Enough Short-Sightedness to Go Around

From a blog-standpoint, the weather-related debacle in Texas offers as much low hanging fruit as a frozen grapefruit orchard.

But I want to address what I see as the ultimately underlying problem—democracy. Okay, That’s a solution as well as a problem but we better start off with an honest assessment of the problem. People like low energy bills. They really like them in Texas where temperatures and humidity make for extremely uncomfortable summers. (Baseball great Stan Musial described his time in the Texas minor league as playing in three seasons–summer, July and August.)

Texas politicians recognize that. So they give the voters low energy bills. While comparing energy costs across different circumstances has pitfalls, one estimate is that Texas per unit energy costs to consumers are about 50% lower than the rest of the country. Which is a very good thing if you are going to use a lot of energy.

But why? Some of that is an accident of location: because Texas is such an energy rich state, they don’t have to spend as much on transportation. But a lot of it is a result of specific choice. As much of the country has learned this week, Texas has gone to some lengths to insulate itself from the kind of Federal oversight that would result from being in one of the two major interstate systems that are the basis of the electricity grid for the rest of the country. Texas has used that freedom, among other things, to establish a very market-driven system for acquisition of electricity at the consumer level. The result has been wild-west market competition in driving down the cost of electricity. Which voters appreciate.

Of course, one of the ways of driving down costs is to avoid costs that are not absolutely necessary. Or, to put it more starkly, to take risks, since the determination of what expenditures are “necessary” is in reality a judgement about the likely consequences of not making a particular expenditure. If winterizing production systems adds cost, a business will estimate how likely certain winter conditions are and make expenditures accordingly. Obviously, what has happened in Texas is that electricity providers concluded that really low temperatures were such a low risk that they need not protect against them. This may not be an unreasonable bet. But it is a bet.

With hindsight, it is apparent that the downside on this bet were steep, in both human and economic terms. But consider the actual business dynamic of an individual producer that led to making this bet: other firms were doing it. In a price-sensitive market, there is always a tendency toward the bottom. In some markets (e.g. automobiles or food) it is relatively easy to differentiate on quality, real or perceived. It is much more difficult to do so on something like electricity where multiple producers are feeding into a larger system that is then re-packaging and distributing through a common system.

While it may be technically possible to design electricity packages that provide extra insurance in case of unusual weather, the practical constraints of doing so are so significant that it is hard to imagine. Thus, even if some folks wanted to purchase this kind of package, they would not be able to do so. (I suppose the freedom to fly off to Cancun on short notice is protection of a sort, but no need to dwell on that.)

Societies often attempt to bound the risks that can be created by the market through government regulation. The wisdom of this seems obvious when faced with the kind of situation we have seen in Texas this week. On the other hand, it is pretty easy to imagine the hoots of derision that would have arisen had a Texas “bureaucrat”—it has to be in quotes to indicate the full pejorative use of the term—were to require that utilities prepare for Siberian conditions. And, in fact, even in full hindsight, there may be people who think the cost savings over many years is worth the horrible week.

Rick Perry’s comments about Texans’ preference for cold over Federal oversight, while depressing from a former Secretary of Energy, do highlight the fact that whatever course of action is pursued, it is a communal political choice. For better and for worse, people tend to make most of their decisions with a relatively narrow time horizon. While for the next few months there will be great enthusiasm for building more weather protection into Texas utilities (as there was in 1989 and 2011 after previous freezes), I’m guessing it will melt like a snowball under the Texas sun before any legislation hits the floor. People want cheap utilities. And the immediate concern of paying more for utilities is likely to overwhelm memories of the past winter, let alone more abstract considerations about risk corridors and the likely impact of global climate change on weather patterns.

So is Texas condemned to repeat what happened last week? Probably. Is there a way out? Sure. But it is not likely to be taken until politicians face up to what is required of leadership in this day and age, which is to deal less in political slogans and more in honest presentations of risk, costs and benefits. You can see why I would be pessimistic.

A more honest assessment of policy options requires things that are in short political supply—accepting the best knowledge available, recognizing the uncertainty nevertheless associated with that knowledge, acknowledging the role of chance and reflecting the fact that there is enormous connectedness among issues. The latter seems particularly hard for people to embrace, in part, I suspect, because once you start down that road, it is hard to know where to get off. If Texans are worried about the implications of being part of a national power grid, it is going to be very hard to get them to acknowledge that what happens in the Amazon rain forest will affect the degree to which Texas needs to winterize its utility production.

And beyond that is dealing with the illusion that any limitation on personal freedom is illegitimate. I gather this has always been a problem for America, but the last year has made it clear that we are going to suffer as a society if people don’t get over this attitude. No telling how many Covid deaths resulted from people being unwilling to give up some of their personal freedom, but the number is material. The issue of utilities in Texas will be the same, but it will be expressed in consumer unwillingness to accept the idea that putting limits on the market will, on longer-run balance, improve the quality of life.

In some respects, this is the fundamental question facing America. Are we willing to limit personal freedom as a bet on a better common future? Markets don’t have any way of acting like that. They operate on their own laws and firms will inevitably lower costs if that improves market position, even if that entails greater risk to individuals. Risk, to individuals or to the larger society, is simply not their problem.

But democracy can be different. It can be, should be, the mechanism for balancing personal freedom and risk against common good. While theoretically any form of government could do that, it is only democracy that openly embraces that tension and asks the governed how to strike those balances. If people work openly and thoughtfully with these tensions, we presumably get better results. And that will often include recognizing that we need to accept the best knowledge available, even knowing that will sometimes be wrong. It must also recognize that there will be costs associated with reducing risk, although over a long-enough term they may even out.

If we fail to take our responsibilities seriously, we wind up creating a tyranny that is different in some respects from the tyranny of the market, but not so much so in the final outcome. Regardless of the exact reasons that could result in Texas not investing more in winterizing their utilities, if they don’t, people will be just as cold come the next deep freeze.

Rules Work….Mostly

By Mike Koetting February 7, 2021

The pandemic has a way of putting a spotlight on things that otherwise are sufficiently in the background that we don’t have occasion to think about them.

Given the recent accounts of various entities trying to create operational rules for distributing vaccines, I started thinking about the nature of rules themselves. Not exactly the question of how to distribute vaccines—although that is of course interesting—but more the underlying nature of rules. I was struck by the fact that whatever the choice, it would be imperfect. Not just because there are arguments for alternative choices. There is also the reality that the very nature of making rules for vaccine distribution will no doubt create some individual situations that, from other perspectives, seem patently nuts.

By itself, this is hardly a newsflash. Any of us who has been in a position of authority knows that whenever there are rules, at some point we will wind up in a situation where enforcement of the rule seems petty or artificial. Even as parents, we issue edicts that sometimes come back to us in unforeseen ways that put us in awkward corners.

But as a society we often lose sight of how the ubiquity of this problem affects government and policymaking. I’ll bet every one of us has, at one time or another, listened to the account of some government action and rolled our eyes at how arbitrarily stupid it seemed. To be sure, sometimes it was. But sometimes, perhaps often, it was simply the consequence of picking a policy and enforcing it. As an administrator of Medicaid, there was more than one occasion when enforcement of a policy that I knew to be the right policy forced me to grit my teeth because it was leading to an unfortunate outcome in some individual case.

California, for instance, has adopted a very strict approach to dispensing Covid vaccines. A friend there couldn’t register to get the vaccine because she isn’t quite 75 years old–even though her husband had just been discharged from the hospital and was at high risk. When drilled down to the specific, I’m not sure this makes sense.  Nevertheless, I am very sympathetic to the state officials who needed to make some rules. And whether the line was drawn at 75 or 65 or 53 and two months, problem situations will arise at the margin. It is the inherent nature of rules.

Some people argue that problems result from federal government overreach. Nope. Problem is exactly the same when the policy making is delegated to the states. (All the specific vaccine rules are up to the states and I have yet to hear anything but complaints about either the way this or that state is doing it or the difficulty about how to make sense of the overall situation when different states have different rules.) Same for cities. The fundamental problem is not the locus of the rule-making. It is simply that rules can’t anticipate all situations.

On the other hand, life in a society without rules descends into chaos. As ugly as the vaccination process might seem, imagine what it would be like if available doses were offered on a first—come, first-serve basis. Moreover, as a society we believe–correctly in my opinion—that we can do better than chance by setting priorities and using those to guide our rule making.  If older people are at greater risk, it makes sense to use scarce doses to vaccinate them, even though that means others have to wait.

Rules also serve to instill trust in the society. If society follows democratically established rules, there is lower likelihood that people with less power or less wealth will get pushed aside. In a large, dense society, daily life depends on enough social cohesion for people to believe it is not war of all against all. The existence of fair rules is an essential element to convince everyone there is a place for them in the tent.

Of course, this does not always work smoothly.

  • Choices about priorities will seem to some to conflict with generating social cohesion. An obvious pandemic example is a decision to prioritize vaccine distributions to areas with high minority populations because of the much higher fatality rates in those areas. Non-minority members may see that decision as an attack on social cohesion.
  • Some people simply don’t want to be bound by anyone else’s rules, certainly not an impersonal government entity. This has always been a problem in America, but in recent years it has been exacerbated by groups who have characterized any limitation of personal freedom as illegitimate government action. This has obviously contributed to the sense of social disorder now plaguing the country.

Addressing these issues is essential to maintaining our rule of law. Recent “rule of law” discussions have focused on the big issues, like respecting elections. But the cracks in our society start when people lose confidence in the little ones, the everyday policies that we don’t think about until they impact us in an adverse way. Once people convince themselves that those rules are illegitimate, they become more likely to see other rules as illegitimate.

There are no easy ways to grow trust that rules, despite their inherently difficult border lines, are on balance beneficial. Several things seem essential.

Communication. This has to happen both at the macro and micro levels. With regard to specific rules, there needs to be communication about how the policies got set, what trade-offs were considered, and why specific choices were made. Most federal and state rule-making processes do a reasonable job of outlining these considerations, But it is unlikely that the specific thinking about most policies is going to trickle down to the people who are impacted by them, nor are they usually in any mood to hear it if they feel adversely impacted. That is why there needs to be some kind of fundamental education about the nature of rules. It may be just as essential to learn this as part of civics education as to learn how the formal structure of government is supposed to work.

It may also be the case that to the extent there has been broad involvement in the setting of specific policies, the more likely the policy itself and the discussion around it will be accepted. While this is not practical for every policy, policy-makers have a responsibility to find ways to get policy feedback outside the narrow, prescribed channels and pay attention to that feedback. Along those lines, it is necessary to hunt out and eliminate rules that are, accidentally or by design, discriminatory. Of course, this is complicated because not all groups have the same idea of what is “right”—but that is exactly why two-way communication is so important.

Competence. Painfully obvious. But it still bears repeating. Policies that are not well administered exacerbate every conceptual problem and destroy trust in the rules themselves. Sometimes this is due to low competence levels among government employees, but it is often the case that legislative bodies lose sight of what it takes to effectively implement a policy, not giving enough time, enough resources, or ability to do the longer-term planning that turns out to be essential when the inevitable unexpected arrives. (If a state hasn’t invested in keeping its state Unemployment Insurance computers up to date, it may be difficult for that state to appear to be following the policy fairly—or at all—when swamped by a pandemic.)

Enforcement. Effective rule-making requires impartial enforcement. The point of the rule is undercut if it is not enforced. But enforcement creates a whole set of dilemmas similar to the inherent problem of rule-making. In Michigan there are a material number of restaurants openly flouting Covid rules. Shutting them down might make sense—but how much disruption should the authorities stomach to enforce? In Georgia, one hospital ignored state vaccine distribution guidelines and vaccinated school workers first. The state responded by suspending that hospitals’ vaccine distribution for the next six months. I don’t know if that was an appropriate response. But I do know, in the absence of any response, it would be hard to maintain consistency in the state’s distribution of vaccine.

The pandemic has heightened a long-standing series of questions about what to expect from government. My hope is that, while we understand how badly some government has performed, we also develop some appreciation of how really difficult it is to have effective, democratic government. And how much it requires a generosity of spirit from its citizens about its inherent difficulties.

The Impeachment Trial

By Mike Koetting January 24, 2021

This has been a hard blog to actually get posted. It is the fourth one I have started in the new year. Reality has simply moved too fast. It is also the case that some things on my mind were well stated by others. Two articles of particular merit are Timothy Synder’s piece in the New York Times and Dahleen Glanton’s column in the Chicago Tribune, which was like she had bugged my brain. While these are both behind paywalls, I suspect those of you who want to chase them down will find a way.

But today I want to reflect on one particular fallout from the craziness at the Capitol—the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. I am not sure this is a good idea.

This is certainly not a question of whether Donald Trump should be convicted of trying to subvert the Constitution. It is beyond question. Take it from no less an authority than Mitch McConnell:

The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.

If this is not a reason for convicting a president in an impeachment trial and for barring him from subsequent offices, it is hard to describe what is. A president has no more fundamental duty than to protect the institutions of democracy, a job that Donald Trump routinely flouted as it suited his own purposes. The end of his presidency only made more clear what was already obvious: the man is a menace to society, much worse than useless.

That being said, what concerns me is the question of whether the benefits of actually conducting the trial in the Senate are sufficient for the downside. I wonder whether the country would be better off if Speaker Pelosi were to simply sit on the impeachment charge and postponed an actual trial in the Senate indefinitely, although it appears that train has already left the station.

Barring some stunning developments—and it would be foolish to rule them out given the depths of Trump’s mendacity—there is a very low likelihood of 17 Republican senators actually voting to convict. So why have the trial?

There is certainly the argument that what he did should result in impeachment and failure to take that action would in some sense be a capitulation to the same cynical cowardness that has affected Republicans in failing to act against Trump’s anti-democratic shenanigans all along. Moreover, an impeachment trial would create another opportunity to highlight Trump’s improprieties, although it’s hard to imagine many people in the country who haven’t already made up their mind.

Still, even if there are not sufficient votes for a conviction, a trial would probably find at least some Republicans speaking out in support of conviction. That might chip away at the spell that has fallen over Republicans and jar a few souls loose from previous positions. We’re not talking about a lot of people, but there is never going to be a moment of universal conversion. Progress toward national unity will always be a slow rebuilding process, a few folks at a time. Maybe three or four more Republicans willing to call out Trump for what he is would start to set the stage for a Republican reconsideration of their party.

It would also force Republican senators to go on record as to whether they are willing to ignore democratic institutions. That might have implications for the 2024 national election and there may also be a few states where it makes a difference in senatorial races. Remember, senators face a different political landscape since they have to run state-wide as opposed to running gerrymandered districts that promote Republican fealty. Cory Gardner is from the same state as Lauren Boebert.

On the other hand, I see substantial downsides to an impeachment trial. I would characterize my concerns less as worrying about deepening the divide in our country—it is already plenty deep—and more about obstructing efforts to bridge the divide.

I am well beyond hoping for a mass conversion. The divide is too deep and I am not expecting a vaccine. But, as Will Rodgers said, “If you want to get out of a hole, stop digging.” President Biden clearly embraces this position, but pursuing the impeachment trial puts him in a bit of a box. He obviously can’t ignore the depths of Trump’s anti-democratic actions. But he may well have my questions as to what good comes from it. An impeachment trial presents some obvious problems for his agenda.

The first is simply a result of the fact that Congress can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. (Hell, of recent it has not been clear they can do either.) An impeachment trial will no doubt get in the way of addressing the nuts-and-bolts needs of getting the Biden administration started, most obviously confirming a cabinet.

But more importantly in my mind is that it will be a major distraction from pursuing the real essence of the Biden agenda. As I have argued before, I believe that at an ideological level the current divide is so calcified that the only way to attack it is by enacting policies that benefit the American people in ways tangible enough that they will take their foot off the ideological gas. I can imagine a series of targeted policy issues that might be sufficient to either attract enough bi-partisan support to get passed or create real problems for those Republicans who blocked them. I think the policies being pursued by Biden fill this bill. Unfortunately, my opinion of Republicans is so low, I can also imagine them attacking those proposals precisely because they understand their strategic import. And I suspect that the existence of an ongoing impeachment trial would make them much more comfortable in blocking those proposals

We have already heard the mantra: “The Democrats talk about unity in the morning when they want to create even more expenses, but in the afternoon they are trying to score political points by conducting an irrelevant attack on a president who is no longer in office.” In truth, my cynicism level is so high, I even wonder if McConnell’s statements about Trump’s impeachable offenses are a trap to lure Democrats into a swamp of an impeachment trial they cannot win. He has never said he would vote for impeachment.

It also seems to me there is something of a lost opportunity here. If there is very little chance of a vote to convict, giving up the idea in an ostentatious declaration of a desire for national unity might win more hearts than a nasty, but futile debate about impeaching a president no longer in office. Not, of course, in the media—whose incentives are more to having a gladiatorial contest that excites partisans on both sides. Another reason to wonder about the wisdom of actually conducting the trial.

My opinions notwithstanding—shocking how little attention the seats of power pay to me–it appears that the House Democrats will forward the articles of impeachment to the Senate, may have already done it by the time you read this. I assume this will put in motion the Rube Goldberg mechanisms of impeachment. Schumer and McConnell seemed to have worked out a calendar that will postpone the actual trial for a couple of weeks. Not doing so would be worse, but having the sword hang over everything isn’t a great situation either. It will certainly occupy a lot of media space and give Republicans an opportunity to cast aspersions on other expressions of unity.

So, I guess, there isn’t much to do but buckle up our seat-belts and see where this takes us. The ride will, no doubt, be bumpy.

Is There a Bigger Policy Issue than Jobs?

By Mike Koetting December 21, 2020

Today’s post had two inspirations—the “In the Weeds” podcast interview of economist Karl Smith and a YouTube video of a discussion between Van Jones and S.E. Culp hosted by David Axelrod at the University of Chicago Institute for Politics. The first was done just after the recent election and the latter is from early 2017.

In both discussions the issue of jobs was front and center. This isn’t surprising. In the broader human vista, how people work not only defines “the economy” but it defines the nature of the entire society. While it is possible to think about “non-work” activities in a society, we all realize that the economic realm so heavily dictates the terms of the rest of life that the difference is reflective rather than fundamental. What seems to be most fundamental is having—or not having—a job.

This is why discussions about “the economy” quickly become discussions about jobs. Jobs are deemed crucial because, in an instrumental sense, a job is a gateway to the sharing of society’s resources. But that’s tied to an overwhelming moral element. A job is how we decide who is contributing and who’s a slacker, who’s worthy and who isn’t. At some primordial level we still believe that doing the work of society is the most important part of participating in that society.

Thus, the more employment the better. While there are problems with this approach, at least for now, it is the centerpiece of economic, political and social thought. Moreover, whereas the idea is so fundamental and so wide-spread, it is a plausible place to look for common ground among the American people. The vast majority of everybody thinks more employment is a good thing. One of the substantive things Republicans liked most about Trump is that, prior to Covid, he stoked the economy to the lowest level of unemployment in 50 years, including the highest labor force participation rates in 15 years. Wages were even starting to grow. Caveats notwithstanding, this is something on the plus side of the ledger. Democrats need to think about how to replicate this success.

Biden’s team is oriented in this direction. Yellen, a labor economist by background, has always favored erring on the side of jobs versus inflation, and, presumably, deficits. Biden’s promises of focusing on creating jobs in and for Americans also sounds a chord that people can rally around. Covid both makes the job of creating jobs more formidable, but makes the need so great that it will be hard to resist the need to do something. As Jerome Powell, Chair of the Fed, observed: “We’re going to need to continue to provide support to this economy for quite a period of time.”

But is “doing something” a sufficient prescription? There are plenty of reasons to suspect just creating jobs is not in itself enough, but that we also need to think about what kind of jobs.

Historically, America has been content to leave the question of what jobs we want up to “the market”–specifically, to assume that left to their own devices, private industries will create the jobs where they make the most the sense. There are plenty of reasons to criticize some of the results of this approach. But it would be foolish to ignore the historic reality for America. Jobs got created, the overall wealth of the country increased, and the standard of living for just about everyone improved. This growth was not equally distributed and there were occasional dislocations with attendant pain for those caught up in them. But other demands rose and full-employment remained a goal, elusive perhaps, but not something beyond imagination. The country seemed prosperous, to itself and to the rest of the world.

Does this model still work? We shouldn’t rule it out cavalierly. Capitalism has been remarkably creative in its ability to create jobs. In the period immediately before Covid, jobs were being created at a rate that seemed to overcome what conventional economists were thinking of as structural limitations. So maybe the best thing, as Karl Smith advocates, is to simply throw all the macroeconomics tools into the fray and assume that will give us the best answer.

On the other hand, the magnitude of change in the world over the last 30 years has been so staggering, maybe now is a time to reflect. The fact that Malthus was wrong two hundred years ago, doesn’t give laissez-faire capitalism a free pass for all time. Incredible advances in computing and AI have eaten millions of middle level jobs and threaten millions more. A world-wide, interconnected economy has dramatically changed the labor market, adding 3 billion people who are seeking admission into the labor markets of advanced economies, a pursuit fueled by global communication networks that make the differences between their lives and lives in advanced economies abundantly clear. At the same time, increasing environmental concerns, particularly in advanced counties, create the immediate possibility that some economic activity is too dangerous to countenance.

Maybe these do not create as big a break from the past as it seems to me; it is easy to overweight things happening in the present.  But they should raise enough questions to use this opportunity to hedge our bets about the future and focus not just on jobs, but on jobs and systems of jobs that are more likely to be long term sustainable even in the face of technological expansion and growing environmental threats.

Unfortunately, we all know that once there are specific proposals about creating jobs, it will trigger partisan warfare. While virtually everyone supports the idea of creating more jobs, it is all too easy to imagine that any real-world proposal will encounter innumerable obstacles, particularly if it is explicit about where to create those jobs.

One could anticipate the likely points of contention and analyze them as if there were going to be a substantive discussion. But that seems unlikely. In fact, the fundamental reason for the obvious disconnect between a society-wide demand for more jobs and the presumed partisan warfare is that policy discussions must be routed through an existing party structure that is too brittle to accommodate what the country needs. Most members of Congress fear their own party’s local orthodoxy more than the other party. Consequently, they see their political survival more on the basis of the compromises they resist than the compromises they make. And to justify the compromise they don’t make. they have to thoroughly demonize the other party’s proposals instead of trying to find common ground.

All this removes many political discussions from the more fundamental issues facing our society. As Van Jones said: “Right now there is no politics that even allows you to have the right conversations.”

Somehow, we need to create space for those conversations. That is more important than any specific policy issue. Important as it is, such a complicated and nuanced discussion is unlikely to emerge because it’s not in any party’s interest to try to pick its way through this minefield. Thus, I am reduced to hoping that trying to find compromises around specific policies might open the door to such conversations. Jobs are a particularly fertile arena for such a discussion. The need is so undeniably pressing and, bottom line, there is great support for creating more jobs. For better and for worse, our society has made jobs the gateway to being a full-fledged member of society. In the absence of a different gateway, society has a moral obligation to think about this in an open and constructive way.

Whether people can get by their objections to this or that proposal and actually facilitate the creation (or maintenance) of jobs will depend on enough Congresspeople taking the principled position that the goal is to do what the county needs rather than extract partisan advantage. Maybe that’s unlikely, even impossible. But two weeks ago the Problem Solver Caucus resurrected the stimulus talks that would have been dead if it had been left up to party leaders. Maybe they could work some magic here. Who knows? Maybe it’s habit forming.

Healthcare Realities Trump Rhetoric

Maybe There Are Other Opportunities

By Mike Koetting December 2, 2020

The bitter fight over the ACA was never a fight about healthcare policy. The healthcare plan that Obama proposed was based on the plan developed by the American Heritage Foundation for Bob Dole to offer as the Republican alternative to the Clinton plan. It was actually implemented by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts and universally considered a success. The issue was alwayswhether the Republicans were going to let the Democrats implement it.

An excerpt from Barack Obama’s new book that describes trying to get one Republican vote for the ACA is instructive. Senator Grassley of Iowa came to the Oval Office with a list of five reasons that he had problem with the bill.

“If we took every one of your latest suggestions would you support the bill?”

“Well…”

“Are there any changes–any at all–that would get us your vote?”

There was an awkward silence before Grassley looked up and met my gaze. “I guess not, Mr. President.”

Republican opposition to the bill was purely political. The uninsured rate was more than 16%, one out of every six people in the nation, but not a single Republican senator voted for a bill that was an explicitly Republican designed bill. And they whipped up cultural hysteria against the bill to justify their opposition. Does anyone think it was an accident that opposition to the ACA was concentrated in the Confederate states? There is plenty of evidence—anecdotal and empirical—that racism was a material factor in refusing to expand Medicaid and undermining support of the Marketplace exchanges.

But a funny thing happened. The ACA won anyway.

The ACA had three components:

  • Expanding Medicaid
  • Creating a subsidized private insurance market
  • Regulations governing all private insurance

All three are now firmly established as part of the American healthcare system. And uninsurance has been cut in half with none of the threatened adverse consequences.

At this point, only 12 states have not expanded Medicaid—eight having expanded in the last four years, six of them by ballot initiatives. Moreover, there is good evidence that Texas, Georgia and Florida are all in various degrees of discussion about expanding as well.

The subsidized private insurance market, despite a rocky start, has stabilized, even in the face of a barrage of sabotage attempts by Republicans.  More insurance companies are offering plans, premiums are stable or down, and enrollment has remained consistent. While important improvements are clearly possible, there is no evidence of these plans withering way;

The regulations of the private insurance market are likewise now largely taken as settled. No politician of any political party is suggesting taking away the ban on discrimination by pre-existing condition or the idea that children can stay on the family plan until age 26. The idea of “essential coverage”—that insurance plans must be relatively comprehensive—continues to be attacked rhetorically, but when Republican created alternative plans in the last several years, take-up was minimal, presumably because people recognize that non-comprehensive coverage is no bargain.

I don’t believe this signals any great change in people’s overall attitudes. Likewise, I don’t believe there is a realistic strategy for reshaping partisan divides based on the pursuit of any set of policy choices—tweaks or revolutionary. The problem is people don’t see their politics as a collection of policies. Their politics are, rather, something more fundamental–a complicated, interlocking collections of ideas, fears and concerns that create much more stable psychic frameworks than mere policies. These world-views control how they how vote much more strongly than any policy. Indeed, the causal influence runs in the opposite direction: the policies they support are a function of their overall worldview. And when one policy breaks through because it obviously “works”, it is dismissed as an aberration. Thus, despite the objective acceptance of the provisions of the ACA, Trump carried five of the six states that expanded Medicaid with ballot initiatives. This exhibit of mental gymnastics illustrates the disconnect between policies and partisan framework.

But I still believe the overall story of the ACA suggests some grounds for hope—slim to be sure—but better than anything else I can think of. When policies can be put in place that do work and people accept them, it creates a tiny bit of psychic space for other ideas that, over time, could reshape the larger political views. An article in The American Prospect quotes John Paul Lederach talking about cultural reconciliation:

Polarization is the first killer of curiosity. When people live in closed systems, they are secure in the knowledge of who their enemy is.

It’s not unreasonable to believe that if we could get more policy agreements, it would make people’s political systems less closed. Not that it is quick. It’s more like a slow leak in your attic. Each few drops create another force and over time the ceiling starts to sag and rearrange. Small policy changes are like that. Slowly, very slowly at first, they start to rearrange the underlying policy framework. Then, with luck, in a big rush of conversion as it becomes too difficult to integrate the “exceptions” into the existing political framework. In the article referenced above, Robert Kuttner says: “To say that this is a long-term project is the mother of understatements.”

What are some other areas where there might be agreements around specific policies while conceding the low probability of ending open partisan warfare? I can think of two that might be ripe—COVID relief and infrastructure spending. College debt might be another.

How these, or any other specifics, actually play out in the short term will depend significantly on how Senate Republicans behave. Regardless of how Georgia turns out, Democratic options for dramatic change will be limited. Republicans will have many opportunities to block many things Biden would want to do, and some incentive to do so given the current dynamics of their own party.

On the other hand, in recent times, the Republican constituency has been remarkably undemanding of its Congressional representatives—apparently settling for little beyond conservative judges and blocking anything Democrats want to do. Will this constituency continue to be this undemanding, or will it occur to them that there are things government can and should be doing for them? The actual promises of the Trump candidacy, not to say what he delivered, suggest such an appetite among many would-be Republican voters. The successes of the Medicaid expansion ballot initiatives suggest the same thing.  I am not ready to make a big bet on this, but the three issues above are issues on which by any measure there is a deep consensus that we must do something. At some point the demands for help may well force some action.

More generally, I think that engaging current Trump voters with curiosity and respect and changing the framework for discussion by doing a better of job of meeting real economic needs can change the country over time. After all, at least for me, the point is not necessarily to create a Democratic future, but to do a better a job of creating a society in which every citizen can fulfill her or his potential and can see her or his place in the broader world. At the moment, a huge obstacle to that project is the loss of faith that any institution, certainly not government, can meaningfully contribute in a world where the overwhelming sentiment is that we are very much on our own.

Individual policy changes, like the shift in healthcare provision, are nowhere close to sufficient to change society. But I don’t think big structural changes are in the cards right now. So we need to focus on changes we can make that push us in a sustainable direction. Each one of those becomes another dollop of water in the attic of people’s minds–gradually rearranging the building.

Off the Ledge….For Now

By Mike Koetting November 16, 2020

It was a weirder week than usual in my brain.

On the one hand, there was the absolute relief of Bidden winning the election. That was a very happy moment.

But, at the same time, it was necessary to deal with the fact that more people voted for Donald Trump this time than last time.

This did more than confound my imagination. It brought me to near emotional paralysis. I had expected to see a measurable decline in support. I needn’t reiterate all the things he did wrong or all the people who thought he was a menace to democracy. Never in my life has there been such an array of the other party’s officials—including many who actually worked in his administration—warning against their candidate’s re-election. Or a president whose brazen incompetence caused so much tangible damage. But it didn’t seem to make much difference.

Even before the onslaught of Trump’s hallucinatory complaints about the election, and the shocking unwillingness of Republic leaders to clarify the status of the emperor’s clothing, I was sunk into depression. It is incontrovertible that the county is split in two.

This is not simply a lament about the political stalemate. The election forced me to face that half the country lives in a different reality. Not—has a different of view of reality—but a different reality. These are words that we have all tossed around in recent months. But when I tried to confront the practical implications of what that means in the context of real election results, I was destabilized. It was much more than the messiness of the moment. It was a profound intellectual and emotional concern for the future of American democracy. All I could see was a country split between two intractable groups, like Moslems and Hindus in India who would rather divide the country than live together. There is no talking to the other. If this were a marriage, the only sensible course would be to call the divorce lawyers.

Faced with that, I came within a hair’s breadth of walking away from this blog. I started this blog to offer a liberal perspective that acknowledged the lack of easy answers and admitted that reaching the right policy would require careful navigation among difficult options and multitudes of complexities, between hell and high water. But I was starting to feel, instead, that between hell and water was being trapped between raging wildfires and rising hurricane waters, And no way out.

It was impossible for me to see how we address any of the critical issues facing the country—or the species—given the divide and the inherent conservative bias of American institutions. It seemed pointless to opine on policy options when I didn’t think there was any practical way they could be entertained. And I couldn’t see the point of writing a blog to argue that there is no way out. That’s a lose-lose proposition. The best I could hope for is that I was abjectly wrong. So why bother?

It may well turn out that my premonition there is no way out is correct. The obstacles are formidable, more formidable than is any fun to consider. What pulled me back from the ledge was an article in the Washington Post by Juliet Eilperin and Annie Linskey that listed a bunch of environmental steps not requiring Congressional approval that Biden could do. These aren’t enough to change the tide of environmental degradation, but they could be meaningful.

They would accomplish two other things. First, they would change the tone. Much of the energy for environmental justice comes from young people, who will inherit the mess we are leaving. Creating breathing room for them will be crucial, even if it just inspires them to demand more. Second, it may well create more political openings for some progress. Setting aside certain stridently doctrinaire corporations, what business wants even more than lack of regulation is consistency of regulation. Let them know the rules and they’ll figure out how to deal. The whip-sawing every time the electoral margin shifts by a few percentage points creates a terrible business climate. Strategically applied pressure from a Biden administration could lead corporations to lobby for sufficient bi-partisan agreements to change law, rather than leaving them exposed to the oscillating vagaries of executive orders. Such laws wouldn’t be everything I want, or indeed think is necessary, but would be a step in the right direction and open the door to further discussion. Simply creating a situation where people felt it necessary to have concrete policy discussions on this critical issue would be a great improvement over the shadow boxing that has passed as debate for the past 20 years.

In a bizarrely similar way, I have come to see Trump’s reaction to the election as having a small silver lining. Don’t get me wrong. I could write a whole blog about why this is terrible for the country—and plenty of people are writing about it. It’s horrible. But, with the new attitude that I’m trying to develop of finding something useful in the garbage dump, it seems to me that these railings—one commenter described them as “King Lear with a five-iron and a Twitter account”—will cause doubts in at least some would-be Trump supporters. I’m not talking about a wholesale defection. The election cured me of any fantasies along those lines. But this is so deranged, and so disconnected from the horrible toll the pandemic is taking on the people, it might chip off a few people. A few people may seem pitiful under the circumstances. But we need to remember Biden won the popular vote by less than 4%.  A percent here, a percent there….and it starts to make a difference. We all have to accept that the unity Biden preaches is going to require a long war of attrition, one tiny gain at a time.

Will these incremental gains be enough to stave off disaster? None of us know. But for now, I’m going forward with the blog looking for ways to escape the fire and the flood. It’ll be a slightly different direction than focusing on the difficulties of navigation. It will, I hope, focus on finding possibilities and, where there is total uncertainty, helping to think where we might look for paths. I admit that now these paths are not obvious. So it may take a while.

And if I suddenly go dark, you’ll know what happened. But I don’t see many better options. Like the Eagles say in “Hotel California”:

You can check out any time you like

But you can never leave

What About a Stimulus Package?

By Mike Koetting October 29, 2020

I don’t want to jinx anything, but maybe we do need to start taking the possibility of a Biden victory seriously. I am not saying we shouldn’t continue worrying—like we could stop worrying even if we wanted to?—but the polling is solid and there are lots of signs of various Republicans trying to put some distance between themselves and Trump.

So, what should we do if we win?

The whole answer is long and has many facets. I smell grist for upcoming posts. But there is one thing that may require a more or less immediate direction, a stimulus package.

Having failed to come to any agreement about a stimulus package before the election (seems unlikely anything will fall out of the magic closet in the next couple days), there will be a lot of pressure to enact a stimulus bill even before the inauguration. I think Democrats need to think very carefully about signing on.

No one of sound mind doubts another stimulus package is needed. The questions are what size and what is in it. The answer to the first question is easy: BIG! Everyone from Paul Krugman to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell (who was appointed by Trump) agrees that we need a big stimulus package. About the only people who don’t agree are Republican Senators. Let’s spend a moment considering their motives.

Mitch McConnell, while he did fail in his stated attempt to make Obama a one-term president, did second best by hobbling Obama. He used the filibuster to make it impossible for Obama to pass a second stimulus package in 2009—then he blamed Obama for not doing more to recover from Bush’s recession. That, combined with Republican-led backlash to a Black man being president, led to a complete lock on Congress after 2010 that made it impossible for Obama to pass legislation, or fill judgeships for that matter, even after he won a second term. There is every reason in the world to believe McConnell has in mind a similar strategy for a Biden administration. Moreover, even Republican Senators who are starting to put a little distance between themselves and Trump will not want to vote for a big stimulus package. Among other things, it would be used against them in the next primary by “purer” Republicans. No matter how great the need, only a reckless dreamer could think McConnell would allow a big stimulus package unless Trump is re-elected.

In any event, right now he has his cake and gets to eat it anyway: he blames House Democrats’ intransigence for stopping any stimulus without actually putting anything on the table. The media has largely fallen for it when it keeps saying “Congress’s inability to pass a stimulus package” when in fact the issue is Senate Republicans. Trump’s utter incoherence on the issue helps give cover. It became almost comically jumbled when McConnell apparently got Trump to take the fall for ending stimulus talks—although that only lasted a day.

But flash forward in our imagination. Presume we heave a monumental sigh of relief as Trump is defeated and Democrats have won enough Senate seats to have a majority. But they wouldn’t have actual control until January. Should Democrats continue trying to work out a stimulus bill?

The needs are real. The below chart from J.P.Mogan Chase shows that as stimulus checks run out, spending by the unemployed tanks, which corresponds to real deprivations and will eventually drag the entire economy down. This chart is only through August. It surely looks worse by now and will keep getting worse.

There is no evidence that Republicans in fact care about those who are suffering the brunt of the economic damage, which is certainly not their richest supporters. I concede they would say it’s not that they “don’t care” but that they are confident that the longer, more sustainable road to recovery is to avoid….to avoid….well, it changes from time to time. To avoid eroding people’s motive to work, to avoid saddling future generations with taxes, to avoid putting obstacles in the way of the wealth creators, or to avoid inflation are all explanations periodically on offer. None of these explanations have much currency among economists and, regardless of long term effects, all put the immediate pain on those least able to bear it—while the economically better off in our society continue to prosper. So, functionally, they don’t care.

Consequently, it is safe to assume that any post-election deal that McConnell is willing to support is primarily about seizing tactical high ground rather than anything else. It is a sad state of affairs when our distrust of motives is so deep that by definition any possible compromise is suspicious. But that is a well-earned position at this point, so Democrats should be very suspicious of any compromise McConnell appears to agree with.

My best guess is that he doesn’t want to support anything on the grounds it would help Democrats in 2022. He has a variety of tools at his disposal—most powerfully just refusing to call the bill, as he has refused for several months. In which case, the Democrats don’t have to do anything but agree among themselves on what bill to pursue in January, by which time it will be even more urgent.

It is also possible that at some point the lobbying from the White House, assuming it is still interested in what happens in Congress, and his members will increase the pressure on McConnell to do something. It is a safe bet that a majority of his members would vote against any stimulus—and this apparently could be filibustered. But if it were something that all Democrats would vote for, there is some chance of getting enough Republican votes.

I think Democrats might fare better with the skinny bill that McConnell has at various times floated. This would get some immediate aid to the most needed spots—increasing unemployment benefits, small business support and school reopening–but would leave more room for Democrats to move their own bill in January. The danger of the larger bill that Pelosi and Mnuchin are currently negotiating is that at $2T it might create the impression that this is enough and/or we can’t afford another large stimulus.

This also gets back to the question of what should be in a stimulus bill. The negotiations that Pelosi and Mnuchin are pursing would also add direct payments for eligible individuals, funds for testing and tracing, and state and local support. In any longer term these are absolutely necessary to getting the economy back on track. But there are other things that could be in a bill that would further the economic plan that Biden has outlined. This could include more housing assistance, enough funds for states and localities, and expanded public projects, including laying the foundations for a Green initiative.

In theory these could be in a later bill even with the larger amount stimulus. But the example of the Obama stimulus bill is instructive. The architects of that bill assumed there would be a follow-up bill. But it never happened. I think it might make more sense now to wait until there is a Democratic majority and no need to be restrained by negotiations with Mnuchin. Remember, it is unlikely that even under the best of circumstances Democrats would win enough Senate seats to overcome a filibuster. A larger stimulus following a skinny one would present a much more compelling reason for a few Republicans to jump the fence—or for Democrats to blow-up the filibuster if that is necessary.

Either way, getting a very large stimulus bill is absolutely necessary and $2T isn’t enough. Democratic strategy should be structured around getting the largest possible stimulus, even if that means settling for a skinnier one now.

It Just Won’t Go Away Fast Enough

By Mike Koetting October 20, 2020

Like most of America, I can’t wait for the election to be over. I am accustomed to thinking a lot about politics, but this is crazy. It feels like every waking minute. And the cognitive dissonance is psychically exhausting. Everything tangible suggests a substantial Democratic victory. As I write FiveThirtyEight says Democrats flip the Senate 3 out of 4 times and Biden wins 5 out of 6 times, the latter I can’t help but notice, being the same odds you get in Russian roulette. The likelihood of a Biden win corresponds with my own sense of the world. I have never seen an election where so many high-ranking Republicans, including several ex-cabinet members of the sitting president, are refusing to endorse their candidate, or actually endorsing his opponent. Truth is, from my perspective, this president is so conspicuously unfit for the office and so utterly indifferent to democratic norms that the fact he’s even competitive is beyond my imagination. Surely enough people see this.

But I still can’t shed the fear, the anxiety. What if there are really enough people in the country who hate whatever I stand for so much that they would still vote for Trump? What if there are large pockets of Trump voters in swing states unwilling to tell pollsters who they are really going to vote for? What if enough voters in Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland and Philly don’t want to wade through all the obstacles the Republicans have created? It isn’t just the uncertainty of how the election will turn out. It is the continual nagging questions of how could people have such different perceptions and is there any way of having real conversations about the direction of the country.

I want it over.

Of course, it’s not at all clear when it will be over. I am hoping for enough of a blow-out that at least the presidential election is decided on November 3. The polls suggest that is a possibility, maybe a likelihood. Florida is a relatively quick counting state, particularly if there are a large number of mail-in and early voters. (In 2016 there were a total of 9.4M votes cast in Florida. Roughly 6M absentee ballots have been requested this year.) If Biden is ahead there on November 3—or in Ohio, another quick counting state—the election is likely over. North Carolina, which used to be a quick counting state, has so many legal challenges under way, it could drag out for a while.

On the other hand, if it is close in those states, it might well take a long time to sort out the results. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania don’t start counting early and mail-in votes until election day; Michigan only a few days before and its secretary of state has already said it might take until November 10 to count all the votes. Pennsylvania is particularly likely to be difficult in a close vote. Like Michigan and Wisconsin, it has a Democratic governor and a gerrymandered Republican legislature and each is trying to re-write the rules. In addition to a growing list of lawsuits, Pennsylvania is allowing anyone to vote by mail in a general election for the first time, all the state’s polling places have new machines and the rules that govern are in flux.

One of the particular concerns is that, based on analysis of elections back to the year 2000, there is strong evidence that late counted votes tend to favor Democrats. This phenomenon, known as “Blue shift” by political scientists who study elections, seems to be related to provisional ballots, which are more often Democratic. Historically, there has been no strong correlation of results by party within absentee or mail-in ballots.

Of course there is no historical basis for this year’s election where we are in the middle of a pandemic and one party has consistently demeaned votes by mail as subject to fraud, both of which might well upset trends. A September CNN poll in Pennsylvania found that 78% of Joe Biden’s supporters plan to vote early or by mail, while 68% of President Trump’s supporters want to vote in person on Election Day. Other polls have similar results.

So now there are two dynamics—a “Blue shift” that generates Democratic votes counted after the election day and oversampling of Republican votes from election-day in-person voting. Together these create the possibility of the so-called “Red mirage” where Republicans are ahead on election night, but see leads dwindle or reverse subsequently. This possibility has led Republicans to imply that only votes counted on election day are legitimate. White House spokesperson  Kayleigh McEnany said an election is “fair” only “where we know who the president of the United States is on election night. That’s how the system is supposed to work.”

This is, of course, nonsense given circumstances. The system “is supposed to work” by counting every vote fairly and accurately. Former Senators Tom Daschle and Bill Frist, speaking on behalf of a national bipartisan commission on election integrity, clearly articulate a sentiment found in a recent poll that 75% of Americans would prefer every vote to be counted over a quick outcome.

Mike Murphy, who before Trump was a Republican political consultant, has suggested that one way of giving transparency to the voting counting is to report exit polling among people who voted early, in person or by mail. Apparently there is a considerable amount of information gathered in high quality polls about early voting by state. His argument is that releasing this data on election night would reduce the surprise element if totals started to shift. I think this is a good idea, but is unlikely to change the fundament dynamics if the election is truly close because few models can accurately predict differences that small.

Given all this, it is necessary for the media—all of it—to avoid premature claims of victory for anyone, despite any residual instincts to be the first to call a winner. I believe most of them understand the problem and are likely be cautious about announcing results too soon.

There are, however, two points of concern. One is Fox News. It has sometimes acted more as a Republican cheerleading outfit than a legitimate news network. If any of the major networks were to break ranks, it would most likely be Fox for Trump. Given the co-dependency relationship between Fox and Trump supporters, it would no doubt create chaos if they declared a Trump victory too early and subsequent counting changed the results.

The other danger spot is the Internet, which is less controlled than major media. Twitter, Facebook and Google have all announced plans to guard against premature victory claims. But, based on track record, it is hard to be sanguine about what will in fact transpire. Posts may, for instance, avoid specific declarations of victory, but may raise suspicions about the count. It is safe to assume that Trump and his acolytes will be calling into question any place where the vote totals are close and incomplete.

So, I guess, I am destined to stew in my existential questions for at least a couple more weeks, with the possibility of this going on for quite a while—even if it doesn’t get to the courts. I can only hope the media will treat the uncertainty responsibly.

The Election and the Rule of Law

By Mike Koetting October 8, 2020

I wrote the first draft of this post about three weeks ago. I was surprised at the number of friends who were at least flirting with the idea that, no matter what was the underlying will of the people, Donald Trump would simply refuse to recognize the results and chaos would ensue. I acknowledged there was concern, but I thought they were overstating the problem.

Things have happened since then. I still believe we will not fall into this tar pit, although my confidence ebbs and flows depending on the day. However, as much as the specific risks, I am alarmed at the broader consequences of the deterioration of public trust. At least one survey reports that half of the country believes Trump would refuse to accept a narrow defeat.

This is potentially catastrophic.

The entire idea of democracy rests on the acceptance that everyone is going to play more or less by the rule of law. The rule of law is not strictly speaking about the legal letter of the law. In fact, strict adherence to the letter of the law can be norm-busting, like the Republican’s use of the power to appoint a Supreme Court justice days before an election.

The rule of law is the overriding set of values that allows us to work together in a society to achieve common aims. The Constitution does not provide detailed instructions for how to keep our democracy. It creates a framework so that, even if we don’t agree on every single “law,” we have enough in common that we are willing to make compromises guided by some higher, more general principles. And we put the survival of the institutions of democracy over any specific policy advantage.

This idea works only as long as the society as a whole believes it is bound by the same ground-rules. If a large enough group stops believing that the rest of the society will abide by these general principles, the power of the rule of law dissipates. That so many people could be actively concerned about the legitimacy of the coming election suggests exactly this waning belief.

Today, one large group of the country suspects that Republicans are so determined to hold on to power that they will take any steps—regardless of how they correspond to the larger spirit of the country—that they have already forsaken the rule of law. Another large group either believes that the Democrats will take illegitimate and fraudulent steps to gain control of power—and therefore imagine the Democrats in violation of the rule of law—or they believe their cause is so important they are obligated to take every possible step to retain power, in which case the rule of law is nullified.

My concern here is not which interpretation is more valid. My question is whether we can get out of this situation with our belief in the rule of law intact. I don’t see either side giving up its beliefs easily. No one is in the mood for forgetting.

This adds to a worrisome time. The political scientist Suzanne Mettler identifies four conditions that often correspond to the break-down of democracies:

  • Large and growing income inequality
  • Extreme political polarization
  • Conflict over who belongs as a member of the political community
  • Centralization of power in the Executive

All of these seem to be operating full force.

Certainly a Trump victory makes it much worse. While there are multiple factors that have contributed to the loss of social solidarity, Trump has turned it poisonously toxic. This is not a matter of partisan disagreement. This is a core difference in the understanding of what is meant by democracy. Trump religiously believes that any winning is winning. In his world view there are the “takers” and “the taken advantage of”. He has no concern, possibly no clue, about the impact of this attitude on a democracy that depends on a generous rule of law. Disclosures about his tax returns illustrate the nature of the problem in technicolor.

If Trump wins in a disputed election, the degree of alienation will be off the chart. I don’t know what Democrats would do if, for instance, the election is resolved by the Supreme Court ending a disputed vote count on a partisan basis as it did in Bush v Gore. Or, as is more likely, through a series of piecemeal decisions that together swing the election by not allowing certain votes or voters.

With no court to turn to and Trump in the White House, there would be widespread outrage. The outlets for such outrage are limited, but would surely damage the foundations of our democracy. If nothing else, it would open the gates for Democrats to take whatever measure they could think of should they ever again gain power. While in some ways gratifying, that would not necessarily lead to a more perfect union. In the meantime, assuming Democrats held their majority in the House, the legislative process would completely grind to a halt and Trump would be even more unchecked.

The best hope for the rule of law is for Biden to win clearly, that is at least a one-half percent margin in any state necessary to get to 270 electoral votes. While that would not create national unity, it would at least replace Trump with a president who believes in the broader vision of the rule of law and sees his job as uniting the country around that vision. In theory, any Biden win would be a step in the right direction, but a narrow win would have less traction. Worse yet, there is reason to worry that it simply might not be possible for Biden to win an election where there are substantial disputes. (Prior to Justice Ginsberg’s death, I was reasonably optimistic that Justice Roberts would do the right thing if the underlying facts supported it. Now that his vote is not necessarily decisive, I worry that anything so muddy as to get to the Supreme Court will be decided on a primarily partisan basis.)

A Biden win would still leave a lot unresolved.  Even if Trump dutifully left office in January, it is hard to imagine he will just slink off to tend to his various legal battles. I am guessing he will continue to rail against “the socialist left”. He will still have many followers. Probably less the big money people who support him because of his largess to the rich; they will find new advocates. Big money is more insidious than water in your basement. But the hard-core Trump base will continue to abhor the Democrat’s agenda, which they see as restricting freedoms that represent values fundamental to their identity.

Republicans will have to decide whether their long run interests are better served by lining up behind Trump-centric obstructionism or by trying to find some ways to forge a post-Trump path that is better attuned to the changing nature of the country. Surely many Republicans know they are riding a death train. They can do the same arithmetic I can—their base is declining and their core product is unattractive unless it is disguised by endless efforts to divide the country. I doubt there is anything so crass that Mitch McConnell would skip if he thought that meant foregoing another trip on the Ferris wheel. But others may understand that there is no long run future in the current party strategy of cynical opposition to everything except tax cuts and radically conservative judges.

On the other hand, if they turn away from the Trump-base, there is no route to electoral relevance for years. That would also leave a material number of voters alienated from the American political system. It is hard to imagine the groups who stormed statehouses signing up for a new Republican party. It is not clear how large this group is, let alone how they might behave.

Democrats will also face some difficult choices about the extent to which they want to be accommodating to the concerns of people who voted Republican. Perhaps exercising the same hard-nosed approach of Republicans works better long run. But perhaps it just further rigidifies the gaps in our society.

At best the election is only the beginning of a long and uncertain process for restoring a real belief in the rule of law. But defeating Donald Trump is essential if we want to begin this journey.

Election Bric-a-Brac

By Mike Koetting September 24, 2020

Today’s post is comprised of three shorter thoughts about the election. I couldn’t think of an easy way to connect them, but they each seemed worth consideration.

****

If someone asked you how many days to the election, you’d probably say 40 days. I don’t think that’s the right answer. Voting is already taking place in most states. My conclusion from studying a compilation of the voting practices in the six most critical swing states is that 50% of all votes in those states will be cast by mid-October, maybe more. It is widely believed the majority of votes will be cast before election day. In other words, the election is now.

And the more “now” the better. I don’t think anyone could be sanguine that any vote cast by mail after October 15 would be delivered or counted on time. I am not getting into the issue of whether the Post Office is deliberately sabotaging vote by mail. I think not, but who can rule out anything in these strange times? Nevertheless, whether it’s deliberate or circumstantial, it seems to me that everyone who wants to be certain their vote is delivered on time should either get the ballot in the mail early—or, better yet, switch to a more secure delivery system such as ballot drop-off or early voting in person while it not so crowded.

There is clearly a danger that over-reliance on the mail could result in material numbers of votes not being counted. For instance, an article in The American Prospect constructs a simple simulation that shows if voters take full advantage of the apparent voting window in their state, those submitting in the last week could be at significant risk of not having votes delivered in time. If that is the case, a “vote-by-mail” becomes a trap for Democrats and all Trump’s rantings might be seen as an “anything but the briar patch” strategy. 

The Prospect article recommends a complete pivot in messaging from voting by mail to voting in person. I think that is overkill. I think the correct messaging needs to get more complicated, which is itself dangerous. Something like this.

  • Voters need to know that if their ballots can’t be mailed at least two weeks before the end of the voting window, they should be not be mailed.
  • They need to know with specific clarity the other options relevant to each state/locality (e.g. drop off boxes, return to county clerk, etc.).
  • If they want to vote in person—which  has advantages—they need to be prepared as it may well be constrained, particularly on election day. (And remind them how to be safe.)

*****

I was very struck by a David Frum piece calling attention to the fact the Republicans declined to publish a platform. I think Frum was making fun of the Republicans for being afraid to make their platform explicit, since, it is so obviously at odds with the underlying realities.

Three days later it occurred to me that, whatever Frum’s intentions, this actually offered the clearest explanation I’ve seen of why the Republican Party maintains traction.

Several of the key “platform” planks did not actually deny the problems that are the core of the Democrats’ critique of America. Rather, the issues were acknowledged, but in a back-handed, diminishing way. The Covid pandemic is over-hyped, environmental issues will be taken care of with emerging technology, BLM is about overblown issues, women have already achieved most forms of equality, and so forth. The appeal of this approach is that it removes the need for any action or sacrifice without having to overtly deny realities that are hard to refute. It’s sitting in a comfortable sofa in the basement that doesn’t require you actually do any exercise.

Second, by not specifically acknowledging these positions, it is harder for Democrats to argue with them—even though, as Frum explicitly states, they are widely accepted among people who are or who lean Republican. Moreover, by leaving it all unsaid, it creates room for the middle-right (who may not want to think that they are part of the deplorables) without denying space to the deplorables, who can fill in the blanks however they want.

I think this is the scariest argument for the Republicans I have encountered.

****

I no longer know what to make of polls. Current polls show 5% to 8% of voters nationwide undecided. I am puzzled how at this late date people could find themselves undecided. I fully get that not everyone lives and breathes politics the way I do.  But unless you are living in a cave with no internet connection, you have been making all kinds of choices that will impact your voting.  Are you watching Fox or CNN?  What social media feeds do you follow? Who are your friends voting for? While none of these are 100% predictive, it is hard to imagine that you are not so heavily exposed to arguments from one side or the other, that, no matter what you tell a pollster, in your heart you know which way you would throw the switch.

At least among people who are actually going to vote. Remember, in 2016 more than 40% of the eligible population didn’t vote. My own guess is a relatively high percentage of people who say they are undecided are, in fact, not going to vote. I have no idea how those individuals affect the polls because I doubt the eventual non-voters advertise that fact. As the Pew Research Foundation notes, it is “notoriously difficult to figure out which survey respondents will actual turn out to vote.”

This creates a problem for the media. On the one hand, perhaps more than everyone else, they pretend that the election is on November 3. But, in today’s world, the election is actually a slow motion drip over 6 or so weeks, “election season” as Slate calls it. To fill the vacuum, they talk a lot about polls and, in particular, the “battle for the undecided”. But the real battle for the undecided is rarely the one they are talking about. People have made up their mind about whom they would vote for. The battle is who will decide to actually vote.

Indeed, this may be the critical—issue, particularly in swing states. Romney got more votes in Wisconsin than Trump did, but Democratic turnout was materially lower. The Washington Post has a simulation that gives some notions of how even relatively small changes in turnout among various groups can change outcomes. If I am right that virtually everyone who is likely to vote has made up their minds by October 1, the advertising is mostly about trying to get “your side” to in fact vote.  But to make a difference at this stage, the advertising needs to be increasingly dramatic. Which contributes to the polarization in the country.

Related, I wonder how much difference the debates make. Are they anything more than campaign events for those sufficiently invested in one or the other candidate to watch? The first debate is still a week away, but votes are already coming in. The last debate is October 22. By my guess, a major portion of the votes will already be cast. Even those not actually voting early will find their minds made up by that voting schedule. (Relatives will ask, the media will hype the need to decide, etc.) I don’t think many people who have not made up their mind whether to vote watch the debates. Perhaps the overall opinion of what happened at the debates makes a difference by leaking into the atmosphere, but I suspect questions about whether to vote or not are predominately influenced by totally different dynamics.

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In short, this election is creating an entirely new set of rules. Maybe it will turn out to create useful precedents for new ways of conducting elections. Or maybe we are steaming straight for a giant iceberg.