How Deep Is the Popular Support for American Democracy?

By Mike Koetting December 9, 2021

In my last post, I asserted that democracy needed two things to be sustained: deep popular support for the idea of democracy and an appropriate governing vehicle to make it work. Today’s post considers the status of popular support for democracy in America.

By support for the idea of democracy, I mean something that’s both simple and complicated. It starts with some understanding that democracy is inherently imperfect. Since it is fundamentally a system for mediating a series of compromises among different values and solutions, there will always be plenty of reasons to be unhappy. Supporting democracy, then, is simply accepting that your side doesn’t always win and that you will, more or less happily, go along with the majority—even if that means accepting some limits on your individual preferences from time to time.

It’s not like there is a neat prescription as to what this means in practice. There aren’t many direct ways people are called upon to indicate their support for democratic principles. Voting is a basic minimum, but no more than that. There is voting in any number of decidedly illiberal countries and, in any event, it is something many people do without much thought about the underlying principles.

That said, even at this most basic level, there is reason to be concerned about our commitment to voting principles. One obvious issue is the reluctance of a large section of the electorate to accept the results of the 2020 election.

I suspect there is no easy answer as to what people mean when they say the election wasn’t “legitimate.” Some probably think there were actual miscounts or other forms of outright fraud. Some think that too many people voted who should have been prohibited from voting or whose ballots should have been rejected over a technicality, but weren’t, in a way that unfairly favored Democrats. And some may have felt that voting should be hard and making it easier allowed “too many” minorities to vote. Whatever. The important thing is that so many Americans were willing to tell a pollster they didn’t think the election results were legitimate.

This suggests a serious weakening in the communal acceptance of election results. By way of comparison, in 2000, one-third of Democratic voters believed Bush “stole the election”. In 2016, 25% of Democratic voters believed Trump’s election was illegitimate. And in both those elections, the Democratic candidate won by the popular vote by a reasonable margin. In contrast, about two-thirds of Republicans see the 2020 election results as illegitimate, even though Trump lost the popular vote by a significant margin in an election which all neutral observers have declared one of the most fraud free elections in recent time. On top of this, we have the entirely unprecedented circus of a presidential candidate refusing to concede and stoking up one entire political party into a constant refrain that the election was illegitimate and that it should be overturned. It has also spawned a spate of attempts by Republicans to make voting more restrictive or easier to overturn actual results.

In this environment, it is little surprise that many people question voting as a “fundamental right”. The idea that voting should be a contingent rather than fundamental right suggests an erosion in the acceptance of a broad-base democracy, something the Constitution offers as a fundamental right:

American tolerance of voting as a fundamental right has always been less than universal—particularly with regard to people of color—but these are sufficiently alarming numbers as to wonder who these people think are part of “democracy”.

More Direct Measures

One measure of the degree of support enjoyed by a particular form of government is to ask people how much they trust government to do the right thing. This is not quite a direct evaluation of democracy per se, but it provides an important yard stick of how much people value the current form of government. The Pew Foundation has been studying this issue for years and the results are worrisome.

Public trust in government was high at the end of the 50’s. But during the era of Vietnam, Civil Rights and the War on Poverty it started a long decline, broken only by a short-lived positive spike after 9-11. Maybe trust in government isn’t the same as trust in democracy. But it is hard to imagine that this circumstance is conducive to a robust support for democracy.

A related measure is trust in “public political wisdom”. Pew has also been tracking this, but for a much shorter period. Still, this is another trend unhealthy for democracy.

Even More Direct Measures

There is an abundance of recent surveys specifically suggesting concern about the status of our democracy. To take only two:

  • A PBS poll this summer suggested that two out three Americans think our democracy is seriously threatened.
  • An AP/NORC poll shows only 16% of Americans think our democracy is working well, although another 38% say it’s working somewhat well.

Perhaps even more troubling, a Harvard Institute of Government survey of young people (18-29), shows more than half this group believes the US is either a “failed democracy” or “a democracy in trouble”, with Republicans having a decidedly more pessimistic view.

This survey also found that only 57% of this population felt it was “very important” that we had a democracy; 7% said it was “not very” or “not at all” important.

But these are all point-in-time surveys. Maybe Americans have always thought our democracy was threatened.

Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa have data covering the last 25 years that show a steady deterioration in popular satisfaction with democracy in the US. In their survey, now more than half of Americans indicate they are dissatisfied with our democracy, a result consistent with the above-cited surveys on the topic.

As they say in interpreting this, and data on other countries:

Citizens have become steadily disenchanted with their democratic systems. As a result, they are more and more willing to vote for extremist politicians who promise to break with the status quo.

Erosion of Middle Class

One of the strong sentiments of commentators for the last 100 years is that American democracy is supported by the existence of a strong middle class that feels itself appropriately served by the status quo. Not necessarily the economically richest, but not so far below that that they still feel an ownership stake in the country and not so worried about losing that status that they are overcome by fear. As I suggested in my last post, for democracy to be sustained, a substantial portion of the population must be committed to the idea of democracy. I don’t believe that group can maintain crucial mass unless there is a large middle class and some practical limits on the severity of class divergence.

Ganesh Sitaraman makes this same point in a book and a very important article in the Atlantic. Without a middle class, he says, the differences between groups become stark and the idea of compromise and adaptation that are essential to democracy start to erode.

And there can be little argument that we are witnessing a serious erosion of the middle class.

While this might not seem like a huge change, it is not happening in isolation. Not only is the income of the middle class shrinking, the income of the top 20% of the population is growing in leaps and bounds making it much harder to maintain the sense of a shared society. The point is not simply about income distribution. It’s about whether the society creates a sense that it’s a shared country with a shared sense of the rules by which we play.

When I was a kid, I knew my family wasn’t rich. But we weren’t poor and the differences between me and my friends from rich families weren’t that large. Our lives overlapped in so many more ways than is currently the case. An increasing intergenerational income rigidity, which is both cause and symptom of the current malaise, furthers the sense that, not only are you stuck where you are, but the system will work to maintain those differences. At some point, people’s sense of the unfairness of it starts to make it seem as if the ideals of American democracy are hollow and they are willing to throw them over for a sense of respect and power.

The Last Word

I have presented a hodge-podge of measures, but they are discouragingly consistent in their story of increasing concern about the level of popular support for our democracy.

For the actual last word, I return to Mounk and Foa:

It is perfectly possible that democracies will recover from their current crisis in the years to come. But every new data point makes it that much harder to deny that such a crisis exists.

What It Takes to Sustain Democracy

Mike Koetting November 23, 2021

What It Takes for Democracy

The ongoing news has me feeling like a passenger on a plane that has been hijacked—unable to really control the outcome, but with the strong sense this is going to end badly.

But who are these hijackers?

For many of us, the immediate response is “the Republicans.” Fair enough. But I don’t think that is a sufficient or complete answer.

It’s not that I am suggesting any exculpation for the Republican Party through rationalizing attempts like “Well, not all Republicans believe all that”. Or, “Not everything Republicans stand for is crazy.” At this point, anyone who still calls themself a “Republican” has either drunk the Kool-Aid or is well on their way to irrelevance in the formal organization that is the party. We are beyond protestations of that sort. The party is largely of a single mind. So my reluctance to label the hijackers as simply “Republicans” is despite the singularity of Republican purpose.  

But calling the source of the problem “Republicans” limits the issue too narrowly to the United States. Many of the major problems driving me to despair are as global as national. If there is a sense that the world is out of control, whatever affects the US must also be affecting other countries, beyond the Republican Party. Since Putin or the Taliban are only different in degree from the Republican Party, there must be a more universal description.  

I also worry that labeling “The Republicans” as the source of the sense that things are out of control sneaks into normalizing the behavior—as it is something that might happen within the bounds of a vigorously contested two-party system. What is currently happening in the name of the Republican Party is something much more, much worse, than two parties whacking at each other. It is a fundamental attack on the nature of democracy, similar to other attacks around the world. Allowing it to sound like it might be just another struggle between political parties isn’t sufficient. The degree of aberration from democratic norms gets lost once it is put in the context of a two-party system, where each party gets represented as holding a set of values that reasonable people might disagree about.

So if the hijackers should be labelled by something more universal, more generic than “Republicans,” what should it be?

After considering a number of candidates, what I think makes most sense is simply “anti-democrats.” Where there is democracy, one can imagine people striving, however erratically and imperfectly, toward improving the world. Where there is “anti-democracy,” some group has determined that its needs trump anyone else’s needs and whatever they can do to meet their needs is fair game.

Anti-democrats are ubiquitous in the world. In fact, the question is not why do anti-democrats thrive but why does democracy ever win out. After all, the anti-democrats by definition set no limits on what they will do to achieve their ends. So it’s no surprise that in most circumstances they do. Democracy wins out only in unusual circumstances.

Broadly speaking, I believe the two most important conditions for democracy to win out are a broad swath of the country must actively support it and there must be an appropriate vehicle for making the democracy function. Critically, it is very difficult to achieve these sequentially. Since they mutually support each other, they must both be operational, which partially explains why it has been so difficult to develop entrenched democracies outside of the general ambit of the Western Liberal tradition.

The remainder of this post will focus on the idea of popular support. The issue of an appropriate set of functional arrangements to support democracy will be the subject of a future post.

What It Takes for a Population to Support Democracy

As I look at the world, what I see is that in more or less every population there is a group who, for whatever reason, is anti-democratic. They believe they are entitled to anything they want. Ultimately, this is about power and, inevitably, the higher standards of life that comes with the expression of power. Some members of this group will have some skills that allow them to express their desires very effectively—in war, in business, or in politics. Virtually every country has a group like this.

Likewise, every country has a substantial number of people who can be led in pretty much any direction. Maybe that’s a lack of intellectual capacity, maybe it’s an overwhelming desire for a simply-ordered life, maybe it’s an intolerance of others not like them, maybe some other things, maybe all of the above. But they are ready to be led.

It is the size and commitment of a third, middle group that determines whether a country can function as a democracy. Specifically, whether their commitment to democracy is sufficiently strong to sustain political power to keep the anti-democrats from taking over and can keep the government sufficiently functional that those who can be easily led accept the legitimacy of the democratic order.

This is a much more dynamic view of democracy than we typically get in textbooks, which tend to define democracy as a series of structural elements, implicitly assumed to be static. But they are not static. They are inevitably in some degree of tension because there is always a group of people, usually with talents and skills, whose primary agenda is self-aggrandizement. If the rest of the population has set sufficiently clear boundaries, these individuals will largely confine themselves to working within whatever strictures are placed on them. They may try to push the boundaries and some will occasionally overstep. But the democracy will hold.

However, this happens only so long as there is a sufficiently wide-spread agreement about the bounds of acceptable behavior that these become a fundamental limit on the exercise of power. While part of these may be contained in law, it is not the laws themselves that preserve democracy. It is the wide-spread, shared sense of what democracy looks like and unwillingness to tolerate transgressions.

How that comes about is too complicated for me to address. But, off the top, two things seem critical to sustain it:

  • A middle and professional class, including many entrepreneurs and thought-leaders, who believe the country is fundamentally working and, that while there is room for disagreement about specifics, the general framework is solid and over time will produce a standard of living that allows most people to feel sufficiently satisfied with their condition in life. This group must also feel that the existing arrangements actually meet the abstract principles of democracy, which they fundamentally accept, in kind of a theological way, as a superior way to organize a society. This sentiment broadly in the population, supported by a functional set of governing structures, serves as the main brake on would-be anti-democrats.
  • That those who are less well off (and not particularly invested in the principles of democracy) nevertheless accept the existing structure as, at least, benign, if not salutary.  That includes sufficient material conditions, a sense of dignity, the promise of stability and some sense of the possibility of upward mobility, if not for them, at least for their children. The extent to which the existing political order meets their various needs is an important predictor of how volatile this sector might be. If this sector loses faith that the democracy can meet their needs, they become ripe targets for anti-democrats who are, of course, willing to pander. Then, the entire structure starts to wobble.

None of this can be measured by an opinion poll showing what percentage of the population supports this or that candidate. Who has a numerical advantage at any given point, while not irrelevant, is not the issue. The real issue is the context in which people cast their votes. If the people cast their vote with a sense that the democratic system is broadly working, then the democracy can be sustained. If the broad middle group starts to lose its commitment and if those who can be led start paying more attention to anti-democrats, the project craters. It is like the World Wildlife Federation campaign, “Love it…or lose it.”

In short, democracy is not, as Americans are implicitly taught to believe, the “natural order” of things. Rather, it is profoundly contingent. One of the most important contingencies is the strength of the popular will to sustain the democracy, in all its messiness. This is measured not in the number of patriotic speeches or the number of flags waved. Nor it is measured in the number of people who go through the motions of voting. It is measured by the willingness to constrain the anti-democratic tendencies that are latent in every society. When that will slackens, someone else will seize control of the plane.

What Swing Voters Might Be Thinking

By Mike Koetting November 14, 2021

In the old days—back when there was ticket-splitting and public health and infrastructure were bipartisan issues—swing voters were generally conceived of as people whose political ideology was explicitly centrist and who would consider the circumstances of a particular election and make a calculated choice. I am not sure that’s a particularly illuminating description of today’s “swing voters”. Nevertheless, they remain as important as ever—maybe more important.

As we all know, the country is bitterly polarized and this polarization is not even from place to place. Some places are securely red and some resolutely blue. When it comes to Senate seats and electoral votes, there are not that many places likely to in fact “swing.” California and Mississippi aren’t going anywhere. Given the evenness in the split of givens (by our political architecture not the population), the small number of places that are fluid become exponentially more important, and within those places, the relatively small number of swing-voters will control the outcome.

Consequently, winning elections requires winning swing voters. This is hardly a newsflash. But it is much easier talked about than executed. The key problem is that the swing voters aren’t motivated by the same things as the base. If they were, they wouldn’t be swing voters. No one who believes the Big Lie is going to vote Democrat and no committed pro-choice advocate is going to vote Republican. People who vote for Obama in one election and Trump in the next see the world differently from people with specific ideologies.

I don’t have data for this—no polls, not even a focus group—but I think what drives the non-committed, is their sense of “social wellness.” They want to feel that society is working reasonably well and meeting their broader needs. In my conception, this broad, amorphous sense of “social wellness” is a big deal for these voters since they really don’t have any abiding policy markers.

In Virginia, and probably more broadly, these volatile voters seem to have three things weighing on them, Covid, the quest for social justice and their perception of government functionality. These are reasonable things to be concerned about, but, unfortunately, it seems these voters are reacting more to the symptoms than the causes.

Covid Fatigue

With regard to Covid, the evidence is unarguable that, if you get vaccinated, you are not likely to die from it. And, despite all the grumbling, as the vaccine mandates take hold, the percentage of people vaccinated continues to climb, including children. Moreover, with the new drugs coming on the market, it seems even if you get pretty sick, the odds are good you can be kept out of the hospital. In short, plenty of reason to be optimistic that we are on our way out of the woods.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel that way. The news is dominated by fights over mandates, places where Covid seems more out of control. A lot of fear manifested. If you’re not paying attention, it is easy to see how you’d be left with a sense that it’s never going away and we’ll be fighting over keeping schools open forever—or at least through next September, which to many parents might as well be forever. And there is little question that Democrats, having assumed the mantle of “responsible adults,” are likely to get blamed for every frustration about various measures being taken. I suspect people half know this isn’t fair, but don’t feel it strongly enough to overcome their instinctive reaction to blame the people restricting them rather than the circumstances causing the restriction.

Social Justice Fatigue

This often gets abbreviated as something like “wokeness fatigue”. That gets at it, but describing it that way misses the fundamentally complicated nature of the phenomenon. Virtually everyone at some point is annoyed, even troubled, by incidents of “wokeness” that seem excessive. But I don’t think these incidents, per se, are at the root of the problem for swing voters.

Surely, the accumulation of these issues works on swing voters, but I suspect these voters trot out the more extreme incidents as justification for a deeper frustration: why is everything so damned hard? These voters specifically do not see themselves as racist. They may have voted for Obama and, on a poll question, would indicate support for equal voting rights and protections against overt discrimination. But they have no ear for arguments about systemic racism. They don’t want to feel that the issue of racism is constantly held over their head, that it is necessary to keep thinking about it, to teach their kids how prevalent it is and how comprehensive the solutions need to be. It’s not like they have a coherent set of arguments against this—again, they may have some inkling of its fundamental accuracy—it’s just they don’t want to have to think about it all the time. It makes the world too fraught.

I thought that the George Floyd events of last summer would lead to a real breakthrough in the communal understanding of the mechanisms of racism. I overestimated the degree of acceptance of the existence of systematic racism. It’s not like people don’t understand it. It’s just too wearing and the solutions seem deeply unsettling. People’s drive for homeostasis is huge. It takes a lot of mental effort to accept something as deeply wrong and worry about it when you don’t feel there is anything obvious you can do about it. Most people simply redefine the problem away…or push it to the far edges of their consciousness. And resent being reminded.

Government Disfunction Fatigue

Per above, people want to think their life is ordered. A clear ideology is one way of organizing it. But swing voters don’t have a clear ideology. That’s why they can change so much from election to election. Per above, it seems to me that they vote for whomever they believe is more likely to reduce the stress in their world. The incessant refrain of government disfunction is another source of discomfort to swing voters. They want to vote and assume that government will work out the details. When every day the media tell them government is broken, they don’t want to have think about what means or how it got that way—they just want it fixed.

That is why some voters instinctively turn toward people who seem more decisive and “above” the partisan fray. As Donald Trump showed us, reality is more obstinate. Same thing happened in Illinois, which elected a brash hedge-fund guy as governor because he had simple, clear answers and then found out putting together compromises was part of the job. How Youngkiin will turn out is not yet known, but it is clear he will face the same challenges.

What to Do

I think there are two things the Democrats must do.

  • Soften the messages to the base
  • Focus on progress, not problems

It entails a huge amount of discipline to soften the messages to the base. Biden was able to do this; McAuliffe wasn’t. Of course, Biden had the advantage of Trump, whose entire strategy was fire up his base thereby firing up the Democratic base. Youngkin, on the other hand, threaded the needle of subtle nods to the base, while keeping an explicit distance.

Democrats need to focus on progress and not rag on all the things wrong. There is no analysis of these problems, regardless of how accurate or eloquent, that will win with these voters. This can’t be simple mindedly declaring victory over problems not yet solved. But it can frame working together is how we are making progress toward a more perfect union. In some respects, one might argue, this the fundamental story of America: starting with a very imperfectly implemented set of ideals and making progress toward realizing them. It’s not a triumphant end-zone celebration, but trying to position our ongoing struggles as what truly makes America great. And, despite continuing problems, there has been progress and it can be celebrated.

This is particularly hard on racial issues. As mentioned above, White swing voters are allergic to discussions of “systematic racism” while that is what has the best chance of getting loosely affiliated Blacks to the polls and Black turnout is essential to Democratic success. This will require some rhetorical legerdemain—and some very careful, targeted on-the-ground mobilization. The above mentioned poll, plus some others, suggests that swing voters support a fairly progressive agenda, as long as it is not presented aggressively. Progress we have made and a generally progressive program should make it possible to finesse this issue, which appears necessary for Democratic success.

The architecture of our government has created a situation where a small number of voters exert outsize influence—a la Joe Manchin. We probably need to think about more fundamental fixes. But in the meantime, we need to hold the House and Senate.

This is Democracy at work….or not

By Mike Koetting October 31, 2021

I am infuriated with the barrage of media comments about Democrats “in disarray” or “being divided”. Hello, boys and girls! This is democracy. People stake out different policy positions, argue about them, and make compromises. It doesn’t happen overnight and hardly anyone winds up totally happy. The issues in the infrastructure package are of mind-boggling complexity and in degree they are all interrelated.

This is what all the people who have been clamoring for “bipartisan” legislation have wanted: debate and measured compromises around policies to make them a better reflection of the varied will and needs of the populace.

Okay, it’s true this is all within what’s nominally one party—although, as the debates have made clear, these poles represent a very large spectrum of American political thought. In that sense, it is the closest to “bipartisan” that America can now get because the Republican Party has simply opted out of policy discussions. They automatically oppose anything that Democrats support and have ceased making policy proposals of their own. Waiting for a meaningful proposal to come from Republicans is waiting to hear the sound of one hand clapping.

Mitch McConnell’s comment that the elements of the Build Back Better proposal are not things Americans are asking for is simply absurd. Family leave, environmental amelioration, infrastructure….how can one say with a straight face these are not things the American people want? Sure, there are differences over details. But that’s what the legislative process should be about—and is what the Democratic Party is doing. Of necessity, by itself.

This is the healthcare debate all over. Republicans never had alternatives to what was being proposed (or, in fact, enacted). As John Boehner later admitted: “In the 25 years that I served in the United States Congress, Republicans never, ever, one time agreed on what a health care proposal should look like. Not once.” But that did not stop them from opposing everything in the Obama proposal—originally a Republican proposal–and then spend years trying to repeal it without any alternative.

Just as it was absurd to argue that American healthcare in 2008 was just fine, it is absurd to pretend, as the Republican Party has done, that America doesn’t need to make substantial infrastructural expenses. But instead of participating in a discussion about the specifics of policy, they have simply opposed everything.

Almost all of the provisions of the Build Back Better proposal have very high levels of popular support, many even among Republicans. But the official Republican position is to excuse themselves from having to have real policy proposals on these issues by simply following Mitch McConnell and rejecting them as valid areas for legislative involvement. It is no accident that the Republicans didn’t even have a policy platform in 2020. That would have required a commitment to something beyond obstructionism.

Media Has the Wrong Story

The media conversation should not be about the disagreements in the Democratic Party. Those disagreements are the appropriate hallmark of people trying to get something done democratically. They look “divided” only in comparison to the lock-step unanimity of Republicans—which is a lot easier to obtain when all you’re doing is rejecting whatever Democrats come up with.

The media should instead be focusing on the unwillingness of the Republican Party to engage in working out the difficult details of policy to make America a better place to live. In fact, the real question the media should be asking is whether, once a party has opted out of participating in the policy process, have they opted out of democracy itself?

We tend to equate democracy with voting. But the mere act of voting is not a measure of democracy. (See Russia, Hungry and many others.) Democracy is when there is a mechanism for people to participate—directly and indirectly—in the determination of polices that impact them. If a political party no longer participates in the give and take of policy formulation, they have opted out of the democratic project.

And that is even before taking account of the work of Republican legislatures in rewriting voting provisions to discourage voting and, more dangerously, to overturn actual election results when they don’t approve of the outcome.

I think it is time to face the fact that the Republican Party is morphing into a fascist party. Many of you may recoil at that term and think I’ve gone too far. Perhaps. But maybe that is because when we hear the term “fascists” we immediately think of jack-booted Nazis, conclude that is not the Republican Party and decide my use of the term is rhetorical excess.

But we are kidding ourselves if we think the Nazis are the only representation of fascism. The textbook definition of fascism is a political movement that embraces far right nationalism and the authoritarian suppression of opposition. It doesn’t require thugs roaming the streets to creep into fascism. The Republicans are backing into “respectable” fascism: all the trimmings of democracy but replacing the messy substance with a ruling party that achieves by fiat and convinces enough people that is what they wanted.

What does the current Republican Party stand for if not this? Maintenance of power through whatever means and agenda—to the extent it has one—to “restore” America to some hazy glory days that never existed, but with which they can cudgel people who are not inclined to support them. Do we really believe the leaders of the Republican Party give a fig about abortion? Or that they think Critical Race Theory, however construed, is a threat to our children, beyond puncturing the illusions of past greatness. Or that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election? Or care what bathrooms transgender people use? (Note that authoritarian governments everywhere are obsessed with homosexuals.)

It seems to me Republicans have given up the pretense of democracy if democracy means participating in the give and take of policy, accepting the results of elections, and not gerrymandering districts to allow a minority to “out vote” the majority.

I have for a long time resisted going this far. The whole premise of this blog is to avoid name calling and try to focus on the nuance of policy. But at some point it becomes dangerous to keep looking for nuance when a steamroller is bearing down on you. “Even handedness” does not require pretending the obvious isn’t happening. I kept thinking there was a point at which either the Republican Party would right itself or there would be enough push back to allow sleep at night. Given the structures of American democracy, I don’t see the former happening and I’m not sure there is enough push back in the right places.

These are really scary times.

We Need Something Different to Face Pending Environmental Crisis

By Mike Koetting October 17, 2021

Upcoming news will no doubt be full of the imminent big deal Glasgow Climate Summit. But that’s just the political deal. The real deal was the UN report on climate change that was issued in August. It wouldn’t be totally surprising if you don’t remember it since it seems there is a new UN report on climate every couple of weeks that are all variations of the same theme. But suppose you really took note back then. What do you hope for?

Most fundamentally, we should all hope that the 234 scientists who participated in this report got it substantially wrong. They would all admit there are certain margins for error and they would be relieved to be found out wrong.

But maybe you’ve got kids and grandkids and you are worried the reports’ authors might be substantially right about the speed of the trajectory. What then do you hope for?

Well…you could hope that there is a grand awakening and the world comes together and uses its problem solving capabilities to mitigate the threat. But how that is going to happen?

Let’s focus specifically on the U.S. Saving the environment is absolutely a global issue—the U.S. cannot do it by itself. On the other hand, we do still cast an outsized shadow and we don’t have time for a Laurel and Hardy routine of “After you…” (Unless, of course, you’ve decided to put all your eggs in the “scientists are wrong” basket, in which case the rest of this blog might as well be written in Sanskrit.)

The single most important thing for America to do is to realize this issue cannot be addressed by business as usual. We need to drastically redefine how we live our lives and we have about 20 years to do it.

Not that I know exactly what will be needed. At this point, this is only roughly understood. But it seems highly likely it will need to be dramatic. We have wasted too much time pretending that small, even medium, changes were going to avert a crisis. That is why the first step is discarding our immediate instinct that various options are “too extreme.” Of course there will be proposals that should be rejected for a variety of reasons; because something is bold doesn’t make it a good idea. But, by the same token, I can’t imagine any small action that is going to stop the temperature clock. If we allow knee-jerk reaction to dismiss all bold moves as “too extreme”, it is going to be very hard to avoid the rolling catastrophes that threaten us. My read of August’s UN report is that the situation we are facing is extreme.

If you have ever thought about environmental issues even semi-seriously, it has almost certainly crossed your mind that solving these problems is going to require disruption in our lives. Moreover, I’ll also bet that, if you’re honest with yourself, you know you have avoided thinking too much about those implications. A prick, perhaps, at the back of your mind as you have realized this or that behavior is really environmentally problematic—but dismissed with a hazy notion that someone will figure out something. Or perhaps, well, my individual action wouldn’t make any difference.

Of course, the latter is almost certainly true. We can’t save the environment by individual actions. We need mass movement. Ultimately, in a world this complicated, that means government actions to create and monitor the “rules of the road”. They lubricate the way to collective action. The conversion to unleaded gas saved lives and measurably improved quality of life. But there is no chance this conversion could have happened if it were not mandatory.

The immediate difficulty is getting from here to there, putting in place policies commensurate with the magnitude of the problem.

As near as we can tell from public opinion surveying, a healthy majority (greater than 60%) of the population thinks government isn’t doing enough to protect the environment. Of course, that doesn’t easily translate into legislative action. For openers, there’s the structural problems that plague our national government. While the percentage of people wanting more governmental action on climate has been increasing in both parties, the partisan difference is stark. Consequently, Republican legislators are slow to put votes on environmental issues. This partisan difference has effectively blocked most action for the last 25 years–25 years, I might add, when we knew this was on the way.

There is also a second, and not unrelated problem. I don’t think our society has truly decided we need dramatic action. My guess is that even among the 60% who think government should be doing more, many have not thought through what that means and don’t have the sense of urgency necessary to upset the status quo. The general lack of political leadership on this issue makes it a lot easier to avoid hard questions.

So we are faced with a “chicken and egg” issue. Cautious political leadership facilitates measured public opinion which encourages cautious leadership and so forth. Except the clock is running. This is probably not an issue where patience will be rewarded. Each year we dawdle, the greater effort will be required in ensuing years.

At this point I start thinking radical thoughts.

I’m taken back to the 1850’s. The issue of slavery had been contentious since even before we had a constitution. For years a large part of the population objected and attacked the institution, but one compromise after another kept slavery in place. What finally broke the deadlock was the emergence of a new party, the Republicans, for whom abolition was their raison d’etre. Their ascension to power was enough that the South pre-emptively started the Civil War—which led to end of slavery. (At least that version.)

I don’t think a civil war over environmental issues is a good way forward, but perhaps a new political party explicitly focused on protecting the environment might be a good idea.

Before indulging in all the very real reasons this is an impractically naive idea, what’s the alternative? Perhaps it’s a limit of my imagination, but I can’t imagine Republicans and Democrats coming together on this issue. That leaves the only other alternative as the Democrats really getting this religion and then carrying out a dramatic agenda. But are we willing to bet the future of the planet on the existing Democratic party? As I write this, a group of moderate Democrats are as much in the way of some major infrastructure investments necessary to start making substantial progress as are Republicans.

I think there is another, more subtle, problem: the Democrats’ options for creating a national unity party are starkly limited. The last 50 years have hardened the divide between Republicans and Democrats so that even when they agree they hate each other. To reiterate the point I keep making: what we are going to have to do will require big changes. I think this will require something closer to a national will, perhaps like the population had during World War II. I don’t think we can get there with political arm-wrestling around paper-thin majorities and I don’t think there is much chance of mass defections from Republicans to Democrats. It would be like asking Red Sox fans to become Yankee fans. They may both love baseball, but the banner under which they love is hugely important.

Could a new big tent work? There is no shortage of reasons why the idea is preposterous. I’ll leave spelling those out to others, who will no doubt think of plenty of reasons even beyond the multitude that occur to me. But how else can we imagine enough agreement on a national program that limits corporations, curtails freedoms, and asks for individual sacrifices?

Key to accomplishing those is political leadership. Under the current regime, the population is largely hardwired to re-interpret anything a politician says as somehow in their narrow self-interest. Maybe there is enough sense left in the country that if a new wave of leaders emerged with less of the taint of the existing parties, people could hear a message that articulated a pressing common need in a way that a broader section of people could rally around it.

This is anything but a sure thing. But at this point the most sure thing is that we are facing the potential for a major disaster and that neither the current political structure nor the general population are prepared for the kind of action that is necessary. Maybe the first of our dramatic imperatives is to face the situation by creating a political infrastructure that can lead in a time of peril, which of necessity includes the need for people being willing to follow.

If not this, what then?

“Affordability” of Infrastructure Bills Is a Smokescreen

By Mike Koetting September 29, 2021

I assume all readers of this blog are familiar with the current state of play in the massive infrastructure expenditures proposed by the Biden administration. In very short, the Senate agreed on a bi-partisan “hard” infrastructure bill with the idea, among Democrats at least, that a larger ($3.5T at proposal) “softer” infrastructure bill be adopted by House Democrats and be passed by reconciliation in the Senate to avoid a filibuster.

At present, both are stalled in the House over the size and contents of the total package and, as really a subsidiary issue, the process for moving forward. The stall in the House is caused primarily by a small group of centrist Democrats, reinforced by the specific threats of Senators Manchin and Sinema to not support a reconciliation bill that is $3.5T should it get to the Senate. Their argument, made by Joe Manchin in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, is that we can’t afford this much infrastructure.

While I’m reluctant to make iron-clad pronouncements about the future, I think the odds are pretty good that they are just wrong. Also, since it doesn’t require as much future gazing, I think the odds are even better they are not being precisely honest about their motivations, perhaps to themselves as well as the voters.

General Affordability

Affordability sounds like a straightforward concept—until you think about. There are cases where something is simply unaffordable. No bank would give my wife and me a loan to purchase a $10M penthouse. That’s unaffordable. But get more realistic. Could we afford a condo that’s 50% more than our current abode? Well…yeah, we could. We’d have to rearrange some other expenditures, but in truth we could without completely upending our life. But we think of it as “unaffordable,” which, in fact, is simply short-hand for a complicated stew of factors—whether it makes economic sense, whether there are things we would rather spend our money on, what risks we are willing to take with long term resources, and so forth. Affordability, as it turns out, is a pretty squishy concept.

Somehow, we spent trillions and trillions of dollars on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and there was never a serious discussion whether we could afford it. We just did it. Same for covid relief. One specific example ties in with my last blog about how the pandemic made it clear how poorly the official description of our government corresponds to the underlying reality. Last spring, the Federal Reserve bought five percent of the entire $20T bond market—at peak. buying bonds at the rate of $1M per second—and not only did no one ever ask if that was affordable, no one even remembers. I am not saying these were bad expenditures; in fact they probably staved off bigger problems. But this unelected group, with no specific Congressional authorization, just did it. Somehow saving bond traders is automatically affordable while infrastructure is not.

Ezra Klein, in a really enlightening interview with economic historian Adam Tooze, puts it this way:

It is just weird that we have an institution of checks and balances and filibusters and committees and divided government that operates when you need to ask, should people get help in their everyday lives? But then an institution functionally run by just Chairman Powell and the Fed board operates around the question of, well, do we just need to begin buying up all the debt anybody wants to sell us?

Consider this another way. According to analysis from Brookings, infrastructure spending was about 2% of GDP during the late 70s/early 80s at the height of building out the interstate highway system. Since then, it has averaged around 1%. Would anyone suggest we couldn’t have afforded the Interstate highway system? We could, we did and we have been reaping significant benefits ever since.

More Specific Arguments

Setting aside the sloppy rhetoric, there are two arguments that could be made against the high level of infrastructure investments—it creates excess inflation and it makes “too great” a claim on future revenue streams. The first is, at best, debatable, and the second is a philosophical judgement that buckles on inspection.

Inflation is the more immediate concern. Prices are rising and there is reason to be concerned about those impacts. But, reading among various economists suggests their basic sentiment is profound uncertainty. It is not just about the possible impact of a very large infrastructure investment. It extends to great uncertainty about the connection of macro-economic policy and inflation: there has been no serious inflation since the mid-eighties, pretty much regardless of what happened, even when the pre-covid unemployment rate dropped to previously unthinkable levels. Moreover, there can be no question but the circumstances surrounding the pandemic are quite unique and that makes it even harder to understand what would be the likely impact on inflation.

There is nothing even remotely like a consensus that these bills pose a clear inflationary threat. Seems to me majority sentiment is pretty well summarized by Mark Zandi, a Moody’s Analytics economist who has extensively modeled Biden’s plan. He says he can’t find any reason to be very concerned about inflation from these bills given the way they are targeted and paid for. He even suggests that some of the provisions, particularly around housing, might have a modest deflationary effect in out years.

This doesn’t mean we can ignore the issue of inflation. But at worse what we’re seeing is a caution flag and probably a weak one at that.

So what about the issue of “too great” a claim on the future. From my perspective, the cartoon says it all.

The salient point here is that not making these expenditures also puts a claim on the future, and maybe even a larger claim than making them. When I was a kid there was a commercial for oil filters that ended with the auto mechanic turning to the camera, shrugging his shoulders and saying: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

The question then is who speaks for the future? That’s a heavy-duty question. You can make an argument that just about any plausible expenditure is necessary for the future—and “just about everything” is truly unaffordable.  Still, it seems to me the opponents of this bill, mostly older, mostly white males, are peculiarly limited candidates to represent the future.

Which brings me to another issue.

Sketchy Motives

Let’s start with the fact that the expenditures proposed within these bills are very popular with voters, even among Republicans. So, opponents find it hard to attack these bills on the substance. The alternative for them is to shake their head sympathetically, then sadly pronounce the measures unaffordable. But as averred above, what that really means is that one chooses not to make those expenditures because you would rather make other ones. And what are the other expenditures they would rather make? Apparently, it is not expenditures in the usual sense, but it is not raising taxes to pay for these bills. Corporations and their ilk have locked arms in opposition to the taxes included in the $3.5T bill. For instance, the larger infrastructure bill includes measures to reduce subsidies to fossil fuel industries and, I know you’ll be surprised, those companies are lobbying against them like crazy. Of course, their lobbing focuses on why we can’t “afford” the expenditures in the bill, not on attacking the fossil fuel taxes per se, something that would be a good idea in any event. Another example: savings from negotiating Medicare prescription drugs is opposed by pharma and specifically opposed by a small group of centrist Democrats, three of whom have received more than $1.6M in pharma funding.

This underlines the disingenuousness of the “affordability” argument. As proposed, the $3.5T bill is primarily paid for by additional taxes on corporations and the wealthy, ideas that are also very popular. So instead of attacking them directly, the arguments focus vaguely on the “unaffordability” of the proposals. If you listen to the opponents of these bills, you’d think the proposed expenditures went directly to the deficit. Nope. They increase taxes on the rich and increase services to people in the middle and lower end of the economic spectrum, which is to say making a step toward improving the overall economic equity of the country without increasing the deficit.

I don’t want to trivialize the many real issues involved in current discussions about the infrastructure bills. There is no easy answer, nothing is unambiguously good and there are all kinds of risks associated. But I do think it fair to say that most of the arguments about the size of these bills are smoke-screens for maintaining a status quo that over favors the rich and entrenched.

The Vaccine Story Shows How Unmoored Governance Has Become from Concept

By Mike Koetting September 19, 2021

Among other things, the ongoing controversy over the public health response to Covid serves as a kind of political x-ray machine illuminating the gap between our mental image of how our government works and how it actually works, something that can get lost in the trivia of day-to-day politics.

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Can We Control Covid Without Controlling Capitalism?

By Mike Koetting September 2, 2021

With the announcement that a third shot (or second for J & J recipients) may be desirable as a booster—arguably running ahead of the science on the issue–many Americans are already jockeying to get one. Understandable. I expect I will get one soon myself. We all want to avoid Covid and the delta variant is scary.

But, at the same time, we also need to consider context. And the key contextual fact is this: unless the virus is brought under control on a global basis, there will continue to be waves of deadly variants. There will be some regardless. The only absolute is the lack of absolutes. But we are talking about speed, size and odds, things that make a big difference in how world-wide reality plays out.

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It’s a System, Stupid!

By Mike Koetting August 22, 2021

As much as extreme weather conditions have caught our attention, we don’t seem ready to acknowledge those are just the warnings. The main events are the ones that fundamentally change life conditions—persistent lack of water, rising sea levels, acidification of the oceans, loss of species.

At its core, the issue is simply that the environment isn’t free forever. Each action creates a reaction. It’s a system with feedback loops, long and, to a point forgiving feedback loops, but eventually the accounts have to get balanced.

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Obesity and Public Policy

By Mike Koetting August 8, 2021

I think it is obvious that one of the duties of a nation is to protect its citizens. But to what extent should this go? And when does it become overreach—either philosophically or practically?

I have been thinking a lot about these issues in recent weeks because I have been thinking about obesity in America. Simply looking at people on the streets suggests that, despite decades of official concern, American obesity continues to rise. The data bear this out. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine predicts no state will have an obesity prevalence rate below 35% by 2030. In 2000, no state had an obesity rate above 35%.

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