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How “America First” Failed the World (that’s where America is…)

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Much has been written about Trump’s failed response to the coronavirus. To sum it up, he disregarded his intelligence community and health experts, wasting months of prep time. His administration failed to ensure there was enough testing readily available in order to identify and isolate cases and track the interactions of those who tested positive (like Germany and South Korea did). He did not authorize the Defense Production Act soon enough and is having states bid against each other (and FEMA) for ventilators and protective equipment, leading to deadly shortages and driving up prices.

(Note–4/23): Best practices related to this novel virus are fast evolving as more information becomes available. Certain types of ventilators are now seen as being counter-productive in milder cases, so less are probably needed than initially feared. On the other hand, as more information about how the virus spreads comes out, protective equipment like face masks are now recognized as more important than initially thought)

While we are at it, lets give him credit for the ONE thing he did right–stopping travel from China. There ya go Donny, you did one thing right out of the many things you needed to do; you bought us more time to prepare, and did nothing with it.

But in order to get to the root of Trump’s failures related to the coronavirus, one has to look much further back. Back before that fateful day when a man in Wuhan, China ate a bat, leading to the emergence of a novel virus (or the virus was created in a lab–nothing would surprise me at this point).

We’ve dealt with pandemics in a globalized world before. By definition each novel virus is different, and there is certainly reason to believe COVID-19 is “worse” than past pandemics in a variety of ways, but our response to each pandemic is supposed to be better than the last. While respiratory illnesses can spread much more quickly than something like Ebola (it is much more like SARS and H1N1 in that regard), that is all the more reason that an aggressive, timely response was needed.

Instead Trump had fired the White House Pandemic Response Team, which was established specifically for this reason after the Ebola pandemic, as part of his small government “drain the swamp” crusade. His administration also failed to take any follow up action on an eerily accurate pandemic simulation it conducted in 2019, which showed America was not prepared to face a threat like this. Not only did Trump cut out crucial sources of information, he also disregarded whatever intelligence was left.

It may seem difficult to imagine now, but a world in which there was much greater containment was very possible. This would not have required clairvoyance, just reading the writing on the wall and acting to prevent the worst case scenario. I’d argue that any President in modern history, Democrat or Republican, would’ve acted more decisively to contain this thing. This isn’t a partisan problem, it’s a Trump problem; because of his worldview there was never even an attempt to coordinate a global containment strategy.

You may be thinking, “a global response, really? Trump is America’s President, he should be concerned with America’s interests”, and you’d be 100% correct. But an early global response would have been in both America and the rest of world’s best interests–everyone’s interests were aligned on this. It was only in failing to lead a global response that such a massive national response was needed (which Trump also failed to do properly).

The virus–by itself–is not what is killing people around the world in droves and leading to a global economic meltdown. The true root of the current crisis, rather, can be traced back to these two fateful words, so obviously riddled with unforeseeable consequences–“America First”.

When America Doesn’t Lead, No One Follows

America is exceptional not because it is the global superpower, but because of how it has used that position. While we have always had a strong military, it has been our soft power–our ability to empower those around the world who share our beliefs in human dignity (human rights) and freedom (democracy)–that has set us apart from previous superpowers. It was these beliefs that led us to construct an international system after WWII in which peace and cooperation were the recipe for shared prosperity.

But Trump doesn’t believe in this system, he thinks America is getting a raw deal. In his transactional, zero-sum view of the world, America is “getting taken advantage of”. All of our foreign aid, American led international organizations, diplomacy, and even military spending aren’t a means to securing our interests in a global world, but wastes. The costs are real because they are line items on a budget, but he is unable to comprehend the benefits because they are less easily measured.

This is not to say we haven’t been getting taken advantage of in some instances. I do not fault Trump for going after China for stealing American IP; innovation is our main engine of long term growth and must be protected. The EU and NATO should spend more on defense (although saying that while simultaneously increasing our military budget sends at best a mixed message, and at worst is counter productive). Trump wasn’t wrong about everything, but in totality he was wrong. He didn’t pick his battles on the international stage but rather opted for a scorched-earth approach, and now we are seeing the consequences.

When America doesn’t lead in it’s uniquely American way, no one else can fill the void. We can debate whether or not that is right, or fair, or smart, or even beneficial for us, but until someone else proves they can step up to the plate that’s the reality of the world we live in. The middle of a global crisis is certainly not the right time to be figuring out a new international system (although directly after is, and it will be interesting to see what sort of changes this catalyzes).

China has stepped into the leadership void in certain instances, but they have also done so in their own way. In the case of COVID-19, “their own way” was very, very damaging. I want to make it clear that in blaming Trump’s foreign policy I by no means absolve China of it’s role in all this. China bares a lot of responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in today. I was very critical of China when the NYT first reported their cover up effort.

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As “punishment” the international community needs to find a way to impose the creation of a WHO office in China, one that has complete autonomy and does not need to run it’s findings past the Chinese government before reporting them. This would be a significant punishment–I don’t believe the UN has ever imposed something like this before, particularly on a permanent Security Council member, but given what has transpired I believe it is warranted. China will do everything it can to block such a move on national sovereignty grounds, but that argument rings hollow when we see the damage the coronavirus has caused outside their borders.

But blame and punishment aside, while China’s cover-up was reprehensible, it really just behaved exactly as one would (or should) have expected it to. China is an authoritarian country, currently ruled by it’s most totalitarian dictator since Mao. The Communist Party of China cares more about economic prosperity and the strength of the regime than it does about the rights or lives of its people. It controls the press and the internet and suppresses information, particularly information that makes it look bad.

America has a limited ability to influence a country’s internal affairs; this is more true of China than perhaps any other country in the world. But we amplified China’s worst decisions when the Trump administration cut two-thirds of our CDC positions in the country. These positions were in place specifically to help circumvent the Chinese government’s suppression of information (which in this case clearly hampered both America the WHOs response). In other words, to quote an epic rant by former Arizona Cardinals coach Derek Green, “they are who we thought they were, and we let em’ off the hook”.

Not only did we let China off the hook by not keeping those CDC positions in place, Trump actually followed Xi’s playbook. Months later, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, what did Trump do while the coronavirus was spreading through America? He played down the threat, more worried about short term economic concerns and the optics than people’s lives. When confronted with this reality, he tried to rewrite history to make himself look better. In other words, he did exactly what Xi did. Not only did Trump fail to live up to the demands of American leadership, he did the exact opposite, emulating Xi’s response. This makes Trump’s attempts to deflect blame towards China and the WHO all the more cynical.

So clearly the world could not look to China to lead on this, both because of their style of governance and the fact that the the virus originated there. Sadly the world could not look to America either due to our current leadership. But what about other potential leaders?

Germany has managed the crisis well within it’s own borders, and Chancellor Angela Merkel did the world a great service by being the first major head of state to be transparent about the scope of the pandemic. But as the European Union’s economic powerhouse and de facto leader it has failed in it’s larger leadership role, repeating the mistakes it made during The European Debt Crisis by hampering the monetary and fiscal responses needed to help poorer EU countries like Italy and Spain manage their health and economic crises. Germany has proven twice in recent history that it has no interest in being a European leader, let alone a world leader.

What about Russia? That’s a laugh. Putin is more concerned with reestablishing  Russian influence than being a constructive player on the world stage. Putin actually thrives on chaos; look for him to try to use the current situation to the advantage of the terrible dictators he supports like Assad and Maduro. Russia lacks the will, and probably the ability, to fill America’s leadership void.

So while a man eating a bat likely caused COVID-19, “America First” turned it into the global crisis we are experiencing today. This crisis was in the making long before the virus emerged: it was cemented every time Trump cut an important position abroad because he thought other countries should be paying more; every time he disparaged and cut funding to organizations like the UN that enable more effective coordination on global issues; and every time he used inflammatory language against friend and foe alike, pushing world leaders farther apart.

With great power comes great benefits but also great responsibility, something Trump does not seem to understand. Of course Trump did not cause COVID-19 the virus, but he–more than anyone else–more than the WHO director, Xi Jinping, or patient-zero, owns the resulting global crisis. Many people warned about the dangers of “America First”, and while few could’ve foreseen this, all it’s critics said there would be unanticipated consequences and that they could be catastrophic.

Combine Trump’s “America First” foreign policy with his anti-government ideology, science denialism, and delusional belief in his ability to miraculously will things into existence, and even a two month head start wasn’t enough for him to protect America’s self interests, let alone lead a global response (although, as noted earlier, those two things were really one in the same). Even now that he is finally “taking this thing seriously”, he couldn’t even let the CDC recommend Americans wear face masks in public without undermining that message in the same breath. I guess a face mask just can’t fit over the foot he keeps putting in his mouth…

“America First” has not resulted in the less global world Trump suggested it would. For proof, just look at how the virus has spread. Look at how supply chain disruptions are further hampering America’s response. Look at the collapse of the global economy. All “America First” has done, all it ever could have really accomplished, was leave America in a worse position to deal with the complex problems that arise in the interconnected world we live in. Due to America’s unique ability to lead, not only is America worse off because of it, the whole world is.

“They Have to Treat Us Well” 

Still not convinced? Think I being too hard on Trump? Then ask yourself this question and answer honestly: are you really surprised that the most disruptive and damaging global event since WWII happened on President Trump’s watch?

Trump has blamed everyone else for his failed response: Obama, the WHO, Governors, NYC hospital workers, even private sector companies. He has lashed out at reporters for asking basic questions. He has suggested his willingness to help is based on how nice people are to him, not need. His daily press conferences elicit facepalms, anger, and confusion, not calm and clarity.

But according to Trump his response has been perfect, a 10/10. Nothing in the way he has handled this crisis, nothing in the way he has conducted himself during his Presidency (or his life, really), gives Trump any right to expect people to go easy on him as he belligerently defends his failed response to a crisis largely of his own making.

You can’t learn the right lessons if you can’t critically assess your own actions or listen to dissenting opinion with an open mind. So what lessons, if any, has Trump taken from this global health crisis? That the leading global health organization should no longer receive US funding (as it actively tries to play a constructive role in limiting the damage of the coronavirus). These shortcomings have been hallmarks of the Trump Presidency, and based on the past few months there is no reason to believe anything will change that. Therefore not only have Trump’s actions been extremely damaging thus far, but given the opportunity they will continue to be; we can already see this in his “reopening plan”, which has many of the same holes his initial response had.

As I said before, this wasn’t and isn’t a partisan problem, it’s a Trump problem. Despite his desire to convince them otherwise, blaming Donald Trump the man and blaming his supporters are not the same things. If anyone was looking for a way off the Trump-train without admitting they were wrong before, this is it.


Motivations for writing this piece

I didn’t write this article just to pile on Trump. This isn’t me grinding my axe over personality or policy differences I have with the President that predated this crisis. It is about the tens of thousands needlessly dying and the trillions of dollars now required to save the economy over something that easily could have been much less costly on both fronts. It is about all of us being forced to put our lives on hold. Being upset about these things is natural, and has nothing to do with politics.

No one is disputing the very real negative aspects of stay-at-home orders. The impacts of joblessness, poverty, and uncertainty on people’s mental and physical health are very real. But we also have to acknowledge that the preventable and premature loss of a loved one probably has a much deeper and more enduring mental health impact than temporary joblessness. Unfortunately, due to the massive amounts of money being spent right now fighting this thing, when it’s all over it will be a lot harder to address the many structural unfarinesses that this crisis has laid bare.

I am writing this piece because it did not have to be this way. We must hold those responsible for the situation we currently find ourselves in accountable. So who is primarily to blame? Xi Jinping and Donald Trump–the two most powerful people in the world.

Unfortunately no one elects China’s President; short of a massive Chinese revolution or starting WW3, there isn’t much that can be done in the short-term to hold Xi accountable. Maybe my proposed “punishment”, setting up a WHO office in China outside the government’s normal chain of command, seems soft to you–it is not. “National sovereignty” is the principle China uses to shirk accountability on the international stage for all of its transgressions against its people, and this punishment would undermine that power. If this idea is ever proposed, see how vehemently China fights against it.

Thankfully we do elect America’s President. Trump will never be able to repay the trillions of dollars his inactions have cost the American taxpayer. No one can bring back the tens of thousands that are needlessly dying, or undo the immeasurable pain those deaths cause. While there will never truly be justice, we can still hold him accountable by making sure he is never again in a position to cause so much damage. We can also lay the blame squarely where it belongs. To someone as power and ego driven as President Trump, those are meaningful punishments.


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This Time’s Different (But the GOPs Response is the Same)

Low borrowing costs for the Federal government further support massive stimulus to counter this crisis

With the Coronavirus pandemic, the world is clearly facing its greatest economic challenge since The Great Recession.

Back then there was a narrative amongst conservative lawmakers that overly generous lending to poorer people caused the housing crisis. If pro-poor policies got us into this mess, they couldn’t possibly get us out of it, went the GOPs argument against bailing out Main St. (that, and pretending to care about the deficit).

This was of course always utter bullshit; while some people undoubtably borrowed outside their means, predatory lending practices were primarily to blame. If a person could not afford a house, it was the bank’s job not to lend to them. Then of course there was financial deregulation, enabling bad practices by investment banks, and willful negligence by rating agencies, all of which paved the path for the housing crisis to crater our entire financial system and the overall economy.

That brief history lesson was intended to juxtapose that crisis to this one. Whereas back then one could plausibly argue (however weakly, and against all evidence to the contrary) that regular people were responsible for the crisis and therefore had to pay the price, lest they repeat their past mistakes (the “moral hazard” argument, an old GOP favorite), that is clearly not the case this time.

This time we have a deadly, infectious disease, not a mistake made by Americans, although the Trump administration has certainly botched the response thusfar. But I digress, there is plenty of time for the blame game later, now is the time for decisive action. The point is that regular Americans clearly did not cause this crisis, so where is the support they need–right now–that only the Federal government can provide?

The answer, as it all too often seems to be these days when one asks why common sense isn’t being reflected in public policy, is that it is stuck on Mitch McConnell’s desk. Or more precisely, it is being help up by GOP Congressman Louie Gohmert (before it gets stuck on McConnell’s desk).

Even if this is only ends up delaying an adequate response by a few days (an incredibly optimistic assumption), right now every moment is precious. Every day that passes without a meaningful response means more more dead Americans. It probably means additional weeks of restrictions on the backend of this thing. And it risks turning what will already be, in the best case scenario, a significant recession, into a full-fledged economic crisis similar to The Great Recession. In other words, the longer we wait the more expensive an adequate response will be.

Economists are quite clear on what needs to be done, summed up nicely by the IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva’s call for massive, coordinated fiscal stimulus:

As the virus spreads, the case for a coordinated and synchronized global fiscal stimulus is becoming stronger by the hour,” Georgieva said.

Georgieva, in her blog, suggested that coordinated fiscal action on the scale of the 2008-2009 financial crisis may be necessary. She said that in 2009 alone, Group of 20 countries deployed about 2% of their GDP in stimulus, or about $900 billion in today’s money, “so there is a lot more work to do.

She said that governments should continue to prioritize health spending and provide support to the most affected people and businesses with policies such as paid sick leave and targeted tax relief.

Georgieva said all of the fiscal, monetary and regulatory actions would be “most effective when done cooperatively.” She added that IMF research shows that spending increases have a multiplier effect when countries act together.

So the proper course of action is a large government spending program, coordinated with other countries. Sounds like that’s right in Trump’s wheelhouse, what could possibly go wrong?!

Can Trump and the rest of the GOP rise to the occasion, and do what everyone knows is best even if it goes against their ideology? Of course they can, but unfortunately I’m not optimistic they will. I think whatever watered-down version of a Democratic proposal they eventually pass will be too little too late. In fact it’s already later than it should be; the virus has been in the country for almost 2 months, how do we not yet have a coherent, comprehensive response? How did we not have a plan in place for the worst case scenario?

So when we look at the House-passed relief bill, and wonder why it doesn’t mandate large companies provide paid sick leave (the companies that can most easily afford it), remember which party lobbied for that exemption.

When Mitch McConnell inevitably responds to Chuck Schumer’s request for a $750 billion stimulus package to address this public health emergency and economic crisis with a call for a “bipartisan solution”, lets be clear on what that means. It means that whatever response the Democrats come up with, in line with expert advice, will be delayed in order to make sure it reflects conservative ideology, to the detriment of public health and the economy (things that affect real Americans of all political stripes).

Don’t get me wrong, bipartisanship is a good thing in theory. However when one party is putting ideology over expert advice in a time of national emergency, delaying the decisive action required and therefore making an inherently bad situation worse, with little if any benefit to anyone, then bipartisanship has become an impediment to serving the public interest. It is a hollow plea, as the party calling for it no longer truly represents the interests of its constituents.

The fact of the matter is that if the GOP was so concerned, we’d have heard proposals and seen draft legislation from them by now. Instead all we’ve seen is ideologically driven counter-proposals, divorced from need, as if this is all some sort of game. Well that’s not all, we’ve also seen a President who is so tone deaf, whose priorities are so out of wack, and who is so clearly not up to the task that it’s scary. Don’t agree with me? Ask Wall St., or Main St., or anybody who hasn’t completely lost their mind drinking the Trump Cool-Aid these past few years.

So what can we do about it? At this point just practice good hygiene, try to get tested if you have symptoms, socially distance yourself, and don’t buy more stuff than you need. That and remember which party just gave a trillion dollar tax cut to the wealthy but will tell you we can’t afford to properly address this crisis. Remember which administration recently pushed relevant medical experts out of the government. Remember which party is delaying the response the American people need and deserve. Remember all these things, and hold them accountable during the 2020 election.

Note: While clearly very critical, this post is not meant to be a partisan attack. Rather it is a challenge, a throwing down of the gauntlet. It is a reminder of past mistakes, and a plea for the same party not to make them again when the stakes are arguably even higher. The answers are there for them, all they have to do is not stand in the way.

Please, GOP, prove me wrong. I want to be wrong. I want to look back on this blog a few days from now and feel like a reactionary, partisan fool for writing it. I just don’t think that will be the case or else I wouldn’t have written it in the first place. I take no pleasure in writing these words.

Update (4/13):

I maintain that the stimulus bill was well developed. There are a few holes in it–not enough funding for state and local gov’ts hit hardest by this, for testing and protective gear, or for hospital and other essential workers. These are issues the Democratic party is trying to address in the next bill, but the GOP has balked at, with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R) calling them “things that right now do not need to be done”.

There is also a very large tax cut for wealth real estate developers tucked into it ($170 billion over the next decade)–talk about a “thing that right now did not need to be done…”

Still, this bill was an overall success. Maybe I’ve set the bar too low, but some “pork” in a bill this size, that was passed this quickly, seemed inevitable. It was still, in my mind, a rare example of swift, bipartisan cooperation.

There are, however, two major issues with it:

  1. It was developed too late, playing catch-up to a worst case scenario we should’ve been preparing for for weeks (in other words, it shouldn’t have had to have been developed so swiftly).
  2. It is being administered through government agencies that have either been starved of funds for decades (the IRS), or were never meant to operate at this scale (states unemployment insurance agencies, the Small Business Administration)

Both of these are really tied to the original sin of lack of planning and leadership by the Trump administration. The first issue is explicitly that–lack of planning. The second issue is related because, had we planned in advance, we could’ve hired the people needed to administer these programs.

With the exception of the IRS (which as been bled of funding for decades by a GOP that doesn’t want it to enforce tax laws on it’s wealthy donors), no one is suggesting the SBA or state’s unemployment insurance offices should always maintain emergency levels of staffing. But that’s exactly the point. When you fail to plan, not only are you playing catch-up in developing the plan, you are also playing catch-up in administering it too. Congress did it’s immediate job in passing a huge bill relatively quickly. But if that plan cannot actually be carried out in a timely matter, it will be much less effective than it otherwise could have been.

People living paycheck to paycheck cannot afford to wait. Neither can most small businesses.

Update (3/25):

Well I gotta give it to them, Senators came together and it seems like they will get a very workable bill passed. I said I wanted to sound like a partisan fool for writing this article, and now I am happy to say I do.

The $2 trillion package should help mitigate the worst economic damage of this crisis. It should help ease the humanitarian crisis that would otherwise hit a large swath of economically insecure American’s (the number of people this includes is troubling, and points to larger structural problems in our economy, but those are longer term issues that could not be addressed under the barrel of a gun). It should generally help businesses maintain employment levels, provide protection for people who are laid off, and put the economy in a good position to spring back once the health crisis is resolved.

Now IF only someone could get into POTUS’s ear and tell him not to restart the economy too soon (and to authorize wider use of the Defense Production Act), I’d say on a policy level we’ve addressed the economic crisis reasonably well (for now, we will still need to have a recovery plan in place for when the economy opens back up, something House Speaker Pelosi has started to address). We can and should ultimately discuss what we should’ve done in the weeks and months we saw this thing coming down the pike; I certainly do not absolve the Administration of it’s missteps and their grave results. But lets take a moment at least to acknowledge a win when we have one–the nation deserves that.

The numbers of cases and deaths will continue to rise as we move along the curve, that much is clear. Those cases already exist, and this lag is due to a shortage of tests (an example of a Trump admin failure), and due to the nature of this virus–a long incubation with many asymptomatic vectors spreading it around. That is not a good barometer of how effective this economic rescue plan is. Nor is how bad the economic numbers get in the short term. Rather, this is about how the economy ends up bouncing back.

Lets be clear, any handwringing here is contingent to getting the health crisis under control. If we restart the economy too soon then this stimulus money will have been needlessly squandered, and many people will needlessly die. But at least now we can refocus our efforts on the more important task at hand. The spotlight now turns from Congress back to Trump (gulp).

Update (3/23):

An almost $2 trillion stimulus bill is stalled in the Senate, where Democrats are arguing it fails to put enough conditions on loans, including restrictions on stock buybacks and requirements that companies maintain employment levels:

“At the heart of the impasse in the Senate is a $425 billion fund created by the bill that the Federal Reserve could leverage for loans to assist broad groups of distressed companies, and an additional $75 billion it would provide for industry-specific loans. Democrats have raised concerns that the funds do not have rules for transparency or enough guardrails to make sure companies do not use the funds to enrich themselves or take government money and lay off workers. They also argue the measure would give Mr. Mnuchin too much discretion to decide which companies receive the funds, calling the proposal a “slush fund” for the administration.

Democrats are also pushing for more jobless aid and money for states as part of the agreement. 

“Let’s be clear about what we are talking about here: We don’t think your bill works,” said Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. “This is a policy disagreement, and I have an obligation as a representative of my state to stand up and say when I don’t think a $2 trillion bill is going to solve the problem.”

“This bill is going to affect this country and the lives of Americans — not just for the next few days, but in the next few months and years,” Mr. Schumer said Sunday evening, “so we have to make sure it is good.”

Sen Schumer is right, a bill this big will undoubtedly affect every policy debate in some way for at least the next decade. Every budgetary dispute will be viewed through the lens of what is shaping up to be the largest stimulus package in modern U.S. history (that and our weak tax code).

This needs to be done quickly. This needs to be done right. Lock em’ all in a room until they figure out a way to make that happen.

Update (3/20):

The Senate passed the House’s bill expanding paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, and testing. A good first step (well technically second).

The Trump admin’s new larger stimulus proposal seems to be more direct cash payment based than payroll tax cut based. While this is an improvement, it is still not the proper response.

We should be helping the most vulnerable people; both economically vulnerable people and those on the front lines fighting this thing. Any resources those on the front lines need must be provided. We should expand unemployment insurance and social safety net measures (for those working in the informal economy that wouldn’t be covered by unemployment insurance). Simply put if you keep your job you do not need $1,000, and if you lose it you need a hell of a lot more.

Small businesses will need help as well. A targeted payroll tax cut should help with this. Small restaurants, bars, and other small business owners should get direct aid (independently owned and franchises–not major corporations). Directly impacted industries dominated by large companies (airlines, cruises, hotels) should get preferential loans with the condition they maintain employment levels. Other than that large companies in other industries should get some loan assistance, but generally speaking have already claimed their “aid” through decades of tax avoidance and the recently passed GOP tax bill–they can largely weather this storm themselves.

With all the demands on the government right now, we need to be both swift and targeted in our response. Our leaders can deliver a package that checks both those boxes if they so choose, as long as they continue to put the good of the nation over partisan politics.

Update (3/18):

The Trump administration wants a stimulus package in the area of $850 billion to $1 trillion. This is a good thing, right? I was wrong, right?

Overall yes–that both parties and the White House are acknowledging that a large stimulus plan is needed to address this crisis is a good thing. But there are major caveats to that statement.

For one, the Senate still hasn’t passed the House’s smaller measure mandating paid sick leave and providing funding for poor kids who will stop getting school meals and other vulnerable groups, so lets hold off on congratulating anyone just yet.

But the larger issue here is that it’s not just the size of the stimulus bill that matters, but it’s substance as well. Back in 2009, Obama’s stimulus package was criticized for being too tax break heavy, as opposed to targeted government spending which has a higher “multiplier” effect (basically return on investment–how much each dollar of stimulus impacts the overall economy). Guess which party was pushing for more tax cuts and less spending back then?

Unfortunately, it seems like we are going down a similar route now to appease conservative ideology. Trump’s plan is very payroll tax cut heavy, an idea that economists and lawmakers of both parties are not very excited about. But because it was the stable genius’s original plan, and any stimulus package will require his signature, it may end up needing to feature it.

Look, I have no problem with a targeted payroll tax cut for small and medium sized businesses who really need it to keep from laying people off, but not a blanket one that helps big businesses that can already weather the storm with huge cash reserves. But as we saw from negotiations in the House, where the GOP insisted large employers be exempt from providing paid sick leave, there is little to suggest that a targeted cut is what is on the table.

Everything we do now has to be about protecting the most vulnerable–both people and businesses. Relief for people should come in the form of expanded unemployment insurance and social safety-net provisions (to help those who work in the informal economy), not in blanket payments to all Americans (which benefits the wealthy and those lucky enough not to lose their jobs). Any relief to large companies should come in the form of interest free loans (like the auto industry bailout), not further cutting their already ridiculously low tax bill.

While some GOP lawmakers probably just want to do what we know is right, many will probably fall in line with what the POTUS and their party’s broken economic ideology dictates. Unfortunately, the GOP really does seem to be intent on repeating it’s past mistakes.


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 (so that interest payments don’t become the next big taxpayer expense) 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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America’s Choice: Winner-Take-All or Social Democracy

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The 2018 midterm elections, which saw significant gains for the Democratic Party, were in many ways a rejection of President Trump’s policies and worldview. But while the American people seemingly know what we don’t want, do we know what we do want? Those are the questions to be answered leading up to and by the 2020 elections, campaigning for which is already underway.

Ultimately we cannot have the “economic populism” many Americans across the political spectrum seem to want with our current tax code. Insufficient tax revenue means the government cannot provide what is needed to develop the next generation of Americans while simultaneously addressing more immediate concerns. In order to fulfill these two key responsibilities of governing, it is time to seriously consider ideas that have, for a while, been outside of mainstream political discourse.

One such idea is that taxes can be significantly higher at higher income levels. The vast majority of Americans believe that the wealthy and corporations do not pay their fair share of taxes (and these survey results are from before the new GOP tax code went into effect, which even further reduced taxes for the wealthy and corporations).

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has recently brought this idea to the forefront, proposing top income tax rates upwards of 70%. Nobel prize winners have said optimal rates may be as high as 80+%. I do not know what a politically viable top rate is, that’s for the American people to decide. I do know that it should be significantly higher than it is today.

Here are three things to consider regarding taxes in America:

  1. Marginal Income Tax Rates

    Whatever tax brackets we choose to have, they will work within the marginal tax rate system we currently use. What are marginal tax rates you ask? Well, imagine there are 3 tax brackets:

    10% for those making > $10,000
    20% for those making $10,000-$100,000
    30% for those making > $100,000

    If I got a raise from $90,000 to $110,000, only the $10,000 over 100,000 would be taxed at 30%. Dollars 1-9,999 would still be taxed at 10%, and dollars 10,000 – 100,000 would still be taxed at 20%. My income would not all now be taxed at the highest rate, only the amount over that top bracket threshold.

    The idea that people will work less hard because of higher marginal rates is silly–people typically can’t control their earnings that much (without the help of high priced accountants at least). Your average American works as hard as they can in hopes of earning as much as they can–they do not calibrate their level of effort based on what is typically a small tax increase that results from entering a higher bracket.

    Now having high marginal tax rates is admittedly harder in a globalized world than it was in the mid 20th century, because people can move themselves and their money around much more easily today. Having said that, and feel free call me a “homer” if you like, but I think that America is pretty unique and special place. If our leaders prioritized curtailing tax avoidance by coordinating with other countries and international organizations, I believe that people would still choose to live, operate businesses, and park their wealth here even if we had higher tax rates.

    In other words, if the choice was pay your fair share or leave, I believe that most wealthy people would choose to pay their fair share.

  2. Income as a Measure of Hard Work, and Inequality in the Age of Globalization

    Think about entrepreneurs in the 1950s. They brought their products mainly to domestic markets, which relied primarily on domestic infrastructure, court systems, and public goods to function. At the time, the government was able to provide these goods without running huge deficits, in large part by adequately taxing the rich.

    Now think about entrepreneurs in the 2010s. They bring their products to a global market. If it’s a popular product, global capital chases it, expanding operations and profits. Maybe they decide to sell their company to foreign firm for a huge pay day.

    The 1950s millionaire entrepreneur can easily be today’s billionaire. Does today’s billionaire work that much harder? Generally speaking, not really–both work(ed) very hard, and there are only so many hours in a day. The same is true of today’s business executives versus those of decades past. Today’s greater earnings, rather, are largely an effect of the global economy we operate in, not harder work–there are billions of potential customers out there instead of millions.

    The global economic system is expensive to maintain. Today the U.S. government needs to not only finance domestic infrastructure and institutions, it also has to help finance international institutions and (perhaps most importantly and expensively) global defense.

    The U.S., as a global leader, naturally pays a large portion of this global economic infrastructure. While it is impossible to quantify piece-by-piece, overall this is a good deal for Americans–just look at the world as it currently is as proof! America is leading the way in almost all macroeconomic metrics (despite what Trump may say about us getting “taken advantage of”, “losing”, or “not being respected”).

    Where America is lacking is in social cohesion, social mobility, and general optimism and happiness. This is not an accident, but rather a feature of our current winner-take-all economic system. This is not just a liberal “bleeding heart” speaking, just ask Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

    It is not difficult to understand the anger of Americans displaced by globalization. Over the past few decades, middle class workers have seen their incomes stagnate, even as their productivity has risen. Why should the wealthy see gains well beyond their hard work, while the average person doesn’t even see the gains their work should rightfully earn them?

    Wealth did not trickle-down as promised (no surprise there, it never does). People who could not afford the increasingly expensive baseline goods needed take advantage of the global economy (early childhood development, higher education, job [re]training) became disgruntled, believing politicians from neither party cared about them. They then went out and voted for any “outsider” offering simple solutions to complex problems, and we ended up with President Trump.

    The truth is that America’s economy has become unfair. In order to restore that fairness we need to provide certain public goods–like affordable (if not free) higher education and healthcare. In order to provide these things, we need more tax revenue, and that tax revenue has to come from the ever-wealthier wealthiest Americans.

    There are many types of taxes, aside from income tax, that are also in play. Some are currently part of the U.S. tax code, while others are not. Examples include corporate taxes, capital gains taxes, financial transaction taxes, carbon taxes, estate taxes, sales taxes and gasoline taxes. 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has proposed a first-of-its-kind-in-America wealth tax, which has certainly gotten people’s attention.

    Some of these taxes fall mostly on the rich, while others hit everyone. This is an important consideration when trying to address inequality through the tax code. There are also countless tax loopholes, some of which are useful but many of which should be closed.

    The appropriate top marginal income tax rate is a function of the overall tax code.

  3. Adequately Fund and Reprioritize the IRS

    “The [budget] cuts are depleting the staff members who help ensure that taxpayers pay what they owe. As of last year, the IRS had 9,510 auditors. That’s down a third from 2010. The last time the IRS had fewer than 10,000 revenue agents was 1953, when the economy was a seventh of its current size…the IRS conducted 675,000 fewer audits in 2017 than it did in 2010, a drop in the audit rate of 42 percent. But even those stark numbers don’t tell the whole story, say current and former IRS employees: Auditors are stretched thin, and they’re often forced to limit their investigations and move on to the next audit as quickly as they can.

    Corporations and the wealthy are the biggest beneficiaries of the IRS’ decay. Most Americans’ interaction with the IRS is largely automated. But it takes specialized, well-trained personnel to audit a business or a billionaire or to unravel a tax scheme — and those employees are leaving in droves and taking their expertise with them. For the country’s largest corporations, the danger of being hit with a billion-dollar tax bill has greatly diminished. For the rich, who research shows evade taxes the most, the IRS has become less and less of a force to be feared.

    The story has been different for poor taxpayers. The IRS oversees one of the government’s largest anti-poverty programs, the earned income tax credit, which provides cash to the working poor. Under continued pressure from Republicans, the IRS has long made a priority of auditing people who receive that money, and as the IRS has shrunk, those audits have consumed even more resources, accounting for 36 percent of audits last year. The credit’s recipients — whose annual income is typically less than $20,000 — are now examined at rates similar to those who make $500,000 to $1 million a year. Only people with incomes above $1 million are examined much more frequently.

    [Former IRS Commissioner Koskinen, in testimony about the IRS budget] told the Senate, “I don’t know any organization in my 20 years of experience in the private sector that has said, ‘I think I’ll take my revenue operation and starve it for funds.’”

    The idea that a resource-strapped IRS is auditing EITC recipients instead of millionaires and multinational corporations is as absurd economically as it is cruel morally. No wonder most Americans hate the tax man and think the wealthy don’t pay their fair share–they are right.

Being a “Competitive Economy” Need Not Be a Race to the Bottom

A friend recently shared a Breitbart article about America being “the world’s most competitive economy”. While this is good news, it definitely needs some context.

First, America wasn’t a slouch before Trump; we placed 2nd, 3rd, and 3rd in 2017, 2016, and 2015 respectively. I don’t feel like going further back, but I’m sure we’ve never been low on this list.

Second, look at the countries right after us. “Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, and Japan [make up the rest of the] top five. The top ten includes the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the U.K., Sweden, and Denmark.”

These countries almost all have higher levels of taxation, stronger safety nets, and stronger worker protections than the U.S. Some were the “most competitive” countries in past years. A country does not have to “race to the bottom” in order to be competitive.

Being first on this list, as opposed to being second or third, really doesn’t gain us anything other than a nice headline. Companies do not decide where to build plants or hire employees based on “most competitive” indexes, they do it based on their complex internal calculus (cost of labor, cost of moving goods around their supply chain, level of employee expertise needed, infrastructure needs, tax rates, etc.). In some cases this will be the U.S., in others it will not, regardless of meaningless titles.

Jobs and the “Green New Deal”

I am actually a fan of how Trump uses his bully pulpit to make hiring American workers an important consideration for companies–I like his tough rhetoric here. While I am not a fan of protectionism in general, in some cases the credible threat of tariffs is needed in order to show these are not just empty words. This is particularly true when another country isn’t playing fair on trade, which is certainly the case in some instances.

The problem is that Trump gets headlines for the jobs his policies creates or keeps, but not for the ones they lose. For example, job losses have exceeded gains when it comes to iron and steel tariffs and solar panel manufacturing tariffs. Aside from jobs, there is also the increasing prices of imports to consider, which make up about 15% of U.S. GDP–the American consumer likes options, including ones made abroad.

As I have said before, Trump’s worldview is too zero-sum and short-term. Specifically, he views addressing climate change only as a cost (which he always inflates), and not an opportunity for the U.S. to be a leader in emerging industries. Unfortunately, due to the 2013 sequester budget cuts, the Bureau of Labor Statistics stopped tracking “Green Jobs”, making it much more difficult to quantify the benefits of being a leader in these emerging industries.

Take electric vehicles (EVs) for example. General Motors is begging Trump to support a Nationwide Zero Emissions Vehicle program, to no avail. It’s like private sector lobbyists always have Trump’s ear, unless they are promoting something environmentally friendly.

ev investments by country

Credit: Reuters

Over the next decade car companies will invest over $300 billion in EVs, with the largest chunk going to China due to government incentives (Germany is second, while the U.S. is a distant third). As you can see from the image above, Trump’s stance towards EVs has resulted in us leaving other countries investment dollars on the table. It’s like Trump always wants to be tough on China and promote investing in the U.S., unless it has to do with something “green”.

Meanwhile, over in Germany, the government is paving the way for Volkswagen to position itself as a future leader in EVs. In fact, Ford just announced a partnership with VW on EVs. American automakers now need to look abroad for support because our President won’t help them–sad. Hey, remember when Obama saved the U.S. auto industry just a decade ago? That was pretty cool, but I guess Trump wants to undo that part of Obama’s legacy as well…

Auto companies are starting to reach a 200,000 vehicle sale threshold that triggers a gradual elimination of consumer tax credits for buying electric vehicles. Under normal circumstances, either a Republic or Democratic President would seriously consider extending these credits. Instead, the Trump administration has signaled it wants to eliminate the credits altogether.

The shift to a global economy was done on the backs of the commoner–global wealth soared, but so did wealth inequality. “Yellow Vest” protests in France show that regular people will not let the next major shift–from a fossil fuel based economy to a “green economy”–be solely placed on their backs as again (and rightly so!). Rather, this shift will need to be part of an “all hands on deck” approach, with everyone (rich, poor, and all those in between) contributing their fair share towards a greener, fairer, and more dynamic economy. This is the spirit of the “Green New Deal”.

America’s Choice: Social Democracy vs. Unbridled Capitalism

“Supply-side” GOP economics has always relied on questionable math (“magic asterisks“), Trump is just faster and looser with the rules. To Trump, numbers (and the truth in general) are things to be manipulated to promote his agenda. Lies about the value of the Saudi Arabian arms deal, the costs of addressing climate change, and the costs of illegal immigration are prime examples of this.

It is amazing how a man who casts doubt on so many things he disagrees with can speak with such confidence about things that actually are uncertain, like economic outcomes. But then again, humility and honesty have never been Trump’s forte.

Living in a democracy, the shape of our economic system is a choice we collectively make. In American democracy the means justify the ends, as long as the debate is honest and people can make informed decisions. To date, the debate on the structure of our economic system has been anything but honest. Those supporting wealthy interests pretend that any tax increases would ruin our economy, while simultaneously painting any social program as communism.

A choice does not have to be made between having a competitive economy, an environmentally sustainable economy, and a fair economy that promotes equality of opportunity–that is a false trichotomy. We can have all of those things with the right mix of public policy, hard work, and American ingenuity.


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Bipartisanship and the 2018 Midterm Elections

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Ode to John McCain

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

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

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

From Partisan Differences to Demonization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord of the Lies

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

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

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

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

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

Trump The False Populist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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“Stealing Elections” and Stealing Elections

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The Supreme Court of the United States, with “Equal Justice Under Law” etched into the front.

“The [Wednesday, September 5th] House hearing [with Twitter and Facebook Executives] was interrupted by Laura Loomer, a conspiracy theorist who has been banned from major social media sites. She shouted that Dorsey was lying, accusing him of banning conservatives and saying Twitter was going to help Democrats “steal” the November elections.” [Quoted article]

While it is easy to dismiss conspiracy theorists, I do not think these are the just the ravings of a madwoman. I think a lot of ardent Trump supporters buy into the idea, promoted by the President himself, that should the GOP lose Congressional majorities in the midterm elections, that those seats would have been “stolen” by some wide ranging conspiracy encompassing traditional media, social media, and China.

In an attempt to debunk and educate, lets explore the difference between “stealing elections”, and really stealing elections by devaluing people’s votes.

“Stealing Elections”

The idea that there is some conspiracy to “steal elections” is utter nonsense which only serves to widen the country’s already massive partisan divide. This is not just my opinion–only 13 of the 24 states’  attorneys generals invited to the Justice Department’s meeting on “social media bias” even bothered to attend. Furthermore, the meeting ended up focusing on privacy concerns on social media, not political bias; when the adults get together they speak about the real issues, not baseless allegations.

Allegations like these are part of the Trumpian playbook; get out there early and cry foul, so if an outcome you don’t like comes to pass, you can say “see, I told you it was rigged”. Trump did this throughout his campaign, and it has continued into his Presidency.

This is a sad, if unsurprising, abdication of accountability by Trump. It is a childish excuse, commonly employed by those who are unable to accept loss in a dignified manner. You would not (or should not) accept such excuses from your friends on trivial matters, so why would you from elected officials on much more consequential ones?

Yes, Twitter made a mistake with its algorithm. Yes, this mistake caused certain profiles to become less accessible by failing to auto-suggest them when a user began a search (they were still returned in search results). Twitter has owned up to this mistake and fixed it. To err is human; when mistakes inevitably do occur, the best course of action is to admit to and rectify them, as Twitter has done.

It should be noted that this was a relatively benign mistake that occurred well before the election cycle got into full swing (July, elections in November); it is not something that will impact the outcome of any of the midterm elections.

A broader issue, however, is at play here–the delicate balance between free speech, protecting public safety (censoring extremist content and hate speech), and ensuring our democratic process plays out fairly (limiting false information on political issues / candidates, including foreign interference).

There is no rule book for finding the “right balance”, as a nation we are learning as we go. Having said that, false political information is an actual threat to the integrity of our elections (as opposed to baseless accusations of bias). If anything social media companies should probably be erring on the side of too much restriction of potentially false information, not too little. Note that false information (or “fake news”, if you must) does not include opinion pieces that present themselves as such, like Normative Narratives, but rather false information being presented as fact.

Trying to find the proper limits on free speech is not a new problem, social media is just the latest (and probably most complex) iteration of this ongoing debate. Public safety has always had to be balanced against freedom of speech (“clear and present danger”, you can’t yell “FIRE” in a crowded movie theater)–it is baked into the First Amendment itself.

Technological improvements often outpace our elected officials ability to regulate them. This problem is especially prevalent in today’s hyperpartisan political environment, with its resulting legislative gridlock. Taken together, all this means it could take several imperfect attempts in either direction–to much censorship or too little–before we reach that elusive “proper balance”.

The reality that it is a long road to reaching this “proper balance” is a feature of democratic governance that we must accept. What we should not accept is the deliberate marginalization of voters that results from political and racial gerrymandering.

[Really] Stealing Elections–“Gerrymandering”

The original “gerrymander” in early 19th-century Massachusetts.

“[Gerrymandering] in U.S. politics, [is] drawing the boundaries of electoral districts in a way that gives one party an unfair advantage over its rivals.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional, but has not yet ruled on partisan gerrymandering. Several states, however, have ruled that partisan gerrymandering is also unconstitutional, which should (eventually) force the Supreme Court to come to a definitive ruling at the national level.

Unfortunately, even when a state’s ruling is affirmed by a Federal court, the end result does not always restore justice. Recent events in North Carolina are a case in point:

A U.S. court panel has ruled there is not enough time to recast North Carolina’s congressional maps ahead of the November elections even though it found the Republican-constructed lines were illegally drawn for partisan purposes.

“North Carolina will have to suffer again under yet another unconstitutional Republican law that silences voters, divides our state, and undermines our democracy,” Wayne Goodwin, the state’s Democratic Party chairman, said in a statement. The party was a plaintiff in the suit.

Republicans in 2016 won 10 of the 13 House districts – 77 percent – despite getting just 53 percent of the statewide vote, nearly the same result as in 2014.

The North Carolina dispute centered on a congressional redistricting plan adopted by the Republican-led legislature in 2016 after a court found that Republican lawmakers improperly used race as a factor when redrawing certain U.S. House districts after the 2010 census.

The Republican lawmaker [Rep. David Lewis, a Republican member of the North Carolina General Assembly] in charge of the plan said it was crafted to maintain Republican dominance because “electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.”

First of all, when it comes to the democratic process, there is no “better” party. Policy differences of course exist, but these are secondary to making sure the democratic process plays out as fairly and transparently as possible; any “patriot” that puts party ahead of democracy needs to take a long look in the mirror. Now back to the issue at hand–gerrymandering.

In the past decade, North Carolina lawmakers have been found to have illegally drawn voting districts based on both racial and political considerations (in fact they directly and unapologetically replaced their racially unconstitutional map with a politically unconstitutional one). It is hard to argue that there were not some truly stolen elections in North Carolina. Unfortunately this problem is not limited to North Carolina (or the Republican party–Democrats do it too).

Which party gerrymandering benefits more really just depends on who the majority is when it comes time to redraw a state’s voting district lines (“redistricting”). It is worth noting that because of demographic trends (liberals tend to live in more concentrated cities), gerrymandering has more potential benefit to the GOP.

The larger issue is not which party gerrymandering benefits more, but rather that it should not be a tool to benefit either party. Hopefully changes to the redistricting process (or possibly even more significant changes to how we elect our representatives), in addition to a more definitive U.S. Supreme Court ruling, can eradicate this plague on our democracy. It is, however, certainly an uphill battle.

When the Democratic Process Plays Out Fairly, the Means Justify the Ends

When the democratic process plays out fairly and transparently–two qualifications many elections, including the 2016 Presidential election, do not meet–the means justify the ends. Elections do have consequences, but they should never be predetermined, or even allowed to be titled to one sides favor.

All that should matter is the principle of one-person, one-vote. Now the Electoral College purposefully distorts this principle in Presidential elections, but that is another topic for another day. Regardless of your opinion on its current merits, the Electoral College was created intentionally as one of the compromises that birthed our great nation; it is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution until an amendment is passed that says otherwise.

Gerrymandering, on the other hand, is a bastardization of America’s democratic process. It is not a stretch to say that our Founding Fathers did not intend for gerrymandering to be a feature of our democratic process. This problem has only become more acute as software is developed to help lawmakers more effectively “pack” and “crack” districts. As with the issue of free speech on social media, technological improvements in gerrymandering have outpaced our government’s ability to regulate it.

By continuously punting on the issue of partisan gerrymandering, the U.S. Supreme Court has been negligent in upholding the words carved into its facade–“Equal Justice Under the Law”.


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Military Spending and “Moral Hazard”

Image result for defense spending cartoon

The ONE thing I have always agreed with President Trump about is that our NATO allies need to spend more on defense. But while Trump has certainly talked this talk, his actions have actually had the opposite effect by reinforcing a “moral hazard”.

You may be thinking, what is a moral hazard? It is “a situation in which one party gets involved in a risky event knowing that it is protected against the risk and the other party will incur the cost.”

In the case of the U.S. and our NATO allies, the “risky event” is NATO countries underinvesting in defense spending. Our allies are able to do this because they know they are protected by the U.S., who is the other party that will “incur the cost” through our massive defense budget.

I invoke this argument because the GOP often uses moral hazard as a justification when it proposes slashing spending on safety net programs (particularly healthcare programs). While I will not wade into that argument, hopefully framing my argument this way will resonate with some people who otherwise would not agree with my prescription for getting our allies to spend more on defense–by reducing (or at very least not increasing) our own defense spending. 

If anything, defense spending is better positioned for a moral hazard argument than safety net programs are. Moral hazard implies a choice is being made by a rational party based on cost, benefit, and risk. So what happens with the same choices when a person or country’s income rises? Wealthy people typically do not forgo health insurance, but wealthy nations sometimes do forgo adequate military spending, which is the crux of this whole issue. All this is not to say that a moral hazard does exist for military spending but not for safety net programs–I leave the reader to draw their own conclusions on that. The point of this little digression, rather, is to say that if you believe a moral hazard exists for safety net programs, it is hard to argue that one does not also exist for defense spending.

Regardless of your beliefs, this is not the first time that differentials in defense spending between the U.S. and our allies have been identified as a moral hazard. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a similar claim, as highlighted in an Op-Ed written about his final speech to NATO in 2011:

“Gates’s frustration was no doubt sparked by the realization that his department has become the victim of moral hazard. The United States provides a free security guarantee to Europe. Europeans, meanwhile, have responded in an economically rational way by taking greater risk with their external defense. With the collapse of the Soviet Union removing the last plausible military threat, it was logical for European policymakers to avoid spending on expensive space, communications, and intelligence systems that the United States was largely providing for free. 

Gates concluded his speech by warning Europe’s leaders that the next generation of U.S. leaders lacks nostalgia for the Cold War struggle and could walk away from the NATO alliance. In the future, Europe will undoubtedly have to do more for its external defense. That doesn’t seem like a problem now [2011] since there is no apparent external threat. But should they have to more fully insure themselves, European defense planners should consider how they would rebuild their defenses. They should consider how much time it would take to mobilize political and budgetary authority to prepare for these threats and how long it would take to rebuild the required military forces.”

Since that speech [June 2011] many of the external threats to our NATO allies, which Gates noted were then not present, have since emerged. Absent adequate European military capabilities to deter and/or respond to a threat, the Syrian Civil War metastasized from a seemingly containable conflict to the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII. Refugees from the war and other regional conflicts have shaken the E.U. to its foundations, leading to Brexit and increasing Euroscepticism across the continent. More directly, a European (albeit non NATO) country, Ukraine, was invaded and had territory annexed by Russia.

It is, therefore, past time that European countries started taking greater ownership of their collective military capabilities. As Gates correctly noted, mobilizing sufficient public support–a necessary initial step for policy change in democracies–takes time and political ability. Recognizing this fact, it seems that European politicians are far behind where they should be in terms of reconciling their respective electorates with this reality.

Even that U.S. leader who “lacks nostalgia for the Cold War struggle and could walk away from the NATO alliance” is now in power in President Trump. While Presidents Obama and Bush also pressured NATO countries to spend more on defense, they did so more diplomatically. Perhaps surprisingly, I do not think that was necessarily the right approach when it comes to the issue at hand; sometimes difficult things just have to be said candidly, and proper incentives provided, to get a desired outcome (especially when large sums of money are involved, and speaking diplomatically has continuously failed to produce the desired outcome).

I’m sure Donny would tell you, in his usual egomaniacal hyperbole, that “no one has been tougher on NATO spending than me”. While Trump’s words have been the toughest, just like his predecessors his policies are reinforcing this longstanding moral hazard. To see how, just follow the money; the U.S. continues to increase its defense spending (over $100 billion increase since Trump took office, up to $716 billion dollars in fiscal year 2019), sending the message that we will keep making up for the rest of NATOs shortfall–after all, actions speak louder than words.

In order to end this moral hazard, Trump has to not put taxpayer money where his mouth is by not increasing defense spending. Of course the military-industrial complex (and his bases’ blind support for military spending) won’t allow him to do that, regardless of what moral hazard or–much more importantly–the other needs of our nation demand. 

If we continue on this course we will ultimately be left with more military spending both now and in the future, as we decrease pressure on our NATO allies to build up their military capabilities. 


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Labor, Education, and Apprenticeships

Image result for apprenticeship

Long time no see folks. It’s well past time to shed that post-policy depression (tax code) and get back to it. In doing so let’s consider a topic I have discussed often, one that should have bipartisan and Trump administration support, but has unfortunately yet to get its due–apprenticeships.

The Trump administration just concluded it’s “Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion” in May. Here are some key recommendations from the final report:

  • “The Subcommittee on Attracting Business to Apprenticeship recommended that the Industry Recognized Apprenticeship program should streamline and simplify program funding through various methods, such as updating Federal funding criteria, streamlining State grant access, and exploring sector-led financial options.” (p 10)
  • “According to recent research by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), there are more than 40 workforce development programs across nine Federal agencies. Data shows that these programs were funded with more than $42 billion, although less than half that amount ($17 billion) went to employment and training activities. Based on this data, there is a clear need to streamline and simplify programs by developing an organized approach that recognizes and preferentially funds apprenticeship.” (p 27,28)

Who can argue against greater efficiency? Nobody. However these efficiency increasing measures were already implemented, according to the Government Accountability Office (the very entity the Task Force cited regarding inefficiency in the first place)–that low hanging fruit has already been picked.

The Trump administration wants the private sector to share in the cost of scaling-up apprenticeship programs–another sentiment that is difficult to argue with. The problem is that it has not offered any incentive for the private sector to do so. Private companies are currently bringing in record profits while under-investing in apprenticeships; why would these companies change their behavior now, when times are good, without a new incentive to do so? Instead of increasing spending or leveraging the recent corporate tax giveaway to provide such an incentive, the Task Force cites measures to increase efficiency that have already been implemented.

The private sector needs to play a role in developing the curricula for apprenticeship programs, but can we stop pretending it will provide meaningful financing for them? Maybe if we cut corporate taxes even further they would, right!? If only we could’ve done away with that pesky corporate income tax completely, surely they would have (well, there is no more corporate alternative minimum tax now)…OK, clearly I’m still salty about tax reform…

It is time to admit that private businesses have largely abandoned the apprenticeship model. Sure there will always be anecdotes about successful training programs, particularly from large corporations that can afford to attract top talent. Unfortunately nothing currently exists on the scale required to meet the needs of the average American worker or business.

The results are obvious: underemployment, stagnant wages (a modest uptick in wage growth recently does not make up for decades of stagnancy), and ballooning tuition rates / student loan debt as everyone feels they must go to college to make a decent living. If the Trump administration’s answers to these societal problems are reaching some unattainable level of efficiency and expecting the private sector to suddenly become more altruistic, nothing will change from today’s unacceptable status-quo. If, on the other hand, apprenticeships were adequately invested in, they could provide an affordable alternative to the four-year college path, and revive America’s dwindling middle class.

The Trump administration just proposed merging the Labor and Education Departments. In talking about it, a friend asked me if I thought the proposal was a good idea. My answer was that it could be a good idea, but under this administration it would not be. If, for example, the merger really reduced redundancies and opened up more resources for programs like apprenticeships, that would be a positive trade-off in my opinion (again, greater efficiency is hard to argue against, in theory).

But lets be realistic, that is not the point of the Trump proposal. Look at Trump’s big Apprenticeship Task Force, which would fall squarely within the proposed agency’s mandate. Where’s the beef? SHOW ME THE MONEY! It’s simply not there…

As a nation we invest in what is important to us. No amount of free-market rhetoric, appeals to “greater efficiency”, or other forms of lip-service are going to shrink Americans’ skills gap or “make America great again”. Only investing adequately in our greatest asset–the American people–can accomplish that feat.

(Note: When considering what we do spend tax dollars on, don’t forget that the recent spending bill appropriated $61 billion MORE for defense spending–$655 billion total, compared to $42 billion for workforce development programs. Also, don’t forget that the recently passed tax code will reduce tax revenue by over $1 trillion dollars over the next decade)

 


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The First Casualty of “America First”: The Kurds

A member of Iraqi federal forces holds the Kurdish flag upside down in Kirkuk, Iraq on October 16, 2017.REUTERS/Stringer

Remember when the fate of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was uncertain, the country mired in a horrific Civil War with no end in sight while the IS was rapidly gaining ground? Remember when Iraqi forces fled IS advances, abandoning Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city? You should remember both, they were only a few years ago…

You should also remember how, in both cases, the Kurds proved themselves to be capable, brave fighters. They were and continue to be a stable faction in a volatile region–native boots on the ground that the U.S. can rely on. But facts on the ground can change quickly, especially when external powers intervene decisively in a conflict.

Seemingly a victory, a referendum for Kurdish independence quickly soured when the Iraqi military retook the Kirkuik oil field (backed by Iranian proxies). Yes, the same Iraqi military that melted away in the face of IS fighters and needed the Kurds to help clean up their mess, turned their guns on the Kurds for exercising self-determination.

In Syria, Russia and Iran helped Assad turn the tide of the Civil War decisively in his favor. Now that he appears to be firmly in power, Assad has set his sights on retaking Syria’s Kurdish regions.

In addition to being capable fighters, the Kurds have a penchant for democratic governance and women’s rights. In terms of a Middle Eastern partner, they are a dream match for the U.S.. We always lament the fact that we do have not enough true, democratic allies in the region, but I fear we are now abandoning one because supporting them doesn’t fits into Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.

In Iraq, we stood by as the Iraqi military and Iranian militias ripped away the would-be heart of any future Kurdish state. But the U.S. has invested a ton of resources into maintaining a unified Iraq; while I cannot agree with America’s inaction here, it is somewhat understandable.

What about in Syria, where this is not the case? Here too we are failing to protect our ally. In order to appease Turkish President Erdogan, President Trump has said he will stop arming the Kurds.

This is the problem with Trump’s “America First” foreign policy–it is inherently short-sighted. Is it in America’s short term interests to defend the Kurds now? Probably not–we used em’ and now we could lose em’. Turkey is stronger than the Kurds; it is easier to give in to our more powerful “ally’s” wishes here regardless what is “right”, even as President Erdogan continues to turn Turkey into an authoritarian, non-secular country.

Turkey does have some legitimate concerns about its territorial integrity when it comes to Kurdish statehood. Despite the erosion of Turkish democracy, Turkey is far from a “failed state” (as Iraq was and Syria still is), making the case for appropriating Turkish land for a Kurdish state much weaker. Mechanisms could be set up to protect Turkish sovereignty and borders alongside the introduction of a Kurdish state, which I have outlined in a previous blog post.

More pointedly, if Turkey didn’t want the Kurds to have a much stronger claim to their own state, it should have acted more decisively in the Syrian Civil War and in the fight against the IS. Instead Turkey, like the rest of the global and regional powers, let the Kurds do the heavy lifting. Now, understandably, the Kurds want their just deserts.

Would continuing to decisively back the Kurds upset some powerful players? Yes. What meaningful change does not? What happened to Trump’s supposed bravado? Risk aversion will only reaffirm to the status-quo in the Middle East–picking the least bad autocrats to be our allies, while the region remains mired in conflict and stalled development. Building true democratic allies in the Middle East will not be quick or easy, but it is important work nonetheless.

Now to be fair, in international affairs long-term goals need to be weighed against short-term security concerns, and shortsightedness is not exclusive to the Trump administration. Obama did not do enough to protect a budding democracy in Egypt, and was too risk averse in Syria, allowing Russia to eventually come in and dictate the result of the conflict. There is, however, a sense that the Trump administration will not even really weigh these options when making tough decisions. After all, Trump has shown at best a lukewarm appreciation for democratic institutions at home (attacks on the judiciary and independent media) and has praised authoritarian leaders abroad. It is, therefore, no stretch of the imagination to think that he will, by default, opt for the easy solution without even considering the long-term benefits of promoting democratic governance.

In this case, even considering the potential negatives, abandoning the Kurds would be one of America’s most short-sighted decisions the Middle East since we sleepwalked into the Iraq War in the first place. Based on what we know about Trump and his “America First” foreign policy, it is not likely to be the last short-sighted decision either.

Update (1/27): I knew Trump wouldn’t do the right thing…The U.S. has agreed to stop arming the Syrian Kurds to appease Turkey’s Erdogan. Erdogan, sensing weakness in Trump’s resolve, is trying to further dictate terms to the U.S., demanding we remove all of our troops from Manbij.

It would be incredible to imagine the U.S. allowing another country to dictate where we keep our troops, particularly since Manbij is part of Syria, not Turkey. With that being said, nothing would surprise me anymore; all bets are off with the Trump administration.

Bottom line–Turkey and Erdogan have no right to tell us who we can ally with, and where to position our troops.


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With Tax Reform, America Must Go “Back to the Future”

Tax reform is not “sexy”, there is no getting around this fact. It is, however, a very important issue, as every government program is funded either by tax dollars or debt. While the specifics of tax policy may be difficult to comprehend, almost everyone has their own beliefs on taxation and the role of government.

Looking at these preferences, the majority of Americans believe the government does not do enough to help poor and middle class people. Relatedly, a full three quarters of Americans feel that the wealthy aren’t paying their fair share of taxes.

Against this backdrop, lets consider Trump’s tax proposal:

  • Fewer tax brackets at lower rates for the wealthiest. The plan sets three tax brackets for individuals — 12 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent — down from the existing seven rates (which top out at 39.6 percent).
  • Lowering the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20%. While our corporate tax rate is too high, due to loopholes the actual rate paid is much lower (particularly for large corporations who can afford the best lobbyists, lawyers, and accountants). Based on actual taxes paid, the U.S. ranks comparatively low among developed countries. The corporate tax rate should only be lowered if the revenue lost if offset by closing the right loopholes. Trump has not specified which loopholes, if any, he plans to close.
  • Cutting the “pass-through” tax rate, which is what individuals who file their corporate earnings as personal income pay, from the current highest income tax rate of 39.6% to 25%. This rate cut would almost exclusively benefit the wealthy, and is one to watch closely-in recent years more and more businesses have begun filing as “pass-throughs” in order to minimize their tax bill.
  • Repeal of the alternative minimum tax, which is essentially in place to ensure wealthy people pay a certain minimum amount as they use their accountants to game the tax code. But it will make the tax code fit on a post card! And thats what matters!
  • A lowering an eventual repeal of the inheritance tax, which is only paid on the largest estates. This is being billed as a move to help family farmers, which is an audacious spin of the issue to be sure.
  • Trump’s plan has been light on details about capital gains taxes. However, there is nothing to suggest his financier-stacked Cabinet (Mnuchin, Cohn) will want to do anything but lower these rates as well.

All these proposed ideas would reduce taxes paid by the wealthy, compromising the government’s ability to further help poor and middle class people. So the question is, if these ideas are so unpopular, how is Trump selling them to the American public?

For some, it is enough to say that lower taxes will promote growth, increase employment, and pay for themselves. People who drink this “supply-side” Cool-Aid are outliers, and notably the vast majority of economists disagree with these claims. But remember, we are talking about many of the same people who disagree with 97% of climate scientists on climate change, so this is actually a consistent (if not irrational) repudiation of “experts”.

Most reasonable people, however, believe what the overwhelming majority of experts in a field conclude. For these people, support for Trump’s plan likely comes from being told they will receive a “massive” tax cut. But when you look at it, the “massive” cuts in Trump’s plan are reserved for those with the highest incomes.

Consider the distribution of income tax cuts, as shown on the table below. 77% of the cuts go to people earning more than $143,100 a year. That is hardly the “middle class”.

It’s more of the same when it comes to corporate tax cuts. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, “middle-income taxpayers would receive less than 10 percent of the benefit of a corporate rate cut while the top 20 percent would receive about 70 percent. The top 1 percent would see about one-third of the benefits and the top 0.1 percent would get about one-fifth.

Trump’s plan would increase our national debt by well over a trillion dollars. The IMF has warned the plan will increase inequality and will not lead to higher growth. Wall Street is betting it will lead to greater investments in automation, not workers. The Fed has even waded into the debate to issue a rare warning, saying the proposed plan could lead to high inflation.

For all these negatives, middle class earners will only get a small tax cut, if that. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin admitted some middle class earners may not get any cut at all. This is coming from the man who also said it is “hard to create a system where you’re not going to also cut taxes on the top 10 percent“. Maybe if you are a derisive elitist with zero consideration for societal well-being, who has no business governing, it is difficult to imagine not cutting taxes for the wealthy. For most people, it is extremely easy to imagine.

So Trump’s plan is unpopular, and those who support it are either irrational, have been misled, or are wealthy and likely to benefit personally. Just like with healthcare, the GOP has no tax reform plan that works for the vast majority of Americans; hopefully its tax reform efforts will meet a similar defeat.

The Case for Higher Top Rates

Remember, Trump’s plan sets three tax brackets for individuals, down from the existing seven. While the U.S. tax code has become overly complicated due to deductions and loopholes, the complicating factor is not the number of income tax brackets. Like any misdiagnosis, reducing the number of tax brackets would not solve any problems, and would likely make the situation worse.

Republicans in Congress plan on including a fourth higher bracket in their proposal, but this is not enough. There should be even higher brackets and rates for people with 7 and 8 digit incomes.

After a certain point, the higher your income, the less it is connected to working harder, and the more it is related to the risks one takes and the carefully constructed, trade-based global economy in which we operate (infrastructure, government R&D, international peace and trade rules, strong judicial systems, educated workforces, relatively prosperous customer bases, etc.). Notably these characteristics are all, to varying degrees, financed by tax revenue. 

I can already hear people moaning at this point and calling me a socialist, so allow me to clarify with an example. Take someone who manufactures clothing. Decades ago, the owner of this company would more or less be constrained to selling his or her goods domestically. Despite working very hard, their overall earnings were capped (at least by today’s standards). Today, the same person, putting in the same amount of work, can sell their goods all over the world through the internet, earning a lot more money. The work these two owners from different eras put in is roughly equivalent, but the modern day entrepreneur can potentially earn a lot more. In fact, this is half of the story of increasing extreme global inequality.

What about my other point, about these systems being financed to varying degrees by tax revenue? Well this is certainly true of the internet (whose origins were in defense research). It is also true of all of the spending that promotes international peace and fair trade practices (defense spending, development aid, contributions to international organizations like the WTO, etc.).

While the risks people take should be rewarded, the context in which wealth is earned should not be ignored. This is not to say “you didn’t build it” or “you didn’t work hard”, it is simply acknowledging that outside factors play a role in how much wealth one can amass. Ignoring this reality does not make it go away, but it does risk underinvesting in making sure it continues into the future.

A Quick Lesson on Marginal Tax Rates

I think that much of the opposition to higher tax brackets comes from misunderstanding how marginal tax rates work. When you enter a higher bracket, only the amount you earn over the higher threshold gets taxed at the higher rate.

Lets take a look at a hypothetical numerical example. If the rate below $100,000 is 20%, and the rate above is 30%, when a person earns their 100,001st dollar, only the amount over the threshold–the one dollar–is taxed at the higher 30% rate. The rest, the first $100,000, is still taxed at the lower 20% rate. People do not become poorer by moving into a higher tax bracket.

In recent history, before the Reagan era tax cuts, top income tax rates were around 50%. This seems like a reasonable number if not for its roundness and inherent fairness, but the exact optimal number of brackets and rates is not what’s most important. More important is recognition by people across the political spectrum that the wealthy must pay their fare share of taxes. Based on the survey results cited earlier, most people already do share this belief–it is well past time their elected representatives acted on it.

The tax code should be used neither to venerate the wealthy as infallible job creators, nor to vilify wealth so much as to stifle innovation. Simply put, the tax code must allow us to adequately invest in the very systems which enabled America to become the wealthiest nation in the world in the first place. Anything else is a short-sighted failure of governance.

“Back to the Future” (With Some Help From Our Friends)

Trump’s base often talks about “Making America Great Again”. To a small minority, this is a thinly veiled embrace of our country’s racially charged past. To others, I’d like to think most people, making America “great” is about (re)creating an economy that rewards anyone who is willing to work hard.

So how can we make sure that, as a country, we can afford to make the investments needed to get back to this “Golden Age”? Not surprisingly, some of the answers lie in the past; America has historically had both more income tax brackets, and higher tax rates for top earners. These were the good old days many low-tax advocates are pining for!

There is nothing uniquely American about these higher historic rates either. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)top personal income tax rates in rich nations had fallen to 35 percent in 2015 from an average of 62 percent in 1981.To put a bow on an earlier point, this is the other half of the story of increasing extreme global inequality.

Now admittedly some things have changed in the past few decades. The rise of information technologies has led to irreversible changes in financial markets. When people can move their money around the world instantly with the click of a mouse, it is important to have some level tax coordination between countries in order to fight tax evasion (in its many forms). In today’s globalized world, countries and international institutions such as the OECD must work together to ensure the ultra-wealthy are not getting a free ride.

If America wants to be able to adequately invest in the very systems that made and continue to make it great, and if we want to be able to give working class people a tax cut without greatly increasing our national debt, we must hold the wealthiest Americans economically accountable.

Update (12/1/17):

Some elements of the tax bill have changed since I originally wrote this blog, but these were marginal changes. At it’s core, this bill is still the regressive piece of legislation it always was.

According to the non-partisan Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, even accounting for supposed growth this bill will “unleash”, it will still increase the deficit by 1 trillion dollars over the next decade. That shortfall will ultimately be paid for by reducing spending on popular government programs, and forestall the conversation on any new government programs (think education, healthcare, infrastructure). The only hope is that the Senate and House are unable to reconcile their bills and pass a unified one, but this is unlikely–if there is one thing most conservatives Congressmen believe in, it is making the rich richer and the poor poorer.

For all the talk of how damaging Trump has been to this country, taking a longer view he will ultimately be a flash in the pan. This tax bill, should it pass, would have a much larger negative impact on our country, ultimately leading to lower social mobility for decades to come. The last major tax overhaul persisted for over 30 years–this country (literally and figuratively) cannot afford to have this bill become our new tax code.

Update (12/22):

The House and Senate reconciled their tax bills, with the final version being signed into law by President Trump. The only silver-lining is that this massively unpopular law may lead to a Democratic resurgence. However, Republicans will do their best, via repressive voting laws and gerrymandering, to stop this from happening.

The American people cannot afford this tax law on the books for a prolonged period of time.  It will leave us further in debt, while compromising our ability to further invest in our people and our infrastructure. We now turn to the 2018 and 2020 elections as a barometer for just how fed-up the American people are by the bait-and-switch “populism” of Trump and the GOP.