Normative Narratives


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Criminal Justice Deformed

In past blogs I wrote about the “Prison Paradox“–the idea that incarceration in America has gotten so out of control that it may actually increase crime by creating a poverty trap and perpetuating prison culture.

I wrote about the topic from the vantage point of an enlightened society that was seemingly moving in the right direction on the issue. While this is still the case at the state level, a recent Justice Department directive by Attorney General Jeff Session threatens to undo recent progress:

In an eight-paragraph memo, Mr. Sessions returned to the guidance of President George W. Bush’s administration by calling for more uniform punishments — including mandatory minimum sentences — and instructing prosecutors to pursue the harshest possible charges. Mr. Sessions’s policy is broader than that of the Bush administration, however, and how it is carried out will depend more heavily on the judgments of United States attorneys and assistant attorneys general as they bring charges.

The policy signaled a return to “enforcing the laws that Congress has passed,” Mr. Sessions said Friday at the Justice Department, characterizing his memo as unique for the leeway it afforded prosecutors.

“They deserve to be un-handcuffed and not micromanaged from Washington,” he said. “It means we are going to meet our responsibility to enforce the law with judgment and fairness.”

Mr. Sessions’s memo replaced the orders of former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who in 2013 took aim at drug sentencing rules. He encouraged prosecutors to consider the individual circumstances of a case and to exercise discretion in charging drug crimes. In cases of nonviolent defendants with insignificant criminal histories and no connections to criminal organizations, Mr. Holder instructed prosecutors to omit details about drug quantities from charging documents so as not to trigger automatically harsh penalties.

People of all races use drugs at roughly same rate, but minorities are disproportionately imprisoned for drug related offenses. Meanwhile, “White America” is currently experiencing the well documented “opioid epidemic”. Drug abuse, treatment, and incarceration should be issues that transcend racial barriers.

On the micro level, drug related criminal justice reform that prioritizes treatment over prison can keep families together. It can keep people in the labor force and in productive society, instead of exposing them to hardened criminals in prison (potentially turning minor offenders into career criminals). Even when prison doesn’t “harden” someone, difficulties finding employment can lead to recidivism (re-incarceration) among ex-cons.

On the macro level it saves money on incarceration and welfare programs. As the “War on Drugs” is no longer achieving its goal–reducing crime–what these funds are spent on is largely irrelevant. Liberals would probably like to see more social programs and public goods. Conservatives would probably like to see more defense spending or a reduction in government debt. This debate can be had once the savings are realized and the socially damaging policies are reversed.

Attorney General Session’s directive claims to give judges more freedom, but it does the opposite. All Holder’s directive did was allow judges to consider the facts of the case before delivering a sentence. It did not prevent them from doling out severe sentences when the situation dictated it. Session’s directive takes this freedom away from judges.

There is no significant public support for this stricter rule. 14 States Attorneys General have written a letter asking Sessions to rescind the rule. Rand Paul has reintroduced bipartisan legislation to ease mandatory minimum sentences, which would override the Session ruling. Unfortunately, based on the current political climate, I wouldn’t count on such legislation getting passed anytime soon.


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Save the EU, (So it Can Help) Save the World

Two Birds, One Stone

The first round of the French Presidential Election saw anti-EU Marine Le Pen advance to the second round runoff. Her defeat there is not the foregone conclusion many think it is–we have all seen this movie before.

Regardless of the outcome of the election or any future “Frexit” vote, European geography won’t change; Russia will still be an aggressor, and the Middle East will remain a volatile neighboring region. Countries on the European continent need a viable joint security plan. For countries that remain in the EU, a new economic plan is needed to stop these exit movements from gaining popular support.

Three interconnected problems seriously undermine the future of the EU–economic, security, and cultural. Economic contraction from the Great Recession / European Debt Crisis, met with austerity policies, has led to high unemployment and stretched social services. A weak military (partially caused by austerity but primarily the result of historic over-reliance on the US) has left Europe unable to act decisively on regional security issues, resulting in an influx of refugees. The arrival of refugees coincided with an increase in terrorist attacks and exacerbated economic insecurity, fueling strong anti-refugee sentiments across the continent. Given the long-term inability of mainstream politicians to remedy these problems, it is not surprising that once fringe populists offering simple solutions have emerged as a real threat to the future of the EU.

One would think the success of anti-EU movements would prompt a strong response from the block. Unfortunately, it seems like business as usual in Brussels. EU negotiators just demanded a huge 3.5% primary surplus of Greece for an indefinite period of time in exchange for bailout funds, even as it grapples with 23.5% unemployment (almost 50% for young people).

The solution to these interconnected problems, although not pretty, is clear–exempt defense and security spending increases from Greece’s budget surplus target. In general, exempt defense and security spending increases from EU budget rules. These rules are often disregarded anyways, but bailout countries like Greece do not have this flexibility. The result is the poorest countries are forced to accept the most growth-constricting policies.

For Euro countries, make cheap ECB funds available to finance such spending. Security provides a common benefit, so its only fair that the costs be reduced by the common strength of the European economy.

The old saying “war is a rich man’s game but a poor mans fight” is an unfortunate economic reality. US servicemen and women come primarily from lower income families, and this plan would appeal most to the poorest Europeans. But there are, however, benefits to both society and individuals to having stronger armies in the EU. A stronger force can act as a deterrent, discouraging bad actors from, well, acting badly. When preventative peacebuilding, diplomacy, and deterrence fail, a strong army can act decisively in a “just war”. The economic benefits realized by military families are real, and can contribute to economic growth and opportunity.

It is not my intention to glorify war, there are many downsides to it; using force should always be the last option, but for global powers it must be an option. I also want to be very clear, this is not a call for conscription. Those who do not wish to serve in their country’s armed or homeland security forces will of course be free to pursue other options.

Not Ideal, But a Chance to be Real

Ideally, fiscally conservative EU countries would just allow poorer countries to engage in stimulus spending attuned to their specific needs. But almost 10 years after the Great Recession, there is little reason to believe this is the case. In fact, Greece’s recent bailout terms are evidence to the contrary.

Ideally, EU defense and security spending would align with the risks facing its members. But despite terrorist attacks at home, Russian aggression at it’s doorstep, and regional instability in the neighboring Middle East, only marginal steps have been taken on this front.

Eventually “ideally” no longer works. Within the complex bureaucratic framework of the EU, pursuing the ideal has resulted in inaction, which has proven to be the worst course of action of them all. Everything is pointing towards inadequate defense and security spending by EU countries. Europe’s security blanket (the U.S.) is now taking a harder line on defense contributions. It is past time for EU leaders to act decisively before the block becomes irreversibly damaged.

As with any major program there are many specifics to be worked out. For instance, how to maximize the resources that go to “labor” (troops, homeland security forces, intelligence officials) as opposed to large “capital” items (aerial bombers and drones for example), without compromising the objective of improved military and security capabilities.

The proposed solution is a just starting point. But it is the starting point for an idea that can solve multiple problems, and should have support from a wide range of politicians–anti-austerity liberals, populists, and neoconservatives. It is also a relatively simple solution itself, so it should play well with blue-collar voters who are fed up with ineffective technocratic solutions.

I am not calling for a global military buildup. Increased military spending by the EU should be met with decreasing military spending in the US. As I have consistently said, Trump’s pressure on EU countries to increase defense spending has been a rare positive for his administration, but would be a wasted opportunity if coupled with the huge increase in defense spending in his proposed budget.

 


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Trump’s War on the Environment

Despite President Trump’s “pledge” to “promote clean air and clean water”, things are not looking good on the climate change front. By targeting key U.S. policies–the Clean Power Plan and vehicle emission standards–and international agreements–the Paris Climate Accord and the Green Climate Fund–Trump’s administration is threatening to undo recent progress made combating climate change.

Trump’s proposed budget would cut EPA funding by 31%. Scott Pruitt, the new EPA head, said he is unconvinced “that carbon dioxide from human activity is the main driver of climate change.” This is an old tobacco industry tactic, justifying inaction by saying that more research is needed–it is not, there is overwhelming scientific consensus on the subject.

Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said of investing in climate change mitigation, “we’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money”. Trump is also reconsidering the government’s use of the “social cost of carbon” metric, which takes into account the potential economic damage from carbon emissions that would result from proposed policies.

All things considered, it is not hyperbolic to say that the Trump administration is carrying out a multi-pronged “War on the Environment”

U.S Emissions–The Clean Power Plan and Vehicle Emission Standards:

Pie chart of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector in 2015. 29 percent is from electricity, 27 percent is from transportation, 21 percent is from industry, 12 percent is from commercial and residential, and 9 percent is from agriculture.

Greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are highly concentrated in the electricity, transportation, and industry sectors. These three sectors accounted for 77% of 2014 emissions according to the EPA.

While a national cap-and-trade policy or carbon tax would help reduce emissions across the board, partisan disagreement has prevented such a policy from being enacted. To get around this gridlock, the Obama administration targeted key sectors through existing legislation and executive action. Specifically, the Clean Power Plan (part of the Clean Air Act) addresses emissions in the electricity sector, while stricter vehicle emission standards address emissions in the transportation sector. These important new rules are now in the crosshairs of the Trump administration:

“The tailpipe pollution regulations were among Mr. Obama’s major initiatives to reduce global warming and were put forth jointly by the E.P.A. and the Transportation Department. They would have forced automakers to build passenger cars that achieve an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, compared with about 36 miles per gallon today.

Those regulations are locked into place for vehicle model years through 2021, and just before Mr. Trump took office, the E.P.A. put forth a final rule intended to cement them for vehicles built from 2022 through 2025. However, the E.P.A. did not jointly release its plan to do so with the Transportation Department, leaving a legal loophole for the Trump administration to take advantage of.

The E.P.A.’s Clean Power Plan regulations, which would cut climate-warming pollution from power plants, will probably be much harder for Mr. Pruitt to undo. He will have to legally withdraw the existing rule and propose a new rule to replace it, a process that could take up to two years and is expected to be fraught with legal challenges and delays along the way.”

Undoing the Clean Power Plan and/or stricter vehicle emission standards would have devastating impacts on air quality (and therefore people’s health) and the fight against climate change.

Global Emissions–The Paris Climate Accord and The Green Climate Fund

The Paris Climate Accord, agreed to by 194 countries, is built on the concept of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs). These contributions represent a country’s climate change mitigation targets, taking into consideration its economic ability and level of development. Trump has vowed to pull the U.S. out of the Accord.

Failure by the U.S. to realize our commitments (a certainty if the Clean Power Plan and stricter vehicle emissions standards are scrapped) would not completely undo the Paris Accord–other countries have stated they will press ahead with its implementation. But, as the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter, such a failure would surely crimp the Accord’s effectiveness.

Furthermore, as INDCs are to be updated every 5 years, future commitments by other countries are likely to be less ambitious without U.S. commitment, leadership, and funding. Climate change experts are relying on more ambitious future commitments to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. The Accord was seen as a starting point towards stronger future action, now even this starting point is in jeopardy.

What about the commitments of developing countries, many of which face increasing energy needs and have untapped fossil fuels reserves? While it is true that sustainable development is a challenge, there are reasons to be optimistic. These countries have neither the strong fossil fuel lobbyists nor the “sunk” energy grid infrastructure costs the U.S. does. Furthermore, these countries tend to rely more on agriculture for their economic output, placing a premium on predictable climate patterns and environmental protection. Therefore, with a little prodding in the right direction, developing countries may be willing to largely forgo fossil fuel use–this is where the Green Climate Fund (GCF) comes into play:

“The agreement reaffirms an earlier collective pledge from the developed nations to jointly provide $100 billion a year in grants, loans, and investments in developing countries, from public and private sources.

With energy use soaring over the past decade in Asia, it is clear that helping emerging economies avoid tapping their coal reserves in favor of installing renewable sources in solar, wind, tidal, wave, and geothermal energy will be essential in mitigating their carbon emissions without unfairly stifling their economic development.”

Trump’s proposed budget would completely eliminate America’s contribution to the Green Climate Fund. U.S. leadership is needed to galvanize global efforts to even come close to the lofty GCF goal of $100 billion a year. Without this funding, poorer countries will not be able to meet their commitments under the Paris Accord, further undermining its effectiveness.

If absent Green Climate Funding developing countries develop unsustainably, efforts taken by developed countries to lower their emissions would likely prove inadequate in preventing the worst impacts of climate change.

“It’s the Economy (and National Security), Stupid”

Even if you do not care about the environment or sustainable development, climate change has economic and national security implications for the U.S.

“In terms of returns on investment, climate finance is ridiculously cheap for what America gets for it: goodwill and cooperation, less warming, clean and resilient growth, and, importantly, fewer refugees.

What’s more, these renewable energy sectors hold vast business potential for American companies wanting to supply technical expertise and equipment. Establishing the U.S. as a leader in green energy is directly in the Trump administration’s interest as it aspires to slow, or at least balance, China’s expanding global clout.

Aid to help poor rural farmers on marginal lands adapt and thrive can be the key to avoiding a surge of climate refugees flowing either into already crowded urban centers in the developing world or, worse yet, forcing people to set out on dangerous voyages over land or water in search of a livable future. In security terms, the U.S. military and relief agencies alike understand that an ounce of this kind of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Some people may dismiss the notion that climate change is a national security risk as liberal-hippy nonsense, but this is simply not the case. Trump’s own Defense Secretary James Mattis stated climate change was a national security risk during his confirmation hearing.

On the economic front, clean energy related activities already are and will increasingly be big employers in the U.S. However, growth in future clean energy employment could be compromised if Trump’s budget for the Department of Energy comes to pass. “The [budget] plan would eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funds ‘high-risk, high-reward’ research.” This is exactly the type of public R&D needed to ensure the U.S. is a leader in the emerging clean energy economy.

Multilateral clean energy financing also promotes American exports. “…of the top 30 markets for U.S. renewable energy exports—as determined by the Commerce Department—more than half are eligible for GCF [Green Climate Fund] investments. As has occurred in other multilateral environment funds, the GCF is beginning to directly finance some projects that have U.S. sponsors or use U.S. equipment and services.”

China aims to spend at least $360 Billion on renewable energy by 2020 because it understands the value of being the global leader in the clean energy economy. Trump talks about “being tough on China”, however his stance on clean energy investment is anything but.

Resistance Is Not Futile

As with any war, the Trump administration will face resistance in its efforts to undo important environmental protections. Obviously liberals will oppose Trump, and many foreign leaders will try to get him to reconsider his position. The state of California, a progressive thorn in the Trump administration’s side on a number of issues, recently upheld stricter vehicle emission standards in a challenge to the aforementioned rollbacks at the federal level.

Perhaps most significantly, however, is the resistance to Trump’s anti environmental protection agenda that is growing in the Republican party:

The activists’ efforts have not swayed anywhere near a majority yet on Capitol Hill. Only 20 or so of the 237 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have spoken out on climate change this year. But they hope to build a big enough bloc in Congress, or enough influence at the White House, to temper Trump’s agenda.

“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that more and more Republicans are interested in this issue,” said Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida. “This issue was regrettably politicized some 20 or so years ago, and we are in the process of taking some of the politics out.”

The negative effects of environmental degradation–economic, national security, and health–are felt by people across the political spectrum. If enough Republicans take a stand, it just might be enough to get the fight against climate change back on track.


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Red Lines and Areas of Compromise for the Democratic Party

The Democratic Party is at a crossroads. In defeat–and the Democrat’s were resoundingly defeated in every branch and at every level of government in the 2016 elections–lies an opportunity for change. What type of Democratic Party will emerge? Will it be one defined by blind obstructionism, or one defined by pragmatism?

I do not believe blind obstructionism is in the best interest of the Democratic Party or the American people. It is simply not in the Democratic Party’s DNA. To stoop to the GOP’s level would be to cede the moral high-ground at the exact moment when any reasonable nonpartisan cannot help but realize just how different the two parties truly are. These are the swing voters the Democratic Party needs to attract.

This is not to say the Democratic Party should be anti-intellectual, or willfully ignore historic experience and scientific consensus–it should stick to its principles and have red-lines. If Trump’s first week in office is any indication, there will be plenty to oppose without being blindly obstructionist. By carefully picking its battles the Democratic Party will have more political capital and public support when there is a core issue it really must fight for.


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Understanding Conservative Ideology on Economic Opportunity–“I Didn’t Need It” & “I Didn’t Get It”

I was blessed with an incredibly supportive family, in both emotional and financial terms–I was and still am very lucky. Still I faced many obstacles growing up, so I can only imagine the difficulties faced by others. To err is human, particularly for young people without positive role models. Those less fortunate have much less margin for error, meaning one screw-up (of which I had many) can derail their lives.

Both political parties claim they want to promote economic opportunity. Where the parties diverge, and understandably so considering how open the concept is to interpretation, is how to achieve “equality of opportunity”.

To progressive liberals, there can never be enough investment in economic opportunity. The lifecycle approach to human development stipulates that for one to reach their full potential, investments need to be made at every stage of life: nutritional food early in life to support physical and cognitive development, universal pre-K and good public schooling through high school, affordable college options and job (re)training programs into adulthood. All the while, affordable healthcare is needed to guard against the unforeseen and get people back on their feet.

All else equal, I think most people would agree these things are important–they certainly were in my life. Look at any well-to-do family and regardless of their political leanings, you will see parents making these investments to ensure their kids have the best shot at succeeding in life (nepotism aside).

Where many conservatives claim they draw the line is how these programs will be paid for. But it is not only in the name of fiscal responsibility that conservatives balk at such programs. If that was the case, they would not have elected a President whose policies are expected to increase government debt by trillions of dollars over the next decade.

Some conservatives may actually fear more competition, and therefore actively resist policies that promote equality of opportunity. But such people, I think, represent a small minority of conservatives.

Many conservatives I know are good, hard working people. They believe they are promoting the best interests of the poor, and that liberal policies are creating a sort of poverty trap by encouraging laziness and discouraging hard work. All the aforementioned investments in young people are nice to have, so long as people have worked hard and are able to afford them. But how can we demand that something that is outside a child’s control–their parent’s economic situation–determine their access to the tools to success?

My understanding of conservative ideology on economic opportunity, beyond the veneer of fiscal responsibility, has been forming for some time. But it truly crystallized when I read about Dr. Ben Carson’s Secretary of HUD confirmation hearing:

…if confirmed by the Senate, he would enter public service with a background like few other cabinet officials in history, shaped profoundly by a childhood when public assistance meant survival and public housing was all around him.

Rather than embrace the programs that once sustained his family and the families around him, he has resolutely rejected them, adopting standard Republican beliefs that welfare fosters dependency.

The idea that social safety net programs foster dependency can be broken down into two arguments–“I didn’t need it” and “I didn’t get it”.

“I Didn’t Need It”

With a population well over 300 million people, America has people all along the “capacity to overcome hardship” spectrum.

At one extreme there are people who have resigned themselves to a life of antisocial behavior, and no amount of intervention can change that. Liberals have to come to terms with the fact that even well developed, well intended government programs have their limitations. It is also unreasonable to expect the taxpayer to pay for the raft of programs needed to replicate the safety net my family provided me.

At the other extreme there are people like Dr. Carson, who can overcome any obstacle and reach extraordinary heights (often conveniently forgetting the role government programs played in their success). It is, however, unrealistic to expect everyone to have Ben Carson’s intellectual capacity and resilience. Conservatives must place the bar at a realistic level, or else the “equality” in “equality of opportunity” will never become a reality.

The extremes at either end of the spectrum represent a small portion of the population–think normal distribution on a bell curve (see below). The policies that promote equality of opportunity should not be tailored to either of these extremes, but rather towards a hypothetical “reasonable” person–one who wants to succeed, is receptive to and grateful for help, and can progress through life with minimal setbacks (keeping in mind that no one is perfect).

normadist

It is also important to understand that inadequate investment is not necessarily money saved. There are costs associated with underinvestment, mainly:

  • Lower future earnings.According to one [UNICEF] study conducted over a 20-year period, disadvantaged children who participated in quality early development programmes as toddlers later went on to make up to 25 per cent more as adults than their peers who did not receive the same support.” This also means less tax revenue and higher spending on welfare programs in the future.
  • Higher future spending on our criminal justice system. In other words, higher crime and a less safe country for all Americans. While I am in no way condoning a life of crime in the face of poverty, that does not stop it from being the life some lead.

These negative consequences should factor into how much we, as a country, are willing to invest in promoting equality of opportunity. Isn’t a dollar spent enabling one to realize their potential better than a dollar spent dealing with the negative consequences of systematic underinvestment?

Social immobility in America shows that more work remains to be done. Recognizing that anecdotal stories of rags-to-riches does not mean that we have achieved “equality of opportunity” is a good starting point. After all, accepting there is a problem is the first step towards finding a solution.

“I Didn’t Get It”

This is, in my opinion, a less defensible position. At least those in the “I didn’t need it” camp can claim that further investment is not needed. The “I didn’t get it” camp is just bitter; instead of asking themselves “would this be a good program?”, they are just sour because it didn’t exist for them.

But shaming these people does no good, it only drives them further into their intransigence. Therefore, it is up to progressive politicians to sell programs that promote equality of opportunity as something that benefits everyone, not just direct recipients.

People must be made to understand that proposed policies will help people of all races who have fallen behind in the modern economy. To this end policies and programs that promote opportunity should be race-blind and socioeconomic based, to counter the “us versus them” mentality behind much conservative opposition.

Progressive politicians must also learn to bridge generational divides. One way to do this is to frame adequate investments in today’s youth as a means of paying for the Social Security and Medicare benefits that many upcoming retirees are depending on.

Understanding as an Avenue Towards Progress

It is frustratingly difficult to prioritize between programs that promote opportunity at different stages of life. On one hand it is more politically viable and cost-effective to invest in programs that target young children. On the other hand it takes longer for these investments to pay off, and politics is inherently shortsighted. While investments should probably be skewed towards early-life interventions, they cannot fully substitute for programs targeting older groups (such as affordable college and job retraining).

There are elements of truth in both liberal and conservative ideologies. Hopefully through greater understanding we can stop talking past each other, and start talking to and working with one another. I know this may sound sound like hippy-dippy kumbaya bullshit, but it is really an appeal to pragmatism and foresight. Over the past 8 years hyperpartisanship has led to ineffective governance. As the government failed to respond to people’s needs, people lost faith in the government. This paved the way for a regressive and ineffectual demagogue to take power, which ultimately benefits no one.

I understand that one party–the G.O.P–was a much larger culprit in creating this hyperpartisan environment. As the new minority party the Democrats have to decide whether they will continue driving our government down this dangerous path, or try rise above it. The G.O.P. went low, will the Democrats go high? Do they even want to? I sure hope they do; politics should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

I leave you with this Franklin Delano Roosevelt quote from a speech delivered in 1932, whose words still ring as true today as the day they were spoken:

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.

This is not to say the Democratic party should be anti-intellectual, or willfully ignore historic experience and scientific consensus. It does not mean it should not stick to its principles and have red-lines. If Trump’s first week in office is any indication, there will be plenty to oppose without being blindly obstructionist. By carefully picking its battles, the Democratic party will have more political capital and public support when there is a core issue it really must fight for.


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Trump’s Strategy: Possible Short-Term Gains, Definite Long-Term Pains

Image result for trumps long term damage

There is always a lag between when a policy is enacted and when its true long-term consequences are felt. This reality often works against societal wellbeing, as politicians pursue policies that are damaging in the long-run if they make them more popular here and now.

This shortsighted behavior is reinforced by the electorate. The combination of more pressing issues in their own lives, imperfect memory, and a lack of technical knowledge result in the voters not holding politicians accountable for the long-term consequences of their policies. When things come crashing down on someone else’s watch they are considered the fault of the person currently in charge, regardless of the root cause. One does not have to look far back to find two prime examples–President Obama inheriting the Great Recession and the turmoil in the Middle East.

The most obvious example of President-elect Trump’s shortsightedness is his stance on Climate Change. Trump has called Climate Change a hoax. He has stated he wants to overturn Obama’s signature environmental policy, the Clean Power Plan, which is also central to meeting America’s commitments under the Paris Climate Accord (the 194 nation pact covering all major emitters, which Trump has vowed to drop out of). His pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is a climate change skeptic–the fox is guarding the hen house.

Leasing public lands to private companies seems cartoonishly short-sighted. In the most extreme scenario, imagine a National Park being turned into a natural gas field, depriving future generations of its beauty. Unfortunately, this may be what the G.O.P is planning.

Trump’s War on Climate Change toolkit also features intimidation. His Department of Energy transition team asked the DoE for a list of employees who work on climate change related issues, to which one employee (who declined to comment for fear of reprisal) remarked “This feels like the first draft of an eventual political enemies list.” The DoE, for it’s part, has rebuffed the request, but who knows what will happen once Rick Perry is running the show. As a self-proclaimed “jobs President”, Trump should not do anything that could compromise America’s position as a leader in the emerging clean energy economy (a position coveted by a country Trump has promised to be tough on–China).

While environmental considerations are the most obvious example, they are far from the only shortsighted policies Trump has embraced. If he does not change his campaign promises, his fiscal and national security policies will prove equally as shortsighted.

Trumped-Up Trickle-Down Economics

While damaging in the long-run, Trump’s policies will not necessarily lead to an immediate recession, a point made in a recent article by Paul Krugman. As Krugman points out, even poorly designed fiscal stimulus has a positive impact on short-run growth.

Even if Trump’s policies do result in short-run growth, this does not mean the average American will benefit. In fact, if recent history is any indicator, Trump’s reliance on trickle-down economics to improve the lives of average Americans is all but sure to fail. If wages continue to stagnate (Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor has opposed anything resembling a livable minimum wage or expanding overtime pay), or if consumer prices rise dramatically due to Trump’s inflationary fiscal and protectionist trade policies, people may well feel the pain sooner rather than later.

Perhaps Trump, in all his deal-making brilliance, can buck the lessons of recent history and somehow make trickle-down economics work–I am highly skeptical. Even if he can, there are still the long-term ramifications of his economic agenda, which would outweigh any immediate benefits.

By greatly increasing the deficit—a certainty if his economic vision is implemented–Trump is pursuing the tried and failed “starve the beast” strategy. “Starve the beast” is a political strategy to cut taxes to deprive the federal government of revenue, in a deliberate effort to force it to reduce future spending.

Starving the beast is very dangerous; reducing “fiscal space” compromises the Government’s ability to respond to future economic downturns with stimulus spending to offset lower private sector demand. It also does not work–critical, broadly popular programs end up being financed through increased deficit spending. When push comes to shove, politicians will not risk losing support and widespread social instability in the name of fiscal responsibility.

But starving the beast can lead to underinvestment in certain areas by artificially creating a budgetary squeeze. Public R&D and investments in human capital development / productivity improvement are generally not considered “critical”, in that there are no immediate consequences for cutting them. Therefore, when budgets are tight, these are often the first programs on the chopping block. Such cuts erode America’s innovative capacity, compromising long-term economic growth.

National Security: Syria, the Islamic State and Beyond

No one knows exactly what course of action Trump will ultimately take with Syria, but we can make an educated guess based on his past comments. Trump has praised Saddam Hussein for being “good at killing terrorists“. He looks to improve relations with Vladimir Putin, Assad’s strongest backer. Most tellingly, Trump has said he will prioritize fighting the IS over fighting Assad. Taken together, these factors strongly suggest Trump will stop opposing Assad, if not directly support him in the fight against the IS.

In the short-run, backing Assad could make America safer by bringing stability to Syria, allowing the international community to focus on defeating the IS. Of course this strategy could also backfire by giving more fuel to anti-American parties in region, attracting more international terrorist attacks and inspiring domestic lone-wolf attackers.

But let’s just say, for arguments sake, that the IS already considers the U.S. its primary enemy, and is already doing all it can to attack America. Even if this is true, Trump’s strategy is still flawed. By failing to consider the root causes of the current instability of the Middle East—poor, unaccountable governance—Trump’s strategy will exacerbate the regions problems and create new ones.

In the long-run, not opposing Assad will embolden others to follow his playbook for staying in power at any cost. Rollbacks in human rights and governance will create future civil wars, resulting in power vacuums. From these power vacuums new terrorists groups will emerge, threatening America’s safety (with even more fodder for anti-U.S. propaganda). The only people this strategy will ultimately benefit are those who profit from the military-industrial complex. Humanitarian spending will also continue to rise from already historic levels if Trump abandons preventative peacebuilding through trade, development aid, and democratic capacity building in favor of aligning with dictators.

To be fair, when it comes to the Syrian Civil War, there are no good options. There are, however, worse options. Based on what he has said, and who he has nominated to be his national security adviser, Trump seems primed to pursue these worse options.

The Marks of a True Leader

All politicians must balance short-term needs with longer-term considerations. Focus too much on the long-run, and people will suffer in the short-run–to quote John Maynard Keynes, “in the long-run, we’re all dead”. But when it comes to Donald Trump, who has shown himself to be especially thin-skinned (constantly alleging media bias, demanding apologies from Broadway actors, attacking comedic parodies on SNL), whose main consideration has seemingly always been status and popularity, one can only imagine how greatly he will discount any future damage his policies might cause in order to look good now.

It is one thing to have policies not meet their intended long-term goals due to unanticipated consequences or unforeseeable changes in the world. But in the case of Trump’s proposed policies, the writing is right there on the wall. It is not that the Obama administration did not consider these “fixes”, it is that their negative consequences were deemed to be too great.

The other shoe will drop–it is a question of when, not if. Trump is counting on the negative consequences occurring on someone else’s watch, when they will be someone else’s problem. But what if they occur sooner than expected, while he is still in power? Well, there’s a scapegoat for that, and Trump has already proven himself to be a master scapegoater.

True leadership requires finding the right balance between short-term needs and longer-term considerations. It requires thick-skin, and the willingness to do what is right even when it is not popular. A good leader owns up to their failures and learns from their mistakes–there is not an ounce of accountability or introspection in Donald Trump.

Leaders can also benefit from a strong team with diverse opinions—people who challenge their views in order to create more robust, sustainable solutions. Throughout his campaign, Trump said he would appoint the best team possible to make up for his lack of governing experience. Looking at Trump’s current Cabinet nominees, I see mostly self-serving yes-men.

Based on these (and most other) definitions of leadership, President-elect Trump seems to be the furthest thing from a true leader imaginable.

It is important to identify and call out Trump’s shortsighted strategy now. People will point to immediate successes, should they come to pass, as vindication of his policy choices and governing style. Such celebrations would be premature.


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Righteous Indignation Towards Trump Supporters is Self-Defeating

A lot of passionate, smart people I know are rightfully concerned about Trump’s impending presidency. I find the man’s words to be disgraceful and divisive, and his proposed policies (both at home and abroad) wrong-minded and regressive. It seems like the more issues one cares about, the more there is to be concerned about regarding Trump’s presidency.

I also want to make it abundantly clear that, on a personal level, I think that anyone who voted for “change” while overlooking these serious shortcomings made the wrong choice. But in America, any one person’s views are worth exactly one vote (kinda, RE: electoral college). Me, and the many people who share my views, lost in this election.

However, with every loss there is a lesson to be learned (and that lesson is not just that the electoral college, at least as it currently stands, is an outdated institution). There is a saying in economics that “all economics is local”. Quoting national unemployment and growth numbers in the face of people who feel they have been left behind is not only demeaning, it misses the very real point that many people are experiencing a different reality.

Part of what makes Bernie Sanders so popular is that he understands “populism” is inherently a good thing, even if it has been co-opted by bad actors in recent years. It is certainly not a concept liberals should allow ultra-conservatives to monopolize. In fact, it is much more congruent with the Democratic party’s ideology, should the party embrace it.

My point is not to try to change the strongly entrenched racist thoughts of the worst fringes of Trump’s supporters–these people truly are “deplorable”, and will never represent America or its values regardless of the outcome of any election. I have no interest in engaging these people–the G.O.P. can keep their votes. But I do know that not all Trump supporters are racist / sexist / bigoted. I know this not only because common sense tells me so, but also because I have known some Trump supporters for years, and I know they are not this way.

The difficulty lies in the fact that it is impossible to decipher between the true “deplorables” (yes, they do exist, get over it) and the economically disadvantaged, politically frustrated Trump supporters simply by looking at them. Therefore, the reasonable Trump supporters must be teased-out (no, not that tease, stay with me here) by creating a stronger, more inclusive Democratic party platform.

If you, like me, believe that a Trump presidency will likely be very damaging in a number of ways, the best way to limit that damage is have the Democrats retake Congress in two years. And that cannot be done without reaching out to some people who voted for Trump, and showing them that the Democratic party does represent them. 

This is an understandably frustrating lesson because rhetorically and policy-wise, the Democratic party already does represent the interests of the disadvantaged (including disadvantaged white people) much more so than the G.O.P. does. But in that frustration lies a silver-lining–the Democratic party does not need to engage in a wholesale ideological overhaul (something the G.O.P., regardless of the results of this election, ultimately does). Rather, the Democratic party needs a change in leadership and the way it conveys its message–a more manageable task that, if focused on, can be accomplished in time to impact the 2018 midterm elections.

This is not a message of unity for the sake of unity. It is a message of introspection in the name of political viability. To react to Trump’s election with righteous indignation towards his supporters, to dig further into the liberal “smarter-than-thou” mindset, only exacerbates the very divisions that enabled Trump’s rise to power in the first place. 

UPDATE (11/17):

The Democratic party is leveraging Bernie Sanders popularity and populist bend by making him outreach chair on the Senate Democrats leadership team. This is a good start!


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Equality of Opportunity, Invention and Growth: The Next President’s Fiscal Policy

Equality of Opportunity and Economic Growth

In case you’ve been living under a rock, it is election season in America. Both candidates have laid out their vision for America’s future, and they differ on many issues.

But on some issues the candidates agree. One example is taking advantage of low borrowing costs to invest in America’s aging infrastructure. Such a plan would create jobs, stimulating short-run growth while making America’s economy more efficient in the long-run. But with policy, the devil is in the details. Even on this area of agreement, the candidates proposed policies are very different. As has often been the case, Trump’s plan is short on specifics and is not fully funded, casting doubts on its effectiveness while increasing the deficit (more on this later).

But another piece of the economic puzzle, one that is as important to America’s long-run growth as infrastructure, is also sorely underinvested in. I am referring to human capital (education, healthcare). There are many ways to promote investment in human capital–more on the how later. First, lets examine why investing in human capital is important.

Simply put, investing in human capital is a key driver of invention, and invention is the main driver of long-run growth. This is a purposefully general statement–I do not have to know what the next paradigm shifting invention will be in order for this statement to be true.

Some people may counter that most inventions are technological in nature, and automation is leading to job loss. To that, I would say we cannot fear progress. Rather, our leaders need to figure out how to balance the need for economic growth with peoples need to be employed–how to “re-couple” the social and economic functions of the labor market. This may require some sort of large-scale guaranteed government / subsidized private sector jobs program–another debate for another day.

Back to invention. While there is no “formula” for discovering great inventions, invention does tend to flourish in certain contexts. Both the public and private sectors can spur the inventive process by investing in research and development. Strong property rights and judicial independence are needed to protect inventors, or else the incentive to invent is not there. A sound financial system is needed to match funding to good ideas, and various forms of infrastructure are needed for production and distribution.

But most importantly invention requires a well educated people, free to explore their novel ideas. The security that comes from decoupling health insurance from employment–as the ACA has done–also helps, by removing some of the risk of leaving one’s job to pursue an invention.

America has most of these things in spades. But one area America can do better (other than infrastructure) is promoting investment in human capital, particularly at younger ages and lower wealth brackets.

America’s top Universities are some of the best in the world, and we have a decent system for matching the most talented low income applicants to them. But research shows that earlier intervention is needed to truly promote equality of opportunity. The “lifecycle” approach to development states that much of the human development needed for people to realize their potential–including their innovative potential–occurs well before college. This is not to say the government should not prioritize making college more affordable. I am a proponent of free community college for low-income applicants with strong academic credentials. But college is only a part of the equality of opportunity equation.

For not only do we not know what the next great invention will be, we also do not know who will invent it. Therefore, it is the job of our government to create the largest possible base of potential future inventors. While the overwhelming majority of people will not go on to discover great inventions, well targeted investments earlier in life still benefit society by helping people maximize their future earnings (and tax bills), reducing poverty and crime (and future government spending on welfare programs and the criminal justice system).

You may be thinking, “this is all well and good in theory, but how will we pay for it all?” Aside from the higher tax revenues and savings resulting from such investments in the long-run, more immediate action should be taken to get the Federal government’s fiscal house in order.

NEEDED: Tax Then Entitlement Reform

Should interest rates on U.S. debt rise, interest payments would consume a large portion of government spending. While there is no guarantee the interest rates on U.S. debt will rise, given the global nature of contemporary investment and America’s status as a “safe haven”, it would be prudent to reduce the deficit if it can be done in a way that does not compromise economic growth and pose undue hardship on America’s poorest citizens.

Every taxpayer dollar spent servicing debt is a dollar that cannot be spent on something beneficial (human capital investment, infrastructure, defense, anything). It is in no ones interest to see this potential future come to pass, as almost everyone (except possibly Libertarians) believes there is something productive taxes could be spent on.

Responsibly closing the deficit requires both comprehensive (corporate and personal) tax and entitlement reform.

“Entitlement spending” consumes a large percentage of government spending, and for good reason–it meets important societal needs, often more efficiently than its private sector counterparts. Private sector pension coverage fell from 28% to 13% between 1993 and 2011, and private sector health insurance costs have historically risen faster than Medicaid. Due to the effectiveness of Medicaid and Social Security, they should arguably be expanded if we can figure out how to properly fund them (expanding the “public option” would help fix Obamacare, and there is a strong argument to be made for expanding Social Security to make up for the drop in people covered by private pension plans).

As a Nation, in order to have a meaningful debate about how much we can afford to spend (and on what), we have to know how much tax revenue we can expect to take in. Comprehensive tax reform endures for a long time–the last major tax reform was passed 30 years ago. Passing comprehensive tax reform would allow for meaningful revenue projections for the foreseeable future (exactly how long depends on how vigilantly Congress guards the tax code against unnecessary loopholes). Therefore, comprehensive tax reform should precede entitlement reform.

HOW to Promote Equality of Opportunity

Greater investment in human capital can be achieved in a number of ways. It can be achieved directly through new social programs, a few of which I proposed earlier, but in recent years such ideas have been political nonstarters.

With more money people will spend more in the short-run–promoting short-run growth–and invest more in themselves and their children–promoting long-run growth. But how do we get more money into peoples’ pockets without politically contentious social programs (i.e. redistribution)? A more politically viable (if admittedly less targeted) approach involves increasing the incomes of America’s less well-to-do through the labor market.

A market-based approach would include some combination of a higher minimum wage and an expanded earned income tax credit (EITC). These policies would be even more effective if paired with human capital investment programs that recognize the “lifecycle” approach to development. Both candidates claim they want to help low and middle class people, but upon examining their proposed policies, only Clinton’s would move this country the right direction.


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Obama’s Final UN General Assembly Address and the Next President’s Foreign Policy

Preventative Peacebuilding and U.N. Security Council Reform

Original article:

“Just as we benefit by combatting inequality within our countries, I believe advanced economies still need to do more to close the gap between rich and poor nations around the globe. This is difficult politically. It’s difficult to spend on foreign assistance. But I do not believe this is charity,” he [Obama] stressed.

“For the small fraction of what we spent at war in Iraq, we could support institutions so that fragile States don’t collapse in the first place; and invest in emerging economies that become markets for our goods. It’s not just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do,” said Mr. Obama.

“We can only realize the promise of this institution’s founding – to replace the ravages of war with cooperation – if powerful nations like my own accept constraints,” Mr. Obama declared “Sometimes I’m criticized in my own country for professing a belief in international norms and multilateral institutions.

“But I am convinced that in the long run, giving up some freedom of action – not giving up our ability to protect ourselves or pursue our core interests, but binding ourselves to international rules over the long term – enhances our security. And I think that’s not just true for us,” he added.

Obama’s final UN General Assembly address included a strong endorsement of preventative peacebuilding. This endorsement is the result of a hard-learned lesson–that investing in conflict prevention is much cheaper than fighting wars and/or paying for humanitarian aid to deal with the spillover of conflicts.

But Obama’s address also included a lukewarm-at-best embrace of UN Security Council reform. America need not worry about “giving up our ability to protect ourselves”–our military supremacy will continue to keep us safe from “traditional threats” (an invasion by an enemy army).

Security Council reform would address the source of the real threats facing America today–failed states and their resulting power vacuums. Failed states allow terrorist groups to take root, and either carry out their own attacks or inspire lone-wolf terrorists remotely.

The current UN Security Council structure shields oppressive dictators from accountability, allowing them to hold onto power as they lose control of their countries. By providing an avenue to override a UN Security council veto, the international community would be much more responsive in addressing failing states. Greater protection of democratic aspirations and human rights, through UN Security Council reform, should be how we “pursue our core interest”–peace and prosperity through economic interdependence.

The Future of American Foreign Policy

If Hilary Clinton is truly the heir apparent to Obama, hopefully she shares his views on preventative peacebuilding. Hillary has taken some flack from the left for being more of a neocon (interventionist) than Obama, but under the right conditions this is actually a good thing. Allow me to explain.

Preventative peacebuilding is a very important element of foreign policy–as previously mentioned it saves on future military and humanitarian spending, not to mention the lives saved and economic damage prevented in the host-countries. However, once a conflict is already underway (prevention is never foolproof), it must be addressed before it become intractable (a la Syria, the issue Obama say’s he has second-guessed the most of any during his presidency and for good reason, because his approach has failed spectacularly).

Trump is right about one (I stress, ONE) thing–our allies need to start paying their share to uphold global security. Furthermore, there must be repercussions for them not doing so, otherwise the status-quo of America footing the bill will persist (Obama’s denunciation of  “free-rider” allies is just rhetoric, it won’t accomplish anything).

This in NO WAY means I support Trump’s overall outlook on international affairs, which includes: praising strongmen like Putin and Saddam Hussein who undermine global security, alienating Muslim allies and providing fodder for terrorist propaganda with blanket statements about Islam, and pledging to dump more money into the military without any coherent plan of how to use it (which could actually harm servicemen and women, vets, and their families).

This last point means that Trump’s plan is not the rebalancing of global defense spending America so sorely needs, but rather a global military build-up. This stance counters the ultimate purpose–American lives and tax dollars saved–of his ONE good idea…

America’s future President should adopt a foreign policy that is a large part Obama (preventative peacebuilding), part Hillary Clinton (willingness to intervene before it is too late), and a little bit Trump (willingness to exert pressure on our allies to pay their fair share for global security). UN Security Council reform would bolster each of these pillars of American foreign policy.

No element of this foreign policy equation can be foregone if global security is to be upheld in a way that promotes sustainable development in the world’s poorest regions, while leaving America with enough resources to adequately and responsibly invest in its own future (its citizenry’s human capital and physical infrastructure).


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Turkey, Kurdistan and ISIL: The Case for Partitioning Iraq and Syria

kurdmap

The fight against ISIL has taken another complicating turn, with direct fighting between two of America’s most important regional allies, Turkey and the Syrian Kurds (YPG).

There is, however, something that can be done to address each sides concerns and uphold their interests. That something is abandoning the supremacy of Syrian and Iraqi territorial integrity, and carving a Kurdistan out of parts of Syria and Iraq.

This step, accompanied by the right conditions, can help resolve the longstanding feud between the Turks and Kurds and get the fights against ISIL and Assad back on track.

Take Land From Those Who Have Proven They Cannot Govern It

The Syrian and Iraqi governments have both lost their ability to govern the entirety of their respective country’s. These are not my opinions, they are the facts on the ground.

In Syria, Assad has committed numerous war crimes against his people in an attempt to squash a popular uprising against him. Even these violations of human decency and humanitarian law alone would not have kept him in power, as he has relied heavily on support from Russia and Iran.

The Iraqi military melted away in the face of ISIL advances in 2014, and the government has proven unable to address the underlying social and sectarian grievances that enabled this advance. Iraq as we know it would no longer exist without the support of America and its allies.

This is not to say there should be no Syria or no Iraq, but neither country’s government has done anything in recent years to suggest the idea of partitioning should not at least be on the table. The other countries with major Kurdish populations, Turkey and Iran, are still functioning states despite their varying degrees of poor governance.

The argument for creating Kurdistan out of parts of Iraq and Syria is strengthened when considering the strong arguments for Kurdish statehood. These arguments include justice for a large, stateless population, and a reward for bravery in fighting ISIL on the world’s behalf.

By giving the Kurds what they want in Syria and Iraq, it should ease pressure to create a Turkish Kurdistan. Some people may argue the opposite, saying such a development would only fuel Kurdish desires to expand into Turkey. But I think the Kurds, realizing how difficult statehood is to sustain in what is currently Iraq and Syria, would be content with the territory they are allotted. Of course my beliefs cannot be taken on faith–certain conditions would need to be put in place to ensure peaceful coexistence between Kurdistan and its neighbors.

Conditionality is Key

Kurdistan’s founding would be based on a set of conditions. Should these conditions fail to hold Kurdistan would loose international backing, which would basically be a death-blow to the newly formed state.

The main condition needed to make this plan work is the explicit understanding that the Kurds would lose support if they expand beyond originally agreed upon borders, unless it is in response to armed conflict initiated by another country or one of it’s proxy’s (such as Hezbollah for Iran). This condition would ensure two things:

  1. The Kurds will not try to expand, as international support would be needed to sustain a new Kurdistan.
  2. Kurdistan will not be invaded by its neighbors (at least by a national army, non-state actors such as ISIL are always wildcards). Both Turkey and Iran share the same primary concern with respect to Kurdish statehood–the effect it would have on their own Kurdish populations and ultimately their territorial integrity. Since invasion would be the one thing that could result in internationally recognized Kurdish expansion, it should act as a strong deterrent against invasion. 

The Benefits of Bold Behavior

People will say such a solution is untenable–Turkey will never “allow it”, Russia will never go for it, and the current American administration is opposed to it. Iran, for its part, will play the spoiler at ever turn.

First of all, America’s stance could well change in the following months with a new administration on its way. But more importantly, it is not the decision of any one country–not the U.S., not Russia, not Turkey or Iran–to “allow” something or not. Issues of global concern, such as armed conflicts and their resulting boundary-less extremism and refugee crises, must be resolved by the international community through the United Nations.

Much could be achieved by taking land from countries that have proven themselves unable to govern it (and were based on arbitrarily drawn borders to begin with) and giving it to the Kurds. It would:

  1. Reward a large, stateless people who have a commitment to democratic principles and have fought bravely against ISIL.
  2. Remove Turkey’s (and to a lesser extent Iran’s) fear of Kurdish expansion into its own territory.
  3. Refocus the fight against ISIL.
  4. Allow Turkish and Kurdish forces to focus their efforts against Assad, altering the calculus of the Syrian Stalemate.

Bold ideas that challenge the current balance of power tend to be met with skepticism and condemnation at first. But the current balance of power in the Middle East empowers extremist organizations and totalitarian governments–it should be challenged.