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.

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Reflections at the Fourth of July

By Mike Koetting July 3, 2022

Well….it’s not a great week to be writing a Fourth of July blog. As has often come through in these posts, I hover between hope for and despair with this country. This week my despair has the upper hand.

One has to remember that democracy is not the default state for societies. Throughout recorded history, some form of authoritarian figure has been far and away the dominant mode. (What happened in un-recorded history is much less clear; there have been some recent writings that suggest a lot of different models were tried.) Authoritarians have been more or less authoritarian from place to place and the degree of tolerance within those regimes likewise varied, but they were the modal form of government. The idea of democracy as we think about it is at best 1000 years old, and more likely only around since the Enlightenment. The explicit terms with which the fledgling United States—at that point not much more than an almost ad-hoc collection of disparate colonies–spelled out a democratic creed really was revolutionary. The echoes still redound.

As we all know, the initial effort was an imperfect effort, blinkered as it was by a self-referencing notion of what it meant to be human. But, even so, the language they used was, and remains, catalytic:

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Imagine the Worst to Protect Ourselves

By Mike Koetting June 21, 2022

Post before last I asked people what they thought we should do about the electoral dilemmas I raised.

On the specific issue, there was virtual unanimity in favor of ending party primaries and using completely open primaries with the top two proceeding to the “final”. Another suggestion, was to end “winner take all” awarding of electoral votes, something I have previously supported. One person suggested it might be easier to get these reforms passed if they had a long lead time so current incumbents wouldn’t feel so threatened.

On the broader issue of how to address the depth of the political division in America, the prevalent attitude was some version of “Hang on….it will get better.”

I can’t rule that out. In fact, I desperately hope it’s correct. But the alternative to that is descent into a Viktor Orban style illiberal quasi-democracy, the kind of place for which Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott are running practice sessions in Florida and Texas right now.

Most of us don’t want to believe it could happen in the rest of the nation. We console ourselves with the notion “Those are crazy states.” But I suspect most of us, if we are honest, know how close we are to this cliff. The combination of voter fear, gerrymandering, voter indifference, voter suppression and the way the electoral college works could lead to a Republican president in 2024 and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. But we just want to assume that somehow this obvious deviation from American practice will right itself, as it has done in the past.

This is a potentially serious failure of imagination. Yes, American democracy has managed to avoid the precipice for at least the last 100 years. And there is an obvious danger in taking every set-back as a sign of imminent disaster. Compromise, therefore democracy, requires some set-backs. But the risk on the other side is that by the time you’re sure the pendulum isn’t swinging back, you’ve waited too long.

George Packer offers a seriously scary article on how our democracy could unravel. It’s scary not because it outlines a lurid, messy civil war or an immediate lurch into a Soviet society. Making those the alternative, he suggests, is actually a defense mechanism. Precisely because they are far-fetched, they allow us to downplay the threat. Rather, the article is scary because in his imagination the decent is much more banal.

He imagines a Republican Electoral College victory in 2024, propelled in part by dodgy practices in a couple swing states. At first there would be protests and civil unrest but eventually those would peter out and the country would lapse into cynicism leading to acquiescence. People would be focused on caring for themselves and staying out of trouble. Those with resources could buy what they need—as abortions are still available to Texans with means—or flee the country. Maybe there would even be some more supports for the less wealthy to dampen unrest. With control of government, and the Supreme Court, the power of these folks would become hard-wired, as Trump unartfully tried to do. America might never become exactly Hungary but we could cease to be America as a beacon of freedom. Or even a place I want to live.

I am not saying these will happen, let alone that they are inevitable. But I am saying that we need to be brutally honest with ourselves. If we simply dismiss the possibility of a Trumplican take over, we make it easier to happen.

What to Do?

I suspect one of the reasons most of us want to minimize this possibility is that we don’t know what to do about it. The answer is not obvious. There is no reasoning with a group that has made it clear it is impervious to reason. Structural fixes, such as I proposed in recent blogs, aren’t going to arrive in time.

At present, the anti-Trumplicans are of two different minds. On the one hand, there are those who believe what is necessary is to disavow slogans and positions that are easily characterized as too off the mainstream. (Defunding the police and abolishing ICE are poster cases.) On the other hand are those who believe that we need to double-down on core values and bet that through turn-out we can generate a majority. Unfortunately, as near as I can see, neither by itself is a winning strategy. And pursuing both simultaneously is a really difficult proposition, even before accounting for the difficult circumstances of pandemic fall-out and the Ukrainian mess.

Still, we must try.

As Michael Luttig said in his statement to the January 6 committee, “The former president and his party are today a clear and present danger for American democracy.” And while this is a sentiment many of us share, it is particularly important coming from a person with such impeccable conservative Republican credentials.

Neverthless, I worry that unless we get all the people who share progressive agendas to turn out—whatever their misgivings—and enough of the people who are rattled by the obviously authoritarian tilt of the Trumplicans, the Trumplicans could take over the country.

Here’s a very modest set of thoughts that could help thread the needle:

Hammer on economic issues. As I argued in the last blog, there are a very large number of Americans concerned about economic issues. I suspect the most salient economic issue, inflation, cannot be easily solved. Nor can the most important—rampant inequality and environmental threats. We need to continue working on real solutions to these. In the meantime, however, we can focus on how corporations are treating the rest of America and continually force Republicans to vote against measures that would provide economic relief and/or reign in the reach of large corporations. The proposals have to be sufficiently modest that they can easily be accommodated within the logic of “mainstream” sentiment. But there is more mainstream sentiment for increased government guardrails than is often assumed.

Focus on Republican unacceptability. The majority of Americans support abortion, gun control, increasing taxes on the 1%, sensible immigration policies, racial justice, toleration of gays and better environment protections. Republicans, in thrall to the minority that controls their party, have positions on these that are odds with the American people. While it is true that the willingness of most people to let these issues override other instincts in voting is suspect, the accumulation of these issues will start to make a difference. Moreover, the palpable ridiculousness of the “Big Lie” will sooner or later start to weigh on those whose attachment to the Trumplicans is more circumstantial than fundamental. (Which is, of course, why Republicans are so anxious to “get beyond it.”) Finally, it’s clear that untrammeled, the Trumplicans are perfectly willing to fundamentally undo the country. The recently-adopted platform of the Texas GOP included an eye-ball popping list of demands to remake the country into something very different from the one we live in today—including a willingness to let Texas “reassert its status as an independent nation.” These are steps much too far for most people. But for that to change votes, the Democratic options can’t seem “scary”.

Manage the rhetoric around wedge issues. We need to remember the majority of Americans also favor limits on abortion, wouldn’t go too far on gun control, worry about too much immigration, don’t want to feel guilty about racial problems, and are wary of too sudden shifts to protect the environment. In short, they are centrists. It is inevitable that some will make statements that are too extreme for the mainstream. And it is equally inevitable that the other side will try to make political hay. (Indeed, I just suggested this is part of what Democrats need to do.) The only thing to do is to acknowledge the reasons for the rhetoric without becoming trapped in it. The dynamic of social change is complicated. Change needs people who push the edges. At the time, most people considered abolitionists, suffragettes, even Martin Luther King too extreme. But Democrats need to be sufficiently disciplined to stick close enough to the center. In truth, Joe Biden has modeled a pretty good approach. People with more progressive agendas may disparage this, but hopefully they can be encouraged to realize that whatever their disagreements with the mainstream, they will be much worse served if the Trumplicans are in charge. And, critically, recognize that their not voting is the key to Trumplican victory.

Uphold Election Integrity. Erecting obstacles to voting and to correctly counting the results is part of the Trumplican plan for minority rule of the country. We need to focus on protecting election integrity in key swing states, a la Stacey Abrams and company. This will not be accomplished by screaming about the outrages, however outrageous they in fact are. What must be done is to organize to win under whatever rules are in place—and then fix the rules. Democrats also need to stop worrying about how progressive are the candidates they elect and focus on electing Democrats in swing states. The American system gives undue weight to wins within States. Sixteen “purer blue” candidates in California aren’t going to make a bit of difference.

None of the above are new or radical. I don’t know if they are enough. But I believe they are plausible approaches to preventing the installation of a government that would get Tucker Carlson’s approval.

Is It Possible to Regulate Corporations in America?

By Mike Koetting June 7, 2022

I am fascinated how in the current political landscape the culture wars have obscured almost everything else, including economic issues, which in most times are one of the major functions of a national government.

The Most Fundamental Issue

The New Deal is justly known for its structural innovations—Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the WPA, the FDIC, the SEC, recognition of unions, and so forth. But more important than any of these specifics was the underlying assertion of a governing ideology that raw economic power could not be left to itself, but must be tempered by, sometimes subordinated to, fairness, justice and equity.

Ronald Reagan worshipped at a different alter. He fully embraced the neo-liberal belief, popularized by Milton Friedman, that government should just get out of the way of individual enterprise. In this view of the world, “efficiency” was the sole criterion. Parallel, the neo-liberals argued that the only duty of a corporation was to make profit for shareholders.

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In the Doom Loop

By Mike Koetting May 23, 2022

The problem with linked essays when you post the first before you have written the second is that you may find you have jumped—with no place to land.

That seems to have happened to me.

In my last post, I argued that the compromise-required architecture of our governing system when combined with the two-party, winner-take-all nature of our political structure has led to hyper-partisanship and a subsequent democratic gridlock.

At the end of that post, I suggested today’s post would address what to do about it. Unfortunately, on reflection, the things I had in mind seem completely out of reach.

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