Normative Narratives


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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

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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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What is the “True” Unemployment Rate?

Disclaimer: I work for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The views here are my own and do not reflect the views of the Bureau of Labor Statistics or U.S. Department of Labor. Furthermore, they should not be interpreted as a disagreement with what the Bureau reported. Indeed, it is only because of the transparency of the Bureau’s reporting that I was able to put together this analysis (all numbers in the analysis below come from the link above or the Employment Situation news release, unless otherwise noted).

The Bureau has good reasons for not correcting likely misclassified survey responses. As a private citizen, I simply have more leeway in my analysis than the famously impartial and consistent BLS does.

Note: All data used in this analysis is not seasonally adjusted


For those who follow such things, the April Employment Situation news release (“Jobs Report”) was perhaps the most anticipated in history. Never has such a dramatic over-the-month change in the U.S. economy been recorded. The Great Depression predates the Bureau’s employment numbers, and even if it didn’t it was more of a sustained contraction over time than an abrupt shutdown by design.

The official unemployment rate (U-3) came in at 14.4% as of the week ending April 18th (the data for this month’s release were based on a survey conducted April 12th-18th). This is calculated by dividing the number of unemployed people (22.5 million) by the number of people in the labor force (the unemployed and the employed, 155.8 million). Typically to be considered “unemployed”, one must be out of work and have actively looked for work in the past four weeks. This requirement has been relaxed somewhat to account for the realities of COVID-19, most notably to include people who are temporarily laid off but expect to be recalled, and therefore not actively looking for work. In fact this group represents the vast majority of those currently considered unemployed (17.9 of the 22.5 million), offering a ray of hope that some of them may indeed be recalled.

That figure, however, likely should’ve been even larger. According to the Bureau, it is likely that 7.5 million people should’ve been included in this group, but were instead considered “employed–not at work, other reason” (based on the fact that there are 7.5 million more people in this group now than there were a year ago). If you add this group to the unemployed, you get an unemployment rate (call it the “true U-3”) of 19.3% (22.5 + 7.5 / 155.8).

But many people believe the official unemployment rate doesn’t really capture the state of the labor market. These people often turn to an alternate measure, the U-6, to determine a “true rate” of labor underutlization. We do not call call the U-6 an “unemployment rate”, because as you will see in a moment it includes some part time workers.

The U-6 is the number of unemployed (22.5 million) plus the number of people working “part time for economic reasons” (would rather work full time but can’t find a full time job – 10.7 million) plus those “marginally attached to the labor force” (want a job, available to take a job, have looked for a job in the last 12 months but not in the last four weeks (2.2 million)), divided by the labor force (156.5 million) plus the marginally attached (2.2 million). In April, the official U-6 rate was 22.4% (22.5 + 10.7 + 2.2) / (155.8 + 2.2).

If we add those 7.5 million people that likely should’ve been coded as unemployed, we get a U-6 of 27.2%. But there was also a large increase in the number of people who are not in the labor force who currently want a job, but do not meet the criteria to be considered “marginally attached”; there were 4.8 million more in April 2020 than there were a year earlier. While the Bureau did not note this as a potential survey error, I think it is fair to say most of these people should have been included in that “marginally attached” figure. Lets replace the “marginally attached” with this broader figure of people who are not in the labor force but want a job. Using these figures, we end up with a “true U-6” of 28.3% (22.5 + 7.5 + 10.7 + 4.8) / (155.8 + 4.8). This 28.3% is a good estimate of labor underutilization (or at least was as of the week ending 4/18).

No matter how you slice it the economy is in bad shape right now. Even taking that conservative “true U-3” number of unemployed (22.5 million, and the 7.5 million misclassified as employed), we have 30 million people. At the same exact point in time (the week ending April 18th) the Department of Labor reported that 17,776,006 people were covered by unemployment insurance (UI). In other words, only 59% of unemployed people were receiving benefits. In fact, since some states are offering partial UI for people with reduced hours (who would not be counted in those 30 million unemployed), the true percentage of unemployed people receiving benefits could be significantly lower.

Things have only continued to deteriorate since the jobs report survey was taken. From that point to the week ending May 2nd (the most recent data), 6,338,351 new people have filed for UI. While weekly initial claims are on a downward trend, they are still at very high levels and could unfortunately plateau there if reports of unfiled UI claims and processing backlogs are true.

If all of these different unemployment rates (official and otherwise) are confusing, here is a number that cuts through the fog: only 51.3% of America’s working age population (16+) is employed, the lowest rate since the Bureau began tracking that figure in 1948. 

The U.S. economy is almost 70% consumption based. Our Federal and State governments must do a better job processing UI claims, keeping people employed, and figuring out some sort of debt forgiveness system while shutdowns are in effect (as Senators Warren and Brown have proposed). If they fail to do these things not only will people suffer, but our economic recovery will be anemic regardless of how soon things open back up.


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

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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.


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This Time’s Different (But the GOPs Response is the Same)

Low borrowing costs for the Federal government further support massive stimulus to counter this crisis

With the Coronavirus pandemic, the world is clearly facing its greatest economic challenge since The Great Recession.

Back then there was a narrative amongst conservative lawmakers that overly generous lending to poorer people caused the housing crisis. If pro-poor policies got us into this mess, they couldn’t possibly get us out of it, went the GOPs argument against bailing out Main St. (that, and pretending to care about the deficit).

This was of course always utter bullshit; while some people undoubtably borrowed outside their means, predatory lending practices were primarily to blame. If a person could not afford a house, it was the bank’s job not to lend to them. Then of course there was financial deregulation, enabling bad practices by investment banks, and willful negligence by rating agencies, all of which paved the path for the housing crisis to crater our entire financial system and the overall economy.

That brief history lesson was intended to juxtapose that crisis to this one. Whereas back then one could plausibly argue (however weakly, and against all evidence to the contrary) that regular people were responsible for the crisis and therefore had to pay the price, lest they repeat their past mistakes (the “moral hazard” argument, an old GOP favorite), that is clearly not the case this time.

This time we have a deadly, infectious disease, not a mistake made by Americans, although the Trump administration has certainly botched the response thusfar. But I digress, there is plenty of time for the blame game later, now is the time for decisive action. The point is that regular Americans clearly did not cause this crisis, so where is the support they need–right now–that only the Federal government can provide?

The answer, as it all too often seems to be these days when one asks why common sense isn’t being reflected in public policy, is that it is stuck on Mitch McConnell’s desk. Or more precisely, it is being help up by GOP Congressman Louie Gohmert (before it gets stuck on McConnell’s desk).

Even if this is only ends up delaying an adequate response by a few days (an incredibly optimistic assumption), right now every moment is precious. Every day that passes without a meaningful response means more more dead Americans. It probably means additional weeks of restrictions on the backend of this thing. And it risks turning what will already be, in the best case scenario, a significant recession, into a full-fledged economic crisis similar to The Great Recession. In other words, the longer we wait the more expensive an adequate response will be.

Economists are quite clear on what needs to be done, summed up nicely by the IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva’s call for massive, coordinated fiscal stimulus:

As the virus spreads, the case for a coordinated and synchronized global fiscal stimulus is becoming stronger by the hour,” Georgieva said.

Georgieva, in her blog, suggested that coordinated fiscal action on the scale of the 2008-2009 financial crisis may be necessary. She said that in 2009 alone, Group of 20 countries deployed about 2% of their GDP in stimulus, or about $900 billion in today’s money, “so there is a lot more work to do.

She said that governments should continue to prioritize health spending and provide support to the most affected people and businesses with policies such as paid sick leave and targeted tax relief.

Georgieva said all of the fiscal, monetary and regulatory actions would be “most effective when done cooperatively.” She added that IMF research shows that spending increases have a multiplier effect when countries act together.

So the proper course of action is a large government spending program, coordinated with other countries. Sounds like that’s right in Trump’s wheelhouse, what could possibly go wrong?!

Can Trump and the rest of the GOP rise to the occasion, and do what everyone knows is best even if it goes against their ideology? Of course they can, but unfortunately I’m not optimistic they will. I think whatever watered-down version of a Democratic proposal they eventually pass will be too little too late. In fact it’s already later than it should be; the virus has been in the country for almost 2 months, how do we not yet have a coherent, comprehensive response? How did we not have a plan in place for the worst case scenario?

So when we look at the House-passed relief bill, and wonder why it doesn’t mandate large companies provide paid sick leave (the companies that can most easily afford it), remember which party lobbied for that exemption.

When Mitch McConnell inevitably responds to Chuck Schumer’s request for a $750 billion stimulus package to address this public health emergency and economic crisis with a call for a “bipartisan solution”, lets be clear on what that means. It means that whatever response the Democrats come up with, in line with expert advice, will be delayed in order to make sure it reflects conservative ideology, to the detriment of public health and the economy (things that affect real Americans of all political stripes).

Don’t get me wrong, bipartisanship is a good thing in theory. However when one party is putting ideology over expert advice in a time of national emergency, delaying the decisive action required and therefore making an inherently bad situation worse, with little if any benefit to anyone, then bipartisanship has become an impediment to serving the public interest. It is a hollow plea, as the party calling for it no longer truly represents the interests of its constituents.

The fact of the matter is that if the GOP was so concerned, we’d have heard proposals and seen draft legislation from them by now. Instead all we’ve seen is ideologically driven counter-proposals, divorced from need, as if this is all some sort of game. Well that’s not all, we’ve also seen a President who is so tone deaf, whose priorities are so out of wack, and who is so clearly not up to the task that it’s scary. Don’t agree with me? Ask Wall St., or Main St., or anybody who hasn’t completely lost their mind drinking the Trump Cool-Aid these past few years.

So what can we do about it? At this point just practice good hygiene, try to get tested if you have symptoms, socially distance yourself, and don’t buy more stuff than you need. That and remember which party just gave a trillion dollar tax cut to the wealthy but will tell you we can’t afford to properly address this crisis. Remember which administration recently pushed relevant medical experts out of the government. Remember which party is delaying the response the American people need and deserve. Remember all these things, and hold them accountable during the 2020 election.

Note: While clearly very critical, this post is not meant to be a partisan attack. Rather it is a challenge, a throwing down of the gauntlet. It is a reminder of past mistakes, and a plea for the same party not to make them again when the stakes are arguably even higher. The answers are there for them, all they have to do is not stand in the way.

Please, GOP, prove me wrong. I want to be wrong. I want to look back on this blog a few days from now and feel like a reactionary, partisan fool for writing it. I just don’t think that will be the case or else I wouldn’t have written it in the first place. I take no pleasure in writing these words.

Update (4/13):

I maintain that the stimulus bill was well developed. There are a few holes in it–not enough funding for state and local gov’ts hit hardest by this, for testing and protective gear, or for hospital and other essential workers. These are issues the Democratic party is trying to address in the next bill, but the GOP has balked at, with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R) calling them “things that right now do not need to be done”.

There is also a very large tax cut for wealth real estate developers tucked into it ($170 billion over the next decade)–talk about a “thing that right now did not need to be done…”

Still, this bill was an overall success. Maybe I’ve set the bar too low, but some “pork” in a bill this size, that was passed this quickly, seemed inevitable. It was still, in my mind, a rare example of swift, bipartisan cooperation.

There are, however, two major issues with it:

  1. It was developed too late, playing catch-up to a worst case scenario we should’ve been preparing for for weeks (in other words, it shouldn’t have had to have been developed so swiftly).
  2. It is being administered through government agencies that have either been starved of funds for decades (the IRS), or were never meant to operate at this scale (states unemployment insurance agencies, the Small Business Administration)

Both of these are really tied to the original sin of lack of planning and leadership by the Trump administration. The first issue is explicitly that–lack of planning. The second issue is related because, had we planned in advance, we could’ve hired the people needed to administer these programs.

With the exception of the IRS (which as been bled of funding for decades by a GOP that doesn’t want it to enforce tax laws on it’s wealthy donors), no one is suggesting the SBA or state’s unemployment insurance offices should always maintain emergency levels of staffing. But that’s exactly the point. When you fail to plan, not only are you playing catch-up in developing the plan, you are also playing catch-up in administering it too. Congress did it’s immediate job in passing a huge bill relatively quickly. But if that plan cannot actually be carried out in a timely matter, it will be much less effective than it otherwise could have been.

People living paycheck to paycheck cannot afford to wait. Neither can most small businesses.

Update (3/25):

Well I gotta give it to them, Senators came together and it seems like they will get a very workable bill passed. I said I wanted to sound like a partisan fool for writing this article, and now I am happy to say I do.

The $2 trillion package should help mitigate the worst economic damage of this crisis. It should help ease the humanitarian crisis that would otherwise hit a large swath of economically insecure American’s (the number of people this includes is troubling, and points to larger structural problems in our economy, but those are longer term issues that could not be addressed under the barrel of a gun). It should generally help businesses maintain employment levels, provide protection for people who are laid off, and put the economy in a good position to spring back once the health crisis is resolved.

Now IF only someone could get into POTUS’s ear and tell him not to restart the economy too soon (and to authorize wider use of the Defense Production Act), I’d say on a policy level we’ve addressed the economic crisis reasonably well (for now, we will still need to have a recovery plan in place for when the economy opens back up, something House Speaker Pelosi has started to address). We can and should ultimately discuss what we should’ve done in the weeks and months we saw this thing coming down the pike; I certainly do not absolve the Administration of it’s missteps and their grave results. But lets take a moment at least to acknowledge a win when we have one–the nation deserves that.

The numbers of cases and deaths will continue to rise as we move along the curve, that much is clear. Those cases already exist, and this lag is due to a shortage of tests (an example of a Trump admin failure), and due to the nature of this virus–a long incubation with many asymptomatic vectors spreading it around. That is not a good barometer of how effective this economic rescue plan is. Nor is how bad the economic numbers get in the short term. Rather, this is about how the economy ends up bouncing back.

Lets be clear, any handwringing here is contingent to getting the health crisis under control. If we restart the economy too soon then this stimulus money will have been needlessly squandered, and many people will needlessly die. But at least now we can refocus our efforts on the more important task at hand. The spotlight now turns from Congress back to Trump (gulp).

Update (3/23):

An almost $2 trillion stimulus bill is stalled in the Senate, where Democrats are arguing it fails to put enough conditions on loans, including restrictions on stock buybacks and requirements that companies maintain employment levels:

“At the heart of the impasse in the Senate is a $425 billion fund created by the bill that the Federal Reserve could leverage for loans to assist broad groups of distressed companies, and an additional $75 billion it would provide for industry-specific loans. Democrats have raised concerns that the funds do not have rules for transparency or enough guardrails to make sure companies do not use the funds to enrich themselves or take government money and lay off workers. They also argue the measure would give Mr. Mnuchin too much discretion to decide which companies receive the funds, calling the proposal a “slush fund” for the administration.

Democrats are also pushing for more jobless aid and money for states as part of the agreement. 

“Let’s be clear about what we are talking about here: We don’t think your bill works,” said Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. “This is a policy disagreement, and I have an obligation as a representative of my state to stand up and say when I don’t think a $2 trillion bill is going to solve the problem.”

“This bill is going to affect this country and the lives of Americans — not just for the next few days, but in the next few months and years,” Mr. Schumer said Sunday evening, “so we have to make sure it is good.”

Sen Schumer is right, a bill this big will undoubtedly affect every policy debate in some way for at least the next decade. Every budgetary dispute will be viewed through the lens of what is shaping up to be the largest stimulus package in modern U.S. history (that and our weak tax code).

This needs to be done quickly. This needs to be done right. Lock em’ all in a room until they figure out a way to make that happen.

Update (3/20):

The Senate passed the House’s bill expanding paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, and testing. A good first step (well technically second).

The Trump admin’s new larger stimulus proposal seems to be more direct cash payment based than payroll tax cut based. While this is an improvement, it is still not the proper response.

We should be helping the most vulnerable people; both economically vulnerable people and those on the front lines fighting this thing. Any resources those on the front lines need must be provided. We should expand unemployment insurance and social safety net measures (for those working in the informal economy that wouldn’t be covered by unemployment insurance). Simply put if you keep your job you do not need $1,000, and if you lose it you need a hell of a lot more.

Small businesses will need help as well. A targeted payroll tax cut should help with this. Small restaurants, bars, and other small business owners should get direct aid (independently owned and franchises–not major corporations). Directly impacted industries dominated by large companies (airlines, cruises, hotels) should get preferential loans with the condition they maintain employment levels. Other than that large companies in other industries should get some loan assistance, but generally speaking have already claimed their “aid” through decades of tax avoidance and the recently passed GOP tax bill–they can largely weather this storm themselves.

With all the demands on the government right now, we need to be both swift and targeted in our response. Our leaders can deliver a package that checks both those boxes if they so choose, as long as they continue to put the good of the nation over partisan politics.

Update (3/18):

The Trump administration wants a stimulus package in the area of $850 billion to $1 trillion. This is a good thing, right? I was wrong, right?

Overall yes–that both parties and the White House are acknowledging that a large stimulus plan is needed to address this crisis is a good thing. But there are major caveats to that statement.

For one, the Senate still hasn’t passed the House’s smaller measure mandating paid sick leave and providing funding for poor kids who will stop getting school meals and other vulnerable groups, so lets hold off on congratulating anyone just yet.

But the larger issue here is that it’s not just the size of the stimulus bill that matters, but it’s substance as well. Back in 2009, Obama’s stimulus package was criticized for being too tax break heavy, as opposed to targeted government spending which has a higher “multiplier” effect (basically return on investment–how much each dollar of stimulus impacts the overall economy). Guess which party was pushing for more tax cuts and less spending back then?

Unfortunately, it seems like we are going down a similar route now to appease conservative ideology. Trump’s plan is very payroll tax cut heavy, an idea that economists and lawmakers of both parties are not very excited about. But because it was the stable genius’s original plan, and any stimulus package will require his signature, it may end up needing to feature it.

Look, I have no problem with a targeted payroll tax cut for small and medium sized businesses who really need it to keep from laying people off, but not a blanket one that helps big businesses that can already weather the storm with huge cash reserves. But as we saw from negotiations in the House, where the GOP insisted large employers be exempt from providing paid sick leave, there is little to suggest that a targeted cut is what is on the table.

Everything we do now has to be about protecting the most vulnerable–both people and businesses. Relief for people should come in the form of expanded unemployment insurance and social safety-net provisions (to help those who work in the informal economy), not in blanket payments to all Americans (which benefits the wealthy and those lucky enough not to lose their jobs). Any relief to large companies should come in the form of interest free loans (like the auto industry bailout), not further cutting their already ridiculously low tax bill.

While some GOP lawmakers probably just want to do what we know is right, many will probably fall in line with what the POTUS and their party’s broken economic ideology dictates. Unfortunately, the GOP really does seem to be intent on repeating it’s past mistakes.


The Progressive Case For More Moderate Policies

If President Trump has had any positive effect on American politics, it’s that people are more engaged than ever. Think about it, when was the last time you heard that lazy complaint that “both parties are the same”?

Not only are the parties not the same, there are big differences within at least one of them. The GOP has become the party of Trump, but significant philosophical and policy differences exist within the Democratic Party. There are “progressives” like Warren and Sanders, “moderates” like Buttigeg, Biden and Klobuchar, and even an outsider-entrepreneur-populist in Andrew Yang.

When considering an ideal platform to run on, I am not talking about my personal preferences, or what may play well in politically uncompetitive parts of the country. Rather I am talking about two things:

  1. What best addresses the nation’s needs;
  2. What is most likely to appeal to independents and moderates, whose turnout and swing votes could be the determining factors in the 2020 election (electability).

Admittedly, “what best addresses the nation’s needs”, is opinion. In the next section I will defend my opinion that more moderate policies, and more of them, best addresses the nation’s needs. What is most likely to appeal to swing voters, however, is not opinion–it is moderate policies. This is common sense, strongly backed by a recent New York Times analysis of undecided voters:

“These potentially persuadable voters are divided on major issues like single-payer health care, immigration and taxes. But they are fairly clear about what they would like from a Democrat. They prefer, by 82 percent to 11 percent, one who promises to find common ground over one who promises to fight for a progressive agenda; and they prefer a moderate over a liberal, 75 percent to 19 percent.”

Making America Greater Than It’s Ever Been

After decades of inadequately investing in most Americans, many changes are needed to bring some semblance of equality of opportunity to this country.

Progressive Democrats focus on free college and healthcare, but economic opportunity goes beyond free or affordable versions of these things. It is not just healthcare and higher education reform that are needed, but also: early childhood development initiatives, investments in worker (re)training and apprenticeships, addressing student loan debt, a major infrastructure plan, an ambitious green economy plan, and perhaps the beginnings of a Federal work guarantee program (which is the real solution to automation). In other words, a realistic version of the Green New Deal.

By embracing more middle-of-the-road policies to address healthcare and college tuition costs, there is more fiscal space and political capital to spend on these other priorities. Lets consider the big ticket plans, as well as their more moderate alternatives:

“Medicare for All” vs. the “Public Option”

  • People will argue that Medicare for All is “socialism”, that it is “European”, not “American”. Yes, these are dumb arguments, unfortunately that does not matter when a large portion of the country believes them.
  • The public option–letting anyone who wants to buy into Medicare do so–on the other hand, embraces two core American values–choice and competition. It simply provides, as the name implies, an option.
    • As with the ACA, subsidies would be provided for people depending on their income.
  • One of the main reasons the ACA is less effective than it could be (aside from constantly being undermined by the GOP) is lack of providers in many areas.
  • There is more support for a public option than Medicare for all, and the gap is widening.
  • The public option is, of course, less expensive (by varying amounts, depending on the details of the plan).

Even Senator Warren’s path to “Medicare for All” is essentially just passing a public option at first, and then trying to pass a single payer health insurance law at a later date.

Free College Tuition vs. Free Community College

If someone knows they want to go to college, and is committed to seeing it through to degree completion, they should be encouraged and enabled to do so. The data shows that the higher your education level, the more you earn and the more likely you are to be employed. However, nothing good comes from a recent high school grad taking out a loan for a program they have no intention of completing, because they have been convinced that doing anything else would be a mistake.

  • Most student loan debt is driven by people attending for-profit colleges for a semester or two and then dropping out. Without the earnings bump one realizes from getting a degree, they find themselves stuck in debt.
  • We have all heard horror stories of people graduating with 6 figure debt, but these people are the loud minority of student loan debtors, and will likely be able to pay that debt off in the future.
    • For those who pursued or want to pursue expensive degrees in order to work for the social good, there are programs to help them pay down their debt (programs which can be expanded).
  • After years of conventional wisdom unwisely saying “everyone should get a degree”, the downsides of such thinking have become apparent; the decreased value of a bachelor’s degree (as they become much more common), and the increased cost (as more demand drives up prices).
  • Free Community College allows unsure young adults see if a bachelor’s degree is for them, or whether they want to go another route, without the burden of student loan debt.
    • State’s public higher education systems need to create as seamless a transition as possible from their associate’s to bachelor’s degree programs. By doing so, they would effectively be cutting the cost of a bachelor’s degree in half.
    • Some people do not want or need to pursue a bachelor’s degree, and that’s OK! This is not evidence of some moral or cognitive deficiency, nor is it a sentence to a life of poverty. We as a society need to better promote the alternatives, meaning;
    • High Schools, Community Colleges, and businesses need to provide more vocational training and apprenticeship opportunities, particularly since these jobs are projected to grow and more young Americans are beginning to show interest in them.
  • As with the public option, providing free community college would be significantly cheaper than making all public college tuition free.

Should any “moderate” plan be fully implemented, America would be immeasurably more progressive than it is today. All the progressives out there, if they truly care about social progress, should be out celebrating in the streets if a public option or free community college ever become the law of the land.

Progressive Taxation

Because bigger ticket plans are so expensive, progressive candidates have had to become innovative on taxation, most notably by proposing a wealth tax. There are also more familiar ideas to increase tax revenues, such as increasing higher end income and corporate tax rates, raising the capital gains tax, and introducing a value added tax. Then there is also adequately funding the IRS, so it can better enforce tax law.

Every other wealthy country in the world generates more tax revenue relative to its GDP than the U.S. Despite what Trump may say, I am not comparing the U.S. to socialist countries with failed states; these are the G7–literally the 6 wealthiest countries in the world after after the U.S.

Source: OECD

Note this chart ends at 2017; the U.S. figure is probably about 1% lower for 2018 after the GOP passed it’s new tax bill. That might not sound like much, but remember 1% of the $20 trillion dollar U.S. economy is about $200 billion dollars.

Doing a very rough back-of-the-napkin calculation, if the U.S. collected at the G7 average, it would easily bring in 1.5 trillion more tax dollars per year. I don’t care if your priority is reducing poverty, environmental protection, building up our military, providing better services to veterans, paying down the debt (so that interest payments don’t become the next big taxpayer expense) or literally anything else, we should all be able to agree as a nation that we are leaving too much tax revenue on the table.

Moderate Democrats must also embrace more progressive taxation. For one, it hits on the widespread belief that the wealthy do not pay their fair share of taxes. Furthermore, if a candidate wants to propose a buffet of policies instead of a few main courses, it will still cost a lot of money. Being a moderate Democrat shouldn’t necessarily mean spending less, but rather spending differently. To do this responsibly still requires embracing much more progressive taxation. 

The Uneven Political Playing Field

Due to a number of factors (Gerrymandering in the House, less populous states being disproportionately represented in the Senate, the Electoral College), Trump’s GOP does not need to win national popular support to stay in power. Instead it will double down on lies, partisan attacks and other scare tactics to try to rile up its base.

The Democratic party cannot play this game. While Democrats have to be tough on Trump, they also have to try to appeal to some conservative voters. If the Democratic Party tries a mirror approach, appealing primarily to extreme progressives while ignoring moderate Democrats, conservatives and independents, all it will accomplish is breaking its own 2016 record of winning the popular vote by the largest margin in history while losing the Presidency.

Think about it, people who support the most progressive policies tend to be clustered in big cities–cities that already vote Democratic. Increasing turnout of this voting block would have less of an effect on the election than one may think.

Thanks to his words and actions, Trump has put previously uncompetitive areas in play–the so called “suburban slide” in the south. The Democratic party must seize on this opportunity and try to appeal to these voters. The party’s progressive wing should not punish it for playing smart politics; as the past three years have shown, the stakes are too high.

A New New Deal

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe absent grand policies like “Medicare for All”, “Free College”, or “$1,000 a month for everyone”, the excitement just isn’t there for any Democratic candidate and Trump wins again. Maybe most voters don’t have the capacity or desire to consider a platform that addresses the issues facing this nation with targeted policies.

Or maybe people do want that type of platform, but don’t think politicians can actually deliver it. This is a much more reasonable argument; the Federal government hasn’t been particularly effective in recent history, and it is easier to pass two bills than five.

To this I say that, in America, fatalism is self-fulfilling. If we say, “we can’t pass those bills”, and don’t even try, then we certainly we won’t pass them. If we say “we can’t tax the rich, they’ll just dodge it”, then that becomes the reality (as it has already begun to be).

Yes, there will be difficulties along the way–there always are when taking on wealthy interests. Globalization has made tax evasion more difficult to police. Today’s hyper-partisan political environment has made it harder to pass legislation that actually reflects the will of the vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum. BUT WE MUST TRY. To quote FDR:

“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. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.”

American democracy has driven some truly incredible advances in human progress and social fairness in the past, and there is nothing structurally stopping it from doing so again. The New Deal, which today’s Democratic party seems to want to emulate, was itself a large package of targeted policies addressing specific needs.

More moderate policies, and more of them, has been and continues to be the right approach to addressing the many challenges facing our nation. It also happens to be the more broadly popular–and therefore electable–platform. Whether a candidate with such a platform can make it through the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, however, remains to be seen.


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America’s Choice: Winner-Take-All or Social Democracy

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The 2018 midterm elections, which saw significant gains for the Democratic Party, were in many ways a rejection of President Trump’s policies and worldview. But while the American people seemingly know what we don’t want, do we know what we do want? Those are the questions to be answered leading up to and by the 2020 elections, campaigning for which is already underway.

Ultimately we cannot have the “economic populism” many Americans across the political spectrum seem to want with our current tax code. Insufficient tax revenue means the government cannot provide what is needed to develop the next generation of Americans while simultaneously addressing more immediate concerns. In order to fulfill these two key responsibilities of governing, it is time to seriously consider ideas that have, for a while, been outside of mainstream political discourse.

One such idea is that taxes can be significantly higher at higher income levels. The vast majority of Americans believe that the wealthy and corporations do not pay their fair share of taxes (and these survey results are from before the new GOP tax code went into effect, which even further reduced taxes for the wealthy and corporations).

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has recently brought this idea to the forefront, proposing top income tax rates upwards of 70%. Nobel prize winners have said optimal rates may be as high as 80+%. I do not know what a politically viable top rate is, that’s for the American people to decide. I do know that it should be significantly higher than it is today.

Here are three things to consider regarding taxes in America:

  1. Marginal Income Tax Rates

    Whatever tax brackets we choose to have, they will work within the marginal tax rate system we currently use. What are marginal tax rates you ask? Well, imagine there are 3 tax brackets:

    10% for those making > $10,000
    20% for those making $10,000-$100,000
    30% for those making > $100,000

    If I got a raise from $90,000 to $110,000, only the $10,000 over 100,000 would be taxed at 30%. Dollars 1-9,999 would still be taxed at 10%, and dollars 10,000 – 100,000 would still be taxed at 20%. My income would not all now be taxed at the highest rate, only the amount over that top bracket threshold.

    The idea that people will work less hard because of higher marginal rates is silly–people typically can’t control their earnings that much (without the help of high priced accountants at least). Your average American works as hard as they can in hopes of earning as much as they can–they do not calibrate their level of effort based on what is typically a small tax increase that results from entering a higher bracket.

    Now having high marginal tax rates is admittedly harder in a globalized world than it was in the mid 20th century, because people can move themselves and their money around much more easily today. Having said that, and feel free call me a “homer” if you like, but I think that America is pretty unique and special place. If our leaders prioritized curtailing tax avoidance by coordinating with other countries and international organizations, I believe that people would still choose to live, operate businesses, and park their wealth here even if we had higher tax rates.

    In other words, if the choice was pay your fair share or leave, I believe that most wealthy people would choose to pay their fair share.

  2. Income as a Measure of Hard Work, and Inequality in the Age of Globalization

    Think about entrepreneurs in the 1950s. They brought their products mainly to domestic markets, which relied primarily on domestic infrastructure, court systems, and public goods to function. At the time, the government was able to provide these goods without running huge deficits, in large part by adequately taxing the rich.

    Now think about entrepreneurs in the 2010s. They bring their products to a global market. If it’s a popular product, global capital chases it, expanding operations and profits. Maybe they decide to sell their company to foreign firm for a huge pay day.

    The 1950s millionaire entrepreneur can easily be today’s billionaire. Does today’s billionaire work that much harder? Generally speaking, not really–both work(ed) very hard, and there are only so many hours in a day. The same is true of today’s business executives versus those of decades past. Today’s greater earnings, rather, are largely an effect of the global economy we operate in, not harder work–there are billions of potential customers out there instead of millions.

    The global economic system is expensive to maintain. Today the U.S. government needs to not only finance domestic infrastructure and institutions, it also has to help finance international institutions and (perhaps most importantly and expensively) global defense.

    The U.S., as a global leader, naturally pays a large portion of this global economic infrastructure. While it is impossible to quantify piece-by-piece, overall this is a good deal for Americans–just look at the world as it currently is as proof! America is leading the way in almost all macroeconomic metrics (despite what Trump may say about us getting “taken advantage of”, “losing”, or “not being respected”).

    Where America is lacking is in social cohesion, social mobility, and general optimism and happiness. This is not an accident, but rather a feature of our current winner-take-all economic system. This is not just a liberal “bleeding heart” speaking, just ask Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

    It is not difficult to understand the anger of Americans displaced by globalization. Over the past few decades, middle class workers have seen their incomes stagnate, even as their productivity has risen. Why should the wealthy see gains well beyond their hard work, while the average person doesn’t even see the gains their work should rightfully earn them?

    Wealth did not trickle-down as promised (no surprise there, it never does). People who could not afford the increasingly expensive baseline goods needed take advantage of the global economy (early childhood development, higher education, job [re]training) became disgruntled, believing politicians from neither party cared about them. They then went out and voted for any “outsider” offering simple solutions to complex problems, and we ended up with President Trump.

    The truth is that America’s economy has become unfair. In order to restore that fairness we need to provide certain public goods–like affordable (if not free) higher education and healthcare. In order to provide these things, we need more tax revenue, and that tax revenue has to come from the ever-wealthier wealthiest Americans.

    There are many types of taxes, aside from income tax, that are also in play. Some are currently part of the U.S. tax code, while others are not. Examples include corporate taxes, capital gains taxes, financial transaction taxes, carbon taxes, estate taxes, sales taxes and gasoline taxes. 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has proposed a first-of-its-kind-in-America wealth tax, which has certainly gotten people’s attention.

    Some of these taxes fall mostly on the rich, while others hit everyone. This is an important consideration when trying to address inequality through the tax code. There are also countless tax loopholes, some of which are useful but many of which should be closed.

    The appropriate top marginal income tax rate is a function of the overall tax code.

  3. Adequately Fund and Reprioritize the IRS

    “The [budget] cuts are depleting the staff members who help ensure that taxpayers pay what they owe. As of last year, the IRS had 9,510 auditors. That’s down a third from 2010. The last time the IRS had fewer than 10,000 revenue agents was 1953, when the economy was a seventh of its current size…the IRS conducted 675,000 fewer audits in 2017 than it did in 2010, a drop in the audit rate of 42 percent. But even those stark numbers don’t tell the whole story, say current and former IRS employees: Auditors are stretched thin, and they’re often forced to limit their investigations and move on to the next audit as quickly as they can.

    Corporations and the wealthy are the biggest beneficiaries of the IRS’ decay. Most Americans’ interaction with the IRS is largely automated. But it takes specialized, well-trained personnel to audit a business or a billionaire or to unravel a tax scheme — and those employees are leaving in droves and taking their expertise with them. For the country’s largest corporations, the danger of being hit with a billion-dollar tax bill has greatly diminished. For the rich, who research shows evade taxes the most, the IRS has become less and less of a force to be feared.

    The story has been different for poor taxpayers. The IRS oversees one of the government’s largest anti-poverty programs, the earned income tax credit, which provides cash to the working poor. Under continued pressure from Republicans, the IRS has long made a priority of auditing people who receive that money, and as the IRS has shrunk, those audits have consumed even more resources, accounting for 36 percent of audits last year. The credit’s recipients — whose annual income is typically less than $20,000 — are now examined at rates similar to those who make $500,000 to $1 million a year. Only people with incomes above $1 million are examined much more frequently.

    [Former IRS Commissioner Koskinen, in testimony about the IRS budget] told the Senate, “I don’t know any organization in my 20 years of experience in the private sector that has said, ‘I think I’ll take my revenue operation and starve it for funds.’”

    The idea that a resource-strapped IRS is auditing EITC recipients instead of millionaires and multinational corporations is as absurd economically as it is cruel morally. No wonder most Americans hate the tax man and think the wealthy don’t pay their fair share–they are right.

Being a “Competitive Economy” Need Not Be a Race to the Bottom

A friend recently shared a Breitbart article about America being “the world’s most competitive economy”. While this is good news, it definitely needs some context.

First, America wasn’t a slouch before Trump; we placed 2nd, 3rd, and 3rd in 2017, 2016, and 2015 respectively. I don’t feel like going further back, but I’m sure we’ve never been low on this list.

Second, look at the countries right after us. “Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, and Japan [make up the rest of the] top five. The top ten includes the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the U.K., Sweden, and Denmark.”

These countries almost all have higher levels of taxation, stronger safety nets, and stronger worker protections than the U.S. Some were the “most competitive” countries in past years. A country does not have to “race to the bottom” in order to be competitive.

Being first on this list, as opposed to being second or third, really doesn’t gain us anything other than a nice headline. Companies do not decide where to build plants or hire employees based on “most competitive” indexes, they do it based on their complex internal calculus (cost of labor, cost of moving goods around their supply chain, level of employee expertise needed, infrastructure needs, tax rates, etc.). In some cases this will be the U.S., in others it will not, regardless of meaningless titles.

Jobs and the “Green New Deal”

I am actually a fan of how Trump uses his bully pulpit to make hiring American workers an important consideration for companies–I like his tough rhetoric here. While I am not a fan of protectionism in general, in some cases the credible threat of tariffs is needed in order to show these are not just empty words. This is particularly true when another country isn’t playing fair on trade, which is certainly the case in some instances.

The problem is that Trump gets headlines for the jobs his policies creates or keeps, but not for the ones they lose. For example, job losses have exceeded gains when it comes to iron and steel tariffs and solar panel manufacturing tariffs. Aside from jobs, there is also the increasing prices of imports to consider, which make up about 15% of U.S. GDP–the American consumer likes options, including ones made abroad.

As I have said before, Trump’s worldview is too zero-sum and short-term. Specifically, he views addressing climate change only as a cost (which he always inflates), and not an opportunity for the U.S. to be a leader in emerging industries. Unfortunately, due to the 2013 sequester budget cuts, the Bureau of Labor Statistics stopped tracking “Green Jobs”, making it much more difficult to quantify the benefits of being a leader in these emerging industries.

Take electric vehicles (EVs) for example. General Motors is begging Trump to support a Nationwide Zero Emissions Vehicle program, to no avail. It’s like private sector lobbyists always have Trump’s ear, unless they are promoting something environmentally friendly.

ev investments by country

Credit: Reuters

Over the next decade car companies will invest over $300 billion in EVs, with the largest chunk going to China due to government incentives (Germany is second, while the U.S. is a distant third). As you can see from the image above, Trump’s stance towards EVs has resulted in us leaving other countries investment dollars on the table. It’s like Trump always wants to be tough on China and promote investing in the U.S., unless it has to do with something “green”.

Meanwhile, over in Germany, the government is paving the way for Volkswagen to position itself as a future leader in EVs. In fact, Ford just announced a partnership with VW on EVs. American automakers now need to look abroad for support because our President won’t help them–sad. Hey, remember when Obama saved the U.S. auto industry just a decade ago? That was pretty cool, but I guess Trump wants to undo that part of Obama’s legacy as well…

Auto companies are starting to reach a 200,000 vehicle sale threshold that triggers a gradual elimination of consumer tax credits for buying electric vehicles. Under normal circumstances, either a Republic or Democratic President would seriously consider extending these credits. Instead, the Trump administration has signaled it wants to eliminate the credits altogether.

The shift to a global economy was done on the backs of the commoner–global wealth soared, but so did wealth inequality. “Yellow Vest” protests in France show that regular people will not let the next major shift–from a fossil fuel based economy to a “green economy”–be solely placed on their backs as again (and rightly so!). Rather, this shift will need to be part of an “all hands on deck” approach, with everyone (rich, poor, and all those in between) contributing their fair share towards a greener, fairer, and more dynamic economy. This is the spirit of the “Green New Deal”.

America’s Choice: Social Democracy vs. Unbridled Capitalism

“Supply-side” GOP economics has always relied on questionable math (“magic asterisks“), Trump is just faster and looser with the rules. To Trump, numbers (and the truth in general) are things to be manipulated to promote his agenda. Lies about the value of the Saudi Arabian arms deal, the costs of addressing climate change, and the costs of illegal immigration are prime examples of this.

It is amazing how a man who casts doubt on so many things he disagrees with can speak with such confidence about things that actually are uncertain, like economic outcomes. But then again, humility and honesty have never been Trump’s forte.

Living in a democracy, the shape of our economic system is a choice we collectively make. In American democracy the means justify the ends, as long as the debate is honest and people can make informed decisions. To date, the debate on the structure of our economic system has been anything but honest. Those supporting wealthy interests pretend that any tax increases would ruin our economy, while simultaneously painting any social program as communism.

A choice does not have to be made between having a competitive economy, an environmentally sustainable economy, and a fair economy that promotes equality of opportunity–that is a false trichotomy. We can have all of those things with the right mix of public policy, hard work, and American ingenuity.


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Bipartisanship and the 2018 Midterm Elections

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Ode to John McCain

I did not always agree with the late Senator John McCain on public policy, the most recent defense spending bill bearing his name being a case in point.

His integrity, however, should never be questioned. His willingness during his 2008 Presidential campaign to stand up to constituents who disrespected his opponent Barack Obama, despite the political ramifications, are prime examples of this integrity. How he bucked his party on certain important issues, such as the disastrous Obamacare “skinny repeal” vote, is further proof of his strength of character.

As a soldier and later as a legislator, John McCain was an American hero in every sense of the word. With the country as politically divided as it has been in decades, and our Congress seemingly populated with spineless representatives, we need him now more than ever. He is sorely missed.

From Partisan Differences to Demonization

Ideally, bipartisanship would be a quality which helped a candidate get elected. Unfortunately America is far from, and has perhaps never been further from, this ideal.

America was founded on compromise between the Federalists and Anti-Federalist. Historically, some of our strongest pieces of legislation have resulted from bipartisan compromise. Today it seems like politicians will tow the party line regardless of a policy’s real-world implications, leaving any negative impacts to their party’s spin-doctors (or, due to the time delay it takes for the full impact of many policies to be felt, to future legislators).

Politicians have always cared about getting re-elected, but the type of behavior that voters reward seems to have changed. What was once a quest to push the frontier of American progress has been replaced with a cynical, no-holds barred attempt to secure governing super-majorities that can ram legislation through without any support from the other side. The other side then uses said legislation as campaign fodder, hoping to increase voter turnout and overturn it.

This results in a never ending loop of legislative gridlock in which the average American–regardless of political affiliation–loses. No wonder Americans don’t trust their government and are so politically divided!

This us-versus-them style of governance is reminiscent of sectarianism in newer, fragile democracies (like Iraq or Kenya)–it should not be a feature of American democracy. Policy differences have always existed, but the fight has seemingly gotten dirtier since Trump took office. Even more disturbing is that this increasing partisan divide is being driven by the President himself.

Trump recently called his Secretary of Defense “sort of a Democrat”. While this is far from true, it is also ridiculous that this is even a dig at all–as if being a Democrat is some sort of inherently bad thing. It is this sort of rhetoric that leads Democratic and Republican voters to talk past one another, instead of to one another, precluding the hard work of finding common ground.

Trump also recently said Democrats are “an angry, left-wing mob…they would turn our country so fast into Venezuela, and Venezuela’s not doing too well, folks.”

Look, it was not right when Hillary called Trump supporters “deplorables” during the 2016 Presidential campaign, and it is not right for Trump to call Democrats “an angry mob” now. When we look at the country’s partisan divide, we have to acknowledge the role that the leaders of our political parties play–when they act like children, there is a trickle down effect to the behavior of the average voter.

Lord of the Lies

It is not just morally “wrong” for Trump to say Democrats would “turn our country into Venezuela”, it is inaccurate and hypocritical. The major economic issues facing Venezuela are massive government debt and resulting hyperinflation. Trump’s tax plan will increase the U.S. debt load by $1.5 trillion dollars over the next decade, and he has been critical of the Feds efforts to combat inflation by raising interest rates. I would not go so far as to say that Trump’s policies will turn us into Venezuela, because it would take decades of economic mismanagement to “turn America into Venezuela”. But if either party’s policies are putting us on the path to “becoming Venezuela”, it is the G.O.P’s, not the Democrats.

Trump is taking advantage of the fact that many people want simple answers to complex problems. Responsible leaders admit there are no simple answers, whereas Trump makes up simple answers that will not solve the problems and in many cases exacerbates them. Anyone who tries to point out the shortcomings of his plans are dismissed as liars or out-of-touch experts, trying to bamboozle the common man.

These falsehoods are part of a larger concerted effort by President Trump to blur the line between fact and fiction; when everything is in question, people can make up their own reality. How often have you heard Trump say something to the effect of “maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, who knows?”–on a regular basis if you’ve been paying attention (twice in his most recent “60 Minutes” interview alone).

We’ve all heard of “fake news”, but don’t forget about “alternate facts“, “alternative data“, the “witch hunt” (Mueller investigation), and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories promoted by the President to cast doubt on the outcomes of the 2018 midterm elections.

If some people do not like “politically correct” politicians or “experts” that’s one thing-I don’t agree, but I get it. This does not mean we needed to elect someone who purposefully tells lies and sows confusion and discord as their primary means of governing–there is a huge middle ground here America.

Trump The False Populist

You can blame social media, poor leadership, or whatever other factor of varying importance you want, but where we are as a country ultimately points to a failure of the American people to elect the right type of representatives. If this is a tough pill to swallow then good, it should be; it is meant to prompt introspection and personal accountability. People of all political stripes are complicit in this collective failure, and it will take a change in thinking across the board to correct it.

I do not have the answers to these problems, except to try to educate and lead by example; I think that is all anyone without a celebrity-sized platform can do, so I carry on. Maybe I should just run for office…

Speaking of running for office, remember that Trump campaigned and was elected as a “populist“. While it was pretty clear to anyone who knew anything about his pre-Presidential endeavors that this was not the case, I wanted to give Trump the benefit of the doubt–after all, if he did well it would be good for the country!

Instead, Trump decided to pursue an agenda based on division, class and racial warfare, shortsighted “America First” foreign policy, blindly slashing regulations regardless of whether they were useful or not, and generally undoing all of President Obama’s achievements. To date, Democrats in Congress have had little success defending what I identified as the party’s red-line issues.

Even more tellingly, none of the many potential areas of compromise I identified after the Presidential election have been pursued. These would have been low-hanging fruits for Trump to pick, restoring the public’s faith in the government’s ability to address the issues facing the average American and healing the partisan divide, but he elected to go a different route.

Let this list of unpursued policies (headlined by the lack of an infrastructure plan or apprenticeship bill) stand as a testimony of Trump’s choice not to govern for all Americans.

Update (10/24/18): Things have gone from dirty to downright dangerous in the days leading up to the 2018 midterms. Apparently people have sent pipe bombs to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and CNN offices.

Maybe having a GOP leader that promotes and applauds violence has somehow actually incited violence! Who would’ve thunk it?!


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“Stealing Elections” and Stealing Elections

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The Supreme Court of the United States, with “Equal Justice Under Law” etched into the front.

“The [Wednesday, September 5th] House hearing [with Twitter and Facebook Executives] was interrupted by Laura Loomer, a conspiracy theorist who has been banned from major social media sites. She shouted that Dorsey was lying, accusing him of banning conservatives and saying Twitter was going to help Democrats “steal” the November elections.” [Quoted article]

While it is easy to dismiss conspiracy theorists, I do not think these are the just the ravings of a madwoman. I think a lot of ardent Trump supporters buy into the idea, promoted by the President himself, that should the GOP lose Congressional majorities in the midterm elections, that those seats would have been “stolen” by some wide ranging conspiracy encompassing traditional media, social media, and China.

In an attempt to debunk and educate, lets explore the difference between “stealing elections”, and really stealing elections by devaluing people’s votes.

“Stealing Elections”

The idea that there is some conspiracy to “steal elections” is utter nonsense which only serves to widen the country’s already massive partisan divide. This is not just my opinion–only 13 of the 24 states’  attorneys generals invited to the Justice Department’s meeting on “social media bias” even bothered to attend. Furthermore, the meeting ended up focusing on privacy concerns on social media, not political bias; when the adults get together they speak about the real issues, not baseless allegations.

Allegations like these are part of the Trumpian playbook; get out there early and cry foul, so if an outcome you don’t like comes to pass, you can say “see, I told you it was rigged”. Trump did this throughout his campaign, and it has continued into his Presidency.

This is a sad, if unsurprising, abdication of accountability by Trump. It is a childish excuse, commonly employed by those who are unable to accept loss in a dignified manner. You would not (or should not) accept such excuses from your friends on trivial matters, so why would you from elected officials on much more consequential ones?

Yes, Twitter made a mistake with its algorithm. Yes, this mistake caused certain profiles to become less accessible by failing to auto-suggest them when a user began a search (they were still returned in search results). Twitter has owned up to this mistake and fixed it. To err is human; when mistakes inevitably do occur, the best course of action is to admit to and rectify them, as Twitter has done.

It should be noted that this was a relatively benign mistake that occurred well before the election cycle got into full swing (July, elections in November); it is not something that will impact the outcome of any of the midterm elections.

A broader issue, however, is at play here–the delicate balance between free speech, protecting public safety (censoring extremist content and hate speech), and ensuring our democratic process plays out fairly (limiting false information on political issues / candidates, including foreign interference).

There is no rule book for finding the “right balance”, as a nation we are learning as we go. Having said that, false political information is an actual threat to the integrity of our elections (as opposed to baseless accusations of bias). If anything social media companies should probably be erring on the side of too much restriction of potentially false information, not too little. Note that false information (or “fake news”, if you must) does not include opinion pieces that present themselves as such, like Normative Narratives, but rather false information being presented as fact.

Trying to find the proper limits on free speech is not a new problem, social media is just the latest (and probably most complex) iteration of this ongoing debate. Public safety has always had to be balanced against freedom of speech (“clear and present danger”, you can’t yell “FIRE” in a crowded movie theater)–it is baked into the First Amendment itself.

Technological improvements often outpace our elected officials ability to regulate them. This problem is especially prevalent in today’s hyperpartisan political environment, with its resulting legislative gridlock. Taken together, all this means it could take several imperfect attempts in either direction–to much censorship or too little–before we reach that elusive “proper balance”.

The reality that it is a long road to reaching this “proper balance” is a feature of democratic governance that we must accept. What we should not accept is the deliberate marginalization of voters that results from political and racial gerrymandering.

[Really] Stealing Elections–“Gerrymandering”

The original “gerrymander” in early 19th-century Massachusetts.

“[Gerrymandering] in U.S. politics, [is] drawing the boundaries of electoral districts in a way that gives one party an unfair advantage over its rivals.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional, but has not yet ruled on partisan gerrymandering. Several states, however, have ruled that partisan gerrymandering is also unconstitutional, which should (eventually) force the Supreme Court to come to a definitive ruling at the national level.

Unfortunately, even when a state’s ruling is affirmed by a Federal court, the end result does not always restore justice. Recent events in North Carolina are a case in point:

A U.S. court panel has ruled there is not enough time to recast North Carolina’s congressional maps ahead of the November elections even though it found the Republican-constructed lines were illegally drawn for partisan purposes.

“North Carolina will have to suffer again under yet another unconstitutional Republican law that silences voters, divides our state, and undermines our democracy,” Wayne Goodwin, the state’s Democratic Party chairman, said in a statement. The party was a plaintiff in the suit.

Republicans in 2016 won 10 of the 13 House districts – 77 percent – despite getting just 53 percent of the statewide vote, nearly the same result as in 2014.

The North Carolina dispute centered on a congressional redistricting plan adopted by the Republican-led legislature in 2016 after a court found that Republican lawmakers improperly used race as a factor when redrawing certain U.S. House districts after the 2010 census.

The Republican lawmaker [Rep. David Lewis, a Republican member of the North Carolina General Assembly] in charge of the plan said it was crafted to maintain Republican dominance because “electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.”

First of all, when it comes to the democratic process, there is no “better” party. Policy differences of course exist, but these are secondary to making sure the democratic process plays out as fairly and transparently as possible; any “patriot” that puts party ahead of democracy needs to take a long look in the mirror. Now back to the issue at hand–gerrymandering.

In the past decade, North Carolina lawmakers have been found to have illegally drawn voting districts based on both racial and political considerations (in fact they directly and unapologetically replaced their racially unconstitutional map with a politically unconstitutional one). It is hard to argue that there were not some truly stolen elections in North Carolina. Unfortunately this problem is not limited to North Carolina (or the Republican party–Democrats do it too).

Which party gerrymandering benefits more really just depends on who the majority is when it comes time to redraw a state’s voting district lines (“redistricting”). It is worth noting that because of demographic trends (liberals tend to live in more concentrated cities), gerrymandering has more potential benefit to the GOP.

The larger issue is not which party gerrymandering benefits more, but rather that it should not be a tool to benefit either party. Hopefully changes to the redistricting process (or possibly even more significant changes to how we elect our representatives), in addition to a more definitive U.S. Supreme Court ruling, can eradicate this plague on our democracy. It is, however, certainly an uphill battle.

When the Democratic Process Plays Out Fairly, the Means Justify the Ends

When the democratic process plays out fairly and transparently–two qualifications many elections, including the 2016 Presidential election, do not meet–the means justify the ends. Elections do have consequences, but they should never be predetermined, or even allowed to be titled to one sides favor.

All that should matter is the principle of one-person, one-vote. Now the Electoral College purposefully distorts this principle in Presidential elections, but that is another topic for another day. Regardless of your opinion on its current merits, the Electoral College was created intentionally as one of the compromises that birthed our great nation; it is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution until an amendment is passed that says otherwise.

Gerrymandering, on the other hand, is a bastardization of America’s democratic process. It is not a stretch to say that our Founding Fathers did not intend for gerrymandering to be a feature of our democratic process. This problem has only become more acute as software is developed to help lawmakers more effectively “pack” and “crack” districts. As with the issue of free speech on social media, technological improvements in gerrymandering have outpaced our government’s ability to regulate it.

By continuously punting on the issue of partisan gerrymandering, the U.S. Supreme Court has been negligent in upholding the words carved into its facade–“Equal Justice Under the Law”.


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Military Spending and “Moral Hazard”

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The ONE thing I have always agreed with President Trump about is that our NATO allies need to spend more on defense. But while Trump has certainly talked this talk, his actions have actually had the opposite effect by reinforcing a “moral hazard”.

You may be thinking, what is a moral hazard? It is “a situation in which one party gets involved in a risky event knowing that it is protected against the risk and the other party will incur the cost.”

In the case of the U.S. and our NATO allies, the “risky event” is NATO countries underinvesting in defense spending. Our allies are able to do this because they know they are protected by the U.S., who is the other party that will “incur the cost” through our massive defense budget.

I invoke this argument because the GOP often uses moral hazard as a justification when it proposes slashing spending on safety net programs (particularly healthcare programs). While I will not wade into that argument, hopefully framing my argument this way will resonate with some people who otherwise would not agree with my prescription for getting our allies to spend more on defense–by reducing (or at very least not increasing) our own defense spending. 

If anything, defense spending is better positioned for a moral hazard argument than safety net programs are. Moral hazard implies a choice is being made by a rational party based on cost, benefit, and risk. So what happens with the same choices when a person or country’s income rises? Wealthy people typically do not forgo health insurance, but wealthy nations sometimes do forgo adequate military spending, which is the crux of this whole issue. All this is not to say that a moral hazard does exist for military spending but not for safety net programs–I leave the reader to draw their own conclusions on that. The point of this little digression, rather, is to say that if you believe a moral hazard exists for safety net programs, it is hard to argue that one does not also exist for defense spending.

Regardless of your beliefs, this is not the first time that differentials in defense spending between the U.S. and our allies have been identified as a moral hazard. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a similar claim, as highlighted in an Op-Ed written about his final speech to NATO in 2011:

“Gates’s frustration was no doubt sparked by the realization that his department has become the victim of moral hazard. The United States provides a free security guarantee to Europe. Europeans, meanwhile, have responded in an economically rational way by taking greater risk with their external defense. With the collapse of the Soviet Union removing the last plausible military threat, it was logical for European policymakers to avoid spending on expensive space, communications, and intelligence systems that the United States was largely providing for free. 

Gates concluded his speech by warning Europe’s leaders that the next generation of U.S. leaders lacks nostalgia for the Cold War struggle and could walk away from the NATO alliance. In the future, Europe will undoubtedly have to do more for its external defense. That doesn’t seem like a problem now [2011] since there is no apparent external threat. But should they have to more fully insure themselves, European defense planners should consider how they would rebuild their defenses. They should consider how much time it would take to mobilize political and budgetary authority to prepare for these threats and how long it would take to rebuild the required military forces.”

Since that speech [June 2011] many of the external threats to our NATO allies, which Gates noted were then not present, have since emerged. Absent adequate European military capabilities to deter and/or respond to a threat, the Syrian Civil War metastasized from a seemingly containable conflict to the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII. Refugees from the war and other regional conflicts have shaken the E.U. to its foundations, leading to Brexit and increasing Euroscepticism across the continent. More directly, a European (albeit non NATO) country, Ukraine, was invaded and had territory annexed by Russia.

It is, therefore, past time that European countries started taking greater ownership of their collective military capabilities. As Gates correctly noted, mobilizing sufficient public support–a necessary initial step for policy change in democracies–takes time and political ability. Recognizing this fact, it seems that European politicians are far behind where they should be in terms of reconciling their respective electorates with this reality.

Even that U.S. leader who “lacks nostalgia for the Cold War struggle and could walk away from the NATO alliance” is now in power in President Trump. While Presidents Obama and Bush also pressured NATO countries to spend more on defense, they did so more diplomatically. Perhaps surprisingly, I do not think that was necessarily the right approach when it comes to the issue at hand; sometimes difficult things just have to be said candidly, and proper incentives provided, to get a desired outcome (especially when large sums of money are involved, and speaking diplomatically has continuously failed to produce the desired outcome).

I’m sure Donny would tell you, in his usual egomaniacal hyperbole, that “no one has been tougher on NATO spending than me”. While Trump’s words have been the toughest, just like his predecessors his policies are reinforcing this longstanding moral hazard. To see how, just follow the money; the U.S. continues to increase its defense spending (over $100 billion increase since Trump took office, up to $716 billion dollars in fiscal year 2019), sending the message that we will keep making up for the rest of NATOs shortfall–after all, actions speak louder than words.

In order to end this moral hazard, Trump has to not put taxpayer money where his mouth is by not increasing defense spending. Of course the military-industrial complex (and his bases’ blind support for military spending) won’t allow him to do that, regardless of what moral hazard or–much more importantly–the other needs of our nation demand. 

If we continue on this course we will ultimately be left with more military spending both now and in the future, as we decrease pressure on our NATO allies to build up their military capabilities.