Normative Narratives


Leave a comment

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 and Senators 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 (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.


Leave a comment

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 (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.


Leave a comment

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

Image result for social democracy america

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.


Leave a comment

Bipartisanship and the 2018 Midterm Elections

Image result for john mccain

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?!


1 Comment

“Stealing Elections” and Stealing Elections

Image result for supreme court us

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”.


1 Comment

Military Spending and “Moral Hazard”

Image result for defense spending cartoon

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. 


1 Comment

Labor, Education, and Apprenticeships

Image result for apprenticeship

Long time no see folks. It’s well past time to shed that post-policy depression (tax code) and get back to it. In doing so let’s consider a topic I have discussed often, one that should have bipartisan and Trump administration support, but has unfortunately yet to get its due–apprenticeships.

The Trump administration just concluded it’s “Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion” in May. Here are some key recommendations from the final report:

  • “The Subcommittee on Attracting Business to Apprenticeship recommended that the Industry Recognized Apprenticeship program should streamline and simplify program funding through various methods, such as updating Federal funding criteria, streamlining State grant access, and exploring sector-led financial options.” (p 10)
  • “According to recent research by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), there are more than 40 workforce development programs across nine Federal agencies. Data shows that these programs were funded with more than $42 billion, although less than half that amount ($17 billion) went to employment and training activities. Based on this data, there is a clear need to streamline and simplify programs by developing an organized approach that recognizes and preferentially funds apprenticeship.” (p 27,28)

Who can argue against greater efficiency? Nobody. However these efficiency increasing measures were already implemented, according to the Government Accountability Office (the very entity the Task Force cited regarding inefficiency in the first place)–that low hanging fruit has already been picked.

The Trump administration wants the private sector to share in the cost of scaling-up apprenticeship programs–another sentiment that is difficult to argue with. The problem is that it has not offered any incentive for the private sector to do so. Private companies are currently bringing in record profits while under-investing in apprenticeships; why would these companies change their behavior now, when times are good, without a new incentive to do so? Instead of increasing spending or leveraging the recent corporate tax giveaway to provide such an incentive, the Task Force cites measures to increase efficiency that have already been implemented.

The private sector needs to play a role in developing the curricula for apprenticeship programs, but can we stop pretending it will provide meaningful financing for them? Maybe if we cut corporate taxes even further they would, right!? If only we could’ve done away with that pesky corporate income tax completely, surely they would have (well, there is no more corporate alternative minimum tax now)…OK, clearly I’m still salty about tax reform…

It is time to admit that private businesses have largely abandoned the apprenticeship model. Sure there will always be anecdotes about successful training programs, particularly from large corporations that can afford to attract top talent. Unfortunately nothing currently exists on the scale required to meet the needs of the average American worker or business.

The results are obvious: underemployment, stagnant wages (a modest uptick in wage growth recently does not make up for decades of stagnancy), and ballooning tuition rates / student loan debt as everyone feels they must go to college to make a decent living. If the Trump administration’s answers to these societal problems are reaching some unattainable level of efficiency and expecting the private sector to suddenly become more altruistic, nothing will change from today’s unacceptable status-quo. If, on the other hand, apprenticeships were adequately invested in, they could provide an affordable alternative to the four-year college path, and revive America’s dwindling middle class.

The Trump administration just proposed merging the Labor and Education Departments. In talking about it, a friend asked me if I thought the proposal was a good idea. My answer was that it could be a good idea, but under this administration it would not be. If, for example, the merger really reduced redundancies and opened up more resources for programs like apprenticeships, that would be a positive trade-off in my opinion (again, greater efficiency is hard to argue against, in theory).

But lets be realistic, that is not the point of the Trump proposal. Look at Trump’s big Apprenticeship Task Force, which would fall squarely within the proposed agency’s mandate. Where’s the beef? SHOW ME THE MONEY! It’s simply not there…

As a nation we invest in what is important to us. No amount of free-market rhetoric, appeals to “greater efficiency”, or other forms of lip-service are going to shrink Americans’ skills gap or “make America great again”. Only investing adequately in our greatest asset–the American people–can accomplish that feat.

(Note: When considering what we do spend tax dollars on, don’t forget that the recent spending bill appropriated $61 billion MORE for defense spending–$655 billion total, compared to $42 billion for workforce development programs. Also, don’t forget that the recently passed tax code will reduce tax revenue by over $1 trillion dollars over the next decade)

 


3 Comments

Starved of New Ideas, the GOP Goes Back to “Starve The Beast”

“Starve the Beast”

The GOPs tax plan was the first part of a two-tiered approach to reduce the size of the government–it was never supposed to “pay for itself“. In order to keep the deficit from growing after cutting taxes, spending cuts–with “welfare” the common whipping boy–are necessary, or so the thinking goes. This method of governance, developed by the Republicans in the late 70s and 80s, is known as “starve the beast“.

History tells us that “starve the beast” does not work–it is a tried and failed policy. It turns out that when you get down to the actual programs involved, “welfare” is quite popular; it aligns with America’s collective moral compass, helps promote the “American Dream” (social mobility), and stimulates short-term economic growth. While there are reforms that could improve our welfare system, doing so responsibly requires complementary policies (more on this later).

There are again signs that the GOP will fail to fully implement its “starve the beast” agenda. The tax code is already the law of the land, yet the GOP does not seem to have the political will to tackle welfare reform. Far from starving the beast, Congress has just agreed on a budget deal that will increase spending by $300 billion dollars over the next two years.

I’m sure the GOP will come back to entitlement reform and overall government downsizing after the 2018 midterm elections. At this point the GOP will no longer have to worry about immediate electoral backslash from enacting unpopular welfare reforms, and probably believes the link between their tax cuts and the fiscal need to enact such reforms will have been severed in the average voters mind. But even when the political will to “starve the beast” resurfaces, I doubt the GOP will have sufficient Congressional support to actually implement the plan. Whether they have sufficient support will largely depend on the outcome of the 2018 elections–after all, “elections have consequences”.

Make no mistake, the likelihood that “starve the beast” will again fail is a good thing. The real crime is that the GOP passed a huge tax cut knowing it would not pay for itself, while also knowing that it would not be able to “starve the beast”. The results are ballooning deficits and insufficient resources to address America’s many needs. Sure, budgets may pass with small increases to existing programs, but new programs will not even be considered in this climate of huge (and increasing) national debt, rising interest rates on said debt, and much lower tax receipts.

Perhaps this is the true purpose of “starve the beast”–to restrict our country’s collective “policy imagination” (i.e. “fiscal space“). Instead of thinking about how to make America better, we will be stuck with the status-quo that people across the political spectrum are unhappy with (only now with even more inequality and debt).

Common Sense Welfare Reform

As mentioned before, there are some worthwhile welfare reforms to consider. Let’s look at a few of them, as well as the complementary policies needed to ensure they actually promote desirable results and don’t just place undue burden on America’s most vulnerable people.

SNAP

Let’s promote a healthy diet and save on our country’s medical spending! Why not go one step further and promote local produce wherever possible. Such a plan would benefit smaller farmers and local economies, promote greater public health, and reduce emissions from shipping food around the world.

Drug Testing for Welfare

I am not completely against drug testing people on welfare programs, or other oversight measures, but let’s be clear–such measures would require more spending to implement. It is entirely possible that the nation would spend more money on enforcement than it would save in rooting out welfare fraud–this has largely been the experience when states have experimented with such programs.

But money isn’t everything; in a democracy public support is the lifeblood of any policy, and clearly many people do not approve of our current welfare system. Surely even the most progressive person can see there is some benefit to addressing the concerns of a large portion of the electorate regarding our current welfare system. Addressing these concerns should ultimately increase public support for welfare programs.

The costs and benefits (monetary and otherwise) of various oversight measures are something we should study, so the American people can make an informed decision about whether such policies are truly worth pursuing.

Responsibly Reforming Welfare Programs

How else can we responsibly reform our welfare system, reduce disincentives to work, and promote gainful employment?

First of all, programs that benefit children, the non-wealthy elderly, persons with disabilities (including serious mental illnesses), and other vulnerable groups do not need more requirements–society’s most vulnerable do not need more hoops to jump through. Admittedly, just coming to an agreement on who should be considered ”able-bodied” is a difficult task itself.

But certain recipients, like healthy, prime working age people, can be reasonably expected to meet certain socially beneficial criteria in exchange for welfare benefits. One such example is a new “community engagement” requirement for Medicaid in Kentucky. Progressives may not like this plan, but as long as sufficient waivers exist for vulnerable groups, why should someone in the prime of their life not be working, looking for work, volunteering, and/or in a job training program for 80 hours a month? Such a change should lead to improved employability and mental health outcomes. This is a completely reasonable requirement, and the type of idea that responsible, bipartisan welfare reform can be built upon—leveraging welfare benefits to drive positive recipient behavior.

Aside from reforming welfare programs, other complementary programs targeting the labor market could help reduce reliance on government assistance. Higher minimum wages would reduce government spending on welfare programs, as we currently subsidize companies that do not pay a living wage. An expanded earned income tax credit (EITC) could help reduce disincentives to work by smoothing high marginal tax rates for people coming off welfare programs. We also need more job training and apprenticeship programs; we can’t just say there are job training requirements for welfare eligibility, but then not make these programs available! Just like with welfare oversight measures, expanding the EITC and sufficiently scaling up job training programs would both require significant government resources.

Simply put, there are upfront costs to responsibly reforming our welfare system. Unilaterally cutting welfare programs and hoping for the best will not work; any savings would ultimately be lost due to increased spending on the criminal justice system and decreased long term economic growth, as even more Americans would fail to reach their full economic potential.

Ideally, reducing the size of the “welfare state” would be an organic process by which we invest enough in our people, particularly early in life, to promote equality of opportunity. The complementary policies outlined above can help at the margins, but the real heavy lifting involves addressing the root developmental causes of poverty (early childhood development, housing, healthcare, education, etc.).

Progress Frozen in Time

This brings me to the main reason why the new tax plan is so regressive in the first place. It is not because it will be bad for the average American consumer or economic growth in the short-run; if anything, it should have positive short-term impacts in those regards. Those are, however, poor criteria for assessing the merits of a tax plan that will likely be in place for a long time and is directly related to our ability to fund programs that drive long term growth and social progress. In other words, what did we give up in exchange for these tax cuts?

Due to lower tax revenue, it will be very difficult to fund the aforementioned complementary programs needed to responsibly reform our welfare system, much less the more costly investments needed to promote equality of opportunity and drive long term economic growth (infrastructure, R&D, healthcare, education, job training and early childhood development).

On the topic of infrastructure, Trump’s “trillion dollar infrastructure plan” (now $1.7 trillion, if you still believe a word he says), will reportedly only use $200 billion in federal funds. The idea that $200 billion can leverage that much funding in mostly state and local tax money (as well as some private investment)–the crux of Trump’s plan–was a dubious claim when he made it while campaigning. With the caps on SALT deductions in the new tax code, and the resulting strain on state and local budgets, it can’t even be called wishful thinking–it is just a flat-out lie.

The results will be obvious in the type of infrastructure that ends up being built. Non-revenue producing infrastructure will fall almost completely to the wayside. There will not be enough funding for expanding broadband internet access and affordability in underserved areas, which would unlock better K-12 schooling and access to online job postings. In a sad irony, these underserved areas are mostly in “Trump country”.

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt has said combating lead poisoning is a top priority of his, but has offered no plan for how he will do it. Instead, he has undermined programs that protect children from lead based paint, and supported an overall downsizing of the EPA. In all likelihood there will not be enough funding for new water pipes to prevent people from getting lead poisoning, which stunts cognitive development in children. Stunted development compromises the future earning potential of those affected, increasing reliance on welfare programs–talk about being short-sighted.

Our country likely needed more tax revenue, not less, to promote equality of opportunity, meritocracy and social mobility–to make America fair again. People–albeit the minority of the electorate–elected Trump as a populist because they felt like they were being left behind. Trump has betrayed his base with his policies, whether they realize it yet or not.

The Same Old Blame Game

Absent the resources to actually address the needs of the average American, you will instead hear the GOP repeat its same old tired lines. Lets consider some of these talking points:

People are lazy

Well sure some are, but no more-so than they used to be…

It is true that labor force participation rates are down overall from highs in the 1990s, but this is less true among prime working-age people; the majority of labor force participation decline is due to an aging population.

Furthermore, many people collecting government assistance already work. As stated before, increasing the minimum wage and expanding the EITC would help promote gainful employment.

Traditional marriages / family structures / “values” are breaking down

This is really a societal shift, and in some ways is a natural consequence of a freer society. For example, a wife who is being beaten can more easily leave her husband now than she could decades ago.

This phenomenon is at the cross-section of many deeply personal, multifaceted, and interrelated choices people make (to get married or not, to have kids or not, to get divorced or not). As such, there is really very little the government can do to steer society back towards more traditional family structures. The common conservative call to block access to family planning services, contraception, and abortion, however, will only exacerbate these issues (and yes, likely lead to increased future welfare spending).

We Can Rely on the Private Sector to Fix Everything

Guess what, the private sector won’t just deliver on infrastructure, but job training too! Trickle-down economics! That sure sounds nice, too bad it has never actually worked out that way.

I listened to an event kicking off “National Apprenticeship Week” at the Department of Labor, and not once was government funding or a public-private partnership (PPP) mentioned. It was all about what the private sector can do; well guess what, the aren’t doing it! Absent some change in incentives, there is little reason to think that the private sector will all of a sudden start to prioritize job training programs. What America needs is drastically scaled-up apprenticeship programs developed and financed by community colleges, universities, and industry leaders.

Instead, “Jobs President” Trump has proposed cutting the DOL budget by 21% (from $12.1 billion to $9.6 billion), and the Department of Education budget by 13.5% (from $69.4 billion to $60 billion). Such a plan effectively rules out more funding for apprenticeships, as these would be the departments to administer such programs.

At the same time, the GOP will increase military spending by $82 billion, to $716 billion, by 2019. Imagine the impact that type of additional funding would have on our drastically underfunded job training programs and community colleges.

Hail the Almighty Job Creators! 

We need to stop treating companies as if they are doing some sort of public service by hiring people. Companies create jobs to maximize profits. Publicly traded companies operate to maximize stock prices. Private companies are not doing a public service by being in business.

A company’s social contributions are the taxes they pay. We should not be subsidizing jobs through direct subsidies to companies and unlivable minimum wages that drive people to welfare programs. We should not have reduced the tax burden of the wealthiest Americans in the hope that some scraps will trickle down to the average person. Absent such policies the American economy would still work, just with less extreme inequality.

Until there is a clear understanding on this across the political spectrum, the greedy will continue to use scare tactics to hold enough of the electorate hostage to perpetuate their position of power. We need politicians that will stand up to these people and call their bluffs, not politicians who will sell the American public out to the highest bidder.

Concluding Thoughts

Investing in human development takes time to manifest itself in positive outcomes, just as it takes time for a child to grow up. Therefore a responsible, holistic approach to welfare reform means there will be an overlap period where we will be paying more for both welfare reform and human development initiatives (which in some cases, like CHIP, are one in the same).

If, as a country, we are OK with $1 trillion more in debt (what Trump’s tax plan will cost us), this is the way to spend it—not another war or military buildup, not another trickle-down Hail Mary, but a real plan to promote economic opportunity and responsibly reform our welfare system. This new “Great Society”, with the benefit of 50+ years of lessons learned, could build upon the successes and avoid the shortcomings of the original, and ultimately make America greater than it ever has been.

Instead we are stuck with half a “starve the beast” strategy. This means more debt while cementing in place the status-quo that has failed too many Americans for too long. Thanks, GOP!


Leave a comment

The First Casualty of “America First”: The Kurds

A member of Iraqi federal forces holds the Kurdish flag upside down in Kirkuk, Iraq on October 16, 2017.REUTERS/Stringer

Remember when the fate of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was uncertain, the country mired in a horrific Civil War with no end in sight while the IS was rapidly gaining ground? Remember when Iraqi forces fled IS advances, abandoning Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city? You should remember both, they were only a few years ago…

You should also remember how, in both cases, the Kurds proved themselves to be capable, brave fighters. They were and continue to be a stable faction in a volatile region–native boots on the ground that the U.S. can rely on. But facts on the ground can change quickly, especially when external powers intervene decisively in a conflict.

Seemingly a victory, a referendum for Kurdish independence quickly soured when the Iraqi military retook the Kirkuik oil field (backed by Iranian proxies). Yes, the same Iraqi military that melted away in the face of IS fighters and needed the Kurds to help clean up their mess, turned their guns on the Kurds for exercising self-determination.

In Syria, Russia and Iran helped Assad turn the tide of the Civil War decisively in his favor. Now that he appears to be firmly in power, Assad has set his sights on retaking Syria’s Kurdish regions.

In addition to being capable fighters, the Kurds have a penchant for democratic governance and women’s rights. In terms of a Middle Eastern partner, they are a dream match for the U.S.. We always lament the fact that we do have not enough true, democratic allies in the region, but I fear we are now abandoning one because supporting them doesn’t fits into Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.

In Iraq, we stood by as the Iraqi military and Iranian militias ripped away the would-be heart of any future Kurdish state. But the U.S. has invested a ton of resources into maintaining a unified Iraq; while I cannot agree with America’s inaction here, it is somewhat understandable.

What about in Syria, where this is not the case? Here too we are failing to protect our ally. In order to appease Turkish President Erdogan, President Trump has said he will stop arming the Kurds.

This is the problem with Trump’s “America First” foreign policy–it is inherently short-sighted. Is it in America’s short term interests to defend the Kurds now? Probably not–we used em’ and now we could lose em’. Turkey is stronger than the Kurds; it is easier to give in to our more powerful “ally’s” wishes here regardless what is “right”, even as President Erdogan continues to turn Turkey into an authoritarian, non-secular country.

Turkey does have some legitimate concerns about its territorial integrity when it comes to Kurdish statehood. Despite the erosion of Turkish democracy, Turkey is far from a “failed state” (as Iraq was and Syria still is), making the case for appropriating Turkish land for a Kurdish state much weaker. Mechanisms could be set up to protect Turkish sovereignty and borders alongside the introduction of a Kurdish state, which I have outlined in a previous blog post.

More pointedly, if Turkey didn’t want the Kurds to have a much stronger claim to their own state, it should have acted more decisively in the Syrian Civil War and in the fight against the IS. Instead Turkey, like the rest of the global and regional powers, let the Kurds do the heavy lifting. Now, understandably, the Kurds want their just deserts.

Would continuing to decisively back the Kurds upset some powerful players? Yes. What meaningful change does not? What happened to Trump’s supposed bravado? Risk aversion will only reaffirm to the status-quo in the Middle East–picking the least bad autocrats to be our allies, while the region remains mired in conflict and stalled development. Building true democratic allies in the Middle East will not be quick or easy, but it is important work nonetheless.

Now to be fair, in international affairs long-term goals need to be weighed against short-term security concerns, and shortsightedness is not exclusive to the Trump administration. Obama did not do enough to protect a budding democracy in Egypt, and was too risk averse in Syria, allowing Russia to eventually come in and dictate the result of the conflict. There is, however, a sense that the Trump administration will not even really weigh these options when making tough decisions. After all, Trump has shown at best a lukewarm appreciation for democratic institutions at home (attacks on the judiciary and independent media) and has praised authoritarian leaders abroad. It is, therefore, no stretch of the imagination to think that he will, by default, opt for the easy solution without even considering the long-term benefits of promoting democratic governance.

In this case, even considering the potential negatives, abandoning the Kurds would be one of America’s most short-sighted decisions the Middle East since we sleepwalked into the Iraq War in the first place. Based on what we know about Trump and his “America First” foreign policy, it is not likely to be the last short-sighted decision either.

Update (1/27): I knew Trump wouldn’t do the right thing…The U.S. has agreed to stop arming the Syrian Kurds to appease Turkey’s Erdogan. Erdogan, sensing weakness in Trump’s resolve, is trying to further dictate terms to the U.S., demanding we remove all of our troops from Manbij.

It would be incredible to imagine the U.S. allowing another country to dictate where we keep our troops, particularly since Manbij is part of Syria, not Turkey. With that being said, nothing would surprise me anymore; all bets are off with the Trump administration.

Bottom line–Turkey and Erdogan have no right to tell us who we can ally with, and where to position our troops.