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

“Starve the Beast”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Sense Welfare Reform

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

SNAP

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

Drug Testing for Welfare

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

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

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

Responsibly Reforming Welfare Programs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress Frozen in Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Same Old Blame Game

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

People are lazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Can Rely on the Private Sector to Fix Everything

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

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

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

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

Hail the Almighty Job Creators! 

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

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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

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

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Transparency Report: Closing the Rift Between What the UN Knows and What the UN Does

fdrquote

Quote, FDR Memorial, Washington D.C.

Original article:

He [Current General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft] also touched on the issue of Security Council reform, saying the subject was “of central importance to a large majority of the Membership” of the UN, and that the General Assembly had decided to immediately continue the intergovernmental negotiations on Security Council reform in its 70th session.

Mr. Jürgenson [Vice President of ECOSOC] said that the relationship between the Charter bodies of the UN should be revitalized.

“The changing nature of conflict, from inter-State wars to complex civil conflicts that are intractable and reoccurring, highlights the fundamental link between sustainable development and lasting peace,” he said.

ECOSOC and the Security Council, he said, can interact on a regular basis on issues of concern to them both, from the promotion of institution building and improved governance to the consequences of economic and financial crises on global stability and the impact of environmental degradation on weakened societies.

“On each dimension of sustainable development, economic, social or environmental and on their contribution to the overall objective of peace, the UN development system, under the oversight of ECOSOC, has a lot to contribute,” he said. “The Economic and Social Council can be the counterpart of the Security Council to embrace a truly holistic approach to peace and security, an approach that world leaders have recognized as the only one which can lead to sustainable results.”

Human rights theory recognizes the broad array of human rights (economic, social, cultural, political and civil) are mutually dependent. Furthermore, certain rights, such as civil and political rights, create the enabling environment needed for people to claim other rights / hold violators accountable.

Any society that prioritizes the human rights of all its citizens will, in time, experience a virtuous cycle of sustainable human development and “positive peace“. In contrast, a society that “tolerates” certain human rights abuses in the name of security / stability greatly risks further restrictions of other rights; one rights violation invites others, and the vicious cycle of repression, poverty, and conflict emerges.

The human rights based approach to development therefore recognizes the interdependence of ostensibly separate U.N. operations. Specifically, preventative action–natural disaster preparedness and conflict prevention–feature prominently in development efforts.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UNs primary development policy body, uses the slogan “Empowered Lives, Resilient Nations”. “Empowered lives” refers to upholding human rights obligations and consultative policy-making–enabling people in the developing world to be active participants in their country’s modernization. “Resilient nations” refers to conflict prevention and natural disaster mitigation, reasonable welfare programs, and the social cohesion and institutions needed to resolve internal grievances peacefully.

Of course, prevention and preparation only work at certain points during disaster response. Conflicts in full swing must be addressed decisively or they will fester and devolve. Countries that do not amply invest in natural disaster preparedness must bare huge rebuilding costs (this is not just a poor country problem, think about the devastation caused in the U.S. by Hurricane Katrina and Super-Storm Sandy).

Addressing issues once they have reached catastrophic levels is much more expensive than investment in prevention / mitigation. The current model–ignoring warning signs followed by a too-little-too-late response–strains humanitarian aid budgets, resulting in the need to make untenable, short-sighted decisions that perpetuate future crises.

Whenever a capable, trustworthy partner exists on the ground, the international community should not be constrained by short-term financial considerations. The world’s poorest countries should not be consigned to larger futures bills, social problems and insecurity because of a failure of leadership in global governance.

The international community’s inability to adequately address today’s problems stems primarily from two sources. One is short-sighted decision making due to financial constraints. The second is the ineffective structure of the U.N.S.C.

Here are a few suggestions to make the U.N. more responsive.

1) UNSC Reform:

The inability of the U.N.S.C. to preventatively defuse conflicts, due to concerns over “national sovereignty”, condemns large groups of people to a future of conflict and economic decline. Conflict does not know national borders, leading to spillover conflicts that affect whole regions. Even once resolved, post-conflict countries are susceptible to sliding back into conflict. Taken together, these factors show why an inability to deal with one problem proactively can result in long-term instability for a whole region.

This issue gets to the root of the power struggle between the permanent members of the U.N.S.C. that champion human rights / democracy (U.S., Britain, France) and those champion national sovereignty (or more specifically, the ultimate supremacy of national sovereignty, even in instances where the Responsibility to Protect should clearly be invoked)–China and Russia.

Those opposed to “Western” values believe promoting “human rights” is just a way for America to impose its values abroad. I would contend human rights represent values that all people desire, by virtue of being human. Reforming the U.N.S.C. to give a General Assembly super-majority the power to overrule a U.N.S.C. veto would reveal which side of the argument is correct. I would bet the global majority would almost always land on the side of taking action to defend human dignity against any who would challenge it–terrorist or authoritarian ruler.

As the world’s largest military and a veto-possessing permanent member of the Security Council, America on the surface has the most to lose from such a reform. This is precisely why America must lead this push; if we champion this brave and uncertain approach, it would ultimately lead to a much more effective and timely defense of the very principles we hold dear. By loosening our grip on power, we would actually achieve our desired aims through a democratic process–what could be more American than that? 

Human rights violations lead to revolution and conflict, during which legitimate opposition is branded “terrorism”. Inaction by the international community leads to “hurting stalemates” and power vacuums that are filled by opportunistic extremist groups. Authoritarian governments then become the more tenable option, and their “fighting terrorism” narrative becomes self-fulfilling (despite the fact that often their abusive actions led to the uprisings in the first place). Failure to reform means we are OK with this status-quo–we should not be.

During the 70th session of the UN General Assembly, many countries called for U.N.S.C. reform. When such disparate countries with differing needs use their moment in the global spotlight to promote this common cause, it is a message that should be taken very seriously.

2) Development Aid Smoothing

This is admittedly a less developed plan, as I am no financial economist. But it remains clear to me that the world needs some sort of mechanism to smooth development aid for the world’s Least Developed Countries.

We see it time and time again–poor countries slowly slide into worsening conflict or are devastated by predictable natural disasters because:

a) The LDCs do not have the resources or capacity to address these issues preventatively;

b)  The international community cannot muster the funds, as they are all tied up in long-term humanitarian missions (likely because not enough resources were invested preventatively elsewhere–you can see why there is never a shortage of disasters, we ignore budding issues to address full blown ones. By the time those full-blown issues are under control, the ignored budding issues have festered into the new issue de jour).

The continued inability of the international community to address problems before they get worse is not only financially short-sighted, it is a failure of the U.N’s mandates and fuels the perception (and increasingly the reality) that international community is incapable of addressing the problems of the 21st century. 


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Economic Outlook: The High Cost(S) of Being Poor

I have previously written about different poverty traps in America, including our outdated criminal justice system (the “prisoner paradox”) and the developmental impacts of stress passed from mother to child. If these poverty traps seemed a bit abstract, consider a more traditional poverty trap–poor people shut out of traditional credit markets and relying on “payday” loans:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency created at President Obama’s urging in the aftermath of the financial crisis, took its most aggressive step yet on behalf of consumers on Thursday, proposing regulations to rein in short-term payday loans that often have interest rates of 400 percent or more.

“We are taking an important step toward ending the debt traps that are so pervasive in both the short-term and longer-term credit markets,” Richard Cordray, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said in a statement on Thursday.

The borrowing patterns speak to a stark reality underpinning the roughly $46 billion payday loan industry: The working poor in America, a group with virtually no savings and little access to traditional bank loans, borrow to cover basic expenses.

In drafting the rules, according to interviews with people briefed on the matter, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and its director, Mr. Cordray, wrestled with how to protect some of the most vulnerable consumers, without choking off credit entirely.

Driving the proposal was an analysis of 15 million payday loans by the consumer bureau that found that few people who have tapped short-term loans can repay them. Borrowers took out a median of 10 loans during a 12-month span, the bureau said. More than 80 percent of loans were rolled over or renewed within a two-week period.

Nearly 70 percent of borrowers use the loans, tied to their next paycheck, to pay for basic expenses, not one-time emergencies — as some within the payday lending industry have claimed.

Until now, payday lending has largely been regulated by the states. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s foray into the regulation has incited concerns among consumer advocates and some state regulators who fear that payday lenders will seize on the federal rules to water down tougher state restrictions. Fifteen states including New York, where the loans are capped at 16 percent, effectively ban the loans.

Martin Wegbreit, a legal aid lawyer in Virginia, called payday loans “toxic,” noting that “they are the leading cause of bankruptcy right behind medical and credit card debt.”

The current economic model of low minimum wages and high payday loan fees drives people into poverty, triggering welfare payments. The U.S. government is basically transferring welfare funds to the payday loan industry.

Proposed CFPB regulations don’t go far enough, a maximum cap on loan repayments is needed. There is room for generous profit margins to compensate for the risk of lending to low income individuals without creating a “debt-trap”.

The stress and time dedicated to satisfying debt collectors amplifies the cost of being poor. Surely it would be more effective to provide access to credit, instead of wringing societies least financially secure through the payday loan system. Perhaps more money would be spent on its intended purposes, instead of paying off predatory loans.

Part of the solution could be using Post Offices as low cost banks for the poor. Sure there would be costs associated with effectively providing financial services, but the physical infrastructure and a trustworthy brand already exist. Furthermore, such a plan would provide renewed social value to an American Institution constantly under budgetary scrutiny.

Postal Banks would inject competition into the credit market, leading to better services at more competitive rates. Even if Post Office banks operated at a loss (say, giving preferential rates to low income borrowers for certain purposes), this loss may be more than offset by reduced spending on entitlement programs. More research on the cross-section between welfare recipients and payday loan borrowers is needed.

It is not a question of which of these poverty traps exists–they all exist and for some people are mutually reinforcing. This is one of the reasons social mobility is such a difficult  issue to address. Countering these different reinforcing poverty traps require the right mix of regulation, fiscal policy (progressive taxation, adequate spending on welfare programs and public services), and livable minimum wages.

In the end, lower income Americans need to overcome negative perceptions of government and vote in large numbers. Again the time crunch associated with poverty rears its ugly head; voting isn’t just a decision to go to the polls, it is also a time commitment that many cannot afford.


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Transparency Report: Stress–America’s Inter-Generational Poverty Trap

The High Costs of Being Poor in America: Stress, Pain, and Worry:

Reported stress levels are higher on average in the U.S. than in Latin America. Importantly, the gap between the levels of the rich and poor is also much greater, with the U.S. poor reporting the highest levels of stress of all cohorts.

Pain, worry, sadness, and anger (reported as experienced the day before or not) are also all significantly higher among low income cohorts than among wealthy ones, while reported satisfaction with life as a whole is significantly lower, according to our analysis of Gallup data:

The cost and pain of poverty in the U.S. less about basic goods like water and electricity than nonmaterial factors: insecurity, stress, lack of opportunity and discrimination.

Stress impacts cognitive ability. Not only do poorer people have less resources to invest in human capital, due to higher levels of stress they may benefit less from every dollar they do invest. This is the stress-based poverty trap.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that this stress-based poverty trap may be inter-generational:

Stressful experiences for expectant mothers can have detrimental effects on their unborn children:

  1. “Prenatal insults,” such as harassment and discrimination, to pregnant Californian women with Arabic names after 9/11 resulted in higher rates of low birth weight babies, according to research by epidemiologist Diane Lauderdale. Babies who gestated in the weeks after 9/11 and who were given distinctive, Arabic names experienced a two-fold increase in underweight births compared to those who gestated before. Babies born to mothers with non-Arabic names experienced no such effect.
  2. Children in utero during a 40-day ice storm crisis in Québec  had lower scores on tests of vocabulary and psychological measures at age 5.
  3. Using the timing of Ramadan as a natural experiment, economists Douglas Almond and Bhashkar Mazumder find persistent effects of prenatal fasting on disability outcomes as an adult.


Why? One strong possibility is that mothers send biological signals to their fetuses, providing information about the outside world and thereby helping prioritize different aspects of fetal development. Some scientists now believe this process actually alters which genes get “switched on” in newborns.


Are We All “Born Equal”?

Ideally, people would only have children when they are financially secure and emotionally ready. In reality this is not the case, and I for one cannot think of a way of achieving this ideal without grossly invading peoples privacy. Given this reality, how can we reduce stress levels in pregnant women?

One obvious past-due reform is legislating paid maternity leave. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave. Considering the potential link between maternal and fetal stress levels, perhaps maternity leave should begin earlier in pregnancy. This is not only a women’s rights issue, it is a social mobility issue as well.

Other avenues for progress could be informational. Poorer women are less likely to use contraception or have abortions. Abortions are also less common among poorer women, reflecting both the cost and perhaps the percieved stigma surrounding the practice (a source of stress itself). In  “Freakonomics” Steve Dubner and Steve Levner attribute dropping crime rates in the 90s primarily to the legalization of abortions in the 70s (Roe v. Wade). While abortion may be controvertial, the effects of having unwanted children are far more costly to society.   

When considering intentional pregnancy, it is common knowledge that women take great care concerning what they ingest during pregnancy. However, notably less attention is paid to stress levels. Should doctors be informing women about the impact of stress on their unborn children? Should they be promoting stress reducing activities like prenatal yoga / meditation?

Promoting equality of opportunity and social mobility requires support at all points in life. Some people need support from birth throughout young-adulthood, others need retraining later in life, while others at certain intervals in-between. This is why we see so many different programs and proposals targeting different age cohorts: universal pre-K, subsidized meals / greater school choice in primary and secondary schools, free community college / Pell Grants / “student bill of rights“.

While it may be ideal to promote policies that reduce everyone’s insecurity, early intervention is less politically contentious. A growing body of evidence suggests the earlier the intervention, the greater the “return on investment”. Furthermore, one cannot reasonably appeal to the  “personal accountability” argument when opposing welfare programs targeting unborn / young children.

Promoting equality of opportunity and social mobility are undoubtedly difficult and expensive, but they are at the root of the American Dream. Furthermore, enabling everyone to realize their full potential spurs innovation and economic growth, and would save money later in life on welfare and criminal justice spending.

As the natural and social sciences advance and become more cooperative, insights such as this will continue to present themselves. As Americans, it is up to us to reject anti-intellectualism and false budgetary restraints, and elect leaders who will turn these insights into effective public policies.


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Greece, Birthplace of Democracy, Needs A Democratic Lifeline

No More Blood From A Greek Stone:

It appears Greece’s government has come up with a list of reforms it and its creditors can agree upon in return for 4 months of bridge financing to restructure the conditions of a longer-term growth strategy.

By trading structural reforms for fiscal space, each major player (Greece and Germany) is making major concessions in the name of pragmatism. Germany is relaxing its dogmatic belief  in fiscal targets to provide the Greek government with the fiscal space needed to restructure its economy without exacerbating its “humanitarian crisis”. Greece, in return, must officially bring to an end the era of lax tax collection and over-rigidity in the labor market.

Both sides are making major concessions, neither side is 100% happy, and its appears as if middle ground has been found–all signs of a meaningful compromise. One can only hope that when Greece’s list of reforms comes in on Monday, both sides of this debate remain on the same page:

Greece’s list of reforms to be submitted to the euro zone on Monday comprises pledges on structural issues such as tax evasion and corruption over the next four months without specific targets, a government official said on Saturday.

The accord requires Greece to submit by Monday a letter to the Eurogroup listing all the policy measures it plans to take during the remainder of the bailout period.

If the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund are satisfied, the Eurogroup is likely to endorse the list in a teleconference without the need for a formal meeting. Then euro zone member states will need to ratify the extension, where necessary through their parliaments.

There will not be specific figures or targets to be achieved tied to the goals, the official said, adding that the two sides had not yet discussed how Greece would be evaluated on the reforms.

EU officials and euro zone ministers said they had no reason to think Greece would not come up with a satisfactory list of measures on Monday night. However, some hawkish countries have insisted that if there are doubts, the Eurogroup would have to reconvene in Brussels.

Structural reforms are inherently difficult to implement. In order to make the difficult task of taking on strong interest groups politically possible, an overwhelming popular mandate is needed. The need for strong public backing becomes even more important during times of high unemployment, when those lucky enough to remain employed are (quite rationally) more afraid of losing their jobs.

According to a recent opinion poll, 68% of Greeks want a “fair compromise” with the EU; even after years of economic suffering, the vast majority of Greeks remain steadfast in their believe in the E.U.. Such support must be seized upon, it will not last forever.

What Greece needs now is a pro-growth, structural reform based bailout plan, not a continuation of its failed blood-from-a-stone internal-devaluation based “recovery”. Reducing it’s primary surplus while collecting greater tax receipts would open up the fiscal space Greece needs to both deal with its humanitarian crisis and create a safety-net for those adversely affected by labor market reforms as the economy readjusts. 

The past 6 years have had a deep psycho-economic effect on the Greek people. With overall unemployment at 26% and youth unemployment at 50%, to go along with a 24% contraction in GDP, the Greek economy has been ravaged. Lack of control over monetary policy (as all members of the Eurozone face) has limited Greece’s policy space, it must be allowed to regain some control over fiscal policy.

Greeks have suffered enough and have learned their lessons–these next four months are an opportunity to prove it. In addition to any external monitoring imposed as part of this deal, the Greek people must prove they can be their own corruption watchdog and can pay their taxes.

Fighting wealthy tax evaders may be a popular political platform and merited on social justice grounds, but in order to pay-down Greek debt without compromising human development, a widespread cultural acceptance towards paying taxes is required. There is no doubt Greece has been too lax in collecting taxes in the past, but this does not need to be an irrevocable problem. Through legislative reform and social accountability, Greece can overcome it’s culture of tax evasion.

Locking in long-term labor market reforms, without driving more people into poverty and exacerbating the “lost generation” of young Greeks, should be the mutual goal between Greece and it’s creditors. In fact, this could be a potential blueprint for other economically depressed European countries to renegotiate their social contracts with the EU. Democratic governance derives its legitimacy from the will of the governed; if peoples basic needs are not met, democratic governance cannot be sustained.

Greece is not in the clear yet. But by finding this acceptable middle ground, the foundations of a sustainable solution for keeping the Eurozone intact may have been laid.

Reversing the Democratic Recession:

Neither side of this debate should have to pretend that keeping the Eurozone unified is an unimportant political, economic, foreign relations and security consideration. Greece staying in the E.U. is important for Greece, Germany, the E.U. and any country with aspirations of democratic governance:

[Stamford University democracy expert] Diamond adds, “perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic recession has been the decline of democratic efficacy, energy, and self-confidence” in America and the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock and corruption through campaign financing, the world’s leading democracy is increasingly dysfunctional, with government shutdowns and the inability to pass something as basic as a budget. “The world takes note of all this,” says Diamond. “Authoritarian state media gleefully publicize these travails of American democracy in order to discredit democracy in general and immunize authoritarian rule against U.S. pressure.”

If anything, the U.S. has been the poster-child for prosperity through democracy compared to the E.U.. Regardless, twin “democratic recessions” of varying degrees on both sides of the Atlantic have compromised the appeal of democratic governance abroad. Spreading Islamophobia, antisemitism, and xenophobia throughout Europe–side effects of Europe’s failed economic policies–compromise the appeal of Western values and galvanize authoritarian and extremist messages. 

ISIS finds itself at Italy’s back-door geographically in Libya. But ideologically, ISIS could not be further away from European ideals. Ultimately, reversing the democratic recession and countering authoritarian and extremist ideals requires. among other things, proving democracy remains a viable path to widespread freedom and prosperity.

“Western” countries cannot push Greece towards China / Russia for a bailout. We, like Greece, finds ourselves at an inflection point–we must  prove that democracy in a first world country can satisfy peoples basic needs. Failure to do so could lead to a long-term setback in promoting modernization, human rights, and democratic governance in the worlds least developed countries.


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Economic Outlook: Of Minimum Wages and Employment (Revisited)

Another hot button topic during the 2014 midterm election season are candidates stances on increasing the federal minimum wage.

This past February, the CBO released its analysis of the effects of a federal minimum wage increase on economic growth, employment, and poverty. Those on the political right seized on the reports projection that raising the minimum wage could result in 1 million fewer jobs in America.

I found Jared Bernstein’s Economix blog on the subject pretty even-handed (click here to see my previous blog on the topic):

It is important to recognize that there is a very wide range of estimates from which the budget agency can choose, as shown in the chart below, which plots results of the employment effect from dozens of studies (from a recent set of slides from the White House Council of Economic Advisers).  This wide range does not imply that the budget office made a mistake, though it looks to me as if it applied a higher job-loss estimate than is the current consensus among economists who’ve closely studied the issue.

Note:

As the chart shows, the employment impact from this “meta-analysis” clumps around zero, which is why the report finds that the policy is a significant net plus from the perspective of low-wage workers: Many more workers get a raise from the policy than are displaced from their jobs.” (Jared Bernstein, Economix blog)

There is no policy I can think of that generates only benefits without any costs, and policy makers always have to weigh the two sides. In the case of the minimum wage, on the benefits side of ledger, the budget office shows that 16.5 million low-wage workers would directly get a much-needed pay increase at no cost to the federal budget.

16.5 million workers will benefit from a $10.10 minimum wage by 2016, 900,000 will be raised out of poverty, with negligible effects on the federal budget.

The CBO report was a projection. What have minimum wage “experiments”, carried out in America’s “laboratories of democracy” (states and municipalities), revealed?

The White House told us they were referring to the seasonally adjusted growth of non-farm jobs since December 2013. So we crunched the numbers for state-level employment data, which is collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The comparison involved nine states that increased their minimum wage automatically early in the year to keep pace with inflation (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington) plus four more states that passed new laws to hike the wage (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island). The other side consisted of 37 states that didn’t boost their minimum wage at all.

Using the second method — the one that gives greater weight to high-population states — we found that job growth over that eight-month period averaged 1.092 percent in the wage-raising states, compared to 1.090 percent in the non-wage-raising states. That’s a higher rate of job growth in the minimum-wage-raising states — but by the almost comically narrow margin of 2/1,000ths of one percent.

From this 8-month comparative analysis, we can see that minimum wage changes have had essentially no impact on employment levels. The meta-analysis seems to have been vindicated–I guess economists are good for something after-all.

What does this mean? Which stance on minimum wage increases has been vindicated? I would say it has to be the pro-minimum-wage-increase side of the debate.

Increasing the federal minimum wage is not meant to be a “job-creating” policy; its primary purpose is to redistribute income from the top of the economic pyramid (wage payers) to the bottom (wage earners). It is a “market” solution that does not require taxation and welfare spending, so money would not go to those “lazy welfare recipients” (this is not my view, however a significant proportion of Americans do view welfare recipients this way, and it is necessary to consider alternative perspectives when trying to pass legislation in a democracy).

One may think such an inequality / poverty reducing solution would be agreeable to proponents of “small government”, and one would be wrong. Since opponents of increasing the minimum wage cannot assail deficit spending going to undeserving recipients, they have relied on the “jobs lost” argument. Fortunately, this argument becomes less and less viable the more it is challenged and disproven.

Raising the minimum wage does not just address the “symptoms” of inequality / poverty–there are important long term / inter-generational implications of minimum wage increases. Having more money enables people to build their skills, take more entrepreneurial risks, and provide better upbringings for their children (which obviously affects their earning capacity later in life).

“Meta-analysis” of the effects of minimum wage increases on employment clustered around zero, and these findings have been backed up by the non-partisan statistics produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I work for the BLS, although my job has nothing to do with employment statistics).

The mechanism by which minimum wage increases raises poorer peoples income is straightforward. How people would choose to use their new-found income is less straightforward–some will predominately invest in into their and their families futures, while others will use the majority for instant gratification. While not as targeted as a welfare program, raising the minimum wage is the most politically viable solution to America’s inequality problems.

Contemporary American political discourse is dominated by the related themes of “equality of opportunity” and “social mobility”. Raising the federal minimum wage would bring immediate relief to America’s poorest workers, while moving closer to the utopian goal of “equality of opportunity”. Furthermore, it would accomplish these goals without any meaningful impact on employment rates or the federal budget.

Some redistribution of income in necessary; inequality is a drag on economic growth, and poverty is a root cause of many other societal ills. History has proven over and over again that “trickle-down” economics does not work. Minimum wages should also be linked to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), periodically (once per year?) increasing to reflect changes in cost of living.

If our federal government continues to fail in this regard, leaders at the state and municipal level must step-up–this is a matter of both present and future socioeconomic justice.

 


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Economic Outlook: Shortsighted Austerity

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In the aftermath of the global economic crisis, more than 70 per cent of the world population is without proper social protections, the United Nations labour agency today reported, urging governments to scale up investment in child and family benefits, pensions and other public expenditures.

“The global community agreed in 1948 that social security and health care for children, working age people who face unemployment or injury and older persons are a universal human right,” said Sandra Polaski, Deputy Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

“And yet in 2014 the promise of universal social protection remains unfilled for the large majority of the world’s population.”

As many as 122 governments are contracting public expenditures in 2014, of which 82 are developing countries, according to the findings of the World Social Protection Report 2014/15: Building economic recovery, inclusive development and social justice.

“The case for social protection is even more compelling in these times of economic uncertainty, low growth and increased inequality,” Ms. Polaski added, noting that it is also an issue that the international community should embrace prominently in the development agenda following the Millennium Development Goals deadline in 2015.

At the beginning of the 2008-2009 economic crisis, at least 48 high- and middle-income countries put in place stimulus packages totalling $2.4 trillion that devoted roughly a quarter to social protection measures.

But from 2010 onwards, many governments reversed course and embarked prematurely on fiscal consolidation, despite the urgent need to continue supporting vulnerable populations and stabilizing consumption.

In the European Union, cuts in social protection have already contributed to increases in poverty which now affect 123 million people or 24 per cent of the population, many of whom are children, women, older persons and persons with disabilities, the ILO reported.

The report also shows that about 39 per cent of the world population lacks any affiliation to a health system or scheme. The number reaches more than 90 per cent in low-income countries.

The report also highlights the cases of Thailand and South Africa, which have achieved universal health coverage in just a few years, showing that it can be done.

“It is now a matter of political will to make it a reality. Modern society can afford to provide social protection,” Ms. Polaski stated.

Macroeconomic Implications:

The Macroeconomic implications of premature austerity are fairly straightforward. Keynesian national income accounting tells us that insufficient private demand can be compensated for with increased public spending (Y = C + I + G + M-X). For the world as a whole, net exports (X-M) are, by definition, 0. Therefore, when global private demand (consumption, “C”) goes down, it can be compensated for by only be increasing stimulus spending (or cutting taxes, but the economic multiplier of tax cuts is lower than for stimulus spending, especially in a liquidity trap when even near zero interest rates are insufficient to stimulate private demand to full employment levels).

If C and G are both insufficiently low, we get dangerously close to deflation–something almost every modernized economy is aggressively trying to avoid at the moment. High levels of debt and deflation causes a vicious economic cycle, where government spending cuts results in a higher level of “real” debt (even though the gross number associated with debt is reduced, the real value of that debt–what it can buy–goes up). This is one of the things that made the Great Depression so painful for so many people; as the programs that would have helped them were cut, the countries fiscal position worsened, leading to further cuts.

Microeconomic Implications:

It is the effect on people, on human development, that we truly care about here at Normative Narratives. In the context of high unemployment, one could see how cutting welfare programs, government jobs, etc. could be particularly painful on already vulnerable groups. I would need to conduct more in depth analysis of specific cuts in specific countries to speak on exactly how these cuts have negatively impacted people. The report highlights high unemployment and lack of access to healthcare as specific impacts of premature austerity movements.

One human rights violation opens the way for others, often resulting in [extreme] poverty. For example, without access to safe drinking water or sanitation services, people become sick. Lack of access to healthcare can cause a person to lose their job. Lack of access to a quality job means a person is reliant on personal savings (which poor people tend not to have) and welfare programs (which, remember, are being cut). A shock or crisis that may result in a minor inconvenience for someone whose human rights are fulfilled can be catastrophic for those less fortunate. In Europe, the combination of high unemployment and austerity is resulting in a “lost generation” of potential, and that’s Europe! In places with extreme poverty, weak financial institutions, and unresponsive governance, the human costs of premature austerity are naturally greater.

While I think a basic income guarantee is probably fiscally unsustainable (and in a country like the U.S., politically impossible), I do strongly believe in government job guarantee programs. Anyone who is willing to work hard to make their community / city / state / country a better place should be able to make an honest living doing so (just as anybody who is willing to defend U.S. national security can get a job in the military). Of course this would require greater levels of taxation and public spending, not less.

The combination of corporate income tax minimization (from “inversion“, off-shore tax dodging, and government subsidies / tax breaks / and other loopholes in tax codes) and companies forgoing workers for capital is unsustainable–companies are reaping record after tax profits while people suffer without having their basic rights fulfilled. As a result, tax reform and guaranteed public employment must figure more prominently in future political economy debates and policies.


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Green News: The Roles of “Rich” and “Poor” Countries in Combating Climate Change

Major Polluters: 

A rule proposed by the Enivironmental Protection Agency would cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 – the equivalent, according to the agency, of taking two-thirds of all cars and trucks in America off the road. Here are some things to know about the rule:

• The E.P.A. expects that under the regulation, 30 percent of electricity in the United States will still come from coal by 2030, down from about 40 percent today.

• The rule is not an executive order. Under the Clean Air Act, the E.P.A. is required to regulate any substance defined as a pollutant, which the law defined as substances that endanger human life and health. A 2007 Supreme Court decision led to an E.P.A. determination that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, thus requiring that the agency regulate it or be in violation of the law.

• The rule will not, on its own, lower greenhouse gas pollution enough to prevent catastrophic effects of climate change. But, in combination with other regulations, it would allow the United States to meet its commitment to the United Nations to cut carbon pollution 17 percent by 2020 and press other major polluting countries, particularly China and India, to follow suit.

Energy production accounted for 26% of global GHG emissions in 2008, the largest source by sector. If the United States can cut its own emissions from energy production by shifting towards renewable energies and natural gas, and pressure other leading emitters to follow suit, this could significantly mitigate the environmental damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions. Countries such as China and India will point to comparatively high levels of U.S. per capita emissions to counter pressure from the U.S. to reduce their emissions.

Least Developing Countries (LDCs):

Access to energy is an essential component of modernization, poverty alleviation, and economic development. According to the International Energy Agency, 1.3 billion people (18% of the global population) live without access to electricity, 95% of which live in Sub Saharan Africa or developing Asia. In order to reconcile two fundamental components of sustainable human development–environmental sustainability and [extreme] poverty alleviation–the worlds least developed countries will need to satisfy their energy needs from low / zero emission sources.

There are a number of reasons to believe LDCs will rise to this challenge. As largely agrarian economies, LDCs face the negative impacts of climate change directly; food / water insecurity and communicable disease patterns are directly affected by changing climate patterns. Furthermore, because traditional energy infrastructure by definition does not exist in places without access to energy, the perceived “sunk costs” associated with renewable energy are largely non-existent.

However, LDCs face one large impediment to clean energy production–cost. As refined production techniques, market penetration, and creative financing drive down the price of renewable energy in the developed world, it is imperative that the technology gap be bridged to include LDCs in the renewable energy revolution. If the 18% of the global population without access to energy instead gain access to dirtier forms of energy, the actions of developed countries to combat climate change could be almost entirely negated.   

Despite this cost gap and shortfalls in pledged financing from developed countries, developing nations accounted for 43% of new renewable energy investment in 2013 ($93 billion out of a global total of $214 billion). However, only $9 billion of this investment came from Sub-Saharan Africa. Efforts to provide financing for renewable energy to those who currently lack access to any form of energy are at crux of sustainable human development, and must be scaled up immediately.

To this end, developed countries have pledged $100 billion per year in “climate aid” by 2020–if realized this would more than double investment in renewable energy in LDCs. Developing a global network of carbon taxation / cap and trade policies (or even a less ambitious patchwork of policies by the worlds largest emitters) can provide a steady revenue stream to ensure such aid is delivered.

Which countries are considered “rich” (and therefore are donor countries), and which countries are considered “poor” (and therefor aid recipients)? Once consensus is reached on this contentious issue, the question of how much aid each specific donor country should contribute remains (between historically high emitters / high per capita emitting “rich” countries, and current high emitting “emerging economies” such as China and India). These are the  challenges world leaders must work together to overcome while drafting the Post-2015 Climate Agreement / Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Neither “rich” nor “poor” countries can adequately address global environmental risks alone–concerted action is needed.  


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Economic Outlook: Of Minimum Wages and Employment

The CBO released its analysis of the employment and budgetary effects of minimum wage increase yesterday. Advocates from both sides of the isle will seize on the reports findings to “prove their point” about the (de)merits of increasing the minimum wage. I found Jared Bernstein’s Economix blog on the subject pretty even-handed:

It is important to recognize that there is a very wide range of estimates from which the budget agency can choose, as shown in the chart below, which plots results of the employment effect from dozens of studies (from a recent set of slides from the White House Council of Economic Advisers).  This wide range does not imply that the budget office made a mistake, though it looks to me as if it applied a higher job-loss estimate than is the current consensus among economists who’ve closely studied the issue.

Note:

As the chart shows, the employment impact from this “meta-analysis” clumps around zero, which is why the report finds that the policy is a significant net plus from the perspective of low-wage workers: Many more workers get a raise from the policy than are displaced from their jobs.

In fact, the study points out that the range, or confidence interval, around their central estimate ranges from a “very slight decrease” to one million.  The authors guess that there’s a two-thirds chance that the true estimate is in that range.

There is no policy I can think of that generates only benefits without any costs, and policy makers always have to weigh the two sides. In the case of the minimum wage, on the benefits side of ledger, the budget office shows that 16.5 million low-wage workers would directly get a much-needed pay increase at no cost to the federal budget.

There is one paragraph of the report Bernstein does not seize on, which I believe merits greater consideration:

An increase in the minimum wage also affects the
employment of low-wage workers in the short term
through changes in the economy-wide demand for goods
and services. A higher minimum wage shifts income from
higher-wage consumers and business owners to low-wage
workers. Because those low-wage workers tend to spend a
larger fraction of their earnings, some firms see increased
demand for their goods and services, boosting the
employment of low-wage workers and higher-wage
workers alike. That effect is larger when the economy is
weaker, and it is larger in regions of the country where
the economy is weaker. (p. 7)

The positive employment effect of increasing the minimum wage (redistributing money to lower income individuals who, by definition, spend a greater share of every dollar earned; i.e. people who have a higher “marginal propensity to consume”) is “larger when the economy is weaker“.

Can there be any question that the economy is currently very weak? Specifically, aggregate demand is most depressed for the poorest, who have seen decreases in real household income over the past decade(s) (as opposed to the wealthiest 1%, who have captured 95% of income gains since 2009).

It is, therefore, quite reasonable to assume that job losses will be closer to the “very slight decrease” end of the CBO range, if indeed they are negative at all (an assumption that is directly in line with “the current consensus of economists who have studied the issue closely”).

The other findings of the report are fairly straightforward: 16.5 million workers will benefit from a $10.10 minimum wage by 2016, 900,000 will be raised out of poverty, with negligible effects on the federal budget:

“CBO concludes that the net effect on the federal
budget of raising the minimum wage would probably be
a small decrease in budget deficits for several years but a
small increase in budget deficits thereafter.” (p. 14)

Given that any budget forecast after “several years from now” borders on divination, one can even conclude that raising the minimum wage would actually result in a net gain for the federal budget. Spending on automatic stabilizers will fall (automatically) as poorer families / individuals rise above certain income thresholds. On the other hand, lower tax revenues are estimated to come from wealthier individuals, whom tend to find ways to have an effective tax rates below what their income bracket would suggest. In other words, spending cuts will occur automatically, while drops in tax revenue are considering tax revenues that may never have been realized in the first place.

As Mr. Bernstein concluded, no policy change is without trade-offs. However, it seems pretty clear that, in the current context, the benefits of increasing the minimum wage far outweigh the losses. So when you hear conservative politicians beating the “1,000,000 jobs lost drum” and/or the “increasing the deficit drum” over the next few  months, question whether that estimate is reasonable or simply an attempt to turn public support against a common sense policy reform.


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Transparency Report: Thailand’s Anti-Democracy Protests

Original article:

In a world now accustomed to democratic upheavals, including the Arab Spring and the Saffron and Orange Revolutions, the weeks of political upheaval in Thailand stand out for one main peculiarity. Protesters massing on the streets here are demanding less democracy, not more.

From their stage beneath the Democracy Monument, a Bangkok landmark, protesters cheer their campaign to replace Parliament with a “people’s council” in which members are selected from various professions rather than elected by voters.

The embattled prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has proposed new elections as a solution to the turmoil. But that is just what the protesters do not want.

In today’s fractured Thailand, a majority wants more democracy, but a minority, including many rich and powerful people, is petrified by the thought of it.

Because a number of the protest leaders are members of Thailand’s wealthiest families, some have described the demonstrations here as the antithesis of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is the 1 percent rebelling against the 99 percent, they say.

The reality is more complicated — the protesters include rich and poor, Bangkok residents and many people from southern Thailand who feel disenfranchised by the current government and its northern power base. What unites the protesters is the desire to dismantle Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, which has won every election since 2001.

The anti-democracy protests, which have been some of the largest in Thai history, call into question the commonly held belief that a rising tide of wealth in a society will naturally be followed by greater demands for democracy. Thailand today is much richer than it was two decades ago, but it is also much more divided.

On the face of it, the crux of the protest appears to be a classic power struggle between a dominant majority and a minority frustrated by its losing streak in elections and its inability to influence national policies in a winner-takes-all, highly centralized system.

But Thailand’s crisis is multifaceted and tightly intertwined with the fact that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s 86-year-old monarch, who during more than six decades on the throne has been revered to the point of quasi-religious devotion, is ailing and that the country is bracing for his death.

More broadly, Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a leading Thai scholar on the monarchy, argues that Thailand’s protracted political turmoil has been exacerbated by the contrast between a deified king and politicians who appear crass and venal in contrast. “We have an image of monarchy that is flawlessly excellent in everything,” he said in 2010. “If we had not built this image in the first place, we would not have so many problems and complaints with politicians.

Respect for the king, and the notion of his near-infallibility and beneficence, are deeply ingrained in Thais from the earliest years of schooling.

This blog is concerning the legitimacy of protests calling for replacing the democratically elected government with an appointed “peoples council”. There are two central tenets of liberal democracy I will base this analysis on:

1) Liberal democracy is meant to uphold the will of the majority, while protecting the rights of the minority.

2) Everyone is viewed as equal in the eyes of the government; no one person has more or less influence over political outcomes than another.

Based on uncontested election results, and the fact that protesters are not satisfied with the proposition of early elections offered by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, one can assume the protesters represent a minority of Thailand’s population. Based on this article, there is no evidence that the rights of this minority are being infringed upon.

Protesters cannot claim a mismanagement of the economy, as the per capita GNI has more than doubled over the past decade. Thailand’s HDI has been trending upwards for decades, and it’s poverty rates have been going down for years (accompanied by a decline in the Gini inequality index)–the current democratic governance structure surely has some merits.  One particular area of concern is Thailand’s level of perceived corruption / lack of transparency, however a move away from democracy would likely exacerbate this problem.

It seems rather that protesters, unhappy with populist policies that do not directly benefit them, are trying to change the policy making process to one which they can control. Such a move would be a violation of the two tenets of liberal democracy listed above. It would amount to upholding the will of the minority while violating the political rights of the majority. It would also give more power to the desires of select individuals.

To appease the opposition, the government should consider changing its parliament from a “first past the poll” system to a proportional representation system, to ensure a plurality of opinions in policy making. The government should also consider expanding civilian oversight mechanisms, to increase transparency and allay fears of corruption / embezzlement.

To become a more effective political party, the opposition should consider embracing policies which have had success in reducing poverty / inequality while simultaneously increasing economic growth. Such pragmatism is a necessary component for the continued relevance of any political party; in democracies everywhere, parties which do not embrace popular and effective policies tend to fall by the wayside.  

So far, the King and the military have stayed out of this fight, hopefully they will continue to do so and allow the democratic process to fix the unrest it has caused. Thailand should not dismantle its democratic system, which has a long history of effective governance.