Tag Archives: policy

Forgiveness

One of the problems inherent in all public policy discussions is the degree to which various aspects of our communal lives are connected–and the even greater degree to which those connections are unseen and/or under-appreciated.

As an example, a recent study from the Brookings Institution detailed the multiple ways in which student loan debt affects Americans, and illustrates the way lack of understanding of those connections distorts discussion of proposals to forgive at least some portion of it.

There is one element of student debt that is widely understood, of course–its size. In the last quarter of 2020, the Federal Reserve calculated the national student debt at $1.7 trillion, spread across 45 million borrowers. That is a monumental amount, and a monumental burden on both the borrowers and the economy.

Research suggests that forgiveness of some or all of that burden would prompt a variety of economically consequential behaviors–everything from eating out more frequently to  making large purchases that the level of debt currently doesn’t permit: houses, cars, appliances and furnishings. Respondents to one survey also cited returning to school, and saving more for emergencies.

In a study cited by Brookings,

Higher amounts of student debt forgiveness were associated with other investment behaviors like starting a business or savings for a down payment on a home, as well as a willingness to spend more on entertainment….

These results [of the study cited] show two things. First, they show how extensively student debt affects debt holders. The responses to this experiment indicate that student debt is strongly influencing decisions that can have large implications for household economic stability (e.g., emergency savings) and mobility (e.g., saving for a down payment on a home, starting a business). In addition, student debt may be altering the structure of families themselves. Roughly 7 percent of respondents reported that they would be more likely to get married (results not shown) or have children if their student debt were forgiven, indicating that this debt burden is affecting even fundamental decisions about debt holders’ life trajectories.

Second, these results show that the level of student debt forgiveness matters. In particular, setting a student debt forgiveness target too low may not lead to broad-based changes in households’ economic behaviors. However, setting a student debt forgiveness amount at a point where the average debt holder would have more than a quarter of their debt forgiven may yield large changes in savings behaviors, human capital investments (e.g., returning to school), and business starts, without leading to large changes in labor supply.

It is undisputed that even a modest amount of debt forgiveness would remove what is currently a large drag on the economy. There are, obviously, other considerations: many people who have dutifully paid off their loans object to what they see as unfairness of giving later-comers relief that was unavailable to them. Others argue that any forgiveness should prioritize low-income borrowers, and avoid “bailing out” higher income folks.

Going forward, my own preference would be to replace the current, complicated student loan environment with a program that pays for at least two years of college in return for a year or two of military or civic service (a la Americorp).

Whatever the policy approach, we need to recognize that debt of 1.7 trillion dollars constitutes an enormous drag on Amreica’s economic growth. It isn’t simply an impediment to business formation–it prevents many individuals from taking lower-paying but gratifying jobs in the nonprofit sector– and it is a significant fiscal and psychic burden to individuals. It has become unsupportable.

 

Pesky Data!

Andrew Yang’s campaign for the Presidency introduced the UBI , or Universal Basic Income, to millions of Americans unfamiliar with the concept. He put that policy debate “on the table”–following which policymakers have ignored or ridiculed it.

In previous blogs about the UBI, I have acknowledged how unlikely it is that contemporary American lawmakers would pass, or even consider, such a program. But research suggests a high probability that  millions of jobs will be lost to automation within the next 15-20 years– a probability that will present a daunting challenge that America’s current inadequate and bureaucratic social safety net is clearly unable to meet.

The right-wingers who believe that taxation is theft, and the contemporary Calvinists who believe that poverty is the result of sloth and/or moral defect, respond to UBI advocacy with horror: those sluts who are producing babies in order to get added welfare payments of a munificent 150/month would obviously become an even greater burden on the “makers.”

Pilot programs and academic research continue to crank out evidence to the contrary. Those programs continue to multiply:the latest effort is in Germany, where a Basic Income Pilot Project will start next spring and will send 122 people €1,200 ($1,422) per month for three years. No strings attached. The study, initiated by the German Institute for Economic Research and My Basic Income, a Berlin-based nonprofit, will investigate the effects of an unconditional basic income.

Recently, a new multi-agency report backed by the United States Agency for International Development reported on a project to compare the effectiveness of workforce training programs with direct cash transfers. It found a “marked increase in entrepreneurialism, well-being and productivity within the cohort that received only cash.” Other experiments have found that unrestricted cash payments went for food, medicine and education, and did not–as cynics warned– increase joblessness or substance abuse.

Our policymakers, of course, prefer ideology to pesky evidence…

There actually is substantial data showing that, contrary to Americans’ deep cultural disdain for social welfare programs, a UBI would be both efficient and socially unifying.  Universal programs escape the stigma of benefits targeted to the poor.

Aside from the ideologically-grounded and empirically dubious belief that “handouts” encourage sloth and vice, the major objection to a UBI is cost. My own proposal for finding the money to pay for such an expensive program would begin with ending fossil fuel and other subsidies that have long since outlived any usefulness they may have had, and curtailing our bloated military expenditures–all measures that are overdue in any case. But there are several other approaches.

A while back, William Gale of the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project made a persuasive case for coupling a UBI to a tax that would pay for it– a 10 percent Value-Added Tax (VAT).

As he pointed out, a VAT is a national consumption tax—like a retail sales tax but collected in small bits at each stage of production. It raises a lot of revenue without distorting economic choices like saving, investment, or the organizational form of businesses. And it can be easier to administer than retail sales taxes. The big problem with such a tax is that it is usually regressive–but interestingly, not when combined with a UBI.

As I explained in an earlier post,

The Tax Policy Center estimates that the VAT in conjunction with a UBI would be extremely progressive. It would increase after-tax income of the lowest-income 20 percent of households by 17 percent. The tax burden for middle-income people would be unchanged while incomes of the top 1 percent of households would fall by 5.5 percent.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the VAT functions as a 10 percent tax on existing wealth because future consumption can be financed only with existing wealth or future wages. Unlike a tax imposed on accumulated assets, the VAT’s implicit wealth tax is very difficult to avoid or evade and does not require the valuation of assets.

Assuming that Gale’s numbers are sound, a VAT would generate more than enough money to pay for a UBI. Meanwhile, a growing body of research confirms the benefits of the UBI approach to social welfare.

But this is America, where Republican senators are climate change deniers. America, where Republican governors dismiss overwhelming evidence that mask wearing helps abate a pandemic. America, where lawmakers reject the very idea of implementing the sort of national healthcare programs that work well elsewhere.

America–where our lawmakers pay absolutely no attention to evidence contrary to their preferred beliefs.

 

Hoping For Realignment

Political realignments are momentous shifts in the balance of power between political parties that give one party and ideology a long- lasting dominance. According to George Packer, such realignments occur far more often in the minds of partisans than in reality. 

In the past century there have been only two realignments—one in 1932, the other in 1980. The first brought Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats to power, and liberalism dominated until the late ’60s. The second brought Ronald Reagan and the Republicans to power, and conservatism retains its grip on our political institutions, if not on electoral majorities, to this day. “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket,” Eric Hoffer, the author of The True Believer, wrote. By the early 1970s, the New Deal coalition of urban machines and interest groups was becoming a racket, symbolized by piles of uncollected garbage in the streets of a nearly bankrupt New York City. Sure signs of degeneracy in the Reagan revolution appeared in the late 1990s, when Tom DeLay’s K Street Project erased the line between governing and big-money lobbying. The next step is dissolution, but the end of Hoffer’s life cycle can drag on for agonizing years.

Packer says that realignments occur when traditional politics are manifestly not working–when government fails to address chronic social ills. They are precipitated by the “rising activism of popular movements—industrial workers, evangelical Christians—pushed the parties toward new ideological commitments.” And while realignments come from tectonic shifts, they aren’t inevitable.

They’re subject to a combination of elements, including chance—more like a hurricane than the coming of spring. No one can know whether 2020 will bring the realignment that some people on the left expect. In the years since 2008 many things have changed, including three big ones. First is the lingering hangover of the Great Recession, with increased economic divisions, leaving Democratic voters impatient with the kind of incremental reforms that Hillary Clinton campaigned on in 2016 and hungry for more ambitious policies. A second is the coming to political age of Millennials—the most powerful generation since the Boomers, and far more left-wing than their elders. The third is Donald Trump.

Since getting elected, Trump—by being true to himself every minute of his presidency—has pushed educated women, suburban voters, and even a small percentage of his white working-class base toward the Democratic Party. His hateful rhetoric and character are making Americans—white Democrats in particular—more rather than less liberalon issues of immigration, religion, and race. Last November, nonwhite voters made upa record 28 percent of the midterm electorate, and 38 percent of young voters. At the same time, the Republican Party has built its ramparts around the diminishing ground inhabited by older, whiter, more rural, less educated Americans. These are the kind of changes that could bring a new Democratic coalition to power for years to come.

Given the accuracy of the above paragraphs, a realignment would certainly seem possible, even highly probable. So why does Hacker tell us not to get our hopes up?

There are still a lot of people living back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the red fields of the republic roll on under the night. Since progressives, especially younger ones, and especially the hyperpoliticized partisans on Twitter, rarely talk to people who don’t think like them, they stop believing that such people still exist, at least not in meaningful numbers—sooner or later they’ll have to die out. And yet, year after year, those nearly extinct Americans keep showing up to vote, and often win.

The ability to usher in lasting change–or even short-term change–ultimately depends upon political leadership. Hacker reminds us that leadership isn’t synonymous with ideology or policy.

Campaigns tell stories, and in politics as in literature, style matters as much as plot. Roosevelt and Reagan, ideological opposites, both won by speaking in a way that gave Americans a sense of dignity and belonging and made them hopeful. They didn’t win by haranguing the public. They didn’t win by implying that anyone who disagreed must be either stupid or venal. They didn’t assemble majorities by degrading Americans into identity blocs. They didn’t force their party to pledge allegiance to the most extreme positions, or turn politics into a joyless exercise in orthodoxy. They hammered their opponents, but they did it with a smile.

In other words, the message is important–but the messenger is even more important. I hope the primary electorate understands that.

 

 

Your Answers?

This is the time of year that professors both love and hate–the semester is coming to an end, and most of us are very ready for that, but it is also when lengthy research papers are due and final exams given.  Those papers and exams must be graded  (and unfortunately, those grades must often be defended to students convinced that their efforts entitled them to higher marks).

I give students in my law and policy classes a take-home final. That’s partly to make up for a pretty brutal midterm, and partly to see whether the materials and concepts we’ve covered have caused them to think critically about the enterprise of government and the elements of good policy. Has the class helped them fashion a coherent philosophy of governance? Has it given them an appreciation of the complexities involved and skills required?

Here are the questions I have given them this semester; they were to choose one and write an essay responding to that choice. How would you answer them? (I won’t grade readers’ answers…promise!)                                                       

  1. Earth has been destroyed in World War III. You and a few thousand others—representing a cross-section of Earth’s races, cultures and religions—are the only survivors. You have escaped to an earthlike planet, and are preparing to establish a new society. You want to avoid the errors of the Earth governments that preceded you. What institutional choices do you make and why? Your essay should include: The type/structure of government you would create; the powers it will have; the limits on its powers, and how those limits will be enforced; how government officials will be chosen and policies enacted; and the social and political values you intend to privilege.

2. The First Amendment protects religious liberty. Over the past few years, Americans have engaged in heated public debates about the nature and extent of that liberty. Some people argue that requiring employers to provide health insurance that includes contraception, or requiring businesses like florists or bakers to serve same-sex customers, is a violation of the religious liberty of those whose religions teach that contraception or homosexuality is a sin. Others disagree. What is the proper definition of “religious liberty”—that is, how far should the free exercise of religion extend in America’s diverse religious landscape? What religiously-motivated actions can government legitimately limit, and what are the justifications for those limits?

3. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again.” Without addressing the personal characteristics of either candidate in the November election, and without opining whether America was or was not greater in the past, describe the characteristics, values or other attributes that you believe make a country “great.” In other words, what are the attributes of a great country? How does it behave toward its own citizens and toward other countries? What changes to current American policies or laws do you believe are needed to achieve greatness as you define it?

Go!!

 

 

Beyond the Factory Floor

The other day, I looked into a mirror and suddenly realized that my mother was looking back.

It sneaks up on you.

Most of us don’t notice the day-to-day changes in ourselves, or our environments, unless something triggers that recognition. That is especially true of the inexorable increase in automation–and it matters, because it is automation, far more than trade, that has eliminated so many American jobs. And that automation isn’t limited to spiffy robots on a factory floor; it is all around us.

When I first started to drive, gas station attendants pumped my gas and cleaned my windshield. These days, I pump my own gas, and the windshield gets cleaned when I go through the automated carwash. When I first practiced law, one legal secretary worked for two lawyers at most;  partners in the larger firms usually had their own secretary (and still dictated directly to her as she sat, steno pad in hand). Today, even in the “silk stocking” firms, lawyers type their own letters, emails and documents on their computers. Wealthier families often had maids and cooks; ever-improving home appliances have reduced the jobs available for such domestic help.

Old movies will sometimes feature the banks of telephone operators who used to direct calls, handle switching equipment and place “person to person” long-distance calls. My IPhone doesn’t require those switchboard operators. Speaking of telephones, those ubiquitous “telephone trees” are a decidedly mixed blessing, but most businesses use them rather than the human employees who used to answer the phones.

Remember the rows of bank tellers with eyeshades, who kept account ledgers by hand? Computers have replaced them.

I don’t know how much snail-mail has been replaced by email, but my guess is that we aren’t running short of postal workers.

As we anticipate an era of self-driving cars, we might consider the trade-off to come: greater safety and cost-effectiveness for individuals against eventual loss of employment for literally millions of truck, delivery van, taxi and Uber drivers.

Technological innovations make our lives more satisfying, our work more productive and our daily tasks more efficient–but they also take their toll on the workforce, and not just numerically. It’s true that many of these modern conveniences create new jobs, but rarely in the numbers they replace, and usually requiring a different and more demanding set of skills.

We are going to need some creative policies to deal with the accelerating and inevitable changes in the job market. Retraining–while undoubtedly a critical component–will not address the plight of the high-school dropout who lacks the capacity to learn more demanding skills, or the older displaced worker who cannot cope with radical change.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know we will continue to see machines displace human employees, and I’m pretty sure that bribing Carrier to delay moving 700 or so workers to Mexico is neither an answer nor a policy.