Comme. Un. Patron.

This will now be the official history of the election to Republicans, even those who are still ending all of their Tweets, FB posts, personal and inter-office emails with #NeverTrump. It’s got everything. Mean nasty name calling race obsessed real racist Hitlery Clinton attacked Donald Trump the real victim! Naturally he had to defend himself.

Pickle Surprise

[ 46 ] August 28, 2016 |

This was the strangest pickle-centric video I’d ever seen.

But then Alex Jones’ saw Clinton opening a can (his word) of pickles and launched an investigation (also his word).

Just to clarify – This is not a request for strange pickle-centric videos. Please. Thanks.

Happy Kirby Day!

[ 41 ] August 28, 2016 |

Image result for jack kirby characters

As my colleague Elana reminded me, today marks the 99th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby, the most influential comic book artist and writer of all time, and someone who should be remembered as one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century period.

So in honor of his birthday, I’m going to link to the essays I’ve written that feature his work:

LePage’s Race War

[ 63 ] August 28, 2016 |

Maine Governor

In some future history textbook, the chapter describing the political climate that gave rise to the reign of Emperor Trump I will probably have to devote several pages to Paul LePage.

When you go to war, if you know the enemy, the enemy dresses in red and you dress in blue, you shoot at red. … You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy. And the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority of people coming in are people of color or people of Hispanic origin.

Observing the horror that is Paul LePage, I really wonder what color the sky is on the planet inhabited by the “end the two party DUOPOLY” crowd, at least on the left.* Maine is, relative to the rest of the country, refreshingly full of forward-thinking, wise people who go to the ballot box relatively unconstrained by brainwashing of the duopoly. In the 2010 gubernatorial election, LePage demonstrated neither an inclination nor an interest in moderating or disguising his cretinous nature, leading to over 62% of Maine voters rejecting him in the biggest Republican wave election in a generation–a rejection far stronger, numerically, than Trump is likely to receive. But that didn’t matter, because Maine voters successfully overcame the Duopoly’s brainwashing, and split the rest of the vote three ways.

The desire, absent significant electoral reforms, for an end to two party dominance must, it seems to me, be premised on at least one of the following wagers: that a candidate of the left who only needed 35-40% support to win is more likely to emerge than a similar candidate of the right, or that a candidate of the left would do more good, if unencumbered from the squishy center, than a candidate of the right would do harm. Neither of these wagers seemed particularly wise to me a year ago, and it looks a lot worse now–if we approached elections nationwide as Maine does, there’s a decent chance Trump’s presidential chances would be orders of magnitude greater. A glance at the recent history of other FPTP democracies that aren’t limited to two parties hardly gives any reason for optimism here either. I don’t know which of these wagers the anti-duopoly crowd presumes to be a good one, and I don’t know why, but it sure would be nice to see someone actually try to defend either or both of them on the merits.

Meanwhile, let’s turn from a sitting Governor’s calls for a race war and pay a visit to the New York Times, where esteemed Yale economist Robert Shiller brings us some extremely troubling and alarming news–economic inequality is substantial and increasing, and it might get worse. He’s concerned that this trend may have some negative consequences:

Truly extreme gaps in income and wealth could arise from many causes. Consider just a few: Innovations in robotics and artificial intelligence, which are already making many jobs uncompetitive, could lead us into a world in which basic work with decent pay becomes impossible to find. An environmental disaster like global warming, pollution or disease could sharply reduce the ability of people of ordinary means to live in specific regions or entire countries.

Future wars using ever more highly destructive technology, including chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons, could devastate vast populations. And it’s not out of the question that dire political changes, like the rise of racist or otherwise exclusionary social structures, could have terribly damaging consequences for less privileged people.

Of course, I dearly hope none of these things ever happen. But even if they are unlikely, as part of our progress to a better world, we should be thinking now of how we might address them.

Has anyone been to New Haven lately? Just how tall are they building those Ivory Towers?

*Memo to Gregor: if things were different, they’d be different.

A Climate Change Vacation

[ 24 ] August 28, 2016 |


What exciting times we live in.

Engineers built the Panama Canal to make a viable North American shipping route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They likely didn’t expect that their descendants would create another one through global warming.

Last week, the cruise ship Crystal Serenity set sail from Anchorage, Alaska, and is expected to cross the fabled Northwest Passage in eight days. This trip shaves almost three years off explorer Roald Amundsen’s first-of-its-kind trek more than a hundred years ago.

While many ships have traversed the passage in the last decade, the Crystal Serenity is the largest ship of its type to do so. This dubious distinction is not lost on the cruise organizers, who have invited “adventurers” onboard, perhaps in an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of trepidation that prevailed in Amundsen’s day.

But of course, it’s the radical changes in the atmosphere that, sadly, make such a commercial voyage possible. With the first “ice-free” Arctic summer potentially arriving in the next few years, the sense of adventure will give way to complacency as such trips become run-of-the-mill.

Nothing is run of the mill in the era of climate change. Trips to experience record heat should be fun! And imagine being on a trekking adventure to see the last summer a given species is going to exist. Good times!

Is It “Irrational” for People to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities (Or Even in the Sciences)

[ 208 ] August 28, 2016 |


No, no it is not. After all, the job market for college graduates except for a very few fields is pretty terrible everywhere, at least in something having to do with the field of choice. What, are they supposed to go to law school? Go become teachers and be attacked by politicians? I guess they could drive for Uber! What a future!

But we have a national narrative that the humanities are worthless and that people are “irrational” for getting a Ph.D. in those fields. Aaron Hanlon in the L.A. Review of Books:

In a fascinating way, the NSF data challenges a long-standing narrative about job opportunities by field of study. We’re used to thinking of — more accurately, maligning — humanities students as idealistic, unsystematic dreamers prone to “Peter Pan syndrome,” irrationality, and reality avoidance. Humanities PhDs struggling to find sustainable employment don’t garner much societal sympathy, largely because it’s considered axiomatic that a person with a humanities PhD has no business thinking she possesses economic value. But when the scientists and engineers — the ones confirmation bias demands we view as rational and pragmatic — are caught in a rough job market flirting with something that looks like quixotic delusion, we’re forced to rethink our assumptions. Once it appears that it’s not just humanities students making unadvisable career choices, it suddenly becomes more difficult to victim-blame unemployed doctors (of philosophy) as a whole.

Indeed, when it comes to explaining the seeming contradiction of increases in earned doctorates alongside diminishing job prospects for PhDs, we’re still wedded to the irrationality narrative we’ve unfoundedly ascribed to humanities PhDs. This is the case even though 75 percent of earned doctorates in 2014 were awarded in science and engineering.

The irrationality narrative has accompanied even some of the best analyses of PhD job prospects. As a follow-up on an earlier attempt to explain why people keep pursuing humanities PhDs, Jordan Weissmann provided a telling compilation of Atlantic readers’ responses in 2013. Weissmann’s own conclusions include, per the familiar narrative, the idea that “arts and humanities students aren’t necessarily the most career-minded or pragmatic individuals,” and PhD seekers “aren’t aware of how much debt they might take on in the process of earning their Ph.D.”; readers responded along similar lines. In fact, of the 11 categories Weissmann’s roundup uses to organize reader responses, three deal with suggestions about asymmetric information (people do PhDs based on some form of ignorance or misunderstanding), three deal with suggestions about student irrationality (people do PhDs because love of subject, or of being a top student, blinds them to harsh economic realities), and two are corrective points of information that don’t offer a theory.

If we compare the tenor of Weissmann’s findings in 2013 with that of Laura McKenna’s 2016 Atlantic piece on “The Ever-Tightening Job Market for Ph.D.s,” we see a common premise in spite of the new data: there must be something lacking or irrational about the choice to pursue a PhD. McKenna’s concluding set of questions, simultaneously genuine and rhetorical, suggests as much:

Why hasn’t all this [employment] information helped winnow down the ranks of aspiring professors — why hasn’t it proved to be an effective Ph.D. prophylactic? Are people risking so much in the hopes of getting a cushy job with a six-figure salary […] ? Is it because academia is a cult that makes otherwise sane people believe that there is no life outside the university?

The problem is not people getting a Ph.D., whether in English or Chemistry. The problem is not that schools are producing too many graduates. The problem is that we are engaging in a national disinvestment in valuing the graduate degree and thus there aren’t jobs.

We’ve presupposed a scenario in which there really is a massive oversupply of PhDs, and thus PhD students must be irrational for treading into an oversupplied labor market. But that’s simply not true. PhD “oversupply” is just a euphemistic way of talking about the fact that colleges and universities haven’t met student-generated demand with a commensurate supply of full-time, tenure-track faculty. Instead, we’ve rendered the majority of faculty contingent, increased administrators and administrative staff by 85 and 240 percent, respectively, over the past 40 years, and created a massive holding pen of temporary postdoctoral positions in STEM. If we look outside of academia for good measure, we see similar evidence of increased dependency on contingent labor, decades of stagnant wages, and no increase in leisure time to accompany increases in economic productivity. In this light it becomes harder to claim that PhD students are especially irrational or shortsighted, since so much of the broader US workforce is facing similar problems.

So why do people pursue PhDs despite grim job prospects? For one, because job prospects elsewhere haven’t been great either. Though PhDs are a skewed sample for all kinds of reasons, they also have a lower unemployment rate than master’s, bachelor’s, associate’s, and high school diploma holders. Accepting the five to seven years of employment and insurance benefits that come with a PhD is hardly an easy decision, but in light of deteriorating stability in nonacademic jobs, and the low unemployment rates of PhD holders, it’s hardly an irrational one either. In fact, it’s reasonable to think that a society continually touting the value of STEM research, a college education, and the “knowledge economy” does value PhDs. It would be irrational to think otherwise.

Perhaps the most compelling reason one pursues a PhD, however, is what it means beyond the immediately commodifiable. When we say it’s irrational — and worthy of ridicule — to pursue any kind of education that doesn’t maximize earnings, we’re effectively pathologizing healthy desires to learn and teach, and to pursue a course of research with long-term benefits. In fact, prestigious funding schemes like the MacArthur Fellowship offer no-strings-attached funding precisely because they get better results by untethering fellows from immediate financial pressures. This is also the idea behind no-strings and open-access funding developments in biomedical science: if you want results, you have to think long-term in ways that markets don’t always support. The PhD is hard work, typically with day-to-day teaching, grading, or lab responsibilities, but it’s also a rare opportunity to pursue research that you care about but the market doesn’t, all while keeping the lights on.

Instead of hiring people with a Ph.D. as a tenure-track professors, colleges and universities instead have to build some new buildings, provide some ever fancier dorms, and most importantly, take the money for themselves to their escalating salaries, perks, and new administrator positions.

It’s completely fine to get a Ph.D., although at this point one should understand that a) you should never go to a program without a good funding package and b) you aren’t going to get an academic job at the end of it unless you are very, very lucky. But there also needs to be pressure for universities to invest in hiring these people, including in the humanities. But the managerial MBA class that runs the universities and especially the Board of Trustees has no interest in this.

On the University of Chicago’s Letter to Students Prospective Donors

[ 245 ] August 28, 2016 |


The University of Chicago has issued a letter coming out against BIG POLITICALLY CORRECT. I think DeLong is right to subject it to “a hermeneutics of derp:”

It seems to me more likely than not that John Ellison is not talking to his future students here. It seems to me that he is more likely than not to be talking to those of their parents who spend an unhealthy amount of time glued to and being traumatized by Fox News. And he is doing so in the hope that those parents will send more students to U. of C. It’s a marketing ploy–not part of an orientation for new students.


But, Jesse, surely John Ellison can find a way to say “we welcome the contributions to the intellectual life of the college of Donald Trump supporters” that doesn’t also carry the very strong implication that Hillel and the Newman Center are in some sense illegitimate?

As I said, this is a very charitable reading he is engaging in here.

As I see it, a university is:

*first of all, a safe space for ideas.

*second, a safe place for scholars.

Those two imperatives do not forbid but rather mandate trigger warnings, whenever they are helpful in aiding the members of the University and scholars to grapple and process with difficult ideas or shocking facts.

Those two imperatives also require all members of the university to treat one another with respect–to avoid giving even a hint that other members do not belong or do not have rights or are not secure in their persons.

And these two imperatives require that sub-communities within the university have spaces that are safe–in which discussion can proceed accepting for the moment the premises of the sub-community.

I’ve never understood the argument that trigger warnings are some kind of inherent threat to free speech on campus and I still don’t. If you’re applauding the actions of Chicago’s administration, it sure can’t be because of academic freedom.

The Near Future

[ 65 ] August 28, 2016 |


It’s not like you needed any reminder that hard-core Republican obstructionism that has stopped any progressive legislation from being passed since 2009 is going to change one iota once Hillary Clinton takes office. But here’s a reminder anyway. And it’s not even about Clinton Derangement Syndrome. Could have been Joe Biden or Tim Kaine taking the Oval Office. The tactics wouldn’t change. It’s all obstruction, all the time.

Also, this article talks about Hillary Clinton being elected and having a “Grover Cleveland moment.” Have fun with that one. Maybe she can send in the Army to bust the Pullman Strike all over again.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 46

[ 21 ] August 28, 2016 |

This is the grave of Timothy Dwight.

2016-05-07 11.59.06

Timothy Dwight IV was born in 1752 in Northampton, Massachusetts. His family already had deep ties to Yale and not only was it inevitable that young Timmy would go there, but that he would become a leader in the institution. His mother was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards after all. He graduated from Yale in 1769 and became a minister. In 1777, he was appointed the chaplain for the Connecticut Continental Brigade, fighting for American independence. He gave many sermons about American nationalism and became a rising star in the ministerial world. He became president of Yale in 1795, where he served until his death in 1817. While there, he was known for his doctrinal and political conservatism and his hatred of anything having to do with the French Revolution. He turned Yale sharply to the right after he took over an institution in 1795 where students openly admired Voltaire and made it one of the most conservative colleges in the United States. He railed in speeches against Yale students being attracted to the twin doctrines of Jacobinism and atheism, which were connected in his head. He led the fight against the separation of church and state in Connecticut and was the head of the state’s Federalist Party. Of electing Thomas Jefferson in 1800, Dwight said “Is in an infidel? Then you cannot elect him without betraying our Lord.” In response, Jeffersonian papers said, “Connecticut is more under the administration of a pope than Italy.” Dwight died of prostate cancer in 1817, still president of Yale.

Timothy Dwight is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut

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