December 3, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 109


Topics: Big Ideas – Cash transfers for poverty; Nigerian politics; US state legislatures. People: Bill, Nate, Sasha. Produced: December 1st, 2014.

Discussion Points:

– Big Ideas: Are cash transfers more effective on poverty than “workfare” and tax cuts?
– Is Nigeria’s ruling PDP feeling threatened in the upcoming elections? Are Boko Haram attacks widening?
– What should we expect from US state legislatures after heavy Republican wins in 2014?

Episode 109 (53 min)
AFD 109

Related links
Segment 1

AFD: “Social inclusion, anti-poverty policy are great for the economy!”
The Globalist: “Bolivia: Where Socialism Appears to Work”
AFD: “Weirdly, tax cuts don’t solve poverty, finds UN in New Zealand”
AFD: “Indonesia debuts world’s largest cash transfer program ever”

Segment 2

AFD: “Report: Tear gas used in Nigeria parliament”
AFD: “Nigeria government raids opposition offices”
AFD: “Kano: Boko Haram strikes Nigeria’s 2nd largest city”
African Arguments: “Nigeria Forum – What Happens When Oil Prices Fall?”

Segment 3

AFD: “Beyond the Senate: The 2014 state losses”
Al Jazeera America: “The Democratic comeback plan”


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And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

Indonesia debuts world’s largest cash transfer program ever

Earlier this year, Indonesians elected Joko “Jokowi” Widodo as their new president. The Jakarta governor’s background was unusual in Indonesian federal politics extremely humble:

A former carpenter and furniture exporter who was born in a slum in Central Java Province, he will be the first president in Indonesian history not to emerge from the country’s political elite or the ranks of former army generals.

For Indonesia’s very poor and near-poor, this election choice is already paying dividends — quite literally:

As part of the three-card package comes a pre-activated mobile phone SIM card linked to a saving account at state-owned Bank Mandiri. Using this system, the government said it hopes to transfer 200,000 rupiah ($16.50) a month to 15.5 million poor and homeless families to ease the pain of the fuel subsidy cuts. Beneficiaries will be able to cash in their payments at designated bank branches and post offices. If successful, the new system will become the world’s largest government-funded cash-transfer programme, bigger than Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, a similar scheme that has covered 12 million families since its launch in 2003.

Previously from Arsenal For Democracy — on cash transfer experiments in Brazil and Bolivia: “Social inclusion, anti-poverty policy are great for the economy!”

President Jokowi, then Governor of Jakarta, shakes hands with a crowd in January 2013. (Credit: Provincial Government of Jakarta via Wikimedia)

President Jokowi, then Governor of Jakarta, shakes hands with a crowd in January 2013. (Credit: Provincial Government of Jakarta via Wikimedia)

Social inclusion, anti-poverty policy are great for the economy!

Most US eyes on Latin America right now are turned to Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff was just re-elected, ushering in a fourth consecutive term for the Silva/Rouseff anti-extreme-poverty agenda launched in 2002 under her predecessor.

Meanwhile, however, Bolivia — under more avowedly socialist leadership — is also continuing to (more or less) balance its budget, increase its social spending, and grow its macroeconomy substantially. Martin Hutchinson explains why in an article in The Globalist:

Part of it is the effect of commodity prices described above [in the article] and of Morales’ savvy and determined renegotiation of mining and energy contracts. Obviously, if commodity and energy prices are low during the next five years, Bolivia will have considerable difficulties.
What truly sets Morales apart is this: As Bolivia’s first indigenous President, Morales has made great efforts to include the indigenous community – currently about 40% of Bolivia’s population – in the formal economy. He has provided them with both welfare payments and job preferences in order to increase their participation in the economy.
in situations where a large proportion of the population is so poor that it does not participate properly in the economy it is possible to achieve a “growth dividend” by bringing them into full participation.

As they transition into full economic activity, their output allows the national economy to grow significantly, producing extra output and extra tax revenues, while enriching the economy as a whole – and not just the elites.

Hutchinson also points to the Bolivian and Brazilian models that — contrary to US and UK trends for a century and a half — don’t make the very poor jump through hurdles to qualify for government assistance, which seems to get better and less corruptible results on poverty:

In uplifting the very poorest, direct cash transfers with only simple conditionality are highly effective. A program […] costs only a couple of percent of GDP – far less than massive infrastructure schemes.

Yet, it reaches the poorest in society effectively – and, unlike infrastructure projects it cannot be gamed by economic elites – via shady corruption deals that are often part and parcel of large-sized public investment projects.

July 30, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 94


Topics: Big Ideas in U.S. Reform – Measuring government performance; Arms control; Libya crisis. People: Bill and Persephone. Produced: July 27, 2014.

Discussion Points:

– Big Idea: Can government programs’ performance be measured objectively — or is it inherently political?
– Should the U.S. and its NATO allies completely stop selling and giving weapons to other governments, especially repressive ones?
– Is a general from Virginia about to become the next dictator of Libya? Should the U.S. pick a side?

Part 1 – Measurement:
Part 1 – Measurement – AFD 94
Part 2 – Arms Sales:
Part 2 – Arms Sales – AFD 94
Part 3 – Libya Crisis:
Part 3 – Libya Crisis – AFD 94

To get one file for the whole episode, we recommend using one of the subscribe links at the bottom of the post.

Related links
Segment 1

– AFD: Should government programs be funded Moneyball-style?
– NYT: The Quiet Movement to Make Government Fail Less Often
– AFD: In Mass., Goldman wants in on prison profit stream
– AFD: United State of Unemployment

Segment 2

– AFD: UK has a real arms sales problem on its hands
– Middle East Monitor: Kerry says US will deliver Apache helicopters to Egypt soon

Segment 3

– AFD: US embassy staff moved out of Libya
– AFD: Meanwhile in Libya
– Previously on the show: July 2013 debate on types of U.S. involvement in Syria


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iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

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Should government programs be funded Moneyball-style?


In the Big Data age, everyone wants to measure things — and see if they can be made to work better. It’s a good impulse in most cases, but is it being applied appropriately to government?

In a new NYT post, David Leonhardt examines trends in testing government programs for quantifiable effectiveness. He notes initially that despite a widespread public suspicion of central government (or any) in this country, the Federal government actually does have a pretty impressive track record in a lot of areas. But it also has come under increasing fire in the past twenty years for being slow to adopt popular private-sector tools for measuring effectiveness of dollars for outcomes.

Of the 11 large programs for low- and moderate-income people that have been subject to rigorous, randomized evaluation, only one or two show strong evidence of improving most beneficiaries’ lives. “Less than 1 percent of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence of cost-effectiveness,” writes Peter Schuck, a Yale law professor, in his new book, “Why Government Fails So Often,” a sweeping history of policy disappointments.

As Mr. Schuck puts it, “the government has largely ignored the ‘moneyball’ revolution in which private-sector decisions are increasingly based on hard data.”

And yet there is some good news in this area, too. The explosion of available data has made evaluating success – in the government and the private sector – easier and less expensive than it used to be. At the same time, a generation of data-savvy policy makers and researchers has entered government and begun pushing it to do better. They have built on earlier efforts by the Bush and Clinton administrations.

The result is a flowering of experiments to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Now, I support measuring government programs to try to make them better. But there are immediate red flags for me surrounding the “how” part of measuring and the “what happens next” after the measuring.

I have four major areas of concern about this trend:

1) Who gets to determine the definitions of “cost-effective” or efficient? Who sets the cutoff points for when a program is simply too ineffective or not getting enough bang-for-the-buck to continue? Do these people consider realities on the ground and the lives affected or just look at spreadsheets?

Are the people creating measurement systems representatives of the people at large and the communities being served by the programs? Are they comprehensively trained in the relevant area backgrounds? Are they just more Wall Street-turned-public-servant-turned-future-lobbyist folks? Are they trying to measure things just to prove government “doesn’t work”?

2) Are we currently under-funding many of these programs so severely and chronically that we can’t effectively demonstrate success they might otherwise have if consistently funded at appropriate levels? Are we going to cut off money to these “under-performing” programs that we’ve already starved of money?

In education, in particular, we’ve seen the paired trend of measuring performance standards (which I agree is very important) and then tying Federal funding to districts and local funding to teachers to these results without first making the changes (including funding increases!) necessary to improve the results. Are we also going to start taking away money from programs that aren’t “improving” enough each year because they’re already doing well? (This was the famous backfiring of No Child Left Behind in high-performing education states like Massachusetts and New Jersey.)

To return to the Leonhardt article for a moment (my bolding added):

New York City, Salt Lake City, New York State and Massachusetts have all begun programs to link funding for programs to their success: The more effective they are, the more money they and their backers receive. The programs span child care, job training and juvenile recidivism.

The approach is known as “pay for success,” and it’s likely to spread to Cleveland, Denver and California soon. David Cameron’s conservative government in Britain is also using it. The Obama administration likes the idea, and two House members – Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, and John Delaney, a Maryland Democrat – have introduced a modest bill to pay for a version known as “social impact bonds.”

Republicans have moved the goalposts so far since the start of the Reagan Administration with their view that “government is the problem, not the solution” that everything seems to be catered toward “proving” this claim by decades of intentionally “starving the beast” — under-funding/de-funding programs across the board by slashing revenues to pay for them — and then measuring outcomes afterward.

Back to my areas of concern…

3) While it’s important to get as much out of each dollar invested as possible (so you can use as much of the money as possible for as many people as possible), many public functions are public because they are not effective money-makers and need to be funded regardless of balance sheet results. Sometimes things just aren’t all that “cost-effective,” yet are necessary for the promotion or execution of certain social and economic goals.

In fact, the push for “cost-effectiveness” as a measurement skips over the fact that the goal of some programs is to provide an emergency economic floor, below which citizens should not be able to fall, rather than being designed to lift them up. A floor is not an elevator, and you wouldn’t measure a floor’s elevation over time to find out if it’s getting you closer to the top of the building. Many of the War on Poverty programs, in particular, don’t get nearly enough credit for being a major force in keeping total destitution in check even during long recessions and stagnant recoveries, because critics are too busy asking why they haven’t outright ended poverty.

4) Is this just another way to insert private sector profiteering in the middle of public functions that don’t need them? For example, we’ve already seen Goldman Sachs forcing its way in on the revenue stream of the Massachusetts prison system to do something the state could do and, in doing so, taking away money the state could be re-investing to help more ex-convicts stay out of prison.
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Curious that there were way fewer people complaining about “government handouts” when the government was busy handing out 160 acres of free land like it was popcorn or G.I. starter houses like they grew on trees.

Of course, I guess those handouts were “ok” because they mostly only went to the “right” people — and now they’ve got theirs. Everyone else can just deal.

But in reality, no one who is complaining about “handouts” should be. As imperfect (and usually exclusionary against non-whites) as our nation’s past massive giveaway programs have been, they were one of the few moderately successful tools we’ve ever used to jump start widespread economic growth by de-concentrating wealth generation and accumulation.

The policies were also a good socioeconomic pressure valve to avoid everyone going full Reign of Terror on the 1%, as happened in so many other countries. (Of course, it should be noted that our violent land reform came in the form of taking it by force from indigenous Americans rather than from kulaks or nobility, which is not good either.)

Moreover, the rich still managed to make money hand over fist at the same time, if you realize the Robber Barons were making their initial rise at the same time as the homestead land rushes. If anything, the solution to long-term, broad-based, and sustainable economic growth is probably more handouts, not fewer.

The loss of Net Neutrality will change everything. (Here’s why.)

Earlier this week, the FCC announced tentative plans to end their policy that broadband internet providers must carry all web traffic to users at equal speeds (i.e. equal priority) regardless of source. The old policy is known as “net neutrality” because it didn’t allow providers to cut deals with certain websites to weigh some traffic more highly than others.

The FCC, which is tasked with regulating some forms of communication in the public interest, says they had to make the change in response to a recent Supreme Court ruling, because (they argue) net neutrality has already effectively been ended and companies will start making deals with each other without oversight and this way they can apply some amount of oversight.

I think a lot of people disagree with that contention, but regardless of the reasoning, the decision to stop promoting neutrality as a goal is a disaster.

Speed inequality is going to cut off many small businesses and new e-commerce enterprises at the knees. Existing web giants like Amazon or Google will be able to pay (even if they’d prefer not to) to maintain their paramount status (as long as they don’t get into fights with providers like Netflix often does), while new start-ups will fizzle before they can launch because their content will be too slow for consumers, by comparison. In other words: More power to the old money (or existing money, at least).

The days of anyone having an equal opportunity to take a good idea, launch it, and bring it to the American people on the strength of its merits and word-of-mouth will be over for good.

The internet’s commercial success in the United States has been based heavily on equality of opportunity — and decades of government-funded research and development into the technologies that led to its emergence into general society.

In an editorial in The New York Times opposing the FCC’s rules change, the board argues that this long public support for the internet’s initial development means the government should have a role in regulating to maintain equality of service:

the viability of those networks are based on decades of public investments in the Internet, the companies’ use of public rights of way and, in the case of some companies, a long government-sanctioned monopoly over telephone service. Public interest groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Knowledge oppose the creation of two-tiered Internet service because it offers no public benefit, but would squelch innovation.

Well beyond the net neutrality problem, the FCC’s Bush-era decision to designate broadband as “a lightly regulated information service” instead of a more heavily regulated “telecommunications service” is causing all sorts of legal issues.

For example, while it’s illegal for the phone company to disconnect an elderly person’s landline service for not paying the bill on time (or due to a mix-up), it is not illegal for phone companies to disconnect voice-over-internet telephone replacement services to elderly customers. If the check gets lost in the mail and then you have a medical emergency, you are out of luck if you have a VOIP phone instead of a landline.

So, the Times Editorial Board’s recommendation to change the classification (a move the politically influential providers obviously oppose) would be the simplest solution to many of the problems currently arising from broadband providers abusing the regulatory gaps — and it would circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.

But fundamentally, the loss of net neutrality is just bad for business and American innovation in general, because speed inequality removes the level playing field we’ve all been operating on so far. As the Times Editorial Board says:

The Internet has been a boon to the economy and to free speech because it is not divided into tiers and is open to everybody in the same way.

In 2007, President Obama said one of the best things about the Internet “is that there is this incredible equality there” and charging “different rates to different websites” would destroy that principle. The proposal from Mr. Wheeler, an Obama appointee, would do just that.

Conservatives often say they don’t want government regulators and lawmakers picking and choosing “winners and losers” instead of the free market. But ending net neutrality does exactly that: it picks all the current leaders as the winners and makes it very difficult for new competitors to emerge as market challengers against the incumbents.

That’s why we need to have regulation in some areas of the market. Market freedom isn’t free.


Pictured: The first Interface Message Processor from the U.S. Defense Department's ARPANET system, a predecessor to the modern internet. (Credit: FastLizard4 - Wikimedia)

Pictured: The first Interface Message Processor from the U.S. Defense Department’s ARPANET system, a predecessor to the modern internet. (Credit: FastLizard4 – Wikimedia)