Moral Politics

Recently, the Charleston Gazette published an editorial that I have not been able to quit thinking about. The editorial was entitled Morality, Irony and the Fate of America. It pointed out that the current Republican agenda is to take healthcare away from 20 million Americans, 170,000 of them West Virginians, and direct that money to the rich in tax cuts. It noted further that the proposed Trump tax cuts would cut one-fourth of the SNAP benefits for low-income families, undermining nutrition for 100,000 West Virginians. All with the same result of benefitting the rich. And “various other programs that keep the wolves from the door, that give people breathing space to improve their own circumstances, are at risk in the ongoing conflict.” According to the Gazette, this is not just wrong as a matter of policy. It is immoral.

Using morality as the basis for political argument has a rich history in America and elsewhere. But this is dangerous territory because each of us has a personal view of morality fashioned by family, religion, education and personal experience. When it comes to morality we are not all using the same language. As but one example, opponents of abortion use one version of morality to fuel their opposition. Freedom of choice proponents use a different version to argue for the opposite outcome. Still it seems worthwhile to discuss whether there is a moral politics and, if so, what it is. So, with no expertise in political philosophy or thinking about morality, I now venture there.

The first question is the legitimate role of government. This, of course, is a hot topic these days. Beginning from the conservative view of its proper role, government should only do the things that to be effective must be done collectively. In this category would be things like national defense, large infrastructure projects, and the tax collection system that funds both. Since government has a legal monopoly on force, then also among the things government should do is make laws for common safety and security, enforce the laws through policing and corrections, and resolve disputes through the court system.

Are social welfare programs that create a floor beneath the less fortunate among these things? Here we are talking about highly popular programs like Social Security, Medicare, SNAP benefits, unemployment compensation and disability benefits. If social welfare programs are to be undertaken at all, then it is easy to conclude that these programs are also among the things government should do.

Only government can mount social welfare programs on the scale that would be effective. Most social welfare programs operate on insurance principles that spread the risk of catastrophic outcomes and their cost throughout the whole population instead of forcing the individual victim to bear the full weight. This has to be organized collectively. There may be some among us who would say that churches and private charities could do this work but this is a pipe dream. Private charity is important but it would be quickly overwhelmed without collective government action.

Well then, does government have an obligation to devise and implement social welfare programs – to support the needy and less fortunate among its citizens? Libertarians and other followers of the “objectivist” philosophy of Ayn Rand would say no. They believe that the individual prospers by being selfish, asking for no help from others and giving none.

This objectivist view is inconsistent with the Judeo-Christian philosophy of action and with the teachings of every organized religion. Religious leaders whose business it is to consider moral issues consistently say that helping others in need is a moral imperative. A recent letter to the editor of the Gazette from the Executive Director of the West Virginia Council of Churches urged our Congressional representatives to maintain their support for SNAP benefits on religious grounds.

Then there is the fact that every modern government recognizes this imperative, those in Western Europe more than others. Social welfare programs became more common as the phenomenon of empathy spread in society. But mere empathy withers in the face of the high cost of acting on it. As New York Times columnist David Brooks has argued, those we recognize as having a strong moral compass have sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. Whatever the source of this moral sense, when it comes to social welfare most people have it. It would be difficult to find a political leader in any country, except perhaps our own, willing to deny that government has a moral obligation to build some sort of support system for those in need.

Without anything to back this up other than a visceral feel, I believe that our sense of moral imperative, and therefore the legitimacy of government social welfare programs, is highest when dealing with basic needs. Wide swaths of society can rally around programs that eliminate or reduce hunger, but far fewer around programs that, say, provide recreational opportunities. In the high legitimacy category I would also put minimizing pain and disease, homelessness, the infirmities of old age, and responding to natural disasters. But certainly there can be a lot of debate around what we are morally compelled to do.

Unlike the debate about abortion, there is no countervailing moral argument behind the current Republican opposition to Medicaid and SNAP benefits. Medicaid expansion, and even the basic idea of Medicaid itself, has been threatened in the fever to repeal Obamacare. How, or if, we manage health insurance for those able to afford it is a different question entirely from whether we provide it for those who can’t. The fact that Congressional Republicans have wrapped the two issues together in the repeal effort demonstrates that the argument to undermine Medicaid cannot stand on its own.

When Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and their surrogates offer any reason behind their hostility to Medicaid and SNAP benefits it is a fiscal, not a moral reason. They say we must cut back on these benefits because they are growing at a rate that is unsustainable over the long run. I don’t pretend to know whether this is true but it seems unlikely we couldn’t find some adjustments to make them sustainable. What is perfectly obvious is that the people who receive these benefits are in need now — today. The moral imperative for government to act should not yield in favor of some cool assessment of future bookkeeping. Doing what should be done may not be easy, but that is often the nature of moral choices.



West Virginia’s High Stakes Stimulus Plan

The West Virginia Legislature has a single required duty when it meets each year — pass a balanced budget. When the regular session began in early 2017, the revenue available for funding state programs had dropped to $4.05B, approximately $500M less than was spent in the previous fiscal year. Against this backdrop, Governor Justice proposed a number of new revenue sources and programs, few of which got any traction.

Being in no mood to raise new revenues, the Legislature was prepared to force the state to “live within its means” by drastically cutting programs and services. But on June 13, at the proverbial last minute, the Governor sent a letter to the Speaker of the House of Delegates with a revised revenue estimate of $4.225B. This higher revenue estimate enabled the Legislature finally to pass a budget without hyper-cuts to state programs. But the estimate was based on wishful thinking and may force the Legislature to confront an even larger deficit next fiscal year.

Careful readers of the Governor’s revised revenue estimate would have noticed a portentous footnote that made his higher estimates dependent upon the passage of two bills related to roads:

These estimates are contingent on revenues and projected economic activity associated with the passage of Engrossed Senate Bill 1003, relating generally to WV Parkways Authority, and Engrossed Senate Bill 1006, increasing funding for State Road Fund, as recommended by the Governor.

So the final budget commits the state to certain spending in FY 2018 that will be “funded” by uncertain, estimated tax revenues from future economic activity. According to the Governor, that increased economic activity will be generated by ramped up roadbuilding and repair, itself dependent upon the public sale of new bonds. The bulk of these new bonds cannot be issued until voters approve the bond issue in a special referendum to be held October 7, 2017.

In fairness, $140M in new revenues for the roadbuilding effort will be secured by the $.035 per gallon increase in the gasoline tax, increasing the motor vehicle privilege tax and a variety of new DMV fees. Plus $400M to $500M in new bonds will be sold by the West Virginia Parkways Authority and financed by increased Turnpike tolls. The roadbuilding from those bonds will be confined to ten southern West Virginia counties contiguous to the Turnpike.

But the large majority of the new bond revenue will depend on public approval in the special referendum. This will be the second largest roadbuilding bond effort in state history and, if successful, will raise about $2.4B. The last such effort was a 1996 road bond amendment for $550M, or about $859M in today’s dollars. One major worry is whether the bond referendum will pass. Between 1973 and 1996, voters defeated road bond referendums three times and no road bond proposal has been before the public in 21 years.

In his public statements about the issue, Governor Justice has been apocalyptic about the possibility of a failed bond referendum, warning “[i]f it fails, this state is history. That’s all there is to it. . . . You will have a complete melt-down if this doesn’t go through.” Even if the referendum does pass, several months will be required to sell the bonds, issue and award contracts and get construction underway. None of the roadbuilding and repair financed by these new bonds can begin until the spring of 2018. On this schedule the state is unlikely to benefit from any increased economic activity until FY 2019.

There are other problems with relying on future economic activity from roadbuilding to fund the budget. Clearly there will not be a one-to-one return on the dollars spent, at least in the short run. A certain segment of the funds generated by the bonds will be consumed in state administration, and another segment in overhead and profit for the roadbuilding companies. Although wages to laborers will increase while the work is underway, there is no guarantee that these laborers will spend the money in West Virginia or be taxed as residents here.

On the other hand, there is an economic multiplier that always increases the benefit of public spending as it gets recycled through the economy. If we are careful, each stage of this spending can yield tax revenue. Furthermore, better roads will have a long term, although hard to measure, positive impact on the ease of commerce and may be part of attracting new business. The best that can be said for the roadbuilding stimulus is that it can pay off if everything goes according to plan or better. Yet how often does this happen?

The Governor should get some credit for pushing these measures through. He will certainly be the goat if, as seems likely, the expected revenues do not materialize in FY 2018 and the Legislature faces a larger deficit next spring.

The benefits from a roadbuilding stimulus plan, even if they occur, will mostly be short term – while the roadbuilding is underway. What we need instead of short term, stopgap measures, is a serious plan to stabilize and grow revenues. The Legislature knows what revenue tools are available – income taxes, sales and gross receipts taxes, excise taxes on certain items, estate taxes, and others. We need the proper mix of these revenue tools so that we take full advantage of good economic times in the coal and gas industry, but also have solid revenue streams when these industries decline. Above all we should avoid the faddish, trickle-down economics of corporate and personal income tax cutting so favored by some conservative Republican legislators.



Trump’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity

One thing that rankles President Donald Trump is that he was not the most popular candidate in the 2016 Presidential election. In fact, he lost the popular vote to Hilary Clinton by approximately 3,000,000 votes, 2.1% of the total votes cast for President. Trump’s explanation is that Clinton’s vote total was the result of widespread voter fraud. In a tweet on November 27, 2016, Trump asserted “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Although he has produced no evidence of fraudulent voting, Trump has continued to make this claim and threatened an investigation. The truth is that voter fraud is exceedingly rare.

On May 11, 2017, the President issued Executive Order 13799, which created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The ostensible purpose of this Commission is to study the registration and voting processes used in Federal elections. Vice President Pence chairs the Commission and has appointed as Vice Chair Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. An early supporter of President Trump, Kobach has been a key architect of anti-immigrant policies and voter suppression rules around the country. In one of his first Commission duties, Kobach issued a letter to all state Secretaries of State requesting the production of sensitive voter registration and voting history information.

The letter requested only publicly available information and suggested that the responsive information could be submitted electronically. Here is the specific information requested:

The publicly available voter roll data for [your state], including, if publicly available under the laws of your state, the full first and last names of all registrants, middle names or initials if available, addresses, dates of birth, political party (if recorded in your state), last four digits of social security number if available, voter history (elections voted in) from 2006 onward, active/inactive status, cancelled status, information regarding any felony convictions, information regarding voter registration in another state, information regarding military status, and overseas citizen information.

As of this writing 44 states have declined to provide some or all the information requested, often because some of it is deemed unavailable to the public or is not collected by the state. But some states such as California and Virginia refuse to cooperate in any way. West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner has not yet responded.

It may be unnecessary for West Virginia to decide how to respond. On July 3, 2017, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed an Emergency Motion for Temporary Restraining Order in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia alleging that the Commission had begun collecting and aggregating sensitive personal information of voters without any procedures in place to protect voter privacy or the security of the state voter data. In particular, EPIC alleged that the Commission failed to comply with the Privacy Impact Assessment requirements of the federal E-Government Act of 2002. A hearing on the motion will be held on Friday, July 7.

Assuming that collection of state voter information is not enjoined, what response can we expect from the West Virginia Secretary of State? State law already permits the Secretary of State to sell state voter lists and data files containing some of the information the Commission has requested. WV Code 3-2-30. However, this information may not contain the voter’s telephone number, email address, Social Security number or driver’s license number. In addition, no lists or voter data files may be used for commercial or charitable solicitations, sold or reproduced for resale. The Secretary of State is authorized to share data files across state lines with state or local election officials, but there is no express authority to share data with federal officials.

The Commission’s request for voter data is troubling for a number of reasons. The data will reside in the White House with no legal restriction on how it can be used. It is not clear how the Commission will use it in the first place, because each state collects and stores its information in unique ways making state to state comparisons difficult. There is no structure for ensuring that the information, aggregated for the first time on a national basis, would be secure from hackers. And as the plaintiffs in the EPIC lawsuit argued,

It does not matter that a particular state might disclose its voter data to some other requester under some other circumstances: this requester — the Commission — is barred by law from gathering this data without sufficient constitutional and statutory privacy safeguards.

The safest thing for Secretary of State Warner to do is to respond with questions of his own about how the information will be used and how it will be safeguarded. The Commission has no subpoena power, and Warner should not rush to comply with some artificial deadline before he is certain that our voter information will be safe and properly used. Second, he should not disclose the last four digits of a West Virginia voter’s Social Security number under any circumstances. That is prohibited by state law. Third, if he decides to provide the information he should sell it to the Commission on the same terms as he would sell it to research groups and political parties. State law does not authorize him to release the data for free to anyone. And no doubt there are provisions in the form contract of sale used by the Secretary of State’s office when this type of data is sold that bind the purchaser not to use the data for commercial purposes.

But here is an even better strategy. Responding to requests for voter information from federal officials is not among the statutorily enumerated powers of the Secretary of State. WV Code 3-1A-6. This suggests that the decision whether to provide the information belongs to the Governor, who holds the state’s executive power. Governor Justice should simply direct Warner to decline the request to provide voter information, or respond in that fashion himself. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe took this approach, saying “I have no intention of honoring this request. Virginia conducts fair, honest, and democratic elections, and there is no evidence of significant voter fraud in Virginia. . . At best this commission was set up as a pretext to validate Donald Trump’s alternative election facts, and at worst is a tool to commit large-scale voter suppression.”