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Political Fragmentation and Experimentation

image of US map with flags of states

On Tuesday September 22nd, the conservative lawyer and political commentator David French published his new book Divided We Fall. The book provides a careful diagnosis of current American polarization, a chilling prognosis of where this polarization might lead us, and ends with a prescription that we reinvigorate American federalism by devolving power out from the federal government and back to the states.

I found Divided We Fall especially interesting because one of my favorite books published this year was Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized. French and Klein end up discussing and addressing many of the same issues; French from a more conservative position and Klein from a more liberal one. As such, it is fascinating to note where they agree and where they disagree.

Both think political polarization is increasing and that other forms of division are aligning along the political spectrum. Increasingly if you disagree with someone about who should be president, then you also likely live in a different state, read different books, watch different shows, shop at different stores, and disagree about religion.

Democrats don’t just support more redistributive taxation, they also live in cities, tend towards secularism, shop at Whole Foods, read The New York Times, own a copy of Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, watch Game of Thrones, and are terrified of the political power of the oppressive conservative right. Republicans, in turn, don’t just support free-market deregulation, they also live in rural and suburban areas, regularly attend church, eat at Cracker Barrel, watch Fox News, own a copy of Tim Tebow’s Autobiography Through My Eyes, watch Walking Dead, and are terrified of the cultural power of the ideologically intolerant progressive left.

The number of ‘landslide’ districts are increasing. People increasingly live around those with similar political views. As such, those they meet in real life are likely to agree and reinforce their views. Layered atop that geographical siloing, we also find ourselves in curated online environments surrounded by those of like mind.

Both books provide an excellent overview of these issues. French’s delves more into the cultural differences between liberals and conservatives, while Klein spends much more time discussing the historical polarization between the democratic and republican parties. But the essential diagnosis is quite similar.

Though French and Klein agree almost entirely on the diagnosis, they disagree partially on the prognosis. French and Klein both worry that American politics is on a trajectory to grow increasingly bitter, and become increasingly dominated by hate and fear. However, French takes his prognosis several steps further and argues the situation could grow so bad that we should currently take seriously the possibility it leads to secession. The discussion of secession is the weakest part of the French’s book. But since I don’t want this to turn into a book review, I’ll put my particular criticism aside (interested readers can keep an eye out for a forthcoming blogpost in which I review French’s book at greater length). Whether or not you take seriously the possibility of secession, however, both French and Klein agree, and are right to agree, that the health of our democracy is compromised by continual polarization into fear-filled communities.

Now here is what is fascinating. French and Klein agree on the diagnosis and much of the prognosis, and yet, their prescriptions are radically different, indeed they are almost opposite. French calls for a renewed Madisonian federalism. He thinks that as Americans grow further and further apart ideologically, it is less and less tenable to adopt one-size fits all political solutions at the federal level. Klein, in contrast, calls for reforms to increase the effective power of the federal government. Klein thinks that we should make it easier for the government to pass sweeping federal policy because if politicians were forced to actually govern they would need to find actual solutions and, more importantly, it would create track records of policy to which voters can hold politicians accountable.

Interestingly, even here, there is a profound agreement about what is needed for reform. French and Klein both think that we need greater policy experimentation. We need policy proposals to be put into effect so that we can see what the effects are. French wants to see this occur synchronously between states. He wants California and Tennessee to both attempt sweeping health care reform. In each state attempting different solutions, what works can get more broadly adopted. As more states adopt the successful policies they can each try different refinements giving us even more useful data about what works best in what sort of states. Klein wants to see this experimentation occurs asynchronously between administrations. When democrats are in control let them pass Obamacare, when republicans are in control let them actually repeal it, and then let the American people decide which approach they actually liked.

There are lots of arguments one could make for either proposal, and you can hear many of these arguments made in this discussion between David French and Ezra Klein (given how much I liked both books I was super excited that French showed up on Klein’s podcast).

French’s central argument against Klein is that sweeping federal policy is just too dangerous in a fractured political climate. If you see the future of your nation at stake, then seeing the other side empowered to enact sweeping federal change will drive your political tribe out of its mind. And given that you receive your news from the news sources sanctioned by your tribe, you won’t even end up with the meaningful data that allows you to see when the other side’s policies actually were not so bad.

Klein has several arguments against French. Perhaps the strongest being that federal action really is just necessary. We can’t wait forty years to see the effects of state by state climate reform, we need a massive federal response to global warming and we need ten years ago. We can’t wait three years to see which state’s COVID response worked best, we needed a unified federal strategy back in March.

Both French and Klein have a point, and it is useful to just note that I think there is a plausible middle ground between their views. Perhaps what we need is a federal government that can do more, but chooses to do less. Where the federal government is able to pass sweeping policies where a federal response really is needed, but which also leaves to the states anything that need not be done at the federal level. This solution would be a form of subsidiarity — the view that problems should be tackled by the most local form of authority competent to handle the problem. Thus, if states really can adopt healthcare reform, then they should be empowered to do so. But if we require national coordination to solve the free-rider problem of fossil fuel use then the federal government should be ready and able to act.

Klein and French both draw our attention to the current problem of political polarization. It’s scary to think their solutions differ as much as they do, and makes it clear there might be no perfectly good options before us. But I think it is clear that something at least needs to be done. For now, I’d start by reading both books!

Modern Monetary Theory, Taxation, and Democracy

close-up photograph of bank seal on banknote

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in massive increases in government spending. Many governments around the world are scrambling to cover lost wages, provide benefits to those who are hit hardest by COVID, and to stimulate economic growth to ensure an economic recovery once the pandemic ends. Yet, with deficits of several nations hitting levels not seen since the Second World War and with more deficit spending still expected there are long term concerns about how all of this spending will be paid for. Because of this, several economists are now suggesting that this may be the time to seriously consider taking an approach consistent with modern monetary theory (MMT). However, MMT carries with it broad and far-ranging ethical consequences.

This year the U.S. federal government’s deficit is set to be a fourfold increase over last year (3.8 trillion dollars). The Canadian federal government’s deficit is likely to be over eighteen times larger than it was last year (343 billion dollars). Many other governments are also spending modern record deficits. One approach to dealing with this crisis is to essentially repeat the response to the 2008 recession; stimulate the economy and then commit to austerity by cutting spending and/or raising taxes. Another approach would be to adopt policies that are in keeping with MMT which would allow for increases in the supply of money to stimulate the economy instead of relying on taking on larger government debt.

Modern monetary theory is less a normative theory than it is descriptive. It requires a bit of a paradigm shift in thinking. Obviously, MMT and its relationship to modern economies is complicated, so I will focus on a few relevant points to addressing certain moral concerns. According to current understandings, governments must raise revenue through taxation or by taking on debt by selling bonds. Traditionally that is how things needed to work under a system like the gold standard. However, modern currencies such as the US dollar are fiat currencies; they have value because society collectively deems it so. But if the government can print its own money, why do they need your tax dollars? The truth is that they don’t, but because taxes can only be paid in that currency it creates a demand for that currency and thus adds to its value. If the government requires additional money for policy purposes, it can simply order that money be printed and then spend it rather than waiting on tax revenue or borrowing.

There is obviously a concern about inflation with this idea. Most people are aware of cases where runaway inflation can seriously harm an economy; Germany in the 1920s experienced hyperinflation where wheelbarrows full of cash were needed to buy inexpensive items, and more recently Venezuela experienced hyperinflation. If you print too much money too fast, the value of the currency can fall, and prices will go up. But MMT suggests that inflation can be controlled through taxation. When the government increases taxes, it can withdraw that currency from circulation and thus stem inflation. However, the aim should be to create money to invest in the economy to allow the efficient use of its resources and ensure that demand does not outpace the economy itself; this is also a way to check inflation.

My aim here is not to defend MMT, but to recognize its potential for significant, ethically-salient consequences. The most pressing issue right now is the potential that MMT offers. As noted, governments are currently spending record-setting deficits to cover the costs of COVID and to help stimulate growth from the recession it has created. Billions of dollars could be funneled into programs ranging from infrastructure development, to a universal basic income, to funding a Green New Deal. There are seriously ethically-beneficial possibilities. This is why several journalists and experts have suggested that the COVID crisis should make us seriously consider pursuing such policies. Another important factor to consider is that following a traditional monetary understanding, governments may be taking on billions of unnecessary debt that will inhibit future government capabilities for future generations.

On the other hand, there is risk that under MMT there may arise a situation where inflation begins to increase during recession or recovery when raising taxes would be a bad idea. But quantitative easing practices and massive spending have not produced inflation. In fact, central banks are currently looking to increase inflation anyways. However, there is a more significant concern that is highlighted in both the traditional monetary understanding and MMT: the relationship to values and democracy.

Critics of MMT frequently complain that it would essentially break down the wall that has been erected between central banks and elected governments. According to a recent article evaluating the merits of MMT during COVID, “serious problems may arise from putting the power to create, allocate, and spend money permanently in the hands of politically elected governments.” Governments, critics allege, have shifty politicians who only want to promise the moon in return for votes. While the general statement may be true according to a statistical bell curve, it is still a rather vague criticism. More importantly, in a democratic nation, if the public wanted to send itself knowingly into inflation, should it not be allowed to if it so wished? The myth that you can separate politics from central banking is inherently absurd when in practice it is undemocratic or resistant to democratic reform. There is also the fact that this independence has already been reduced after the 2008 recession anyways.

On the other hand, MMT, while theoretically bringing a democratic influence to central banking, may serve to undermine democracy. Voting and taxation have been closely intertwined concepts. America famously rejected taxation without political representation. The concept of paying taxes in return for government services is also important as it is often preached that paying taxes is an important civic duty; we pay taxes to ensure our mutual security and benefits. Much of the rhetoric about government accountability revolves around making sure that politicians spend tax money appropriately. How much of our thinking about government spending and accountability changes once governments can basically say, “We don’t need your tax dollars”?

Governments wouldn’t really need a budget either as they are currently understood. There would be no deficit. While there would be detailed accounting, governmental budgets would effectively be a spending plan rather than a balance sheet. It could seriously challenge, undermine, stress, and maybe improve several democratic norms and traditions. Given that some have argued that the US government is already effectively following MMT, the political questions are going to take on a newfound importance.

Elizabeth Warren’s Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act

Elizabeth Warren standing on a podium with a stool, speaking to a crowd while holding a microphone

Elizabeth Warren is the first 2020 Democratic presidential contender to date to have already distinctive policy objectives prior to her campaign. One such goal is tackling corruption. With the sitting President undergoing at least 17 known investigations, Warren’s anti-corruption program seems precisely suited to address America’s flagging reputation. America is so far from the days of the investigation of Jimmy Carter’s peanut farm that the former president himself recognizes the US as an oligarchic state. As Alexandria Ocasio Cortez highlighted recently by illustrating the absence of checks on campaign finance, Donald Trump’s administration appears to be a symptom and culmination of system-wide problems rather than a rogue outlier.

Warren’s bill, the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, recently introduced into the House, envisions a comprehensive approach to tackling the institutional structure of corruption in American politics on all fronts: legislative, executive, and judicial.

The anti-corruption bill foresees new institutional avenues for achieving these multi-pronged goals. It envisions a freestanding US Office of Public Integrity, with powers to investigate and inflict penalties for corruption and to invoke the Justice Department for serious transgressions. At the executive level, this office would include an Office of the Public Advocate to aid the public to “meaningfully engage in the rulemaking process across the federal government.” This office would also support lawsuits from private citizens to demand accountability from public agencies and corporations.

Warren’s bill also sets judicial reform in its sights: it would require courts to defer to agency interpretations of laws. It conceives more scrupulous oversight for judicial conflicts of interest, and lays out an agenda to increase the diversity of the federal judiciary.

Warren’s proposal also tackles financial conflicts in matters of public interest, enforcing transparency in research that is funded by corporations, and limiting practices that allow corporations to negotiate rule-making in their favor.

Where Warren’s anti-corruption plan seems to put its greatest emphasis is in tackling lobbying. Warren’s bill calls for the elimination of financial conflicts for public officials and prevention of companies from buying government influence. The president, VP, cabinet members and high-level officials would be barred from lobbying for life.

The bill also proposes a tax on excessive lobbying and corruption penalties to “level the playing field” for government agencies. How did America acquire such a bad reputation for corrupt lobbying practices? Lobbying in itself need not be inherently undemocratic or corrupt. There is nothing a priori wrong with interest groups informing lawmakers on particular issues. Critics argue that lobbying veers into corruption either when it is not transparent, or when moneyed interests start to gain ascendancy and drown out the mêlée of interests that intersect in a pluralist democracy.

Lee Drutman proposes that this has become the case for America’s politics. Businesses account for 95 of the 100 biggest lobbying spenders in US politics. Corporations spend more in lobbying than taxpayers do to run the House and Senate combined. In the wake of Citizens United, which deregulated lobbying even further from its already permissive bounds, 29 large corporations spent millions in lobbying in the years 2008-2010 while paying zero to negative income taxes. In the case of General Electric, this resulted in a 4.7 billion tax rebate in this three-year period alone.

These alliances between corporations and politicians do not rest easy with the American public. Only 6 percent of Americans consider lobbyists to be ethical, which places them at a bottom reputational ranking (to get a sense of context, nurses rate at the top and Congress members rank just above lobbyists). There appears to be a growing divide between voters and politicians as conflicts of interest in politics have reached a tipping point in the Trump regime. Has the US fully devolved into an oligarchy, as former President Carter believes? It remains to be seen whether voters possess the political will to instill measures for greater accountability like those proposed by Senator Warren.

Banning Furs and Plastics: Vital Progress or Unjust Restriction of Liberty?

photo of animal pelts on a table.

It is easy to forget that our choices as consumers have significant consequences beyond satisfying our material needs or desires.  Many of us make purchasing choices with little regard for how those choices affect other people, non-human animals, or the environment.  In many cases, the stakes are tragically high. One proposal worth consideration, then, is that certain purchasing options should simply be off the table or should, at a minimum, be highly regulated.  

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How Venezuelan Democracy Died

A portrait of Nicolas Maduro

Venezuela is scheduled to have presidential elections in April 2018. Although not technically illegal, this is unexpected. In 2016, Venezuela was expected to have regional elections, but Nicolas Maduro’s regime suspended them until 2017. He claimed it was due to economic reasons, but everyone suspected that he did so in order to gain some time, as his party was extremely unpopular at the time. Now, presidential elections have been called for April, although they were originally scheduled for December. Again, this is widely seen as a cynical ploy: the opposition forces are currently at a very weak point, and Maduro seizes the opportunity to defeat his rivals.

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Navigating the Ethics of Hot Cars

Every year, an average of 37 children die from heatstroke as a result of having been trapped in hot vehicles. Statistically, most of these children are under the age of three. These very young children lack either the ability or the knowledge to operate car door handles or to unlock doors. Many of them die in a desperate attempt to escape from the vehicle.  This year, deaths due to children stuck in hot cars reached an all-time high for this point in the year, according to a CNN report, with 29 deaths reported so far.

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How Should Societies Counteract Overpopulation?

As the human population continues to grow, questions arise concerning how to deal with problems that are human in origin: problems like pollution and environmental degradation, resource depletion, and global food shortages.  The global population, which currently sits at over 7 billion, is expected to reach 10.9 billion by the end of the century.  

As populations increase, the rate of greenhouse gas emissions also increases.  Topsoil depletion that took place between the years 1900 and 2000 was equal to the depletion that took place in the 1000 years that preceded it.  As a result, land that is suitable for agriculture becomes more and more scarce and our ability to produce enough food for climbing populations is threatened.  

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Do Children Have Rights That Adults Do Not?

Though the 2016 election may be more defined in the public imagination by questions concerning the candidates’ personal virtues and vices, this does not mean that substantive questions of policy that provoke deep philosophical and ethical disagreements among the American public have not also been relevant. One issue that has not received much coverage concerns policy proposals aimed chiefly at improving the lives of children and their families. Recently, for example, Hillary Clinton has proposed a generous expansion of the child tax credit, a refundable credit taxpayers receive in virtue of having children. In addition, Clinton has other proposals aimed at expanding access to early childhood education.

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Jupiter’s New Companion

Late on July 4th, NASA tweeted that their space probe, Juno, successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit after five years and 1.7 billion miles of travel. Juno is the first spacecraft to reach Jupiter since Galileo in 1995. The probe broke multiple records during its journey, including fastest man-made object at 165,000 miles per hour, and farthest solar-powered spacecraft from Earth. Juno more than broke the 492-million-mile record held by the Rosetta mission.

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Negotiating with Terrorists in Colombia

The thought of allowing a terrorist group who has committed human rights violations such as the murder, kidnappings and displacement of thousands to create their own political party, let alone be integrated into society, is terrifying. Immediately you get a bad taste in your mouth. But if it means ending a 50-year-old conflict, is it worth the risk?  After several failed negotiations throughout the years, the Colombian government is closer than ever to ending its ongoing civil conflict with its two top guerrilla organizations, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).  The negotiations include land reform, the elimination of the drug trade, amnesty for combatants, and political participation through new political parties.

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Marijuana’s Pesticide Problem

A wealth of information, both reputable and otherwise, can be found about the health effects of marijuana. Amid claims that the drug can cure cancer and studies documenting its negative health repercussions, it is sometimes difficult to get a sense of just how using marijuana could affect one’s health. However, one of the most clear-cut health concerns involving marijuana may not even stem from the drug itself. According to The Atlantic’s Brooke Borel, every time marijuana users light up, they are not just inhaling the intoxicating smoke. With it also comes sometimes-dangerous levels of pesticides – chemicals that, at least for now, go almost completely unregulated.

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Ebola: No Longer a Microscopic Problem

Over the past two weeks, reports of a Liberian man with Ebola being treated in Dallas have captivated our public discourse. Some worry that this may be a “Patient Zero” situation, and that the outbreak will soon transcend borders to become a global epidemic. While this fervor has taken place at home, however, even more profound turns in the handling of the Ebola outbreak are unfolding abroad.

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