[Plura-list] The Democrats' self-immolating fetish for means-testing

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Tue May 3 12:37:16 EDT 2022

Read today's issue online at: https://pluralistic.net/2022/05/03/utopia-of-rules/


This weekend (May 6-8), I'm Guest of Honor at the Demicon 33 science fiction convention in Des Moines:



Today's links

* The Democrats' self-immolating fetish for means-testing: How to lose an election...and a nation.

* Hey look at this: Delights to delectate.

* This day in history: 2002, 2007, 2012, 2017, 2021

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading


🧛‍♂️ The Democrats' self-immolating fetish for means-testing

Biden campaigned on universal student debt reduction, but now wants to add a means-test; a layer of bureaucratic formalities to identify the "deserving poor." The neoliberal fetish for red-tape is on the march, and the consequences will be the 2022 mid-terms, and maybe the future of the nation.

Means-testing is the kind of technocratic make-work beloved of the McKinsey set, thus it was no surprise that Buttigieg campaigned against universal free college because it would be "free even for the kids of millionaires."


This talking point has been oft-repeated in the debate over debt erasure, even though it's empirically untrue. If college was free in America, only 1.4% of the benefit would accrue to rich children:


As David Sirota writes for *The Lever*, the scare talk about the wealthy getting something for nothing is the primary means by which corporate Dems talk down universal programs (think of Mayor Pete's "Medicare for all who want it"). Means-testing is how the right will dismantle Social Security, Medicare and the GI Bill.


College debt relief is hugely popular, especially among the voter base that Dems will have to turn out to avoid catastrophic losses in the 2022 mid-terms - it's a policy that "would provide more benefits to those with fewer economic resources and could play a critical role in addressing the racial wealth gap and building the Black middle class."


How would that work? Well, by and large, rich people don't pay for college by taking out student loans. As Andrew Perez says, "If forgiving student debt was a massive giveaway to the rich, politicians would have done it already."


The great irony here is that the Dems' great champions of means-testing (for COVID relief, child tax credits and more) are from the "we're capitalists, okay?" wing of the party: Pelosi, Manchin, et al.


Ironic because, as David Graeber (RIP) pointed out in "The Utopia of Rules," American capitalism sold itself as superior to communism on the grounds that communism created a lot of pointless red-tape that burdened the citizenry with bureaucratic busy-work:


And here we are, with the self-described champions of capitalism trumpeting the magical power of red-tape to make policy "fair." As Sirota points out, we don't hear about means-testing for corporate tax-cuts and subsidies, or for bank bailouts - just for universal programs that primarily benefit poor people (who, in America, are disproportionately Black and brown people).

The arguments against college debt cancellation are arguments against universalism. "What about the people who paid their student debts, why should they have had to suffer, while these people don't?" is the argument of a sociopath. Compare it to "What about the people who watched their loved ones die of cancer, why should they have suffered, while people today enjoy a cure for cancer?"

Sirota: "Means-testing is a way to take simple universal programs and make them complicated and inaccessible." To the extent that wealthy people *want* to benefit from means-tested programs, they can hire lawyers and accountants and other enablers to fit them into the eligibility criteria.

Remember when rich Chicagoland parents figured out that they could save on their kids' college tuition by pretending to disown them, then getting them tuition breaks designed for orphans?


It's expensive to pretend to disown your kids - you need the help of a fancy law-firm and you need to be able to secretly funnel money to whatever parents your kids move in with while you're going through the sham. Rich people can pay to make red-tape go away; poor people lack the money to pull off the scam. Adding more complexity to means-testing just adds another cost: time. The time to gather documents, complete forms, get signatures and notary stamps. Time is another thing poor people lack, and rich people can buy.

The story behind means testing is just Reagan's "welfare queens" dressed up in McKinsey Powerpoint templates. Manchin - the self-proclaimed "means-tester in chief" - says that continuing the child tax credit wouldn't just lift more children out of poverty than any other measure in US history, it would also pay for their parents' drug habits:


Means-testing, then, is just another regressive tax: a way to disproportionately burden poor people with time- and cash-intensive obligations. It's a way to turn users of universal programs into "burdens on society" instead of participants in it. It's a way to discourage the Democratic base and ensure low turnouts in elections, especially midterms, where the turnouts are low to begin with.

As Sirota points out, the GOP has already figured out that universal programs are bad politics. That's why Trump rolled out universal small business covid relief, universal covid survival checks, and universal covid testing and treatment.

The idea that means-testing will keep the GOP from attacking the Dems in the 2022 election is delusional. As Senate Democrats’ Budget Committee staff director Warren Gunnels says, "Republicans will attack forgiving $10,000 in student debt as voraciously as if Biden canceled all student debt while demoralizing tens of millions who will still be drowning in it. Think big or go home. Cancel all of it."


The Biden admin has the legal authority to simply cancel all federal student debt. Doing so would turn out millions of mid-term Democratic voters. Sure, it would rile up private equity looters and GOP lawmakers and pundits - but they're already going to blitz the airwaves and Facebook with attack ads against the Dems, no matter what.

Losing the 2022 midterms will have consequences. For one thing, it'll make it impossible to pass a long-overdue law enshrining abortion rights, which is a big deal. If the Supremes really are going to roll back Roe and impose forced birth on half of America, they'll do so by returning the nation to the 19th century:


As Charlie Stross writes, the precedent that Roe depends on also legalized interracial marriage, the possession of pornography, same-sex marriage, and the right to teach your kids languages other than English (!). Elections have consequences, and handing the GOP the keys to the country in order to make sure that 1.4% of college tuition relief doesn't go to billionaires is an idiotic trade. If the Republicans win the next election, they'll loot so much that the pennies they'd collect from student debt cancellation won't even rise to a rounding-error.


🧛‍♂️ Hey look at this

* Reminder: safe and effective medication for having an abortion is available via the mail. "Even in states with the strictest abortion laws, pregnant people have a safe, inexpensive option to terminate their pregnancies." https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/10/plan-c-secret-option-mail-order-abortion/620324/ (h/t Kottke)


🧛‍♂️ This day in history

#20yrsago Court Orders ReplayTV to Spy on Customers for Movie Studios https://web.archive.org/web/20020601150054/https://www.siliconvalley.com/mld/siliconvalley/3186191.htm

#15yrsago New AACS crack “can’t be revoked” https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2007/04/aacs-cracks-cannot-be-revoked-says-hacker/

#15yrsago Students petition USC film-school for the right to use Creative Commons https://web.archive.org/web/20070706152854/imlportfolio.usc.edu/freeculture/?p=34

#15yrsago AACS vows to fight people who publish the key http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/6623331.stm

#15yrsago Ed Felten explains the AACS revolt https://freedom-to-tinker.com/2007/05/03/why-09ers-are-so-upset/

#15yrsago Canada’s copyright czar lied about money from entertainment execs https://web.archive.org/web/20070507103010/https://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20070504.woda04/BNStory/National/home

#15yrsago Congresscritters take money from RIAA/MPAA, then threaten universities on their behalf https://web.archive.org/web/20070505034859/https://consumerist.com/consumer/bullying/congressmen-who-took-money-from-the-riaa-send-chiding-letters-to-universities-257422.php

#15yrsago Obama wants Creative Commons licensed Presidential debates https://web.archive.org/web/20070503223625/https://www.lessig.org/blog/archives/003763.shtml

#10yrsago Lehman Bros document trove online: childish hubris, laughable idiocy from today’s Senior Policy Advisor at US Treasury https://ritholtz.com/2012/04/the-lehman-bankruptcy-docs/

#10yrsago When copyright term-extension meets infinite life-extension https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/2012/pdf1205.htm

#5yrsago William Gibson rewrote the sequel to The Peripheral after the 2016 election https://www.theverge.com/2017/5/3/15530646/william-gibson-next-novel-cover-agency-interview

#5yrsago The Canadaland Guide to Canada (Published in America) https://memex.craphound.com/2017/05/03/the-canadaland-guide-to-canada-published-in-america/

#5yrsago Automatically generate datasets that teach people how (not) to create statistical mirages https://www.autodesk.com/research/publications/same-stats-different-graphs

#5yrsago Coal execs’ pay rises and rises, while miners’ wages stagnate https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/02/climate/coal-jobs-prove-lucrative-but-not-for-those-in-the-mines.html

#1yrago Dishwashers have become Iphones: Meet the Bob Cassette Rewinder https://pluralistic.net/2021/05/03/cassette-rewinder/#disher-bob


🧛‍♂️ Colophon

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (https://nakedcapitalism.com/).

Currently writing:

* Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 592 words (90274 words total).

* A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

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* Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

* Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

* A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause."  FINISHED

* A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues."  FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Revenge Of The Chickenized Reverse Centaurs

Upcoming appearances:

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* OpenJSWorld Keynote (Austin), Jun 8

* UK Competition and Markets Authority Data Technology and Analytics conference (London), Jun 15-16

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Recent appearances:

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* "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a solution. https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59 (print edition: https://bookshop.org/books/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism/9781736205907) (signed copies: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2024/Available_Now%3A__How_to_Destroy_Surveillance_Capitalism.html)

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