Normative Narratives


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Inflation: Keep Calm and Let the Fed Carry On

Anticipating concern over recent inflation numbers, the White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) put out a useful historic primer on recent periods of higher inflation:

“Supply chain disruptions are having a substantial impact on current economic conditions. Economy-wide and retail-sector inventory-to-sales ratios have hit record lows; homebuilders are reporting shortages of key materials; and automakers do not have enough semiconductors. Elevated consumer demand is adding fuel to the fire. Travel demand, for example, has returned much more sharply than expected, which is straining airline operations. Similarly, total vehicle sales in April more than doubled from a year prior, which is leading to empty dealer lots. The combination of a spike in consumer demand and a supply chain that is not fully operational has contributed to rising prices.

If actual inflation is affected by inflation expectations—and if expectations are in part formed by recent experiences (what economists call “adaptive” expectations)—then one risk is that transitory supply constraints and pent-up demand could have more persistent effects by raising longer-run expectations of inflation. On the other hand, businesses and consumers may “see through” supply disruptions and not change their longer-run expectations significantly.

In this blog post, we examine previous periods of heightened inflation and see what they can teach us about inflation in 2021…No single historical episode is a perfect template for current events. But when looking for historical parallels, it is useful to concentrate on inflationary episodes that contained supply chain disruptions and a spike in consumer demand after a period of temporary suppression. The inflationary period after World War II is likely a better comparison for the current economic situation than the 1970s and suggests that inflation could quickly decline once supply chains are fully online and pent-up demand levels off. The CEA will continue to carefully gauge the trajectory of inflation.”

How people expect prices to behave can actually affect price levels. If people think prices will continue to rise, and increase their purchases beyond what they normally would to hedge against expected future increases, that itself can lead to greater inflation. If you (as I) believe the forces of supply and demand will eventually even out any market mismatches, then expectations are arguably the “most variable” of the variables affecting inflation right now (at least in an advanced economy like America’s.)

One important difference today compared to earlier periods examined by the CEA is the hyper-partisan nature of all policy debates, and how that plays out in the news and ultimately affects peoples’ beliefs. When people are subjected to continuous fear-mongering about inflation it is likely to impact their expectations, leading to greater inflation than the underlying economics alone would have yielded. In our world of social-media fueled “echo chambers” and the confirmation bias it enables, psychological forces could play an outsized role in the levels of inflation we ultimately realize.

For what its worth–hopefully a lot–most economists believe current high inflation figures are partially due to the “base effect” (lower inflation in 2020 due to pandemic related shutdowns making over-the-year increases look larger than they otherwise would be) and will be “transitory” (shorter-term, subsiding once the effects of supply chain bottle necks and pent-up demand work themselves out.)

Monetary policy is one area where we should trust the experts; it is inherently complex, and there is good reason to think ideology won’t dominate. Why? Because inflation has the ability to hit peoples’ wealth and sense of financial security in ways that taxes cannot; regardless of your political affiliation, you probably have no interest in seeing your lifetime of hard earned savings inflated away due to mismanagement. So we have Fed Chief Jerome Powell (a Trump appointee) working closely with former Fed Chief Secretary Yellen (who was appointed to her various roles by Obama and Biden.) The two have historically had very different views on appropriate monetary policy, but as dedicated public servants with “skin in the game”, they both want to get monetary policy right.

There is also little reason to think the types of spending Biden is proposing would be particularly inflationary. The administration is actually framing its proposals as inflation reducing in the middle-to-long run. They argue that by investing in our infrastructure, human capital, and the burgeoning green economy, gains in productivity will allow businesses to pay higher wages and stay profitable without needing to drastically increases prices.

That may be a bit of a stretch. More likely those forces would partially offset the otherwise inflationary effects of such large spending programs (an idea recently endorsed by Moody’s chief economist.) And that is fine, some inflation is OK, it is not the only thing that matters! So long as Biden’s proposals result in even modest increases in “real” (inflation-adjusted) earnings, they would have to be considered a huge success. After all, it is longer-term improvements to things like child poverty, social mobility, environmental sustainability and international competitiveness that are the real goals of these proposals—wage gains would just be icing on the cake. (Ultimately the largest and most immediate wage gains, particularly for lower income workers, require a higher minimum wage, something the Senate Parliamentarian has ruled cannot be done via “reconciliation”.)

The Federal Reserve has the “dual mandate” of promoting price stability and full employment. In determining appropriate monetary policy, context matters—despite a growing economy and low interest rates, America has experienced lower-that-desired inflation (below the 2% annual target) for much of the past decade. This is another reason the historically hawkish Powell is comfortable letting inflation “run hot” for a little while in order to help return the labor market to full employment. This strategy, championed by the unsung hero of the Great Recession Ben Bernanke, is known as “temporary price level targeting“.

In other words, keep calm and let the Fed (and CEA) carry on. It knows what it is doing. It proved that during the Great Recession when it ignored these same disingenuous warnings and saved our economy, while conservatives fear-mongered about inflation and obstructed an adequate fiscal response in Congress. Sound familiar?

Fools, Fanatics, and Wiser People

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” — Bertrand Russel

I cannot tell you with certainty how long higher inflation will last–no one can. Uncertainty about how COVID variants will disrupt operations in countries with lower vaccination rates makes it difficult to predict exactly when global supply chains will normalize. The possibility that different components of the basket of goods that make up the topside inflation number may experience price increases at different points in time could also draw out this transitory period.

Even with those uncertainties, I can say with confidence that I think any higher-than-desired inflation will be transitory, and that the Fed has the tools to bring it down if necessary. This is not a decision to be made lightly, as there are real costs to people and our economy from unnecessarily tightening monetary policy too soon. I can also tell you that those who are saying with certainty that a sustained period of high inflation will (or already has) taken off–so called “Bidenflation”–have ulterior motives for doing so. They also have a terrible track record of predicting these sort of things; remember “Obamaflation“? Probably not, because it never actually materialized.

Most importantly, forgoing this historic opportunity to pass the biggest investment in America and its people since The New Deal in the name of sustained higher inflation that will likely never materialize, and if it does can be managed, would be the height of stupidity–the type of stupidity that would reverberate through history. Can you imagine America without The New Deal or Great Society (or the world for that matter, considering what their absence likely would have meant to the Cold War effort?) No, you cannot–it is inconceivable. America again finds itself needing to prove democracy can work not only for its own people, but as part of a new “Cold War” (of sorts) against the forces of authoritarianism—the stakes for getting these things done could not be higher.

Senator Joe Manchin, the man who above anyone else needs to be convinced of this so these plans can be passed via reconciliation, recently said he is “going to talk to some economists” about the possible inflationary effects of these proposals. Look, if he wants to find economists to tell him to moderate due to inflationary concerns, he will find them. However, those views would not represent the beliefs of most economists, and would run counter to the lessons of recent history and the demands of the moment.

Most economists (like most subject matter experts), due to some combination of integrity and ego, actually care about being right. They agree the benefits of expansionary fiscal and monetary policy right now far outweigh the unlikely costs of runaway inflation. Recent history tells us we should not believe the people who fear-mongered about inflation during The Great Recession for the same regressive reasons they are today. Those opposed to Biden’s proposals believe if they can delay them long enough, they can kill them by flipping the balance of power in Congress back to the GOP. They are right, and that cannot be allowed to happen.

Ultimately the need to act now and adjust later comes down to how fiscal and monetary policy are passed. There is a small window to act on fiscal policy; when is the next time America will emerge from a such a crisis, with people demanding these sort of large scale investments, and with the party that is willing to pursue them controlling all the levers of federal policy-making? In the context of our grossly and increasingly uneven electoral playing field, probably not again in the foreseeable future. Monetary policy on the other hand, by virtue of being passed relatively smoothly by the independent Fed, is much more nimble and can be adjusted to meet any inflationary consequences of this spending should they ever come to pass.


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Human Rights, “Enabling Rights”, and Biden’s Plans

During my internship with the United Nations Development Program in 2013, I had the pleasure of working on the “post-2015 development agenda”. This was the consultative process which eventually yielded the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and guiding principles for achieving “sustainable human development” through a “human rights based approach to development“.

The “human” in “sustainable human development” is often left out, but it is an important component. Sustainable human development is not just about basic infrastructure, healthcare, education and environmental protection, it is also about how you get there. To be truly sustainable, development cannot be due to an autocrats benevolence, which can be taken away at a moments notice. It must also make space for civil and political rights so disputes to be resolved peacefully, not brutally suppressed and whitewashed by a propaganda machine.

In the developing world, civil and political rights are considered “participatory” or “enabling” rights, in that they enable people to claim other rights (economic, social, cultural) and peacefully resolve disputes through representative government. The absence of this priority explains why well intended and reasonably well funded development efforts in the past, such as the MDGs, have failed to live up to their promise–simply put, due to poor governance and corruption. SDG #16, promoting “peace, justice and strong [accountable and inclusive] institutions” represents the biggest shift from the MDGs to the SDGs.

American democracy, as flawed as it is, is still democracy; American’s, by and large, already enjoy the civil and political enabling rights missing in much of the developing world. America is the type of place people around the world would, and do, risk their lives to live in. Part of this is due to our relative wealth, yes, but the value of our freedoms (and their supporting institutions, such as an independent media and judicial system) are not lost on those who have experienced the alternative. Sadly, that affliction only seems to affect people blessed to have known nothing else.

In America more people don’t vote due to apathy, misinformation, or being too busy scraping by in our flawed economic system than due to disenfranchisement. This is not to say that our electoral system is not also in need of reform–more on that in a moment–but those issues can be overcome with concerted effort. Indeed they were in 2020; voter turnout increased dramatically, delivering a small window to push through many long needed reforms. Will this increase in turnout be an aberration or trend? Much of that depends on how well Biden and the Democratic Party deliver right now.

Because of our extreme worship of money in America, economic rights have become our enabling rights. I am not saying that this is right or good, but when going into battle it is always good to know the lay of the land. Expanding economic opportunity will naturally lead to more equitable economic outcomes and, by extension, help secure other non-economic justices and freedoms. Wealth buys better treatment in our legal system and better healthcare, it enables people to invest enough in themselves to build fulfilling careers, to take risks, to be entrepreneurial, and to live in good neighborhoods and otherwise invest in their children’s futures.

Biden’s plans, by jump-starting the process of wealth accumulation as the government did for white Americans in the mid 20th century, would act not just as a floor beneath which our most vulnerable could not fall, but also as a trampoline for them and their children to reach even higher. In other words these plans would enable people to claim other rights through our market economy, just as political and civil rights in the developing world do through democratic governance. This is not wishful thinking, it is how America already works for its wealthier residents.

Biden’s proposals operate under the framework of “targeted universalism“. By considering how historic disparities and systemic racism still impact outcomes today, and providing more support to historically marginalized groups to help them catch up as we invest in all Americans, Biden’s plans have the ability to make sure future American growth is broad-based and inclusive, reaching groups who often fail to see politicians’ promises materialize. The most obvious example is closing the racial wealth gap by correcting for historic discrimination in housing policy (as home ownership is the largest source of wealth in America), but there are many other examples in Biden’s proposals, such as investing in HBCUs alongside community colleges.

With the fairer economic system that would result from passing Biden’s proposals, cultural divisions would ultimately take on less importance because they would seem less existential, aiding in the fights for civil rights legislation to empower marginalized communities. By proving democracy can still deliver for the American people, Biden’s plans would help sustain higher voter turnout, helping to offset any regressive electoral laws the GOP may pass. On the global stage, nothing better promotes democratic governance than an American system that works.

Of course voting rights are still an issue, and our electoral system as it currently stands is an impediment to a more sustainably progressive America. Geographic realities have enabled gerrymandering and the structure of the Senate to completely bastardize the central democratic concept of “one person, one vote”. Hopefully the Democrats can carve out a filibuster-proof process for voting rights laws, in which case they would immediately become a top policy priority, but up to this point it has not been able to do so.

I hate to be fatalistic, but we simply will not get to the 60 Senate votes needed right now to meaningfully address priority areas that cannot be addressed through reconciliation (anything that isn’t budgetary or spending related in nature, mainly voting rights, immigration reform, or criminal justice reform.) To the contrary the GOP is doubling down on Trumpism, relying on misinformation to drum up fear about these issues as its economic platform becomes increasingly less popular. While Democrats at the national level should voice their support for such reforms, and put GOP lawmakers on the record for their regressive stances, these are fights that will need to be fought mainly at the state and local level and in the courts for now.

So while Biden tries to work with the GOP, which will assuredly come back with inadequate counter-proposals, he should not scale back his plans in the name of bipartisanship or waste too much of this precious window to act before the 2022 midterm elections. Nowadays infrastructure goes beyond pouring concrete, and creating a system that works for working-class Americans is long overdue. Moderate Democratic Senators like Joe Manchin (WV), Krysten Sinema (AZ) and Jon Tester (MT) should know this–their constituents sure do! As Democratic Senators they should also know that since the Great Recession, the field of economics has moved decidedly to the left on how much can be financed responsibly through deficit spending.

Lawmakers and people making up the progressive, liberal, and the centrist wings of the Democratic party must acknowledge exactly what Biden’s plans would mean for America if passed, and remain united in seeing them through. Splintering the party’s focus to pursue reconciliation-proof “woke” legislation is exactly what the GOP wants; as a general rule, it is a good idea not to do what your opposition wants you to.

Failure to pass Biden’s proposals would not only forgo important enabling economic rights, it would put other noble pursuits further out of reach. Ultimately it risks the further erosion of American Democracy by naturally lowering voter turnout through disillusionment and apathy. Nothing is more important right now than passing Biden’s plans. If, as a progressive, you think something else is, think of them as an attainable means to your more preferred ends.

In a perfect world all human rights–economic, political, civil, social, and cultural–would be promoted at all times. This is not a perfect world, and America is not a perfect democracy. Securing economic rights is foundational and feasible right now through reconciliation, and doing so would change the political and cultural landscape in ways that would help secure other rights going forward.


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In Support of a Jobs Program (working title)

Fed Chief Jerome Powell, most of his life a fiscal conservative, has lately sounded like anything but:

“Given the number of people who have lost their jobs and the likelihood that some will struggle to find work in the post-pandemic economy, achieving and sustaining maximum employment will require more than supportive monetary policy,” Powell said in remarks to the Economic Club of New York. “It will require a society-wide commitment, with contributions from across government and the private sector.”

Recovery, Powell said, would require both “near-term policy and longer-run investments” to ensure anyone who wants a job can get one.

Powell on Wednesday cemented that stance, noting that after World War Two, as the economy transitioned from wartime and needed to absorb millions of returning soldiers into the labor force, the Employment Act of 1946 committed the government “to use all practicable means” to see that anyone willing and able to work can find “useful employment.”

Fed Chiefs typically stay out of fiscal policy debates; in being vocal, Powell is going against both tradition and his long held personal beliefs. But as a true expert he understands that appropriate economic policy is context sensitive, and as a dedicated public servant he understands what his priorities should be.

Powell is probably advocating for something temporary in nature, however I see the need for a more permanent expansion of the civil service. Whether such a program should be guaranteed to everyone, or just very large in scale, is open to debate (I would argue a guarantee is worth the higher price tag). What is not open to debate is the need to do something—the private sector is no longer up to the task of productively employing as many Americans as we ask it to:

“The labor market continues to work pretty well as an economic institution, matching labor to capital, for production. But it is no longer working so well as a social institution for distribution. Structural changes in the economy, in particular skills-based technological change, mean that the wages of less-productive workers are dropping. At the same time, the share of national income going to labor rather than capital is dropping.

This decoupling of the economic and social functions of the labor market poses a stark policy challenge. Well-intentioned attempts to improve the social performance of the labor market – through higher minimum wages, profit-sharing schemes, training and education – may not be enough; a series of sticking leaky band-aids over a growing gaping wound.

As Michael Howard, coordinator of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network, told Newsweek magazine: “We may find ourselves going into the future with fewer jobs for everybody. So as a society, we need to think about partially decoupling income from employment.”

This decoupling of the economic and social functions of the labor market is most pronounced after recessions. It wasn’t until 5 years after the Great Recession “ended that employment reached its pre-recession level. This time around the CBO projects employment won’t hit its pre-pandemic peak until 2024, even though GDP is expected to recover midway through this year.

But workers getting a smaller piece of the pie is not just an issue during and after recessions—declining labor force participation and stagnant wages have persisted for decades. Even during the period before the pandemic—the longest economic expansion on record—labor force participation never really recovered from the Great Recession (which itself was lower than before the dotcom bubble burst). This gives reason to believe the COVID Recession might lead to permanent labor market scarring even with continued fiscal support.

Recessions aren’t just economic downturns, they also accelerate existing economic trends like automation. Cost reduction measures necessitated by the COVID Recession, combined with long overdue calls for a livable minimum wage, will likely accelerate the trend of less Americans (particularly the less educated) being employed through the private sector. If this is the case, the public sector will need to pick up the slack.

Universal Basic Income is an idea that gained mainstream attention in America during Andrew Yang’s 2020 Presidential bid. But giving everyone some money doesn’t really solve the financial problems of people whose jobs are displaced by automation and globalization, nor does it address the mental health impact of being disconnected from the labor force. A jobs program addresses both issues, and the jobs themselves can be used to address other social issues.

There is the question of what types of work we should prioritize, and there is a good argument for having some flexibility at the local level. But generally speaking there are needs which, while not profitable for the private sector to provide affordably, would nonetheless make us a more productive and cohesive society. The government already provides many of these things in some capacity, but they tend to be chronically underfunded. Notably they all address issues that were present before the pandemic, but have since been brought to light and exacerbated.

Lets start with infrastructure, historically a less contentious area for public investment and one where there is obvious need. America’s roads and bridges are in need of repair. Flint, Michigan didn’t have clean drinking water for years, and many other areas are at risk of similar crises. The “digital divide” (broadband internet availability and affordability) has been exposed as we scramble to educate children remotely, but is a problem that preceded and will outlast the pandemic. Climate change demands investments in clean energy infrastructure, and if we want to shift to electric vehicles we’ll need a reliable network of charging stations installed around the country.

For some types of infrastructure public-private partnerships could leverage taxpayer money to tease out private sector contributions, but not all of them. Recent history has made it pretty clear the government will have to do most of the heavy lifting if we want these investments made at scale.

Other areas of need exist in the education, healthcare, and social assistance sectors. Affordable childcare and universal pre-K help women enter the labor force, and have a strong positive impact on the development of young minds (increasing their future contributions to society). Mental healthcare is another area to invest in; improving mental health outcomes not only reduces human suffering, it also leads to an overall healthier and more productive society. Jobs in these sectors rely on a human touch, making them more difficult to automate.

America already had a lack-of-employment-induced mental health crisis before COVID—the “Opioid Crisis”. We need to try to address mental health issues preventatively by educating a more resilient and understanding youth through social and emotional learning (SEL) in K-12 schools. For adults we must address the difficulty of finding affordable mental healthcare by creating an corp of licensed mental health professionals. Police officers need more mental health professionals to effectively serve and protect their communities.

An Associates degree type program, developed in consultation with leaders in the field and focused on treating the most common mental health issues like anxiety and depression, could be administered at Community Colleges across the country. This corp of social workers is not intended to replace psychologists or psychiatrists, but rather operates under the belief that less-credentialed care is better than no care at all (which is what too many Americans are currently receiving).

There should be broad based support for such a jobs program. Progressive politicians need to make the case that these are the coal mining jobs, or the manufacturing jobs, of 21st century America; they won’t make you rich, but it’s meaningful work that provides a decent standard of living. We need to invest more in public higher education and apprenticeships, as President Biden is proposing, so new and existing jobs can be obtained without risking financial ruin by way of student loan debt (another drag on the economy and people’s mental health).

That is the promise America once provided, at least for some people—stable, meaningful employment you won’t go broke chasing the skills for. It is within our fiscal ability to provide these jobs, fulfills major societal needs, and complements the private sector by making it more productive in various ways. These are not just a scattershot of “progressive priorities”, taken together they synergize to form a visionary mosaic which would provide hope, direction, security and a sense of unity to the American people.

Yes, a jobs program would lead to some savings on welfare programs and the criminal justice system. Yes, health outcomes should generally improve as mental health issues are better addressed, resulting in increased tax revenues from a healthier, more productive society. But lets be honest–such a jobs program may or may not “pay for itself” in fiscal terms; forecasting a program of this scale, with all its unanticipated impacts, would ultimately be inaccurate. But factoring in what it would mean for America—by addressing the worsening and interrelated economic, social, emotional, and [literal] environmental storms the status quo has left brewing—how could it not be worthwhile? The question is not “can we afford to make these investments?”, but rather “can we afford not to?”

Social unrest this past year has proven people will not sit idly by while lawmakers figure out some elusive, deficit-neutral “grand compromise” to address the nation’s problems (as if they are even trying to). We will eventually have to pay for a jobs programs and other programs needed to promote economic opportunity, but low interest rates give us time to figure out that side of the equation. The Biden Administration is committed to international cooperation on taxation, a necessary precondition to building a global financial system that ensures the wealthiest and big corporations pay their fare share of taxes.

The levers of power and public opinion are aligned in a way our tilted electoral system doesn’t often allow for–the time for bold action is now.


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Condemning Trump Isn’t Enough, Impeaching Him Isn’t Enough, Only Addressing the Roots of Trumpism Is Enough

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As his term comes to an end, and we can finally see in totality what “President Donald Trump” has meant, it is pretty clear we cannot afford another President like him. This is true in every possible way–fiscally, psychologically, environmentally–you name it. But President Trump was [ah, that feels great to say in the past tense] a symptom of long term failures in governance the GOP has cynically perpetuated in the name of greed. If it really wants to make amends for how bad things have gotten it is not enough to just condemn or impeach Trump, it must also become a constructive partner in governing for the benefit of the American people.

Ultimately Trumpism can’t come to power in a place like America, which despite it’s problems has a long history of pluralistic democratic governance, unless legitimate grievances go unaddressed. The cavalier lying we saw from Trump is not widely accepted unless its target audience has been desensitized over time by less drastic lies. Americans would not believe an election has been “stolen” unless they have long been led to believe unsubstantiated claims about widespread voter fraud. People who may otherwise just “stick to their own” will fight tooth and nail if they are led to believe illegal immigrants and movements by historically marginalized groups demanding a more just society are the reasons they are falling behind. We saw this in the rise of the Tea Party in the US and the far-right in Europe following The Great Recession.

Economic distress exacerbates tribalism, and long-sewn smaller lies make the ground fertile for bigger ones. The GOP has cyclically governed this way for decades because it is the only way it could convince enough people to support a broken ideology that does little for anyone but the wealthiest.

The GOP have been behaving like addicts, wealth addicts. Like a drug addict, there can never be enough. Like a drug addict, it started with smaller lies that had to get bigger to explain the continued failures; scapegoats were needed (illegal immigrants, “welfare queens”, “socialists”, etc.), and anyone telling you otherwise was lying (“experts“, “liberal media”). Like an addict, the lies led to a deteriorating situation with ever increasing collateral damage. And like an addiction, the situation will not get better until it is met head-on–THIS IS AN INTERVENTION!

It is the height of this cynicism, not to mention sadly ironic, that the “solutions” peddled by the GOP–trickle-down economics, deregulation, and fear-mongering about “socialism”–actually exacerbate the legitimate grievances their supporters have. We should not excuse (but may ultimately need to work with) those who knew better but pushed a regressive ideology for their own benefit. Nor should we excuse those who gleefully followed a political party because it’s divisive message dovetailed nicely with their existing prejudices.

But there are many reasonable people who have been left behind by the global economy, and are simply unable to critically consider macroeconomics and other large-scale social phenomena. Their social circles parrot lies from media outlets and Super PACs financed by the wealthy (who actually do benefit from the status quo), forming an echo chamber. They don’t recognize the straw-man arguments and false equivalencies the GOP has come to rely on.

These people must know they still have a home in the Democratic party, particularly the ones that already support much of it’s policy platform. Being “progressive” isn’t just about the policies you advocate for, it’s also about being understanding, respectful, and able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. History ultimately vindicates and condemns pretty well, but rubbing peoples’ noses in their past mistakes right now jeopardizes a better future. If decent people want off the Trump train, even now, they should be welcomed with open arms.

Part of confronting the truly deplorable elements of the far-right is calling them out—directly, unequivocally, and with a unified voice–whenever necessary. But another part is isolating them from the decent people who understandably feel left behind and believe the GOP, however imperfect, is their only means to a life of dignity. These people need education, not condemnation.

Lets briefly examine how we got here:

  1. An incomplete globalization strategy that doesn’t affordably provide the tools needed to succeed in the global economy increases inequality and reduces economic opportunity for poorer Americans. This hits historically marginalized groups, which have had less time to build wealth, harder, but also hurts poorer white people.
  2. The GOP stonewalls efforts to correct for these errors under the guise of fiscal responsibility and warnings about “socialism”. It says trickle-down economics will solve everything, trust the “invisible hand” of the market.
  3. With legitimate grievances unaddressed, and actual avenues for doing so blocked by the GOP, scapegoats are needed (illegal immigrants, “welfare queens”, changing racial demographics, decline of religion / nuclear family / “traditional values”, you name it). But you can’t fool all the people all the time…
  4. The Great Recession hits and people are sick of trickle down economics. Obama becomes a two-term President, beating weak GOP opponents in 2008 and 2012, and the party’s 2016 field looks weak as well. It seems like the GOP will finally have to reinvent itself as an actual working center-right party if it wants to remain politically viable. Moderate conservatism is on the ropes, but the Tea Party gains political influence.
  5. Enter Donald Trump, who energizes this new base of the GOP. Not enough to win the popular vote but because of voter suppression, gerrymandering, and population distribution, enough to control the levers of power following the 2016 election. The GOP sweeps Congress riding Trump’s coattails.
  6. President Trump continues the old GOP game-plan, just in cruder terms. He “shows trickle-down economics works” by inheriting a strong economy and supercharging it by slashing taxes to a level where we could never introduce the social programs needed to actually address structural issues in our society, and by cutting regulations that protect the working class. It’s all smoke and mirrors but the average person is not an economist, partially explaining why so many people believed in his “economic miracle” and voted for him in the 2020 election.
  7. As soon as he is elected, Trump starts using the bully pulpit to normalize the idea of “fake news” (an expansion of earlier GOP-lying about the economy and voter fraud, now including anything that paints him negatively). In the run-up to the 2018 mid-terms he irresponsibly starts calling anyone who disagrees with him a “socialist” and anti-American. The GOP, sensing maybe it doesn’t have to reform after all, has become the party of Trump. And it probably would’ve worked, at least through the 2020 election, except…
  8. Trump botches COVID-19 preparation, lockdowns, and reopenings, and doesn’t support a second stimulus bill until months after he should have. But there is an election coming up and the GOP is too invested in him, so it continues to embrace his increasingly dangerous rhetoric. Trump calls into question the legitimacy of an election hadn’t even happened yet, and suggests he will not leave office peacefully should he lose.
  9. Trump loses the election in epic fashion, bringing the GOP down with him. Unsurprisingly he acts like a baby. The GOP continues to let Trump do as he pleases, in part because it is morally and ideologically bankrupt, but also because it sees supporting him as important in winning the Senate runoff in Georgia.
  10. The GOP loses both seats in the Senate runoff. Trump incites a mob of his supporters, who storm the Capitol building.

Look, maybe initially there were true believers in trickle-down economics’ ability to deliver social progress, but over time that has proven not to be the case. This is when good governance demands you try something different. As FDR famously said during the Great Depression: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Instead, when their platform didn’t work, the GOP doubled-down. They lied, and scapegoated, and then lied some more, because their platform did work for some people–the wealthy. Until we treat the root causes of Trumpism (1-3 above), it will keep coming back. People have long warned the GOPs cynical game may lead to the beginning of the end of American democracy, but until January 6th it was possible for them to deny this—not anymore.

I understand what I am calling for, the wholesale revamp of the GOPs policy platform and governing philosophy, is no small ask. But as recent history has proven further delaying the inevitable doesn’t really help them in the long run, but can be incredibly costly. The GOP can now redefine itself or solidify itself as the party of Trump. Disgusted Americans should not let it off the hook merely condemning an already-enfeebled Trump, while going back to the “business-as-usual” that paved the way for his rise in the first place.

It will never be easier for the GOP to rebrand itself. No grand admissions of guilty are needed, it can be done in a completely face-saving, politically-friendly way. All that it needs to say is that the current context demands a different approach, not blindly obstruct Biden and the Democratic party, and going forward embrace a platform that isn’t so unpopular it relies on misinformation for support.


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Now is the Time For Unapologetic, Pragmatic Progressivism

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Elections Have Consequences

After the 2016 election there was introspection on the losing side. The Democratic party had supposedly abandoned the blue-collar Americans that had once defined it. So what did it do? It moderated; “Blue Dogs” helped it flip the House in 2018, and it ultimately picked a moderate in Joe Biden as its next Presidential candidate. It risked upsetting the more vocal future of its party in order to “build a bigger tent”, which at the time–the longest economic expansion in American history–made sense.

How were these overtures received by the right? Since his 2016 campaign, anything that challenges Trump has been labeled “fake” (which amazingly now includes Fox News). Since campaigning for the 2018 midterm elections started, anyone that disagrees with Trump is part of the “radical left” and a “socialist”. This messaging has had a dramatic effect on many of Trump’s supporters; they have embraced alternate realities and conspiracy theories, dismissing anything that challenges their biases. This isn’t just the far-right fringe–about half of Republicans don’t believe Joe Biden legitimately won the election. Trump’s scorched earth Presidency has made it very difficult to move forward as a nation at the worst possible time.

The situation now demands bold policy measures, both massive stimulus spending to help the economy and people in the short-run, and massive investments in the American people and green economy to build a better future. The pandemic has exposed fault lines in our society which never should have been ignored and now cannot be. Just as the progressive wing of the Democratic party took a backseat from 2017-March 2020 because that’s what the situation dictated then, now the Blue Dogs need to get onboard with the more progressive direction currently required. Recent comments by moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin show this is not a foregone conclusion. The Democratic majority in the House shrunk in this election, making it even more important the party projects a united front in pushing Biden’s progressive platform.

I expect the GOP to do all it can over the next four years to obstruct the Biden administration in a cynical attempt to show that “government can’t get anything done”. I hope I am wrong, but at this point it needs to earn it’s seat back at the table; it has not been a good faith partner in making America a better place since well before Trump. Rather it has governed by way of misinformation, hypocrisy, and subversion of popular will. The 2016 election prompted soul searching within the Democratic party, hopefully the 2020 election has the same affect on the GOP.

“Show Me” Time

“The Great Society”, the last major progressive changes to our welfare system, were back in the 1960s. Think about how much the world has changed since then! Think about how globalization and technological improvements have impacted the economy, without any additional support for those most displaced by, and least financially able to adapt to, these forces.

It would be nice if we could have a national dialogue about why globalization hasn’t worked out well for a lot of people, and how we are going to learn from past mistakes as we reform the system. It would be nice if we could talk about what “socialism“, “systemic racism“, and “defund the police” actually mean, and not some straw man version of them drummed up by Trump and his enablers. It would be nice if we could even talk about something completely objective, like how marginal income tax rates work! But it really doesn’t seem like many on the political right are interested in having those sort of conversations.

Now is not the time to try to moderate in hopes of grand compromises, we simply aren’t there as a country. It’s “show me” time for the Democratic party. Show the naysayers that raising taxes on the wealthiest and raising the minimum wage for the poorest will improve, not harm, the economy. Show them a “bigger government” which promotes economic opportunity and justice for all is not the same as an authoritarian socialist state that threatens their way of life. People in “red states” already saw this after they expanded Medicaid under the ACA, and it is what a public health insurance option, higher minimum wage, free community college, student loan debt relief, investing in green jobs and apprenticeship programs, and more generous childcare and development policies would accomplish as well. These policies are all very progressive, but despite what Trump, the right-wing media, and GOP congresspeople may say, none of them are “radical”.

Even if it were politically possible, which it doesn’t look like it will be, there is risk in doing too much too fast. Any short-term adjustment pains would be seized upon and twisted by the very same forces that have lied about trickle-down economics and fear-mongered about “socialism” for decades. It would bail Republicans out from having to actually devise a workable platform by giving them something to run against instead. Progressing in a way that is less disruptive than further-left policies, by legislating meaningful building blocks that will lead us towards the same goals while smoothing out the short-term shocks, will help keep the Democratic party competitive into the future. Nudging the GOP towards becoming a working center-right party could lead to improvements in American political economy and governance that currently seem impossible.

We can have a stronger, fairer, cleaner and more innovative economy if we unabashedly stand up for the little guy and don’t allow wealthy interests to bully us around. It is time to call the bluffs and call out the bullshit, that needs to be the left’s version of being “political incorrect”–not being needlessly divisive, but also not pussyfooting around when it comes to calling out the disinformation that has long defined the political right. Big businesses produce based on the demand for their products (which increases as lower-end incomes rise), not the tax rate on their profits; they hire people so they can produce enough to maximize their pre-tax profits, not as a public service. Yes we have to look out for the legitimate needs of smaller businesses, especially right now as they struggle with the effects of the pandemic, but we must also demand corporate America and the wealthy pay their fair share. The idea that “job creators” must be appeased no matter the costs to society has long been a core GOP belief.

It is still unclear which party will control the Senate, which obviously impacts how progressive a Biden administration ultimately can be. One thing is clear though, it should be as progressive as possible. Show people the government actually can improve things, don’t worry about alienating the right or the deficit. Challenge the lies people have long been told through policy and let the results do the talking. Maybe Joe’s version of pragmatic progressivism can even siphon off the support of a few moderate GOP lawmakers, fed up with their party’s apparent disinterest in anything other than making the wealthy wealthier.

Joe Biden is diplomatic by nature, and Democrats should engage with anyone willing to listen with an open mind, but as the saying goes “it takes two to tango”. The Democratic party can afford to moderate on tone, but not on substance or policy. I don’t think anyone is better positioned to try to extend a hand whenever possible, while understanding the true nature of GOP obstructionism and what it now requires from the Democratic party, than President-elect Joe Biden.


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Debunking the “Trump is Better Suited to Lead the Economic Recovery” Myth

Donald Trump or Joe Biden, Who's Best for Dollar vs. Euro? - Bloomberg

There are a few worrying trends I see heading into the Presidential election. One is the lukewarm enthusiasm “progressives” seem to have for Joe Biden, which has subtext for undecided voters. But even more worrying is the idea that Donald Trump is somehow better suited than Biden to lead America’s economic recovery (although his lead on this issue does seem to be evaporating).

Look, I get it, long held conventional wisdom says Republicans are better at growing the economy, and that’s hard to overcome. But that conventional wisdom, if it was once true, has not held over the past few decades. There has been no Trump economic miracle. Trump inherited a strong economic recovery and supercharged it with a trillion dollar tax break to the wealthy and by rolling back environmental and labor protections, exacerbating inequalities that have long existed but the pandemic has brought to the forefront.

Only at the end of the longest economic expansion in American history did wages finally rise and minority unemployment and poverty rates fall. Historically “last hired, first fired” minority groups, and people of all races whose wages have stagnated while the costs of succeeding in the 21st century have grown, should not be celebrating that gains were finally starting to trickle down. Nor should they be content to wait till the end of the next economic expansion years from now for that to occur again. But ultimately that is all Trump is offering.

You’d think someone who botched the months of COVID prep time we had, and then botched the months of shutdowns we had, would at this point have some sort of plan figured out they could tout during their reelection bid. Even if Trump never planned on following through with that plan, and just wanted something to blame other people for, at least come up with SOMETHING.

But nope, there’s nothing. We all heard Trump during the debate, there was no substance, nothing other than division, lies, bullying and scapegoating. Nothing but blaming Clinton, Obama, Biden, China, “the radical left”, “socialism”, and whatever other boogeymen he could come up with.

Trump has no stimulus plan and no virus containment plan. Biden, on the other hand, has plans for days–I guess he’s been hanging out with Elizabeth Warren. These plans are projected to produce big economic benefits:

“When Moody’s ran this program [Biden’s] through their model, it concluded that by the end of 2024, real gross domestic product would be 4.5 percent higher than under a continuation of Trump’s policies, translating into an additional 7 million jobs. Goldman Sach’s estimates are similar: a 3.7 percent gain in G.D.P.”

Now Moody’s and Goldman are certainly not darlings of the left, but that’s all the more reason to take their projections of what has shaped up to be a very progressive platform seriously. They are not likely to overestimate the impacts of Biden’s spending policies or discount any growth lost by increasing taxes on the wealthy.

We are 10.7 million jobs below the pre-pandemic peak with a slowing recovery, we cannot afford to leave 7 million jobs on the table. You can tax cut and deregulate your way to more growth when the economy is already strong, as Trump did the first three years of his presidency, but that doesn’t work in the depths of a recession.

Then there are the other issues facing America, namely social immobility, racial injustice, and environmental degradation / climate change (the effects of which are borne most heavily on minority communities). Biden’s plans would not only deliver greater short-term growth, they would set us up for long-term growth that is more environmentally sustainable and socially cohesive.

Trump, on the other hand, can’t even explain what he wants to do in his second term. He repeatedly says the virus will simply “go away”, so no plan needed there. Months after his own Fed chief dismissed the idea, Trump still insists we are in a “V shaped recovery”, suggesting it will continue on it’s own. He says economic growth alone will heal racial divides, even as he fear-mongers about more diverse suburbs (something that actually would help the issue). Trump regularly questions climate science and the role people play in climate change, and panders to the fossil fuel industry for political reasons; a second Trump term would lock in increasing emissions and and all but ensure America plays second fiddle to Europe in the emerging green economy.

I guess if you think everything is fine or will fix itself, you don’t need any plans. I think the vast majority of the American people would disagree with that view of the state of our union, and want a leader who will level with them and take action to fix things.


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“The Beast” Has Been Starved, Long Live The Beast!

Starving the Beast

What is “The Beast”, and How to Starve It

Starve the beast is the long running small government belief of the GOP that if you deprive the government of tax revenue, it will be forced to cut spending. 

This theory has generally been disproven–despite concerns about “socialism”, social programs tend to be popular once enacted. Instead of starving the beast, when taxes are cut the deficit and national debt get larger as “the beast” continues to grow.

So what is a small government ideologue to do? How can one starve the beast in such a world?

Unlike the Federal government (the main “beast”), most state and local governments cannot run deficits. They are designed to have balanced budgets, which can be a problem when projected tax revenues fall short and expenses unexpectedly rise (like, say, during a once in a lifetime pandemic).

Congress must pass some sort of meaningful state and local government aid package. These governments employ about 13% of all payroll workers in the country. Many of the public servants they employ work jobs providing a broad array social services to the least well off, and their budgets fund non-profits that do the same. They pay for first responders, teachers and schooling, not to mention all the extra costs associated with safely getting kids back in the classroom whenever that happens. 

Don’t give me that tired line about “bailing out” mismanaged states. With careful wording Congress can address legitimate needs without bailing out states from any pre-COVID budgetary issues; it is ideology and partisan saber rattling holding back this aid, not any concern for economic justice or moral hazard. The economic recovery will lag, and poverty will be exacerbated, if state and local governments slash their payrolls and services at a time when both are needed more than ever. 

Another way to “starve the beast” is to go after programs that are funded through specific “trust funds”, like Social Security and Medicare. These programs are funded through payroll taxes, so cutting the payroll tax could effectively starve that portion of the beast. Even though it likely wouldn’t lead to cuts to these popular programs, the legislative fight to reallocate money for them would present the GOP with an opportunity to push for cuts to other important programs.   

So where do we find ourselves now? In the middle of a manufactured fiscal crisis on top of a terrible recession and pandemic. The Democrats passed a bill 3 months ago in preparation for this, but the GOP has neither passed a bill nor negotiated from the Democrats starting point.

So what was the GOPs response? First, to wait until the last second to even try to start developing out a solution. Then to balk at providing state and local governments the aid they need, despite decades of empty rhetoric about how state governments are best positioned to meet the needs of their people. From the Trump administration the plan is to suspend the payroll tax that funds Social Security and Medicare (an idea he’s been floating since March that no one in his own party even wants), and further strain state budgets by asking them to foot part of enhanced UI benefits.

Taken together the GOPs plan was to cynically try to blame the Democrats for not having a deal in place, while starving whatever “beasts” they could.  

The COVID Spotlight

The corona virus has brought the structural inequalities of America to the forefront. Poorer people and persons of color were more likely to lose their jobs and be exposed to and die from the disease due to interrelated factors such as occupation, income, wealth, underlying health conditions and access to medical care.

People have rightfully been critical of the Trump administration’s response to the corona virus, but these issues are different in that they all predate the pandemic. In order to address them, two things are needed:

  1. An economic system that does a better job of promoting equality of opportunity by providing or making affordable the bare minimum needed for people to reach their cognitive potential (early childhood development programs, universal pre-K), care for themselves when they are sick, and receive the education and job training needed to live a life of dignity and meaning.

    We also need a plan to address structural racism, as history and current systems have left persons of color at a disadvantage relative to their white counterparts (perhaps most simply visualized by racial wealth inequality, even when controlling for income). Call this the “Thurgood Marshall plan”.

    Despite what Trump says, racism will not fix itself with economic growth. For too long that lie has been told, as people of color have been “last hired, first fired” recession after recession. If only the expansion had lasted just a bit longer, Trump says, we would’ve achieved economic and racial justice. Don’t point to relatively low black unemployment and poverty rates pre-COVID as proof Trump is right, those metrics obscure the inequality of opportunity and often times insurmountable headwinds facing America’s least well off.

    Being employed and not in poverty are bare minimums, not high-water marks to be celebrated when finally achieved for a brief moment at tail end of the longest economic expansion in American history. The idea that we may get back to that point 10 years from now should not excite anyone–structural changes are needed.

  2. A stronger social safety net, for those who need temporary support when they are down on their luck (or when something completely outside their control, like a global pandemic, uproots their life).

    On a macro level such programs temper economic downturns and prevent poverty from spiking during them. The recent expiration of enhanced UI benefits without any plan in place with have a negative impact on both these fronts. 

As the past few months have laid bare, a lot of work remains to be done. As comedian John Oliver put it:

“There is no better argument for a permanent welfare state then watching the government desperately trying to build one when it’s already too late. Because make no mistake, the real test here isn’t whether or not our country will get through this, it will. The question is how we get through this, and what kind of country we want to be on the other side…”

Trying to build an adequate safety net from scratch has led to some truly remarkable inefficiencies in our response, from unemployment claim backlogs to small business and hospital aid flowing to undeserving wealthy interests, to outright fraud. In other words, America paid a premium for slapping things together at the last second.

Creating a more just economic system is a more difficult undertaking, but ultimately even more important. In addition to creating a fairer society, getting that right would lead to more long term economic growth as a larger pool of innovators and entrepreneurs reach their potential. It would also lead to savings in our criminal justice system, poverty reduction efforts, mental healthcare, and other “safety net” programs, as fewer people would be reliant on them. To quote Fredrick Douglass, “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”.

In other words America has long been paying the price for our structural inequalities. These costs have just been unfairly ascribed to the very people weighed down by the systems that have failed them, in the largest scale example of victim blaming you will ever see.

Feeding The Beast

Both of these undertakings–building a more just society and a stronger safety net–require not only political will but also large sums of money. America was already heavily indebted before it devoted almost $3 trillion to “managing” the COVID outbreak (if you want to call what the Trump administration has done “managing”). Then there is the stalled stimulus bill that will ultimately need to be passed in some form or another, which will probably settle around $2 trillion

Believe it or not, none of this spending is actually an economic recovery plan (think jobs programs, infrastructure spending), which itself will also likely be in the trillions. All this spending needed to address a bungled COVID-19 response, combined with the GOPs tax reform bill that is projected to reduce tax revenue by over $1 trillion over the next decade and unresolved long-term structural issues funding Social Security and Medicaid, and America’s fiscal outlook is bleak. 

But there is hope. We can pay for the many demands Americans have on their governments. After all our governments are not beasts to be starved, but rather the most important institutions we have in promoting the twin goals of justice and economic dynamism. 

The good news is that the GOPs unpopular tax reforms can be undone, and “tax justice”–raising enough revenue to pay for the programs society needs–can be achieved. But it will take an administration that believes in both the ability of government programs to improve people’s lives and in international coordination on tax dodging (because of how easily money can be moved around the world these days). These are two things the Trump Administration is diametrically opposed to.

Because this is a global pandemic, governments around the world find themselves in the same boat–with the demands of their people far outstripping their current abilities to bring in tax revenue. Debt levels have exploded as spending increases and tax revenues shrink. This presents a unique opportunity to engage in truly meaningful action against “base erosion and tax avoidance” (BEDS), one that must not be wasted. Outliers must be treated like pariahs; the global community needs to sanction them until it is proven that white collar crime doesn’t pay.

It may be odd to hear me say it, but generally speaking now is not the time to be raising taxes. At any given moment appropriate fiscal policy is context sensitive and “counter-cyclical“. This is exactly what all this stimulus spending now is for (to prop up the economy during a deep recession), and another reason why the GOPs tax bill was not only regressive but unnecessary (stimulus mostly for the rich during an economic boom). 

But if we try to raise taxes now, when we are beginning what is likely to be a prolonged global recession, it could choke off any recovery we might otherwise realize. This is less true of tax reforms that target the wealthy, or just funding the IRS enough to effectively audit wealthy dodgers, but generally speaking this is not the time to be raising taxes, particularly on small and medium sized businesses. 

This absolutely does not mean there aren’t meaningful steps to take on taxation. Now is when America must do the heavy lifting of leading the global effort to setup a tax framework that works for the 21st Century by plugging up all the holes. If we can accomplish this difficult task it will be relatively easy to raise not just the statutory tax rate (what the tax code says), but more importantly the effective tax rate (what is actually paid), when the time is right.

 


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When “Race Blind” Policies are Progressive, and When They Aren’t

A demonstrator holds a No Justice No Peace sign at the ral… | Flickr

In this blog I will paint with broad strokes. In reality each of the issues I will touch on–income and wealth inequality, our criminal justice system, racism and globalization–are interrelated and have complex historical underpinnings. I hope it will inspire you to research further and get involved in advocating for the change you want to see in the world.

Addressing Income Inequality–It’s Not So Black or White (or Latinx)

I don’t like to be put in a box politically or labeled in general, but I consider myself a “progressive”. I believe in the importance of empowering all people to realize their full potential and live a life of dignity, freedom and self-determination. I consider these not only our moral imperatives, but also to be in our economic and security interests.

In my policy advocacy, I tend to promote “race blind” economic policies. I do so for a few reasons:

  • Poverty and lack of economic opportunity affect people of all races
  • Broad, structural reforms are the most meaningful in promoting equality of opportunity
    • These reforms include early childhood development programs, educational reform, higher education reform, job [re]training, and mental and physical healthcare reform
  • I think there is more broad-based support for these policies, particularly in “electorally important” areas

History has led us to a point where significant racial disparities in wealth and income exist, which I will address in a moment. I by no means want to belittle the fact that, on average, minorities still earn less than white people, or that people with ethnically identifiable names still face discrimination in the hiring process.

But nowadays and going forward, people of all races will have to contend with the labor market effects of globalization. With many blue collar jobs displaced or changing, the increasing importance (and therefore cost) of education and job [re]training has led to increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility across racial lines.

So if poor people of all races have similar root causes for lack of opportunity today, if “race blind” policies can meaningfully address these issues, and if they are more politically viable, my thinking is why not advocate for those policies? This platform is similar to Bernie Sanders’ vision of economic populism. It also, I believe, promotes the structural changes many are calling for in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. These are the same structural inequalities that have led the corona virus to be more harmful for persons of color both economically and health-wise.

These are the kind of changes that will never “trickle down”; powerful interests never willingly give up their positions of power. Rather they are the kind of changes that must be claimed by the righteous hand of a unified American people. While these policies may be “race blind” on the surface, to the extent that minorities are disproportionately impacted by poverty, they will disproportionately benefit from them.

Is this approach 100% just, no–more on that in a moment. Might it be criticized as “political expedient”? Yes, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. We should not let perfection be the enemy of progress. Progress can be built upon. It can also be used to change the minds of people who need government support the most, but have paradoxically let themselves be led to believe that the government is their enemy (for example, the effect of Medicaid expansion under the ACA in red states).

You can feel free to disagree with me, but I think there is a strong argument that “race blind” economic policies are a big piece of the economic justice puzzle. But by themselves they are insufficient, particularly when we change our focus from income to wealth.

Wealth Inequality–A Legacy of Discrimination

figure 3

Income and wealth are related, but are not the same. Wealth is accumulated over time from savings and investments that are only possible once a certain income level is reached. Wealth is passed down from generation to generation, providing the resources to help keep one’s children at the top of the income ladder (nepotism aside).

Our nations legacy of slavery and racial discrimination clearly drives racial wealth inequality and therefore social immobility. While the primary structural cause of widening income inequality today–an incomplete globalization strategy–may be mostly “race blind”, the same simply cannot be said of wealth inequality.

These wealth disparities mean that even though poorer white and black people’s livelihoods were disrupted similarly by globalization, poorer white people were better positioned to adjust to that shock (and many probably did). This is what I meant earlier when I said race blind economic policies might not be “100% just”. Did previous generations of white people have more opportunities to escape poverty than minorities? Of course. But if they didn’t, is it really fair to tell the current generations they do not have legitimate grievances?

Here is what the Brookings Institute has to say on wealth:

“…wealth confers benefits that go beyond those that come with family income. Wealth is a safety net that keeps a life from being derailed by temporary setbacks and the loss of income. This safety net allows people to take career risks knowing that they have a buffer when success is not immediately achieved. Family wealth allows people (especially young adults who have recently entered the labor force) to access housing in safe neighborhoods with good schools, thereby enhancing the prospects of their own children. Wealth affords people opportunities to be entrepreneurs and inventors. And the income from wealth is taxed at much lower rates than income from work, which means that wealth begets more wealth.

Well-designed taxes on inheritancesreforms to capital income taxation, and even taxes on wealth could be part of the solution. Inheritance or estate taxes in particular could enhance equality of opportunity, especially if revenues were invested in programs that give low-income children a better chance at economic success.”

Not only is a home in a good neighborhood an important factor in a child’s economic outcome, but houses also represent the largest source of wealth of any single type of asset in this country (p. 34). It is unsurprising, then, that minorities have far lower home ownership rates than white people.

As such, housing is one fiscal policy area that should not be race blind; more resources must go towards desegregating neighborhoods and promoting minority home ownership. The same is true of programs that assist minority entrepreneurs and small business owners. These policy areas should not be race blind because they specifically address racial wealth inequality, which is a direct result of our racist past. These are the types of “reparations”, if you want to call them that, that would make the most impact.

Justice is Not [Race] Blind

While poor people’s economic experiences in recent history may have been similar across racial lines, their experiences with the criminal justice system certainly have not been. In other words, “white privilege”, in many ways, plays out most strikingly in the criminal justice system. Poor minorities and poor white people were similarly displaced by our nation’s incomplete globalization strategy, but only members of one of those groups has to fear for their freedom or life every time they go out for a walk.

I think acknowledging this would go a long way towards healing racial divides. Words matter–if we frame “white privilege” this way, and acknowledge that poor people of all races today face an unfair economic system, I think that would go a long way in making the concept more broadly accepted. Perhaps it could even help to build the cross-race working class coalition that would enable this country to finally address many of its structural unfairnesses.

Minorities are disproportionately hurt by virtually every facet of the criminal justice system–from school to the juvenile justice system, and continuing through adult life. Poverty and living in a “bad” neighborhood are root causes of crime, and having a criminal record hurts one’s labor force prospects. Clearly our criminal justice system, with it’s reliance on racial profiling and mass incarceration, has perpetuated a racial poverty trap (on top of the globalization poverty trap).

Because make no mistake, there is certainly a poverty trap resulting from the failures of our criminal justice system. Growing up in a full, happy home is probably even more important in a child’s development than growing up with a lot of money. But due largely to our country’s failed “war on drugs”, an African American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent.

Mass incarceration is not only socially regressive, it drains a huge amount of public resources. Since this practice has disproportionately impacted people of color, it is only fair that savings resulting from a realignment of our priorities be earmarked for programs that specifically benefit people of color, like the housing and entrepreneurial programs I mentioned earlier. More resources should also go to community development centers, which empower strong voices that can make a difference young people’s lives and run after-school programs that get them off the street and building social and practical skills.

Police reform is an important component of criminal justice reform, and one that is at the forefront of our national discourse right now. 8 Can’t Wait prescribes some promising reform ideas, and I’m sure there are many others pertaining to police accountability. We also have to reconsider who should be hired as a police officer in the first place (conducting more extensive psych evals and background checks, and making them more representative of the communities they serve), and ensure that the criminal justice system works in prosecuting officers when they do commit crimes.

Ultimately the “race blind” economic reforms many advocate for also rely on targeted race conscious programs and wholesale criminal justice reform in order to fully deliver on their promise for those who have heard so many broken promises from policymakers before.


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How “America First” Failed the World (that’s where America is…)

Ostrich

Much has been written about Trump’s failed response to the coronavirus. To sum it up, he disregarded his intelligence community and health experts, wasting months of prep time. His administration failed to ensure there was enough testing readily available in order to identify and isolate cases and track the interactions of those who tested positive (like Germany and South Korea did). He did not authorize the Defense Production Act soon enough and is having states bid against each other (and FEMA) for ventilators and protective equipment, leading to deadly shortages and driving up prices.

(Note–4/23): Best practices related to this novel virus are fast evolving as more information becomes available. Certain types of ventilators are now seen as being counter-productive in milder cases, so less are probably needed than initially feared. On the other hand, as more information about how the virus spreads comes out, protective equipment like face masks are now recognized as more important than initially thought)

While we are at it, lets give him credit for the ONE thing he did right–stopping travel from China. There ya go Donny, you did one thing right out of the many things you needed to do; you bought us more time to prepare, and did nothing with it.

But in order to get to the root of Trump’s failures related to the coronavirus, one has to look much further back. Back before that fateful day when a man in Wuhan, China ate a bat, leading to the emergence of a novel virus (or the virus was created in a lab–nothing would surprise me at this point).

We’ve dealt with pandemics in a globalized world before. By definition each novel virus is different, and there is certainly reason to believe COVID-19 is “worse” than past pandemics in a variety of ways, but our response to each pandemic is supposed to be better than the last. While respiratory illnesses can spread much more quickly than something like Ebola (it is much more like SARS and H1N1 in that regard), that is all the more reason that an aggressive, timely response was needed.

Instead Trump had fired the White House Pandemic Response Team, which was established specifically for this reason after the Ebola pandemic, as part of his small government “drain the swamp” crusade. His administration also failed to take any follow up action on an eerily accurate pandemic simulation it conducted in 2019, which showed America was not prepared to face a threat like this. Not only did Trump cut out crucial sources of information, he also disregarded whatever intelligence was left.

It may seem difficult to imagine now, but a world in which there was much greater containment was very possible. This would not have required clairvoyance, just reading the writing on the wall and acting to prevent the worst case scenario. I’d argue that any President in modern history, Democrat or Republican, would’ve acted more decisively to contain this thing. This isn’t a partisan problem, it’s a Trump problem; because of his worldview there was never even an attempt to coordinate a global containment strategy.

You may be thinking, “a global response, really? Trump is America’s President, he should be concerned with America’s interests”, and you’d be 100% correct. But an early global response would have been in both America and the rest of world’s best interests–everyone’s interests were aligned on this. It was only in failing to lead a global response that such a massive national response was needed (which Trump also failed to do properly).

The virus–by itself–is not what is killing people around the world in droves and leading to a global economic meltdown. The true root of the current crisis, rather, can be traced back to these two fateful words, so obviously riddled with unforeseeable consequences–“America First”.

When America Doesn’t Lead, No One Follows

America is exceptional not because it is the global superpower, but because of how it has used that position. While we have always had a strong military, it has been our soft power–our ability to empower those around the world who share our beliefs in human dignity (human rights) and freedom (democracy)–that has set us apart from previous superpowers. It was these beliefs that led us to construct an international system after WWII in which peace and cooperation were the recipe for shared prosperity.

But Trump doesn’t believe in this system, he thinks America is getting a raw deal. In his transactional, zero-sum view of the world, America is “getting taken advantage of”. All of our foreign aid, American led international organizations, diplomacy, and even military spending aren’t a means to securing our interests in a global world, but wastes. The costs are real because they are line items on a budget, but he is unable to comprehend the benefits because they are less easily measured.

This is not to say we haven’t been getting taken advantage of in some instances. I do not fault Trump for going after China for stealing American IP; innovation is our main engine of long term growth and must be protected. The EU and NATO should spend more on defense (although saying that while simultaneously increasing our military budget sends at best a mixed message, and at worst is counter productive). Trump wasn’t wrong about everything, but in totality he was wrong. He didn’t pick his battles on the international stage but rather opted for a scorched-earth approach, and now we are seeing the consequences.

When America doesn’t lead in it’s uniquely American way, no one else can fill the void. We can debate whether or not that is right, or fair, or smart, or even beneficial for us, but until someone else proves they can step up to the plate that’s the reality of the world we live in. The middle of a global crisis is certainly not the right time to be figuring out a new international system (although directly after is, and it will be interesting to see what sort of changes this catalyzes).

China has stepped into the leadership void in certain instances, but they have also done so in their own way. In the case of COVID-19, “their own way” was very, very damaging. I want to make it clear that in blaming Trump’s foreign policy I by no means absolve China of it’s role in all this. China bares a lot of responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in today. I was very critical of China when the NYT first reported their cover up effort.

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As “punishment” the international community needs to find a way to impose the creation of a WHO office in China, one that has complete autonomy and does not need to run it’s findings past the Chinese government before reporting them. This would be a significant punishment–I don’t believe the UN has ever imposed something like this before, particularly on a permanent Security Council member, but given what has transpired I believe it is warranted. China will do everything it can to block such a move on national sovereignty grounds, but that argument rings hollow when we see the damage the coronavirus has caused outside their borders.

But blame and punishment aside, while China’s cover-up was reprehensible, it really just behaved exactly as one would (or should) have expected it to. China is an authoritarian country, currently ruled by it’s most totalitarian dictator since Mao. The Communist Party of China cares more about economic prosperity and the strength of the regime than it does about the rights or lives of its people. It controls the press and the internet and suppresses information, particularly information that makes it look bad.

America has a limited ability to influence a country’s internal affairs; this is more true of China than perhaps any other country in the world. But we amplified China’s worst decisions when the Trump administration cut two-thirds of our CDC positions in the country. These positions were in place specifically to help circumvent the Chinese government’s suppression of information (which in this case clearly hampered both America the WHOs response). In other words, to quote an epic rant by former Arizona Cardinals coach Derek Green, “they are who we thought they were, and we let em’ off the hook”.

Not only did we let China off the hook by not keeping those CDC positions in place, Trump actually followed Xi’s playbook. Months later, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, what did Trump do while the coronavirus was spreading through America? He played down the threat, more worried about short term economic concerns and the optics than people’s lives. When confronted with this reality, he tried to rewrite history to make himself look better. In other words, he did exactly what Xi did. Not only did Trump fail to live up to the demands of American leadership, he did the exact opposite, emulating Xi’s response. This makes Trump’s attempts to deflect blame towards China and the WHO all the more cynical.

So clearly the world could not look to China to lead on this, both because of their style of governance and the fact that the the virus originated there. Sadly the world could not look to America either due to our current leadership. But what about other potential leaders?

Germany has managed the crisis well within it’s own borders, and Chancellor Angela Merkel did the world a great service by being the first major head of state to be transparent about the scope of the pandemic. But as the European Union’s economic powerhouse and de facto leader it has failed in it’s larger leadership role, repeating the mistakes it made during The European Debt Crisis by hampering the monetary and fiscal responses needed to help poorer EU countries like Italy and Spain manage their health and economic crises. Germany has proven twice in recent history that it has no interest in being a European leader, let alone a world leader.

What about Russia? That’s a laugh. Putin is more concerned with reestablishing  Russian influence than being a constructive player on the world stage. Putin actually thrives on chaos; look for him to try to use the current situation to the advantage of the terrible dictators he supports like Assad and Maduro. Russia lacks the will, and probably the ability, to fill America’s leadership void.

So while a man eating a bat likely caused COVID-19, “America First” turned it into the global crisis we are experiencing today. This crisis was in the making long before the virus emerged: it was cemented every time Trump cut an important position abroad because he thought other countries should be paying more; every time he disparaged and cut funding to organizations like the UN that enable more effective coordination on global issues; and every time he used inflammatory language against friend and foe alike, pushing world leaders farther apart.

With great power comes great benefits but also great responsibility, something Trump does not seem to understand. Of course Trump did not cause COVID-19 the virus, but he–more than anyone else–more than the WHO director, Xi Jinping, or patient-zero, owns the resulting global crisis. Many people warned about the dangers of “America First”, and while few could’ve foreseen this, all it’s critics said there would be unanticipated consequences and that they could be catastrophic.

Combine Trump’s “America First” foreign policy with his anti-government ideology, science denialism, and delusional belief in his ability to miraculously will things into existence, and even a two month head start wasn’t enough for him to protect America’s self interests, let alone lead a global response (although, as noted earlier, those two things were really one in the same). Even now that he is finally “taking this thing seriously”, he couldn’t even let the CDC recommend Americans wear face masks in public without undermining that message in the same breath. I guess a face mask just can’t fit over the foot he keeps putting in his mouth…

“America First” has not resulted in the less global world Trump suggested it would. For proof, just look at how the virus has spread. Look at how supply chain disruptions are further hampering America’s response. Look at the collapse of the global economy. All “America First” has done, all it ever could have really accomplished, was leave America in a worse position to deal with the complex problems that arise in the interconnected world we live in. Due to America’s unique ability to lead, not only is America worse off because of it, the whole world is.

“They Have to Treat Us Well” 

Still not convinced? Think I being too hard on Trump? Then ask yourself this question and answer honestly: are you really surprised that the most disruptive and damaging global event since WWII happened on President Trump’s watch?

Trump has blamed everyone else for his failed response: Obama, the WHO, Governors, NYC hospital workers, even private sector companies. He has lashed out at reporters for asking basic questions. He has suggested his willingness to help is based on how nice people are to him, not need. His daily press conferences elicit facepalms, anger, and confusion, not calm and clarity.

But according to Trump his response has been perfect, a 10/10. Nothing in the way he has handled this crisis, nothing in the way he has conducted himself during his Presidency (or his life, really), gives Trump any right to expect people to go easy on him as he belligerently defends his failed response to a crisis largely of his own making.

You can’t learn the right lessons if you can’t critically assess your own actions or listen to dissenting opinion with an open mind. So what lessons, if any, has Trump taken from this global health crisis? That the leading global health organization should no longer receive US funding (as it actively tries to play a constructive role in limiting the damage of the coronavirus). These shortcomings have been hallmarks of the Trump Presidency, and based on the past few months there is no reason to believe anything will change that. Therefore not only have Trump’s actions been extremely damaging thus far, but given the opportunity they will continue to be; we can already see this in his “reopening plan”, which has many of the same holes his initial response had.

As I said before, this wasn’t and isn’t a partisan problem, it’s a Trump problem. Despite his desire to convince them otherwise, blaming Donald Trump the man and blaming his supporters are not the same things. If anyone was looking for a way off the Trump-train without admitting they were wrong before, this is it.


Motivations for writing this piece

I didn’t write this article just to pile on Trump. This isn’t me grinding my axe over personality or policy differences I have with the President that predated this crisis. It is about the tens of thousands needlessly dying and the trillions of dollars now required to save the economy over something that easily could have been much less costly on both fronts. It is about all of us being forced to put our lives on hold. Being upset about these things is natural, and has nothing to do with politics.

No one is disputing the very real negative aspects of stay-at-home orders. The impacts of joblessness, poverty, and uncertainty on people’s mental and physical health are very real. But we also have to acknowledge that the preventable and premature loss of a loved one probably has a much deeper and more enduring mental health impact than temporary joblessness. Unfortunately, due to the massive amounts of money being spent right now fighting this thing, when it’s all over it will be a lot harder to address the many structural unfarinesses that this crisis has laid bare.

I am writing this piece because it did not have to be this way. We must hold those responsible for the situation we currently find ourselves in accountable. So who is primarily to blame? Xi Jinping and Donald Trump–the two most powerful people in the world.

Unfortunately no one elects China’s President; short of a massive Chinese revolution or starting WW3, there isn’t much that can be done in the short-term to hold Xi accountable. Maybe my proposed “punishment”, setting up a WHO office in China outside the government’s normal chain of command, seems soft to you–it is not. “National sovereignty” is the principle China uses to shirk accountability on the international stage for all of its transgressions against its people, and this punishment would undermine that power. If this idea is ever proposed, see how vehemently China fights against it.

Thankfully we do elect America’s President. Trump will never be able to repay the trillions of dollars his inactions have cost the American taxpayer. No one can bring back the tens of thousands that are needlessly dying, or undo the immeasurable pain those deaths cause. While there will never truly be justice, we can still hold him accountable by making sure he is never again in a position to cause so much damage. We can also lay the blame squarely where it belongs. To someone as power and ego driven as President Trump, those are meaningful punishments.


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The Devil Shows His Horns: Trump v. The Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence - HISTORY

I have always viewed the Declaration of Independence as America’s most important document. While The Constitution has more relevance today as a legal document, to me The Declaration more fundamentally reflects what America stands for. It wasn’t born out of compromise like The Constitution, but out of necessity and bravery in the face of danger. It was a declaration of our desire to place freedom, equality, and a life of dignity above the desires of the unaccountable rich and powerful (back then, the King of England).

The Declaration of Independence has been our country’s guiding light in our darkest hours. Lincoln routinely used it in his legal arguments against slavery leading up to the Civil War. In the aftermath of World War Two, Eleanor Roosevelt used it to craft the Universal Declaration of Human rights in it’s image. These words, headlining this virtuous document, ring just as true today in another trying time as they did in 1776, 1858, and 1941:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

In fact the founders went out of their way to replace John Locke’s third right, “property” (“estate”) with “the pursuit of happiness”. As important as property rights were (and still are), this was meant to show, in no uncertain terms, that property rights and economic considerations were secondary to life and liberty.

So when Governor Cuomo says that we will not put a dollar figure on human lives, he is not engaging in partisan politics, he is getting at the core of what it means to be an American. I am not religious, but according to our founders these were rights given to people by God. It would then follow that when President Trump suggests otherwise–that potentially hundreds of thousands of lives are an acceptable cost of opening our economy back up sooner–he is playing the devil’s advocate.

Now I believe in our government and system of governance. I don’t think this will come to pass. I think Governors from both parties will undermine this order should Trump press ahead with it (in all likelihood he’ll flip flop when he sees how unpopular it has been, and try to rewrite history by claiming he never said it). Even the Federal Reserve Chair, someone who can be fired by the President and whose mandate is to promote long term economic stability and growth, made the unusual move of very publicly rejecting the President’s suggestion.

But in even suggesting this, Trump has shown who he truly is and what his priorities are (something that was apparent to me and many others from the start). Before his Presidency even started I called out his platform and style of governance for what it was–pursuing short term gains to make himself look good, while disregarding the long term costs all Americans would have to bare. Because they would occur on someone else watch Trump wouldn’t have to take the blame, and if they occurred sooner, he could just scapegoat and lie his way out of it.

For example, tax cuts to the wealthy made the economy look stronger for a bit, but will make it more difficult to address the structural issues that make our economy fundamentally unfair (“starve the beast” as the GOP calls it, so we cannot introduce new social programs to address these issues). His stance on cutting regulations and denying climate change follow a similar playbook–they increase growth in the short run, but they impose great costs on society in the long run (costs that fall disproportionately on the least well off).

On foreign policy, his decision to ease restrictions on weapon sales by turning our Commerce Dept. into the world’s largest arms dealer makes for big dollar figure headlines and plays well with his base. But by doing so, in addition to straining ties with our allies and putting Democracy and human rights promotion on the back burner, he has undoubtedly planted the seeds for future conflicts. But no problem for Trump, these conflicts will happen on someone else’s watch, and good luck definitively proving he is to blame anyways. To Trump, if you can’t prove his guilt in a court of law (in what has clearly become a broken justice system as it pertains to him), he feels exonerated and even vindicated in his actions.

The only difference now is that the cost of his proposal is immediate and direct–there is no “reasonable doubt” that opening the country back up too soon will directly lead to massive numbers of preventable deaths (although in all fairness his botched response thusfar has already accomplished that to some degree). Not like when hack economists supported his tax plan, or how hack scientists give him cover for questioning climate science. No, there is no cover here–he made those statements and now he must own them and their underlying significance. 

So Mr. Trump, my question to you is how many pawns need to be sacrificed so the modern day kings can start getting richer again? How much is a life worth? I bet if you asked Trump, he would give you an answer tied to a person’s net worth; that he even thinks there is an answer at all is the problem.

Not only is his proposal cruel and patently un-American, it would also be self defeating. Open up the economy too soon and the virus will resurge, necessitating future closings and prolonging the economic damage. The $2 trillion stimulus plan was designed to pause the economy for a couple of months to get this thing under control, not deal with multiple surges over the course of a year; Trump’s proposal would undermine the largest economic stimulus plan in American history.

We all know Trump likes to watch the stock market, but he should not expect support for his proposal to come from there either. While in normal times the stock market does reward pro-business policies regardless of their human cost, these are not normal times. The stock market responded positively to both the passage of a bill that mandated paid sick leave and a stimulus bill that is designed to help shutter the economy until this health crisis passes. These are hardly pro-business policies, but even Wall St. understands that if the health crisis is not properly and definitively addressed, there can be no true economic recovery.

It is not exactly clear who Trump is even trying to appeal to with this proposal. Do Evangelical Christians really value Easter services over human lives? Of course not. Sure, you will always get some lemmings who will follow Trump off a cliff, but really anyone with an ounce of decency or even selfish foresight can see how ill conceived his plan is.

Hopefully the adults in the room can keep this from coming to pass. I think they can–they need to. Just like with the recently passed stimulus bill people will rise to the occasion, the stakes are too high not to.

I will leave you with one last parting thought. While it is true that older people are more vulnerable to COVID-19, here is another truth about older people–they turn out to vote. So come November do us all a favor, remember the man who thought your life was worthless and vote him the hell out of office! It is past time we declare our independence from this stain on America’s character.

Update (4/13):

Trump, in his typical pissing-match style, has said it is up to him when to “reopen the country”. Legal experts disagree, saying that power lies with Governors, citing The Constitution.

Trump recently said he is “very serious” about opening the economy back up May 1st, something many health experts (even those within his administration) believe is unrealistic.

Update (3/29):

President Trump already backtracked on this claim, extending social distancing guidelines till the end of April. This is a good thing, but there is no guarantee the end of April will be the proper time. As Dr. Fauci said, “the virus determines the timeline”. Hopefully Trump continue to listen to public health experts and reassess then.

When asked about his Easter comments, Trump said they were merely “aspirational”. I’m sorry, but that is bullshit. When you are the POTUS during a national emergency and health crisis, you must speak clearly, directly, and frankly. You do not throw out “aspirational” dates to reopen the economy before the peak of cases is even reached (and, due to your administration’s failures, likely before widespread testing is even available). You don’t make comments like “the cure can’t be worse than the disease”. You don’t suggest to the American people that their lives are less important that the economy–a false choice that only a simple minded and cruel person would believe anyways):

“One can do those types of quite gruesome calculations” said MIT economist Emil Verner. But evidence suggests “that in some sense, that’s a false tradeoff,” he said. 

Verner last week co-authored a paper about the response to the 1918 flu epidemic and found that cities that restricted public gatherings sooner and longer had fewer deaths – and ultimately emerged from the pandemic with stronger economic growth.

Sorry Trump, you don’t get off the hook for this one. For the few who did not know until you made that statement, we now all know who EXACTLY you are.