28 July 2015

Vox populi

Mostly didn't hear very good answers. I see a couple points of agreement (carbon tax is simpler and better than cap and trade, but difficult to implement, GBI was good but he seems to be talking in multiple directions on that point that don't have much to do with basic income provisions that it's not focused enough to make sense to someone what that would involve).

He worries me on two points if I'm to define these, from what came up in the interview (there's a third point that I've been hammering on that didn't even come up, which I'm not sure if that's Sanders problem or Klein's or both).

1) IR. When he says "we are all realists", this to me says he doesn't know enough or care enough about the topic to discuss it seriously or rigorously. Realism is a specific IR school of thought*.  That's why Klein asked about it. If I'm voting for Presidential candidates, my number one concern is foreign policy and what sort of crazy and potentially damaging things this person might want to do or at least what kinds of basis they might have for doing something crazy. If they have little or no grounding for their positions on this, then they're likelier to give over control of the IR state to the existing interventionist bipartisan consensus (this is sort of what happened to Obama as his IR diagnosis seemed limited to "Iraq was bad", which was true, but wasn't a total critique of our current models of interventions by military force or a plan to use diplomatic efforts to get what you want done instead, etc). His answer does not give me some idea what his basis for interventions or warfare actually is, or what sorts of diplomatic engagement he would prefer, and his lack of seriousness with the question suggests he doesn't have one. Sanders doesn't strike me as crazy as most of the GOP candidates, but the fact that he doesn't seem to care much about IR bothers me.

This is by far the most power a President possesses under our current legal frame. Most of a President's domestic agenda relies on Congress, or even state and city governments, to get something done, while Congress has effectively abdicated its war powers in most respects. Sanders will have fairly limited, if any, power to enact most of what he suggests he wants to do as an overall agenda. Except on this question. And I don't have some idea what he thinks we should do here. That's not helpful.

*The initial reason I picked Sun Tzu as a nom de plume is my affinity for that school and its decline in American IR over the last 50 years or so I saw as a substantial problem causing us considerable dismay in reckless militarism and interventions without a clear and convincing strategic goal, with predictable results in disastrous and ineffectual wars and national security policies that resemble theater rather than structured responses to real (or imagined) problems. That Sanders dismissed it so casually I see as further evidence of this trend and a knock against him. He can dismiss it in the normative terms it has come to be used in public (for people who are generally neoconservatives) but the academic tree at its roots is still around and easily accessible and someone like Klein isn't asking about it in this way for his health. Klein's a smart cookie and could have pushed back against that kind of flippant response more than "I don't think they are".

2) It seems more important to demagogue the rich in his rhetoric than to describe policies that would deal with inequality or help the poor. That he brings up the boogeyman of the Kochs rather quickly was amusing but not enlightening. He doesn't seem to have any idea what policies the Koch's even support on immigration, and would rather describe more open borders policies as though they are a Koch brothers position as if this is a bad thing in and of itself. Paying people from Sub-Saharan Africa even this meager 2-3 dollars per hour he describes would be a massive boon to their economic welfare and probably more effective than sending millions of dollars of foreign aid. I'm not sure I see the same downside he does there and there are ways around this as a policy problem if it is one, such as guaranteed basic incomes. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I've seen the Kochs endorse an open borders policy in the first place or that it is a "right wing" position even if they had. Libertarians are pretty scattered on immigration but right-wingers are not in favor of it, even legal immigration. Bernie's position of having a pretty restrictive immigration system is probably more in line with "right-wingers" than he thinks it is based on this. "Getting jobs for people" isn't really a government policy for the most part. So I'm more than a little confused by this line of rhetoric.

Sometimes the rich deserve some scorn, but I'm rather less happy about someone who doesn't seem to have another note to play than someone who points out something more difficult to describe than "rich people are evil". Describing the Nordic/Western European welfare states as an ideal is all well and good as they have some interesting policies. But it leaves out that most of those countries possess a strong market ethos (people can start businesses pretty easily for example, easier than here, and school choice has been reasonably popular in Sweden or the UK). Denmark is routinely rated as "more free" economically than the United States despite having a large welfare state even by the pro-market groups that do such ratings. Most of the others are not far behind. More to the point, most of these countries have scaled back or reformed some elements of their welfare state over the last couple of decades. Suggesting that the sustainability of these as policies is dependent on the public's willingness to pay for them in some respect. Most European states actually have less progressive systems of taxation than the US wherein the middle class actually pays quite a lot. This is tolerated because they receive quite a bit back in the form of services offered or benefits (such as generous paid family leave policies). It's possible that is a bargain Americans are willing to make, but it is not clear that anyone offers it. Few people mention that Medicare currently pays out about 3 dollars to every one it takes in so the public believes it is getting what it paid for rather than getting what someone else has paid for. In Europe, the model is probably closer to cost-benefit where many people are getting what they themselves have paid for.

There are also demographic reasons why such states have supported these policies. Other than Germany they're all pretty small. In most cases they have fewer people living there than live in the Chicago metropolitan area. Netherlands is the only country that might fall out of this category. Iceland has fewer people than the area I live in. This means that normative behavior is generally easier to enforce and scale into policy than it can be for a country of 300 million (plus). Most of the European countries have a fairly homogeneous population ethnically as well. It does not seem to be a big deal for people to give assistance and aid to other people who they assume are very much like them for physical and cultural reasons. When it comes to giving aid and assistance to other people who are, in appearance or customs, not like them, most people say "not so much", even these supposedly enlightened Europeans. This is a difficult impediment for getting Americans to go along with a more robust welfare state. Indeed, I'm fairly sure it's a basis point for the ill-fated "drug test people on welfare" idea I discussed the other day. Americans would rather make welfare harder to access based on this logic rather than increase its stability or simplify the processes of providing assistance to the poor because it is perceived, by a substantial majority of people, as giving money to undeserving "others". This is not a casual problem that can be dismissed and the policies implemented anyway over these objections. The racism implied in it is quite real.

European democratic socialists also often possess different political systems (again, Germany might be an exception), where the central governments are often not as limited by jurisprudence and Constitutional law. So ultimately what this doesn't tell me is pretty vast. It doesn't tell me how such policies would be implemented here, rather than how they are used over there, who would carry them out (at what level of governance), and which ideas are or are not good from markets. His response to this question "What is the underlying principle there? What are the situations where you look at a given area of the economy and say, "That's something we should turn over to the market," or, 'That's something we should possibly federalize'?" wasn't helpful as he didn't offer some softball things that could be turned over to markets (because the model countries he likes did so). All he did was point to things on the other end of the lever which I'm not all that fond of. This doesn't offer a model for what he thinks markets are good for, just what he thinks they are ill-disposed for. I'm not necessarily opposed to these ideas, for example I think a universal health care system would have been better than what we have or what the ACA provided. I'm not just not sure I follow why these are big deals or why they would have to be implemented in the way he seems to be describing and how they would help us fight inequality as a social ill. Health care alone as a universal system has a number of options ranging from the UK to Switzerland to Singapore. It doesn't have to be just the one way he seems to prefer.

I'm really not clear on how or why "free college" is a good and necessary reform. College educations still generally pay for themselves, and are generally pursued by people who are coming from relatively well-off socioeconomic status already. While the cost and debt load has risen (the cost in particular), the benefit in post-graduated income and access to the job market readily pays it off such that it's basically like having a really expensive car loan that you can pay off in the time it takes to pay off a house, with income that generally does so. The skill sets are pretty specific and specialised in most cases, which feeds further into a career path that benefits the person paying for it. This means that most of the benefit accrues privately, whereas a K-12 education is intended to provide both a basis for people to jump off to go to college and a set of basic skill sets that everyone benefits from by having a moderately educated population (or workforce). The debt involved is more like individual capital investment (that usually pays off). There are ways we could alleviate this debt load or provide alternative methods of paying it off well before "everyone can go for free" that would resolve this as an economic problem and free up college educated persons to make alternative career decisions to improve economic mobility further. In any case making it "free" doesn't do anything about the basic reasons American colleges have risen in the tuition costs on its own, just as Medicare did not do much about the cost of health care, meaning it potentially adds a substantial cost to the taxpayer without a clear social benefit that accrues to the taxpayers. It looks more like rent seeking behavior to pander to the recent college graduate class (younger and mostly white voters) than a sensible economic proposal as a result. I'm not seeing this as a major social reform that is needed.

Despite college being "free", Germans still graduate fewer people from college than the US does. Suggesting they're doing something else instead to provide for the economic welfare of people than sending more people to college, as "free college" should have to imply to be a good policy (otherwise it is just a handout to relatively well off and well educated people). What seems a better question of higher priority is why our K-12 education doesn't pay for itself anymore as that's where the college pay gap has emerged. "College" pay hasn't risen so much as graduating high school has collapsed as being economically viable on its own. Or perhaps look at what the Germans do that provides for people who don't get into college (eg, better use of apprenticeships, fewer occupational license laws, somewhat more unionization, etc). Another better question might be what we could do to raise the college graduation rates, or look at why or how students wash out, or what we could do to provide for people who must work while attending school to help pay for it with more generous loans or other social welfare changes that have less to do with college, or do things like expand access to accredited online resources or local community colleges that offer (only) basic courses such that students moving on to a four year program or degree can take these basic courses cheaply and then proceed on to these more rigorous demands that only a more specialized program supposedly could offer.

One of the basic questions of economics to me is "why are there people who are prosperous" as the natural state of human beings is scarcity and poverty. Sanders seems to have implicitly answered this question in a way that doesn't interest me very much. To me the answer to that question is not something like a zero sum game where the rich are taking something from everyone else. The model Sanders proposes is the system of economics for capitalist or market society, and which I admit does exist on some level in the US in the form of crony capitalism or rent seeking behavior, is not a model for sustained prosperity (the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the ongoing struggles in Russia or Greece should demonstrate a reason why, and if you think the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were about something other than poverty and economic structures of cronyism enriching the few, I'm here to tell you are completely wrong). I think it is possible there are kernels of what Sanders says on these questions that move toward an idea that is not zero sum and is a way that the perceived imbalances of worker and corporation can be redressed in the political sphere if not the economic one, but most of the policies he seems to prefer are either not likely to be enacted or not likely to do much about it (indeed, I see the "free college" idea as suggestive of something moving away from this ideal he envisions rather than toward it). The basic problem of the "use government to solve the problem of markets behaving badly" is that it requires governments behave correctly too, and that it may be easy for governments to become co-opted by these nefarious forces they are intended to be policing. That doesn't mean it cannot be done, but it does suggest there is a rather substantial obstacle to dismantling and reforming the structures of power that Sanders believes are impediments to growth and prosperity, much less in the directions he proposes doing so. If something as a agenda is impractical and doesn't seem to be addressing the problems, I'm likely to be not interested and dismiss it as populist nonsense. As I generally have done with Sanders.

3) He barely touches on race or racism as a problem. Klein sort of asks about it, but mostly softballs it. This has been a major problem with his campaign is that the types of policies he talks the most about, for the most part, do not generally help poor minorities in the same way they might help lower middle class or working class whites. The needs of minorities in policy terms are more concrete and immediate, such as better relations with police, or because of this commonly poor relationship, access to job markets that are either which can more easily ignore (often unjust) criminal records. For instance occupational licensing often prevents people from obtaining a license and starting a business or just getting a job. This intersects poorly with the forms of unionization that Sanders tends to want to promote as it is often police unions and police union reps standing up loudly to thwart reforms in the criminal justice system or opposing and reversing penalties for bad apple cops who have done egregious things to people in the communities they work in (it is also often the largely white governing bodies of cities that oppose criminal justice reforms, but not every city or jurisdiction is controlled by majority white governments, and there are emerging trends for reform supported on certain issues regardless, like mandatory minimums or winding down portions of the drug war). Or it is unions that have helped enacted occupational licensing laws in the first place, to obstruct competition or to collude with businesses that provide themselves (but not others) employment. The idea that unions are inherently good market actors that do not rent seek at the expense of the public or even that they are good social actors is not a necessary truth and includes a rather ugly racial history that I suspect some minority voters are not all that happy about still. His positions on immigration and trade likewise have struck too often at poor people in Malaysia or Mexico in a way that is not likely to appeal to minorities either, even if his intention was to complain about rich business owners supposedly exploiting cheap labor.

I suspect he has downplayed this as a problem too much because it interferes with the economic populism message he wants to run with instead. It would have been interesting if Klein had pointed at this harder to see how he would have responded.
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