So far, the much-dreaded “sequester” – some $85 billion in federal spending cuts between March and September 30 – hasn’t been evident to most Americans.
The dire warnings that had issued from the White beforehand – threatening that Social Security checks would be delayed, airport security checks would be clogged, and other federal facilities closed – seem to have been overblown.
Sure, March’s employment report was a big disappointment. But it’s hard to see any direct connection between those poor job numbers and the sequester. The government has been shedding jobs for years. Most of the losses in March were from the Postal Service.
Take a closer look, though, and Americans are starting to feel the pain. They just don’t know it yet.
That’s because so much of what the government does affects the nation in local, decentralized ways. Federal funds find their way to community housing authorities, state unemployment offices, local school districts, private universities, and companies. So it’s hard for most Americans to know the sequester is responsible for the lost funding, lost jobs, or just plain inconvenience.
A tiny sampling: Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts is bracing for a cut of about $51 million in its $685 million of annual federal research grants and contracts. The public schools of Syracuse, New York, will lose over $1 million. The housing authority of Joliet, Illinois, will take a hit of nearly $900,000. Northrop Grumman Information Systems just issued layoff notices to 26 employees at its plant in Lawton, Oklahoma. Unemployment benefits are being cut in Pennsylvania and Utah.
The cuts — and thousands like them — are so particular and localized they don’t feel as if they’re the result of a change in national policy.
It’s just like what happened with the big federal stimulus of 2009 and 2010, but in reverse. Then, money flowed out to so many different places and institutions that most Americans weren’t aware of the stimulus program as a whole.
A second reason the sequester hasn’t been visible is a large share of the cuts are in programs directed at the poor – and America’s poor are often invisible.
For example, the Salt Lake Community Action Program recently closed a food pantry in Murray, Utah, serving more than 1,000 needy people every month. The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium is closing a center that gives alcohol and drug treatment to Native Alaskans.
Some 1,700 poor families in and around Sacramento, California are likely to lose housing vouchers that pay part of their rents. More than 180 students are likely to be dropped from a Head Start program run by the Cincinnati-Hamilton County (Ohio) Community Action Agency.
Most Americans don’t know about these and other cuts because the poor live in different places than the middle class and wealthy. Poverty has become ever more concentrated geographically.
A third reason the sequester is invisible is many people whose jobs are affected by it are being “furloughed” rather than fired. “Furlough” is a euphemism for working shorter workweeks and taking pay cuts.
Two thousand civilian employees at the Army Research Lab in Maryland will be subject to one-day-per-week furloughs starting on April 22, for example, resulting in a 20 percent drop in pay. The Hancock Field Air National Guard Base is furloughing 280 workers. Many federal courts are now closed on Fridays.
Furloughs spread the pain. The hardship isn’t as evident as it would be if it came in the form of mass layoffs. But don’t fool yourself: A 20 percent pay cut is a huge burden for those who have to endure it.
Bear in mind, finally, the sequester is just starting. The sheer scale of it is guaranteed to make it far more apparent in coming months.
Some 140,000 low-income families will lose their housing vouchers, for example. Entire communities that depend mainly on defense-related industries or facilities will take major hits.
If you thought March’s job numbers were disappointing, just wait.
With the sequester, America has adopted austerity economics. Yet austerity economics is the wrong medicine at exactly the wrong time. Look what it’s done to Europe.
By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, April 8, 2013
It’s been about two weeks since Brian Beutler coined a helpful phrase: “sequestration NIMBYism.” Republicans love the sequester policy they hated as recently as last month, and think it’s terrific that these deep, mindless spending cuts have taken effect.
But they’re not at all pleased about sequestration cuts that hurt their own constituents. As Brian explained two weeks ago, the across-the-board nature of the policy makes it nearly inevitable that lawmakers will see some consequences in their districts and states, “but when those consequences materialize, Republicans either blame the administration or plead for special treatment.”
Jed Lewison explained this morning:
After years of doing nothing but talk about the need to cut spending, Republicans have finally started to get what they want — and it turns out they don’t like it. But instead of doing the obvious thing, which would be to change their position on austerity, they’re simply issuing press releases and statements about how they don’t like the cuts that are taking place in their own back yard.
The problem is that their solution — to make the cuts in somebody else’s back yard — isn’t really a solution. It’s just political spin. There is no magic wand to make spending cuts be painless and for Republicans to pretend otherwise is transparently dishonest and defies common sense.
We’ve covered this a bit in recent weeks, but Republican criticism of sequestration cuts appears to be intensifying. Of particular interest at this point is which cuts, in particular, have become cause for alarm.
Is it concern over Head Start closings? Food-safety furloughs? Struggling Americans going without housing assistance? Setbacks for medical research into Alzheimer’s disease and influenza? Layoffs at nuclear containment sites? Disruptions in the courts?
No, as is it turns out, the one issue that finally managed to capture Republicans’ attention is … airports.
We learned last week that the FAA, left with no choice thanks to the sequester Republicans are so fond of, is closing many air traffic control facilities in April. GOP members of Congress are outraged.
Sequestration generally provides agencies little flexibility to determine what parts of their budgets to cut — agencies with broad missions have to cut every program by the same percentage. But the majority of FAA’s employees are air traffic controllers, and as a result, FAA has identified and announced its intent to close nearly 150 relatively low-volume towers to help meet its $600 million sequestration this fiscal year.
A group of Senate Democrats and Republicans led by Jerry Moran (R-KS) attempted to reverse the scheduled closures during the debate over funding the government, and make up the spending cuts with unobligated FAA capital funds, but their amendment did not receive a vote.
The effort reflects a pattern among lawmakers — particularly GOP lawmakers — to decry sequestration cuts in their own states and districts, but decline to support a sequestration replacement plan that includes higher revenue. Instead, they support keeping small airports in their jurisdictions open at the expense of financing improvements at higher-traffic airports.
A variety of far-right Republicans, many of whom demand deep and lasting spending cuts, are now demanding that sequestration cuts bypass their constituents.
In one especially amusing story, a Texas Republican whined that spending cuts under the sequester may — wait for it — hurt the economy.
As Greg Sargent recently put it, “Welcome to Sequestration Nation.”
Note to Congress: it’s a stupid policy doing real harm to real people. Just turn the darn thing off.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 27, 2013
“The Ignorance Caucus”: Republicans Are Unable To Apply Critical Thinking And Evidence To Policy Questions
Last week Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, gave what his office told us would be a major policy speech. And we should be grateful for the heads-up about the speech’s majorness. Otherwise, a read of the speech might have suggested that he was offering nothing more than a meager, warmed-over selection of stale ideas.
To be sure, Mr. Cantor tried to sound interested in serious policy discussion. But he didn’t succeed — and that was no accident. For these days his party dislikes the whole idea of applying critical thinking and evidence to policy questions. And no, that’s not a caricature: Last year the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach “critical thinking skills,” because, it said, such efforts “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
And such is the influence of what we might call the ignorance caucus that even when giving a speech intended to demonstrate his openness to new ideas, Mr. Cantor felt obliged to give that caucus a shout-out, calling for a complete end to federal funding of social science research. Because it’s surely a waste of money seeking to understand the society we’re trying to change.
Want other examples of the ignorance caucus at work? Start with health care, an area in which Mr. Cantor tried not to sound anti-intellectual; he lavished praise on medical research just before attacking federal support for social science. (By the way, how much money are we talking about? Well, the entire National Science Foundation budget for social and economic sciences amounts to a whopping 0.01 percent of the budget deficit.)
But Mr. Cantor’s support for medical research is curiously limited. He’s all for developing new treatments, but he and his colleagues have adamantly opposed “comparative effectiveness research,” which seeks to determine how well such treatments work.
What they fear, of course, is that the people running Medicare and other government programs might use the results of such research to determine what they’re willing to pay for. Instead, they want to turn Medicare into a voucher system and let individuals make decisions about treatment. But even if you think that’s a good idea (it isn’t), how are individuals supposed to make good medical choices if we ensure that they have no idea what health benefits, if any, to expect from their choices?
Still, the desire to perpetuate ignorance on matters medical is nothing compared with the desire to kill climate research, where Mr. Cantor’s colleagues — particularly, as it happens, in his home state of Virginia — have engaged in furious witch hunts against scientists who find evidence they don’t like. True, the state has finally agreed to study the growing risk of coastal flooding; Norfolk is among the American cities most vulnerable to climate change. But Republicans in the State Legislature have specifically prohibited the use of the words “sea-level rise.”
And there are many other examples, like the way House Republicans tried to suppress a Congressional Research Service report casting doubt on claims about the magical growth effects of tax cuts for the wealthy.
Do actions like this have important effects? Well, consider the agonized discussions of gun policy that followed the Newtown massacre. It would be helpful to these discussions if we had a good grasp of the facts about firearms and violence. But we don’t, because back in the 1990s conservative politicians, acting on behalf of the National Rifle Association, bullied federal agencies into ceasing just about all research into the issue. Willful ignorance matters.
O.K., at this point the conventions of punditry call for saying something to demonstrate my evenhandedness, something along the lines of “Democrats do it too.” But while Democrats, being human, often read evidence selectively and choose to believe things that make them comfortable, there really isn’t anything equivalent to Republicans’ active hostility to collecting evidence in the first place.
The truth is that America’s partisan divide runs much deeper than even pessimists are usually willing to admit; the parties aren’t just divided on values and policy views, they’re divided over epistemology. One side believes, at least in principle, in letting its policy views be shaped by facts; the other believes in suppressing the facts if they contradict its fixed beliefs.
In her parting shot on leaving the State Department, Hillary Clinton said of her Republican critics, “They just will not live in an evidence-based world.” She was referring specifically to the Benghazi controversy, but her point applies much more generally. And for all the talk of reforming and reinventing the G.O.P., the ignorance caucus retains a firm grip on the party’s heart and mind.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, February 10, 2013
“Perpetrating A Healthcare Fraud”: Professors Go Unpunished In Glaxo $3 Billion Guilty Plea Over Paxil
The head of the UCLA hospital, Dr. David Feinberg, and twenty-one other academics are going unpunished despite their role in perpetrating a healthcare fraud that has resulted in the largest fine ever paid by a pharmaceutical company in US history.
On July 3 GlaxoSmithKline pleaded guilty to criminal charges and agreed pay $3 billion in fines for promoting its bestselling antidepressants for unapproved uses. The heart of the case was an article in a medical journal purporting to document the safety and efficacy of Paxil in treating depression in children. The article listed more than twenty researchers as authors, including UCLA’s Feinberg, but the Department of Justice found that Glaxo had paid for the drafting of the fraudulent article to which the researchers had attached their names.
The study, which, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, had been criticized because it “dangerously misrepresented data” and had “hidden information indicating that the drug promoted suicidal behavior among teenagers,” was published in 2001 in The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The lead “author” was Martin B. Keller, at the time a professor of psychiatry at Brown University. He retired this month. The article had been exposed as fraudulent in a 2007 BBC documentary and in the 2008 book Side Effects: A Prosecutor, a Whistleblower, and a Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial, by Alison Bass. Glaxo’s guilty plea, according to the Chronicle, included an admission that “the article constituted scientific fraud.”
Paxil went on sale in the US in 1993 and, according to Bass, prescriptions for children “soared” after the study appeared, even though research showed Paxil was not more effective than a placebo. But in 2004, the Chronicle reports, British regulators warned against prescribing Paxil to children, after a study reported that children taking Paxil were nearly three times more likely to consider or attempt suicide. Then the US FDA issued a similar warning. Paxil sales totaled more than $11 billion between 1997 and 2005.
Brown University officials said they had no plans to take action against Keller. At UCLA, Dale Triber Tate, a spokesperson for the medical center and Dr. Feinberg, had no comment. The journal that published the fraudulent research has failed to retract it, and editor-in-chief Andres S. Martin, a professor of psychiatry at Yale, told the Chronicle he had no comment on the options the journal might take.
Feinberg and Keller were among twenty-two people listed as “authors” on the fraudulent article. Others included Karen D. Wagner, now professor and vice chair of psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston; Boris Birmaher and Neal D. Ryan, professors of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh; Graham J. Emslie, professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas; and Michael A. Strober, professor of psychiatry at UCLA.
Although Glaxo pled guilty and paid $3 billion in fines, none of the academics have been disciplined by their universities for their roles in perpetrating research fraud. Moreover, according to the Chronicle, several continue to receive federal grants from the National Institute of Health.
By: Jon Wiener, The Nation, August 7, 2012
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) wants to cut taxpayer funding for non-military elements of the Defense Department, starting with making retired, uninjured service members pay more for what he described as “extremely low-cost health care for life” for themselves, their wives and dependents under the Tricare Prime system.
For military retirees eligible for Medicare, he also wants to raise the co-payments that they are charged to be in Tricare for life, the second payer for health care after Medicare. In addition, he wants to increase low fees that Tricare beneficiaries pay for pharmaceuticals purchased at their local drugstores.
Former defense secretary Robert M. Gates proposed raising Tricare Prime enrollment fees for single retirees from $230 a year to $260 a year and fees for retiree families from $460 a year to $520 a year. Coburn wants the fees to be much higher and more in line with private-sector health plans.
Part of his concern is fairness, first for uninjured veterans who, for example, served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan but “leave the military without serving 20 years [and] are not entitled to any of these health-care benefits.” They represent some 70 percent of those serving, according to Pentagon officials.
Another comparison he makes is to other federal government workers whose plans are not as cheap. A medical doctor, Coburn told reporters last Monday: “Nobody in the country, as a single person working 20 years for the government, should be able to get health care for $250 a year. Nobody was ever promised that, and nobody should be able to do that.”
Instead, he wants to increase the enrollment fee for single retirees to “approximately $2,000 per year and $3,500 for a family.” At the same time he would limit out-of-pocket expenses at $7,500 for those retirees with families. He thinks these changes could save $11.5 billion a year.
His Tricare for life would require retirees to pay up to $550 for half the initial cost not covered by Medicare and then up to $3,025, after which all costs would be paid by Tricare. This change could save $4.3 billion a year.
Coburn wants to reduce the $8 billion annual government share of the cost of drugs that Tricare beneficiaries purchase from their local private retail pharmacies rather than buying them at lower cost by mail order or at military base facilities. Where the price is now $3 for a 30-day supply of a generic drug and $9 for a brand-name from private pharmacies, Coburn would raise that to$15 for generic and $25 for brand names and save some $2.6 billion a year.
Coburn told reporters he has no doubt about the reaction to his Tricare ideas.
“There’s no question,” he said, “. . . retired military, they won’t like what I’ve done. But the fact is is nobody’s going to like what we’ve done, because everybody gets a pinch — everybody. ”
Beyond health care, Coburn has several other proposals that will rattle the Pentagon. He wants to eliminate most of the $1.3 billion-a-year subsidy that supports the Defense Commissary system of 252 grocery stores on military bases worldwide. Prices at commissaries are much lower than at civilian supermarkets; they are listed at cost plus a 5 percent surcharge. That money goes to offset costs of new commissaries or to repair and maintain old ones. It does not pay for salaries and benefits of the roughly 18,000 people who work at the commissaries.
Coburn supports a Congressional Budget Office proposal that would reduce the taxpayer subsidy over five years and see a gradual raise in prices so commissaries could become self-sufficient. The increase in cost, according to the CBO, would amount to $400 per service family per year and save the government about $900 million annually.
He also wants to close down the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program, which for more than 20 years has added around $200 million a year primarily for breast, lung and prostate cancer projects that have to be managed primarily by contractors. Coburn’s option is to “transfer funding for cancer research that affects the general population back to [the National Institutes of Health] and reduce the administrative costs of administering this research for savings.”
By: Walter Pincus, The Washington Post, July 24, 2011