“America First”—A Possible Area for Collaboration?

By Mike Koetting December 6, 2022

One of the interesting themes in MAGApublican thought is “America First”. Commentators have identified this as a major belief for those inclined to vote Republican want. It is hard, however, to know exactly what this means in the current context. Traditionally, the sentiment has been primarily a foreign policy instinct to keep America away from wars that don’t affect them directly and from treaties that have the risk of getting them involved in such wars.

While the contemporary use includes the traditional sense, it also seems much broader. For sure, it is a thinly veiled protest against diversity. And it is obviously an objection to the outsourcing of jobs. But it is equally obviously a primal scream of anger at “the elite” who have more of a global outlook–which has coincided with their economic outlook improving exponentially better than that of the working class. Never mind that the actual cause-and-effect model is murky.

If “America First” is used in the narrow, historical sense, one can imagine the policy implications. But in the vaguer, more amorphous use, it is not at all clear what an “American First” agenda would look like.

Somewhat peculiarly, I got focused on that question from reading an article about the water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

The basic story is simple. These rivers originate in Turkey but Iraq and Syria are dependent on the water flow. The details are of course complicated—a difficult problem in the best of circumstances, but also with enough conflicted intent and incompetence on all sides to preclude any simple assessment of who’s right. However, the details aren’t important for our purposes. It is the essence of the story that is critical: Would a “Turkey First” policy suggest that Turkey use the lion’s share of the water for its legitimate uses?

The immediate caution for Turkey would be that the enmity created by such a policy would eventually bounce back to bite them one way or the other. So it is theoretically unlikely they would keep the water to the max—as, indeed, the real world event is playing out, although not without a fair amount of ill will on both sides. And difficulties for the ruling party in Turkey which appears to be “holding out” on its own citizens. Seems that even a “Turkey First” policy needs some degree of balance and compromise, something unappreciated by most sides.

In America

Back on this side of the ocean, it’s basically the same. “America First” is much more useful as a pollical rallying cry than a guide to policy. But given its reality in our politics, is there a way to defang the political bite? It may well be it is not possible. If this is just a different reframing of the culture war, no policy choice will satisfy.

But there may be steps that would take off some of the edge—and perhaps address some legitimate concerns as well.

I see two main strategies working together—remediation and balancing the scales. But before discussing these, I want to point out that what seem like the most obvious solutions are probably like using all of Iraq’s water—the end consequence will make matters worse.

Simply increasing tariffs and erecting high barriers for international trade are more likely to leave US consumers on balance worse off. Tariffs inevitably get paid by the consumer.

There is, no doubt, a place for specific and targeted trade barriers. It also makes sense to pay some premium for developing critical supply lines to be less dependent on international circumstances, as the recent action by Congress to support increasing domestic production of computing micro-chips. Still, there is a strong consensus among economists that the overall economic well-being of Americans is improved by the globalization of the economy

Help Losers, Charge Winners

But that improvement hasn’t been close to evenly distributed. There have been major league winners and losers. These extremes are what makes “America First” compelling to some people.

Accordingly, there should be significant emphasis on helping the situations of Americans who have been damaged by the internationization of the economy. Yes, this requires expenditures that are hard to get approved in a situation where polarization has made it hard to pass anything, perversely more so for things that would disproportionately benefit the base of the opposing party. But the bigger issue is that this is just damn hard. It is hard to identify those uniquely hurt and it is hard to create satisfactory alternatives. Blue collar workers from the rust belt don’t want to be retrained to code computers; they want their old jobs back. And simply providing welfare is a poor alternative. People are happier—and society demonstrably better off—when they have meaningful jobs that provide decent wages. So it will require some real creativity to come up with successful ways of protecting people who have been hurt by the global economy. One of the intriguing successes of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is the eagerness with which Red states have embraced the jobs created with support from that act—which received not a single Republican vote in either house.

More is needed. The changes in our economy have been fundamental and will continue as technology continues to evolve, maybe even accelerate. Since the dawn of the industrial age, economies have evolved and some people have always gotten mangled in the transitions. Still, a competent government will mitigate the damage from this evolution. It would be helpful if both political parties were working to protect those specifically hurt as best possible and to train the next generation of the workforce for a more flexible future. We are slowed in this endeavor by people who have a vested interest in pandering to the past rather than adapting to the future

Which brings us to the issue of balancing the scales. The yawning gaps in the American economy are not created by the internationalization of the economy. No doubt internationalization is a contributing vehicle. But the gaps in income have been created by the entire neo-liberal edifice built primarily by the Republican establishment. “America First” won’t solve this because those gaps have been created by, and stalwartly supported by, those Americans who benefit most from this arrangement, most of whom, as a matter of fact, happen to be Republicans.

Can’t Afford to Ignore

Regardless of causal reality, there is the political reality that a large chunk of the American population believes that Democrats are somehow selling out Americans in order to preserve their international advantages. If actual policy makes any difference, one part of blunting the partisan divide would be to link resources necessary for participating in global solutions to taxes on the rich. This will be increasingly necessary as the true global nature of our current situation becomes more apparent.

Henry Olsen, in a sobering piece in the Washington Post, suggested that participation in the recent UN-sponsored agreement for richer nations to compensate poorer nations for damage wrought by climate change is likely to create a populist backlash in the countries being asked to contribute. His analysis seems more than plausible; transferring American money to other countries is the antithesis “America First”.

On the one hand, the consequences of not recognizing the intertwined nature of our world will be stark. Walking away from this agreement, which is absolutely fair, would be morally reprehensible. If “America First” sentiment prevents us from participating in global solutions—as it did with the Kyoto Treaty—we will be paving the road to disaster.

On the other hand, we would be foolish to ignore the warning signals. Richard Trumka, late president of the AFL-CIO, has pointed that unless working people see the transition to a low-carbon economy as a just and fair transition, they will join climate deniers to block action on climate change. As it now stands, the working class, particularly the White working class, sees climate change policy is being driven by people who simply don’t understand how their world works and are intent on making modern civilization a luxury that only elites can afford. We can’t afford persistence of this impression.

One thing that might make sense is adoption of a substantial and visible effort specifically, indeed ostentatiously, focused on remediating the damages from the changing nature of the American economy underwritten by taxes targeted at “the elite.” That this was the explicit strategy of the IRA. Unfortunately, the specific taxing measures got watered down in Congress and public understanding largely lost in the wave of partisanship. But this is exactly the kind of approach that has a chance of blunting “America First” without letting ourselves be backed into an isolation-driven corner from which no one benefits over time.

As illustrated by the situation in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, it simply doesn’t make long run sense for a country to believe its resources are theirs alone and assume you can go it alone.

A Nation Divided by Its Divisions

By Mike Koetting November 20, 2022

Democracy had a pretty good election. Not an unbridled victory, but particularly when compared with our worse fears, pretty good.

The connection between real problems and real solutions, however, took its usual pummeling. In fact, I think it was little worse than historically, despite several unalloyed bright spots.

Let’s consider three important issues where governance reality took a beating.

The Economy

Republicans said they wanted to make this election about “the economy.” Fair enough. A great many people in America feel their economic position is precarious and really want government to do something about it. So what did the Republicans propose about the economy? Nothing. They said they wanted the election to be about the economy and then had not a single proposal, not a single policy that would address economic issues in a head-on way. Instead, they simply wanted attention for a protracted whine that inflation was a problem.

Inflation is a problem. And there is some possibility that some of the pandemic relief efforts made it slightly worse than it would otherwise have been. Setting aside the fact that Republicans had also voted for some of them as well, there is abundant evidence that the pandemic relief efforts were appropriate. The evidence is even stronger that the bulk of the current inflation is caused by factors beyond the control of Democrats, or, indeed, any political party, at least in the meaningful short-term. Accordingly, it was strategically reasonable of Republicans to avoid putting forth policies to curb inflation—because there is as little they could do as the current administration. So they did what they could: howl at the moon.

Here and there, a few Republicans did trot out some of their long-term proposals for the economy—mostly cutting social programs. These policies are as unpopular as they have ever been so we didn’t see any wide-spread attempt by Republicans to push these to center stage because it would shine the spotlight on how out of synch they are with the needs of their base.

Moreover, any protracted discussion of economic issues would inevitably have led back to the fact that so many of the issues causing economic pain are the result of Republican policies, particularly cutting taxes on the wealthy and reducing regulation of corporations. While there has been some Democratic complicity in some of these, these policies are overwhelmingly the result of Republican actions.

In short, no real discussion of the economy, theoretically one of the most important venues for political policy.

Immigration

Republicans are demonstrably more concerned about immigration issues than Democrats, but it’s something clearly on the minds of the entire electorate. At least here the Republicans seemed to be saying something: a new commitment to securing our borders. But on second look, it offers only the vaguest of policy options, a move that one Republican strategist said was deliberate because it united Republicans without being beholden to specific policy solutions.

In some respects, about par for the course of political campaigns. But it does raise the question of what are appropriate policies around immigration. One might think that an issue that is one of the most central concerns in the minds of the party’s members would have at least a couple specific actionable proposals. But it doesn’t. And there is a reason for that. Whether it’s been a Republican or a Democrat in the White House, they have had no luck stopping immigration into the U.S. The problem is that in many places the alternative to not leaving is so bad that people will take ever escalating risks to try to get in the U.S. Our immigration activities won’t change that. And frankly, we are all better off if we keep America a place that people see as a desirable destination.

Donald Trump talked loudly about reducing immigration and that made his base feel better. But what he actually accomplished was to dramatically reduce the amount of legal immigration—while having virtually no impact on illegal immigration. Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric is about illegal immigrants. And reducing the amount of legal immigration is a dubious achievement, since legal immigration has long been a source of foreign talent.

While there are deeply divergent opinions on immigration, there are also roads to compromise. But they will require a series of nuanced policies that take into account the multiple realities of what’s driving immigration to the U.S., the number of illegal immigrants who are truly settled in this country, the nation’s manpower needs in light of low fertility and an aging population, recruitment for high skill jobs, and several others.

By simply fanning the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment, the Republican party made it still more difficult to actually address this issue. Starting with George Bush, there have been several bi-partisan attempts to put together realistic immigration policies and procedures over the last two decades, But they have all fallen apart on the unwillingness of far-right Republicans to even discuss the issue. Apparently, they believe their political fortunes are better served by keeping the issue roiling rather than actually recognizing reality and making sensible compromises. And that’s what they did for this election.

Environment

The big problem for environmental issues in this election is how relatively little they were involved. It is somewhat remarkable that an issue that poses such huge threats—that is already remaking the landscape of many American communities—was mentioned only in passing.

On the one hand, the fact that Republicans have stopped openly attacking environmental issues as a leftist, woke plot is progress of a sort. They are still not comfortable with these issues—consider that there was not a single Republican vote in either house for the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the largest environmental bill passed in decades. They may have realized that the return from attacking environmental issues per se is dwindling. For instance, among young Republicans almost half think we are not doing enough on environmental issues.

On the other hand, it wasn’t much of a Democratic talking point either. Although the IRA was a major environmental initiative, Democrats have been relatively shy about underlining what it really involved, starting with the stupid name for the bill.

At this point, every election should be about climate change. Its relative absence was a serious mugging of reality—as the world ticks toward the breaking point on emissions and other environmental problems disrupt the country, from barges stuck on the Mississippi River, to California suffering massive drought, to longer and longer hurricane and wildfire seasons. The midterm attitude seemed to be if we can whistle loud enough, maybe we can pass the graveyard without actually having to do anything.

On Balance

While I am pleased the election went as well as it did, the overall reality score was pretty dismal. The election shows that if, on a specific issue, a party goes too far (Republicans on abortion and election denial) they will be punished. That’s good. On the other hand, it also shows there are some underlying grievances that seem to carry big weight no matter how much actual policy positions belie them. The country is locked at 50-50.

Pundits are making money saying how much better the Democrats did than expected. But that assumes there is something given about Biden’s approval rating or historic midterm trends. The truth is, Democrats have the support of only half the country. But what, realistically, can they do to change that? The election proves that they are closer to the majority on abortion than the Republicans. And that more people are worried about the machinery of democracy than Republicans thought. Maybe it is possible to work through some of the divisive issues one election at a time. But will that break the deadlock? And what happens in the meantime?

It seems to me as if the county is divided by a social media algorithm that takes a few attributes and slots voters into one camp or the other and all the other issues make a difference only at the margin. What set of policies or specific issues could convince the White working class that while Republicans and MAGA have rhetoric that makes them feel better, it doesn’t make their lives better. Conversely, how could Democrats swing far enough on cultural issues to appease current Republicans without alienating their own base, most of whose concerns are valid. Moreover, even things that Democrats don’t support—“Defund the police” for instance—will be used to make sure there is no reproachment between the parties.

Maybe the best the Democrats can do is keeping on the course they are on, trying to reach out wherever they can, being careful not to amplify the most extreme thoughts of their base, hope Trumpism alienates more voters and wait for today’s younger voters to be a bigger share of the electorate.

Not particularly satisfying. But reality is messy.

The Most Essential Missing Ingredient in Addressing Climate Issues

By Mike Koetting October 25, 2022

Much of the discourse on environmental issues is at the level of kindergarteners arguing over toys. In reality, these are the most complex problems ever faced by human beings because, as we have painfully learned, everything is connected to everything. And the issues need be addressed at a scale never before contemplated in human history. They are not simply a series of tricky technical problems. The problems are political, psychological, even religious. And every technical problem must be addressed with some consideration of how the alternative solution interacts with all the technical problems around it—literally to the ends of the earth.

For Example, Air Conditioning

As we all know, temperatures around the world are increasing, acutely in certain regions. Air conditioning makes living in those areas more comfortable. Given our current technical capacities, however, using air conditioning materially increases the amount of carbon emissions, leading to further warming. A doom loop.

At a super-high level of abstraction, there are three solutions: get people to accept warmer temperatures; come up with ways of providing air conditioning with fewer carbon emissions; or damn the torpedoes, burn more carbon. In the short term, as we saw in California and elsewhere this summer, sometimes there isn’t much choice because we are simply unable to provide more energy. In parts of the United States, using less may be a plausible longer term strategy because people have become accustomed to much more air conditioning than is necessary for survival. This may be less true in other parts of the country and may not be at all viable for other parts of the world.

But I don’t see any forum capable of even discussing a plan, let alone executing one. There are people who will say “let the market decide”. But that is so glaringly incomplete that it is either a religious incantation or a straight-up attempt at ducking the question. Yes, the market will have an important role to play here. Ignoring it is at huge peril. But ignoring the limitations of the market is a more immediate peril.

No Simple Answers

Back to air conditioning.

There is new technology under development with considerably lower carbon footprint. But it isn’t ready for market. And when it is, it will be more expensive, particularly at first. Even within current technology, there is a reasonably broad spread of energy efficiency, although the more energy efficiency, the more expense. How much, and how, should we be willing to restructure the market to tilt to more energy efficiency?

In conventional economics, the theory would be that in response to various energy problems, energy prices would continue to rise, and, eventually, people would find it preferable to switch to more efficient units. And, with increased demand for more efficient units, the manufacturers would speed up development and production of revamped approaches.

Things will certainly move in this direction regardless. But nothing about the past 25 years suggests this is sufficient. Figuring out what to do instead, however, is anything but obvious.

We could ban less efficient AC units. But with no other change, it would price some people out of the market. We could combine this with some kind of subsidy program for more efficient units—either directly to the manufacturer or by rebates to consumers, which could be income related. All of these create additional problems, but in the absence of some relatively quick step, the possibility of a grid crash and states running out of electricity during air conditioning season grows. And, of course, if the grid crashes, it is not simply a private market problem. It is truly the destruction of the commons—as are the longer terms of climate change.

Here’s another immediate issue. While alternative energy is the high level approach to addressing these issues, we aren’t there yet. For instance, there is currently a mismatch between production of solar and wind energy and when it is most needed. During the recent California heat crisis, its energy system had to dump a huge amount of alternative energy during the day because there was neither demand nor way to store for the evening when blasting air conditioners created crisis situations. This is, to be sure, a problem. But using it as a basis to trash alternative energy sources—as too many politicians are willing to do—impedes the discussion rather than solving the problem. We need to be considering more and better batteries, an improved grid and probably better pricing structures that incentivize more efficient energy use without overly penalizing those who can’t, for whatever reason, comply. There is some role for market solutions here, but market solutions at scale may not happen quickly enough. Nor is there anything about market solutions that considers the distributional consequences. Pricing half the elderly and disabled out of air conditioning is not a viable solution.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t pretend to know what is the right mix of market, regulation and subsidy for air conditioning…or anything else. But I am profoundly skeptical that at the moment we have a political system capable of working its way through the complexities of transitioning to an environmentally sustainable economic system. When Rick Perry says Texans would rather be cold for a few days than let the Federal government get involved in their energy, he is offering the first draft of an obituary for the environment.

The issue isn’t whether he’s right or wrong about the need for a more organized grid. The real issue is whether there is sufficient trust to undertake any proactive solution. All the available evidence suggests that simply hunkering down and pretending things will solve themself is not a good longer-term option. It seems more likely that to get ahead of current environmental threats, societies are going to have to make some huge, scary decisions with incomplete knowledge.

Thus, the Biggest Obstacles Aren’t Technical

I started writing this post with the intention of making a different point, namely that we still lacked an overall plan to make sense of our current situation. I was, indeed still am, concerned that so many environmental issues are being addressed with slogans and fragmentary fixes and there is no comprehensive plan that makes even rough attempts to model which tradeoffs we need to make to get from here to there. For huge instance, how do we weigh the emissions advantages of nuclear power against its obvious downsides?

But the more I thought about it, the clearer it seemed to me that all the technical complexities were dwarfed by the fact that there is not enough communal trust in our society to pick our way through a series of choices that will be very difficult. Only a handful of us are ever going to know enough to have even vaguely useful opinions on how the trade-offs among options will shake out. Every decision has to be made with regard not simply to environmental impacts, hard enough, but also how it relates to other initiatives, how all the initiatives are funded, and what are the distributional impacts. Moreover, it is a lead-pipe certainty that some of these will require changes in our habits, maybe even give up something. And it is equally certain that some of the decisions that get made will be wrong. Science is never perfect. Things will be tried and not work. Government will intervene and something will get screwed up. These are as inevitable as any law of physics.

But if as a society we won’t trust anyone to make those decisions, we organize our political system around cannibalizing anyone who makes a mistake, and we don’t even trust anyone to give us an assessment of where we are, we have a huge problem.

It is possible we might muddle through this with minimal damage. Although our national political process is largely stalemated on addressing these issues, reality will not stand still, even if some politicians want to make it so. The market is already responding to these issues in a variety of predictable, but perhaps unanticipated, ways. Scientists and technological wizards are fully engaged and will undoubtedly come up with some specular devices to save our bacon—or our tofu as may become more common. Individual states and other countries will take steps. And, from time to time, the nation will take some useful steps, like the measures in the Inflation Reduction Act.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised at a scenario like what is shown in the Polish television series “High Water” about the 1997 flood in Wroclaw. In the series, the leading expert asserts it is necessary to flood a rural area outside the town to reduce the pressure on the town’s defenses. The rural residents resist, the bureaucrats fumble and the politicians, worried about their short run future, acquiesce, asserting that the town’s sandbagging will be sufficient. It wasn’t and there was much greater damage and loss of life than if the initial sacrifice had been made.

A global catastrophe would be much worse.

Republicans as Working Class Party?

By Mike Koetting October 11, 2022

I generally consider what David Brooks has to say interesting. We share enough basic values that I can imagine a discussion with him, but we disagree enough around the edges that I frequently find his perspective usefully different. But one of the dangers of being interesting is that you occasionally uncork something that is completely off base, even if it has a good size grain of truth to it.

Such was the case when, on the PBS Newshour a couple weeks ago, he started talking about the Republican Party being in transition to a working class party. Seriously?

Where Could He Be Coming From

As it happens, he’s not alone in saying this or something like it.

Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley have both made similar noises and Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) recently wrote a six-page memo to Minority Leader McCarthy suggesting Republicans recast themselves as the party of the working class.

Banks’ argument is based on the fact that Republicans are already a solid majority of the White working class vote and that its share of the both the Latino and Black working class is growing. He also notes that Democrats have moved to overwhelmingly solidify their hold on people with greater education and among some sectors of people with higher incomes, although Trump did still win a majority of the people earning more than $100,000. Banks argues the most plausible route to continued Republican power is to expand its share of the working class vote, specifically people without college degrees who have jobs.

People with jobs is a critical distinction. Lisa Pruitt, in a terrifically useful Politico article,  points out that since much analysis has lumped together people without college education or with incomes under $100,000, it misses the distinction between those who have regular jobs and those who don’t. For those who have regular jobs, their jobs are of necessity a major part of their life. Many of the jobs are particularly hard. But they still feel economically constrained. Not surprisingly, then, they resent the rich, who seem to be working less hard. They even more resent those they see around them who don’t work and still get by. They feel their hard work isn’t being counted for much and that they are being taken advantage of, both personally and economically. Pruitt says this judgement is more about working than about race, per se, and cites both journalistic and academic supports for this position.

New York Times/Edison Research     

While I am not willing to overlook the role of race, I do find this perspective helpful in understanding why people vote against what would seem to be their interests. I strongly recommend the Pruitt article. She thoughtfully describes, based in part on her personal experience, how these folks’ sense of self-worth is bound up in the idea that they are pulling their own weight—in contrast to those they see as sponging off society. They might not be fancy city-folks, but they are absolutely not “trailer-trash”. They see themselves as the real backbone of America and their work essential to the country, appreciated or not. This attitude is at the heart of Senator Manchin’s skepticism of widespread child supports: he worries too many parents would use it on drugs. The people who vote for him actually worry about that.

The way the Democratic Party has evolved feeds into that scenario. Its emphasis on strengthening the safety net, its dominance in cities, and its emphasis on cultural issues that are far removed—or hostile—to the rural, White working class. Even the long Democratic affiliation with unions provides little protection as unions have dwindled, have been historically missing in the South and rural areas, and more than half of all union members actually work for the government. Many non-unionized workers see unions as a license for feather-bedding. Unfortunate comments like Obama’s “clinging to their guns or religion” cement the notion that the Democrats don’t really care about them or in fact look down on them.

So the Democrats have lost (at least for now) the White working class, especially in rural areas. That, however, is a far cry from thinking of the Republicans as a working class party.

A More Realistic Reading

The conservative American Enterprise Institute dismisses the idea of the Republicans as transitioning to a working class party as a “muddled concept”. As they point out, in an acerbic understatement, the notion suggests “flirting with an economic program actual Republicans don’t seem to want.   They continue their analysis, pointing out there is no interest in the “real” Republican party for high taxes on anyone, breaking up big corporations, adopting a serious industrial policy or significant trade barriers—let alone worrying about the serious inequities in income. In short, it has no interest in the issues that a real working class would advocate. Indeed, Rep. Banks program proposals are not in any historic sense “working class”. They don’t even mention labor or actual workers but rather focus on attacking immigration, attacking China, attacking big tech and attacking “wokeness”.

It is indisputable that the Republican party is becoming something different than it has been for my life. If it is not transitioning to a working class party, what is it becoming? It is a vehicle for stoking up resentment among White working class voters grafted on to the Republicans’ traditional economic largess toward the rich, supplemented by a large dose of nostalgia for the cultural consensus of the Fifties. Republicans are transitioning into—actually, seem to have made the transition–a soft hard-right party.

The term “soft hard right” sounds oxymoronic but I think it is the best way to categorize what is being offered. Fascist may in some sense be fair, but it is not useful. This notion may fire up the people who are already Democrats, but it makes it too easy for the rest of the population to dismiss. The differences between the Nazis and what is happening in the U.S. are too obvious. However much I dislike the current Republicans, I readily admit they are not building concentration camps—nor are they likely to. (The situation with racist is similar. No reasonable person can ignore the differences in racial attitudes and behavior between now and, say, 1950. No matter how many similarities remain, using the term racist will be unproductive because the behavior in question is so different from the benchmark defined by history.)

Nevertheless, we should not soft-pedal what’s going on. The current Republican party is carving out a different space. Many of the strains from which they are drawing are deeply embedded in American history. A profound distrust of intellectuals, a knee-jerk puritanism, and a deep-seated xenophobia, which actually extended to anyone who was different from community norms, have always been features of the American landscape. And even beyond the explicit exclusion of classes of voters, historically both political parties have always been able to fool around with voting systems to make them considerably less than democratic.

So exactly how different the emerging Republican party is from various historic analogues is debatable. But what is not debatable is the current Republican party is anti-democratic and has distinctly authoritarian trends. It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of change implied by the fact that virtually the entire the party is unwilling to concede that Donald Trump actually lost the last election. Or that the party has embarked on a set of voter suppression laws that, while not as categorical as the old Jim Crow laws, are clearly in that spirit. Soft hard right.

Moreover, imagine if Donald Trump were to be re-elected. Or even a Ron DeSantis or Greg Abbot presidency with the current Supreme Court and Republican majorities in Congress. I don’t know what exactly would happen. It would not be Nazi Germany or 1935 Mississippi but neither would it be the America of the last 75 years. It would be a country with a drastically constrained allowance for diversity, with strong Christian Nationalist overtones, and with a clear willingness to exercise power as a minority.

And it sure as hell wouldn’t be anything like a working class party, however many of the working class might be voting for it. David Brooks is right that the Republican Party is transitioning. Unfortunately, he is much too generous in his imagination of what it is transitioning to.

Worker Shortage or Common Sense Shortage? Or Both?

By Mike Koetting September 28, 2022

Everyone seems to accept that the US is facing a labor shortage. But labor shortage is one of those concepts that seems straightforward until you start to look into it. Turns out the whole thing is—and I’ll bet you’re not surprised—really complicated.

For example, take the issue of trucker drivers.  According to the American Trucking Association, America has a shortage of 80,000 drivers with the number that could reach 160,000k by 2030. That is probably a reasonable estimate of the number of truckers who could be hired if suddenly there were people to hire.

Complications arise immediately. It’s not like you can simply answer an ad in the newspaper and become a trucker. It requires a Commercial Drivers License (CDL) which both requires training (which can cost up to $10K) and then an apprenticeship. But the training is not the bottleneck. There are plenty of people with CDLs. The issue is that turnover in parts of the trucking industry is astronomical, often in the vicinity of 90%, and most of them out of the industry. The current configuration of the job is miserable.

The root of this problem seems to stem from the de-regulation of trucking under Carter. As more carriers got into trucking post-deregulation, union representation fell, and wages followed. Total employee compensation fell 44% in over-the-road trucking between 1977 and 1987. Turnover has been much lower in those places with higher wages and better working conditions, including those that retained union representation. There is no doubt deregulation led to lower costs of transporting goods, benefits that accrued to all consumers. Conversely, better wages will drive up costs for everyone. But the current model isn’t really working, and lack of truck drivers is making a material contribution to supply chain woes.

Virtually every other specific job I looked at that shortages are being written about had a similarly complex story. What appears to be a society-wide “labor shortage” turns out to be a story of lots of smaller things that have impacted one job or another. Anyone offering a one-size-explains-all approach is going to miss a lot.

That said, there are also some structural factors that are affecting the overall labor market and will have even bigger impacts in the future. As I noted in my post on school closings, society is very poorly served by trying to ignore underlying structural changes instead of facing up to them and making proactive, if hard, choices.

Structural Factors

Population Aging. The Boomer generation is retiring. (Sorry, folks.) There is no way around it. Try as we might, we’re just not going to live forever, let alone work that long. This has several consequences. The most obvious is that large numbers of well-trained workers are leaving the work force. Many of them are professionals–physicians, nurses, lawyers, engineers, pilots, teachers and so forth. This will get worse for the next few years as the biggest bulge in the boom actually steps away from work. It also appears that enough “young” Boomers are retiring earlier than anticipated that they are having an impact on the overall work force.

Declining Birth Rate. This hasn’t yet had a big impact on the overall size of the labor force, but it will. Just as lower fertility inevitably leads to lower school enrollment, it will inevitably lead to a smaller work force. It is projected that there will be 16 million fewer babies between 2008, the last year fertility was sufficient for population replacement, and 2030 if fertility had continued at replacement rate.

Immigration. Roughly one-quarter of the “missing” workers are the result of lower immigration, legal and illegal, during the Trump era. This flow is starting to return to pre-Trump, pre-Covid levels, so some of the shortages will be addressed. But we have also shown conclusively that there aren’t Americans willing or able to take many of the jobs the immigrants would fill. In all events, immigration remains a major factor in determining the size of our overall workforce, and more so in certain fields. For example, a larger percentage of personal care workers are immigrants. This is an area with exploding demand as the Boomers get older still.

Work Force Participation Rate. Another suggested factor in the shortage of workers is the apparently low participation in the work force—that is, more people who would be expected to be working are neither employed nor looking for work. Some of this argument has a kind of moral tone—as in, kids today aren’t working. However, it seems fairly clear that most of this decline is the statistical implication of an aging work force. For instance, between 2010 and 2019, overall labor force participation decreased, but within every age category it increased. It is simply that older populations have less work force participation, so as their relative size increases, they exert greater drag on the aggregate. Still, when looking at specific age/gender groups, it seems there is some decrease beyond what can be explained by age distribution alone, even before Covid. It wouldn’t surprise me if there has been some overall decrease in labor force participation, or, as I suspect, participation in the formal labor force. People must be getting resources from somewhere. A 2014 study by the Boston Federal Reserve estimated that 26% of the people “not in the labor force,” as defined by the government, were in fact in engaging in the informal economy. I’ll bet the percentage is higher post-Covid. Another factor is that female work force participation had stagnated in the 20 years before Covid, and probably much more during Covid. Part of the culprit here is the lack of family friendly policies, particularly around parental leave and day care, that would make female participation easier (even if family responsivities remain unequal by gender). Our lack of family friendly policies is unique among developed economies.

Implications

There is one blindingly obvious conclusion and a lot I don’t understand.

The obvious conclusion is that we need a sensible immigration policy. In a country with a fertility rate well below replacement and an aging population rapidly retiring, making sense out of the immigration policy would seem a self-evident move. This is not to say that we could solve all our work force problems this way, let alone that it would be easy. As long as the distribution of welfare around the world is so lopsided, there will be impossibly difficult issues. But the fact that our culture wars have made it impossible to even address this issue suggests that the country may be in the grip of terminal stupidity.

Beyond that, I am confronted by a lot I don’t fully understand about the link between workforce size, economic growth and general welfare. In my reading for this post, it seems economists take it for granted that a larger work force leads to more economic growth. But, even if this is true, is total economic growth the right measure for a society’s economy—as opposed to, for instance, economic resources per capita. It seems to me that in terms of economic wellbeing, the distribution of the economy is relevant; a society with fairly evenly distributed resources might be better off than one with greater aggregate resources that were distributed much less equitably.

All of which, in my mind, leads to questions about how we think about machines replacing people. I know many people who say you shouldn’t use self-service check-out because it takes away jobs. But does this make sense? If as a society we have more jobs available than people willing to take them, shouldn’t we be investing in labor-saving machinery? The case may be more obvious with replacing people at the fry-station in fast food places or replacing truck drivers since these jobs are difficult to fill. But the fundamental question is ultimately the same.

On the other hand, what happens when people who want to keep working are replaced? Presumably the overall economy is just as robust, but putting people out of work will create significant disruptions. How are those people who are displaced reabsorbed into the economy?

And how is immigration factored in? In the short term, it is clear we need immigration to meet the needs of our economy. In the longer term, we might have a situation where we have “too much labor”—that is, more people than we can productively employ given the current economic model. At that point, we might be able to cut off immigration from a strictly economic stand-point, although practical and moral problems would remain. More immediately. we don’t know how far away that is or, indeed, if we will ever reach that point.

In the meantime, the United States clearly has jobs it would like to fill. Since there don’t seem to be people willing to take them—and the trends point in the wrong way—we need a longer-term plan. Unfortunately, our political system is manifestly unable to address this issue. We are surely digging a huge hole for ourselves.

My Journey With Steve Chapman Along the Arc of American Journalism

By Mike Koetting September 13, 2022

I moved to Illinois in the mid-70s. I lived in Springfield and worked for, first, the Legislative Budget Office, and then the Executive Budget Office. I always read the Springfield paper—virtually a company newsletter at the time–but also kept loose track of both the Chicago dailies, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times, which both had substantive Statehouse Bureaus, as did UPI and others. Later, I moved to Chicago, then to Boston for a couple of years. When I returned to Chicago in 1985, I became a religious reader of the Tribune. Every morning with my breakfast.

While I was a gone, the Tribune introduced a new columnist, Steve Chapman. I didn’t like him much. Too conservative Republican for my tastes. Still, I periodically read him.

The years marched on. Steve Chapman continued to write. I still didn’t agree with much, but I started reading him a little more regularly. Like George Wills, David Brooks and, later, Jonah Goldberg, they all wrote and thought well and I figured it was important to see what they were talking about and, from time to time, reflect on it.

The Tribune continued to change. The paper started in 1847 and was originally a liberal, abolitionist newspaper. But in 1911 Robert McCormick became editor and turned the paper sharply to the right, becoming an early voice of strident Republicanism, although by the time I started reading it, it was fairly centrist. Its business sense, however, had always been forward looking. It was one of the earliest cross-media companies, acquiring a radio station and later a television station. In the 1990s, it was one of the first newspapers to establish a website and develop an internet presence.

Foresight, however, did not protect against technology. The internet began to eat newspapers. Initially, more their advertisers than their readers.

Early after the turn of the century, the Tribune had its first major staff layoff and, in 2006, the Tribune Corporation was for sale. What followed was a dizzying period of buyouts, mergers, a bankruptcy and numerous additional staff reductions. To be honest, most of this didn’t seem to make any difference to the paper I read each morning.

Around the rest of the country, the implications were more drastic. Between 2005 and 2021, 2,200 newspapers shut down operation, slightly more than a quarter of all the country’s newspapers. Most of these were less than weeklies. Still, over the same period the number of daily papers dropped by about 13% to around 1275 dailies.

The question of readership is more complicated. The overall drop in readership has been much less drastic than the drop in revenue, but the nature of subscriptions has changed considerably. When print and digital subscriptions are combined, it is estimated that total readership has declined, but in total, at least since 2015, has not been particularly steep. However the total is buoyed by large growth in digital subscriptions, particularly from three papers—the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. It appears these three papers currently account for about one-third of all newspaper subscriptions (print and digital) in the country, with the Times alone accounting for about 20%, although the Times now has so many subsidiary publications and offerings, I can’t get a real apples-to-apples count. It is also the case that the Washington Post is currently experiencing financial troubles as subscribership isn’t growing as fast as costs. (The Post is owned by gazillionaire Jeff Bezos, who bought in 2011 after its last round of financial difficulties. He was one of several billionaires who bought papers.)

My own experience followed national trends. I continued to read the Tribune each morning, but about seven years ago I got hooked on a then free Washington Post daily newsletter and, a couple years later, started subscribing to the digital newspaper. But I looked on-line only after I had read the Tribune over breakfast. By this time, I had started to find Steve Chapman much more interesting. I don’t think he changed fundamental values. Rather the Republican Party had changed its fundamental values. We probably still differ on a lot. (I suspect he was instrumental in the Tribune endorsing Gary Johnson for president in 2016.) But concern about common enemies over-shadowed the latent disagreements and, in the identification of common enemies, it was easier to see where our values aligned.

In 2021, the Tribune sold itself to Alden Global Capital, a venture capital fund with a penchant for buying newspapers and gutting the newsrooms. Within two days, a massive round of buy-outs and layoffs ensued. Over the course of the next several weeks, all of the columnists and reporters whom I regularly followed left. Only Steve Chapman remained on a regular basis—as he had stopped being a Tribune employee in an earlier round of buy-outs and was a syndicated columnist appearing in many papers. Across the country, the number of people working at newspapers has dropped like a rock, from 71,640 in 2004 to 30,820 in 2020.

The experience of the Tribune is not unique. It is estimated that more than half of the daily newspapers are owned by financial corporations. The era of the locally owned newspaper with community ties and responsibilities is definitively over. It is hardly a surprise that people don’t have the same commitment to their local paper as was once the case. So, as noted earlier, more and more people are turning to digital sources that are big enough to provide a high-quality product. This works well for national news but it leaves local coverage adrift, which contributes significantly to the nationalization of our politics. It also contributes to the general lack of trust in government.

Since Alden bought the Tribune, it has gotten thinner and thinner. And an inordinate number of the remaining column inches are taken up with stories from suburban stringers on relatively narrow topics. And, to add insult to injury, If the White Sox game runs late (i.e. after 9 Chicago time) it won’t have game coverage. Unless there are some interesting wire-stories or a lot of obituaries, it doesn’t even last till the end of my breakfast. My serious newspaper time is on-line with the Washington Post.

About two weeks ago, my wife and I decided we’d had it. We subscribed to the digital Sun-Times, the other Chicago daily. (We each had to get our own subscription, but it was still considerably cheaper than the Tribune.) It has much better sports coverage and retains more active coverage of the city itself. It also has an unusual business model. It had gone through the same financial amusement park rides as the Tribune—successive financial crises and revolving door ownership. But earlier this year, it merged with the local National Public Radio affiliate. The deal required a substantial amount of philanthropic support, which as it now stands, will support the new entity for at least the next five years. We will see if that’s a viable financial model for the longer term.

I started looking to purchase a tablet so that I could switch my breakfast reading from the hard copy to all digital—the smart-phone is just too small for me to read while trying to eat. When I get that, our subscription to the Tribune will go to purely digital. (My wife has already made the switch. She also reads Politico and the Times headlines and we both read a digital newsletter on Illinois state politics.)

As it happened, the week I started my Sun-Times subscription, Steve Chapman announced his retirement after 41 years of writing a column. I don’t think it was accidental that his last column was on the threat to our democracy.

It was once assumed that the story of America was one of steady progress in steadily improving our grand experiment in rule by the people. But nothing in this world is guaranteed to last forever, not even the world’s oldest democracy. If it is going to survive, Americans will have to save it — or else be remembered for our failure.

I couldn’t agree more. Happy landings, Steve Chapman.

Declining Public School Enrollment

By Mike Koetting August 30, 2022

Schools are now underway for the year, so this is a timely spot for a post on education. While there are many possible topics, I have been specifically thinking about something a little wonkish: declining public school enrollment.

The Decline

A recent New York Times article proclaimed “Plunging Enrollment a ‘Seismic Hit’ to Public Schools”. It went on to state that “America’s public schools have lost at least 1.2 million students since 2020.” This did not surprise me. The country’s fertility rate has declined by almost 18% since 1990. In the last 10 years, this decline included Latin and Black populations. Combined with declining immigration rates, dropping enrollments would be expected. But the drop has been uneven. Nationwide, a large portion of the recent sharp decline in public school enrollment is in pre-kindergarten and, to a lesser extent, kindergarten. Some of this is due to declining fertility, but it has been clearly aggravated by specific responses to the Covid pandemic. Aside from this, it seems that the aggregate slide in enrollment is minimal.

On the other hand, there is nothing gradual about the enrollment declines in many of America’s large cities. It seems this is the basis for the Times’ headline. Los Angeles, New York, Denver, Philadelphia, Oakland, Chicago and others have all lost a substantial number of students since peaks in the 2000s.

The example of Chicago is instructive.  By 2021, Chicago had lost almost 20% of its public school enrollment in the previous decade. Enrollment was lower again last year and the guess is that enrollment will be even lower this year when the numbers become available.

The teachers’ union says the problem is underfunded and unsafe schools and the charter school advocates say it is a result of people flocking to charter schools. Both of these may be contributing factors, but the bigger culprit is demography. From 2009 to 2019, births in Chicago fell from approximately 44,000 children per year to 33,000 children per year. With the number of children being born decreasing, it doesn’t take a team of academics to figure out why the school enrollment is decreasing.

What Follows from This?

There are many important questions to be answered about the quality and results of our urban school systems. But those are for another day. This post focuses on the less arguable fact that there are dramatically fewer children in many big urban school systems. Changes in the schools by themselves will not change this trend. It is probable that problems in the city school system contribute to fewer children being born in the city. But surely public safety, transportation, economic opportunity, gender roles and, very particularly, housing are much larger factors.

For most of the last 60 years, urban areas, were growing but their growth was primarily in their suburban portions. Traditional urban residential areas didn’t change that much in the early part of that period but later in that period they started to empty out as White flight drained population and poverty led to more deterioration in the housing stock while, paradoxically, increases in the relative expense of the remaining housing drove others out.

In recent years, there has been an uptick in urban density. But the two factors driving that—growth of high density housing in central cities, primarily younger and wealthier, and growth in suburban cities on the border of central cities—do not lead to more children in the urban school districts. Barring dramatic changes in housing policy and/or immigration policy, the students are not coming back to the big urban school districts. 

Like it or not, cities must respond to an ongoing change of this magnitude.

For openers, this will affect the basic finances of impacted school systems. Although school funding schemes differ from state to state, in almost all cases a portion of school funding is tied to attendance. If enrollment declines, funding will in degree follow. Virtually all of these formulae were put in place while attendance was growing, so there hasn’t been much attention to the reality that costs are typically, as economists say, more “sticky” on the downward side than in periods of increase. Thus, pro-rata reductions will be problematic.

But laws can be changed, however difficult. Conceptually more thorny is deciding what should be the policy response. Perhaps there is some argument that simply maintaining the current level of school funding is a reasonable, even if expensive, response to these enrollment decreases since additional per pupil expenditures could be used to improve educational results. But even if that is the case, it’s not easy to imagine how to do so in an efficient manner.

Planning for Lower Enrollments

For one thing, the enrollment declines are uneven. An aggregate 20% pupil reduction over some period will rarely lead to all schools operating at 80% of their capacity. Some will still be overcrowded and some will have attention-catching low occupancy. At some point low occupancy becomes an irresponsible use of public funds. Measuring where, however, is tricky. Simple “percent of capacity” figures can be unhelpful because they may be driven simply by having excess physical capacity in a particular site. While excess physical capacity adds costs, the capacity itself represents sunk costs and is not an overwhelming expense driver. The much more important question is at what point does the size/cost profile of a particular school tilt its costs per pupil beyond what is reasonable.

Moreover, one has to wonder if there is a point at which low-attendance schools are materially impacted in their educational function by the relative lack of student density. Is smaller class size an unlimited good? How is the point at which smaller class size becomes unsupportable influenced by  teacher shortages? Do teachers in low attendance schools need a different skill set than in other schools? What happens to the amount of support personal (social workers, librarians, etc.) as attendance dwindles? Does curriculum shrink as total enrollment declines, presumably a bigger problem in the upper grades.

Not surprisingly, low utilization often appears in neighborhoods with the most problems. People who live in “bad” neighborhoods have higher motivation to leave than those who live in “good” neighborhoods. This makes schools in troubled, primarily Black and Brown neighborhoods, the most underutilized and the most obvious candidates for closure. Which in turn leads to charges that school closing are being targeted at poor people and people of color, which often makes the issue politically charged.

Still, the issue of declining enrollment could be better addressed than putting off any school consolidations for as long as possible and then doing whatever necessary to get through the political firestorm. There should be a more proactive approach, imagining how adjusting for declining enrollments could fit in with larger urban planning goals.

I suspect that the specifics of what might work would vary from community to community, and, in any event, are better left to a discussion between the people who actually know about such things and the communities themselves. But I have a couple of random thoughts.

  • Schools, particularly in urban school districts, have already been morphing into a broader set of uses—such as providing after-school care necessary to accommodate working families or serving as the largest source of breakfast for the children of a neighborhood. Maybe this trend could be extended further and more deliberately. Maybe smaller enrollment schools might work well in buildings thought of more as community centers than schools per se.
  • Developing flexible, high quality transportation systems may open additional possibilities. However done, nothing would be as convenient as the neighborhood school. But if some degree of busing becomes unavoidable, it might be possible to better match students to specialized opportunities. (Several student-transportation companies have been started on the West Coast claiming their mix of technology and multiple vehicle options could offer better student transportation. It’s too early to tell if these are just sales pitches or if they really offer expanded capabilities, but they are worth keeping an eye on.)
  • While the “on-line” educational offerings of the pandemic did no favors to students, particularly minority students, it is probably too early to completely give up on instruction via computer. It might be possible, for instance, to materially lower the per-pupil cost of low enrollment schools by mixing on site instruction with supervised technology.
  • It seems that absent any concerted policy investments, it’s likely that for the foreseeable future, many urban areas will have “bare spots.” The need for developing sensible plans for those areas goes far beyond educational planning, but how schools are reconfigured could reinforce some approaches.

How all this plays out will probably depend on the extent to which all the players (parents, union, administrators and politicians) accept the idea that the old model isn’t going to work and that we need to experiment our way to a good response. I hope a sufficient number of school superintendents feel lucky enough to try.

When Do We Get Serious About Environmental Issues?

By Mike Koetting August 14, 2022

When I began this blog five years ago, I chose the title “Between Hell and High Water” as a metaphor for the complexity of trying to develop politics that reflected the difficulty of executing policies toward progressive results.

I didn’t plan to make it a literal description of the American climate situation.

I am not going to recapitulate all the scientific evidence that we have a real problem. That’s in so many places, so many ways, you could have avoided it only by determined effort….in which case, further recitations will also be avoided.

Rather, this post ponders the question of what is the appropriate response to the current situation.

It strikes me there are three critical questions that we mostly ignore because, even if we knew the answers, each would lead to the necessity for major disruption:

  • What is necessary to get people sufficiently worried to make the necessary changes?
  • What do we do about the power dynamics that block even the apparently obvious things that need to be done?
  • Do we even have a realistic game plan for addressing environmental issues?

Focusing the Public Will

A large majority of Americans give some credence to the idea there is a problem. But this recognition by itself does not generate political energy sufficient to change the world. In the debate over the Inflation Reduction Act Marco Rubio, exasperated with the discussion, urged the Senate: “Don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t matter to real people.” It’s easy, and fair, to chalk this up as continuing Republican foolishness. But if we’re honest, we know the problem runs a lot deeper. There is a reason they named this, lamely, the Inflation Reduction Act. The act is really about addressing some neglected human needs—including protecting the environment. But apparently the Democrats don’t think environmental protection sells well enough. Even in a week when the Senate Minority Leader’s home state suffered unthinkable environmental damage—from the third “one-in-1000-year storm” in the last several weeks.

I am, as all should be, profoundly suspicious of anything that suggests we need to override democracy for any purpose. But how should we react as the evidence accumulates that we are voting our way to disaster? Is there a point at which survival of the species should trump democracy?

The current course is simply not sustainable. It seems that “real people” see cheap fossil fuel and reckless use of water as birthrights rather than what they are—checks written against a finite eco-system. Several states are so desperate to pretend this isn’t a problem they have passed legislation prohibiting the state from doing business with certain financial firms because of their reluctance to invest in fossil fuel or their acceptance of “climate change” as a likely modifier of economic trends.

The idea that the market will somehow protect us attributes too much discrimination to the market system. Yes, it reduces demand for certain commodities when decreasing supply raises costs. But it doesn’t guarantee that will lead to sufficient supply—no matter how critical the commodities are to people. Too many Americans are desensitized to environmental issues because the worst problems are seen as “over there”. Amazon deforested? African cropland disappears? No water in Mexico? Far away and doesn’t affect us. Putin waves around the concept of the “Golden Billion”— a wealthy Western elite who, realizing that ecological change and global disasters would render the world uninhabitable for all but about a billion people, seizes all the resources for itself. Putin’s use of the concept is purely self-serving, but our unwillingness to recognize the depth of this problem runs a real risk of making this a de facto reality.

Wealth, personal or national, will always provide some protection against degrading environmental conditions. But the protection will certainly get more expensive and might not be infinite. We may need to face that the efficacy of personal wealth is not unrelated to the health of the entire world.

Circumventing the Opposers

In Kim Stanley Robison’s absolutely essential The Ministry for the Future there is a protracted discussion between a lawyer and the narrow survivor of an environmental catastrophe that starkly raises the question of how to frame the discussion. The activist argues that the violence of carbon burning kills many more people than even the worse murderer. So, he says, maybe a few targeted assassinations or some substantial sabotage would be justified. After all, he argues, no one would dispute your ability to defend your home against intruders; what about people who are destroying your home? The lawyer is, appropriately, appalled. But the question lingers.

I am absolutely not endorsing assassinations. But the question gives notice that at some point drastic action may be needed. It took a Civil War to end slavery and a World War to defeat the Nazis. What will be needed to counter balance the immense wealth and power of polluters? If the compromise necessary to get less expensive solar energy is to increase use of fossil fuel, the power structure is tilted the wrong way.

Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN raises the question a different way:

You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But … I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.

What if she’s wrong on the last point? At this point it is very hard to understand how anyone could not understand the urgency. Yet the fossil fuel companies and their enablers continue to be more worried about their future than ours. At some point stopping this becomes an issue of self-defense.

Realistic Game Plan

But there is a problem. One of the most compelling reasons for humility in crafting new policies is that we don’t have an overall game plan that clearly works. We have some ideas that trend in the right direction. We need to pursue them. Religiously. But we need to be realistic not only about whether something is a good idea, but how much difference does it make, over what time frame, and what are the interdependencies. And how these proposals stack up together.

Electric vehicles, for instance. Accounting for how the electricity is generated, how the batteries are manufactured, and so forth, the incremental net savings are not large. They are still important and benefits will grow over time But it will take time. And research. Lots of it. And, just as important, having constructive national discussions about how to sort through options and determine which are sustainable and which trade-offs will work best.

We also must recognize that citizens of advanced economies don’t want to give up very much and, while we are mostly reluctant to say so out loud, we are really looking for a painless transition. That is going to be very difficult. We would undoubtedly be better off if we had spent less of the last 30 years in idiotic arguments about how fast the apocalypse is coming instead of developing realistic technologies for the necessary environmental transition. We seem to have forgotten Isaac Asimov’s observation that in life, unlike chess, the game goes on even after a stalemate.

How long the developed world will be able to enforce its desire for a painless transition is an open question. The Ministry for the Future opens with a heat wave in India that kills millions of people. India decides it has to do something because, as one character puts it, “You know. Everyone knows, but no one acts. So we are taking matters in our hands.” And India begins a series of atmospheric interventions, the consequences of which will be largely uncertain.

In the non-fiction world, the responses so far have been much less structured, primarily mass migrations caused by loss of agriculture. Where this leads is anyone guess. It is hard to see how these migrants, or the nations from which they come, can do something as risky as atmospheric engineering. But the resulting destabilization is almost certain to cause trouble on a major scale. And conditions in India are approaching those that set off the disaster in The Ministry for the Future.

The picture here is not hopeless. There has been progress and more is on the way. But in order to avoid disaster, the pace of change must be picked up. Dramatically. The vaccine showed how much can be done at warp speed when attention is focused. What is needed here, however, is much more diffuse and will require a protracted period where each innovation will have to be built in light of approaches to other issues. Moreover, in many cases the issues will be not only scientific, but engineering to get to get to scale in a limited time. And, as we’ve seen, even great science can be stymied by internet pseudo-science.

I caught a snatch of podcast, don’t remember who or where, where the person being interviewed said: “Humans, standing on the shoulders of the giants who went before them, have made advances to the point where it is actually possible to wipe out the species.” Maybe, we should figure out how to avoid that.

Judicial Review and Democracy

By Mike Koetting August 1, 2022

Given the abject rottenness of recent Supreme Court decisions—and visions of more to come–it is reasonable to raise the question of whether the entire model of judicial review is a bad idea.

It is clear there is something peculiar (to use a modest word) to give so much power to a small group of people who are not only un-elected, but in fact may have been appointed by a party that has lost multiple elections since they were appointed or which has repeatedly lost the popular vote or both.

Most other countries have some judicial review, but in virtually none is it as extensive or important as in America. The role of judicial review in America does not—directly—spring from a power granted by the Constitution. Indeed, the power of judicial review specifically stems from a Supreme Court decision, Madison v. Marbury, decided in 1803. Thus, it might correctly be observed that the power of judicial review is something the Supreme Court granted to itself. It would fail a test of strict originalism. The decision in point concerned a purely political issue, that was ultimately side-stepped, but the opinion had far-reaching consequences since it established the principle that the Supreme Court could invalidate an act of Congress.

That being said, it is also fair to say that power is broadly consistent with the intent of the Framers to separate and limit power wherever possible. One of their overriding concerns was preventing “too much” concentration of power. Paradoxically, this flowed from a real desire to preserve individual rights and from a realpolitik understanding that there would be no America without a structure that supported the continuation of slavery, which through some tortured mental gymnastics, it made into an issue about the rights of slave-holders. In that way, it also rested on a social construction of reality that avoided a range of issues because the general consciousness did not yet accept them as issues that needed to be addressed.

The power of judicial review has a mixed history in America. For long stretches, the Supreme Court has used it modestly, something that is more like what is seen in other countries. But there is no shortage of memorably bad decisions. To pick just a few, the outlandishly racist Dred Scott decision that did much to make the Civil War inevitable, the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson decision that sanctioned Jim Crow and the 1905 Lochner vs New York case that cemented the laissez-faire approach to capitalism at a time when European countries were starting to experiment with greater market regulation. And now we have the current batch of rulings.

But the Supreme Court also decided Brown v Board of Education (1954), Roe v Wade (1973) and Obergefell v Hodges (2015) among others, all decisions that have advanced causes that I agree with. And herein lies the problem.

To simply argue that the current crop of SCOTUS stinkers are un-democratic, while true, is much less compelling in light of these other decisions. Many of the decisions I support were also made without regard to popular opinion. Indeed, they were expressly in opposition to the majority opinion at least in selected states, and maybe in the country as a whole. And that is the essence of judicial review—it stands over the majoritarian aspects of our government.

Given that judicial review can have good or bad outcomes, and may at times be explicitly anti-majoritarian, do we want to preserve the possibility for good outcomes at the risk of bad outcomes?

The short answer is “Yes.” It is hard to imagine that the terms of the Constitution get enforced without some form of judicial review. Erwin Chemerinsky compellingly outlines the importance of judicial review. Where, he asks, do people who are not in the majority turn for protection of their Constitutional rights if the majority abuse them? Arguing that something opposes majority opinion is simply not relevant if it falls within the ambit of what the court believes are Constitutional rights.

But only to a point. Having a body that specifically reviews and asks a question about whether laws protect fundamental rights is necessary. But the entire idea of democracy is thwarted if an un-elected court can routinely and protractedly ignore the desires of the majority. Skepticism about the limits of judicial review is also consistent with the underlying belief in checks and balances espoused by the Founding Fathers. Above all, they valued balance. In this case, there is theoretical balance, achieved because a decision by the Supreme Court (or any court) allows the legislative branch to reconsider and, presumably, address the issues raised. Or, if extreme enough, amend the Constitution.

However, the presumption would be that those processes themselves are democratic. Unfortunately, in America, not so much. Both the composition of the Senate—not to mention the self-imposed rules of filibuster—and the incredible difficulty of amending the Constitution make responses to a court decision uncertain. All of which raises the thorny question of when is something democratic? Both the construction of the Senate and the process for amending the Constitution—and the Electoral College–assume that democracy is better measured by a majority of the states than a majority of the national population.

These problems are compounded by the existence of fairly powerful state legislatures. They may pass laws that many may consider unconstitutional. Some of these laws will in fact reflect the majority will of the residents of those states. One of the important roles of the federal court system has been to act as a guardrail from these overreaching legislatures and push individual states to a uniform standard of what rights are accorded to Americans. But this has always been rocky ground because the general construct of American government (embodied in the Tenth Amendment) gives states “reserved power” over anything not expressly “delegated” to the federal government. This problem has gotten even worse as some states are less the “laboratories of democracies” that Justice Brandeis (New State Ice Co. vs Liebmann, 1932) hoped for and more laboratories against democracy.

Given all of the above, while it seems clear that judicial review is a logical necessity, some limits on its power are equally necessary. In reality, it is simply a framework to help a society work through contested issues. At core, its usefulness depends on the political context in which it takes place, enabled or limited by the willingness of the society to take in divergent points of view, make compromises, and expand its thinking. The definition of Constitutional rights is not decided in a vacuum from politics. There is no Platonic truth to which the courts have better access than the rest of us. In the world of mortals, “truths” change with time…and do so unevenly. Politics, in its broadest sense, is how a society decides among competing “truths” in a way that doesn’t destroy it. In theory, judicial review assists in that process.

For that process to work, however, there needs to a sufficient agreement on the underlying values so forbearance and compromises can be exercised. There is no longer such agreement in America, which makes the country ungovernable. In the American governing system, compromise in the face of numerous checks and balances is the only feasible operating strategy. When that is no longer possible, the very mechanisms meant to foster compromise—such as judicial review–are weaponized to prevent compromise and encourage anger. Worse yet, as these mechanisms become fouled, the tools for making constructive changes go with them.

The problem is not the role of the courts. The problem is our politics.

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Addendum: Limit Terms of the Supremes

I don’t think we can solve the issues of the Supreme Court until we restore some sanity to our pollical system.

But there is one change I can think of that might be possible and, over time, would marginally improve the situation—limiting the terms of Supreme Court justices.

This idea has been kicking around for a while now, but it does seem to gaining traction. The actual lengths of service of Supreme Court justices have been getting longer and public respect for the Supreme Court was dropping like a rock, even before the most recent of decisions.

Polls have shown a huge majority (like over 70%) in favor of limiting justices’ terms, drawing strong support from members of both parties. The measure has no obvious partisan bias. The first time I heard the idea was from Rick Perry back when he was running for President.

Representative Ro Khanna (a Democrat from California) has introduced a bill to limit Supreme Court justices’ term to 18 years, with each President getting to appoint a new Justice in the first and third year of their term. Obviously it is isn’t going anywhere this term, but it should be reintroduced in January. If it could be enacted next year, before anyone can realistically imagine the outcome of the 2024 election, there would be no inherent party advantage. I would prefer a 12 year term, but that number is less important than the idea.

The bill as it now stands would temporarily increase the size of the court to accommodate new justices picked by this process, until all the currently sitting justices retired. I suspect that this provision would be an obstacle since Republicans might see this as a short-term court-packing scheme. While in theory this could cut either way, I can’t imagine Republicans being willing to risk the current advantage they hold, and expect to hold for a while. It may be necessary to have some mitigating approach—perhaps using the term-limits only if it is necessary to replace a justice in the first four years, then having the temporary expansion kick-in. In any event, it will take a while to change the composition of the court. But, as often the case, the issue is whether you do nothing in hopes of a better deal later or you take what you can get.

One other thing about this approach—it can probably be done without a Constitutional amendment. If Justices wanted to continue servicing, they would simply rotate off the SCOTUS into somewhere else in the federal judiciary. Of course, the final determination of whether or not it requires a Constitutional amendment would probably reside with the Supreme Court itself. It kind of feels like I fell into an Escher drawing.

Notes from the Big Apple

By Mike Koetting July 19, 2022

Last weekend my wife and I took our 10 year old grandson to New York City. It was a great trip, but it left me without time or motivation to write my usual blog. So I thought I would share some thought snippets from the trip.

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Manhattan is kind of a Disneyland in the real world. (In fact, Manhattan is only half the size of Disney World, though quite a bit larger than the original Disneyland.) It isn’t the artificial world of the Disney enterprises. On the contrary. It is as absolutely real world as you can get. But there were fun things to do from morning till night. And many of them were the originals—the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, the Empire State Building—that have been borrowed countless times for every commercial purpose imaginable to the human mind. I was compelled to teach the grandkid what “iconic” meant.

Continue reading “Notes from the Big Apple”