Normative Narratives


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Bipartisanship and the 2018 Midterm Elections

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Ode to John McCain

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

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

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

From Partisan Differences to Demonization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord of the Lies

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

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

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

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

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

Trump The False Populist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Economic Outlook: From The Left and Right, Differing Views of Future Risks

When you ask an American about the future risks facing their country, the answer you get will likely vary depending on political affiliation. Those who lean left (“liberals”) will likely mention climate change, while those who lean right (“conservatives”) will likely mention social spending / national debt. (According to a recent Gallup poll, peoples views also tend to align based on age; understandably older respondents care more about economic growth, while younger respondents favor environmental concerns):

According to Pew Research Center surveys conducted last year, 25 percent of self-identified Republicans said they considered global climate change to be “a major threat.” The only countries with such low levels of climate concern are Egypt, where 16 percent of respondents called climate change a major threat, and Pakistan, where 15 percent did.

By comparison, 65 percent of Democrats in the United States gave that answer, putting them in the same range as Brazilians (76 percent), Japanese (72 percent), Chileans (68 percent) or Italians and Spaniards (64 percent). If you combine Democrats and independents into one group, 52 percent called climate change a major threat, according to Pew. That’s the same broad range of concern as in Germany (56 percent), Canada and France (54 percent), Australia (52 percent) or Britain (48 percent).

Over all, between 40 percent and 45 percent of Americans in recent Pew polls have called climate change a major concern (with a similar share of independents giving that answer).

The Republican skepticism about climate change extends across the party, though it’s strongest among those who consider themselves part of the Tea Party. Ten percent of those aligned with the Tea Party called climate change a major threat, compared with 35 percent of Republicans who did not identify with the Tea Party.

According to those most concerned about climate change, continued inaction will lead to multiple catastrophes: coastal flooding, ecosystem / food-system disruption, air and water quality degradation, and an increase in extreme weather events to name a few. “How could we leave such a future to our children?”, they ask.

According to those most concerned about economic issues, continued fiscal irresponsibility will also lead to a plethora of adverse consequences: rising interest rates, [hyper]inflation, and ballooning national debt (never-mind that these two consequences are incompatible, as inflation erodes debt). The Government will be unable to pay for future public programs, contributing to the general “decline” of American. “Forget that ‘global warming’ conspiracy, how can we leave this future to our children?” they counter.

Both sides paint dire pictures that are entirely separate from one another. Both arguments appeal to “the children!!” to augment their political beliefs. So which argument holds more merit? Well lets look at the facts:

Climate Change:

It’s been an extraordinary six weeks for climate scientists. Any lingering doubts about the immediacy of climate impacts on the lives of Americans are now permanently laid to rest, thanks to four extensive reports from thousands of scientists.

It began with a straight-talking, no-nonsense report called “What We Know” from the world’s largest general science organization (AAAS) earlier this spring that laid out in clear detail why the entire scientific community no longer has any doubts whatsoever about the nature and extent of the climate risk to our economy and communities.

Weeks later, the second and third of successive reports from different arms of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued separate, detailed reports on the current science around climate change impacts in the world, and the potential costs to society and the economy right now if we don’t change our energy patterns. 

And then this week, a report written by hundreds of American scientists culminated this six-week run of world-class, peer-reviewed science reports with the congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment that laid climate impacts literally at the doorsteps and window panes of most Americans.

Climate change isn’t a computer model, a fuzzy prediction, a cute picture of polar bears on shrinking icebergs, or some far-off, distant threat that people who aren’t born yet will have to deal with. It’s here, now – and it’s disrupting our lives.

It’s affecting food prices through extended droughts and flooding basements in extreme rainfall events – the types of dry and wet extremes that scientists have been telling us for years would be part of a changing world. Now we can see these things with our own eyes, out our own windows.

The scientific consensus is that climate change is real, it is man made, and the adverse effects–while more pronounced in the future–are already beginning to occur.

National Debt:

There are two sides to national debt, revenues (taxes) and expenditures (government spending). Whenever expenditures exceed revenues, the government must either take money from its surplus (which we do not currently have), or issue new debt to finance its spending. Every dollar of debt has an interest rate attached to it, the government’s borrowing cost.

With large annual deficits, an increase in interest rates on bonds would indeed cause a great increase in government debt. However, the fiscal responsibility doomsday theorists have been proved wrong:

In what sense did economics work well? Economists who took their own textbooks seriously quickly diagnosed the nature of our economic malaise: We were suffering from inadequate demand. The financial crisis and the housing bust created an environment in which everyone was trying to spend less, but my spending is your income and your spending is my income, so when everyone tries to cut spending at the same time the result is an overall decline in incomes and a depressed economy. And we know (or should know) that depressed economies behave quite differently from economies that are at or near full employment.

For example, many seemingly knowledgeable people — bankers, business leaders, public officials — warned that budget deficits would lead to soaring interest rates and inflation. But economists knew that such warnings, which might have made sense under normal conditions, were way off base under the conditions we actually faced. Sure enough, interest and inflation rates stayed low.

And the diagnosis of our troubles as stemming from inadequate demand had clear policy implications: as long as lack of demand was the problem, we would be living in a world in which the usual rules didn’t apply. In particular, this was no time to worry about budget deficits and cut spending, which would only deepen the depression…We needed more government spending, not less, to fill the hole left by inadequate private demand…Since 2010, we’ve seen a sharp decline in discretionary spendingand an unprecedented decline in budget deficits, and the result has been anemic growth and long-term unemployment on a scale not seen since the 1930s.

To be sure, eventually interest rates will increase and deflationary pressures will subside–the economy will emerge from it’s “liquidity trap“. Here’s the good news, emergence from the liquidity trap corresponds with near full employment (not zero unemployment, but the “natural” rate of unemployment). Interest rates and inflation will not rise until the economy is in much better shape, meaning increased interest costs will be at least partially offset by a decline in “automatic stabilizer” spending (spending on poverty reduction programs–SNAP, unemployment insurance, etc.–which increase automatically during economic downturns).

Factoring for automatic stabilizers, Krugman’s analysis shows that we are barely running a primary deficit at all. True we should not leave past debt for future generations, but we should also not under-invest in current generations / pursue wrong-minded economic policies because of past policy follies. When you invoke the specter of “the children!!, consider current generations of children and young adults who have been seen their futures compromised / delayed due to political failures.

Going Forward:

On one hand, the risks associated with inaction on climate change are real and rising. On the other hand, the risks associated with high levels of national debt have proven overblown and are partially self-correcting. That is not to say there are long-term drivers of debt which must be addressed in order to reign in long term fiscal deficits. But the U.S. Government has the benefit of being a reserve currency and a “safe haven” for investment–both factors pushing down the interest rate our government pays to borrow money. We can pay down our debts responsibly and counter-cyclically, when the economy recovers. 

The common perpetrator in both these future risks–national debt and environmental degradation–are corporate interests and the politicians that enable them. Consider these historic tables of government tax revenues by source (pg. 34-35). Personal income tax contributions have been fairy stable, while corporate income taxes have decreases drastically over the past decades.

The greatest threat to our Nation’s future is not public / social spending, it is our continued inability to pursue comprehensive tax reform (including carbon taxation).

Corporate profits are at an all time high; perhaps big corporations do not need a healthy domestic economy to prosper in a globalized world. But people, as ever, still need to have their basic needs met. It is up to our leaders to ensure these corporations, which benefit from every element of public spending (infrastructure, technological innovation via public R & D, a skilled workforce), pay their fare share towards financing necessary government expenses.

And it is up to us to find and elect these leaders, in spite of powerful forces acting against these reforms

Please turn out and vote in the 2014 midterm elections. Regardless of your political affiliation, demand bipartisan Congressmen with a history of not being beholden to corporate interests. Despite pervasive cynicism, we the people still hold the power in this country.

Won’t somebody please think of the children!


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Transparency Report: In Opposition of Reduced Gun Penalties

Support for Various Proposals to Prevent Gun Violence, by Party ID, January 2013

Last Friday I went shooting at a gun range with some friends, the first time I had ever done so, and I had a blast. This experience reinforced what I have always known–there are legitimate reasons to own a firearm (recreational shooting, hunting and self-defense come to mind, although IMO “stand your ground” is not self-defense).

When considering the forces holding back common sense gun reform in America, those who argue there is never a legitimate reason for owning a firearm are as much to blame as those who argue there can never be any new regulations on guns. Instead of forging strong laws through compromise, the two sides talk past each other, and the silent majority is left without the laws they favor. The extremes dominate the debate, blocking the very deliberative process the legislative branch was built upon. Unfortunately this is nothing new and it is not confined to the debate over gun-related laws.

Still, every now and then Congress actually passes laws. One idea which has recently gained bipartisan support are sentence reductions for non-violent offenders (specifically for drug related offenses). There are a number of reasons such reform is popular: harsher penalties have been ineffective, it reverses the trend of mass incarceration, it breaks “poverty traps” (what I have coined “the Prisoner Paradox“), and it saves money. Prison reform is a rare instance where the ideologies of fiscal responsibility and socioeconomic justice intersect.

However, the line must be drawn somewhere on prison reform. Shorter sentences for non-violent drug offenders is a good idea; reduced sentences for illegal gun ownership (as advocated in a recent NYT Op-Ed), is not:

We are accustomed to hearing about exorbitant mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, but similar sentencing for gun possession is less frequently mentioned, though its effects are often just as devastating, especially for poor people and people of color. In fact, a black person is nearly twice as likely to face a mandatory minimum carrying charge than a white person who is prosecuted for the same conduct.

Mandatory minimum gun laws have historically been favored by gun control advocates and gun rights proponents alike. Supporters insist that mandatory minimums diminish violence via incapacitation (putting potential shooters in prison) and deterrence.

But there is no good evidence that mandatory minimum gun laws actually have this effect. A recent report issued by the Bluhm Legal Clinic of the Northwestern University Law School concluded that “decades of empirical evidence and evaluations of specific state experiences demonstrate that mandatory sentences will not reduce gun violence.” Studies of the impact of such laws in Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia and Michigan found no discernible effect on violent crime rates. In return for issuing these sentences, society reaps only the heavy burdens that come with lengthy incarceration, perhaps the least of which is higher costs to taxpayers.

Opposition to mandatory sentencing for drug-related offenses is steadily growing. Now we must widen our criticism to encompass mandatory minimums for firearms. These laws are not reducing violence. They’re simply fueling a different kind of violence: the banishment and isolation of large numbers of people, especially people of color and poor people, tearing apart their lives, families and communities.

There are two reasons why I cannot support reduced gun sentencing for illegal gun ownership:

1) The Non-Violent Aspect: While there is no denying that drugs can be very harmful, even deadly, there is a qualitative difference between gun related deaths and drug related deaths. Theelement of personal accountability that cannot be overlooked when it comes to drug use. Except for the instances when someone is “drugged”, people willfully taking a substance should know the risks.

This is simply not the case gun related crime; guns are inherently lethal. A person can be walking down the street minding there own business and be killed by a gun in cold-blood. There is no choice being made, no time to consider ones actions, no element of personal accountability. Drugs kill their users, guns can kill indiscriminatelyIllegal gun ownership is a “non-violent crime” only until it enables a violent crime. 

2) Undermining Legitimate Gun Ownership: Despite my enjoyable time at the gun range last week, I am far from the biggest gun advocate in the world. However, part of any meaningful compromise is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; there are people who love their guns and use them responsibly. These people overwhelming support common sense gun reform, because it can put to ease their concerns that “THE GOVERNMENT IS COMING FOR YOUR GUNS!!!!

Reduced sentences for illegal gun ownership would inadvertently undermine universal background checks and other common sense gun-registration related initiatives. By reducing the penalty for illegal gun ownership, you are conversely increasing the benefits of circumventing gun laws. American politicians should be trying to find the balance between respecting peoples rights to enjoy guns responsibly, while keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. Reducing penalties for people who violate gun laws would be counter-productive in achieving these goals.

Simply put, there is no legitimate reason to own an unregistered gun.

In today’s 24 hour news cycle, there is a lot of pressure to be ahead of the game. Perhaps the writer of the NYT Op-Ed, seizing on increased public support for reduced mandatory drug sentences, though she’d make a splash by proposing something radical.

I am not saying we couldn’t save money by having more lenient gun penalties–of course we could. I am saying we would be exposing law abiding citizens to greater risks, while simultaneously undermining common sense gun reforms that ultimately protect the right to bear arms. Thankfully, I cannot see this plan gaining any real popular support.

(Another way to look at this argument is that there should never be mandatory sentences for ANY crime. One could argue that context always matters, and given the high costs of incarceration judges should be given complete discretion in all sentencing. This is a much broader argument, and not what the NYT Op-Ed was arguing.)