Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Can We Talk About Trade? Probably Not.

When I teach policy analysis, certain barriers to sound analysis tend to recur. At least three of those barriers are pertinent to the current debate about America’s trade policies.

  • Americans tend to be inappropriately “bipolar.” Too many partisans, Left and Right, approach complex policy issues with a “bright line” ideology–doing X is either good or bad. Period. Their world is divided between good guys and “evil-doers,” (to use Bush the Second’s terminology) and there is no middle ground.
  • Although there are certainly some policies that are simply wrong, in most cases, the proper approach to analysis is to ask “how,” not “whether.” That’s because, in most cases, the devil really is in the details; otherwise good policies can fail because they are not properly developed or implemented, and otherwise problematic approaches can be rescued by careful development and thoughtful application.
  • In today’s America, increasing numbers of policy domains are complicated and highly technical. Even well-informed citizens are unable to make independent judgments about the best approach to such matters–examples include telecommunications, arms control, tax policies and multiple other areas. We are increasingly dependent upon experts in the field to assess proposed laws and regulations–and we are increasingly suspicious of the bona fides of those experts.

These challenges to sound policy analysis are front and center in the arguments about trade agreements like the TPP.

On the Left, we have a number of activists who believe that trade agreements inevitably cost American jobs, no matter what their content. This is demonstrably false. Outsourcing and poorly drafted agreements certainly undermine both domestic employment and compensation, but trade also generates jobs and economic growth. According to the U.S.Department of Commerce, in 2008 the United States exported nearly $1.7 trillion in goods and services, exports that supported more than 10 million full- and part-time jobs and accounted for 12.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). (If I find more recent data, I’ll update this post.)

On the Right, we have proponents who support any and all “free trade” proposals, no matter whether the agreements safeguard workers or the environment, and no matter how unbalanced the agreement, because “all trade is good.”

I haven’t followed all of the pronouncements, pro and con, about TPP, but in those I have heard, not one person on either side has identified provisions of that proposed agreement with which he or she agreed or disagreed. It was all or nothing–good or bad.

International trade is complicated, and the negative consequences that partisans cite aren’t necessarily the result of trade itself: the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think-tank, attributes a significant amount of manufacturing job loss to currency manipulation. EPI says that “Global currency manipulation is one of the most important causes of growing U.S. trade deficits, and of unemployment and slow economic growth in the United States and Europe.”

Like technology, trade both displaces workers and creates new kinds of employment.

My point is not to weigh in on the merits of the TPP. Like most Americans, I simply do not know enough–about the terms of the proposed agreement, about the likely cost-benefit ratio, about the context within which the agreement would be implemented–to come to a reasoned conclusion. Like most Americans, I must rely upon the evaluations of people whose expertise and knowledge I trust.

Which brings me to what I have come to identify as one of the most serious problems America faces: a public in which skepticism, cynicism, and a pervasive lack of trust is rampant. We don’t trust the media (or more accurately, we trust only the media sources that confirm our pre-existing biases), we don’t trust government (the result of thirty-plus years of anti-government rhetoric), we don’t trust members of that “other” political party, and increasingly, we don’t trust each other. We sure as hell don’t trust the experts–those elitists!

It’s hard to make policy in that sort of environment.

Pay to Play

Economic inequality—the gap between rich and poor—should concern policymakers for many reasons: humanitarian concern for the everyday challenges faced by the working poor; the cost of social supports needed to fill the gap between what people earn and what they need in order to live; and the substantial drag on the economy from weak demand (when people lack discretionary income, they cannot buy many goods and services). And of course, social scientists have long recognized that unequal societies are unstable societies.

Those concerns are widely acknowledged. Less recognized is the harm done to democratic systems when large numbers of Americans live in or on the edge of poverty. Those people lack what political scientists call voice.

Democratic theory begins with the concept of membership, the right–and duty– of (competent adult) members of a society to participate equally in the citizenship responsibilities of the nation.

The most prominent responsibility, of course, is voting, and even before the current Republican efforts to make voting much more difficult for poor and minority citizens, turnout in poorer precincts was low. There are any number of reasons why people preoccupied with making it through the week—paying rent and putting food on the table—have little time or energy left for civic duties. In many states, including my own Indiana, polling places are inconvenient and they close early, making it very difficult for people who work long hours, or who may not have ready access to transportation, to cast a ballot.

If participation at the polls is skewed toward more affluent Americans, giving the comfortable more voice, other mechanisms to influence public policy are even more unevenly distributed.

Poor Americans do not send lobbyists to the halls of Congress or to their local statehouses. They rarely write letters to the editor (assuming that quaint effort to enter the public conversation still matters). When legislators hold hearings on issues that will affect middle class families and the working poor, they are unlikely to face citizens from those constituencies who have come to testify.

Poor citizens are also highly unlikely to make political contributions. (For that matter, according to Open Secrets, only a tiny proportion of the public—fewer than 1%–makes political contributions of $200 or more.)

Even the most conscientious policymakers can only act upon information they receive, and even when there is no quid pro quo, it is human nature to at least listen to people who have contributed to your campaign or your political party.

The result of disproportionate participation and information asymmetry is disproportionate legislative attention to the concerns and desires of those who can and do participate.

It isn’t just legislative inaction. Poor neighborhoods notoriously receive less attention from municipal agencies; streets in such neighborhoods are the last to be plowed or paved, parks and other public amenities are more likely to be neglected, since more empowered residents know how to make their needs known, and have the time and wherewithal to communicate with local government.

Lack of voice translates into a marginalized civic status– poor Americans lack the means to influence the system, or to change policies that operate to keep them marginalized.

In a variety of ways, they are second-class citizens–holders of “class B” memberships in the American polity. It’s something we need to fix, but the remedy is by no means obvious.

 

 

 

A Definition of Insanity

John Hamilton is Mayor of Bloomington. This week, he had a heartfelt, frustrated–and frustrating–op ed in the New York Times.

Hamilton recounted two recent events from his city: an “open carry” parent swaggering around a municipal swimming pool, terrifying other parents; and a float in the annual Fourth of July parade “featuring armed men from a private firearms training center with military-style machine guns held at the ready, ammunition belts attached, atop a pickup truck.”

Both incidents generated unease and concern; both prompted calls for the Mayor to “do something” to ensure citizen safety. But, as Hamilton wrote, his inability to do anything–no matter how minor–has been assured by Mike Pence and Indiana’s legislature.

This is all happening in Indiana, with a governor, Mike Pence, who has long fought against any reasonable restrictions on guns. His extreme views on this, and other issues, are apparently one reason Donald J. Trump chose him as his running mate. The nation as a whole will now get a better look at the kind of attitude on gun laws that has earned Governor Pence an A rating from the National Rifle Association — and has made it harder for me to do what my constituents want when it comes to making them safe.

As Hamilton points out, his constituents aren’t anti-guns, or anti- Second Amendment.

They just don’t want handguns carried around at their public pools. They don’t want machine guns in their parades. Nor does my Police Department. Nor do I.

And in fact, my city used to have reasonable restrictions in place on the possession of firearms in parks, city facilities and at City Council meetings.

But five years ago the State Legislature prohibited cities from enforcing virtually any individual local regulation of firearms, ammunition or their accessories. The statehouse said we couldn’t restrict what kind of guns or ammunition can be carried, displayed, worn, concealed or transported, with a few very limited exceptions like courtrooms and intentional displays at official public meetings.

The state did nothing to fill this vacuum it created. It did create one exception to protect itself — prohibiting anyone but officers, legislators or judges from carrying guns in the statehouse. And in one more technical twist, the state said if any city ever tries to restrict firearms or ammunition, it would be subject to paying triple the lawyers’ fees for anyone who sues us.

So despite what a vast majority of Bloomington wants, we can’t ban a handgun from a public pool or a machine gun from a parade float.

Polls routinely show large majorities of Americans favoring reasonable restrictions on guns. Until we vote out the politicians who have been bought and paid for–or cowed–by the NRA, however, responsible public officials will have no option but to stand by and watch childish, macho displays of….what?

What is the psychology of a parent who parades around a municipal swimming pool packing a pistol?

In an era where police are rightfully concerned about being targeted by mentally unstable individuals, why on earth would we encourage citizens to walk around brandishing weapons?

How do they–or the rest of us– distinguish the “good guy” with the gun from the disturbed guy looking for provocation?

This is nuts.

Times Have Certainly Changed…

Here’s a quiz. Identify the party whose national platform called for changes to the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act to “more effectively protect the rights of labor unions” and to “assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.”

Hint: The same platform advocated for federal assistance to low-income communities; for protecting Social Security, providing asylum for refugees, extending the minimum wage and improving the unemployment benefits system so that it would cover more people.

According to Politifact, those provisions were prominent elements of the 1956 Republican platform.

The Republican Party I joined 50 plus years ago was absolutely nothing like the collection of fanatics and lunatics who will gather in Cleveland this week to endorse a narcissistic blowhard atop a radically right-wing platform.

In this year’s platform, economic prescriptions are unremittingly anti-union. They include “a National Right-to-Work law to promote worker freedom and to promote greater economic liberty” and a promise to “aggressively enforce the recent decision by the Supreme Court barring the use of union dues for political purposes without the consent of the worker.” (Nothing about barring corporate use of proceeds that would otherwise fatten dividends without the consent of shareholders…).

The platform promises to reduce “marginal tax rates by 20 percent across-the-board in a revenue-neutral manner” and to “eliminate the taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains altogether for lower and middle-income taxpayers.” (Because you know how many low-income taxpayers have interest, dividend and capital gains income.) They’ll also end the “death tax” that makes it more difficult for the uber wealthy to transfer all of that wealth to their children.

And then there’s the “values” part of the platform, which “reaffirms our support for a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” and includes affirmations of what we used to call “state’s rights” (more accurately, the right of states to ignore federal anti-bias laws).

There are pious endorsements of efforts to protect “electoral integrity”–aka voter suppression tactics. In this section, the previous calls for “state’s rights” give way to a list of things that states should not be permitted to do: vote by mail, or get together to eliminate the electoral college.

Those pesky “good government” efforts get short shrift too; the platform promises to

“ support repeal of the remaining sections of McCain- Feingold, support either raising or repealing contribution limits, and oppose passage of the DISCLOSE Act or any similar legislation.”

Just in case we missed it, the platform lets us know in no uncertain terms that the GOP is God’s party. It opposes the “war on religion,” advocates for a national RFRA modeled upon Indiana’s version, and wants the bible and prayer back in public schools.

“We pledge to respect the religious beliefs and rights of conscience of all Americans and to safeguard the independence of their institutions from government. We support the public display of the Ten Commandments as a reflection of our history and of our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage, and we affirm the right of students to engage in prayer at public school events in public schools and to have equal access to public schools and other public facilities to accommodate religious freedom in the public square. We assert every citizen’s right to apply religious values to public policy and the right of faith-based organizations to participate fully in public programs without renouncing their beliefs, removing religious symbols, or submitting to government-imposed hiring practices. We oppose government discrimination against businesses due to religious views. We support the First Amendment right of freedom of association of the Boy Scouts of America and other service organizations whose values are under assault and condemn the State blacklisting of religious groups which decline to arrange adoptions by same-sex couples. We condemn the hate campaigns, threats of violence, and vandalism by proponents of same-sex marriage against advocates of traditional marriage and call for a federal investigation into attempts to deny religious believers their civil rights.”

In addition to opposing discrimination against those poor beleaguered Christians, the  party also reminds us that God loves Guns and the Second Amendment.

We acknowledge, support, and defend the law-abiding citizen’s God-given right of self-defense. We call for the protection of such fundamental individual rights recognized in the Supreme Court’s decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago affirming that right, and we recognize the individual responsibility to safely use and store firearms. This also includes the right to obtain and store ammunition without registration. We support the fundamental right to self-defense wherever a law-abiding citizen has a legal right to be..

You might think that this support for your right to blow people away is a bit inconsistent with the party’s purported reverence for life, but that’s because that reverence only persists until the little bugger emerges from the womb.

We assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. We oppose using public revenues to promote or perform abortion or fund organizations which perform or advocate it and will not fund or subsidize health care which includes abortion coverage. We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life.

Republicans oppose flag desecration, support keeping “Under God” in the Pledge, and oppose any judicial reference to foreign or international law–the platform even opposes “the adoption or ratification of international treaties that weaken or encroach upon American sovereignty.” (Since all binding agreements, including treaties, “encroach” upon “sovereignty,” I assume the GOP–like Trump–wants America to go it alone.)

There was much, much more.

When I parted ways with the GOP, I said I hadn’t left the Party, the Party had left me. If you want to see how far today’s Republicans have moved from the responsible center-right party that they used to be–and that America still needs–you need only compare the platforms of the 1950s and 1960s with the doctrinal, delusional document they will adopt this week in Cleveland.

 

 

Elizabeth Warren–Telling It Like It REALLY Is

I would be shocked if Hillary Clinton chose Elizabeth Warren for the VP slot. The Democrats have a good chance of regaining control of the Senate, and it would be foolhardy to give Republicans a “freebie” by choosing a Senator from a state with a Republican governor.

Besides, in the Senate, Senator Warren is stiffening the spines of her colleagues.

Warren has become a hero to many Americans (including this one) and one of the reasons for that, in my view, is her uncanny ability to explain complex realities in language that everyone can understand.

During her Senate campaign, her defense of taxation–really, a defense of the social contract–went viral, and is still being widely quoted; more recently, she did it again.

Warren is, of course, famous for her attacks on too-big-to-fail banks. But in her address yesterday, entitled “Reigniting Competition in the American Economy,” she extended her critique to the entire economy, noting that, as a result of three decades of weakened federal antitrust regulation, virtually every industrial sector today—from airlines to telecom to agriculture to retail to social media—is under the control of a handful of oligopolistic corporations. This widespread consolidation is “hiding in plain sight all across the American economy,” she said, and “threatens our markets, threatens our economy, and threatens our democracy.”

Antitrust is one of those legal theories that can make citizens’ eyes glaze over. But–as Teddy Roosevelt understood, and economists and businesspeople have come to recognize–vigorous enforcement of antitrust rules is essential to the proper operation of markets. Without such regulation, we do not have the healthy competition that a capitalist system requires; instead, we have corporatism and corruption.

As the Washington Monthly put it, in a post describing Warren’s speech,

As our readers know, economic consolidation is a subject the Washington Monthly has long been obsessed with—see here, here, here, herehere, here, here, here, here, and here. In our current cover story, Barry Lynn (impresario of yesterday’s event) and Phil Longman argue that antitrust was the true legacy of the original American Populists and a vital, under-appreciated reason for the mass prosperity of mid-20th Century America. But this legacy, and the new Gilded Age economy that has resulted from its abandonment, is not a narrative most Americans have been told (one reason why even the “populist” candidates running president have shied away from it).

The Washington Monthly included the entire text of Warren’s speech. You should click through and read it. It’s not only a model of clarity; it’s a model of common sense.

Elizabeth Warren is the politician who really “tells it like it is.”