Normative Narratives


The Progressive Case For More Moderate Policies

If President Trump has had any positive effect on American politics, it’s that people are more engaged than ever. Think about it, when was the last time you heard that lazy complaint that “both parties are the same”?

Not only are the parties not the same, there are big differences within at least one of them. The GOP has become the party of Trump, but significant philosophical and policy differences exist within the Democratic Party. There are “progressives” like Warren and Sanders, “moderates” like Buttigeg, Biden and Klobuchar, and even an outsider-entrepreneur-populist in Andrew Yang.

When considering an ideal platform to run on, I am not talking about my personal preferences, or what may play well in politically uncompetitive parts of the country. Rather I am talking about two things:

  1. What best addresses the nation’s needs;
  2. What is most likely to appeal to independents and moderates, whose turnout and swing votes could be the determining factors in the 2020 election (electability).

Admittedly, “what best addresses the nation’s needs”, is opinion. In the next section I will defend my opinion that more moderate policies, and more of them, best addresses the nation’s needs. What is most likely to appeal to swing voters, however, is not opinion–it is moderate policies. This is common sense, strongly backed by a recent New York Times analysis of undecided voters:

“These potentially persuadable voters are divided on major issues like single-payer health care, immigration and taxes. But they are fairly clear about what they would like from a Democrat. They prefer, by 82 percent to 11 percent, one who promises to find common ground over one who promises to fight for a progressive agenda; and they prefer a moderate over a liberal, 75 percent to 19 percent.”

Making America Greater Than It’s Ever Been

After decades of inadequately investing in most Americans, many changes are needed to bring some semblance of equality of opportunity to this country.

Progressive Democrats focus on free college and healthcare, but economic opportunity goes beyond free or affordable versions of these things. It is not just healthcare and higher education reform that are needed, but also: early childhood development initiatives, investments in worker (re)training and apprenticeships, addressing student loan debt, a major infrastructure plan, an ambitious green economy plan, and perhaps the beginnings of a Federal work guarantee program (which is the real solution to automation). In other words, a realistic version of the Green New Deal.

By embracing more middle-of-the-road policies to address healthcare and college tuition costs, there is more fiscal space and political capital to spend on these other priorities. Lets consider the big ticket plans, as well as their more moderate alternatives:

“Medicare for All” vs. the “Public Option”

  • People will argue that Medicare for All is “socialism”, that it is “European”, not “American”. Yes, these are dumb arguments, unfortunately that does not matter when a large portion of the country believes them.
  • The public option–letting anyone who wants to buy into Medicare do so–on the other hand, embraces two core American values–choice and competition. It simply provides, as the name implies, an option.
    • As with the ACA, subsidies would be provided for people depending on their income.
  • One of the main reasons the ACA is less effective than it could be (aside from constantly being undermined by the GOP) is lack of providers in many areas.
  • There is more support for a public option than Medicare for all, and the gap is widening.
  • The public option is, of course, less expensive (by varying amounts, depending on the details of the plan).

Even Senator Warren’s path to “Medicare for All” is essentially just passing a public option at first, and then trying to pass a single payer health insurance law at a later date.

Free College Tuition vs. Free Community College

If someone knows they want to go to college, and is committed to seeing it through to degree completion, they should be encouraged and enabled to do so. The data shows that the higher your education level, the more you earn and the more likely you are to be employed. However, nothing good comes from a recent high school grad taking out a loan for a program they have no intention of completing, because they have been convinced that doing anything else would be a mistake.

  • Most student loan debt is driven by people attending for-profit colleges for a semester or two and then dropping out. Without the earnings bump one realizes from getting a degree, they find themselves stuck in debt.
  • We have all heard horror stories of people graduating with 6 figure debt, but these people are the loud minority of student loan debtors, and will likely be able to pay that debt off in the future.
    • For those who pursued or want to pursue expensive degrees in order to work for the social good, there are programs to help them pay down their debt (programs which can be expanded).
  • After years of conventional wisdom unwisely saying “everyone should get a degree”, the downsides of such thinking have become apparent; the decreased value of a bachelor’s degree (as they become much more common), and the increased cost (as more demand drives up prices).
  • Free Community College allows unsure young adults see if a bachelor’s degree is for them, or whether they want to go another route, without the burden of student loan debt.
    • State’s public higher education systems need to create as seamless a transition as possible from their associate’s to bachelor’s degree programs. By doing so, they would effectively be cutting the cost of a bachelor’s degree in half.
    • Some people do not want or need to pursue a bachelor’s degree, and that’s OK! This is not evidence of some moral or cognitive deficiency, nor is it a sentence to a life of poverty. We as a society need to better promote the alternatives, meaning;
    • High Schools, Community Colleges, and businesses need to provide more vocational training and apprenticeship opportunities, particularly since these jobs are projected to grow and more young Americans are beginning to show interest in them.
  • As with the public option, providing free community college would be significantly cheaper than making all public college tuition free.

Should any “moderate” plan be fully implemented, America would be immeasurably more progressive than it is today. All the progressives out there, if they truly care about social progress, should be out celebrating in the streets if a public option or free community college ever become the law of the land.

Progressive Taxation

Because bigger ticket plans are so expensive, progressive candidates have had to become innovative on taxation, most notably by proposing a wealth tax. There are also more familiar ideas to increase tax revenues, such as increasing higher end income and corporate tax rates, raising the capital gains tax, and introducing a value added tax. Then there is also adequately funding the IRS, so it can better enforce tax law.

Every other wealthy country in the world generates more tax revenue relative to its GDP than the U.S. Despite what Trump may say, I am not comparing the U.S. to socialist countries with failed states; these are the G7–literally the 6 wealthiest countries in the world after after the U.S.

Source: OECD

Note this chart ends at 2017; the U.S. figure is probably about 1% lower for 2018 after the GOP passed it’s new tax bill. That might not sound like much, but remember 1% of the $20 trillion dollar U.S. economy is about $200 billion dollars.

Doing a very rough back-of-the-napkin calculation, if the U.S. collected at the G7 average, it would easily bring in 1.5 trillion more tax dollars per year. I don’t care if your priority is reducing poverty, environmental protection, building up our military, providing better services to veterans, paying down the debt, or literally anything else, we should all be able to agree as a nation that we are leaving too much tax revenue on the table.

Moderate Democrats must also embrace more progressive taxation. For one, it hits on the widespread belief that the wealthy do not pay their fair share of taxes. Furthermore, if a candidate wants to propose a buffet of policies instead of a few main courses, it will still cost a lot of money. Being a moderate Democrat shouldn’t necessarily mean spending less, but rather spending differently. To do this responsibly still requires embracing much more progressive taxation. 

The Uneven Political Playing Field

Due to a number of factors (Gerrymandering in the House, less populous states being disproportionately represented in the Senate, the Electoral College), Trump’s GOP does not need to win national popular support to stay in power. Instead it will double down on lies, partisan attacks and other scare tactics to try to rile up its base.

The Democratic party cannot play this game. While Democrats have to be tough on Trump, they also have to try to appeal to some conservative voters. If the Democratic Party tries a mirror approach, appealing primarily to extreme progressives while ignoring moderate Democrats, conservatives and independents, all it will accomplish is breaking its own 2016 record of winning the popular vote by the largest margin in history while losing the Presidency.

Think about it, people who support the most progressive policies tend to be clustered in big cities–cities that already vote Democratic. Increasing turnout of this voting block would have less of an effect on the election than one may think.

Thanks to his words and actions, Trump has put previously uncompetitive areas in play–the so called “suburban slide” in the south. The Democratic party must seize on this opportunity and try to appeal to these voters. The party’s progressive wing should not punish it for playing smart politics; as the past three years have shown, the stakes are too high.

A New New Deal

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe absent grand policies like “Medicare for All”, “Free College”, or “$1,000 a month for everyone”, the excitement just isn’t there for any Democratic candidate and Trump wins again. Maybe most voters don’t have the capacity or desire to consider a platform that addresses the issues facing this nation with targeted policies.

Or maybe people do want that type of platform, but don’t think politicians can actually deliver it. This is a much more reasonable argument; the Federal government hasn’t been particularly effective in recent history, and it is easier to pass two bills than five.

To this I say that, in America, fatalism is self-fulfilling. If we say, “we can’t pass those bills”, and don’t even try, then we certainly we won’t pass them. If we say “we can’t tax the rich, they’ll just dodge it”, then that becomes the reality (as it has already begun to be).

Yes, there will be difficulties along the way–there always are when taking on wealthy interests. Globalization has made tax evasion more difficult to police. Today’s hyper-partisan political environment has made it harder to pass legislation that actually reflects the will of the vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum. BUT WE MUST TRY. To quote FDR:

“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.”

American democracy has driven some truly incredible advances in human progress and social fairness in the past, and there is nothing structurally stopping it from doing so again. The New Deal, which today’s Democratic party seems to want to emulate, was itself a large package of targeted policies addressing specific needs.

More moderate policies, and more of them, has been and continues to be the right approach to addressing the many challenges facing our nation. It also happens to be the more broadly popular–and therefore electable–platform. Whether a candidate with such a platform can make it through the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, however, remains to be seen.


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Economic Outlook: Bill De Blasio, Stop-and-Frisk, and “A Tale of Two Cities”

Large cities present unique security environments, perhaps none more-so than New York City.  It is therefore unsurprising that the future of “stop-and-frisk” was the focus of much debate during the recent NYC mayoral election. In order to give police officers a tool to proactively prevent crime, “stop-and-frisk” was deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio:

The court agreed with the police that officers face uncertain and dangerous situations on the streets—circumstances that can potentially threaten both law enforcement officers and the public. For this reason, police officers need a set of flexible responses that allow them to react based on the information they possess.

Under the Terry ruling, a police officer may stop and detain a person based on reasonable suspicion. And, if the police reasonably suspect the person is armed and dangerous, they may also frisk him or her for weapons.

What exactly is Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion is defined by a set of factual circumstances that would lead a reasonable police officer to believe criminal activity is occurring. This is different from the probable cause (what a reasonable person would believe) required for an arrest, search, and seizure. If the stop and frisk gives rise to probable cause to believe the detainee has committed a crime, then the police officer should have the power to make a formal arrest and conduct a search of the person.

A Justified Stop

A stop is justified if the suspect is exhibiting any combination of the following behaviors:

  1. Appears not to fit the time or place.
  2. Matches the description on a “Wanted” flyer.
  3. Acts strangely, or is emotional, angry, fearful, or intoxicated.
  4. Loitering, or looking for something.
  5. Running away or engaging in furtive movements.
  6. Present in a crime scene area.
  7. Present in a high-crime area (not sufficient by itself or with loitering).

A frisk is justified under the following circumstances:

  1. Concern for the safety of the officer or of others.
  2. Suspicion the suspect is armed and dangerous.
  3. Suspicion the suspect is about to commit a crime where a weapon is commonly used.
  4. Officer is alone and backup has not arrived.
  5. Number of suspects and their physical size.
  6. Behavior, emotional state, and/or look of suspects.
  7. Suspect gave evasive answers during the initial stop.
  8. Time of day and/or geographical surroundings (not sufficient by themselves to justify frisk).        

 

Does the ability to stop and frisk go too far? Many police departments are at odds with the public in certain neighborhoods concerning what some people deem unwarranted stops. People in high crime areas and in areas with high minority populations often complain they are stopped and questioned at a disproportionately higher rate than their counterparts in other areas of the city.

When used correctly, the stop and frisk tool benefits the police and average citizens. Curbing crime and ensuring the safety of our on-the-beat public servants, stop and frisk can help us all sleep a little more soundly – a good step in the all-American pursuit of happiness.

At the center of the NYC stop-and-frisk debate is racial discrimination. It was argued that stop-and-frisk unfairly targets minorities, and therefore must be reformed. With the legal appeals process currently ongoing, it is helpful to have a parallel public debate on the matter. First, some statistics:

In 2012, New Yorkers were stopped by the police 532,911 times:
473,644 were totally innocent (89 percent).
284,229 were black (55 percent).
165,140 were Latino (32 percent).
50,366 were white (10 percent).

Demographics of NYC
White: 33.3%
Black: 22.5%
Latino: 28.6%

Based on these numbers, it would appear that the police are unfairly targeting minorities (at least black people), while letting white people go. However, these are not the correct numbers to compare. Remember stop-and-frisk occurs within the context of a particular crime. Police officers are responding to a specific crime, in a specific area, with a description of a suspect which is almost exclusively on physical attributes (including race). To strip police of the power to pursue suspects based on the best information and their knowledge as law enforcement officials puts everybody at risk (including minorities, which the data shows are disproportionately the victims of minority violence).

There should be safeguards put in place to protect minorities, particularly when there is no specific crime / suspect description a police officer is going on, but is rather “racially profiling” an individual. The program itself, however, should not be outlawed. In fact, the data (p. 21) suggests that, if anything, minorities are under-targeted for stop-and-frisks based on how often the suspect matches their race:

The most frequently occurring race/ethnic group within the Violent Felony suspects is Black, accounting for (65.3%). Hispanic suspects account for an additional (26.6%) while White and Asian/Pacific Islanders account for (6.1%) and (1.9%) respectively. The most frequent race/ethnic group within the Stop Question and Frisk subject population is Black, accounting for (54.2%). Hispanic subjects account for an additional (32.5%) while White and Asian/Pacific Islanders account for (9.6%) and (3.2%) of total Stops respectively.

There will always be anecdotal examples of racist cops racially profiling. For the most part, however, police officers are brave men and women who do their job with the greatest integrity they can. They are simply using the information available and their technical knowledge to make the best decisions they can, just like any other professional does. Considering the balanced racial breakdown of NYC police force, one must wonder how anybody could accuse the force of being “systematically racist” to begin with.

Proper safeguards must be put in place to protect minorities from unwarranted stop-and-frisks, and those who are found guilty of racial profiling must be held accountable. However, police officers should not have to consider the race of a person when assessing whether they are “eligible” for stop-and-frisk–“eligibility” should be based only on information available about the crime in question. Race is simply one of the many pieces of information an officer has when considering whether to stop-and-frisk an individual.

Mr. De Blasio ran for mayor on a ticket of progressive values. Behind these progressive values is the true key to reducing the number of minorities targeted by stop and frisk; by reducing the number of minorities suspected of violent crimes.

Throughout our criminal justice process–from arrest to conviction to incarceration–minorities are disproportionately represented. Is this due to racial undertones? Probably to a certain extent, based on how we categories and punish different offenses. Violent crimes are disproportionately committed by minorities, while “white-collar”crimes often go unpunished and are never the subject of “stop-and-frisk”. But stop-and-frisk is about safety and immediate physical harm, not about longer term financial type crimes. While I certainly believe white-collar criminals should be held accountable, this has nothing to do with the issues of violent crime and stop-and-frisk.

The socioeconomic roots of violent crime are the true culprit behind the apparent “racial profiling” in stop-and-frisk, and therein lie the solutions. When Mayor De Blasio talks about progressive taxation, social programs, equality of opportunity, social mobility, he is talking about creating new opportunities for everyone on the bottom wrung of the socioeconomic ladder (which recent evidence suggests is not as minority-dominated as some might believe). These opportunities, in time, present an alternative to violent crime. Given the option, the overwhelming majority of people of all races would choose a life of rewarding work, comfort, and security over a life of crime (if it was a true possibility and not some unattainable goal).

So mayor De Blasio, while I am eager to see your liberal vision for NYC unfold, and hope it offers a model for the rest of the country, I urge you not to take your racial equality crusade to far. There are deep rooted socioeconomic issues behind the racial breakdown of stop-and-frisk numbers; to gut the program would be a mistake. Instead, allow your vision for NYC to change the statistics “organically”, without putting innocent people and police officers in danger. In the meantime, reforms can make stop-and-frisk a more transparent and accountable process (however this is true of all public programs, they are hardly issue unique to stop-and-frisk).