Time for a Brown New Deal

Political Weeds of the Polarized Green New Deal must be Pulled for Alternative Policy if Post-COVID American Infrastructure will Succeed

Photo: The MAC Farms biodigestion energy facility in central Kentucky, 2018. Samuel Kessler.

In early May 2019, I was walking through puddles in the streets between Senator McConnell’s office in the Russell building to another meeting in the Senate Dirksen Building. To make matters worse, the walking tunnels were closed and my umbrella was not wide enough to cover my shoulders from the rain. I decided to strike a compromise: my left side would be completely soaked and the right side dry, to avoid wet handshakes. Despite the many dry handshakes I had, I think the “umbrella plan” was the only compromise being made in Washington, especially in regards to environmental and energy policy.

My partner and fellow college student, Mr. Austin Gabhart, and I were in D.C. on a mission as legislative liaisons, refusing pay, on behalf of MAC Farms Inc. They are the only renewable biomass energy company in Kentucky producing energy onto the grid at an industrial level through anaerobic biodigestion, almost exclusively from bourbon industry, food, and some agricultural wastes. The carbon-equivalent emissions from those wastes are reduced by roughly 11-times as a result. After many financial and logistical challenges, MAC’s existence serves the Commonwealth with a model that has piloted unique, feasible, and environmentally responsible ways to harness renewable energy potential from our distillery wastes. They have even attracted business interests from Europe.

We had just finished discussing this and other concerns during a lengthy meeting with Senator McConnell’s policy advisors on tax and energy. The main focus of the meeting revolved around a “shortlist” containing quite a few federal policy proposals that were drafted after research conducted for a state policy effort to support agricultural energy production in Kentucky, which is now being taken by an up-and-coming ThinkTank at UofL called the Commonwealth Policy Development Coalition. Also included was a product of months spent redrafting Senator Rand Paul’s historic “Economic Freedom Zones ” bill into “Agricultural Economic Empowerment Zones,” focused on rural and urban sustainability and tax incentives for infrastructure growth before it was decided that a state policy effort for that would be more appropriate.

The “shortlist” was only short because we truncated individual proposals to directive-based paragraphs to allow room for the next proposals. It was a strategy intended to throw anything reasonable at the wall and see what would stick. An example of five policies from that list included:  

  • New ideas for expanding rural and urban funding for renewable energy under existing USDA rural development grants;
  • A funding program through the commodity credit corporation (a common financing tool used by American farmers) that would include renewables and sustainability initiatives with hard-infrastructure;
  • A redesign of the new chapter of IRS tax code on economic opportunity zones to also create opportunities for equitable private investment in decaying infrastructure areas;
  • A combined loan-matching program with state-deference for project finance decisions which would better-award existing grants and diversify current programs so more grants could be awarded to certain energy production types like biodigestion left out from historic government support; and most importantly,
  • A reinstatement of 1603 tax credits at least for those same kinds of power-production types, which allowed credit claims for energy investment and production under Section 45 of the IRS tax code.

Their origins are examples of how politics has arrived where it is today with heated debates around infrastructure policies that seemingly few used to care about. To provide some background, the 1603 tax credits were a program to provide strong subsidies to a growing renewable energy industry which occurred during the Obama presidency. They were really tax rebates, which serve like expense-based grants meant to help surge energy development growth after projects have been built. 

As a result the vast majority of total rebate claims were allocated towards projects like wind and solar that could be established quickly, with only a relative handful towards biogas or hydropower. The 1603 program was built for a short-term budget but had regularly been extended since 2009. By doing that, the government had set a standard for the American people who call themselves renewable energy developers: a promise to continue the support of their efforts. 

In terms of subsidizing and supporting renewables through programs like this, it’s important to recognize that this promise was something much older and bipartisan- any suggestion otherwise is what the Institute for Energy Research calls “The Greatest Myth of the George W. Bush Presidency.” Why? President George W. Bush also reinstated and extended energy production tax credits for wind and other sources several times, and generally included tens of millions per year for wind energy research and development grants. It paved the path for a more-expansive industry in the future, which helped allow success of the 1603 program and similar packages under the Obama administration. The recent past reminds us this issue is not so partisan as 2020 politics make it appear.

The policies in the shortlist were broad, but they were tailored indirectly from discussions with members of Senator McConnell’s field office so we could ensure that the rhetoric would not be similar to that which originates in the Green New Deal (GND). To what extent that improved discussions remains uncertain. 

I have a term for what happened to us that day, being “carded out the door” – perhaps just slightly removed from being kicked out of a bar underage and/or with an obvious fake ID. The meeting process had amassed me quite a set of federal business cards from policy advisors from both sides of the aisle who either did not have the time of day to deal with a young person, or rejected further consideration or negotiation of what was brought to the table on a political basis.

We tried the facts. We illustrated how the roots of renewables support that led to the 1603 policy had a foundation in the Bush Presidency, discussed how Sen. McConnell had served as a co-sponsor to Rand Paul’s former bill which was more extensive than what was passed in the new chapter of tax code for Qualified Opportunity Zones, and demonstrated ways to easily adapt either to encourage new public or private infrastructure investment. 

Yet, we were told by the advisors that it was “too early to tell how the new tax code will work” since there had not been many claims; therefore, it was too early to pass any other measures. Their responses tempted me to believe that the vast majority of the United States Congress had passed an entire new chapter of tax code blindly without gauging whether it would be successful. The advisors were also adamant in suggesting that the rebates were simply an “Obama era program;” therefore, it would not be considered for further negotiation in terms of either investment or production, or so we were told.

The only policy on our list that gained an interest of the advisors was one based on a political concern. A concern voiced on behalf of our client, with the appearance of trends of how development grants were disproportionately awarded in Iowa following presidential campaigns there under President Obama, and whether the program oversight measures could be strengthened further in terms of political influence or if this could be investigated. I wonder if the tables were turned, would they have been concerned about that at all? We did leave with some offers of assistance from the federal office, but unfortunately nothing close to the kind of proper remedy legislation could provide.

As thunder started rumbling over  D.C. , we quickened our pace towards the Dirksen building. By setting up a referral meeting suggested by one of the field offices of the Senate Majority Leader, we had managed to finagle our way into booking a meeting with the senior finance counsel from the Bipartisan Finance Committee to Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Grassley. When the finance counsel came into the waiting room, he seemed confused as to why two college students were the individuals that the majority leader’s office had instructed to meet with him. 

Nonetheless, what happened in that meeting and in the next few months was very insightful. I didn’t know it was possible to cause a senior senate finance counsel a headache, but we somehow managed to do it by describing the ins and outs of financing biodigestion projects and the various policies on the shortlist that we had written. After discussing how previous tax credits had failed to support longer-term finance projects like biodigestion, and hoping to receive some suggestions or assistance, we instead learned some valuable information.

At the time, the House Finance Committee was negotiating on whether or not to renew the Section 45 tax credits which we were told in the previous meeting was a pipedream. It was, supposedly, a bipartisan interest deep-down, but the issue was that there was not a consensus on what broad scope would be included. Political rhetoric strikes again, nonetheless—but that was truly the only barrier.

So what is the potential when political weeds are pulled to remove that barrier? In the next few weeks after the meetings in Washington, we were encouraged to keep in touch but heard nothing else of the discussion in the House on renewing portions of the 1603 program. We assumed that the issue had been abandoned- which was perhaps true in terms of whatever additional measures some committee members on both sides of the aisle wanted to include that were leading to a stalemate.

However, months later, after two college students were told that there was no way the credits would be renewed, that they were an “Obama-era program” that would not be negotiated, this issue had time to remove itself from that rhetoric. Meanwhile, dialogue and argument about the GND became more pronounced. 

In December 2019, after the consistent pleading of the American Biogas Council, a bipartisan deal was struck to enact part of the exact same policy that was a small part of what my partner and I had proposed in May: an extension and reinstatement of the Section 45 credits on energy production from the 1603 credit package for projects like biodigestion and hydro-power. 

As debates around the GND continued to dominate the airwaves, little media attention was ever given to this bipartisan success. But nonetheless its sign of hope that when political rhetoric is removed tangible solutions can still be developed in Washington

This story may seem detached from everyday life – but reality is exactly where the effects of policy, or lack thereof when it’s blocked by politics, are observed. The legislative disconnect from that reality is why I felt the obligation to go to Washington on behalf of MAC Farms in the first place. The effects of that disconnect are perhaps the most “real” part of the story.

In 2014, after making promises that Congress would continue tax support for renewables, debates in the Senate led to government shutdown. As I was told by staffers, negotiations between the White House and Senate majority finally decided that to strike a deal to save funding for the agreeable provisions of the Affordable Care Act and pass the rest of the budget, something else would be sacrificed. That something else was none other than the 1603 tax credit program.

Meanwhile, the CEO of MAC Farms in Campbellsville was left with two things: a broken promise and debt upwards of $3 million to complete construction of his facility . For the first time in years, rebates could no longer be claimed. Passions for a cleaner environment for his children, the future of his business, to be a sustainable energy producer and have a new revenue stream for his farm became diluted with fear. The kind of fear that makes one question if they can continue to provide for their family. But, he was determined to not let fear win. Out of hope, resolve, and faith, he invested all he had to finance the project in spite of the rebates that he didn’t have – his retirement account. 

He continued to innovate and learned from failure, making no assumptions until the biodigestion company was self-sustainable. If a federal promise was kept, his struggles would have been alleviated and there may have been even greater development. Very few are able to take the kinds of risks MAC Farms was required to take. That risk was unreasonable, and none should be expected to undertake such burden in order to grow American infrastructure. This burden has no other proper remedy than legislative relief, which is why we went to Washington. 

The large-scale implications for Kentucky on what MAC’s CEO has done with his craft would be impressive- but for now, those implications are still a dream along with several others from visionary farmers or potential renewable energy producers across the country that may never come to fruition across a national scale any time soon. That fruition seems impossible because political rhetoric within and surrounding the “Green New Deal” has stopped the germination of supportive policy from being enacted. 

Political Rhetoric and the GND: A Match Made in American Politics

If infrastructure is to escape a path of decay in the United States, and if we will actually turn hope into a reality for renewable and alternative energies to be widely available, then political rhetoric must be uprooted from the entire concept of a “Green New Deal.” Because the weeds of rhetoric are deeply-rooted there, removing them would lead us to effectuate something entirely different yet entirely necessary- whether from a climatic or economic perspective.  

That is the alternative and bipartisan concept defined here as a “Brown New Deal”: a legitimate hard-infrastructure development plan, both urban and rural/agricultural, without the political rhetoric, limiting the most broad directive-based language. Concrete policies, focused on supporting growth for renewables with tangibly-related economic stimulus- without “soft-infrastructure” being bill-tagged along. 

 “Soft-infrastructure” can be broadly defined as the measures that support cultural, governance, economic and social patterns of a society. This is in contrast to “Hard infrastructure”, like utilities, roads, or energy sources, which may be broadly defined as functional networks with physical elements which provide goods or services.

Before discussing the necessity of a “Brown New Deal” and why the alternative suggestion is needed, the issues surrounding the GND in terms of the text itself and political rhetoric around it require attention. There is no better place to reflect on this the 2020 Presidential Debates, or perhaps, none worse.

The 2020 Presidential Debates were contentious and all over the place regarding renewable energy and the GND. There was perhaps more off-the-cuff discussion on the GND than ever observed before, it was a spectacle to behold.

In the final debate, President Trump suggested that now President-Elect Biden supports the Green New Deal as a “100 trillion…AOC + 3” plan that would want to “shrink windows.” He suggested that “we have the cleanest air…water” while simultaneously supporting lowering vehicle emission standards and suggesting that Obama-era regulations were responsible for the decline of the fossil fuel and specifically the coal industry, though economists are now in wide agreement that the inherent economics and not regulations are what have killed coal plants apart from few exceptions. There was no direct answer or focus in either debate focused on renewable job creation, or what many would call a serious acknowledgement of climate concerns. The President focused more on energy consumers instead.  In a heated moment when Trump asked whether President-Elect Biden would “end” the oil industry, he stated in a very affirmative tone that he would “transition” away from the industry and roll-back subsidies.

In the Vice Presidential Debates, Harris clarified that the Biden-Harris plan was not the GND, that they supported the Paris Accord and meeting emission reduction goals by staying focused on job creation and renewable industry growth, and that they did not oppose fracking as a step in this direction.Vice President Pence also lauded several bi-partisan efforts in conservation, such as the Great American Outdoors Act which was sponsored by the late and honorable Congressman John Lewis. These efforts were not as pronounced by Vice President-Elect Harris.What many moderates and conservatives may not be satisfied with with is VP-Elect Harris’ previous sponsorship of the GND including the soft-infrastructure measures that the bill held, in addition to the more baseline measures most publicly promoted from the Biden-Harris plan.

The debates underscore the much deeper-rooted weeds plaguing our ability to achieve infrastructure policy. Those weeds are rooted both in the Green New Deal itself and the rhetoric surrounding it – as a result, perhaps we’re seeing them surface with renewable energy policy in general. The rhetoric is a roadblock to achieving infrastructure support that is both widely supported, and widely supportive. To illustrate this point, the recent past of national debates around the Green New Deal must be examined, and the findings are unusual.

Finding the Weeds to Pull: A Tale of Two Surveys

Two surveys were conducted just months apart in 2018 and 2019 reporting completely different statistics on the support of a “Green New Deal.” One reports that 88% of independents at least somewhat support the GND, and the other reports the same statistic at less than 50%. Something is off, so what’s the deal?

Survey (Left) Completed December 11th, 2018. Yale Program for Climate Change Communication & George Mason center for Climate Change Communication. Survey (Right) Completed March 6th, 2019. The Green Advocacy Project, as reported by Vox

According to the study conducted by George Mason and Yale University centers for climate communication, 64% of Republicans supported the GND as of December 11th, 2018. This included 52% of moderate Republicans and 46% of conservative Republicans “somewhat supporting” the GND, with 23% and 11% “strongly supporting” it respectively. At this time this study also reported 82% of American voters had heard “nothing at all” about “a policy being proposed by some members of Congress called the Green New Deal.” 

In March 2019, a new survey was conducted by the Green Advocacy Project for supporting renewable energy investment, and was later reported by Vox. The study focused on how ideologically informed Americans are about the GND itself (proposed in February), then suggested that 80% of Republicans strongly oppose the GND, including 91% of viewers of Fox News. This leaves a sharp contrast in this category from the other survey, suggesting only 20% of Republicans either somewhat or strongly support the GND. 

Follow-up results in April from the George Mason & Yale study verify this suggestion. A similar question was asked “how much do you support this idea,” showing only 22% of Republicans who watch Fox News more than once a week strongly or somewhat support the GND. The study also reported that only 42% of MSNBC viewers at the time strongly supported it, and of all sub-groups within their sampling, Republicans were the most informed of any party by far. 

Two distinct reasons can be observed for the staggering difference in these results. The first is the most obvious: something must have changed over the course of these three months. The Yale & George Mason study, which was fully published in April 2019, agrees . It found that while the largest differences occurred in the Republican category in decreased support, Fox News was observed to have more reporting on the GND in these months than CNN and MSNBC combined

However, it would be wrong to suggest that issues with the GND and it’s support are simply based on reporting.

Based on the university studies, as of April 2019 there was around a 36% difference in “somewhat supporting” a GND between Republicans who watch Fox once a week or less, and Republicans who at least “somewhat support” the GND in general as reported by Vox

By examining the precise questions of these surveys, and what created this difference, demonstrates how the weeds of political rhetoric are perpetuated on both sides of the aisle.

Conducted after the final version of the bill was filed, the Vox study on GND awareness by party identified it as a single-idea and asked “How much, if anything, have you heard about a policy being discussed called the Green New Deal.” Likewise, the follow-up survey in April conducted by Yale & George Mason did not seem to include the same policy descriptions from their first survey. These questions do not immediately conjure up any thoughts of concrete policy objectives, but rather, they encourage thought about the GND that would be an inherently reflective function of the political rhetoric surrounding it. The nature of these questions is appropriate for yielding conclusions on the impact of reporting; however, the differences between these two sets of surveys demonstrates something deeper about political rhetoric around and within the GND.

When the precise questions are compared from Spring 2019 to the survey question in December 2018, we see that the 2018 survey from Yale & George Mason clearly yields a focus on gauging support behind multiple policy-based descriptions. All of these were basically defining directives for “hard-infrastructure” policy – but they went no further. It bundled specific infrastructure policy-descriptions into a collective definition to form a concept of “a Green New Deal,” which had not yet been fully-proposed for the purposes of the survey, asking the question: 

“Some members of Congress … say that a Green New Deal will produce jobs and strengthen America’s economy by accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. The Deal would generate 100% of the nation’s electricity from clean, renewable sources within the next 10 years; upgrade the nation’s energy grid, buildings, and transportation infrastructure; increase energy efficiency; invest in green technology research and development; and provide training for jobs in the new green economy.”

It’s clear that a reader being questioned with how much they support these words would be likely to strongly or somewhat support or oppose a concept of a green new deal based on the number of specific policy implications that a survey responder would agree with, not rhetoric alone. 

This description left out any soft-infrastructure in the GND, such as healthcare, which received more reporting across all media stations once the total substance of the Green New Deal was filed on February 7th, 2019. The combination of those factors left less room for subjective definitions or understanding of infrastructure policy based on individual political rhetoric. It likely did not reflect as many concerns from conservatives or moderateDemocratswith also financing soft-infrastructure measures from the same proposal- because at that time, they weren’t included in any proposals.

Most Americans want a “Brown” New Deal, not a Green One

As a result, the 2018 survey provides that 81% of Americans think that they would support “a Green New Deal,” including 40% indicating that they would strongly support such a deal. With the analysis of the question in mind, it’s not surprising that these statistics are nearly identical to those measuring support for hard-infrastructure policy at large. As reported through the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) infrastructure “report card” program survey, as of April 2020 “80% of Americans support rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure more than almost any top issue facing the current administration.”

And just how low is the U.S.’s report card grade? As of 2017, the nation’s  infrastructure has a D+ grade from the ASCE. One of the primary issues of concern were water and electric utility usage electric utility infrastructure. While our infrastructure quality has declined, the acceleration in the polarization around energy and environmental policies has not. To some extent the trends of political polarization around what were formerly more bipartisan conservation and environmental issues has consistently occurred since the late 1970’s, but never to the extent seen in recent years. By analyzing these two surveys there’s a suggestion that stripping away political rhetoric from questions and media delivery yields a maximum 44% difference in responses of whether a Republican would at least somewhat support a hard-infrastructure only concept of a so-called GND, like that surveyed for in the 2018 survey. Effectively a “Brown New Deal” by definition.

Likewise, this last point suggests that the ‘so-calling’ itself is the real issue with the GND —  its language and political handling. Compared to the 2018 survey, there were undoubtedly differences from the hard-infrastructure concept of a GND and what the much wider-scope that the policy proposed in February last year actually provides. Although there is need, by their own merit, to thoroughly debate solutions for soft infrastructure policies called for in the GND (in Section 4, subsections H, I, J, N, and O; for guaranteeing high-quality healthcare for all, workplace safety and labour, collective bargaining, ensuring against “unfair” market competition for businesspersons, affordable housing, general economic security, and education) it’s questionable whether these measures belong inside any hard-infrastructure bill.

This point relates to the true issue behind the weeds of political rhetoric and the GND, which I would suggest is not a burden resting with either party or sitting President alone. The true problem is in the difference between “Brown” and “Green”; a hard-infrastructure “Brown New Deal” concept, and the existing text and public understanding of the Green New Deal as-proposed which includes soft infrastructure, with broad directive and intent-based language, and the resulting political rhetoric that this sweeping policy and language allows for.

As reported by Politico, “The Green New Deal” is not an ideal name if you want to attract bipartisan support. Especially relevant to the argument for excluding soft-infrastructure in a hard-infrastructure proposal, the Director of the Think-Tank ClearPath suggested “There’s a lot of distrust of these home-run giga-packages. It’s been a lot more effective to try to hit some singles and doubles.” To some extent, the inclusion of soft-infrastructures and political rhetoric are one in the same- bill-tagging these into an infrastructure proposal is a political tactic pursuant to satisfying the same political rhetoric of its sponsors, which unfortunately is a strategy that occurs in many “home-run” proposals with both parties and is done with policies sometimes even more unrelated to each other than these.

Political rhetoric goes both ways here- for example, the same Politico article also equates some of the ideology of the Green New Deal as idealizing the success behind President Obama’s green stimulus and dares to characterize that as a miniature GND. It is true that the 1603 program was part of one of the largest stimulus packages to-date and GND sponsors are likely fond of it. But, from our examination of support from the Bush Presidency which primed the industry to successfully receive a large stimulus for growth, it’s clear that characterizing the enacting of necessary renewable stimulus as a partisan idea or facet of the Obama presidency alone is a political bias itself. It’s worth considering that if the late and honorable Senator John McCain had won the presidential election in 2008 and later advocated the same necessary support for renewables growth,  perhaps a more left leaning Think-Tank would have been quoted by the Politico article to characterize the policy in a similar fashion or as coming up too short.

Perhaps a final issue of rhetoric to illustrate is how the Green New Deal itself is inherently directive based, meaning, it calls for specific policies themselves to be developed by Congress without actually enumerating or developing them. Although widely supported concrete policies may be contained under broad directives, those directives themselves are inherently more rhetorical. By their broadness they can allow for widespread blockage of some potential policies, done in the name of going against others which have also not taken form. That blocking itself is often rooted in political rhetoric from across the aisle of the bill sponsors. In 2020 and beyond, merely resolving the “intention” of Congress to support something is not enough to actually effectuate that support, and worse, it leaves enough room for wide speculation on what that could entail. 

Build or Die: A Post-COVID Brown New Deal

As what is perhaps the most significant barrier to achieving needed infrastructure policy, the continued growth of rhetoric weeds around infrastructure and renewable energy development will come with the cost of halting progress. From the successes in bipartisan support we know that a way forward towards success is possible if those are pulled. With the current state of our infrastructure and our country facing the COVID-19 pandemic, and a new President Elect, we must pull the weeds immediately to enact new solutions.

There is no better time to enact a “Brown New Deal” than after the COVID-19 pandemic, especially given the economic toll that the virus has had on the country. The chairman of the Federal Reserve has essentially suggested that “flattening the curve” is likewise the key towards starting economic recovery; however once recovery starts and a vaccine is distributed, that must continue in order to pull us out of economic recession.

Professor Mark Pelling, a human-geographer at King’s College, London has researched risks as a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). His work has included analyses around human response to natural disasters and post-disaster development as noted in his novel, “Adaptation to Climate Change.” 

Since pandemics are a form of natural disaster, something valuable can be noted by applying Pelling’s framework. The United States undoubtedly meets the classification of being in a current state of “disaster politics.” This can be classified by the fact that the country is dealing with a “natural hazard,” in such a way that it is “interacting with the existing political order.” Primarily in our case, causing changes politically and economically.

Pelling’s theory is based on an analysis of past human civilization. When we consider those civilizations’ efforts to overcome disasters, we can characterize those efforts in three ways: a change that brings return to the “status quo,” a gradual transition into improved conditions, or change that resulted in societal collapse. All of these suggest some form of adaptation, or a failure to adapt adequately in the last instance. A clear trend throughout history is that within the societies which have adapted positively, there has consistently been some form of significant post-disaster investment to advance infrastructure– whether we consider examples like Europe after the Black Plague or the post-war reconstruction from military conflicts in the U.S. and abroad

To truly recover the economy after COVID-19, the United States cannot continue the trillions of dollars of debt to its obligation to support American hard-infrastructure whether it is infrastructure currently relevant and physically decaying, or new infrastructure holding promise for a future that is struggling to develop.

It’s time for political weeds in the way of that prosperity to be pulled for our economy, environment, citizenry, and its future generations. It’s time for a Brown New Deal.

By: Samuel Kessler

The Case for Supporting Israel

Imagine this: in rural Virginia, about fifty miles outside of Washington D.C., an internationally recognized terrorist group has seized an area the size of a large city. They have established a de facto military base in this area to execute attacks on the nation’s capital and surrounding locales, using the homes and workplaces of civilians as cover from retaliation. How do you think the United States government would respond to this imminent threat to national security? How would you want them to? 

In the United States, this scenario is merely an intellectual exercise, but for the government of Israel and its citizens, this is a dire reality. As the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip is less than 50 miles from Jerusalem, Israelis must prepare themselves and their families for the genuine possibility that a missile attack could destroy their livelihoods or take their lives at any moment. These citizens turn towards their government, charged with protecting them, and realize that even their advanced air-defense systems and highly trained military are not sufficient enough to save Israeli lives. 

Hamas, the terrorist organization-political party hybrid that governs the Gaza Strip, does not only endanger Israeli citizens, but also the Palestinians that voted them into power, as they frequently use the homes and workplaces of innocent Palestinians for cover against Israeli retaliation. The group is not ashamed of their actions: their charter reads, “The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: 0 Muslim!” These are the people, hellbent on Israeli extinction, that are responsible for the continued violence in the region. 

A Century of Conflict

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not new. In fact, it is over a hundred years old. In order to avoid falling into the briarpatch of groupthink that currently pervades this issue on both sides of the political aisle, it is crucial to know the origin and history of Israel. The concept of the modern Jewish state emerged in the late 1800s via a socio-political movement called Zionism. Jewish Virtual Library defines Zionism as, “The national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.” This came as anti-semitism in Europe was on the rise. The movement progressed rather slowly until the British government issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, in which they promised to, “use their best endeavors to facilitate… the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” 

Yes, Britain. If that sounds odd, it was, because at the time, Britain had no power in the territory then known as Palestine. However, this quickly changed following the conclusion of World War I. When the Ottoman Empire fell, the United Nations (UN) forerunner, the League of Nations, asserted that most of the countries previously under the Empire’s reign needed to be “supervised” by European powers until they could become autonomous nations. For Israel, this power was assigned to Britain, and following this, the two decades of the British Mandate of Palestine began. In just about twenty years, the Jewish population in Palestine increased exponentially from about 25,000 before the mandate to 650,000 afterwards in response to British economic incentives to immigrate. 

The period of British Mandate of Palestine brought overwhelming violence and hostility between the Arabs and Jews living there. It became so severe that Britain limited immigration to the country and restricted the Jewish right to own property, cutting off a vital refuge for many of Europe’s Jews attempting to escape the spreading anti-semitic persecutions of Nazi Germany. Following World War II and the systematic slaughter of millions of Jews in the Holocaust, Britain vacated their mandate and pushed the responsibility of handling Palestine to the newly formed United Nations. The UN then formed a commission that offered the first two-state solution to the situation. Palestine would be separated into two separate countries: one Arab and one Jewish, with the city of Jerusalem under international control. 

The Jews in Palestine agreed to the partition proposal, but the Arabs did not. Instead of attempting to handle the dispute diplomatically, the Arab Palestinians, with the assistance of Egypt, modern day Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, declared war on the new state of Israel. Israel solidified its status as a state after surprisingly, yet soundly defeating the Arab coalition. This conflict came to be known as the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and it began a trend that would come to mark Israeli-Palestinian relations: long periods of civil unrest, followed by unsuccessful peace talks that lead to more unrest and even wars. 

Israel has offered Palestinian leadership two-state solutions on at least three differents occasions (not including the UN Partition Plan): the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Camp David Conference in 2000, and the Annapolis conference of 2008. The Palestinians have rejected every one of these offers, even though the Arab states surrounding Israel have abandoned their hostilities towards the nation. 

What Does This History Tell Us?

Israel’s history exposes the irony of the criticism that is consistently levied at the nation. First, European Jews did not return to what they believed to be their scriptural homeland to start oppressing the Arabs who were living there. In fact, before Britain got involved, Arabs and Jews in Palestine coexisted rather peacefully. The influx of Jews into Palestine before 1948 can be attributed to two factors: British economic incentives and rising anti-semitism in Europe. Neither of these factors could be controlled by the Jewish people. 

Secondly, Israel agreed to a two-state solution in 1948. They were then forced to fight a war to prove their legitimacy as a nation. They fought another similar war in 1967, proving they have a right to exist, and expanding their territorial holdings. Since 1967, they have relinquished land they rightfully won in exchange for peace with Egypt and Jordan. Although they are not required to by any means, they have attempted to do the same exact thing with Palestine, who have perpetually refused to agree to a compromise. 

To be clear, Israel has fought, and won, two wars that it did not initiate. They have had to manage nearly nonstop violence from Palestinian terrorist organizations, government institutions, and even their citizens. Many claim that Israel frequently responds to Palestinian attacks with excessive responses, saying that Palestine’s forces are less equipped than the Isreali Defense Forces (IDF), and that Israel abuses its military prowess when interacting with Palestine. This argument could hold water if Israel launched their military operations unprompted, but as their history shows, they most often do not. Attacking a country with an excellent military, and then complaining when that military defends its citizens, is perplexing. 

It is important to highlight that portraying the world’s only Jewish state as “evil oppressors” is problematic at best and anti-semitic at worst. This does not mean Israel can do no wrong, or that they should not be held accountable for their wrongful actions simply because they are Jewish. It means that a nation who has attempted, in good faith, to negotiate peace deals and two-state solutions with the Palestinians are held to standards that no other sovereign state on the planet is, in regards to their self-defense. It means that a nation who pulled their military from the Gaza Strip in 2006, only to have it fall into the hands of a terrorist organization that kills not only Israelis, but also Palestinians, has a right to defend itself against that organization’s attacks. 

What is the difference between Israel and every other sovereign nation? For some reason, they are expected to turn the other cheek when the lives of their citizens are on the line. It is important for those who view Israel’s handling of this conflict in a negative light to ask this question: why should Israel be expected to conduct itself on a high moral plane, when no other nation is, and more importantly, when its enemies aren’t?

What Does the United States Have to Do With This? 

The latest escalation of tensions and military actions between Israel and the Palestianian terrorist organization Hamas has resulted in international outrage. Protests have erupted in the United States and across the world. Some of these demonstrations took place in Kentucky, both in Louisville and Lexington. Many demonstrators are demanding the United States government cut off military and other taxpayer-funded aid to Israel, arguing that the alleged human rights abuses in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Golan Heights make such aid inhumane and unethical. 

The United States receives a myriad of benefits from their diplomatic and economic ties to Israel. According to the State Department, the US contributes almost $4 billion to Israel annually. In return, the United States receives indispensable security assistance from the Israeli military. This assistance comes in the forms of weapons research and development, covert intelligence regarding security threats from the region, and joint military exercises. Israel’s sensitive geopolitical positioning offers the United States countless national security benefits. 

In addition to the boost Israel offers to the United States’s national security, the countries also conduct $50 billion of trade of goods and services annually. While these imports and exports are important pieces of both nation’s global economies, they also participate in cultural and scientific exchanges through various organizations the fruits of which cannot be quantified. 

Demands for the United States to cut off aid to Israel, especially from American liberals and progressives, are not only misguided, but also an ironic juxtaposition of their expressed political beliefs. Israel is a bastion of democratic values and tolerance in the Middle East/North African region. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, an organization that ranks the levels of democracy around the world annually, Israel ranks as the most democratic country in the region. Most other countries in the same region do not come close to guaranteeing the same freedoms and rights to its citizens that Israel does. It is strange that many claim to support the spread of democracy, freedom, and tolerance, but do not support the only country in the Middle East that consistently upholds those values. 

Israel outranks every Middle Eastern country. For context, the United States’s global rank is 25.

Conclusion 

Israel’s conflict with the Palestinian people and their leadership shows no signs of reaching an end soon. Whenever two peoples are engaged in a violent struggle, especially one as protracted and complex as the one between Israel and Palestine, there will inevitably be tough decisions made on both sides that results in injury and death for both parties. But Israel is not an oppressor, it is not a colonizer, and it has not committed genocide in any form. When seriously and holistically considered, one must admit that Israel is a diamond in the rough of a geopolitical hellscape, and they not only deserve, but need the aid that the United States offers them.

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy

Kentucky’s Rural Hospital Problem

One and a half million dollars. This is how much money—annually— my hometown hospital in rural Kentucky has lost since 2012. With less than a week’s worth of operating cash on hand at any given time, the small rural hospital has been struggling to make ends meet for years now. This is not the only rural hospital in Kentucky with this problem; there have been five rural hospital closures in the state since 2009, four of them shutting down since 2014. And according to a study conducted by Navigant in 2019, there are another sixteen rural hospitals in Kentucky at high risk of shutdown, and thirty-five more in poor financial health. However, it wasn’t until the last decade that rural hospital closures in the state have increased at such a rapid rate. Why is this?

Source: Kentucky Health News

Rural Hospital Closures: At the Surface

In order to get to the root of the problem for rural hospitals, it is important to first examine its various layers. At the surface, many of the financial constraints rural hospitals face are largely due to the way Medicare (which provides coverage to roughly 900,000 Kentuckians) reimburses hospitals for the services provided. 

To put it into context, when a patient on Medicare is treated, Medicare reimburses the hospital a flat fee depending on a patient’s diagnosis, or Diagnosis Related Group (DRG). This payment is the product of two components: (1) a standardized amount for the diagnosis, which is adjusted depending on the average wage level in the area that the hospital is located, and (2) the DRG’s relative weight, or severity of the diagnosis. This payment system is known as the Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS). The DRG assigned can be influenced by the patient’s age and gender, and multiple DRGs can be assigned to a patient during a single stay. Thus, regardless of what a hospital may normally charge for a particular service provided to a private insurance patient, they must agree to charge Medicare patients a set price for that same service.

So why has this reimbursement system failed rural hospitals in Kentucky as much as it has? There are a number of contributing factors. One of the primary reasons is that under a reimbursement model like Medicare where the average wage level of an area is a determinant in how much is paid back to the hospital, states like Kentucky are put at a disadvantage. This is due to the fact that the majority of Kentuckians live and work in rural, lower-than-average wage level parts of the state, and thus, hospitals here have historically been paid less under the Medicare program than hospitals in urban/higher wage level areas. For instance, a hospital in a low-wage, rural community could receive a Medicare payment of about $4,000 for treating a beneficiary admitted for pneumonia. However, a hospital in a high-wage, urban area could receive a Medicare payment of roughly $6,000 for the same diagnosis due to wage index differences. Not only does this leave a growing shortfall of uncompensated care costs for a rural hospital, but it also perpetuates its inability to provide high-quality care because its low wage levels disincentivize skilled physicians to work there. Many rural hospitals have tried to hire a larger variety of doctors—and not just those that practice primary care—in order to attract more private insurance patients, however, this has been a difficult task considering there is a near 10 percent difference in salary for physicians working in urban areas versus rural areas.

And in turn, the lack of skilled hospital personnel has largely affected a rural hospital’s efficiency, and thus, how much money it makes. For example, if a Medicare patient gets treated at a hospital, Medicare essentially gives the hospital x amount of money for the number of days it should take to treat a patient with a certain diagnosis. If the hospital can discharge the patient sooner than that amount of days, they still get x amount of money, and if it takes them longer than the required amount of days to discharge the patient, they are still going to get x amount of money. Therefore, if a hospital is in an urban or higher wage level area and has a variety of skilled physicians that can provide a number of services, they can oftentimes discharge a patient sooner than the number of days they were paid for, and therefore make somewhat of a profit. On the other hand, if a hospital is in a rural area with fewer resources and physicians, they often struggle to discharge the patient in the number of days they were reimbursed for, and thus, end up losing money. 

More than half of Kentucky’s rural hospitals operate under this kind of reimbursement model. However, 28 of Kentucky’s 65 rural hospitals are classified as Critical Access. These are hospitals that operate with less than 25 acute care beds and are at least 35 miles from another acute care facility. Under this designation, diagnosis and wage level are not factored into how much money is reimbursed when treating a Medicare patient, and hospitals are simply reimbursed for the services provided. Though this reimbursement model has good intentions, it still fails to sufficiently finance rural hospitals because it does not cover the hospital’s other operating costs, like gas, water, purchasing new equipment, or keeping the light’s on over the patient’s head. Rural hospitals must use the little profit they make off of private insurance patients to cover these costs, and when nearly 75-80 percent of the patients rural hospitals treat are on Medicare or Medicaid, this does not leave a Critical Access Hospital a lot of money to work with.

Regardless of their designation, though, all hospitals were subject to cuts in the Medicare program under the Budget Control Act of 2013, which has largely contributed to the financial distress of many rural hospitals. In hopes to mitigate federal spending by $1.2 trillion over a period of nine years, Congress reduced Medicare reimbursement payments to hospitals by 2 percent. Though this meant that there weren’t any changes in the patient’s copay or deductible amount, Medicare was now required to reimburse hospitals 98 cents per dollar of their share, leaving the hospital to cover the uncompensated costs. And in rural hospitals like that of my hometown where 70 percent of its revenue comes from Medicare and Medicaid patients, these uncompensated costs can quickly take a toll. 

The Root of the Problem: Urbanization and the Loss of Agricultural Jobs

However, the root of the rural hospital problem is much deeper than the failure of Medicare reimbursements to adequately fund hospitals. According to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, the total Kentucky population grew by 106,240 people between 2010 and 2017. This growth was not distributed evenly, though; the population in urban counties grew by nearly 4.7 percent, while the population in rural counties dropped by -0.7 percent. Despite the fact that the entire country has seen a trend of urbanization since the Great Recession, the expedited decline of coal and loss of manufacturing jobs in Kentucky is urbanizing the state at a faster rate than ever before, leaving rural areas with a shrinking population that tends to be older, poorer, and more likely to be uninsured or on Medicare or Medicaid. 

Source: KYStats Economic Activity Report

Preceding the recession in 2008, the mining and manufacturing industries employed nearly 283,000 Kentuckians or about one in five workers at the time. Since then, the mining industry has lost about 18,000 jobs and the manufacturing industry about 15,000. The relatively cheap prices of natural gas and environmental standards from the Obama Administration has most likely been the primary reason so many coal jobs have been taken away in Kentucky, as former power plant customers are now taking their business elsewhere and new regulations call for cutbacks in production. And likewise, the rise in technology has contributed to the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector, as more manufacturing companies are beginning to rely less and less on actual workers and more on the technology which has replaced them. 

Losses in both sectors can be attributed to the fact that more people are attending college and moving out of rural areas than ever before. Nearly 90 percent of millennials who graduated from high school attended college within eight years, where they went on to pursue jobs in medicine, law, and engineering in urban areas. And unfortunately, this is a trend that is not expected to change anytime soon; projections estimate that by 2050, nearly 87.4 percent of the U.S. population will be living in urban areas.

Ultimately, these trends have only exacerbated the failure of Medicare reimbursements to adequately fund rural hospitals, and thus, they are an important issue that needs to be addressed.

Making the Case for Rural Hospitals

When my hometown hospital went to the county fiscal court in 2018 proposing a 10 percent increase in countywide property taxes that would go back to the hospital, the community did not take it very well. In an agriculture-based county like mine, an increase in property taxes is essentially the last kind of proposal community members are willing to agree to. Opponents of the proposal argued that the hospital could be absorbed by a larger hospital in the near future, or, if all else fails, community members could easily travel to the next closest hospital for care in an emergency. Despite their arguments, many of those community members have benefitted from the welfare of the hospital without fully realizing it.

Like my county hospital, rural hospitals prove useful to their communities in a number of ways. For one, rural hospitals tend to be the locus of the health care systems in the community, directly employing and/or supporting many of the community’s health care personnel, such as those that work at the county clinic or the pharmacies it contracts with. Secondly, not only does the health sector constitute about 14% of total employment in Kentucky’s rural communities, but hospitals and the clinics they own are also one of the highest-paying employers in a rural area. Thus, a rural hospital closure has a significant economic impact on a rural community. A Health Services Research journal report found that when a rural area’s only hospital closes, per-capita income in that area drops by 4 percent, and the unemployment rate increases by 1.6 percentage points. This is a substantial effect considering most rural communities already face an increasing number of economic hardships.

The loss of rural hospitals also means that patients in those areas have to travel longer distances to the next medical provider, which could ultimately determine life or death for a patient. In most cases, the nearest hospital in a rural area can take anywhere between 35 minutes to an hour to travel to. A study conducted in 2015 found that rural residents that have to drive long distances to get primary care are less likely to seek recommended preventive services such as flu shots, blood pressure screenings, and cancer screenings. Because those that live in rural areas are already more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke than their urban counterparts, lack of access to preventative care only perpetuates the rural health crisis. Thus, it is vital that steps be taken to improve the financial well-being of rural hospitals.

Big Problems Require Big Solutions

A problem as vast as the one confronting rural hospitals requires vast solutions. It is going to take more than simply cutting some operating costs and refinancing for rural hospitals to stay afloat, though this is often the first idea proposed to rural health care administrators. The easiest way for rural hospitals to become more prosperous and financially sustainable—while avoiding red tape— is to first seek new revenue sources. 

One of the most common means to generate new revenue for a struggling rural hospital is to merge with a larger hospital system in the area. The premise behind this is that larger, urban hospital systems—like Baptist or KentuckyOne Health, for instance—absorb smaller, rural hospitals in order for the hospital to survive. In some cases, mergers with larger hospital systems can be incredibly beneficial to a rural hospital; this can potentially mean better physician recruitment, joint purchasing power, shared services, and most importantly, survival. However, many rural hospital administrators have expressed their concerns with the idea of a merger, as it has the potential to outsource support services, create an even longer commute for local residents seeking care, consolidate particular services that could reduce the number of local jobs, and take control and independence from the current hospital administration and personnel. 

Another feasible solution for rural hospitals—and one that allows them to maintain their independence and services—is participation in the 340B Drug Pricing Program. This federal drug pricing program, created under the Public Service Health Act of 1992, provides considerable discounts on outpatient prescription drugs to hospitals, skilled nursing homes, pharmacies, and health care facilities by requiring pharmaceutical companies to charge less on prescription drugs for hospitals and clinics that serve high volumes of low-income patients. This allows eligible hospitals to buy drugs at a discount from the pharmaceutical companies, and then get reimbursed by Medicare for the full, non-discounted, price of the drugs. Thus, participation in this program gives rural hospitals an opportunity to make somewhat of a profit, which, in turn, they can use to cover some of their uncompensated care costs.

And lastly, the less likely, red-tape-entangled solutions are those that would have to come from federal and state governments. One hope is that Congress will permanently abolish Medicare sequestration efforts put in place back in 2013. These 2% budget cuts that have caused many rural hospitals to experience significant reductions in their reimbursements were originally scheduled to end in 2022, however, Congress recently reset them to expire in 2030. Rural hospitals need to be assured that these cuts are going to be removed indefinitely in order for hospitals to maintain any kind of long-term vitality. And on a state level, considering how the lack of skilled physicians in rural areas has affected how much money hospitals make, another potential solution would be for legislators to adopt incentives for providers who practice in rural, underserved parts of the state. Some states already offer financial incentives to encourage health professions students to pursue a career in primary care and practice in rural or underserved areas. These state programs are funded through different public and private sources. The National Health Service Corps State Loan Repayment Program, for example, provides cost-sharing grants to support 30 states to operate their own state loan repayment program. These incentives could attract a larger variety of doctors to the area and help close the gap between urban and rural health disparities while also improving the finances of many rural hospitals.

Although rural hospitals have long-faced exceptional circumstances that have hindered their health improvement efforts, it is becoming more and more apparent within recent years that these challenges are beginning to affect the vitality of the hospitals and, in turn, the economic health of their communities. Rural communities cannot afford to have economic and health conditions worsen any further, and thus, it is dire that hospital administrators, policymakers, and communities work together to find innovative solutions to solve the rural hospital problem in Kentucky.

Photo: Heather Boerner

McConnell’s Long Game and the Fight for the Supreme Court

“Winners make policy and losers go home,” declares Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in his memoir, The Long Game. This quote gives insight into the formulation of McConnell’s political strategy focused on advancing the conservative agenda. The strategy entails making strong decisions – even when unpopular – to benefit election outcomes and the future of conservative policy. With the passing of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, McConnell and the Republican Party are presented with what President Trump once called, “the ultimate long game”: an opportunity to transform the Court and usher in a more conservative era for the judiciary. 

On September 26th of this year, Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a federal judge and Notre Dame law professor, to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat. What follows is an effort to further energize conservative voters for both the Presidential and Senate elections, and ultimately creating a conservative-dominated Supreme Court. This effort doesn’t come without its challenges; as an unintended consequence, Republicans are potentially furthering the momentum of Democrats more so than their own party with a possible blue wave threatening to flip Republican seats in Congress. Thus, Republicans must ask themselves this: is McConnell’s “Long Game” mentality actually a winning strategy? 

The Presidential Election

In an already tumultuous election year, the vacant Supreme Court seat offers not only another opportunity for both parties to rally their bases, but also to appeal to the moderate undecided voters. Regarding the presidential election, results of a new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll show Biden ahead by 8 points among registered voters, 51 percent to 43 percent. While these numbers don’t look great for Trump, the poll also finds that 11 percent of all voters are still “up for grabs”, which is greater than Biden’s current advantage over Trump. 

There are a couple of routes that the two candidates could pursue in capitalizing on the seat vacancy for their campaigns. One option is to use it to energize their current bases over hot button issues, like abortion, that the Court could substantially impact. It seems that both candidates have pursued this path in some manner. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump emphasized the importance of conservative justices, boldly speculating that “If you have a radical left group of judges, religion, I think, will be almost wiped out in America. If you look at it, pro-life will be absolutely wiped out.” Biden has brought up the issue of a Trump Supreme Court Justice playing a part in potentially overturning of Roe vs. Wade, the case decided by the Court in 1973 protecting abortion. Biden has also taken the approach of appealing to the more moderate voter population. In a statement released after the nomination, Biden brought up Barrett’s opposition to abortion in an effort to appeal to his more liberal base. The former Vice-President also talked about healthcare, stating that Judge Barrett, “has a written track record of disagreeing with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act.” The ACA, or “Obamacare” as it is often called, is supported by a majority of independents, as recent polling shows. Whether or not this approach to appeal to undecided voters will actually work is hard to predict, but it is clear that this brings even more tension to the Presidential Election.

The Senate Elections

The U.S. Senate election also has the potential to be impacted by Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court. In the Senate, Republicans currently hold a 53-47 majority. In this election, they are defending 23 seats, while Democrats defend 12, and even some usually safe incumbents have been lagging in the polls. McConnell is one of the 23 Republican Senators up for re-election, but recent polling suggests he doesn’t have too much to worry about in his election, as he leads his opponent Amy McGrath by 12 percentage points, 53% to 41%, among likely voters. As the Senate Majority Leader, though, one of his main concerns is to keep that majority in the Senate, so what is the reasoning behind his strategy in regards to the Supreme Court appointment and the various Senate election races? 

Looking at several prominent polls asking about whether or not Ginsburg’s seat should be filled before the election, it was found on average that 52 percent of Americans have said to wait, while only 39 percent have said Trump should fill the seat now. From this it’s clear that appointing a new justice isn’t exactly the most popular decision, but McConnell seems to be undeterred by this. Months before Ginsburg died, McConnell was asked in May what he would do about a Court vacancy during an election year, and he responded, “I would fill it” – making a reversal from 2016, when he prevented President Barack Obama from trying to fill a Supreme Court vacancy during an election year. McConnell’s reasoning behind going forward with a vote on a new justice could be that it could help certain Republican senate candidates by giving them an issue to latch on to and make a stronger appeal to their conservative base – but even if this has little to no impact on the standing of certain candidates, in the end, McConnell is still likely to be successful in establishing a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. It is likely that two Republican seats (Arizona and Colorado) will flip Democrat and one Democratic seat (Alabama) will flip Republican, and the Supreme Court vacancy probably won’t change much there. There are, however, at least five Republican Senate seats that are simply toss-ups, that being Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Montana, and North Carolina.

The End Game of the Long Game

So, where do we go from here? Republicans have made their decision to go forth with the Court nomination and hearings, so now they’ll have to wait and see what results will follow. McConnell knows the risks, but he also recognizes the great rewards. The potential of advancing conservative policy by establishing a conservative-dominated Supreme Court, as well as helping Republican candidates who are currently struggling in the polls is too great of an opportunity to ignore. The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to meet for Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings on October 12th and the 2020 Election is on November 3rd. McConnell knows that this election could end up not going his way, but he also knows that elections consist of short-term wins and losses. “Everything else changes”, McConnell once said, but the appointment of judges “can’t be undone”. It is with this long game strategy that McConnell is determined to find a win for the party no matter what, and it seems he might just be able to pull that off.

To Build a Fair Justice System, End Monetary Bail

In the United States, one of our most sacred legal principles is being “innocent until proven guilty.” This principle establishes a system of fairness and rights for the accused; making it so that the accusers do not bear the burden of proving their innocence. This asserts that it is better for society and the justice system to have the potential of a guilty person being released than to have an innocent person incarcerated. 

This principle, however, is repeatedly violated by the practice of monetary bail in the United States, which leaves presumed innocent people in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.  This time in jail could lead to irreparable damage to the individual and their family – depriving them of their freedom, forcing a plea of guilt due to lacking options, ripping away future economic opportunities, and separating them from their children. 

It is time to abolish monetary bail and establish new standards for judges to determine pretrial release and its conditions — thus reestablishing the presumption of innocence in our justice system.

The Classist Cycle of Injustice

Under a monetary bail system, money or property is pledged to the court in order to be released from police custody before a trial, following the judge’s decision on the severity of the crime and how high bail should be set. Sadly, due to many Americans’ inability to afford bail, presumed innocent people will often be stuck in jail awaiting a trial. Less than 25% of people held in local jails right now have been convicted of a crime. By this data, over 460,000 presumed innocent people are held in jail on any given day. So many of these presumed innocent people are stuck in jail simply because they don’t have the resources to get a fair shake in our justice system. In many places, courts follow bail schedules — amounts that are based on the charge — without taking into account details of a person’s case or their ability to pay. 

Bail amounts vary widely, with a nationwide median of around $10,000 for felonies and less for misdemeanors. This is well above the available resources of most Americans. Even the lower amounts are more than most people can pay, and many face time in jail for lack of as little as $500 or even $250. There are bail bonds in most states — providing loans to pay bail — but these often impose a great debt upon the accused for the fee that the bail bondsman takes. For those who can’t afford bail, they are essentially given two options to choose from: (1) wait in pre-trial detention for an extended period of time and face all of the issues that come with imprisonment, or (2) agree to plead guilty, even if you didn’t actually commit the crime, to gain your path to freedom faster. 

A plea bargain is a legal agreement in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty in order to receive a more lenient sentence. The vast majority of felony convictions are now the result of plea bargains—some 94% at the state level, and 97% at the federal level. Estimates for misdemeanor convictions run even higher. Why is this a problem? A plea of guilt via the plea bargain, even if truly innocent, brands its victims with an everlasting mark that can cripple their economic and social standing. Many face extreme difficulty in finding employment due to this new mark of guilt on their record. For those who do manage to find a job, studies show that they’ll likely see their annual earnings reduced by more than 52% when compared with their peers. The less fortunate, presumed innocent people who choose the path of denying a plea bargain in order to await a trial and clear their name face many more struggles in jail. 

One major group of people who endure the pain of pretrial detention is families. At least 5 million children, or about 7% of American youth, have had an incarcerated parent with black, poor, and rural minors being disproportionately affected. Many parents, especially single mothers, who are presumed innocent but held in pretrial detention, are left unable to support their children both financially and emotionally. Among mothers who lived with their minor children prior to their arrest, nearly all of them reported providing financial support to the family. This loss of financial support could in turn impact the family’s housing stability, the child’s living arrangement, and the child’s school stability and psychological health. 

Children with an incarcerated parent are more than three times as likely to suffer depression and behavioral problems compared to kids without an incarcerated parent. There is a clear problem in our justice system when people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime are being separated from their children and being subjected to undue harm because of an inability to pay bail.

With all of these problems accused individuals and their families face, it is clear that the system of monetary bail is by no means fair, nor reasonable in addressing criminal charges. Monetary bail is a practice that diminishes the principle of the presumption of innocence, and it should accordingly be abolished. There are many questions that should be asked and situations examined when imagining a justice system without monetary bail. The feasibility of abolishing monetary bail, as well as the creation and implementation of an effective replacement to monetary bail must be examined. 

The Costs of Injustice

When determining the feasibility of abolishing monetary bail, two main factors must be considered: the rates of people returning for their trials and the potential taxpayer cost of ensuring a return to trial. Those who support the practice of monetary bail have argued that bail is an effective system because the money that is temporarily given by the accused to be held by the court acts as an incentive to return for their hearings. It is assumed that those who don’t have a purely financial stake in returning to court won’t bother coming, but what about the vested interest the accused have in simply clearing their names of charges? Couldn’t that in itself be a financial incentive for many, since the prospect of a guilty sentencing could equal a deprivation of future economic opportunities? An organization known as “The Bail Project” helps in demonstrating the results of removing the court-imposed financial “incentive” of bail, by using its funds to pay bail for the accused without demanding interest. 

The results? Their clients appear for over 90% of their court dates, with the other 10% of missed dates resulting from unavoidable schedule conflicts involving work and child care. Both sides of the debate over ending monetary bail have an interest in making sure that people return to their court hearings – the reality is that under a post-monetary bail system, the rate of return would be virtually the same, but with the addition of greater protections for the presumption of innocence.

Another component of the abolition of monetary bail and the feasibility of it is the implementation of new pretrial services and its effect on government taxes and spending. In order to ensure a proper transition towards a non-monetary bail system, there must be better pretrial services to accommodate defendants formerly dealt with by pretrial detention operations. The services would include various check-ins by pretrial supervision officers, reminder calls and texts for upcoming court dates, and potentially even transportation services to hearings. These services are not inherent to the abolition of monetary bail, but in order to maximize the efficiency of the system in regards to cost and return rates to trials, they should be instituted. Proponents of monetary bail will argue that an institution of new government programs following an abolition of monetary bail would only increase the spending burden on the taxpayers. 

The effects of new policy on spending are something that must be seriously considered, but not the determining factor in deciding on the passage of necessary policy. Thankfully, the abolition of monetary bail and the subsequent implementation of pretrial services would be both more efficient and cost-effective than the status quo of widespread pretrial detention faced by those who can’t afford bail. 

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts found that pretrial detention for a defendant was nearly 10 times more expensive than the cost of supervision of a defendant by a pretrial services officer in the federal system. With this in mind and the previously stated number of pretrial detainees being around 460,000 people, it can be assumed that a transition away from a system that penalizes the poor and holds them pretrial can also help in forwarding the universally appreciated principle of avoiding excessive and unnecessary government spending.

Weighing the Solutions

Washington D.C., California,  New York, New Jersey, and Alaska have all implemented different approaches to abolish bail to some degree. Within all of these states, there is the presence of a replacement system for bail schedules often known as “risk assessment tools.” Risk assessment tools are algorithms that require the data of the defendant’s past to be entered in and assessed to determine the likelihood of the defendant not showing up in court, committing new crimes, and causing further risk to an individual or the community. These tools were implemented by many states in order to help provide judges with helpful, objective data so that decisions for pretrial release and conditions can be made from more than just a hunch. 

In Washington D.C., this system has been in place for several years and has shown promising results in granting pretrial freedoms, while properly determining the flight risk and minimizing the rate of re-arrest before trial. In the state of New York, bail has been eliminated for a majority of non-violent crimes, and in determining pretrial release and conditions  judges “may only consider a person’s risk for failing to appear in court, and not their general risk to public safety.” 

This approach by New York essentially gives less discretion to the judges in using risk assessment to determine release, but it still allows the use of the tools. New York’s approach has faced a lot of backlash from law enforcement, who worry that some defendants released under the new rules will continue to commit crimes, and a few may try to intimidate potential witnesses since such critical decisions are taken away from judges. 

Opponents of relying on risk assessment tools have argued that the criminal justice system has problems caused by racial and economic biases, and to rely on data from an old system plagued with injustice would only continue injustices in the new system. For example, if an innocent person faced the pressure of monetary bail and decided to plead guilty to avoid being stuck in jail awaiting trial, a new system of risk assessment would take into account their past guilty plea and lower their chances of gaining their pretrial freedoms.

From examining these different systems of a post-monetary bail justice system, it is clear that each approach has its ups and downs. However, the implementation of these different approaches in various areas throughout the United States sheds light upon what a more desirable approach could look like and how it can be implemented. 

Monetary bail should be eliminated for non-violent offenses for the most part, but the judges should be given the ability to examine the recent criminal records of the defendant in order to prevent a continuous process of “catch, release, and crime” exploited by repeat offenders. Furthermore, in determining the risk of the defendant, there must also be a system of examining the biases and impact of former discriminative policies, allowing the defendant to contest previous charges and guilty pleas.

The Best of Both Worlds for the Path Forward

The proposed solution incorporates the positive aspects of both the D.C. and New York models while addressing their various failures. The D.C. system aimed to address the concerns of both the accused, the alleged victim, and law enforcement in granting a limited amount of pretrial liberties decided in part by the risk assessment algorithms. This ultimately helped in lowering the prison population, but it also trapped some people in a cycle of incarceration by reinforcing their past convictions that may have been forced by the systemic injustices of monetary bail. 

The New York system aimed to maximize the benefit to the accused individual by giving them numerous protections from risk assessment algorithms, strenuous release conditions, and judge decisions to suspend pretrial liberties to a degree. This system did help in guaranteeing greater freedom for the accused, and a relief of the economic pressures felt by monetary bail, but it also opened up the possibility of greater injustice being done to the public. 

Such a restrictive system upon the justice system could actually hinder New York’s goal of helping guarantee greater rights for the accused because lacking accountability for repeat offenders could lead to the general public turning against bail reform altogether. That is why a new approach would be more beneficial, as it would acknowledge the concerns and the safety of the general public, and give the judges more freedom and resources to determine the wiseness of releasing a certain defendant. 

This solution, as opposed to other already established solutions, would be the best way of moving forward with a post-monetary bail justice system, as it would guarantee greater protection of the principle of the presumption of innocence, while also taking into account the practicality of its impact upon society and the feasibility of its implementation.

Photo by George Hodan

The Bridge to Better Infrastructure

Over 2.2 million people across the three states of Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio are encompassed in what is known as “Greater Cincinnati.” This surrounding tri-state area not only shares close proximity to Cincinnati, Ohio, but also a robust economy, rich culture, and love of Cincinnati sports and chili. I was born and raised in Northern Kentucky (NKY), a largely suburban area with a strong connection to the city that lies just across the Ohio River. As strong as these ties are, the very thread that sustains this connection and enables residents to travel around the metropolitan area could snap if not properly addressed. This thinning thread is our outdated, overburdened, and deteriorating infrastructure: the roads, bridges, and other critical facilities that are essential to the operation and development of the region. Unfortunately, the Greater Cincinnati area is just one case of a much broader problem of failing infrastructure casting a shadow over the entire nation.

The Brent Spence Bridge is a symbol of our nation’s infrastructural and political failures. The bridge carries the key interstates of I-75 and I-71 across the Ohio River, making it one of the busiest bridges in the United States. However, this bridge is plagued with problems: it is overburdened by carrying double its original intended capacity, was deemed “functionally obsolete” by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and has the second-worst traffic bottleneck in the nation. Both former President Barack Obama in 2011 and former President Donald Trump in 2017 specifically addressed the Brent Spence Bridge in their speeches in NKY and Cincinnati, promising infrastructure reform for both the region and the nation. The result? Little to no reforms were made. The rest of America’s infrastructure does not look any better, with the American Society of Civil Engineers consistently reporting for over a decade that a majority of U.S. infrastructure assets “exhibit significant deterioration” and are “of serious concern with strong risk of failure.” Now, well aware of past failures amending the Brent Spence and other infrastructure throughout the U.S., President Biden is putting forward his own plan. Despite 80% of Americans being in favor of strengthening investments in infrastructure,  there are numerous partisan and jurisdictional conflicts surrounding this legislation, thus complicating a seemingly simple issue.

Federalism and Infrastructure Responsibilities

The creation and maintenance of infrastructure projects in the United States are primarily under the jurisdiction of individual states and localities. Private entities, state governments, and local governments own about 97% of the nation’s nondefense infrastructure and fund 94% of it, including our interstate highways. The prominent role of state and local governments is the most logical, as they are in a position to understand their regional economic needs and interests best. 

The federal government, on the other hand, takes a more indirect approach to the issue. Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution lays out all of the specific law-making powers that are delegated to the United States Congress, while all other powers that are not implied or explicitly delegated to the Federal Government are then delegated “to the States respectively, or to the people,” as per the 10th Amendment of the Constitution. One of the powers given to Congress in Article 1, Section 8 is found in the “Spending Clause,” which allows them to “pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” With this power, the federal government wields the great tool of the grant, which sets up a system for disbursing federal funds to state and local governments. This is truly a useful tool for the federal government, as the states rely on federal grants to pay for some 28% of their infrastructure spending, and the federal government alone sets the guidelines for obtaining and spending these funds. 

For better or worse, the federalist system of government we have and its separate areas of jurisdiction lead to more complications in the process. Infrastructure solutions get especially complicated when it comes to shared infrastructure between states and the subsequent difficulty in obtaining federal funds due to disagreement and a lack of cooperation. In the context of the Brent Spence Bridge, this interstate conflict can be seen between Ohio and Kentucky. Ohio and the City of Cincinnati largely support the imposition of toll fees for those who use the bridge in order to fund repairs and new projects, while most in Kentucky oppose tolls as they believe it would hurt both Northern Kentucky commuters who have jobs in the city and the overall economic development of the region. In a statement on the Brent Spence Bridge, former Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao pointed out the necessity of interstate cooperation, saying that “when there is consensus and agreement on a project, it speaks to the much greater probability of success,” as it allows for federal funds to be distributed confidently and with less difficulty.

Lacking State Government Action

The benefits of infrastructure reform are indisputable. Proper reform could eliminate the annual $120 billion costs caused by traffic congestion, generate $320 billion in economic output upon a spending increase of 1% of national gross domestic product (GDP), and create millions of American jobs. Undeniably, there is a large price tag attached to national reform: an estimated amount of over $2 trillion needed by 2025 – and this is only accounting for the needs of our current lagging infrastructure network, not the potential infrastructure opportunities of the future. This hefty price comes with the daunting task of finding the source for funding – something lacking consensus on all levels of government.

The gas tax is utilized by every state government and the federal government to raise revenues, and a state’s constitution typically mandates that these revenues go directly to the state’s “road fund,” specifically directed towards financing infrastructure. Kentucky’s current gas tax is 26 cents per gallon – coming on top of the current federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993 – and it has not been raised in over six years. For the past four years, though, a bill to raise the state gas tax to 36 cents per gallon has been introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly and is estimated to raise $300 million in tax revenues in an effort to address Kentucky’s deteriorating roads and $2 billion bridge repair costs. Proponents of the tax argue that this increase is needed, as the current rate generates only enough revenue to cover just 38.3% of state and local road spending needs. Gas tax increases have been proposed in many other states, but they are not too popular among the people. The gas tax and proposals to increase it garner support from a mere 32% of Americans. Opponents of the gas tax argue that it is a regressive tax that takes a greater percentage of income from low earners than high earners, which is reflected in the fact that the lowest income earners spent an average of 29% of their incomes on transportation costs. Some states end up biting the bullet and making the tough decision to raise the gas tax to fund their road-related infrastructure. However, for Kentucky and many other states, it seems they will defer to the federal government in hopes of finding a way to fill the fiscal gap in meeting infrastructure needs.

Federal Government Spending Plans and Bipartisan Bridges

On March 31st, the Biden Administration revealed the American Jobs Plan to modernize tens of thousand of miles of highways and roads, fix the ten most economically significant bridges in the country, and provide for numerous other infrastructural needs, such as high-speed broadband access and pipes for clean drinking water. Beyond traditional infrastructure, Biden’s plan includes hundreds of billions of dollars for additional “human infrastructure” projects, namely electric vehicle charging stations, government housing subsidies, universal preschool education and community college, and a number of other ambitious federal programs. The total cost of Biden’s plan is estimated to be a whopping $2.3 to 4.1 trillion. In order to pay for all of this, Biden plans on proposing an increase in the corporate tax rate from the current 21% (lowered from 35% by Trump) to 28% and a new 15% minimum tax on corporate profits reported to investors so that tax deductions will not allow for lower payments (an apparent targeting of the numerous corporations who paid $0 in federal tax). 

While Republicans would likely support investing in and rebuilding the nation’s traditional infrastructure network, that support comes to a halt when that proposed investment comes on top of trillions of dollars in expenditures for federal government subsidies funded in part by a significant reversal in the Republican tax cuts implemented in 2017. Legislators on the progressive end of the Democratic Party, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, are calling for Biden to go even bigger with his plan and aim for the progressive “ideal” of “$10 trillion over 10 years.” This led many Republicans to recognize that there is a great need to push for a modest bipartisan plan. West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito has led the advocacy for a Republican infrastructure proposal of $568 billion focusing on roads and bridges, which constitutes more than half of the proposed expenditures, among other traditional infrastructure. Proposed funding for the GOP plan would potentially include increased user fees, the imposition of vehicle miles traveled fees, or a diversion of excess coronavirus relief funds. Ahead of infrastructure negotiations, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has drawn the line for spending at $800 billion, characterizing the rest of the proposed spending in Biden’s plan as “unrelated” to infrastructure. 

Ultimately, bipartisanship is a necessary component for the success of a final draft of infrastructure legislation. The filibuster is what forces a bipartisan approach, as its allowance for a senator to stall legislation through prolonged debate and irrelevant motions can only be overcome by a 3/5ths vote of the Senate body, meaning that a bipartisan coalition of at least 60 senators must be formed in order to end debate and pass the legislation. Recognizing this as not only a reality of the institution but an opportunity, President Biden has been advertising his eagerness for negotiations and a bipartisan consensus. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has criticized this strategy of compromise with the GOP and instead advocated for pursuing the tactic of budget reconciliation in order to avoid the filibuster altogether and vote on partisan lines. The problem with this shortcut tactic is that any portion of the plan deemed to be “extraneous matter” not primarily related to the budget faces the possibility of being cut out, potentially leaving Democrats with a hollow shell of the original proposal. In addition, states, cities, and the American people would be presented with legislation decided upon without the productive deliberation and exchange of ideas and concerns that come from the diverse range of backgrounds and values represented in Congress.

At the end of the day, the mere prospect of a solid bipartisan plan for appropriating federal funds for infrastructure is cause for relief in Cincinnati and cities across the nation. The give and take of partisan negotiations at the federal level is only the beginning of the battle for rebuilding American infrastructure. As mentioned previously, it is not the federal government that oversees the creation and subsequent maintenance of these infrastructure projects. Instead, our federalist system of government puts that responsibility in local hands. Therefore, leaders of both parties at all levels of government would be wise to build strong metaphorical bridges amongst themselves as we all make progress towards rebuilding America and finally building a new Brent Spence Bridge.