Three Quotes for Uneasy Times

For these uneasy times, here are three quotes from my favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr.

It’s likely that most readers have not heard his name before, although most are familiar with his most famous prayer: “Lord, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change that I can, And wisdom to tell the difference.”

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Niebuhr lived from 1892 to 1971. Few theologians exerted more influence in their time on the secular world. During the Great Depression, he championed workers’ rights and racial equality in Henry Ford’s Detroit. In the 1930’s, Adolf Hitler’s rise in Germany caused him to discard his pacifism. In the 1950’s, he was a foe of Soviet communism and equally the foe of American conservatives who were inclined to think that the evils of communism demonstrated the virtues of American democracy. And Martin Luther King, Jr. credited Niebuhr with curing his early “superficial optimism about human nature.”

  • On humor and its relation to faith:

“The intimate relation between humor and faith is derived from the fact that both deal with the incongruities of our existence. … Laughter is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those which do not affect us essentially. Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence, which threaten the very meaning of our life.”

  • On America’s exceptionalism and aspirations to empire:

“The same strength which has extended our power beyond a continent has also interwoven our destiny with the destiny of many peoples and brought us into a vast web of history in which other wills, running in oblique or contrasting directions to our own, inevitably hinder or contradict what we most fervently desire. We cannot simply have our way, not even when we believe our way to have the “happiness of mankind” as its promise.”

  • On religion and confidence:

Humanity is fond of thinking that religion is confidence in our highest social values. “Nothing could be further from the truth. True religion is a profound uneasiness about our highest social values.”

In a Coma? Don’t Forget to Keep Exercising Your Personal Responsibility.

From Columbus, Ohio, comes the story of a woman whose welfare and food stamp benefits were terminated because she failed to attend a job training program she was required to enroll in. The reason she missed the training was that she was in the hospital, in an induced coma, fighting for her life.

If you are thinking this must all have just been a big mistake, keep reading.

The woman, Kimberly Thompson, once had a warehouse job packing boxes that enabled her to support herself and her and her 15-year old daughter. But in May, 2013, she needed to have a hysterectomy. After the operation, she was unable to return to her physically demanding job right away. She applied for and began receiving cash assistance, Medicaid and food stamps, and she enrolled in a job training program to meet the work requirement that was a condition for receiving cash assistance. But shortly afterward, an infection she had contracted following her surgery worsened dramatically, and her doctors placed her in a coma in order to save her life.

When she awakened from the coma, she discovered that her cash assistance and food stamps had been terminated. She called the welfare agency to find out why and learned that the reason was that she had missed her training class. The agency gave her two days to prove that she had a good reason not attending. Weak, unable to move (seven of her toes had been amputated) and only slowly regaining her cognitive capacities, she was unable to do so before the agency ended her benefits.

In agency-speak, Thompson had violated the Self Sufficiency Contract that she had signed. That contract, which set out a timetable for her to attain “self-sufficiency and personal responsibility,” said that she would face sanctions if she did not comply in full with her work assignments. And when she missed her training class, the agency ended her cash assistance immediately. Ohio law allowed her to appeal the agency’s sanction, and at that appeal she was able to convince the agency that being in a coma was a satisfactory reason for missing class. Eventually her benefits were restored, but by that time — unable to work and without any other income — she became homeless.

If you are thinking that the welfare agency in Ohio, whose policy is to terminate benefits first and entertain pleas from desperate people later, is made up of particularly mean-spirited people, keep reading.

Under federal law, states are required to show that at least half of their recipients of cash assistance are employed or engaged in job training. Any state that falls short faces the loss of federal funding.

The obvious way for a state to meet this requirement is to ensure that cash assistance recipients get jobs or job training. But that’s not the easiest way. The easiest way is simply to eliminate people from the welfare rolls altogether — decreasing the denominator of a fraction can yield the same result as increasing the numerator. The cash assistance caseload in Ohio has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2011, a result in part of its policy of terminating benefits first and entertaining pleas from desperate people later. And Ohio is only one of many states using strict work requirements to reduce caseloads.

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Could something similar happen in Massachusetts? It may have already started. The cash assistance caseload here has fallen by 19 percent since 2011, not too far behind Ohio’s 30 percent reduction. State welfare agencies do not keep track of how families fare after they stop receiving cash assistance, so we have no assurances that these families are living in stable situations. Inquiring minds would be interested to know whether this caseload decline (numbering 10,000 families), is contributing to the dramatic rise in family homelessness in Massachusetts over the same time.

And our welfare agency is getting more authority to terminate cash assistance benefits. In the past, families that include a disabled family member have generally not been subject to a work requirement. A new law, which was enacted by the Legislature this summer and which has not yet been implemented, allows the agency to adopt a stricter standard of disability, which would have the effect of making more families subject to a work requirement. In passing this law, the Legislature acknowledged the extra difficulties disabled parents would have in meeting a work requirement, so it also provided funds for services to help families receiving cash assistance make their transitions to work. But when the state encountered a budget shortfall recently, funding for these services was cut by more than 90 percent.

Our incoming Governor, therefore, will have a lot of choices to make — between reducing caseloads and reducing poverty.

Charlie: You Can Help Barack Preserve the EITC!

Here’s an idea for Charlie Baker: Congress is now considering a bill that would make permanent many tax credits and deductions that are now only temporary. How about supporting President Obama’s threat to veto that legislation because it fails to extend expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit program?

A quick recap: this tax bill was negotiated between House Republicans and the office of Democratic Senator Harry Reid (who will no longer be the Senate majority leader when the Republican majority takes over in January). The $440 billion worth of tax breaks that it would make permanent include some programs that are popular with Democrats as well as Republicans, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit for higher education costs, but two thirds of the tax benefits in the bill would go to businesses. Last week, President Obama threatened to veto the bill because it does not give permanent status to expansions of certain tax provisions, including the Earned Income Tax Credit Program, that are important to low-income families with children. In a provocative display of candor, the Republican negotiators said that the exclusion of the Earned Income Tax Credit program from the bill was “payback” for the president’s executive order on immigration.

The EITC expansions at issue were put into place five years ago, as part of the economic stimulus bill to counter the Great Recession. They provide, for example, a higher credit for larger families (those with 3 or more children). The expansions are scheduled to expire in 2017, and if they do, the credit for these larger families will fall by more than $700 per year. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, allowing the expansions to expire will push a quarter-million Massachusetts residents into poverty or make them poorer.

Allowing these expansions to expire would affect not only the federal EITC program, but also the 25 state EITC programs that provide some portion (currently 15 percent in Massachusetts) of the taxpayer’s federal credit. Which is where the Governor-elect comes in. Baker’s campaign platform proposed to increase the state’s EITC program — a more specific anti-poverty agenda than anything his opponent offered. (It must be said, however, that Baker was most likely to talk up this idea when campaigning in urban areas and communities of color. In the rest of the state, one heard far less about this “carrot” of encouraging work and far more about the “stick” of welfare reform.)

Given the state’s current budgetary red ink, it will be challenging enough to deliver an increase in the state EITC program. If the federal EITC expansions expire, any state increase would go in part toward making up for those federal cuts. So maybe Governor-elect Baker will repeat, for the benefit of the Republicans in Congress, what he told the Globe the day after his election:

“I would hope that one of the lessons that some of the Republicans nationally would take from this race is that it’s a good idea to chase 100 percent of the vote and to make the case in as many forums and as many places as they possibly can.”

Send them back to the drawing board to include the EITC. How about it?

A Budget Fix That Dares Not Speak Its Name

There’s a hole in the state budget, and yesterday Governor Patrick announced his plan to plug it. He’s using authority he already has to order immediate cuts to Executive Branch agencies. These cuts will make up most of the $329 million shortfall. His proposal for the remainder of the problem, however, requires the approval of the Legislature, and to judge from the early returns, that approval is unlikely.

The Governor would like the Legislature to agree to cut the amount of money that goes from the state directly to cities and towns for municipal services like public safety, schools and libraries. That money, known as unrestricted local aid, is understandably popular with legislators. And among Republican lawmakers, it is safe to say, only tax cuts are a more popular policy idea than local aid spending.

As in: yesterday, Representative Brad Jones, the House minority leader, called Patrick’s plan to cut local aid a “non-starter,” and Governor-elect Charlie Baker said through a spokesperson that “Massachusetts cities and towns deserve a dependable source of funding for crucial projects. As the transition process continues, Gov.-elect Baker looks forward to developing a responsible budget that delivers the services the people of Massachusetts need and protects taxpayers.”

And then this morning, House Speaker Robert DeLeo announced that he, too, opposes any local aid cuts.

The Governor’s budget chief is defending the proposal as a “balanced and thoughtful approach,” and says the administration has no alternative solutions. So it looks like we are heading for a stalemate.

But wait. Part of the budget hole — about $70 million — is attributable to a very tiny reduction in the state income tax that will take effect next year under an automatic formula the legislature devised. The reduction of .05 percent (from 5.2 percent to 5.15 percent) will mean about $50 extra per year for a family with an income of $100,000 and much less for families of lesser means. A similar tiny cut (from 5.25 percent to 5.2 percent) happened last year — how many of us even noticed?

The Legislature could act to defer this income tax reduction, which would reduce the budget hole by $70 million and would preserve local aid funding — and more. And even though we are as far away from an election (and the possibility of voter retribution) as we will ever be, nobody appears even willing to mention this possibility. Not even the guy who once wanted to have an adult conversation about taxes.

Governor-elect Baker: Can You Use the Word “Transparency” in a Sentence?

Six weeks until Governor-elect Charlie Baker takes office and, according to his campaign promises, we say “hello” to transparency and “goodbye” to the entrenched interests of one-party rule.

Which reminds me of a story, one that might tell us more about what our new Governor means by transparency. As it happens, he might be as familiar as anybody with stealthy legislative maneuvers that nobody would describe as transparent. He might also be in a position to know that stealthy legislative maneuvers can come about with two-party rule as with one. Almost exactly twenty years ago, during the waning days of the 1994 legislative session, Baker had just been promoted to his new position as Governor Weld’s Secretary for Administration and Finance, and so may have been a witness to lawmaking of a very clandestine sort.

As the 1994 legislative session was drawing to a close, Governor Weld badly wanted legislation reducing state capital gains taxes. House Speaker Charles Flaherty and Senate President William Bulger badly wanted legislation increasing the base salary for legislators (that salary had remained at $30,000 for more than a decade). Despite the Governor’s prior opposition to the pay increase and the Legislature’s prior opposition to the capital gains tax cut, a conciliation was reached in the last days of the session.

The precise details of how this mutual back-scratching came about are not entirely clear, but we do know this much. First, the Legislature sent the Governor the pay raise bill, which increased the base salary for Legislators to $46,000. The Governor did not sign the bill right away, but instead allowed it to sit on his desk for a time. During that time, the Speaker and Senate President managed to pass the Governor’s tax cut without their members’ knowledge.

Late on a Wednesday afternoon in December, a bill entitled “Tax Relief for Low Income Families,” was quietly amended in the House to include the Governor’s capital gains tax cut. The amendment was offered by Republican Representative Edward Teague (who would soon be elected as the House minority leader), and was quickly adopted on a voice vote. Then the bill (its title was not changed, although its substance surely had been), was just as quickly passed by the Senate and sent to the Governor, who wasted little time signing both the pay raise bill and the capital gains tax cut bill into law.

When the swap came to light, nearly everyone in the Legislature was outraged, particularly the 105 House members who had earlier cast roll call votes against the capital gains tax cut. The Globe editorial page fumed and denounced the perpetrators as an “arrogant troika.”

But Governor Weld rejected criticism that he had participated in any sort of hoodwinking and refused to comment on the circumstances surrounding the passage of the two bills. “You have to address that to the Legislature,” he said.

In six weeks or so, we may begin to learn how broadly Governor-elect Baker, whom Governor Weld describes as “the soul” of his administration, defines “transparency.”

Hey, “Yes” Voters on Question 3. Something You Can Do.

Update: November 18: The Boston Globe is reporting that the state’s Gambling Commission is likely to require the state’s licensed casinos and its licensed slots parlor to assist gamblers who want to set limits on how much they gamble. Yay, us!

In our last episode we saw that, post-election, there are still many decisions to be made about about the gambling industry in Massachusetts, and there may be opportunities for the 840,000 or so of us who voted “yes” on Question 3 to influence those decisions.

Here comes an opportunity now.

As the Globe reported Monday, the state’s Gaming Commission is considering whether the casino industry ought to assist gamblers who want to set limits on how much they gamble. The assistance would work this way: before sitting down in front of a slot machine, a casino patron decides that setting, say, a $50 limit on gambling losses that day would be a prudent idea. This amount is entered into a “loyalty card,” which tracks that individual’s gambling activity throughout the casino. As the losses mount, the patron is informed, through the loyalty card, that the $50 limit is approaching. If the the player reaches the limit, he or she can still choose to override it and continue to play, but at least there’s been a reminder.

This assistance is known in the industry as a “play management system.” Considering that it’s voluntary for casino patrons in the first place, you might be wondering what possible reasons the gambling industry would have for opposing it. Here they are. First, borrowing from the strategy of climate science deniers, the industry contends that there is no scientific evidence showing that a play management system works and a whole lot more study is needed before it is instituted here. Second, the industry wonders whether gamblers might respond inappropriately to a play management system. They might, for example, set very, very high limits so that they never hit them and end up losing more money than if they had never set a limit in the first place. Isn’t it sweet of the casinos to care about us like this?

The industry will be exerting its considerable power to try to convince the state Gaming Commission to abandon this very modest proposal to counter gambling addiction. So what can you do?

The Gaming Commission is asking for your opinion. You can send an email (ideally before 5 PM tomorrow, November 13) to mgccomments@state.ma.us, with “Play Management System” as the subject line, asking the Commission to require the companies with gambling licenses here in the state to make a play management system available to casino and slot parlor customers. It is, almost literally, the least the industry can do.

We’ll keep you posted.

Licenses in Hand, Casinos Are Coming Back for More

The day after last week’s election, in which the pro-casino forces spent $14 million to defeat the casino law repeal effort, the state’s Gaming Commission officially awarded the casino licenses that beforehand had been only provisional, pending the outcome of the vote.

So you might well think that now that the licenses have been awarded and the i’s have been dotted and t’s crossed, everything is ready for takeoff. But that’s not how things work in the gambling world. As casino opponent Steven Abdow told the Globe yesterday, from the experience of other states we know what happens next: the casinos return to the Legislature with another wish list. Turns out that the law they lobbied so hard for is, well, not quite all of what they want.

For the past few months the casinos been working hard, and successfully, to get the state’s Gaming Commission on their side. The Commission, for example, now supports the notion that casinos should be exempt from the responsibility of checking to see if gambling winners are on the list of persons who are delinquent in paying child support or past due taxes before they make payouts. The state lottery isn’t exempt, but the Commission (which, incidentally is charged with protecting the lottery’s interests) appears to be of the view that casinos deserve an easier time.

And here’s another of the many changes the gambling industry wants. The law the Legislature passed three years ago requires casinos to file reports on the complimentary services — “comps” in the trade lingo — that they provide. Comps are things like a free drink, a free meal, a free room — whatever will keep the gambler on the premises. In one famous case, a very wealthy casino patron was treated to comps in the form of private jet flights to Las Vegas, which contributed to her racking up a staggering $1 billion in gambling losses. It’s hardly surprising that the Legislature regards the complimentary services a casino provides as worthy of the state’s regulatory attention.

But the industry has complained that these reporting requirements are administratively burdensome and wants them to be eliminated, and again, the Gaming Commission has taken the casinos’ side. The reports on complimentary services are unnecessary, the Commission agrees, not only because they would burden the casinos but also because the Commission itself cannot even “envision a compelling use for this data.” Well, here’s an idea — maybe a compelling use for the data is to see if complimentary services are playing any role in increasing compulsive gambling — like the casino law contemplated?

The Legislature will not return to formal sessions until January, so one might expect that bills to tilt the gambling law further in the industry’s favor will not emerge until then. But don’t count on it. You, like most of the members of the House of Representatives, were probably unaware that this past summer House Speaker Robert DeLeo quietly (very quietly) added a pro-casino provision to an otherwise uncontroversial bill on state-chartered banks. The House passed the bill without comment on the gambling law change (which reads opaquely as follows: “the second paragraph of section 3 of said chapter 167B, as so appearing, is hereby amended by striking out the last sentence”) discreetly tucked inside. If the bill is enacted during the remaining months of 2014, the casino industry will have defeated a law now on the books that prevents ATM’s from being placed inside casinos. If it’s not enacted, it will undoubtedly be back again in 2015, along with who knows what other requests.

So the lesson from other states is that now that the Massachusetts licenses have been issued, it’s time for us to really be on our toes. Eternal vigilance is the price of the “responsible gaming” the Legislature promised us. Assuming that one can even envision such a thing.