Lessons From the British Election

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“Boris” by Raymond Wang is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

There is no way to avoid talking about the horrors of the British election.  With the confirmation of Brexit and the triumph of Boris Johnson, we have all stood witness to the disgraceful demise of a nation now left only with dreams of past glory.

For us though the important question is about what it means for our own election.  On that point the discussion has been generally limited to one question:  Does it say we should worry about the Democrats going too far to the left?  That one is hard to decide, since Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn was so unpopular for his own sake. 

However, that being said, there is still much to discuss.   We propose three points:

  1. Catastrophes not only can happen, but will happen if we don’t watch out for them.

The Democratic debates thus far have played out largely as conflict between the center and left wings of the party.  That means essentially all of it has been fought in the never-never land of post-Trump.  That’s not the same as working on viable strategies to win.

This will be a very tough election, fighting the Fox News, the Electoral College, incredible amounts of Republican money, and all the (legal and illegal) powers of incumbency.  Most candidates have done a reasonable job in providing position papers for what they stand for.  They need to tell us how they’re going to win.

  1. We need to recognize that the electorate isn’t convinced of the urgency of change.

In Britain, Corbyn’s big socialist revival was not so much wrong as a non sequitur.  What actually was all this trying to solve?  Why was it an argument for change?  It was ultimately a declaration of irrelevance.

We have a similar problem.  The very first question of the very first debate has never been adequately answered.  Elizabeth Warren was asked (more or less): “Why are you proposing all these changes when—by all polls—the vast majority of Americans think the economy is doing fine?”  That’s a question for all Democrats—what is it that’s so bad that we need change?

Warren’s answer—about radical inequality—was nowhere near strong enough.  It essentially said that all those people who answered the polls were just wrong.  But no one else has done better.  Healthcare was a great issue for the midterms—that’s something broken that we’re going to fix.  But it’s not enough to unseat Trump.  Impeachment doesn’t touch peoples’ lives directly—it’s about an abstraction called democracy.  Even climate change comes across as an abstraction, although it’s part of what’s needed.  Democrats need a short, clear reason for people to worry about their future with Trump.

That’s a bar to be passed before we can begin to get traction with specific plans for change.  Until then, like it or not, “fundamental structural change” will be a negative.

  1. We have to recognize this is a referendum on Trump

Corbyn pretended Brexit wasn’t the main issue and went off with his own program.  The public was unwilling to follow.

Regardless of how broadly we see the issues, this election is about where Trump is taking the country.

We need a well-defined Trump story to challenge Republican claims of a great rebirth of the American economy.  Even on trade they’ll do what worked for George Bush on Iraq—we’ve been through all the pain, don’t miss out on the rewards!

That means we need to show what four more years of Trump will actually mean.  And how to meet the real challenges for our future.  It seems helpful to think in terms of personal and national issues for the voters:

Personal well-being

Healthcare (complete failure of vision)

Decline in good jobs (manufacturing, good jobs in general)

Education (no initiatives, no funding)

Income inequality (all growth for the rich)

Guns (unsafe to be in school!)

Climate change (what world for our children?)

Women’s rights trampled (bodies owned by the government)

Worse life for everyone but the protected few

National well-being

Eroding technology dominance (science marginalized)

New businesses sacrificed to old (Net Neutrality)

Losing out with climate change denial (ceded primary position to China)

Weakness with China and North Korea (situation is worse than ever before)

Nuclear proliferation (a danger in all directions)

Racism and divisiveness undermine our strengths (just what Putin ordered)

Demise of democracy (our major source of prosperity and power)

=>  Welcome to the Chinese century

 

That’s where we’re going.  For our own dreams of past glory.

The End of Democracy

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“STATUE OF LIBERTY” by airlines470 licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Who knew it would be so easy?  In Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” he needs real violence for a fascist takeover of the country.  In fact it took almost nothing at all.

We were lulled into complacency.  The institutions setup at our founding had lasted hundreds of years.  They weren’t perfect, but at least we had regular changes of power.

It turns out there was much we overlooked.  It’s easy to make a list now:

–  The Constitution functions only as it is interpreted by the Supreme Court.  A Court majority willing to exercise power can do almost anything.  For starters:  corporations are people; the first amendment precludes any control of money in politics; voting rights are not guaranteed.  Appointments are for life, and reasons for decisions are arbitrary and non-reviewable.

– The President and Senate have complete power over lifetime appointments of judges.  There are no controls on job requirements or procedures for appointment.

– The Attorney General is a creation of the President and can interpret laws in any way that the Supreme Court allows.  He, together with the Court, can quite legally be the President’s enforcer.

– Going one step farther, the impeachment process has laid bare the biggest threat of all, that there is no Constitutional check on a President whose party controls the Senate and will support him as a matter of principle.  Who is left to enforce the law?  In such a case the Constitution becomes a dead letter, supplanted by the whim of the dictator.

There is an old and probably apocryphal story that the mathematician Kurt Gödel, on reading the Constitution to prepare for his US citizenship interview, told Einstein that he was shocked to discover a path for a fascist takeover.  Einstein told him to shut up and get on with it.  It seems Gödel was right.

However institutions are only a part of what we missed.  Apparently the founding fathers were well-aware that in human history democracies have been rare and short-lived.  However as creatures of the Enlightenment, they were rather optimistic about the workings of the human psyche.

With that too there is much to go wrong.

– It turns out that people aren’t terribly rational.  They are intensely tribal and unwilling to change opinions based on facts.  Both advertising experience and economic theory have shown that there are many techniques to successfully manipulate opinions.  Two examples:  the brain confuses ease of access with truth, so that repetition works great; people process issues in bunches, so that opinions about abortion translate conveniently to opinions about tax rates.

– It turns out that even perceptions of factual reality are easily manipulated.  We no longer directly perceive reality; reality is what we glean from the information streams around us.  In the US we already made a terrible mistake (deliberately pushed through under Reagan) to remove the fairness doctrine on television—clearing the way for Fox News and other propaganda channels.  Now we have an even more serious problem with social networks.

– Finally and most fundamentally we’ve misjudged people’s commitment to democracy and fairness.  What we’ve found is that there may have been a commitment out of habit, but it was no more than skin deep.  If you can be sure of winning all the time, why even consider giving it up?  Democracy is just one more item on the list of things where “I just don’t have to care.”

Is there a way back?

Based on history, it seems we need two things:

– A unifying figure as President, to function as a creature for change.  It helps if the person is not too directly tied to factions.

– A renewed commitment to the non-legal underpinnings of democracy.   That is, to the unstated rules of cooperation that made democracy work for 200 years.  Much as you might like to, you just can’t legislate everything.

We like to think about Athenian democracy as a model (ignoring that Athens was in fact a quite unrecommendable imperialistic power).  After the rise of demagogues, they did in fact take the first step back, but they never managed the second.

We’ve been a much more successful democracy than they were, but we’re now at the same juncture.  The 2020 election is perhaps our last chance.

This is not just about an abstract idea of democracy.  With Athens it was the end of economic dominance and everything they stood for.  Same for us too.

Fixing Capitalism

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California Bank” by waltarrrrr is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There’s a lot of talk these days about fixing capitalism.   However, there’s a problem with much of it—there are so many things to fix that it all becomes a daunting task.  The point of view here is simpler.  There are a great many things that aren’t happening, because capitalism just doesn’t do them—and we can start by making sure those get done.

At its source this problem comes from our being force-fed the wildly radical idea that the private sector—capitalism—will solve all problems by itself.  So even when we realize that capitalism needs to be fixed, we tend to be overly concerned with all the patches.

However, even Adam Smith had no delusions about the limitations of capitalism.  As he pointed out:

  1. The private sector will not police itself.

On the contrary it will do everything possible to corrupt the free market with monopolies and government influence: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”  We’re used to hearing “private sector” and “free market” used almost as synonyms.   In fact, as Smith recognized, the free market is an ideal that can only be achieved when government holds the private sector accountable.

  1. The private sector will not provide the environment for its own success.

Smith even advocated a government program of universal literacy, quite a stretch for the eighteenth century and a pointer for us today.  This is a serious matter, because it shows how dangerous it is for the economy to punt everything to the private sector.

  1. Much of what is needed for a successful society is simply out of scope for the private sector.

Capitalism will not provide any service where there is no competitive advantage in doing it.  Public health and welfare, environmental questions, basic science, etc. are all out of scope.

Fixing capitalism strictly speaking deals only with the first category.  No amount of fixing is going to make capitalism deal with the rest.  Those issues are ours to solve.

It’s instructive to think about needs in each category.

 

  1. Policing the private sector

Monopolies are still with us and have become an increasing problem due to technology changes and weakened anti-trust enforcement.  The same is also true of corruption due to business influence on government.  These days no one even apologizes for it.

This is particularly true in the financial sector where banking, for example, has evolved into speculative gambling with losses covered by the FDIC.  You can even argue that the financial sector overall has evolved in directions that make it predatory on productive business.  After decades of Republican-inspired hands-off attitudes toward business, there is no shortage of serious issues.  However fixing all of them makes progress look far away.

Taking a step back, there is a single biggest problem:  legal tax evasion.  This is a gating item for so much progress that it just has to be dealt with.  Even before Trump’s tax cuts (and despite nominal tax rates), American companies paid the lowest effective taxes as a percent of income of any developed country.  That was largely a result of multinationals’ ability to move income to tax shelter countries—reducing rates or hiding income entirely.  Apple is only one egregious case.  The recent tax cuts made matters worse with drastically-reduced business rates, arcane rule changes for overseas income, and the new pass-through income treatment.  That pumped up the deficit—thereby hobbling government’s ability to respond to the serious sins of omission in categories 2 & 3.

What’s more, despite the insistent propaganda, taxes are actually not a primary issue for American competitiveness:

– Many studies have shown that in most industries today business profit levels reflect monopoly power to set prices well above historic levels of margin.  That’s a trend we can expect to continue.  In other words, businesses have considerable financial room to pay taxes.

– Further, as frequently noted, the savings from the tax cuts went primarily into stock buybacks.  That is companies decided the best thing to do with the tax cut money was to give it back to their investors in higher stock prices.

Conclusion:   Get the private sector (particularly large multinationals) and its investors to pay taxes.  Then work through all the rest.

 

  1. Providing the environment for economic success

If taxes aren’t the issue for American competitiveness, what is?  As we’ve noted here before, what makes for success is the technological advantage that has kept us in many areas on top of the heap.  That supports both our standard of living and our military strength.

Our technical dominance is based on three factors:

i. The dynamism of our economic system in generating new products and technologies.

ii. Broadly-based government support of research and education

iii. Remaining the preferred destination for entrepreneurs and other ambitious people from everywhere to realize their dreams

Let’s look at the current status of all three:

i. Unchallenged influence of big companies on government has favored established companies over new entrants. In part this is an anti-trust enforcement issue, but it has many other aspects.  The demise of net neutrality is one highly-visible example.

On this issue the interest of big business is strongly opposed to what makes for long-term national success.

ii. The administration is actively hostile toward science, government-sponsored research, and broad-based education. This is shown in purging of scientists from government agencies and restricting their influence on public policy.  One obvious example is in climate change.  Also the new tax law punished major research universities with a targeted tax.

Public investment in research had a major role in the prosperity of the 1950’s and 60’s and kicked off the opportunities of internet today.  The same kind of public investment has remade China as a technology powerhouse.  But our dedication to research has eroded over time:

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Instead we’re waiting for the private sector to do the job, which by definition means catch-up.

The story for education is similar.   In the 1950’s and 60’s we were expanding educational opportunities to whole classes of people who had never before had the chance.   Now we rank far down on the list for upward mobility.  Sudent loan debt tells the same story, and that’s only about the people DID go to college, not about the ones who were deterred by cost and DIDN’T.  Finally, educational funding in the states has never recovered from the 2008 crash.

It’s worth mentioning in passing that the value of research is not only for international competitiveness.  Basic research is part of the global project of raising human standards of living. Even when one worries about national competitiveness, progress is generally so international that openness is the ante for remaining at the forefront of progress.  Current policy to restrict international participation of US scientists weakens the country in the name of national security.

iii.  As a final point we need to emphasize the critical role that foreigners and their children are playing in maintaining our national strengths.  Many studies have shown their role both in starting new companies and in supplying the technical underpinning that makes for success.  As Steve Bannon noted (for his own purposes) such people represent more than half of Silicon Valley activity.  Google (cofounded by a foreigner) and Apple (by the son of a foreigner) are only the most obvious examples.

The current xenophobic backlash is wildly off-target.  Particularly with the weakened support for research and education, those are the people keeping our place in the sun.  (To be clear, an immigration plan that only accepts people with degrees is no counterweight to the nationalist, nativist rhetoric.)

Conclusions:

– This area has got to be fixed or we risk losing our standard of living and dominant role.  These are traditional US values and as important as ever for US success.   It we’re worried about competing with Chinese, this is where the battle will be lost or won.

– If we can get our act together, items i and iii should remain as our advantages going forward.  So we shouldn’t be defeatist about a future that is in our hands.

 

  1. Spending for the common good

This has been a bastard child for so many decades now, that there is much that needs to be caught up.  Here is one short list:

– Infrastructure (Much discussed, but with more sides to it than you might think.  See here for a good overview.)

– Climate change (Evidence has become incontrovertible, but we still need a real plan.)

– Universal health care (Needed not only as a benefit but also as an enabler for equal opportunity.)

– Opioid crisis (Much discussed, but with radically inadequate funding)

– Environmental protection (Not a luxury)

– Transitional assistance (Helping people through changes—from technology, globalization, etc.)

There is enough essential work here to pose a major challenge for government.  We need to confront the unmet needs of the society, then we need concrete plans, and finally we need to manage major operations with competence and integrity.  Despite the propaganda there is nothing unusual about effective, government-sponsored work.  However as with any other enterprises, this needs to be scrupulously well-run.  Just because good people are running it doesn’t mean there is less risk of corruption.  We have to get serious about public enterprise.

That means we have to get past the idea that there is something intrinsically wrong about working for the public good.  That’s after all nothing more than the other side of the “private sector will solve everything” coin.  We live with the continued juxtaposition of vast under-employment (3.7% unemployment doesn’t change the good union jobs replaced by Walmart) together with vast unmet needs that the private sector won’t address.  We’ve got to take the initiative to match one with the other.  This is not “make work”.  It’s essential work that isn’t getting done, because the private sector won’t do it.

Until we take that initiative, it’s hard to assess where we are as a society.  Public enterprise helps in many ways.  It helps with inequality and the middle class.  It helps with leverage for workers and standards for employment.  Many public sector jobs of their nature will be hard to outsource.  It makes no sense to talk about abstractions such as Universal Basic Income until we see how things shake out in a fully-functional economy.  The future may be less strange or scary than it seems.  (This isn’t just about public sector employment; work done by the public sector helps other trends as well.  Even in Silicon Valley each job in tech creates 4.3 other jobs as well.)

Conclusion:   We need to create the full-scale machinery for government service to do what the private sector won’t.

 

It’s always hard to foresee the future.  I remember when I was in high school, Prince Philip gave a commencement address at UCLA in which he spoke (as world expert!) about leisure.  Already then he was thinking that machines would take over work, leaving as us all to spend the rest of our lives at the beach.

That’s certainly not what happened, but there’s still something to be said for the positive spin.  Historically technology and even globalization have been good for living standards, except where societies have chosen to deny the benefits to large segments of their populations.  Both domestically and internationally we have every opportunity to do this right.  We can either organize our economy–and the world order–so that all can benefit, or we can go down in flames of our own making.

Let’s Just Do Immigration

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Now that Trump has decided that the target for the total number of immigrants is unchanged, why don’t we just fix immigration:

  • Family unification is a good thing, but it has taken too much of the total, now 70%.
  • It’s sensible that some fraction of immigrants should get in based on special capabilities or other demonstrable merit.  (It’s worth noting that the current system is actually not so bad in that respect.)
  • It’s also sensible to have some fraction of immigration that is not so constrained.  You never know who’s going to be a hero, and diversity has value.  Moreover past immigrants mostly came from places where they were denied opportunities for such merit.  So a lottery system has value too.

As a default, divide it up 1/3 for each and call it even.  Otherwise negotiate the limits for a while and then call it done.  (As an interesting variant, Canada handles family unification with relationship points in the merit index.)

Additionally:

  • We need to settle DACA once and for all, because there is no value to anyone in not doing it.  Since we’re talking about merit, these are upstanding, fully-adapted, English-speaking contributors.  And their number, compared to Trump’s new annual totals, is on the order of 1%.
  • For the rest of currently undocumented immigrants, we had a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate in 2013.  That can still be a basis for work.  These people are almost all working and paying taxes.

This isn’t so hard.   It only takes the will to do it.

There remains the question of enforcement.  For that, the problem is that we’ve been postulating solutions without any serious analysis.   Politicians shouldn’t be arguing about this.  (Border control was never wild about the wall until they were told they”d better be.)  There needs to be an independent assessment of how money should be spent to enforce the law.

However one thing that is definite is that there is no excuse for mistreatment of desperate people looking to escape overwhelming problems for themselves or their families.  We can’t satisfy them all–immigration law is there to say who gets help–but that’s no excuse for treating them all as criminals or worse.

 

The Unreceived Message of the College Admissions Scandal

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The message of the College Admissions Scandal is not that there is cheating in college admissions.  As one commentator put it: “This Just In: Rich People Game College Admissions for Their Kids (Stop the Presses!)  . . .Are we shocked—shocked?”

This scandal, like each of the innumerable articles about helicopter parents, shows how desperate parents are to protect their kids from the vast inequities of the educational system (and what comes afterward).  The real scandal is that the college admissions game really matters.  So the main message isn’t about Harvard, it’s about PUBLIC education.

This country used to care about public education.   It created the GI bill.  It vastly expanded the state university systems.  It showed the rest of the world what broad access to education could do for prosperity of a country.

Then, as a conscious goal of the Koch organization and the new Republican Party, we lost it.   Education has been a major victim of the drive for lower taxes on the rich, and the 2008 crash brought this to crisis levels.  Funding for schools has never recovered.  Rises in state tuition fed the student loan debt crisis.  K-12 school funding collapsed to the point of nationwide teacher strikes.  We even have Koch-funded propaganda attacking the whole idea of mass education.  Trump’s first State of the Union address pointedly talked only about welders and vocation education.

Public education needs to be first-rate.   We didn’t achieve it for everyone in the 60’s, but we showed it could be done more broadly that ever before.  Other countries, following our lead, are now well ahead of us for both education and (as a consequence) upward mobility.

Fixing education is not a trivial matter, but it mostly depends on a commitment to doing the whole job.  There are a number of aspects:

– Money

Money doesn’t solve things all by itself, but we’ve got to stop believing it doesn’t matter.  Raising tuition and fees defeats the whole purpose.

– Value teachers

Teachers, rather than consultants and administrators, should be prime contributors to the direction of the system.

– Common core

There need to be clear national standards of what we are trying to achieve.  However, that should still leave room individual teacher creativity.

– Graduation rates

We need to understand and counteract the current declines.

– Full range of institutions

All types of student objectives should be supported with traditional universities, community colleges, and vocational institutions.

 

Above all we need to fight the current ethos of superheroes and losers, and recognize that the strength of the country is in providing everyone access to the tools to succeed.  That’s why education matters.

The Epiphany of the Right

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It’s often difficult to understand the logic behind the right’s continued embrace of Trump’s lies and corruption.  In thinking about it, it seems that there is something even more fundamental than identity behind it.  You might call it the epiphany of the right.

This already existed in rather pure form with the Tea Party.  Tea Party participants had the enthusiasm of true believers, and they were pretty clear about their new beliefs.  When interviewers asked people on Medicare and Social Security why they were ready to deny government benefits to everyone else, the answers came down to a simple idea: “I don’t have to care!”.  In Strangers in their own Land, the author asked a Tea Party defender of personal responsibility how a poor child in a drastically underfunded school system was supposed to succeed, and she got the same response. “I don’t have to care”.

That “I don’t have to care” has become the epiphany of the right.  It’s the all-purpose answer.   It not only absolves the believer of moral responsibility, it gets you off the hook for anything you’d rather not think about—say climate change or the actual operation of world economy.  All that nagging about equality, facts, or expertise is optional!

It’s the perfect elixir for the Trump world.  Responsibilities or standards of behavior are gone.  You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.  Whatever you don’t like can be dealt with by any means, however brutal.  Democracy is just something else to nag about.

As with one’s personal life, this kind of behavior feels liberating and great until it isn’t.  Reality wins in the end.  But until then—there’s nothing anyone else can tell you!  I don’t have to care.

Saving the Country

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This note grows out of a comment made during the election night coverage of the midterms.  Analysts were breaking down the vote in various categories, and one of them remarked that if you just look at white voters, this seems like a completely different country:  Republican voters outnumbered Democrats 3 to 2.  They were all-in for the Trump program.

It’s worth paying attention to what that means.  Diversity is not a matter of tolerance; it’s a matter of national success.

Immigrants and their families are assets by any statistical measure.  They need to work harder to succeed, and they do it.   As the various waves of immigration entered this country, they have adapted and prospered, and the country as a whole has benefited.  It’s no accident that the most prominent players in our new economy—Google and Apple—were founded by an immigrant and the son of an immigrant.

But there is another aspect to this as well.   Outsiders (and not just immigrants) are not so easily tempted by images of an idealized past paradise.  Those siren-song images are not from their past, so they can keep focused on reality and the future.

Despite the many similarities between the Trump regime and the early stages of the “illiberal democracies” of Poland and Hungary, our diversity provides perhaps a degree of protection.  White voters have not called all the shots in the midterm election.  And it’s possible to believe that we’ve taken a first step back from the brink.

The problems of the Trump regime affect everyone.  First and foremost, we are squandering our strongest economic advantages out of ignorance and arrogance.  And we are at each other’s throats by conscious choice.  Dictatorships are not just bad for outside groups, they are historically bad for everyone.

So we should give credit where it’s due.  Three cheers for diversity in all of its shapes and colors—the saviors of the country!