Politics, Expediency and Values

By Mike Koetting October 3, 2019

A month ago, Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist, had an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune outlining several gun reform measures Republicans should support. The gist of the argument was that public support for these measures was high, particularly among suburban voters Republicans need. Opposing them would be seen among voters as an unwillingness to address a clear and present problem. On the other hand, Jennings noted, supporting these measures, in addition to improving the commonweal, would provide comfort to voters who were disposed to vote Republican but were being put-off by Trump’s antics. They would be reassured there was some leadership around a broader set of values.

The argument was very compelling. So compelling that I found myself hoping that Trump would fail to support these obvious and modest measures. That, in turn, made me uncomfortable. How does it come to pass that I find myself rooting against measures I am actively supporting in other venues because their passage would also strengthen Republican electability. If we can’t come to terms on specific issues, how do we make democracy work? Yes, there are the extenuating circumstances of the Trump presidency. But I just didn’t feel good about hoping Republicans fail to endorse measures I know to be good things.

As it has happened, the issue of gun reform seems to have dropped out of the short national attention span as all the political air has been subsumed by l’affaire Ukraine. Unfortunately, the impeachment discussion poses for me even worse conflicts of values and expediency.

First, Trump’s actions are impeachable. I concede that the Constitution did not anticipate impeaching presidents because you don’t like the way they are carrying out their office. Impeachment is not a substitute for a recall referendum. As offensive as Trump is on many fronts, that does not provide basis for impeachment. There needs to be an act that clearly violates the fundamental rule of law as we know it. Dangling foreign aid as an incentive to undertake actions to impact an election crosses that threshold. Maybe it’s not as blatant as Nixon, but it is over the line. If, as initial evidence suggests, there were material efforts to cover up the conversation, they provide more evidence that the participants knew things had gone too far.

That being said, as I write this, there are significant political risks to the House actually voting to impeach Trump. There is no reason to believe that the Senate would vote to convict. No president has ever been convicted by the Senate and the odds of 20 of the current Republican senators voting to oust Trump seem negligible. Nor is there any reason to believe that Trump, like Nixon, would decide the risk of a vote was too great and resign. Republicans would control the order of business in any Senate proceeding. As Henry Olsen points out, there is no telling what Mich McConnell might put on the agenda or how the discussion would proceed. And if, as the odds are, Trump is not convicted, we would then be forced to listen to him endlessly declaring that the Senate vote had proved him innocent and that it was a witch-hunt all along. It could wind up as politically muddled as the Muller Report.

Given it is unlikely that impeachment can actually remove Trump, the question is whether the House should vote to impeach anyway. While public sentiment is clearly moving in that direction, it is not yet clear how strong that wave will be or how many swing voters will respond favorably.

If the House does vote to impeach, proceedings will probably stretch out after the first of the year. This would raise the possibility that the contest for the Democratic nominee would get lost in the background. The real loss there is that in their various campaigns, Democrats are exposing the country to a range of different ideas and proposals for how we might move forward to address the challenges that we face. Ultimately, it is the quality of those ideas that will determine our nation’s future, so short-changing that discussion creates longer-term problems.

I also think there are large swathes of the population who don’t have the same interest in politics as most of the readers of this blog. No matter how starkly we see the real clash of values taking place, for them the endless stream of charges, counter-charges, name-calling and accusations will seem like rancorous white noise. We already have one of the higher rates of non-voting among developed countries. This is likely to increase the sense among many that politics is a bunch of inside-interest groups arguing with each other to see who gets the upper-hand. Hard to say the ultimate effect on the polity, but it seems unlikely to be good.

I think a more political advantageous approach would be that the House continues to investigate Trump, but at a much lower pitch, and doesn’t send the issue to the Senate–in short, the original Pelosi strategy. This keeps the issue of Trump’s outrages in the news, but avoids giving Trump a chance to be “vindicated” by a Senate vote.  Democratic candidates can continue to debate and develop their positions so that, when sentiment settles around some candidate in the spring, she or he will be ready to do battle with Trump, armed with clear thoughts about the Democratic position on issues and posing a clear alternative to Trump, who, whatever else, will have been diminished by the events of the previous year.

Notwithstanding the political risks, after some soul-searching, I’ve come to believe the House should vote to impeach Trump, assuming of course the facts continue to support that he committed an impeachable offense. It’s not that outcomes don’t matter. They do. The thought of another four years of Trump literally fills me with dread. But at the same time, values need to be values. Precisely because an impeachable offense is so serious, it is incumbent on our representatives to vote for the values that undergird the rule of law, not be swayed by expediency. Deciding that what Trump did deserved impeachment and then saying “…but the politics weigh against it” is not acceptable. It is a version of the same calculus that allows many Republicans to continue supporting Trump even though they know he is a walking dumpster fire.

Taking a duck on the impeachment vote also requires Democrats to assume that Republican senators will in fact put party over values. There is abundant evidence that many Republican senators are deeply uncomfortable with Trump. Still, they have continued—out of expediency—to stick with him, so it’s a good bet they will continue to do so. But taking it as a foregone conclusion on an issue this big would seem to be a total abandonment of the idea that the two parties can agree on the fundamental tenets of our democracy. I guess if that’s the case, better to know it. And in the silver-lining department, there would probably be some offsetting political advantage from forcing Republican senators to explicitly defend Trump. Since winning the Senate next year is almost as important to the Democrats as winning the presidency, anything that weakens Republican senators is a political plus.

Frankly, my fondest hope is that some strange political wind blows this whole mess aside and we can go back to making the 2020 election the referendum on Trump and the Republican party. But in the absence of that, I have come to think Democrats in the House should vote to impeach. Not because they disagree with every aspect of Trump’s policy, not because of his incipient authoritarian tendencies, not because he uses the office to enrich himself, and not because he’s a racist bully who believes women are there for his taking. These are all true, but are not impeachable offenses. I think Democrats are compelled to vote for impeachment because he has committed an impeachable offense. If that plays out to the Democrats political disadvantage, shame on the American people. But this is a test of values, not expediency.

The Tectonic Computer Shift

By Mike Koetting September 19, 2019

The idea for this post started with what I thought was a clever title about the way the way computers intrude on our lives. But, as sometimes happens with apparent cleverness, the more I thought about it, the less the title had to do with what I really think is important—that computers are accelerating changes in our lives even more profoundly than we readily recognize.

Immediate impacts are obvious. From the infestation of robo-calls to many privacy threats to the habit-forming, zombie inducing effects of many computer past-times, there is no shortage of people commenting on these issues. I actually think these are serious—well, maybe not robo-calls, although they sure are annoying. But I am not sure I have anything to add the discussion of the specific issues beyond singing “Amen!”

But what I do find interesting is the accumulated impact, which may lead to a qualitative change in the way humans live.

For most of evolution, mankind was totally rooted in the tangible. Make a shelter, grow/hunt food, raise kids, bury the dead. There is a abundant evidence this didn’t keep people from considering the transcendent—how did the gods make this happen? But that was in the context of a very physical world with relatively few options about anything. Even the transcendent was tethered to the more tangible—sun, moon, life, death and the cycle of the seasons. Remember: when we talk about “Ancient History”, we are mostly talking about time less than 10,000 years ago. While there are some definitional issues, homo sapiens have probably been around for more than 250,000 years. In short, our idea of “history of man” is a pretty truncated view.

Then, a lot happened in the last 10,000 years. In bits, pieces and places, density increased, the pace of technological quickened, and—almost miraculously—people started to have options. By no means everywhere and not all at once. But increasingly the idea that change could be part of life took hold. And with that, a rise in abstract thinking—thoughts that were less linked to what you could see and hold in a moment. Life wasn’t so rooted in the immediate family and tribe. Over time, ideas like kingdoms and then nation-states. And with them hierarchies and rules to organize life. And with rules, ideas about how to change the rules. And then profit and loss and bookkeeping.

For better and for worse, this more conceptually-oriented view extended its reach across almost the entire globe. In varying degrees, we’ve come to accept the centrality of abstract thinking and having options. In fact, we’re inclined to think the more of these the better.

But I am wondering if computers aren’t pushing us to the same kind of qualitative break as was created by the ascendency of conceptual thinking. Maybe it’s not really a qualitative break but just a heavy-duty quantitative acceleration. Still, I have this growing sense that something beyond “business as usual” is taking place.

Growing complexity

One thing that constantly grabs my attention is how computers power a growing complexity in the machinery of society.

Things get so complicated we lose efficacy. Even if we can understand some things at a general level, the ability of people to actually intervene is drastically reduced. Take the mundane example of automobiles. It used to be possible, if you were so inclined, to more or less maintain your own car. Today, cars have so much interwoven computer circuitry, it’s almost impossible to be an amateur mechanic.

There is even the very real danger of losing understanding. Artificial intelligence using “big data” can become a true “black box”. There are already many instances of computer-generated decision rules that the creators, let alone the subjects, don’t understand. This, in my mind, the logical (or illogical) end of abstract thinking—where the data generates rules without explicitly recognizing the underlying values.

This complexity breeds interdependency. And, while not a bad thing itself, interdependency spreads risk. When things stop working, even in a very distant part of the system, the impact is felt throughout the system. Despite the real potential of the internet and computers to breed social isolation, it is just as true that the internet is truly global in almost every aspect of its operation. And as we grow more dependent on it, we become interlinked with a whole lot of other things—opening up great possibilities, but making humans interdependent to a level never even remotely contemplated and barely comprehended by most of them. We have barely begun to understand how vulnerable this makes us

Centralization

One is surely that the injection of computers into the market is as profound as the injection of guns into traditional warfare. Without computers, you’re economic toast. The last 50 years have seen a major concentration of economic power, primarily into the hands of those who have computers. What we have called “globalism”—could equally well be called “computerization”. There has always been trade, even over long distances. But when the actual manufacturing of products includes world-wide supply chains that must move “just in time”, it is a new world from the one where long-distance trade was slow and uncertain. Virtually instantaneous communication and the ability to move money around at lightening speeds, further weakens the bounds between place and life.

These changes also weaken the ability of individual political entities to make political and cultural responses that could blunt some of the economic advantages that have accrued to the masters of the computer. If one country taxes too much, a business can be moved very quickly.

The centralization created by computers can also be manifested in the power of governments over individuals. This risk goes well beyond the privacy concerns raised by Facebook selling off client information. These go to the core of the relationship between individuals and the larger society. Developments in China are far and away the most frightening. They are a sobering reminder that those who control the computers will have advantages in maintaining power that make the power of all previous potentates seem puny.

Alienation from society

I have no idea whether it is quantitatively true that the incidence of various forms of mental distress are increasing, let alone what might be causing it, if it is happening.

But it sure feels like there is more mental distress than ever before. Data would seem to support this—increasing suicide rates, especially among young people, and more depression and anxiety–but there are almost as many caveats about changes in diagnostic patterns, social willingness to admit mental health issues and so on. From my perspective, the appropriate stance is that the warning flag is up and we’d be stupid if we weren’t considering the possibility this is not simply an escalation in individual events, but something that has gotten out of synch in the fundamental organization of society.

Computers could be contributing to this in multiple ways. Directly, as people—particularly young people—become too focused on internet-generated, click-bait. Or, indirectly, by their central role in disrupting traditional economic arrangements, which in turn impact societies in multiple, unhealthy ways.

   —–Jayesh Patel

All of this is so speculative that it’s easy to dismiss. But there are things going on and they seem to correlate with the deep penetration of computers into every aspect of our society. This is particularly true if, as I have tried to sketch out, it is considered in the context of the larger sweep of evolution. Almost every aspect of the way urban life is lived—regardless of country—is so different from the social structures in which man lived for his first 240,000 years, or even the past 10,000, that it is hard to imagine this doesn’t have a profound impact.

I don’t think turning back the clock is an alternative. But it sure seems to me we need to be more reflective on how computers are changing our lives. This is a much broader challenge than responding to specific problems. It goes to the core of how we live.

History Wars & the Future

Mike Koetting September 5, 2019

During purges by various Russian Communist leaders, there was an aphorism to the effect that while the glorious future of Communism was clear, the past was much harder to discern.

From the Civil War on, America was generally marked by clarity about both its past and its future. Both were great!

In the last several decades, however, both have become less certain and more contested. Many pundits have suggested the struggles are related and our squabbles over the interpretation of history are in fact arguments about what we hope—or fear—for the future.

While I am not generally given to naïve optimism, maybe it would be easier to come to some common understandings about the future if we could come to some common understandings about the past. The past, after all, consists of facts that are known and, at some level, not debatable. Yes, some people prefer to dwell on certain facts, while others choose to emphasize different facts. But since they are all real, maybe it is possible to create a framework that accommodates all.

There are a few basic high-level facts that are in some way so correct that it is hard to dispute them in any kind of good faith.

  1. American History Includes Evidence of Fundamental Flaws

There is no serious argument about the despicable nature of some parts of American history. Indian genocide, slavery, stunning Jim Crow attitudes and laws, exclusion of women and propping-up dictators around the world are indisputably part of our history. However, the essential issue, as James Loewen points out in his sharp but balanced book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, is not just that these things happened. The real issue is whether we are willing to recognize the causes of these events, which are fundamentally white racism, male privilege and the sometimes reckless accumulation of wealth. Unless we recognize how these fundamental imperfections were built into some of the core fibers of America–and continue to shape our struggles today–we are not equipped to map a better course in the future.

2. All Issues Need to Be Judged with Some Degree of Relativism

Many will balk at this. Moral is moral is moral. Fair enough. But it is totally anti-historic to think every culture at every time saw things the same way. There are no pieces of land anywhere that were not conquered by some invading tribe. The fact that one tribe swallowing another in France, Germany or China was so long ago tends to obscure that the true origin of those countries and culture was every bit as brutal for its time as was the conquering of the Indians by the white European tribes. While this is not an argument that such behavior is either moral or inevitable, it certainly has been the case through most of recorded history.

Likewise, slavery has been relatively universal, as has discrimination based on race, gender, creed, or other characteristics. Again, this does not say these things are right, but only that these issues are wide-ranging from an historical perspective. Dramatically invalidating the entire American experience based on these actions, morally objectional as they are, doesn’t make sense in the global historical context.

3. America Has Been Remarkable on Some Issues

It is just as myopic to not recognize that America is in some important ways “exceptional”. The original Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were remarkable documents. Yes, they built on a number of previous developments and had complex historical roots. And they were certainly flawed documents. But they also truly changed the nature of the world and have served as a durable framework for the maintenance of a stable democracy governed by a rule of law for almost 250 years.

America has also been remarkable in our ability to take people from all over the world and assimilate them into a single country. Part of this was simply the luck that this vast real estate initially offered more resources than people. And this process has rarely been as smooth as we might now pretend—anti-immigrant sentiment after the First World War, for instance, was as great as it is now—and assimilation has always worked better for whites, especially Christian whites. Still, one could look far and wide and not find a country that attracted more people from more places than the USA. And, truth be told, still exerts a powerful magnetic pull around the world, even if somewhat diminished from better times.

Two other important considerations. While there has been no shortage of anti-democratic activities by the U.S. over history, America has served as a beacon of democracy around the world, and often invested resources and lives to that end. It is also the case that American culture, fueled in large part by capitalism and economic resources, has proven a particularly fertile environment for innovation of all kinds. In Neal Stephenson’s 1999 novel, Cryptonomicon, he describes a Japanese officer early in World War Two deciding that America would surely win because of the speed at which they could create new tactics when old ones didn’t work. “American ingenuity” is part marketing, but like most successful marketing, based on some reality.

American “exceptionalism” can not be used as an excuse for everything the country has done. And the idea that it should become a litmus test for patriotism is absurd. But neither is it historically accurate to deny the places where it is true.

There is another thing, less factual but more important for coming to a functional notion of American history. Over time, America has in fact tried to make itself the country that it pretends it is. Winston Churchill may or may not have said: “Americans will always do the right thing—after they have exhausted all the other alternatives.” But it isn’t a bad way of viewing our history. In a very ragged, inconsistent and some-times self-contradicting way, we have tried to live up to the ideas set down in our founding documents. It is a project that is very much unfinished, but in some ways is the most important national project.

Conclusion

I believe taken together the above constitutes a reasonable framework for a view of American history that people across most of the political spectrum could agree on. It certainly won’t resolve all the disputes in the interpretation of our history. It doesn’t, for instance, help us determine how exactly to teach the history of blacks in America or whether there should be reparations. These are difficult issues that will appropriately continue to be debated.

But I believe there is great value in a country embracing a common intellectual and moral heritage to serve as a rough guide to approaching the future. We can cast America not as a country that could do no wrong, nor as a country that could do no right, but as a country that created itself with great aspirations. From the very beginning we have imperfectly lived-up to them, but we have repeatedly, even if irregularly, returned to these principles.

It is important, however, to take note that tacking toward these principles is notfrom some inevitable evolution of thoughts that existed from the founding. It has happened because certain founding thoughts have won out in hard struggles over other thoughts that were also there from the beginning. These conflicting impulses continue to clash and, not only is there no guarantee our better angels will win, there is no guarantee we will hold on to all the things that have been accomplished.

Martin Luther King famously said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We should neither take that arc for granted nor deny that is the potential. As a society, we are much better off if we focus on bending the future arc of American history toward justice. Developing a realistic sense of how of we got here is useful. Spending too much time on past problems—or worse yet, trying to wave them away—less so.

Perhaps a shared framework about our past will help us focus better on our shared future.

ARTWORK from Scott Stantis’ Prickly City strip.

Texas vs. Us

By Mike Koetting August 22, 2019

Okay. Technically the name of this litigation is Texas v U.S., but it sure seems like Texas v Us.

Texas v U.S., as some of you probably know, is the most recent Republican-inspired attempt to scuttle the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The plaintiffs are asking the court to strike down the entire ACA. The brief version of their argument is that when Congress, as part of the tax law in 2017, removed any penalty for failing to comply with the “universal mandate”, they effectively nullified the mandate. Plaintiffs then argue that the “universal mandate” was so essential to the law’s working, that the entire law should be struck down. (A somewhat more detailed, but still readable, summary of the entire situation can be found on the Health Affairs blog.)

The case was originally filed by governors or attorneys-general from 20 different states, but two have subsequently dropped out. There is no surprise in which states are involved.

The Trump administration has directed the Department of Justice to make no attempt to defend the ACA. Consequently, a coalition of 16 Attorneys-General from predominately Democratic states and the District of Columbia have intervened and, along with the Democratic-controlled Congress, are now providing the defense for the ACA. Again, no surprise which states.

What Is at Stake?

It is hard to overstate the consequences if this suit were to succeed. To start with, it would wipe out provisions that require protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions and coverage for dependents to the age of 26. It would eliminate the Health Insurance Exchanges, which currently provide coverage for more than 10 million people. It would roll back the expansion of Medicaid, currently covering care for 13 million people. It would reverse the trend of closing the “doughnut hole” that exposes Medicare beneficiaries to paying a greater share of drug costs if they are sick. It would eliminate a number of other regulations and programs. And, of course, it rolls back some taxes, which are primarily paid by the top bracket tax payers.

In short, eliminating the ACA would have profound impacts throughout every aspect of the healthcare sector, which is now about one-fifth the economy. In the understated view of one Kaiser Health official “It would be very disruptive.”

What Is the Current Status?

The case was initially heard in Texas and the federal district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, then moved to stay enforcement of the decision. The defendants, which do not include the Justice Department, appealed the case and it was heard by a three judge panel in New Orleans earlier this summer. Based on the historic speed of cases through this circuit, they will rule sometime this fall. Their ruling could go in a variety of directions:

  • They could dismiss the case on a variety of technical grounds. Among other things, the question of who has standing in this suit has become complicated. If they dismissed, they would have to decide whether to vacate the district court’s opinion or let it stand.
  • They could reverse the district court on all or some of the issues. That is, they could uphold the ACA in its entirety, strike down only the individual mandate, or strike down the mandate and “related” provisions”.
  • They could affirm the district court’s ruling, in which case they would probably stay the decision pending appeal.

What will happen after the ruling is hard to foresee. If the appeals court affirms, the intervening states seem certain to appeal to the Supreme Court. With other outcomes, a reasonable presumption is that the plaintiffs would likewise appeal to the Supreme Court. But one can imagine scenarios where they would let the suit die.

The general assessment is that the suit is not likely to succeed. Still, until the case is actually settled, there is reason to be concerned about how this might play out.

Why This Suit?

This is surprisingly difficult to answer.

While there are all kind of legitimate concerns with the ACA, attempting to completely undo it— ten years after passage—is not an obvious course of action. The ACA has substantially reduced the number of uninsured and would reduce even more if the states in this suit actually expanded Medicaid.

It has not created adverse disruption such as rampant healthcare inflation or major retreats in employer coverage. In fact, there is solid evidence it has stabilized the distribution of healthcare costs by reducing the burden on the private sector of funding the uninsured and is broadly supported by business. It has provided healthcare coverage that helps relieve specific pressure points in the current system—such as coverage for opioid treatments, filling gaps in mental health care, and getting coverage for people transitioning out of incarceration. (For instance, Urban Institute researchers have found markedly less treatment availability for opioid abusers in states that did not expand Medicaid, which includes some of the states hit worse.)

Nor is there an obvious political advantage. In most states, the entire ACA polls reasonably well, particularly certain provisions such as coverage for pre-existing conditions and Medicaid expansion. In fact, voter initiatives supporting Medicaid expansion passed last November in two of the plaintiff states, as well as in Idaho, a state that supported Trump. An earlier voter initiative passed in Maine, which was one of the initial plaintiffs. Subsequently the governor, who had refused to recognize the result of the initiative, lost his bid for re-election, leading to Maine’s withdrawal from the suit. Four of the other plaintiff states have already expanded Medicaid, and a couple more appear to be thinking about it seriously.

Viewing the politics from a national perspective sheds less light. Surely the plaintiffs understood that there was no way this suit could be won without it playing out in the middle of the presidential campaign. Maybe they thought this would rally some base. But after the 2018 midterms, you’d think Republicans would have lost some appetite for continually assaulting the ACA. Frankly, having this in the Supreme Court next spring would a gift to Democrats.

One argument that might be made is that the plaintiff states are unhappy sending money to the federal government to pay for the ACA benefits in other states. To some extent there is obviously an issue here. However, to the extent this is a problem, it is exacerbated by the fact these states have chosen not to expand Medicaid.

Moreover, in a broader context, one can’t help observing that as a group the plaintiff states are already on the receiving end of a favorable balance between what they pay in federal taxes and the amount of investment the federal government sends back to the state. In fact, the plaintiffs include three of the five states with the most favorable balance over what they pay in federal taxes and what they get back. This is in marked contrast to the states defending the ACA; seven of the defendant states are among the eight states with the worse ratios.

The best reason I can come up with for this suit is a perceived need by Republican officeholders in these states to continue flailing away at the ACA to fend off primary challenges from their right flank. That, in turn, reflects a need in portions of the red states to continue communicating how much they resent the intrusion of the rest of the country into the way they run their affairs.

Never mind that the suit does not have a great chance of success, that if successful it would create chaos in the country’s healthcare system and that its broader political merits are dubious, particularly if it were successful. It seems that, whereas actual secession has become impractical, these states are determined to carry on the fight symbolically.

Apparently, for a material element of the country, their “identity” is so important, it trumps assessment of what would seem to be in their interest. In fact, for this group, “identity” is apparently the only “interest” that matters.

Heads You Win, Tails we Lose

By Mike Koetting August 8, 2019

I am not sure whether to chalk it up to the craftiness of Republicans or the naivety of the voters, but we are now witnessing one of the more feckless moments in American politics where the most extreme party in modern history seems to be getting away with painting the other party as “too extreme”.

What’s Extreme?

It’s helpful for this discussion to see the Republican Party as a composite of two separate factions, the Ideological Republicans and the Populist Republicans. In reality, of course, the distinction is not quite this neat, but it’s more than adequate for analytical purposes. The Ideological Republicans don’t care about most of the issues of the Populist Republicans (race, immigration, abortion issues). Their concerns are lower taxes, less regulation, free trade and the ability to make and keep huge amounts of money. This is what Republicans have historically wanted.

Most of America doesn’t want those things, so the Ideological Republicans have joined forces with the Populist Republicans to pass their agenda. Trump is not necessarily the Ideological Republican’s favorite president, but he has proved extremely useful. Which is why they have been willing to suppress their dissent.

From this glued-together Republican coalition we get, on the one hand, a distribution of wealth that may be the most inequitable in the nation’s history; and, on the other hand, a relapse to racist/xenophobic/misogynistic/anti-intellectual attitudes from a century ago. And together the two parts of the Republican Party are working assiduously to undermine core concepts of our democracy by packing the courts, restricting voting rights, undertaking extreme gerrymandering, and eroding the checks-and-balances that have stabilized American democracy since the Civil War. They are committed to whatever is necessary to pursue this agenda, even as a minority party. Both parts of the party also seem willing to court unprecedented environmental disasters.

Against this backdrop, we now have media critics by the boatload screaming that “the Democrats have become too extreme.”

What exactly are their “extremist” positions? Mainly, they want a healthcare program without the intermediation of commercial insurance companies and they think healthcare should be provided to people who are in this country, even if illegally. And, perhaps, in some cases, they are willing to offer concrete programs to improve equity in the distribution of America’s wealth.

It’s hard to argue that these come anywhere near being as extreme as the current Republican Party.

So What’s Going On?

First, I think the drift of the Republican Party has been so gradual and prevalent that the population has come to think of the current status as “normal”. For 40 years now we have been told, often with acquiescence or lukewarm defense from many Democrats, that government was the enemy. That argument was used to bolster a gradual reduction in taxes and a war against regulations of any sort and unions in particular. Concurrently, we had the growth of investor capitalism that separated ownership from operation of industry and made “return” the only relevant measure of corporate success. From, say, the 1930’s until Reagan, the U.S. had an economy in which government and capital maintained a functional balance. Since then the scale has tilted overwhelmingly in favor of capital. In truth, one of the great ironies of “Make America Great Again” is that, if not taken selectively, it would totally rout the Ideological Republicans.

Second, Republicans are relentlessly pushing the theme that Democrats are too extreme. The phrase “socialist Democrats” has practically become a single word. Trump—with his usual indifference to facts–has been the most egregious in this regard, but he is specifically backed by a GOP chorus. For instance, Vanity Fair notes that Mitch McConnell has pretty much defined socialism to include the entire Democratic party. Most people claim they are not fooled by such overt campaign tactics, but the truth is that some people are and, even for those who claim to be unaffected, the constant repetition has an impact, especially on those in the “uncommitted” middle. Careless—or deliberate–use on social media contributes to the effect.

Moreover, the mainstream media is more than willing to play up the issue of “extremism” since controversy generates audience. They could be writing “Democrats totally united in concerns that Republican plans for healthcare are too extreme”. After all, knocking millions of people off healthcare is more extreme than changing how it gets paid for. While the media is focusing relentlessly on the differences among the candidates in the debates, shouldn’t we be asking—in the entire spectrum of things facing the American people–do these differences really define extreme? Especially in the context of what Republicans are actually doing.

Alternatively, the media could be pointing out, for example, that in 2018 UnitedHealth had profits of $17.3 billion. It doesn’t seem that extreme to have a non-hysterical conversation about how—or whether—that degree of profit is consistent with meeting the basic human need for healthcare. Are we convinced that these private entities provide that much magic to healthcare that we shouldn’t even question their current form?

But There Is a Political Context

For better or worse, my idea of what is and what isn’t extreme isn’t relevant. No current candidate is “too extreme” for me to prefer Donald Trump—although I don’t know how I could stand four years of Bernie Sanders’ angry screeching. But reportedly there are people, beside insurance company executives, for whom these issues matter enough to swing a vote.

So, whether it makes sense or not, Democratic voters and candidates need to weigh carefully how their proposals will play in the specific areas where it could make a difference, which, after all, could come down to voters in a small number of counties– in the extreme, as few as seven.

The best answer is not automatically “go more centrist”. No doubt that will help in some areas. On the other hand, turning out more young people and minorities in places like Detroit, Philadelphia and Milwaukee could be the key. And, it is important to remember that sometimes life requires a candidate to be a little ahead of her time. A very insightful article about what changes public opinion by Todd Gitlin notes that polling “beliefs” is a difficult business. Respondents may have never really considered the issue before or they may fixate on a single word in the question. Or their “belief” about one issue may simply be an excuse for a different concern that they fear would be less acceptable.

Gitlin also points out:

A poll of the entire nation was conducted four years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and five years before the Voting Rights Act. In 1960, only one in seven Americans thought either of those necessary.

Of course, Lyndon Johnson didn’t have to campaign on those issues. If he did, perhaps he would not have won in 1964. At this point in our history, no “moral” victory would justify creating circumstances where Donald Trump got re-elected.

Which Is What Makes This Thorny

Faced with the threat of being “too extreme”, many Democrats are feeling compelled to enter into a form of self-censorship. Even though the definition of “center” has moved so far to the right from Democratic principles of 50 years ago, Democrats are pressured to move toward this” center” because to stand up for material change to the economic structure of America gets painted as “too extreme”. The new “center” is in essence the discounted price on an item that was hugely-marked up. Clinton and Obama were not “too extreme” and I appreciate what was accomplished in both their presidencies. But Clinton actively participated in measures that contributed to the current level of inequality and Obama was reluctant to use even the existence of a crisis to sell significant steps because he wanted to find the center.

Turns out, the new “center” is just fine with the Ideological Republicans. Even if Trump loses, if they can keep away from a Warren-like candidate, they win. They get to keep their privileges. To really change the political economic order would be, I guess, “too extreme.”

Plastics, Donald, Plastics

By Mike Koetting July 25

The 1968 advice of Mr. Robinson’s associate to Benjamin Braddock was all too correct. Plastics was the future. In the 50-some years since Mr. Robinson prognosticated, the world has produced more than 8 billion tons of plastic.

Source: https://www.darrinqualman.com/global-plastics-production/

Some of the consequences of this are obvious.

Less obvious on a day-to-day basis, but still receiving considerable attention, is the damage to wildlife, particularly marine wildlife. My seven-year old grandson was almost crying when he saw pictures of various creatures struggling with plastics. “It just…just isn’t fair,” he said, barely choking back tears. “It isn’t the animals’ fault.”

While we don’t know the total extent of the damage that plastics are doing in the oceans, we do know more than enough to be concerned. More than 5.2 trillion micro-particles of plastics are swirling in the ocean, a material portion of which will wind up in fish that are subsequently consumed by people. It is not clear that is particularly bad for people, but neither does it seem particularly good. It is clear, however, that Ingestion of plastics has been documented as creating threats for some species, with an unknown set of threats not yet fully documented. Part of the issue is that while, in general, plastics are remarkably long-lived, there are a wide variety of plastics and an entire smorgasbords of chemical additives. Some of those have been shown to break down in water relatively quickly, leading scientists to describe them as turning the ocean into a “plastic soup.”

It is not clear the extent to which all of this is directly harming humans. A New Yorker article says:

Numerous studies have shown that microplastic is everywhere—in the melting ice of the Arctic, in table salt, in beer, in shrimp scampi. A study last year found traces of it in eighty-three per cent of tap-water samples around the world. (The incidence was highest in the United States, at ninety-four per cent.) A major concern of scientists is that chemical toxins in the microplastics may leach off during digestion, gradually building up in animal and human tissues. Judith Enck, a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, said, “Where we are on plastics is where we were fifteen years ago on climate change. We’re just beginning to get the picture.”

Against this background, we have the U.S. government’s official posture on the problems caused by plastic:

  • In May of last year, administration officials kept global action on plastics off the table of the G-20 summit in Canada.
  • This May, the U.S. delegation refused to sign on to a treaty concerning regulation of plastic waste at a conference in Geneva.
  • In June, at the G-20 summit in Japan, the U.S. delegation blocked a proposal to set specific targets on reducing or phasing-out single use plastics, particularly in regard to marine pollution.

It was the last action that caught my attention. And just barely. I only saw one article on it, just days after my grandson was voicing his concerns. As far as I could see, this particular action got lost in the tsunami of things the Trump administration is doing. But my antennae went up at the Trump administration’s argument that, basically, since the U.S. isn’t the biggest culprit, it’s not our fault and therefore we didn’t need this agreement.

Trump has blamed “many countries of the world” for the marine plastic problem, calling out China and Japan by name. “The bad news is it floats toward us” from “other countries very far away,” the president said last year, adding that the U.S. is then “charged with removing it, which is a very unfair situation.”

It is true that a number of Asian countries are the biggest, direct contributors to plastic that wind up in the ocean. Without changes in those countries, it will be impossible to achieve responsible levels of plastic pollution (whatever that might be).

But from a broader perspective, the administration’s approach is selective. The U.S. is by far the largest producer of the plastic products that wind up in the ocean. One assumes profits are made on them. Second, the production of plastics contributes to America’s use of fossil fuels, with all the environmental problems they cause. Third, the U.S. is by far the world’s largest exporter of plastic waste. We used to send most of it to China, but China has since barred receiving plastic waste from other countries. Now we are sending to a variety of other Asian countries, whose ability to properly address this waste is less sophisticated than China’s—and therefore more suspect.

In short, there is more than a small amount of hypocrisy in the official American position.

But what should we be doing? Like most environmental issues, the question is wickedly complicated. Simply banning plastics, a tempting solution, may not be the right answer. There needs to be careful analysis to determine how we will replace them and be assured whatever is used instead does not do even more damage. We must take into account full life-cycle costs, not make knee-jerk policy looking for quick-fixes to the most obvious problems.

In seems likely the mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” will apply. Some of the required changes can be achieved by the combination of grass-roots attitude changes and policy fiddling. The evidence is clear that the 7 cents/bag tax instituted in the City of Chicago has reduced the use of plastic bags, indeed bags of all sorts, since paper bags also get taxed. But, importantly, this worked because people responded to the stimulus—as opposed to the implacable opposition to the Cook County soda tax, leading to its repeal.

Results at the scale necessary to address this issue will require much more concerted organization at high levels. More research is necessary on how to improve recycling, both from the standpoint of the materials and the social organization, including investments, to make them work. There are also substantial resources that will be required to clean up past messes. It is hard to imagine these steps without significant government leadership and international cooperation. Neither the causes nor impacts of these issues are likely to respect national boundaries.

Which gets to the question of who is responsible for addressing this issue. The obvious answer is that everyone is responsible for fixing this. Of course, saying that is easier than developing actual plans that involve everyone in balanced ways. It is unrealistic to not recognize that some countries have come further than some other countries. Japan, which is in some ways leading the effort to address problems caused by plastic, is among the world’s per-capita greatest users of plastics. We know that four rivers in Asia are the immediate source of as much as 80% of the plastics in the Pacific Ocean. Likewise, it isn’t sustainable global policy to assume that the U.S. deep pockets should cover everything.

On the other hand, here’s where Donald Trump’s impoverished view of policy issues—that fundamentally it’s zero sum—becomes an insurmountable obstacle. The problem of plastics in the world can only be addressed by a world-wide concerted effort. Different nations will have to play different roles and everyone will have to make some sacrifices. The only way I know to create an attitude where people are willing to engage in mutual sacrifice is to create a sense of common purpose and attitude of trust that the other guys will do their part. I don’t know whether adopting specific targets as proposed at the G-20 is the best way, let alone whether those are the right specific targets. But reading the comments from a wide spectrum of participants in these conferences left me pretty convinced that the attitude of the U.S. is perceived to be a major constraint on whatever needs to be done.

In the end, it seems my seven-year old grandson’s sense of the innate unfairness of plastics to the rest of the world is a more mature and reliable guide than Donald Trump’s sense of the unfairness of asking America to join with the rest of the world to address this problem.

The Electoral Collage

By Mike Koetting July 11, 2019

In almost everyone’s list of the reasons that Hilary Clinton is not the president of the U.S. is the Electoral College. As we all know, Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes (2%) but lost in the Electoral College, 304-227.  The usual argument suggests the number of low-population red states–that get disproportionate influence because of the way votes in the Electoral College are distributed–threw the election to Trump.

This argument, however, is wrong.

To be sure, the structure of the Electoral College is goofy. There are wild disparities among states as to how many voters are represented by each electoral vote.  It ranges from a low of 193K in Wyoming, to a high of 755K in Texas. In other words, each individual voter in Wyoming has almost four times the influence on a single vote in the Electoral College as a vote in Texas.

But it turns out this didn’t make much difference in the 2016 Presidential Election.  Specifically, suppose you assume the 538 electoral votes were distributed not as they are currently (number of Representatives plus number of Senators) but were distributed proportional to the actual population of each state. I did this exercise using 2018 population, but the results would not have been appreciably different using 2016 data.  In my case, Trump still beat Clinton in the Electoral College by almost the same margin, 305-233.

I think a more accurate assignment of the problem is the “winner take all” (WTA) approach that is used in 48 states. Under this system, the candidate getting the largest number of votes gets all the electoral votes from that state. This approach is not mandated by the Constitution and is solely at the discretion of the states. WTA rules have been common since the mid-1800s, and the appeal to political parties is obvious—it maximizes their clout.

I conducted a second counter-factual exercise on the 2016 voting data, this time assuming that in each state the electoral votes (as they currently stand based on 2010 census) were allocated not WTA but proportionate to the actual votes for the candidates in the state. In this case. Clinton had a slight margin, 269 to 266.

This would not, however, have made Clinton the winner because the presidency requires a minimum of 270 votes. In this case, the election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives, where each state would get one vote. This in turn would most certainly, once again, result in a Trump presidency.

To be fair, in a margin as close as my proportional vote approach, the final result depends to some extent on the rules used for allocation, including third party candidates. While I would argue the rules I used are reasonable (see note at end concerning data), I would not be at all surprised if real world, on-the-ground applications of this general principle would change the totals by enough to change this outcome. But since this exercise is entirely hypothetical, the exact results are not as important as the general principle: a WTA approach can distort the connection between popular votes and electoral votes—to no particular policy end.

A desire to improve the connection between the popular vote and electoral votes has led to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This is an agreement among a number of states that as soon as enough states have signed on to the agreement that a majority of electoral votes (270) would be impacted, the states would agree to award all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. This approach does not require a constitutional amendment and would, as long as it was in effect, hardwire the connection between national popular vote and the presidency.

It seems virtually impossible the Compact could be in effect for 2020. At present, states with a combined total of 196 electoral votes have signed on, primarily on the east or west coast. There are a few states where one can imagine adoption in the near future, but those yield less than half of the 74 additional electoral votes needed to get to 270.  Conversely, it is hard to imagine most of the other states signing on because they voted for Trump in 2016 and recognize that Trump’s most likely road to re-election is through the Electoral College rather than the popular vote.  While there is reasonable evidence that over time this approach would not favor one party over the other, long-run views are hard to come by in this day and age.

I support this approach, although it is not without concerns. For one, it absolutely removes third-parties from the board. In 2016, almost 6% of votes were for third-party candidates. I suspect different people have different attitudes on this, but there can be no question that third parties have had significant impacts on elections, and arguably a growing impact. Ross Perot was instrumental in electing Clinton over Bush One and the Ralph Nader campaign almost certainly cost Al Gore the presidency. In 2016, Johnson beat Stein by a 3-1 margin in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but in all three states if Stein voters had instead voted for Clinton, she would be president of the U.S.

The bigger issue for the Compact to overcome is psychological: are the citizens of the non-metropolitan areas ready to come to grips with the fact that residents of the big-cities outnumber them significantly, and, accordingly, might out-vote them?

The National Popular Vote campaign argues that their approach, since all votes are equally important in the final total, will serve as a force to equalize campaign focus. This argument seems to me to be far-fetched for logistical reasons and not that important for conceptual reasons.

Logistically, when the only thing that counts is votes, campaigns will as much—perhaps even more—focus on high population areas.  In Harris County, TX (Houston), the number of potential voters who didn’t vote is equal to the entire populations of Wyoming, Alaska and South Dakota combined. Both Clinton and Trump got well over 500,000 votes in Houston, so cutting even a bit into the other’s margin is a rich vote opportunity. I believe candidates will do the same math. But this get back to the question that is at the heart of the theoretical debate. What do we think democracy means? Under what circumstances is a democracy better served by having a president elected by a minority of the voters?

There is no question the Founding Fathers made a deliberate decision to weight votes by states. But I don’t think that is needs continue to be the case. That approach was a compromise based on necessity. At the time, there was no America; only a collection (at best a confederation) of individual states. There would have been no America without that compromise. But in the 250 years since then, the needs for this compromise have dimmed and the distortions caused by it have increased as population in big cities has increased faster than the rest of the country. Attachment to states have waned as mobility and communication have made the culture more national than regional. Campaigns are increasingly national in orientation. There may be differences in ground game and get-out-the-vote organization, but those are more a function of national fundraising than anything else.

There are no longer compelling reasons to privilege differences among states as more important than any of the other differences that might arise. For instance, the number of non-Hispanic blacks in Cook County alone is greater than the population of 9 states and the District of Columbia. While their interests are clearly different from the white or Hispanic populations, no one is suggesting they get their own electoral votes. Making all votes equal is probably the best we can do. And, actually, is a pretty good goal.

**********************************

NOTES ON DATA

I used the vote totals as reported on Wikipedia.

In redistributing electoral votes by actual population, I used 2018 population to spread 538 votes proportionately. Note the hypothetical result I have shown totals to 538 votes, the total allowable. In fact, in 2016, there were only 531 electoral votes cast. (I have no idea why those electoral voters didn’t vote.)

For the proportional distribution within state, I used the current electoral votes by state (i.e. those set based on 2010 census). I rounded totals to allocate all the electoral votes. In Maine and Nebraska, the only two states not using a WTA approach, I left the results alone.  I ignored third party candidates unless they received a share of votes equal to the proportionate share of one or more electoral vote. With this rule, the scenario awarded three electoral votes to third party candidates, resulting in a total for Trump and Clinton of only 535 votes.