The DACA Dilemma

President Trump’s decision to end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which had prevented most deportations of those brought here as children by parents who entered the country illegally, ignited a firestorm of condemnation this past week. One would certainly have to be hard hearted to not sympathize with the plight of those who are “American” in every way except their citizenship, and most Americans seem to be in favor of federal legislation that will offer a path to citizenship for those who meet certain criteria. The very fact of the DACA program, penciled into existence as an executive order by President Obama in 2012 after Congress failed—yet again—to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, speaks to both the complexities and contradictions that bedevil any resolution to this issue.

The most obvious complexity surrounding those children, adolescents, and (now) adults who were temporarily protected from deportation by DACA is that many in Congress fear granting special status or even outright citizenship to them is essentially a reward to the parents who smuggled them into the United States—and may encourage other foreigners to do exactly the same to secure U.S. citizenship for their children.

I am old enough to remember the “one-time-only” amnesty during the 1980’s Reagan administration that was supposed to fix this problem—once and for all. The crux of the problem is that rewarding people for any bad behavior will—even if you wag your finger forebodingly—only encourage more of the same. Providing an express route to citizenship for those who were protected by DACA will likely serve as an irresistible temptation for yet more undocumented parents to smuggle their equally undocumented children over the borders in the years ahead—count on it.

Any legal solution is guaranteed to anger advocates on either side of this issue. If we grant a loophole in established immigration law, parents with children will continue to have a huge incentive to sneak into the country. If we establish an arbitrary cut off—for example, if we provide permanent residency or citizenship only for those who arrived before DACA was first established—we can expect protests from both those who arrived afterward and were led to believe they would be protected from deportation indefinitely and those states that are most impacted by illegal immigration and expected President Trump to honor his campaign pledge to end the DACA program soon after he was elected. If we move to immediately enforce the law and simply deport all those who are residing here illegally now that their DACA protections are gone, it would obviously be wrong to ask those individuals to suffer due to the lack of permanent fix to a supposedly compassionate temporary policy that has now left them without both home and country.

Of course, whatever the outcome of this debate, we must remember that DACA was not a law—it was an administrative bandage put into place by President Obama that was of questionable legality and completely ignored actual Federal law. One of the reasons President Trump has ended the DACA program now is that his administration was about to be sued by states that wanted it ended immediately—and very likely would have prevailed in court. The six month delay in enforcement that he has insisted upon will at least provide a window for Congress to finally craft a permanent legal solution to this issue that will combine compassion and common sense.

Cue the contradictions.

As is the case with most thorny issues, this one is made yet more difficult by both politics and money. Those on both sides of the debate on this matter are often compromised by self-interests that lie just beneath the surfaces of their sanctimonious rhetoric. If this were merely a matter of providing a reasonable solution that balances practicality and the eternal American promise of fair play, it would likely have been resolved long ago.

Up until recently, organized labor and their supporters in the Democratic Party were totally adverse to the idea of an illegal immigrant amnesty because it was presumed the net effect would be to take away jobs from Americans and depress wages. However, now that Democrats are anxious to firm up the electoral firewall that so spectacularly failed Hillary Clinton last year, support for immigration—both legal and illegal—has become a litmus test for the Party and it members, who presume this issue will work to their advantage with a fast-growing Hispanic population and animate their core of liberal voters. Not surprisingly, Republicans are allergic to creating more potential Democratic voters in states like California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida that are both heavy on electoral votes and packed with individuals affected by a DACA repeal. Whatever else is said by politicians on both sides of this issue, any solution to the problems posed by DACA and its repeal is affected by cold calculations regarding electoral loss and gain.

The monetary component of the problems regarding DACA—and most other immigration issues—is that many major employers in localities and states across the nation are heavily dependent on foreign workers. Tech companies in California and elsewhere—Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook among others—are anxious to keep open their pipeline to computer programming and software design talent from abroad, and they are terrified of any effort to restrict immigration or ramp up enforcement of existing laws because it might impact their ability to move new products and services to market and decrease their amazing profitability. On the flip side, industries that need a steady stream of compliant and near-invisible employees to perform dirty and often dangerous jobs—seafood and meat processors, hotels, restaurants, and un-automated factories being the most visible examples—worry that the loss of illegal immigrant labor will lead to wage pressures that will erode their sometimes marginal profitability. Our high-flown rhetoric is often contradicted by our base economic needs.

The political and economic factors that warp any discussion about immigration—legal or otherwise—have always been with us, and passing laws that are both practicable and humane will always involve compromises that will leave few happy and many dissatisfied. However, compromise we must. For either side in this debate to continue to press for pointless ideological purity is to condemn us all to partisan and damaging arguments that could leave us no further along to reaching a resolution that will allow those who grew up feeling like “Americans” to become Americans in fact—under a Federal law that will, we hope, be both fair and Constitutional.

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Big Money Politics Helps Produce Political Extremism

People have been complaining about the corrupting influence of political contributions forever, and it is true that the escalating costs of running for state and national political offices have turned our elected officials into full-time fundraisers—for themselves. Given the many millions of dollars it might today cost to campaign for a Congressional or Senate seat—and setting aside the astronomical $850 million spent by the two major party candidates during the 2016 Presidential race—it is apparent that we now have a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

It is an open question just how much of the daily struggle of the average American actually gets through to candidates who are cosseted by campaign contributors handing them gobs of money. This does not become less of a problem after they are sworn into office. Upon being elected, officials immediately start to raise the dollars necessary to hold their seats, eclipsing the daily work on behalf of constituents—whose troublesome needs eat into the time that must be spent raising campaign funds.

However, the power of incumbency at least makes raising money easier because political favors now can be granted in exchange for campaign contributions, which are certainly a pernicious form of peculiarly legalized bribery. As the costs of political campaigns keep increasing, the importance of your opinion to your elected representative is ever more related to the size of your bank balance, the “pay to play” politics that disgusts most Americans. We are, sad to say, now all forced to live by the Golden Rule: “Those who have the gold make the rules.”

There is, however, another problem beyond the capture of our political institutions by wealthy individuals and interest groups—and it is helping to tear apart our nation.

Campaign fundraising used to be built around two basic appeals. On the one hand, you could attempt to appeal to the more elevated human traits of empathy or sympathy. An example of this approach might read as follows:

“Your contribution will give this puppy a warm bed tonight.”

Of course, if you really wanted to motivate potential contributors, a more crisis-laden approach was often more effective:

“Unless you contribute, this puppy will die tonight.”

If, however, you are running for political office today and need oodles of money in order to compete, a more sensationalistic and confrontational approach is preferred:

“UNLESS YOU CONTRIBUTE, MY OPPONENT WILL MURDER THIS PUPPY TONIGHT!” 

See the problem? The ongoing need for cash to keep today’s mega-million dollar campaigns afloat inevitably pushes all political discourse to the extremes because this is what best motivates contributors. Candidates can no longer afford to be gracious, reasonable, or moderate. All political opponents are now by grim necessity depicted as horrible brutes, and all opposing policy ideas are certain to result in lingering death, massive destruction, and the breakdown of civil society—because to say otherwise would not persuade anyone to write a check. Every election cycle is now Armageddon—the ultimate confrontation between good and evil—and each campaign season only further reinforces these venomous attitudes.

Big money politics have, of course, become an even worse problem over the years because of both inane Supreme Court decisions that have privileged wealthy donors and the sheer recalcitrance of officeholders who love the fundraising opportunities of incumbency and are allergic to reforms. However, reform we must if we are to have any hope of rescuing our nation from extremist politics and speech because campaign cash does more than just buy influence: It is itself a major driver of the political extremism that is both stalling our political processes and sidetracking legitimate national needs—all the while turning neighbors into enemies. Unless we can find a way to reduce the extraordinary costs now associated with political campaigns, we are likely condemned to yet more divisive and damaging political speech that will continue to hollow out the shrinking center of our national dialogue.

Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

To give the 1960’s countercultural guru and drug enthusiast Dr. Timothy Leary his due, he claimed his most famous saying—from which this commentary takes its title—was not meant to advocate a life of addled indolence. There is, however, little doubt that some variation of his advice has taken hold in a great many corners of American society, and even Cheech and Chong would be shocked at where we are today.

A recent article in the Washington Post contained these terrifying statistics about America’s current disastrous epidemic of drug abuse:

“In 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, heroin deaths alone surpassed gun homicides for the first time. More than 33,000 people died of opioid overdose, with another 20,000 dying from other drugs. A recent federal study found that prescription painkillers are now more widely used than tobacco.”

The article goes on to note that prescription overdose deaths have been rising since 2000 despite state and federal efforts to crack down on the abuse of these drugs.

It would, of course, be impossible to not point a finger at the pharmaceutical industry. Their aggressive marketing of all manner of drugs to cure every side effect of living our normal daily lives has been disingenuous at best—and outright quackery at worst. Although improvements in medications have made many diseases and maladies more bearable and even provided cures for some which were previously a death sentence, we have also been sold the notion that annoying or inconvenient variations in human behavior or function are now problems worthy of a visit to the doctor—and more and more of our lives are now wrapped up in gulping pills to cure more and more newly discovered “illnesses”.

Is your child is too rambunctious? We’ve got a pill for that! Are you shy around strangers? We’ve got a medication to cure you! Need to pep up? We’ve got you covered! Need to wind down? We’ve got something for that too! Sweaty? Yep! Not sweaty enough? Sure thing! Too hairy? You betcha! Not hairy enough? Step right up!

The predations of the pharmaceutical industry—now free to advertise their wares to a credulous and yearning public—are successful because they take advantage of two signal human weaknesses: our attraction to easy solutions and our desire—born of our insecurities—to “perfect” ourselves and our lives.

Just as we have a fantasy belief that eating fat-free foods will make us thin without the bother of exercise or that purchasing an expensive new laptop computer for our academically struggling child will guarantee future admission to an Ivy League college, so do we easily delude ourselves into believing that health, happiness, and success is available if we can find the right pill to swallow. The shamans of the tribal past would find the pill-sized hopes hidden inside our medicine cabinets, gym bags, bedside tables, and purses to be entirely unsurprising.

Of course, our routine use—and shocking abuse—of powerful and highly addictive opioid painkillers is another step beyond. If we knew how many of our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues are gulping Norco, Percocet, and OxyContin—or perhaps even shooting heroin or snorting cocaine—in daily dosages sufficient to stun a cow, we would likely be shaken to the core. This is obviously an issue that puts all manner of medical practitioners on the front lines of any solution, but it also speaks to something deeper, darker, and more disturbing happening in towns and cities across America where the desire for the numbing escape these drugs provide for many has nothing to do with a physical pain.

It would be foolish to deny that many people like to get high, but most somehow manage to get through their freshman year of college only slightly worse for the wear, a few brain cells short yet ready for the productive lives lying ahead. There have, of course, always been a few who never really grow beyond their partying phase of life, and these men and women have always spent their lives dealing with the chaos and health problems that have resulted.

However, we need to ask what has so changed within ourselves that we are now landing in emergency rooms, rehab centers, or the morgue in such astonishing numbers—lives ruined, families destroyed, and communities devastated.

Many are wondering why Americans are now so often using these potent painkillers, but I ask a different question: Given the grim and aimless lives so many are now forced to live, why would you not turn to narcotics for relief from the emotional and spiritual hurts that somehow must be endured—day after day after day. If you look back over the span of human existence during the past several thousand years, we have counted on three facets of our lives for the purpose and pleasure that helps us deal with the daily rigors and challenges we all must face: our families, our faiths, and our work. Unfortunately, all three are under siege by societal, economic, and political forces that are eroding the foundations of much of American life.

Soaring divorce rates, single parent households, out-of-wedlock births, and lonely latchkey kids: All of this and more is grinding down families across our nation. Organized religion—now often derided as the last refuge of the ignorant and bigoted by the intelligentsia—is in full retreat from the onslaught of our ever more permissive society. Work that offers dignity and pride of craft has been often replaced by “McJobs” that offer little beyond a meager paycheck, and more workers are daily told that their livelihoods are being shipped abroad—or being replaced by a robot or piece of computer software. Taken individually, these trends are profoundly disturbing; all three together are an assault upon everything that many of us hold dear.

Those who wonder why so many voters are revolting against the status quo fail to understand that many Americans blame our national leaders for their blithe lack of concern with the agony that so many feel today. We don’t want another pointless regulatory commission, another ossified agency, or another clock-watching bureaucrat explaining just how wonderful the latest round of new and improved government policies will make our lives—long after our bones have already been picked clean. Until our elected and appointed officials get it through their thick skulls that our country and its people expect leadership that supports families, respects faith, and empowers American workers, they can expect little beyond our cold contempt and volcanic rage.

Until this happens, don’t be surprised if many Americans turn to a narcotic haze to provide some respite from the empty charade that so many of our lives have become. This might not be a great long term plan, and it certainly carries along its own measure of misery. However, for many who are desperately lonely, spiritually bereft, and physically exhausted, a little drug-induced escape makes more sense than not.

What Now For Illinois?

 

Having now passed the largest tax increase in Illinois’ history—one that will pay for barely 1/3 of the state’s current unpaid bills and still does nothing to deal with massive structural shortfalls that are bankrupting the state—the political class will now attempt to return to business as usual. How will this be possible? Our two year budget stalemate has exposed the financial house of cards driving Illinois toward a junk credit rating. The gulf that now exists between the lean and responsive government that our citizens dream about and the reality of our decades-long adventure ride of borrowing and catastrophic debt is impossible to ignore any longer.

Good and honest government is the foundation of a safe and just society, but any government—whether federal, state, or local—must always be rigorously monitored and carefully sized to match the needs and the means of the citizenry in order to avoid being both overly intrusive and ruinously expensive. If it is not—as has been the case for too long in Illinois—two problems will result.

First, we can expect that the growth and maintenance of government will become—to a greater and greater extent with each passing year—the very purpose of government. As more contracts and paychecks become attached to agencies and their programs, vocal, organized, and determined constituencies will always form to defend the need for that spending—and insist that yet more is necessary. Given that bureaucrats quickly learn how to both hide bad news and frustrate any attempt at legitimate outcome measurements, expenditures simply continue unabated year after year without any honest accounting of costs and benefits. Money goes in, money goes out, and citizens rarely have the least idea where, why, and how their tax dollars are being spent—which gladdens the hearts of the political class and their allies busily enriching themselves at the public till.

Second, if government is permitted to heedlessly expand its mandate by assuming more and more of the responsibilities that should be left to parents, the private sector, religious institutions, and civic organizations, personal initiative and responsibility is eroded. No matter how much people with the best of intentions might wish it to be otherwise, government cannot shield us from every problem. Moreover, a fair and just government should never protect its citizens from the consequences of their own irresponsibility because it will simply encourage and enable more of the same. This will both frustrate the responsible and empty their pockets to pay for the increasing foolishness of others. The end result is bureaucratic growth and government policies that do little other than subsidize personal failures and enable social dysfunction.

Does any of this sound familiar? If it does, consider speaking out, demanding accountability, and voting new leadership into state offices. The worst strategy of all will be silence. If we are too beaten down and befuddled to insist on dramatic change, we deserve to reap the whirlwind that lies dead ahead.

 

 

 

America’s “Affordability” Problem

If one were to make a list of the three spending categories that bedevil the average person’s budget, the list would read as follows: healthcare, housing, and education.

Now make a list of the spending categories where federal and state policies have most actively attempted to improve affordability, and three race right to the top: healthcare, housing, and education.

Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?

When I entered college in 1976, the following were true:

• Annual cost of healthcare per person: approximately $690
• Median home value: approximately $44,000
• Average annual cost of a four-year private college:          approximately $10,700
• Average annual cost of a four-year public college: approximately $1,200
• Average annual salary: approximately $9225

It was, therefore, quite possible—if one was careful with money—for the average person to obtain healthcare, find somewhere to live, and obtain an education at a public college or university. Purchasing housing and funding an education did, of course, require some borrowing and some hard choices about where and how to spend, but a comfortable life with reasonable aspirations was available for individuals who were willing to work hard and make sacrifices in pursuit of their goals.

Nothing was easy, nothing was guaranteed, and nothing was free; however, everything was possible for those with initiative and perseverance. Obviously, this is no longer the case. Although local conditions and circumstances vary somewhat, the aspirations of average American are being crushed by the onerous costs of healthcare, housing, and higher education—the expenses associated with these essentials having far surpassed both the CPI and personal incomes. What happened between 1976 and today, and what role did government play in advancing—or impeding—our dreams?

The short answer is that government “helped” you—but not in the manner you expected. Instead of improving affordability by allowing transparency and market-based efficiencies in these three critical areas of the economy, heavy-handed and clumsy government interventions have completely obliterated honest and open markets driven by basic value and sensible pricing. Healthcare, housing, and education are now almost wholly controlled by rules and regulations that are written and interpreted by unelected bureaucrats at the behest of elected officials who are beholden to their campaign contributors. Given how disconnected from economic reality our healthcare, housing, and education markets have become over the past few decades of government interference, any attempt to allow them to operate independent of supervision and—more importantly—the overt and hidden price supports now baked into the system will surely lead to startling price deflation across these three sectors that will rattle the very foundations of our economy, financial systems, and society.

*   *   *

The explosive growth of the cost of healthcare is obviously affected by the simple fact that the average American is older than 40 years ago—therefore, requiring more healthcare. However, it is also a fact that Americans pay far more for exactly the same procedures, medications, and services than any other developed nation in the world; an aging population does not, therefore, tell the whole story. We should instead look at the manner in which governmental policies have disastrously skewed the health insurance market by promoting fee-for-service reimbursement (which perpetuates endless medical “churn” to drive up provider incomes), poor internal controls to identify fraud, and virtually non-existent efforts to control costs—producing an almost perfect mechanism for driving up healthcare costs for everyone.

Moreover, the politicization of healthcare through government interventions—Obamacare being the most recent and visible example—causes what should be a free market to be captured by special interests and lobbyists whose sole concern is making certain that the gravy train keeps rolling so that profits can endlessly rise. This fatally flawed public marketplace, of course, affects the private healthcare sector in turn because all the rules and regulations written by state and federal legislators affect both—and focus almost exclusively on expanding access with almost no concern for costs.

As a result, whether it comes out of our own pockets or is “free” healthcare paid through taxes and government borrowing, every aspect of American healthcare costs more and more—yet our health outcomes compared to the rest of the world lag further and further behind because the system is driven by a quest for profits rather than outcomes. A system that benefits itself by paying for a heart transplant instead of a health club membership is not serving the public’s interest, and the glacial movement towards reimbursement models that incentivize patient outcomes and pay a flat annual amount per patient rather than allowing every separate service to be endlessly billed through a fee-for-service model are wonderful, but their growth is held in check by the political capture of the healthcare market by powerful corporations and interest groups that buy the legislative process with their campaign contributions.

Not surprisingly, decades of “reforms” have seemed to do little to help the actual patient—but they always line the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry, big hospital conglomerates, specialty care providers, and durable medical equipment manufacturers. Today healthcare costs absorb 18% of our nation’s entire Gross Domestic Product and cost over $10,000 per person, which is twice the average for other developed countries.

*   *   *

The catastrophe of government efforts to improve housing “affordability” would require an entire bookshelf to detail, but we can easily see the broad outlines of the problems that have been created in three areas.

Public housing—the signature effort of government to help provide homes for the poor—has obviously contributed to urban blight, crime, and a host of social pathologies while trapping generations of Americans in conditions that are little better than prisons. This all has, of course, been facilitated by a political process that rewards insiders and campaign contributors with lucrative contracts, politicians who are happy to cut ribbons yet are be nowhere to found when roofs leak and furnaces malfunction due to shoddy construction and maintenance, and the sheer magnitude of government incompetence—quite a toxic brew.

In addition, government lending programs have for decades encouraged the more affluent to flee their poor neighbors by creating swathes of new housing stock that lock out the unfortunate and actively discourage any attempt to create mixed-income neighborhoods. The result of decades of these programs and incentives has been the creation of suburban and urban mono-cultural monstrosities that allow developers to turn a nice profit yet contribute to cruel segregation driven by income levels that serve to only more thoroughly isolate the most vulnerable families based on their credit scores. The endless sprawl that results also drives the building of expensive and expansive infrastructure to support this insanity—legacy costs we pay for through escalating property and state taxes that many can ill afford on top of their mortgages.

Finally, the ruthless suppression of mortgage rates to improve “affordability” has encouraged ruinous speculation through “house flipping” that has enriched a few but further ratcheted up prices and inflated a series of housing bubbles that have resulted in real estate crashes that always seem to lead to taxpayer bailouts of lenders stuck with a fistful of non-performing mortgages. Government policies that turn basic shelter into a crazed casino of greed serve some well but cause widespread damage to the social fabric of our nation. Today the median price of a home in the United States has hit $345,000—which places an unconscionable strain on families struggling just to get by.

*   *   *

Education is, sadly, perhaps the most pungent example of the harm government efforts to “help” can cause. Briefly, the federal government decided decades ago that the best way to help students to afford education was to facilitate their transformation into debt slaves. Between the mid-1970’s and today, the aggregate subsidized loan limit for the Stafford Student Loan program jumped from $10,000 to $65,000, thus allowing colleges and universities to dramatically and unconcernedly raise tuition, room, and board prices because students could, after all, simply borrow more to cover the increased costs.

However, just in case students want to go all in on that Art History degree and graduate school, students can now blithely sign away their futures with additional unsubsidized loans up to a total of roughly $138,000 in borrowing. In addition, let’s not forget those lovely Parent PLUS loans that help college and universities to destroy the golden years of mom and dad by allowing them to accrue their own crippling debts to help pay for the salaries of an army of Assistant Deans and the whirlpool tubs in the new Student Center. It seems little wonder that college enrollments are dropping nationwide. All this “affordable” education is destroying the financial futures of generations of Americans by impoverishing both the young and the old—a disaster that has led to a terrifying total of over $1.4 trillion of student loan debt.

*  *  *

In short, decades of government efforts to make healthcare, housing, and education more affordable have been a costly and damaging constellation of failures that have enriched a few and emptied the pockets of everybody else. Given the inherent unsustainably of these markets absent increasingly intrusive and expensive government programs, one can easily foresee a point in the future when they can no longer be propped up.

There is an old saying: Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked. As government debt and voter frustration grow, the chances that we will be forced to reckon with long-hidden price realities in healthcare, housing, and education looms ever larger. This will be an unpleasant and unwelcome wake up call for many who were led to believe in values that were artificially created and expensively maintained, but it is likely to soon become an unavoidable reality.