More Block Than Grant?

More Block Than Grant?
By Andrew Sullivan

Josh Voorhees spells out his main concern with the Ryan plan, i.e., that the block grant mechanism he proposes for assistance programs like SNAP will result in benefit cuts:

Under the current setup, any American who qualifies for SNAP benefits receives them, regardless of how much money Washington has already spent on the program that year. But switching to a block grant would effectively set a cap on SNAP spending by stopping the program from automatically increasing along with need. That, critics warn, could leave the program unprepared and underfunded when the next economic downturn sends more Americans than expected scrambling to put food on the table.

The best case for those who want to protect SNAP and other social welfare funding would be for Congress to freeze current funding levels for the foreseeable future. That technically wouldn’t be a reduction in funding, but inflation would tell a different story. That’s what happened to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program during Washington’s last attempt at major welfare reform. Since that program was block-granted in 1996, funding has remained pretty much flat at $16.6 billion per year while the program has quietly lost nearly one-third of its spending power to inflation. Under Ryan’s proposal, food stamps would risk a similar fate.

To illustrate this point, Andrew Flowers imagines that the Ryan plan had been in place during the recession that began in 2007 and calculates how big a hit the program would have taken:

At the end of 2007, the number of SNAP recipients totaled more than 26 million, with cumulative expenditures at more than $33 billion. By 2013, expenditures had more than doubled to nearly $80 billion, with recipients surging to about 47 million. If funding had remained constant, the average monthly benefit would have fallen from $133 (its actual number in 2013) to about $53.

The impact of these safety-net programs is dependent not just on how the funding is delivered — whether as separate programs or one catch-all Opportunity Grant — but also on how the programs respond to economic conditions. It’s the difference between leaning back too far in a rocking chair and on a bar stool.

Mike Konczal also looks to the 90s for historical clues as to how a block grant system would fare:

Rather than a “welfare reform — yay or nay?” conversation, it would be really useful if people arguing for the block-granting of the entire anti-poverty agenda would point out what they do and do not like about what happened in the 1990s. Especially as proponents hold up welfare reform as the model.

As Matt Bruenig notes, the work requirements and other restrictions go against the concept of subsidiarity. Greenstein writes, “the block grant would afford state and local officials tantalizing opportunities to use some block grant funds to replace state and local funds now going for similar services…That’s what happened under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant.” In retrospect, TANF didn’t survive the business cycle, and it clearly has cut spending by cutting the rolls. Is that what people want to accomplish with food stamps, which have done wonders to boost childhood life outcomes? If not, what can be done other than assert that this time will be different?

Meanwhile, Max Ehrenfreund argues that a universal basic income is a more conservative solution to poverty than what Ryan proposes:

Another reason to see why a universal basic income is more conservative than Ryan’s block grant proposal is to compare it to other aspects of his plan. The tax code offers a yearly bonus to poor people who work, called the earned-income tax credit. It is another one of Friedman’s good ideas, and liberals should support it as well because it helps the poor get by, as Matt O’Brien argues. Ryan, like President Obama, wants to expand the earned-income tax credit for adults without children.

Yet if the goal is really to reward the poor and out of work for finding jobs, then this tax credit isn’t a perfect solution. The bonus is not available for those who earn a little more money, so the working poor have less of a financial reason to aim for a raise. They’ll pay a larger share of their income in taxes when they do. A universal basic income would solve this problem. Your payment from the government doesn’t get smaller if you start making more money.

July 28, 2014 at 4:45PM
via The Dish

YOUR BODY: the missing manual

YOUR BODY: the missing manual

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July 28th, 2014next

July 28th, 2014: The early models that didn’t include the protective skin coating as a standard feature were… kinda terrifying to look at.

HEY GUESS WHAT?? The final issue of The Midas Flesh is out now! You can read a preview here, and catch up with all you missed at!

– Ryan

July 28, 2014 at 12:00AM
via Dinosaur Comics!

The Worrying Vacuity Of Hillary Clinton

The Worrying Vacuity Of Hillary Clinton
By Andrew Sullivan

Hillary Rodham Clinton Book Presentation

I’ve tried to avoid the Clinton book tour bullshit this past month or so. Not good for my blood pressure. When I checked in occasionally, it was to discover that nothing much has changed. The Clintons are still self-pitying money-grubbers – $12 million in speaking fees since she left the State Department? – and now their offspring, exploiting her nepotistic advantage with all the scrupulous ethics of her parents, is continuing the grift. If you ask of Clinton what she’s fighting for, what she believes in, if you want to get her to disagree with you on something, good luck. Any actual politics right now would tarnish the inevitability of a resume-led coronation. That the resume has little of any substance in her four years as secretary of state does not concern her. She was making “hard choices”, and if we cannot appreciate that, tant pis.

I’d like to find a reason to believe she’s a political force who stands for something in an era when there is a real appetite for serious change. She could, after all, decide to campaign vociferously in favor of the ACA this summer and fall (universal healthcare is, after all, one of her positions), but that might siphon money away from her foundation and candidacy. She could get out there and start framing a foreign policy vision. But, again, too risky. I see nothing that suggests a real passion for getting on with the fight – just the usual presumptions of a super-elite, super-rich and super-cocooned politician of the gilded age.

So I did watch the Daily Show interview last week, and was not surprised. As in most of her softball media appearances, she was both unctuous and vapid. But even I was aghast at the sheer emptiness and datedness of her one attempt to articulate a future for American foreign policy. She actually said that our main problem is that we haven’t been celebrating America enough, that we “have not been telling our story very well” and that if we just “get back to telling” that story about how America stands for freedom and opportunity, we can rebuild our diminished international stature. One obvious retort: wasn’t she, as secretary of state, you know, now responsible for telling that tale – so isn’t she actually criticizing herself?

Next up: could she say something more vacuous and anodyne? Or something more out of tune with a post-Iraq, post-torture, post- Afghanistan world? Peter Beinart had the same reaction: “As a vision for America’s relations with the world,” he wrote, “this isn’t just unconvincing. It’s downright disturbing”:

It’s true that young people overseas don’t remember the Cold War. But even if they did, they still wouldn’t be inspired by America’s “great story about [promoting] human freedom, human rights, human opportunity.” That’s because in the developing world—where most of humanity lives—barely anyone believes that American foreign policy during the Cold War actually promoted those things. What they mostly remember is that in anticommunism’s name, from Pakistan to Guatemala to Iran to Congo, America funded dictators and fueled civil wars.

Larison piles on:

Changing the substance of policies is never seriously considered, because there is little or no recognition that these policies need correction or reversal. This takes for granted that opposition to U.S. policies is mostly the product of misunderstanding or miscommunication rather than an expression of genuinely divergent interests and grievances. I don’t know that Clinton is naive or oblivious enough to believe this (I doubt it), but it’s instructive that she thinks this is a good argument to make publicly. She is more or less saying that there is nothing wrong with U.S. foreign policy that can’t be fixed by better marketing and salesmanship, and that’s just profoundly wrong. It’s also what we should expect from someone as conventionally hawkish and “centrist” on foreign policy as Clinton is.

My fear is that she doesn’t actually mean any of this. She just needed to say something, and so came out with a stream of consciousness that is completely platitudinous and immune to Fox News attacks. It’s a defensive crouch that is always her first instinct. Think of the Terry Gross interview – and her discomfort in grappling with actual disagreement, from her own base that time. Her goal is always safety. And safety won’t cut it in a populist age.

So if she runs, my guess is she’ll wrap herself tightly in the maximalist concept of American exceptionalism and make this her appeal as a post-Obama presidency. See? she’ll say to the same voting groups she went for last time. I’m a real American, and I believe in America. And yay America!

Maybe this is merely a function that she isn’t running yet (and still may not). Why stir the pot if your goal at this point is merely selling books and raking in more corporate, Goldman Sacks dough? But when, I wonder, has she been otherwise? She remains scarred by the 1990s, understandably so. But the country has moved on in a way she seems to find hard to comprehend.

(Photo: Hillary Rodham Clinton, former United States Secretary of State, U.S. Senator, and First Lady of the United States, speaks during the presentation of the German translation of her book ‘Hard Choices’ (‘Entscheidungen’ in German) at the Staatsoper in the Schiller Theater on July 6, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. By Adam Berry/Getty Images.)

July 24, 2014 at 1:40PM
via The Dish

What Paul Ryan still misses in his new, more serious poverty plan

What Paul Ryan still misses in his new, more serious poverty plan
By Emily Badger

Rep. Paul Ryan (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

To his credit, Paul Ryan did not once invoke “bootstraps.” In a speech unveiling his new poverty proposal Thursday morning at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, he did not describe the safety net as a “hammock” a single time. He did not use thinly veiled code words about the “inner city.” He did not misleadingly suggest — as he has often in the past — that the war on poverty has failed, when in fact much research tells us suggests that federal programs, despite their flaws, have lifted millions of Americans out of destitution.

Ryan is learning to talk about poverty in ways that don’t make his ideas instantly unpalatable to the left, to advocates for the poor, to researchers and program officers who recognize that poverty is a sign of so much more than the absence of effort. But for all of his welcome nuance — his new plan includes several ideas that can be cheered across the political spectrum — Ryan still misunderstands or glosses over some crucial points about the causes of poverty and what’s needed to alleviate it.

The centerpiece of Ryan’s deficit-neutral proposal is an idea to consolidate the federal government’s many anti-poverty programs, including food stamps, cash assistance and housing vouchers, into a single more flexible funding stream that would be available to the states in the form of block grants. Local public or private service providers who know best would then tailor those resources to the needs of individual recipients. Maybe one family needs housing help. Maybe another requires subsidies for child care. This idea rightly recognizes the poverty isn’t experienced the same way by everyone. But here is what how Ryan’s plan suggests what should happen next:

Providers must be held accountable, and so should recipients. Each beneficiary will sign a contract with consequences for failing to meet the agreed-upon benchmarks. At the same time, there should also be incentives for people to go to work. Under each life plan, if the individual meets the benchmarks ahead of schedule, then he or she could be rewarded.

His “discussion draft” says more about the benefits to achieving these goals (like “getting a job within six months”) than the sanctions consequences for failing to meet them. But the idea is fundamentally punitive. It betrays the fact that Ryan’s latest thinking has not strayed all that far from the simplistic notion that people in poverty are solely to blame for their own circumstances. An incentive system like this assumes that end goals such as employment are entirely within the control of a poor people if they would just try hard enough.

This notion fails to recognize that, while personal responsibility is important, so too are structural obstacles in the economy, in the education system, in the housing market. We can hardly expect personal effort alone to overcome poverty without systemic investment on society’s part on the fronts beyond a poor person’s control.

The idea of a contract with punitive benchmarks also ignores lessons that researchers have learned about the effects of poverty on cognition. Princeton psychologist Eldar Shfair and Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan have argued that the stress of living in poverty sucks up mental bandwidth the rest of us take for granted. That mental tax means that a mom may forget to take her medication, or to pay a utility bill on time, with each mistake yielding a cascade of other problems. This means that living in poverty is like living without room for error. It also means that we should design anti-poverty programs that are flexible and forgiving, not punitive and deadline-oriented.

Another crucial element of Ryan’s plan is that we should test results as states try out new programs, replicate what works and ditch what doesn’t. In theory, evidenced-based policy is an important idea, and it’s one everyone can agree on. But, particularly in the realm of poverty, measuring success is much more complicated than Ryan suggests (his proposal devotes just one page to this topic).

Poverty is inherited across generations, which means that success overcoming it is a long game, too. Measuring it is not just about having access to data; it’s about having patience in collecting it. It’s about finding rigorous ways to isolate the value of interventions among the many interconnected factors that contribute to and stem from poverty. How are we to know, for instance, if a child performs better in school because she was given extra tutoring, or because she was given nutrition assistance, or housing stability?

How will we know what outcomes we’re looking for? The literature is full of unexpected connections: food stamps improve graduation rates, health care access increases college enrollment, housing stability leads to children with better employment prospects as adults. If we’re going to look for “results,” then we must acknowledge that aid to the poor can yield positive outcomes that are only visible when we look beyond family income and employment.

Here is one final complication: The appeal of Ryan’s plan is that it would grant local officials greater control to tailor solutions to the kinds of problems their poor residents face. Perhaps housing affordability is a bigger issue in San Francisco. Maybe reliable transportation is an acute problem in Atlanta, or childcare access an obstacle in New York. Allowing local governments greater freedom here recognizes that different communities, just like different families, have varying needs.

But here is another way to look at this variation:

Annie E. Casey Foundation

Annie E. Casey Foundation

That’s a map of states ranked by a cumulative index of child well-being, from an Annie E. Casey Foundation report I wrote about Wednesday. This is a Census map of poverty rates in the United States:

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 2.06.55 PM

This is a map from the Kaiser Family Foundation of states that have refused the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act:

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 2.11.29 PM

This is a Census map of the share of adults by state, over 25, with more than a high school degree:

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 2.18.14 PM

In reality, some states have worse track records — and differing commitments — to caring for the poor, to providing them health care, to lifting children and families out of poverty, to educating them. While block grants would recognize that a state like Texas has different needs from Minnesota, it would also place greater control in combating poverty in the hands of local governments with weak records on this front.

A child’s chances of moving up in the U.S. are already partly determined (and constrained) by where he or she lives. How would that picture change if we turned over much of the challenge of confronting poverty to the states themselves, with their differing views on who’s “deserving,” which needs are “basic,” and what role government should play? government should do? Ryan says he wants to start a conversation about reforming poverty programs. These questions should be a part of it.

July 24, 2014 at 3:09PM
via Wonkblog

John Oliver on America’s Terrible Infatuation With Prisons

John Oliver on America’s Terrible Infatuation With Prisons


This is filed in our “Humor” category, and there is humor in it, but it’s of a decidedly dark nature.

For-profit prisons are an affront to civilization. There are certain (very specific) things that we must not incentivize via the profit motive.

July 21, 2014 at 3:15PM
via Little Green Footballs

The polariton laser: With 250x lower power consumption, could this be the answer to on-chip optical interconnects?

The polariton laser: With 250x lower power consumption, could this be the answer to on-chip optical interconnects?
By Sebastian Anthony

IBM's silicon nanophotonic modulator/photodetector chip, with integrated electrical components
Engineers at the University of Michigan and Intel have succeeded in creating the first practical, room-temperature polariton laser. The polariton laser is of extreme interest because it requires just 0.004% of the current required by normal lasers, making it a prime candidate for use with on-chip optical interconnects. It is also believed that the polariton laser is the first new practical method of producing coherent laser light since the laser diode debuted more than 50 years ago in 1962.


July 23, 2014 at 2:34PM
via ExtremeTech

What Separates The Best Homebrews From from Rest? (II: Suggestions)

What Separates The Best Homebrews From from Rest? (II: Suggestions)
By Chris Colby

Yesterday, I posted an article about my recent judging experience. In it, I wondering what separated the very best homebrews from the rest, especially those that were fair to good, but not great. This is the conclusion to that article. 


IMG_2410In order to fix a problem, you have to properly identify it, and diagnose what is causing it. So, what separated the middling beers from the best in terms in the judging? Usually, it was a series of small things, rather than one factor that could be easily identified. In general, the middle of the pack beers tended to pour with a slight to moderate haze. The best ones were very clear. (Not filtered, crystal clear, but “I can read the words on a pencil through this” clear.) The best examples had a nice foam stand, with small bubbles, and foam that persisted and clung to the glass. Lesser examples had less foam and it disappeared more quickly. The best beers had fresh, enticing malt and hop aromas. For many beers in the middle, the overall intensity of aroma was low and what there was was not as appealing as that found in the best beers. They weren’t bad, they were just lackluster compared to the better examples. (Also, I will admit that judges can get their noses “blown out” when smelling beer after beer after beer. However, in the flights I judged, both of the judges went back to the beers we ranked the best to confirm our initial observations.) Likewise, the best examples had a great, fresh malt and hop flavor. In general, most beers had fairly decent body. Most showed levels of carbonation that were in the right ballpark and most showed no sign of (serious) fermentation faults or contamination to the degree of causing obvious off flavors.

As I mentioned before, I felt that any of the “decent” homebrews I judged could have been great if a few key pieces of the puzzle had fell into place. Although they sometimes had an array of minor problems, I’m betting that a few underlying causes lead to all (or at least most) of them. Here are my suggestions for moving from brewing good beers to brewing great beers.

My overarching idea is that if you pay attention to every detail, your beer will improve. As with just about everything in the world, to brew a really spectacular beer, you need to be “firing on all cylinders.” Cutting corners and time-saving techniques are fine if your primary goal is to brew beer quickly or easily. (And sometimes I’ve chosen that goal, so I’m not up on a high horse here.) However, if you want to brew superior beer, you need to perform each and every technique in a highly effective manner. You need to substitute the best procedures for those you can “get away with.” If the beer you brew is already fair to good, it should not take too much intervention to make it great the next time around. Here are some more concrete suggestions.


The General Approach

The best thing you can do is taste your finished beers side by side with a few of the best commercial examples of similar beers, or the homebrew of others who are good at it. In the judging on Saturday, many of the middle-of-the-pack beers tasted fine. Tasted on their own, it might be hard to point to anything wrong with them. However, in a lineup with some better-executed beers, their deficiencies become more evident. So taste your homebrew side by side with beers you expect to be great, and look for ways that your beer could improve. Then tweak your procedures and recipe, as needed, and brew that beer again — if you brewed a good beer before, it should be better after a round of evaluation and adjustment. No great beer was brewed once, it’s a process of finding a good idea and then refining it to a higher level.


Specific Suggestions That May Help

Although taking any individual beer from good to great depends on how it was brewed, here are a few things I think could benefit many homebrewers.

1.) Make an effort to find and use only the freshest ingredients. In the Northern hemisphere, hops are harvested only once a year, in the fall. In order to remain fresh, hops must be stored properly. If you are having trouble finding a source of fresh hops year round, consider buying what you’ll need around hop harvest time from a hop farm that deals with homebrewers. Then, store them — preferably in packaging that keeps out oxygen – in a non frost-free freezer. Unless you are purposely aging your hops, use them all within a year, then buy fresh hops the next year after harvest. Malt is produced year round. If you buy your malt by the sack, make an effort to find out when it was malted. Always smell your hops and malt before using them and chew a few kernels of your malt. Write down your impressions in your brewing notebook. In time, you will become better attuned to the characteristics of fresh hops and malt.

2.) Don’t skip any steps that have a purpose. For example, don’t skip the recirculation step to save time. Recirculation clarifies your wort so that you won’t need to boil as hard and as long to get adequate hot break during the boil. It also reduces the amount of grain husks in the boil, which can contribute to excess astringency. This is not to say that a more complex brewday is always better. Sometimes a short, high-temperature, single infusion mash will be superior to a long, temperature-stepped mash. However, most of the standard pieces of a full brew day are there for a reason.

3.) Boil your wort hard. Don’t settle for a wimpy boil. (Brew smaller volumes if needed.) In many cases, extending your 60-minute boil to 90 minutes will give you better break material — and hence clearer wort and later clearer beer. Also, adjust your boil pH, if needed, by adding a small amount (<50 ppm) of calcium to the boil.

4.) After the boil, separate the trub in your kettle from your clear wort as best you can. A little trub carry over into the fermenter is a good thing. (It provides nutrition for the yeast.) Beyond that though, it’s not a good thing. (Sometimes, letting the chilled wort settle for awhile helps with this. Keep the kettle covered, though. A hop jack also does a great job of filtering the wort.)

5.) Do everything you can to keep oxygen away from your finished beer. This includes when dry hopping.

6.) Finally, step up your game when it comes to cleaning and sanitation. I know that this is the most boring part of homebrewing and the vast majority of homebrewers will say that their sanitation is “fine.” (I’ve found that even when beer is obviously contaminated, most brewers won’t admit to being lax with their sanitation.) But it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. All beers — even the best — are contaminated to some degree. I suspect, although I’ll admit I can’t prove, that beers can suffer negative side effects from contamination, even when the levels of contamination fall below that which produces obvious symptoms — sour beers, phenolic flavors and aromas, diacetyl, etc. I think that low levels of contamination can rob a beer of the “intangibles” that separate a good beer from a great one. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that homebrewers who are “OCD” about cleaning and sanitation tend to produce better beers.

Along those lines, learn what sterile technique is. This is what biologists use when they need to minimize contamination in procedures, such as culturing specific bacteria or yeasts. You can’t mimic every bit of it in a brewery, but it will give you an idea of the mindset. Consider every un-sanitized surface to be coated with bacteria. (It is.) Consider there to be clouds of bacteria in the air. (There are.) Chilled wort or beer should never come in contact with any un-sanitized surface — and if you touch a sanitized surface, it is no longer sanitized. Chilled wort or beer should always be covered if it is exposed to air, for example during chilling or in a bottling bucket. Know when your wort and beer is the most susceptible and be doubly careful at those times. Get fermentation started as quickly as possible after wort chilling to suppress the growth of contaminants.

Finally, keep in mind that improving your beer will likely require addressing the aspects of brewing you pay the least attention to. (Did you skip the sanitation section because it wasn’t what you wanted to learn about?) Alternately, it may involve getting a piece of equipment that will allow you to do something well, rather than just adequately. Brewing the absolute best beers requires effort. If it didn’t, everyone would be doing it. However, if you approach that pinnacle, you’ll be happy you made the journey.


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Evaluate Your Ingredients

Good comments, though “proper yeast health” and “fermentation temperature control” really should be on this list.

July 23, 2014 at 2:45PM
via Beer and Wine Journal™