Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Votes That Count…

Vox recently had a provocative article advocating “proportional voting,” and claiming that the institution of such a voting system would solve two of America’s thorniest political problems: partisan polarization and the number of “wasted” votes.

A bit of background: we currently have an electoral system in which–as the article says– your vote is far more likely to shape Congress if you live in Des Moines than if you live in San Francisco.(Rural votes also count more than urban ones for President, thanks to the Electoral College.) The system thus undermines accountability and vastly increases polarization.

Polarization is often described in terms of red states and blue states, but it is a significant problem at the Congressional-district level across all the states. It’s also a more complex story than is usually suggested: Gerrymandering, or the partisan redrawing of district lines — a frequent object of complaint on the left —- has undoubtedly helped make some districts more unshakably Republican. (Democrats play the gerrymandering game, too, but they have had less opportunity.)

This polarization could be addressed by moving more liberal city-dwellers to more rural areas of the country, or ridding ourselves of the Electoral College–remedies that will be instituted right after hell freezes and pigs fly.

On the other hand, we might be able to pass the Fair Representation Actintroduced by Democratic Representative Don Beyer of Virginia. If passed, that Act would change our current voting system to one of proportional representation.

Whatever the causes of polarization, there is a relatively straightforward solution to our current predicament that has been embraced by most advanced industrial democracies: proportional representation. There are many versions of this approach, but they all involve some way of electing multiple people, at once, to represent a region. In a proportional system, parties representing as little as 1 percent of the electorate can gain representation, though the most stable systems usually have a threshold percentage level to prevent truly marginal parties from gaining seats. The regions can be as large as an entire nation — but even when they are smaller they tend to be larger than the 435 tiny US congressional districts, each of which is run according to the “winner take all” principle.

Under a proportional system, if you want to live in a big, liberal city in a liberal state, you don’t give up the chance to make a difference with your vote. There is also very little possibility for consequential gerrymandering in proportional representation systems, since districts tend to be so big that there’s not much to gain from alternative line-drawings.

Proponents of this approach point out that it makes third parties more viable, which means that more parties are competing for voters. They also note that because voters feel that their votes actually matter, proportional representation systems tend to have higher voter turnout.

The problem this proposal aims to cure is very real: thanks to residential “sorting” and gerrymandering, in today’s America only about one in 20 of us lives in a place that is likely to have a competitive House election.

The reality of the problem is one thing; whether proportional voting–or multi-member districts–is the right solution is another. In my state, we moved away from multi-member districts in order to increase accountability; at the time, the argument was that larger districts and multiple representatives attenuated the relationship between representatives and those they served.

I’m not sure what changes are most likely to be effective, let alone able to be adopted. I do know that America is no longer either a democracy or a republic. We can’t go on much longer with a “system” this dysfunctional, and “band-aid” prescriptions are unlikely to be effective.

What to do?

 

Policy For Dummies

Permit me to channel–okay, parody– Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

How do I ridicule thee? Let me count the ways.
I sneer to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach…

President Trump–in his obsessive effort to eradicate anything and everything that his predecessor did (he was black, you know)– has reversed Obama’s moratorium on new leases for coal mining on federal lands.

Although that moratorium was good for the environment, the impetus for it was actually financial. As Think Progress has reported,

Taxpayers are estimated to be losing $1 billion a year in revenues because coal companies are not paying royalties on the actual market price of coal extracted from federal lands. Royalty payments are split between the federal government and the state where the coal is mined, and coal lease sales in the in the past decade garnered close to $1 per ton in bids.

This is above and beyond the so-called “royalties loophole,” which allows coal companies to sell publicly owned coal to subsidiaries at artificially low prices. An Obama-era rule had closed that loophole, but the Trump administration has already stayed the legally binding rule, and has initiated court proceedings to throw it out entirely. Under the loophole, taxpayers lose millions of dollars annually.

So–let’s just “count the ways” that this latest impulsive eruption was both stupid and venal.

As noted, it will cost taxpayers. And it will cost us without doing anything at all for coal miners.

Even if new leasing goes forward, critics say Trump’s order to lift the moratorium will do more for coal industry executives than it will for coal communities. Coal jobs have been in decline for decades — and not just because coal production is falling. Automation and new mining processes have diminished the number of jobs per ton of coal.

“This order won’t bring the coal industry back, but it will ensure coal companies rip off American taxpayers for years to come,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director for the Center for Western Priorities.

Trump has already loosened regulations that prohibited coal companies from polluting the nation’s drinking water, alarming public health officials, among others. But his love affair with coal also ignores market economics. Between coal companies’ massive amount of reserves (over 20 years worth) and the rapidly declining use of coal, the market has sent a strong signal about coal’s future.

Receiving such signals–or, let’s face it, comprehending reality–isn’t Trump’s strong suit.

Reporting on the move, Reuters made similar observations.

Since 2012, coal production has plunged more than 25 percent to the lowest levels since 1978 due to falling prices. The industry has been hit with massive layoffs and bankruptcies.

Even if the rollback of the moratorium helped coal miners– an outcome analysts uniformly dispute–the number of Americans employed as coal miners is far fewer than Trump evidently believes. According to the Washington Post, more people work at Arby’s than in coal mines.

Experts in the industry have already pointed out, repeatedly, that the coal jobs are extremely unlikely to come back. The plight of the coal industry is more a function of changing energy markets and increased demand for natural gas than anything else.

Another largely overlooked point about coal jobs is that there just aren’t that many of them relative to other industries. There are various estimates of coal-sector employment, but according to the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns program, which allows for detailed comparisons with many other industries, the coal industry employed 76,572 people in 2014, the latest year for which data is available.

That number includes not just miners but also office workers, sales staff and all of the other individuals who work at coal-mining companies.

Although 76,000 might seem like a large number, consider that similar numbers of people are employed by, say, the bowling (69,088) and skiing (75,036) industries. Other dwindling industries, such as travel agencies (99,888 people), employ considerably more. Used-car dealerships provide 138,000 jobs. Theme parks provide nearly 144,000. Carwash employment tops 150,000.

Maybe we can get Trump to turn his attention to carwashes. Used-car dealerships would be a natural fit…

Or maybe he can enlist a new ghostwriter and publish another book; it could be titled The Art of the Very Bad Deal or Policy for Dummies.

 

 

 

 

Has Liberalism Failed?

For quite a while, I called myself an “18th Century liberal,” because I considered myself a genuine conservative, a term I defined as a fiscal conservative who believed in conserving the libertarian principle developed during the Enlightenment.

The meaning of “liberalism” (at least until Rush Limbaugh et al appropriated the term for use as an expletive) was–as Fareed Zakaria recently noted in a New York Times book review–

the tradition of liberty and democracy and, by extension, the open, rules-based international economic and political system that has characterized the Western world since 1945, and many more parts of the globe since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

A couple of weeks ago, in the Sunday New York Times, Zakaria reviewed a book by Edward Luce, titled “The Retreat of Western Liberalism.” Luce was surveying the economic and political decay of the United States and European democracies, and he was less than sanguine about the future of Enlightenment liberalism, to put it mildly.  I haven’t read the book, but judging from Zakaria’s response, Luce places much blame for the current assault on liberty and democratic norms on the “elites” that it has become so fashionable to bash (and so rare to define).

Zakaria points out that recent European elections–with the exception of Brexit–have actually been cause for celebration by those who are rooting for the success of the European Union and the stability of liberal democratic regimes.

Instead of viewing the entire West as being overwhelmed by a tsunami of right-wing populism, we might step back and study countries separately. Those that have had strong safety nets as well as programs to help people move up the economic ladder, like Northern Europe, do not have as much of a problem as others. There, immigration rather than economics is the key driver, but that will wane in importance since immigration flows are dwindling. In my view, Germany seemed vulnerable to right-wing nationalism in the form of the Alternative für Deutschland only after Merkel’s extraordinary decision to take in a million refugees, but as that fades into the background, so has the AfD. In France, Macron is articulating a defense of Western democracy against Russian interference in much stronger terms than is the American president.

Zakaria began his review by focusing upon a recent speech by Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister. The speech was widely reported in the U.S., because Freeland essentially suggested that Canada–along with other democracies–needed to step up its defense of the liberal international order to compensate for the “situation” in the United States. (Although she never mentioned Trump, it was pretty clear what “situation” she was referring to.) Zakaria returned to Canada in his final observation.

In many ways, the one Western country that has seemed immune from any of this populism has been Chrystia Freeland’s Canada. That is not because Canadians are genetically immune to populism but rather because for the last 20 years, they have pursued good public policy. Canada’s economics, health care, banking and immigration policies have been inclusive and successful. One sign of the strength of Western liberalism would be if the United States could recognize that there are now other countries with a deep commitment to these ideas and values that might even be approaching them more successfully than is Washington. The West, in other words, we now live in is a post-American West.

Social science research confirms Zakaria’s reference to “good public policy.” Countries with strong social safety nets, like Canada’s, are more stable and less violence-prone; their populations exhibit fewer socially undesirable behaviors (everything from crime rates to out-of-wedlock births, divorce, drug abuse, etc.)

Paul Ryan and his cohort can insist that taking away access to health care and reducing other social supports is “pro freedom,” but people aren’t free when their waking hours are consumed by efforts to put food on the table, and their nightmares are of an accident or illness that plunges them into bankruptcy.

Eighteenth Century liberalism promised personal autonomy; your right to live your life in accordance with your own values and beliefs, so long as you were willing to accord an equal liberty to others. That’s a concept of liberty that is not only consistent with a social safety net–these days, as a practical matter, it requires one.

 

A Poverty of Understanding

Pundits and scholars and public officials spend considerable time trying to determine the causes of poverty and advocating measures to alleviate it.

In contrast, they spend very little time examining public perceptions of those causes, and less still inquiring into the demographics of those holding very different opinions about the causes (and thus the cures) for poverty. But a recent survey did just that:

Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part, or difficult circumstances beyond their control?

The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked 1,686 American adults to answer that question — and found that religion is a significant predictor of how Americans perceive poverty.

Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.

Forty-six percent of all Christians said that a lack of effort is generally to blame for a person’s poverty; in comparison, only 29 percent of non-Christians attributed poverty to inadequate effort by the individual.

The survey found an even wider gulf between adherents of different Christian denominations: 53 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 50 percent of Catholics blamed lack of effort, while 45 percent blamed circumstances. Americans who are atheist, agnostic or claimed no particular affiliation responded– by an impressive margin of 65 to 31 percent– that difficult circumstances are more to blame for poverty than lack of effort.

This data is not just of academic interest; it is politically consequential. Not surprisingly, the partisan divide is sharp: Among Democrats, 26 percent blamed a lack of effort and 72 percent blamed circumstances. Among Republicans, 63 percent blamed lack of effort and 32 percent blamed circumstances. And race mattered, too: Just 32 percent of black Christians blamed lack of effort, compared to 64 percent who blamed circumstances.

Although the Post’s article didn’t refer to it, these opinions reflect the continuing cultural influence of Calvinism, which taught that God had decided who would be saved or damned before the beginning of history, and that this decision would not be affected by how human beings behaved during their lives. Furthermore, although you could never be sure who the elect were, it was widely believed that earthly material success was a sign of God’s favor and signaled “elect” status. Whether or not this belief can fairly be attributed to Calvin himself, it was firmly ensconced in the Puritans’ popular understanding of the doctrine of predestination.

Over time, as the presumed connection between wealth and elect status fostered by Calvinism became part of American culture, it influenced today’s common belief that poverty indicates moral deficit and wealth is a marker of merit. Those attitudes, together with America’s emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility, continue to overshadow recognition of the important role played by public policies and systemic influences.

These survey results illuminate the dilemma for public policy: if people are poor because minimum wage levels facilitate exploitation, or because automation is eliminating jobs, or because of inadequacies in America’s social safety net, the policies to be pursued will look very different from policies based upon a belief that poverty is a result of personal moral failure.

Doctors can’t decide what medicine to prescribe if they don’t know what ails you. Lawmakers can’t address economic disparities between the rich and the rest, or lessen the incidence of poverty, if they don’t understand the underlying reasons for economic hardship.

Christian charity is all well and good, but Christian economic realism would be a lot better.

 

 

Looking For A Bright Side

We are all hungry for good news these days–even if the search for the “bright side of life” sometimes seems reminiscent of that famous scene from Life of Brian….

So–can we look for any good news emanating from the Trump Administration? I’ve previously pointed out that civic participation is up dramatically since the election–huge numbers of people who were previously apathetic about government have evidently realized that public policy really does matter. (I know, clutching at straws here…)

Granted, any positive consequence coming from this misbegotten administration is by definition inadvertent. But that doesn’t make such consequences nonexistent.

In a recent column, Fred Hiatt expanded on that inadvertence, which he dubbed “The Boomerang Effect.”

Did your head spin when Utah’s Orrin Hatch, a true conservative and the Senate’s longest-serving Republican, emerged last week as the most eloquent spokesman for transgender rights? Credit the Trump boomerang effect.

Much has been said about White House dysfunction and how little President Trump has accomplished in his first six months. But that’s not the whole story: In Washington and around the world, in some surprising ways, things are happening — but they are precisely the opposite of what Trump wanted and predicted when he was sworn in.

Hiatt reminds his readers of the conventional wisdom–or at least, the conventional punditry–that saw Brexit and Trump’s election as harbingers of a global white nationalist resurgence. Putin and Russia would gain power, the European Union would fracture or disintegrate. That didn’t happen.

But European voters, sobered by the spectacle on view in Washington, moved the other way. In March, the Netherlands rejected an anti-immigrant party in favor of a mainstream, conservative coalition. In May, French voters spurned the Putin-loving, immigrant-bashing Marine Le Pen in favor of centrist Emmanuel Macron, who went on to win an overwhelming majority in Parliament and began trying to strengthen, not weaken, the E.U.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Trump belittled for having allowed so many refugees into her country, has grown steadily more popular in advance of a September election.

Conventional wisdom also saw the GOP’s control of Congress and the White House as evidence that the Affordable Care Act aka “Obamacare” was doomed. Thanks in no small part to the Trump’s incompetence and the internal divisions within the once Grand Old Party, that didn’t happen either.

But here’s the boomerang effect: Obamacare is not just hanging on but becoming more popular the more Trump tries to bury it. And if he now tries to mismanage Obamacare to its death, we may boomerang all the way to single-payer health insurance. This year’s debate showed that most Americans now believe everyone should have access to health care. If the private insurance market is made to seem undependable, the fallback won’t be Trumpcare. It will be Medicare for all.

I fervently hope Hiatt is correct about that, although I admit to having my doubts.

Among the other “boomerangs” that Hiatt identifies are several that are familiar to most of us: firing Comey really ratcheted up the Russia investigation, and increased the public’s perception that Trump has something (many things, probably) to hide. Withdrawing from the Paris Accords prompted state and local governments to increase their efforts to combat climate change. Trump’s threats of massive cuts to the NIH research budget may have strengthened that agency’s hand .

Unfortunately, none of this really mitigates the harm this administration is doing every day.  We have a racist Attorney General who is sabotaging civil rights and criminal justice reforms; an appalling Secretary of Education who wants to destroy public schools and use vouchers to “build up God’s Kingdom;” a climate denier in the pocket of fossil fuel interests is in charge of the EPA.  Whatever Rex Tillerson’s strengths or weaknesses, the State Department staff and institutional memory have been eviscerated…

The “boomerang” we desperately need is a clean sweep of Congress in 2018.