Normative Narratives

1 Comment

Transparency Report: The Decline of American Populism Has Been Self-Inflicted

turnout chart

Original Article:

People who feel financially secure vote, people who aren’t secure don’t, according to a Pew Research Center report released this morning. And because financially insecure Americans disproportionately identify with the Democratic Party, Democrats face a structural disadvantage, especially in mid-term elections. In 2014, fully 94% of the most financially secure Americans were registered to vote, compared to only 54% of the least secure; 63% of the most secure were likely voters, versus only 20% of the least secure.

Not surprisingly, financial security is correlated with political knowledge and activism. The most secure Americans are more than twice as likely to know basic facts about the political system, and three times as likely to have contacted an elected official during the past two years.

40% of all Americans think that government does a better job than people give it credit for compared to 56% who believe that it is almost always wasteful and inefficient. Among the least financially secure Americans who would seem to have the most to gain from effective public programs, only 48% adopt the more affirmative stance, while 49% focus on waste and inefficiency. Government’s poor reputation is one of the many obstacles impeding political mobilization along economic lines.

One can only hope that elected officials will focus on this disparity more than they have in recent years. But as the report shows, the people who most need a hand up are those least likely to vote and to make their views known to elected officials. Unless average Americans feel secure enough to afford generosity, leaders who focus on the problems of those at the bottom are likely to reap meager electoral rewards.

People have many excuses for not participating in the political process. The rise of “Super-PACs” / money in politics makes many people feel they have no voice compared to wealthy interests. Gerrymandering can take the “punch” out of an individual’s vote. Whatever the reason, too many people in this country simply feel their vote does not matter, that the “costs” of voting outweigh the benefits (notably this feeling seems to coalesce at the bottom of the economic ladder).

Just 36.4% of eligible voters turned out for the 2014 midterm elections, the lowest level since WWII.  But passive-aggressive resistance (abstaining from voting) is a counter-productive form of protest. Not voting will not make the political system go away, nor will it lead to meaningful changes in the political process. To paraphrase Thomas Picketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century“, everyone should be active participants in the democratic process; the wealthy never fail to promote their interests.

Reducing inequalities requires an active, informed citizenry. To this end, I have identified a few reforms which could have a meaningful impact on voter turnout among the financially insecure (aside from campaign finance reform measures):

1) Make National Election Day a national holiday:

Senator Bernie Sanders (I, VT.) wants to make national election days national holidays. While this is a sentiment I support, and one that should increase overall voter turnout rates, it may not directly address the issue of increasing turnout among the financially insecure.

Most of the poorest people in America are hourly wage earners. Therefore, making election day a federal holiday would not necessarily lead to higher turnout amongst the poor. In fact, since wage earners typically earn “time and a half” for working holidays, making election day a federal holiday could actually create an perverse incentive, keeping hourly wage earners away from the polls.

Perhaps in addition to making election day a national holiday, the government should consider providing businesses with tax credits in exchange for offering hourly wage employees paid leave on election day?

2) Include a political science / economics class as a required part of the high school curriculum:

I understand the federal government generally tries to stay out of educational curriculum issues, which are developed at the state level. But to me, this area seems like it should be an exception to that rule.

A primary goal of schooling is to help children develop into well rounded, successful adults. But regardless of what someone ends up doing for a living, every American citizen has a civic responsibility to be an active, informed voter. We cannot demand every American be a political buff, but we can and should empower every American citizen to make an informed decision at the polls.

Educating young adults about the functions of the different levels (municipal, state, federal) and branches (executive, legislative, judicial) of government, and the basics of economics, economic policy, personal finance, and taxation would go a long way towards producing informed voters.

A bipartisan committee could draft the curriculum, to ensure it is even-handed.

3) Remote Voting via the internet:

Assuming we can ensure security (and I see no reason why we would not be able to), it seems obvious to me that advances in ICTs should translate into greater ease of voting. Voters should be able to register and vote online, ensuring those who are strapped for time–a limited resource regardless of ones level of income / wealth–can vote.

Online voting would require registration based on SSN, allowing one vote per registered voter. Registration would have to take place ahead of time, to provide ample time to verify age, residency, and any other eligibility requirements.

Update: According to PolitifactAt least 20 states currently offer online voter registration for new applicants and a few more are in the works…Experts who study online registration say there have been no reports of actual security breaches or fraud. If designed in a way to account for security, online registration reduces opportunities for fraud and errors.

While this is a promising start, I am advocating for online registration and voting in all 50 states.

Voting is a voluntary activity. In order to increase voter turnout, we have to consider why people do things voluntarily.

Reducing the perceived “opportunity costs” of voting, both foregone wages and the time it takes to vote, is one side of the equation. Convincing people voting is in their best interests by teaching them the basics of political economy (and consequently explaining why the political system may have failed to promote their interest in the past), would increase the perceived benefits of voting.

Perhaps the financially insecure are not as “rational” as I am making them out to be. There is a strong argument that people who live in poverty do not act “rationally” (in the economic sense of long-run “utility” maximization). It may not be enough for voting to be in a financially insecure person’s “best interest”; to increase voter turnout amongst the poor, voting must be made a “no-brainer”.

Politicians come in all shapes, sizes, and ideologies. Some are progressive, some are conservative. Some serve “the people”, while other are beholden to special interests.

One thing that is consistent among all politicians is their desire to be (re)elected. It is the responsibility of voters to make a populist agenda (by whatever name it goes by), a (re)electable platform.



Green News: Walmart, Wages, Emissions, and Personal Accountability in a Democracy

Original Article:

Walmart is one of the biggest and fastest-growing polluters in the nation, despite the company’s 2005 pledge to become an environmental leader, according to a report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).

The retail giant emits 45 million metric tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), slightly more than Target, at 42 million metric tons, and significantly more than Costco, at 16 million metric tons, according to the report.

“The scale of Walmart’s energy efficiency and renewable power measures is not up to the scale of their business or their growth,” Stacy Mitchell, the author of the report, told Al Jazeera. “They been placing solar powers on the rooftops and getting some wind power and so on, but Walmart only derives 4 percent of its energy from renewable energy sources.”

“This is a business model that is built on these far-flung distributors and goods that are trucked all over the country [and shipped all over the world],” Mitchell said. “There are fundamental aspects of Walmart’s business model that are at odds with sustainability.”

Walmart spokesperson Christopher Schraeder told Al Jazeera that the company is “working hard every day to find solutions to the most pressing sustainability issues,” and that has “ambitious sustainability goals to improve our operations, increase fleet efficiency, source locally and sell more sustainable products.

Mitchell acknowledged that significant change in emissions will have to come through legislation, not just from companies becoming more ‘green.’

But with Congress more divided than ever, that’s not likely to happen soon, especially when companies use their financial resources and lobby members of Congress to block environmental protection measures.

Through the Walmart Stores Inc. PAC for Responsible Government, Walmart has given more than $22 million to politicians who are opposed to legislation that would regulate emissions and promote climate change.

In the 2008 elections, 80 percent of Walmart’s senate campaign contributions went to people who blocked the “cap-and-trade” bill, which would have reduced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emmissions across the U.S. economy. In the 2012 elections, 70 percent of donations went to people who supported the Keystone XL pipeline

Walmart has gotten a bad rap over a number of issues, and in the past I have been critical of Walmart’s business model as well. But I was still fair in my analysis back then; the two main issues Walmart receives flack for–employee compensation and emissions–need to be addressed by government policy:


1) Employee Compensation: This is as clear cut an example of policy failure there can be. Walmart, by paying its sales associates an average of $8.81 cents / hr, is not breaking any laws. This comes out to a yearly income of a little over $15,000, placing a large burden on the social safety net:

On the flip side of this, it costs the nation an estimated $1 billion a year in social safety net use. Essentially, the U.S. taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart’s  low wages, which systematically produce full-time workers living below the poverty line.

It should raise a red flag that the same ideology opposed to safety net policies also tends to be against higher minimum wage legislation as well. It used to be that if you worked hard you could live a comfortable middle-class life and have enough to invest in a better future for your children. With the current minimum wage, the American Dream is no longer a reality for a large number of hard working but less-skilled Americans.

The plan to increase the federal minimum wage to $10/hr  (and thereafter tying it to a cost of living metric such as the CPI) beginning in 2014 (I believe the plan is to phase it in over three years) is a good start. This could also have the effect of pushing up non-minimum wage compensation as well, as employers looking for more skilled labor will have to compete with higher minimum wage employers. Such changes are all the more important in the context of rising inequality and falling median incomes (which are at their lowest level since 1995).

2) Emissions: 

As the report states, “significant change in emissions will have to come through legislation, not just from companies becoming more ‘green.’”. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a nice idea, but it only changes things at the margin. As with employee compensation, the real driver of change must come from carbon tax / cap-and-trade legislation. With proper legislation in place, CSR gives way to more enforceable corporate accountability.

Another important element of environmental sustainability should come from tax incentives for using local producers. This legislation would be less politically contentious than carbon taxation, but would have a huge impact on emissions. According to the ILSR report, Walmart’s carbon emissions disclosure does not include emissions from international shipping. However, this is a large component of Walmart’s competitive advantage, finding the lowest cost producers, which are always in developing countries due to lower labor costs. Since there is no taxation on emissions, as long as the price of production + transporting from the developing world is lower than the price of producing domestically, retailers such as Walmart have little incentive to choose the later.

By evening the playing field through tax incentives, the benefits would be twofold: 1) stimulating the U.S. economy through more local production and 2) lower emissions due to less transportation from production site to the store. These tax incentives could be paired with carbon tax / cap-and-trade revenue (to fulfill the revenue-neutrality legislative condition the G.O.P. lives by), further tilting the playing field towards lower emission  American production.

Walmart’s own CSR initiatives have led to an increase in American production, appropriate legislation can (literally and figuratively) bring these changes home.

I would like to take this opportunity to also highlight an example of the political economy definition of a “collective action problem”:

Through the Walmart Stores Inc. PAC for Responsible Government, Walmart has given more than $22 million to politicians who are opposed to legislation that would regulate emissions and promote climate change.

In the 2008 elections, 80 percent of Walmart’s senate campaign contributions went to people who blocked the “cap-and-trade” bill, which would have reduced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emmissions across the U.S. economy.

A collective action problems occurs when a large group of people would be better off with a change, but that change does not occur because the gains to each individual in that large group are small, while the losses imposed by the change on a small group are large. In this case, the American public would be better off with regulations on GHG emissions, but these improvements in environmental quality are hard to quantify and will occur only in the future. In contrast, the cost to the small group (Walmart) is large and immediate–having to pay for emissions. Therefore, it is rational for Walmart to use it’s resources ($22 million in this case) to lobby against these changes.

But there is strength in numbers and in public opinion, particularly in a democracy. While civil society may not be able to raise money to counter Walmart’s lobby, it need not do so to overcome the collective action problem. This comes down to an issue of social accountability. In a democracy, we can vote for lawmakers who will stand up to lobbies for the greater public good.

The fact that these politicians are rare-to-non-existent is partially due to legislation (lobbying money is allowed to influence lawmakers), but mainly it is due to a failure of social accountability. People are either too busy or too cynical to vote, with the aggregate outcome of a legislature that represents the interests of it donors rather than its constituents.

Democracy is powerful, voting is powerful. It is why we see wars fought in the name of democracy; people are willing to die for the rights we as a nation largely take for granted. Our ability to move forward as a nation whose laws represents the interest of the general public hinges on overcoming cynicism in the democratic process.

Finger-pointing and playing the blame game are not the answers. Education / information dissemination is an important element of overcoming collective action problems, and is largely why I do what I do here at NN. But ultimately the responsibility lies with each and every U.S. citizen. Belief in the power of the democratic process is the only way to return to the more egalitarian America of yesteryear.