Normative Narratives


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lets briefly examine how we got here:

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

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

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

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

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


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Now is the Time For Unapologetic, Pragmatic Progressivism

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Elections Have Consequences

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

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

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

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

“Show Me” Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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