The Importance of Context

Harry Truman, in speaking about his frustrations with his economic policy advisers, once quipped “Give me a one-handed economist. All my economists say, ‘On the one hand…on the other…'”. Not only is this characterization of economics one of its more appealing features to me, but I think this “it depends” mentality needs to be adapted more widely in discussions of policy and politics. Too often, a culture of puritanical ideological dispositions with one-size-fits-all prescriptions for our problems dominates, when in reality, nothing is quite that simple.

Take taxes, for example. On one side, the drumbeat is that taxes must always be lower, as this will be “good” for the economy. On the other side, the drumbeat is that taxes (especially for the “rich”) must be higher, as this will be “good” for society. While these principles are fine as general rules, they become extremely problematic when they become the sole determinant of a policy decision, without taking into account other factors. For instance, tax cuts could be “good” for the economy, but it depends on the answers to several other questions, including “What are current levels of taxation, in a historical context?” “Are current levels of taxation “low” or “high”? How do we define those?” “Do current levels of taxation produce economic harms greater than any additional revenue generated?” “How would the economy respond in the short-run? Is this desirable, given current conditions?” “How would the economy respond in the long-run? Is this desirable, given expected conditions?” “Are the benefits of tax cuts of size x of greater utility than the costs (e.g. spending cuts, extra debt, etc.) of said tax cut?” “Are the opportunity costs of a tax cut (e.g. foregone investment, less debt, etc.) of greater value than the economic benefits of the tax cut?” Even more important are the answers to questions relating to values and goals. What are the outcomes we are trying to accomplish? Does the proposed solution help to generate that outcome? What can we consider as a “good” or “bad” outcome?

Politics boils down needed detailed discussion to basic slogans that are more easily understood by the public. This is good for getting people at least marginally involved in policy discussions, but the problem with this is that it can lead to solutions that are inappropriate for a given situation. You can generally be for certain policies based on certain principles, but I think it is unwise to glue yourself to specific policies based on principles without allowing for situational context to inform the creation of your solution. The same can be said for ideological labeling, which too often gives people the impression that ideas and solutions are always mutually exclusive from one another for a given person. For example, if someone either describes themselves as a “conservative” or a “liberal” (or is generally considered to be so), it is often assumed they will always be for specific policies all the time (e.g. lower taxes for the former, or universal healthcare for the latter) and never for things considered contrary to their ideology. While this isn’t entirely unrealistic (as many people do adopt such blunt thinking that consistently fits certain labels), it is not always the case, and certainly doesn’t have to be the case. A person can generally describe themselves as a conservative, but advocate for “liberal” positions on certain issues for specific situations (or even hold “liberal” positions on certain issues more generally). For example, a person can generally hold the belief that lower taxes are “good” for society, but support raising them or not cutting them in certain situations (e.g. if the’re already “low” as defined, to balance the budget, etc.). General support for a specific set of ideologies need not (and I argue should not) exclude any support for things considered contrary to their basic principles. A rigid adherence to principle is not efficient, nor optimal, for policy solutions, and divides people in ways that make it difficult to work together constructively. This is precisely why I think that there are really at least two different types of beliefs that ought to be recognized: general beliefs and principles, and positions for specific situations (that might seemingly run contrary to one’s general beliefs and principles). Not only does this describe reality a bit more accurately, but it should become ingrained in our politics. Instead of “I believe this which automatically= specific policy position”, it should be “I believe this in general, but it depends for specific issues and situations”.

To sum up: context is important. Without it, we cannot respond appropriately to certain problems, and if people are seen as strict adheres to principles regardless of the specifics of a given situation, divisions increase, and compromise is rendered impossible. Unfortunately for us, that far too often seems to be the case in the stunted world of modern politics.

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Defining Definitions in our Election Discourse

This post’s main purpose is to serve as an outlet of frustration over the muddling of definitions that is particularly prevalent in this election cycle. Prior to 2015, Americans’ understanding of the meaning and beliefs of different political ideologies already seemed confused (in my opinion). However, the rhetoric of political candidates has not helped. In particular, my complaints lie mainly with Bernie (who, for some inexplicable reason, has still not conceded to Clinton’s insurmountable delegate lead in the Democratic nomination). People seem to think he has done a service for the country by helping to “de-stigmatize” the word socialism, which is considered to be a much more prevalent ideology and economic system in Western European countries. However, I think that he has actually made things worse for political discourse by 1) confusing people about what pure, traditional economic socialism really is 2) by confirming the false belief among many that American liberals are actually best defined as socialists, when I’d argued they’re much more pro-capitalism than pro-socialism and 3) Potentially de-emphasizing needed attention on the very real destructiveness that pure socialist economics has historically wrought on societies and the many lessons that they entail. I will begin by laying out the different terms and what I think the definitions truly are before proceeding to the other arguments noted above.

  1. Socialism: Bernie Sanders likens himself as a socialist at heart. But is he really best described as that? My definition of socialism falls along with the economic, traditional definition of socialism. Particularly, it entails the “common ownership and control of the means of production”, typically by the state (although historically, many variations of socialism have appeared in which other entities, institutions, or the masses themselves own and control the means of production). The means of production are any economic inputs (typically tangible and physical) used to create economic value or output. They can include machinery, factories, roads, infrastructure, educational institutions, etc. In my mind, if Bernie Sanders was truly a socialist, he would advocate for the government to both own and control virtually all of the means of production (including businesses, factories, etc.) This would entail a program of large-scale nationalizations of industry. Aside from “nationalizing” (better termed as a national replacement) of health insurance and 100% public funding/control of tertiary education, however, he has no such program, and largely keeps in place private ownership and control of the means of production (e.g., he allows for businesses to continue to be privately owned and operated). Consideration of the fact that all societies have different ratios of private and public ownership of the means of production leads to the important point that these ideologies and policies do lie along a spectrum. But in describing whether he better fits a socialist mold or a capitalist mold, he’s arguably more pro-capitalism than pro-socialism in general. Only his advocacy of nationalized health insurance and tertiary education would make him truly relativelymore socialist than other candidates, per my definition. Instead, his policies reflect interventionism within the confines of a predominantly capitalist economic framework that he’d like to keep intact (e.g. the taxation and regulation of a capitalist economy, with other interventions in the form of government spending). As a result, he’s much better described as a social democrat or an American liberal than a socialist…
  2. Social Democracy/American Liberalism: First, it’s important to note that these two terms are not the same. But they are quite similar. Essentially, both argue, in consideration of my definition of socialism, in a capitalist mixed economy with heavy amounts of government intervention (taxation, spending, regulation). Although these ideologies do entail some elements of pure socialism (e.g. public roads, public schools, national health insurance, etc.), they are far from pure USSR-style socialism, as private industry is still prevalent (indeed, dominate) within their prescribed economic systems. Now, granted, the taxation and regulation of capitalist institutions that they advocate for entails some control of these private means of production by the state. But not full control by any means, and certainly not actual ownership, as pure, traditional socialism would entail. It is also true that social democracy did start out as an ideology of gradual reform of capitalism into a system of socialism via democratic means over time. Now, however, like American liberalism, it’s essentially the definition stated above, with an emphasis on income redistribution and social justice. Therefore, in social democracy and American liberalism, capitalism still reigns, and given Bernie’s proposals, he best fits within these categories (which, by the way, I’m far from the first person to notice or argue).

A few things to derive from above:

1) These terms are all pretty vague and overlapping, even utilizing the narrowest of definitions. There’s technically no 100% correct description to be found for different candidates and economic systems.

2) Economic systems typically contain a mixture of capitalist and socialist elements. In my view, it’s the extent that some elements dominate that truly characterizes systems and people’s political ideologies (e.g., if more common ownership of the means of production prevails in an economy or a person advocates for mostly common ownership, it’s a socialist economy or the person is socialist, respectively). This observation of non-purity can also lend support for a dialogue of relativity (e.g., someone or some economy is relatively more socialist or relatively more capitalist than another).

3) In my opinion, the taxation, regulation, and spending of social democratic and American liberal policy aren’t exactly socialist elements (at least, not pure elements; perhaps quasi-elements). Rather, I would argue they are forms of interventionism within a fundamentally/overwhelmingly capitalist framework (private ownership of the means of production). Thus, Bernie is a social democrat/American liberal, and American liberals are not truly socialists.

4) It should be clear that, even in overwhelmingly capitalist America, true socialist elements do exist that actually serve useful functions. Public roads, public schools, public infrastructure, etc. are indeed prevalent in all overwhelmingly capitalist economies and can technically be characterized as true examples of socialist ownership and control. What really matters is what economic means of production are private versus public and balance of the ratios in determining economic and societal well-being.

All of this is also not to say that the taxation, spending, and regulation advocated for by social democrats and American liberals do not have some negative consequences, even if such interventions are not really “socialism” (e.g. system is still mostly privately owned/controlled). And it’s especially not to say that purely applied, across the board economic socialism is not destructive, when it clearly has been in the past (USSR, China, Vietnam, etc.) The economic misallocation of resources stemming from predominate state socialist ownership and control (and the ensuing incentive and signalling problems) brought upon massive economic hardship and destruction of human well-being in multiple countries throughout the 20th century. That’s what’s truly concerning to me. Although socialism shouldn’t be the taboo word it has been, considering it is found to be functioning within American society at this very moment, people should be very weary of the extent of its application and for which segments of the economy it is applied to. The very same can be said for capitalism, too. Thus, we need to shy away from puritanical, black versus white thinking – with its all-or-nothing propositions – and finally let informed, pragmatic thinking lead the way.

Thesaurus

American Freedom: it’s time to put a ring on it

Well, this is it. Any day now (possibly within just hours of this posting), the Supreme Court will finally determine the constitutional status of gay marriage nationwide; and in the process, will likely end up overturning the few remaining barriers to a new era of positive freedom for the United States. Though being deliberated on by just nine elderly justices, I’m confident their determination will reflect both the overwhelming tide of public opinion and the true meaning of liberty as intended by the Constitution. It is something that is inevitable; it is something that is unprecedented; and simultaneously, at the same time, it is something that is long, long overdue.

To many, this will be a bitter pill to swallow (surprise!) . I know, because at one point, that would’ve been my situation. Social conservatism is a very powerful force in this country. That’s not at all inherently a bad thing (I’d argue much of that sentiment is actually a force for much good), and many well-meaning, good people, people whom I love very much, hold very traditional, socially conservative values.  And they have a right to do so.  But the ideology and core beliefs that they espouse has a tendency (sometimes, but not always) to overrule independent thinking, or the ability to think of different possibilities and to adapt accordingly (although to be fair, that’s generally true for all ideologies).  The value system that structures “traditionalists'” world, in reaction to a non-traditional concept, tells them no, or that it’s wrong, and that no other reality can or ever should exist.  Whether it be for moral or religious or status quo reasons, preservation of “tradition” (as constructed) is key.  Anything else is a threat, and is labeled as wrong and undesirable accordingly.

I deeply understand all of this; again, like I said, I was at that point once.  But I strongly challenge all those who still hold “traditional” views to seriously rethink their positions; if not on every social issue (which is understandable), then at the very least on this issue of gay marriage.  Because the arguments for gay marriage are simply overwhelming on all angles – from a societal, economic, and moral standpoint.  Now, it should go without saying I won’t be able to address anywhere near the full amount of arguments both sides pose (nor do I really want to), and I’m certainly not an expert on anything.  But here are a few brief things that I think people who oppose gay marriage should consider (and yes, full disclosure, my opinion is injected into many of these arguments):

1)  First and foremost, having “unconventional” attractions is simply NOT a choice.  Too many people, too many studies, too many instances in the animal kingdom confirm this.  And I have no idea why someone would EVER choose (given rampant societal discrimination) to have “unconventional” attractions.  It’s a perfectly natural thing that just is.  If this cannot be swallowed, spend some time on it (especially if you want to even begin considering gay marriage pros/cons).  If second-hand sources don’t suit you, then please, go out and meet people who have these “unconventional” attractions (there are many such people – more than you’d think – and whether they identify as LGBTQ or not).  Your perspective will be transformed; perhaps not instantly, but inevitably, it will be.

2) America is (quite simply) built for freedom (including religious) and the pursuit of happiness.  If you object to gay marriage, you can freely say so, refuse to endorse it, say you think it is wrong, etc.  Those are all legitimate beliefs you are entitled to personally have.  But America’s promise is to allow all people to live their lives as they see fit to pursue happiness (as long as they are not harming anyone else).  If you object on religious grounds, that’s fine; but America is not about forcing people (via the government, of all institutions) to be confined to your beliefs, or for you to be forced to follow theirs.  Let’s not deny any group of people their right to pursue happiness; especially those who are not harming others or infringing upon anyone else’s rights.

3) Gay marriage does NOT harm anything, including the institution of marriage.  Quite the contrary; it bestows countless benefits from almost every angle imaginable.  To put it in a rambling, incoherent sort of way: economically, expanded marriage rights increases people’s financial security, decreasing expenditures on social assistance programs. This reduces the budget deficit, resulting in lower-than-status-quo-trajectory debt levels.  Psychologically/economically, expanded marriage rights boosts happiness/self esteem, leading to higher productivity and more economic growth. This allows for more tax revenues/less social expenditures, again resulting in a lower budget deficit and lower-than-status-quo-trajectory debt levels.  Socially, expanded marriage rights helps to save (not destroy) the institution of marriage, which is already crumbling due to 50% + divorce rates among “traditional” marriages.  Socially again, expanded marriage rights helps to reinvigorate the nuclear family (again, crumbling largely due to high divorce rates).  Again from a social standpoint, marriage is not an unchanging institution (it has changed countless times over centuries and millenia).  Thus, the expansion of marriage rights does not constitute an attack on marriage.   Socially/morally, expanded marriage rights allows for continued/easier discussion on the inherent humanity and entitlement to equality of LGBTQ people, providing progress towards further acceptance and integration (among other economic, psychological, social benefits, etc.).  Morally, it also represents a basic expansion of positive freedoms (freedoms to do something, not from something), which, especially in this case , is a very good thing.    And the list can go on and on and on.

Nothing I’m writing here is in any way revolutionary, or is something that hasn’t been said before. Really, all I’m doing is simply adding my voice to the voices of millions of my (far more courageous) fellow millennials in calling for full marriage equality within the United States, and providing a short list of supporting rationales. But I felt like I should at least go on record expressing said support, mere hours/days before a ruling, even if it ultimately does nothing to change the minds of naysayers.  Because right now, fifteen years into the 21st century, it is time for American freedom to start reaching its fullest extent possible – and for us to finally do the right thing, and put a ring on it. Those who have been denied the right to marry whom they love, simply because of who they are, surely deserve nothing less than that.

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Building a New Era of Governance – Part 2

6) Continue with efforts to reform the healthcare system.  Love it or hate it, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, e.g. Obamacare) is here to stay (sorry Project 2017); at the very least, the law will not in its entirety be repealed.  The myriad subsidies, tax credits, and benefit requirements are far too popular; to repeal them would be political suicide.  What Congress needs to do now is to focus on modulating and improving upon what already exists.  Obamacare goes a ways towards addressing the pre-existing deficiencies in the system (although in an arguably inefficient and potentially self-defeating, if not destructive, manner).  These deficiencies are not hard to identify.  American healthcare is outrageously expensive (see below), and too few people have access to the system (anomalies which are very much related, via the effects of adverse selection).  Those who do have access (especially those on employer-sponsored plans) then face rigidities such as a lack of portability and increased dependency upon a single employment setting.  Obamacare generally does a pretty good job at addressing the lack of access to care; already, it has significantly boosted insurance rates via expansions of Medicaid and the provision of individual and business tax credits/subsidies.  The renewed ability of individuals to purchase insurance has also addressed the portability issue.  However, its record on holding down long-run costs appears to be more mixed.  It has provisions that simultaneously place downward and upward pressure on costs.  For the former, the individual mandate should help by increasing the pool of healthy individuals contributing to the system (countering adverse selection), offsetting the costs of newly-enrolled less-healthy individuals.  Additionally, the law contains numerous “experiments” designed to hold down costs, such as the creation of “bundled payment plans” as opposed to the traditional fee-for-service payment model (which rewards doctors on quantity, not quality, of services rendered).  At the same time, the law contains many expensive provisions, such as the prohibition of lifetime caps on benefits and new restrictions on varying premiums based on certain risk factors.  Thus far, costs have leveled off in recent years; then again, we did go through a massive recession that put a dent in demand for health services, and spending growth has been rising as of late, albeit very modestly.  Regardless of Obamacare’s impact on cost growth in particular, an ageing populace and the continued existence of marketplace distortions calls for continued efforts to make health spending more efficient and cost-effective.  I think that Republicans in Congress can pursue policy options that are both effective and politically sustainable.  They include the following:

In both relative and absolute terms, the United States spends far more resources than other countries on healthcare (source: vox.com)

 

The growth in healthcare expenditures has slowed in recent years, though its permanence has yet to be determined

The growth in healthcare expenditures has slowed in recent years, though its permanence has yet to be determined

PPACA has had a dramatic impact on the nation's uninsurance rate

PPACA has had a dramatic impact on the nation’s uninsurance rate

a) Repeal the Cadillac Tax, replace with a gradual phase-out of the tax exclusion on employer-sponsored insurance premiums.  While FDR’s World War 2 wage and price controls arguably created the present-day Employer Sponsored Health Insurance (ESHI) system, this policy has no doubt been greatly aided by the Federal government’s decision to exclude employer sponsored insurance from taxation (and kudos to Ike for making it open-ended in 1954!).  By excluding fringe benefits from taxation, the federal government has virtually subsidized the provision of employer-sponsored insurance.  From both an employer and employee perspective, $1 in healthcare is much more cost-effective than an additional dollar in wages.  This has led to costlier plans, and an increasing proportion of overall compensation being dedicated to benefits (as opposed to wages).  Adding insult to injury, the same tax benefits do not apply to individual plans, which are typically purchased using after-tax income (although Obamacare has implicitly equalized this a bit via the provision of subsidies and tax credits for individual plans).  To try and further “equalize” treatment, the authors of PPACA included the phase-in of a 40% tax on “Cadillac” insurance plans, specifically the cost of plans that exceed pre-determined thresholds (about $10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for family).  I see this tax as very arbitrary – 40% on randomly selected amounts, that has no guarantee of “equalizing” tax treatment between ESHI plans and individual plans.  The thing is, we already have taxes in place (federal income & payroll taxes) that could apply to these premiums; it’s just that the government has exempted them completely.  In addition to its failure to equalize treatment and how unnecessary it is, it also does not raise anywhere near as much revenue as a hypothetical full repeal of the ESHI tax exemption would.  The Cadillac tax is estimated to raise about $80 billion between 2018 and 2023 – a six-year period.  Meanwhile, the ESHI exemption in totality costs the federal government a whopping $250 billion every single year.

The tax exclusion of employer-sponsored health insurance is by far the most costly federal tax expenditure

The tax exclusion of employer contributions to ESHI is by far the most costly federal tax expenditure

I see this as a prime opportunity for Republicans to claim credit for killing a tax (the Cadillac tax) while simultaneously making the tax treatment of healthcare more sane and raising the government badly needed revenue.  What they could do is enact legislation that repeals the Cadillac tax in its entirety, but simultaneously places caps on the tax exclusion equal to the thresholds imposed by the Cadillac tax.  In this way, benefit amounts exceeding $10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for family coverage will be subject to normal taxable income.  Unlike other proposals, though, I would move for these threshold amounts not to be indexed to price changes whatsoever – be it a measure of inflation, a flat rate, etc.  In this way, more and more plans will gradually be subject to the tax (much like bracket creep of the 1970s) so that the discretionary impact of the exclusion can be tempered over time.  Better yet, have the thresholds lowered on an annual basis so that eventually all “fringe” benefits will be taxed, and there will be no implicit subsidization of ESHI.  Of course, an elimination of the biggest single tax break in the federal tax code would produce enormous backlash in and of itself; indeed, it would be rather hefty tax hike.  That’s why I think the Republicans should also consider using some of the revenue generated to lower marginal tax rates (one of their favorite pastimes); any potential revenue left over could be used to lower the deficit and perhaps expand insurance subsidies for the poor and middle-class elsewhere (which would be especially appealing to Democrats).  Combined with a repeal of the (more visible and unpopular?) Cadillac tax, I think this could be a politically palpable solution.  It will help eliminate artificial demand for healthcare and give the many types of insurance options equal – as opposed to preferential – treatment.

b)  Force (or nudge) states to dismantle barriers for the purchase of insurance across state-lines.  This is an area where federalism & devolution has failed – and the federal government ought to step in.  Other than for the appeasement of insurance companies, there is no reason states should restrict consumers from purchasing policies from out-of-state companies.  This has had the effect of creating localized insurance monopolies that have artificially driven up costs.  Sure, it will take time for interstate insurance provider networks to materialize; but it’s better to start now than to continue with the status quo.  Republicans really shouldn’t encounter as much resistance from Democrats with this measure; after all, Obamacare intentionally created state-level exchanges where consumers can “shop” for different policies, with the intent that (perhaps one day) a single national exchange or market could be created.  However, Republicans may run into arguments that this will cause a decline in benefit standards as consumers seek the most cost-effective policies; however, shouldn’t Obamacare’s minimum benefit provisions (that differentiate plans into bronze, gold, silver, etc.) create a floor on a substantial portion of policies?  And if not, Congress could always mandate a bare minimum of standards to create a floor under state floors (though this would probably lead to a conservative backlash; the party establishment must proceed with caution).

c) Medical malpractice reform.  Yup, it’s a relatively small part of the overall cost picture, but even Democrats have to admit that $45 billion a year in defensive medicine is a bit much (even if a portion of it is “worthwhile”.  Although it might work better at a state-level, federal policies such as enacting caps on total payouts, raising the thresholds to file suit and concepts such as “loser pays” could all do their bit to reigning in excessive medical malpractice costs.

d) Promote cost transparency.  Obamacare has already done a wonderful thing by mandating that employers report insurance costs on employee’s W-2 forms.  This has helped in the process of getting employee’s “skin in the game”, so that they are congnizent of costs that otherwise feel disconnected  from them (what a revolutionary concept).  Congress ought to expand the variety of benefits that require W-2 reporting, and could try to find additional means for cost information to reach consumers directly.  Of course, it must be mindful of the unintended consequences of such mandates, as reporting consumes time & resources in and of itself.  Again, since transparency provisions already passed Obamacare in its original form by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress in 2010, I don’t see why further transparency provisions can’t be a bipartisan effort.

e) Temporarily increase Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments to hospitals.  Right now, hospitals across the nation are straining to provide uncompensated emergency care for millions of uninsured Americans, care that the federal government partially pays for via DSH payments.  Unfortunately, these payments are usually not enough, forcing costs onto general insurance premiums.  As Obamacare expands and insures more people, this problem should theoretically ease somewhat, and the strains on DSH should ease.  Nonetheless, this insurance expansion in incomplete (especially since not all states are on board with expanding Medicaid), and may not be enough to substantially reduce the strains on the already overburdened DSH payment system.  So why would conservative Republicans have an incentive to increase federal spending?  Quite simply, higher DSH payments could indirectly ease insurance premiums for millions of people (allowing for less private-level “redistribution” from the insured to the uninsured”, and costs could be lowered for the federal government too in a way that offsets the increased spending on DSH.  Expanded DSH would also be appealing to Democrats, as it would serve to benefit one of their core constituencies (the uninsured poor).  It is one of those times when less requires more.

f) Loosen federal restrictions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).  I see HSAs as a part of the solution to get people to have skin in the game when it comes to healthcare spending.  When combined with high-deductible health plans, HSAs establish a connection between medical spending and personal savings that can help to curb the consumption of excess medical care.  The Federal government should lift existing statutory contribution limits and abolish all taxes that apply to HSA withdrawals, including for so-called “non-qualified” withdrawals.  The latter option, in addition to being more fair, would help to eliminate distortionary tax-minimizing behavior that could actually inflate health spending.  HSAs go along with the conservative notion of individual responsibility (which might explain their strong support by Republicans), and certainly Democrats shouldn’t be opposed to an increase in savings accounts (especially considering Obama’s proposed myRA retirement accounts).

g) Eliminate the Employer Mandate.  One of Obamacare’s most controversial provisions is that employers with 50 or more “Full Time Employees” (FTEs) provide them with health insurance or pay a penalty.  An FTE is defined as someone who works 30 hours or more.  This has lead to huge disagreements over the provision’s impact on the labor market, with critics claiming that this provision is weakening the 40-hour workweek by incentivizing employers to cut back on workers’ hours to avoid the mandate and associated penalties.  Proponents have countered that most workers already work more than 40 hours a week, and thus are at little risk having their hours drastically cut to below 30/week.  In response to a recent bill to move the threshold from 30 hours to 40 hours, these proponents have also said that this bill makes cuts in workers’ hours much more likely, as so many work 40 hours (or a little more) per week.  Both sides have points; but really, it almost doesn’t matter.  The employer mandate, like much of Obamacare, creates arbitrary thresholds that threaten to severely distort the economy and strangle business decisions.  The 50 FTE threshold has already led to an increase in “49er” businesses, who artificially limit their employee count to less than 50 to avoid the mandate and payment of penalties.  Additionally, I feel the employer mandate exacerbates an existing major problem with American healthcare: the very fact that so much of it is provided by employers!  This 4th-party payment system is incredibly non-transparent and non-portable, disregarding the economies of scale it provides via pooling, and explains a major part of the cost dilemma.  As such, I think the mandate deserves repeal.  Since Republicans will obviously fail at repealing the law, they might as well go after a single provision of it to incrementally enact positive change.  Although repeal of the mandate is also likely to fail, it is still worth a shot, especially considering how the new 114th Congress has already decided that targeting the mandate will be one of its first legislative acts.  Perhaps this will also give some Democrats who are weary of the net impact of Obamacare to finally demonstrate their political independence from a surprisingly unpopular law.

Building a New Era of Governance – Part 1

*Note: the views expressed in this posting are my own, and do not in any way represent the views of any other group or institution, public or private


Last Tuesday, November 4th, it is fair to say that the second Republican “wave” since 2010 swamped Congress and state governments across the nation. In Congress, the GOP managed to pick up at least 7 seats in the Senate (giving them a majority of 52, over the key threshold of 51), as well as at least 12 seats in the House (increasing their majority to at least 244). Gubernatorial elections also proved to be a route for the Democrats, as the Republicans snatched up another 3 governor-ships from the Democrats.

Despite these impressive gains, however, they will prove to be utterly meaningless unless Republicans in Congress can seize this opportunity to act in a bold, pragmatic, and bipartisan manner to go about conducting the nation’s business. More than anything, people are simply disgusted and fed up with what is shaping up to be (by many measures) one of the least productive governmental terms in American history (see chart).  While some may view inaction as a good thing (less activity means a smaller government = good, right?) I do not see this stagnation as benefiting anyone.  Even if few bills are passed, old ones already enacted are left to atrophy and will not be updated regularly to adapt to changing circumstances, creating new problems.  Additionally, it takes legislation to repeal legislation; inaction does not mean the government is in fact getting any smaller (and assuming a smaller government is even desirable in the first place).

Overall, as many pundits have noted, it is best to view the results of this election as an expression of disillusionment with a lack of leadership on either side of the aisle and a desperate plea for governance, as opposed to an endorsement of some ideological mandate. Especially when it comes to Congress, people are incredibly irritated that its members are well-paid, work part time (with much of their time spent campaigning), and yet very little of the country’s increasingly urgent problems are attended to. It is true, what many business-minded people would say: if the government were a private entity, they would’ve pushed out of the market a long, long time ago.

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In terms of bills passed per legislative session, the 113th Congress is shaping up to be among the least productive in recent history

It is true that the outlook for an increase in Congressional productivity remains bleak, at least for the next two years. It’s a well-established pattern by now that American government doesn’t do too much unless a single political parties occupies both the Whitehouse and controls both chambers of Congress. However, this need not be an excuse for inaction; in fact, it cannot. The following is an agenda that I think Republicans can pursue that will not only help to solve the problems the public wants solved (and in a way that is congruent with the wishes of the electorate), but to help to build a new era of lasting American governance.

1) Lengthen the terms of the President, House, and Senate.  Of the many issues facing the country, this one (along with the next two agenda items) may seem like one of the least deserving of our attention.  However, relatively short Senate, Presidential, and (especially) House terms I believe has had a dramatic impact on the productivity of individual members.  Since elections come so frequently, many in the federal government must be in a near constant campaign mode that not only distracts them from legislative work but serves to polarize their “views”, making bipartisan consensus much more difficult.  At least attempting a Constitutional amendment, though quite unlikely to pass, could get the ball rolling on a future reform down the road.  Enactment of this reform, along with the following agenda item, could help to address the entrenched legislative paralysis.

2) Find a way to tie Congressional & Presidential pay to performance.  This one would be tough to implement (requiring another Constitutional amendment) and to find sufficient political support for, but I think it is an absolute must if we are to make meaningful legislative activity a core incentive for our politicians.  In my view, an independent committee (much like a state-level Civil Service Commission) would simply be given power to set Congressional & Presidential salaries and benefits upon a non-biased, impartial “performance review”.  This commission would be made up of individuals equally divided between the main political parties and would themselves be subject to background checks to ensure institutional independence

Many other potential reforms, such as a partial or complete scrapping of First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) representation in favor of more proportional representation and the outsourcing of congressional redistricting to independent commissions could help to both decrease the partisanship of the federal legislature and increase the “representative-ness” of individual members of Congress.  Ironically, the prospects of these reforms passing is weak at best; nonetheless, they would be crucial for the government to enact productive agendas in the future, and thus should be given priority in the agenda of the 114th Congress, even if chances of passage are slim.

As for other politically-feasible policy objectives that should be on the Congressional calendar:

3) Immigration reform.  No, seriously.  As discussed in more detail in my post “Why Republicans Should Embrace Comprehensive Immigration Reform”, the United States is in desperate need of both low and high-skilled labor, especially as the population ages in the coming decades.  Allowing in more immigrants (especially high-skilled) is not only politically reachable but is in line with a Republican emphasis on supply-side economic reforms.  Emphasis on increased border security (which is a prerequisite for any action for the party base, even if redundant and impractical) could be combined with reforms and/or increased funding to streamline the legal naturalization process.  At the very least, both Democrats and Republicans agree on the need for more high-skilled immigrants and an increase on the cap for H-1B work visas.  Increasing visa caps could help stem the tide of illegal immigrants (which Republicans are more concerned about anyway) via the substitution effect.  For best chances of passage, I would leave out measures that deal with illegal immigrants currently residing in the U.S. – a piecemeal, incremental approach would work best here.  Overall, immigration reform is an almost cost-free method to spur the economy in both the short and long-term, and considering how long it has been on the national agenda, it is incomprehensible that some sort of agreement cannot occur.

Due in part to an aging population, the U.S. Labor Force Participation Rate has reached levels not seen since 1978, increasing the need for new sources of labor

4) Corporate tax reform 

Again, opportunities for bipartisan agreement are rife here.  Everyone knows the corporate tax code is an unmitigated disaster, with high rates, too many loopholes, lost revenue, and distorted economic activity.  Make the system more territorial, modify depreciation schedules, scale down MNC deferral opportunities, eliminate tax expenditures, and reduce marginal rates.  Specific expenditures that are especially worthy of the chopping block are special preferences for oil & gas operations, insurance companies, corporate jets.  This operation need not be revenue-neutral, either; although this would technically constitute a tax “increase”, the removal of distortions and tax compliance hurdles will act as a counter-acting tax cut.  The government can gain revenue by increasing effective rates while simultaneously increasing growth and leaving businesses feeling better off than they do under the current tax regime.

5) Replace the sequester with targeted cuts & incremental, implement long-term reforms

The era of yawning short-term fiscal deficits is over – temporarily, at least.  Indeed, America has witnessed its fastest pace of fiscal consolidation since World War 2, with deficits as a percentage of GDP falling from 9.8% of GDP in FY 2009 to 2.8% of GDP in FY 2014 – a swing of 7% in just 6 fiscal years.  This has come about due to a variety of factors, including economic growth, slightly higher taxes and broad-based cuts to discretionary outlays.  It is this last option that is cause for concern, however, as the cuts initially enacted in the Budget Control Act of 2011 (the founding legislation of the so-called “sequester”) are quite blunt.  They also come at a time when discretionary spending is approaching record lows as a percentage of GDP, and arguably when increased federal spending on items such as infrastructure are desperately needed and interest rates remain at historic lows.  Additionally, they have subtracted from economic growth in the short-term, lengthening the time needed to close the output gap between real and potential GDP.  As has been projected for decades now, the biggest threat to American fiscal sustainability is the coming explosion in mandatory spending.  Therefore, the new GOP-led Congress must enact gradual but effective entitlement reform now – the longer it waits (as past Congresses have), the more abrupt the future adjustment.

Fiscal policy has not been this contractionary since the end of World War 2

Fiscal policy has not been this contractionary since the end of World War 2

Economic growth since 2009 has increased revenues and decreased "automatic stabilization" spending.  Meanwhile, higher taxes have also increased revenues, and new spending cuts have been enacted.

Economic growth since 2009 has increased revenues and decreased “automatic stabilization” spending. Meanwhile, higher taxes have also increased revenues, and new spending cuts have been enacted.

Non-defense discretionary spending has fallen to record lows as a percentage of the American economy

Non-defense discretionary spending has fallen to record lows as a percentage of the American economy…

...even as interest rates remain at record lows

…even as interest rates remain at record lows

Debt Held

The true threat to America’s finances comes from the coming explosion in mandatory “entitlement” spending. Congress much enact tough reforms now to stem this tide of red ink.

 

To be continued…

The Imperative of Tax Reform in a Distracted World

Taxes. Nobody likes them, nobody wants them, and they’re only considered good when they’re going one direction: down. But they are fundamentally necessary for any society to function. In fact, if levied at moderate rates and the revenues they generate are properly spent, taxes are key for societal prosperity.

In America’s case, taxes are generally somewhat lower, especially at the federal level, compared to other developed countries . This is not to say that Americans don’t pay a significant amount of tax. Being a country with a sizeable tax burden and one that is relatively low tax are not mutually exclusive concepts. Still, at the federal level, marginal income tax rates and top rates are generally lower than those prevailing in Europe, and a Federal sales tax simply does not exist (also unlike Europe). When factoring in state and local taxes, levels are equalized a bit more, but burdens still are generally lower in America.

Figure-2

Americans’ average tax burdens generally lower than peer countries

However, looking at rates and the revenue bite is only a part of the burden story. As is often said, America’s federal tax code is, quite simply, horrendous. In addition to the normal complexities of a progressive system (e.g. different rates for different brackets at various stages of income generation), the tax code is stuffed with various deductions, exemptions, credits, and loopholes that impose a not-so-insignificant burden on all Americans.  In the aggregate, this complexity is in itself a massive tax (or set of taxes). Precious time and real dollars must be spent to navigate and understand the code, resources that could be used for far more productive uses. The real tragedy of all this complexity is that it ultimately benefits no one in the end. The government does not generate revenue from complexity (indeed, it loses revenue from the loopholes and from reduced economic activity). Society as a whole wastes resources that could otherwise generate positive returns to try and minimize their burdens. The result is the potential for slower growth and lower living standards than would have been the case.

In this way, the net economic burden of America’s federal tax code could actually be on par with (or even exceed) the burden experienced in European countries (especially when including state and local codes). It is naturally rather difficult to put a value on this non-revenue burden, though most estimates place it at at least a few hundred billion dollars annually for the country as a whole.

Since personal income taxes represent a sizeable portion of the federal tax code (and its various complexities), many proposed “solutions” to the federal tax code burden (assuming it is labeled as a problem) focus on restructuring the federal income tax. One of the most popular proposals is replacing the current structure with a flat personal income tax.

policybasics-taxrevenues-f1

The Income Tax is the single largest source of Federal Tax Revenue

There are many laudable benefits to a flat tax. For one, it would be much easier for each taxpayer to calculate his or her “effective tax rate”. With a progressive income tax, rates change as income progresses. For (hypothetical) example, each dollar of taxable income within the $1 to $9,999 range would have a rate applied to each dollar, say, 10%. However, dollars within the $10, 000 through $19,999 bracket would have a different rate, say 15%, applied to each dollar. Naturally then, this makes calculating the effective tax rate (the total amount of tax as a percentage of total income) rather difficult. With a flat tax, however, there are no brackets – for all taxable income, the same rate is applied to each dollar. This makes the flat tax rate and effective tax rate essentially equal (assuming no credits, deductions, exemptions, or loopholes). In this way, unlike the current income tax structure, an individual can know with much greater certainty how much of their income will be withheld.  The need to outsource tax liability calculations to a firm is reduced, if not eliminated, freeing up resources and largely destroying a major source of federal lobbying efforts.

Second, in my view, a flat tax conceivably has something for everyone to like. It is simple, transparent, and does not penalize people who generate more income, which is especially important to conservatives . They see it as being neutral and as a means to boost individual productivity, efficiency, savings, and investment. However, a flat tax still makes people with higher income pay more in absolute amounts. The difference is that the proportion of income that goes to taxes is the same for everyone. For a simplistic example, let’s say there are two individuals A and B. Say A has a taxable income of $100 and B has a taxable income of $1000. If a flat rate of 10% is applied, A will pay $10 in tax while B will pay $100. B, being higher income, still pays more than A in taxes. But the proportion payed is the same for both A and B. This seems fair and attractive to both ends of the American political spectrum.

Third, the elimination of brackets and all of the other complexities riddling the current code would likely boost public confidence in the government and would reduce the feeling that a person is being unfairly taxed at arbitrary rates within arbitrary brackets.  This increased confidence might boost tax collection and faith in political institutions, which has been severely lacking in recent years.

Of course, the flat tax has many drawbacks. One of the most important concerns raised by critics of the flat tax is that it lacks the counter-cyclical elements of progressive income taxes.  For example: during a recession, incomes generally fall.  Falling incomes will place individuals in lower top tax brackets (meaning they have to “progress” through less brackets).  This means a lower effective tax rate – in essence, the structure of a progressive tax code means that it provides an effective tax cut during recessions or periods of slow economic activity.  In other words, it acts as an automatic stabilizer.  This is not so for flat taxes – the rate is always the same, regardless of changes in income.  The only route for effective tax cuts in a flat-tax world is via discretionary fiscal policy – actual legislative action – to reduce the applied rate.  This runs into the problems of policy lags – recognition lags, implementation lags, and impact lags.  It takes time for policymakers to identify economic conditions and the need for change, more time to actually make and implement a policy change, and even more time for an implemented change to have an affect – by which point, the policy change may be inappropriate for the macroeconomic environment.  If policymakers ever move towards a flat tax one day, they may have to consider a revamp of federal automatic stabilization systems for smoothing out the business cycle – and if not, the onus of economic stabilization will continue shifting towards monetary policy.

A second and virtually identical concern is the lack of progressiveness of flat taxes.  The US income tax code is currently considered among the most progressive in the developed world.  However, overall progressiveness in America’s redistribution systems is rather low, as many other federal, state, and local taxes are regressive, and “social assistance” programs, regardless of their impact of work incentives, are fairly skimpy by rich country standards.  Make the income tax code flat, and you remove a major source of progressiveness in America’s redistribution systems and would almost certainly increase after-tax income inequality.  Depending on your views regarding redistribution and income inequality, this could be either a good thing or a bad thing.

Regardless of whether a flat tax is pursued or not, it is (quietly) agreed by both the American Left and the American Right that the tax code needs radical simplification.  Right now, though, the imperative of tax reform has been pushed to the side to make way for a focus on ISIS, poverty reduction, immigration, and healthcare issues (to name a few), and ironically, the complexities that tax reform would attempt to solve helps to further ensure that such reform never takes place.  It is overcoming this entrenched policy stagnation that is the great task of our times.

Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Just a few years ago, things were looking up for the Middle East.  The Arab Spring , in which peoples across the region rose up to overturn oppressive and authoritarian governments (many of them dictatorships), spread like wildfires in 2011 and 2012 across the region, raising the prospects of the establishment of liberal democratic institutions.  World oil prices, having plunged during the Great Recession (with some indices reaching a low of approximately $30/barrel in late 2008 and early 2009), rebounded sharply as the aughts came to a close, propping up the region’s oil-dependent economy.  After a brief conflict with Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grew quieter, and there existed emerging optimism that American-led interventions would finally be drawing to a close.

What a difference a few years can make.  The Arab Spring has collapsed, having produced only one quasi-legitimate democracy (Tunisia).  Many authoritarian governments remain intact, and even the ones that were overthrown (such as the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak) were replaced by illiberal “democracies” that have since slid back towards authoritarian tendencies (or outright coup d’états).  Oil prices gains have stalled, having yet to reach their mid-2008 peak, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has yet again reared its ugly head.

Of the many fires now consuming the region, however, none are quite as disheartening as the disintegration of Iraq.  The steady march of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) across much of northern and central Iraq has caused horrific casualties and undermined the already struggling legitimacy of the regime in Baghdad (which has pretty much collapsed with Nouri al-Maliki’s resignation on August 14th, 2014) .  That this follows a multi-trillion dollar 9-year American-led war there, whose purported objectives was to establish a peaceful, legitimate Iraqi liberal democracy, makes this disintegration especially galling.

Barely two and a half years after pulling out the last American troops there, the US is (according to Vox.com) yet again contemplating sending in troops of some form or another, mainly to help save the minority Yazidi population currently trapped by the IS.  The decision as to whether to pursue further intervention into the broader conflict, however, is muddied by a few complicated factors:

  • Who exactly are the “good guys” and “bad guys” here?  This seems like a ridiculous question, especially considering the horrific brutality of IS tactics and the fanatical ideology they espouse.  However, just as in the Syrian Civil War, the existing alternatives to IS rule (including the pre-IS status quo) aren’t exactly ideal either.  Indeed, the (now nonexistent) Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki has reportedly continued to persecute Iraq’s Sunni minority, and has not formed a government representative or inclusive of Sunnis.  While most Sunnis do not appear to favor IS either, many are frustrated with the regime in Baghdad.  If the US intervenes in support of the Iraqi government, it would be doing this with full knowledge that it, like the IS, has also committed many abuses.  A choice has to be made between the lesser of two evils – you really can’t win here.
  • The IS is providing needed social services to many Iraqis.  According to PBS, the IS has established and funded a variety of social services to much of the population in its territorial control.  While this is obviously a tactic to buy-off the population and garner support, it does provide a modicum of short-term human security (and thus, potentially, stability).  Also, some services, such as healthcare, education, power, and water, etc.  have the potential to promote economic development and diversification (and thus long-run stability), although whether growth & development or quality services come first is admittedly a longstanding chicken-and-egg controversy in the economics profession.  Diversification, especially, is key to long-term economic prosperity in Iraq, which still disproportionately relies on oil production to generate wealth and to provide fiscal resources.  Such dependency reflects a classic case of the resource curse, whereby the resource at hand (in this case, oil) stunts development in the long run by appreciating the currency and making industrial exports uncompetitive.  Thus, ironically, the IS could be indirectly (and inadvertently) promoting the long-run social and economic well-being of the country via its provision of these services, and efforts to stop it could do the opposite.  Of course, this ignores the profound violence and economic disruption caused by the IS, not to mention the groups’ many other non-negligible negative qualities.  But it is something to consider by the Americans and the Iraqi state (and other involved actors) as they consider how to move forward.  Perhaps a reshuffling of Iraqi budgetary priorities is in order?
  • Substantial American opposition to US military intervention.  Simply put, Americans are really, really war-weary.  They are tired of the very real human and financial costs of war, and feel like Iraq (among other interventions) is a hopeless basket case that should just solve its own problems.  The difficulty that Barack Obama and the American government faces is the conflict between pragmatic action (which, given the uncertainty and number of variables involved, has yet to be defined) and appeasing the electorate (mostly for the sake of his party, as he is no longer eligible for reelection, although presidential legacy is always an influencing factor as well).
  • Would US intervention help or hurt Iraqi, American, and global interests?   What exactly are those interests in the first place?  These questions are very, very broad.  First, it must be asked which Iraqi domestic scenario is in the interests of the Iraqi people.  A Shia-dominated government?  A Sunni government?  A mixed government?  State partition?  Some have even questioned, especially since the Iraq war, whether democracy is even in Iraq’s best interest at this time, considering cultural factors and lack of established democratic precedent in the country.  This relates to the debate as to whether growth and form of government are best compatible, and which should be emphasized first.  For America and the globe, there are questions as to whether a certain Iraqi domestic situation is best for regional stability, especially when it comes to providing a counterbalance to the hostile Shia-dominated government of Iran.  How about oil price stability?  Since the commodity price surge of the 2000s, the global economy has certainly adjusted to higher prices and more prepared for price shocks via structural efficiency gains (note that the Great Recession was preceded by an oil price shock in which prices exceeded $100/barrel; prices have since consistently been around $100/barrel, and yet global growth has long since resumed).  Thus, conflict in Iraq might not be as much of an economic red flag as it once was.  But it still is important.  Considering all of these different questions (a non-exhaustive list which has been provided here),  it then has to be determined whether American military intervention of any form would help or hurt all of those interests.

Personally, I have no concrete opinion as to what course of action I think should be pursued.  Like so many subjects in the realm of public policy, each action has its costs and benefits, the net effect of which is extremely difficult to ascertain.  Literally millions, if not billions, of variables are at play here.  Yet in the end, a choice must be made by America’s leaders, even if that choice is ultimately to do nothing.  Regardless of what they choose, they can be assured to face unflinching judgement by millions of people with an understandable yet fatally simplistic view of the world who, like the rest of humanity, are limited in the amount and scope of information available to them.  That is the unfortunate reality of politics – a reality that, in this case, is further exacerbated by the life-and-death nature of the situation. It is an unenviable position for any policymaker to be in.  Invoking the old phrase, they are truly caught – caught between a rock and a hard place.

Why Republicans Should Embrace Comprehensive Immigration Reform

The escalating child migrant crisis has once again brought our ailing immigration system back into the mainstream spotlight.  As usual, both sides revert back to their usual arguments.  Republicans take the migrant crisis as being a result of loose borders and lax executive enforcement, and many call for more deportation of both the child migrants and all illegal aliens within the United States.  In contrast, Democrats generally argue for making it easier and faster to become a citizen and to implement gradual amnesty. Though both sides have legitimate concerns and arguments, I (surprisingly) mostly side with Democrats on this issue, and I strongly believe that Republicans should reconsider their stance on immigration reform.  Here’s why:

  1. We need more immigrants, legal or illegal, and badly.  Contrary to the beliefs of many, virtually all types of immigrants – legal or illegal, skilled or unskilled, etc. – benefit the country economically (though legal immigrants are, of course, preferable to illegal immigrants).  Skilled immigrants make up a large proportion of  innovative business start-ups, while low-skilled immigrants lower prices for consumers & employers and take jobs that natives are less inclined to perform.  All groups add to national GDP, and (unlike in many European countries), they usually contribute more to overall tax revenues than they consume via social programs, helping to balance budgets at the federal, state, and local levels.  As such, there is a strong economic argument to expanding legal immigration and making legal naturalization avenues more efficient.  Macro-economically, more legal immigrants could serve as both a short and long-term economic stimulant to the moribound US economy, adding to short and long-term supply and demand.  Due to the retirement of the baby boomers, the US labor force will continue to contract in the coming decades, producing labor shortages that an influx of immigrants could help fill (and freeing up natives to perform other jobs, thus boosting job creation).  Additionally (and largely due to the aforementioned retirement of the baby boomers), America faces long-run fiscal challenges that more legal immigrants (with their contribution to higher GDP and higher tax revenues) could help to alleviate.  Considering that Republicans are broadly regarded as the “party of business” and of fiscal conservatism, Republicans should thus be embracing legal immigration.  Instead, though they pay lip service to legal immigration, their laser-like focus on illegal immigration and accelerating enforcement measures overshadows their support for legal immigration.  Ironically, an increasing of legal immigration via immigration reform would help to solve illegal immigration and the presence of large numbers of undocumented workers.
  2. Continued deportation of unauthorized immigrants is impractical and costly.  Currently, there are over 11 million unauthorized immigrants residing within the United States.  Many Republicans argue that deportation should be ramped up to deal with them.  I disagree.  First of all, despite the perception among many, deportation rates have stabilized at relatively high levels in recent years – rates have not fallen off a cliff, so it’s not like this strategy isn’t being actively pursued.  Second, can you imagine trying to deport all 11 million + immigrants from the US?  Deportation already costs the government quite a bit, with the Department of Homeland Security reportedly requesting approximately $230 million in budgetary authority for the deportation of undocumented immigrants just in fiscal year 2015.  That is for the current rate of about 400,000 people a year, which is, of course, partially offset by continued inflows of unauthorized immigrants.  Logistically, deportations of a larger scale would undoubtedly create massive strains on the system.  Additionally, the removal of 11 million people would be hugely destructive economically – lowering productivity, raising prices, and disrupting both the creation and operation of businesses, at a time when the US has yet to fully recover from the 2007-2009 recession.  Of course, we also cannot forget the costs of splitting up families, which imposes deep scars the social fabric of the nation.  If anything, deportation should be scaled down.
  3. Resources devoted to immigration enforcement are at historical highs – and further enforcement measures, like building a wall, will not stop illegal immigration.  As partially mentioned above, immigration enforcement (such as deportations) is hardly on decline.  Indeed, according to The Economist, border enforcement costs about $20 billion a year, which is more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.  Yet, despite all these costs, we clearly still have enforcement problems, and until we reform the immigration system, we always will.  Why?  The reason is simple: the economic incentives for people to immigrate to the United States are overwhelming.  Even for low-skilled immigrants, pay is usually several times greater in the United States than it is in their country of origin.  No matter how much the federal government devotes to border enforcement and trying to prevent people from immigrating (legally or not), people will keep trying to come here – and many will find ways to succeed.  Since these forces will not be disappearing anytime soon, it would be better to work with the force, not against.
  4. Current immigration policy is tantamount to anti-trade protectionism – the antithesis of Republican ideology.  Republicans, in accordance with their belief in free markets, tend to be much more supportive of free trade than liberal Democrats.  However, the current legal immigration system is based largely on a series of quotas.  According to Vox.com, on the employment side a maximum of 65,000 H1B visas (for high-skilled workers) and 66,000 H2B visas (for low-skilled workers) are issued by the federal government annually.  Both of these quotas are usually hit pretty quickly, indicating that employer demand in the US is far outstripping supply.  These quotas are artificially restricting the supply of workers, raising employment costs and decreasing growth prospects.  Additionally, the number of “green cards” supplied tends to be less than demanded, especially for people without US-based relatives or prospective employers.  These restrictions do not let the market to operate efficiently, which goes against Republican notions of free market capitalism.  Not to mention, these quotas help to drive the illegal immigration that everybody is so furious about.
  5. Current immigration proposals do not grant unconditional amnesty – nor should they.  Last time I checked, the current mainstream immigration reform bills passed by House committees in the summer of 2013 allowed unauthorized residents to gain citizenship only after meeting several conditions, including paying several fines and going through vigorous checks.  Republicans are right to be weary of the granting of unconditional amnesty – unauthorized immigrants did, after all, technically break the law, and the rule of law must be upheld for the republic to function properly.  However, the current bills (and any bill that is likely to be passed) will not let unauthorized immigrants  off the hook.  Now, many Republicans say that any form of amnesty, conditional or not, is both unfair (as others still had to wait to become naturalized) and undermines the rule of law.  I think the fines help to partially offset this, punishing those who broke the law.  Though it (understandably) seems unfair that immigrants would be able to gain a “special” route to citizenship this way, such a route is, on net, still much more practical than sending those residing here illegally “to the back of the immigration line”.  Doing so would be too costly economically, difficult logistically, and would overwhelm the already strained legal immigration system.
  6. Republicans could use immigration reform to their political advantage.  Everyone knows that Hispanic voters tend to lean Democratic, and that this persuasion is becoming increasingly costly for Republicans electorally.  As the Hispanic population continues to grow in influence, the political parties increasingly need their support in order to win elections.  Right now, Republican opposition to immigration reform and a perceived anti-immigrant ideology is hurting the party.  Embrace immigration reform, and the Republicans could vastly improve their political fortunes.

Considering all of the outstanding issues on the federal policy radar, it is understandable that immigration reform might not top the policy agenda at the moment.  But until Washington is ready to devote its full attention to the issue, Republicans should seriously consider revising their views on the subject.  Too much is at stake for them not to do so.

Finding Balance in U.S. Foreign Policy

Finding the “right” foreign policy mix is never easy for the typical nation.  Each must weigh the national interest, resource availability, power relations & hierarchy, ethics, and the global common good, to name a few considerations.  Unfortunately for America, however, these considerations are, in some ways, far more difficult for it to answer, and much more complex than the decisions others face.  For America is not the typical nation.

Indeed, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, America has found itself in the somewhat awkward position of being the world’s last remaining superpower.  Even today, despite the rise of China and other emerging nations, the United States by far retains the world’s largest economy in absolute terms, and a military might (and budget) that dwarfs any other.  This has undoubtedly brought multiple benefits – vast geopolitical influence, favorable terms of trade, cultural hegemony, etc.  Being as it is at the top of the world system, however, it has also evoked intense scrutiny and criticism of its behavior.  For the world expects, in return for the benefits of unipolar hegemony, certain services in return, namely international security (especially for trade routes), a respect for sovereignty, economic and non-economic aid, and a respect and maintenance of international institutions, agreements, and norms.  Since the end of World War 2, this American-led and American-arranged world system has existed, and has been remarkably successful.  Since 1945, no global wars have occurred, inter-state peace has been (for the most part) maintained,  and new phases of globalization and free trade have flourished, benefiting both America and participants in the world system.

With the collapse of its political, ideological, and economic rival in 1991, however, and with no other country anywhere near matching America in its economic and military clout, the last 20 years have placed new strains on this American-led world system.  Whereas before the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the U.S. helped in some ways to restrain the other, now there was virtually no one to restrain the one remaining superpower.  Although America has, in my opinion, used its unique position to benefit the world on net (not only since 1991 but since the world system came into being in 1945), it still has been difficult for it to strike a good balance between restraint and the need to be assertive on the world stage.

Take, for example, America’s behavior following 9/11.  Up until that terrible event, American military spending and aggressiveness had been on decline.  This was due in part to the Cold War’s end, which meant that much related spending could be unwound.  Additionally, finding itself as the new unipole, and perhaps not wishing to abuse that status, America decided to ease any interventionist impulses (UN-related mishaps in Somalia in 1993 didn’t help).  No doubt, also, that the unique characteristics of America’s government at the time – a domestic-focused Democratic president and budget-conscious Republican Congresses – helped to shape the retrenchment of the 90s.  9/11 quickly changed all of that, and an “offense is the best defense” strategy soon prevailed, no doubt shaped by the unique neoconservative influence of the Bush Administration.  Defense spending surged, and because the 9/11 attacks came from non-state actors that tended to reside in states that “harbored” them, a new focus on militarily intervening in hostile and/or unstable states emerged.  The resultant wars in Afghanistan and (especially) Iraq that began not long after 9/11 have since provoked furious debate as to their necessity and “legality” within the world system.  Was America fulfilling its duties to maintain long-term global stability and acting according to its sovereign right to defend itself?  Or was this an imperial overstretch in which America attempted to impose its will on others?

Perhaps the answer is both, and when one takes a look at the considerations facing policymakers at the time, in some ways America’s actions look quite rational.  First of all, Afghanistan was harboring al Qaeda (the group responsible for 9/11), who needed to be rooted out to prevent future attacks.  Second, to help further prevent terrorist attacks, some “nation-building” of Afghanistan was required.  All of these could be said to benefit both the US and the world (at least theoretically speaking – for actual results, that’s a whole other matter ). Following 9/11, Afghanistan therefore seemed like a reasonable place to intervene.

But why Iraq?  After all, Iraq had no direct connections with al Qaeda, and it certainly wasn’t the only other hostile state in the world at the time (e.g. Iran, North Korea, etc.)  The original rationale, because Iraq was thought by several nations to have WMDs, doesn’t exactly explain why the U.S. decided to intervene solely there, as other hostile nations had or were attempting to gain WMDs.  Nor does the need to bring “democracy” and “freedom” – again, if that were really a main consideration, then the United States should have intervened in a significant portion of the world that lacks those criteria.  No, I think the real reasons are a blending of the following:

a) America badly needed to (or thought it needed to) project power into the Middle East to show that it was in control of the world system following 9/11.  Why the Middle East?  Because, it generally is the region where Islamic terrorism originated and where the ideology is fomented (though certainly not the only region of the world).  In this way, its invasion of Iraq was actually a quasi-response to 9/11.

b) Iraq had repeatedly been uncooperative with UN weapons inspections throughout the 1990s, and that (combined with past use of WMDs, such as using chemical weapons during the 1980s) violated international norms.  In a way, America was punishing noncompliance to international norms and a respect for international security, though ironically in some ways it did so by violating established international norms (e.g. going forth with the invasion of Iraq without UN authorization).  This punishment could also be seen as a message for other regimes (like Iran and North Korea) to get their act together (this arguably worked somewhat as intended, for at least the Libyan regime gave up its WMD pursuits following the 2003 invasion of Iraq).

c) Plans for regime change had long been discussed and advocated by people within both the Clinton and Bush administrations, as Saddam’s regime was widely perceived as a threat.  Failure to remove him from power during the Gulf war was seen as a weakness for the United States.  Since 9/11 was also seen as a moment of weakness, this was the perfect time to demonstrate that America had power and would “get the job done”.  Rahm Emanel’s “never let a crisis go to waste” statement naturally comes to mind.

d) Rightly or wrongly, Iraq (along with Afghanistan) was seen as an opportunity to spread democracy and other American values, arguably to help better maintain world security (refer to the democratic peace theory).

Clearly, these are rational reasons for America’s turn towards interventionism, which can arguably be said to help maintain both the global system and secure American interests (both of which are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts).  Then again, many of America’s actions (in Iraq especially) seemed unrestrained and negligent.  For example, in the post-invasion phase, Paul Bremer made serious errors as leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority (e.g. basically temporary governor of Iraq).  He unilaterally abolished the Iraqi military, initiated a “De-Ba’athification” program that rooted out Ba’ath Party influences, and failed to hand over sovereignty and self-governance to the Iraqis quickly.  These quasi-totalitarian actions (and lack of action) not only looked like an overreach, but they directly contributed to the insurgency and instability in the years following the invasion, an instability that threatened to cause wider instability in the international arena. An even wider question is whether Iraqi culture is even compatible with democracy.  Was it being imposed?  Was it right for them?

I think America had both maintenance of of the world system, self interest, and, perhaps, some quasi-imperialistic ambitions in mind when it comes to Iraq.  By imperialistic, I don’t necessarily mean creating a colony or subjugating the Iraqis to American rule in the long-run.  I do mean, however, an attempt to impose American-style governance and values in the naive belief that this could only enhance American and world security.  And in the post-9/11 environment, we felt justified in being so bold, seeing it as necessary to preserve our image as leader of the world system.  Imposing American values and maintaining a secure international order  (including America’s position at the top) became one in the same to us.  Regardless of our intentions, however, it is unclear whether intervention in Iraq can ultimately be said to have benefited either America or the world.  While a hostile regime was removed, its replacement by a “democratic” Shi’a regime makes it vulnerable to Iranian influence, and Saddam’s fall removed a check to Iranian behavior.  The conflict was very costly in terms of lives and finances.  Additionally, our negligent actions and non-actions post-invasion ironically have arguably made Iraq a new breeding ground for terrorists, making us worse off security-wise.  Only time will tell what becomes of Iraq.

The shift away from overreach began during the remainder of the Bush administration and has continued into the Obama presidency, regardless of various troop “surges”.  Iraqi sovereignty returned to them slowly, and a recognition that costly military intervention must be followed by costly  post-invasion nation building (lest the world system be more threatened than before invasion) has caused the United States to adopt a policy of “selective engagement” during the Obama years, with the least amount of military intervention as possible.  The problem is, the pendulum risks swinging much too far towards non-interventionism and non-assertiveness, depriving the world of proper American leadership and a fulfillment of its hegemonic duty as implicit maintainer of world security.  Inaction following Syria’s breach of Obama’s vague “red line” and an unwillingness for any military presence in Iraq or Afghanistan (despite continued internal security concerns) undermines the United States’ credibility, its position as hegemon, and threatens the security of the world system it maintains.  In some ways, I think too much emphasis is being placed on diplomacy.

Like the 1990s, military spending and aggressiveness are again on the decline.  But surely, the pendulum will swing back, perhaps this time to help address the rise of China, or just generally to correct for too much retrenchment in the late 2000s-present.  Regardless of America’s actions, China’s rise will surely disrupt or even upend the world system that has existed since the end of World War 2.  The considerations America has faced during its “unipolar moment” since the 1990s have been uniquely complex.  Now, with the construct of the entire world system shifting, striking a good foreign policy balance will be more difficult than ever before.

 

The Next Phase of Political Globalization

This is just one of many topics I’ve been thinking about lately (the theme generally varies randomly day by day), and I’m hardly the first person to address it, but I would like to note that I think the world has begun to to enter another, accelerated phase of “political globalization” over the past couple of years.  By political globalization, I mean an integration and synchronization of governmental policies, state sovereignty, territorial jurisdiction, and boundaries.  However, I’m not exactly talking about a “one world government” or “world state”, at least not yet.  Rather, I think political globalization will first happen in fragmented and regional segments.  Since they tend to share many similarities, it would make sense for regions to be the first level to experiment with an integration and synchronization of the functions of individual member states.

It is hard to deny that political globalization has already happened to an extent, largely as a direct result of waves of economic integration that have made the happenings in one economy quite significant to the performance of another.  As the globe has unified into regional economic blocks or as one cohesive unit, there has been significant pressure to coordinate the policies (especially the economic policies) of individual states. This can be clearly seen in the the case of Europe.  It is widely agreed that the southern “periphery” region near the Mediterranean will continue to pull down European growth overall until wages there are pulled back in line with productivity.  Until that happens, however, many have urged the economically stronger “north” to consume more and for governmental fiscal policies to become expansionary to prop up demand in Europe overall until the periphery regains strength.  This has been resisted thus far, especially by a cautious Germany that still bares the scars of its hyper-inflationary episode in 1920s Wiemar Republic.  However, as European recovery continues to languish, pressure continues to build for the north to not only step up but for a “fiscal union” to be created to complement the existing monetary union.  European nations have already given up much sovereignty when joining the European Union (EU); it seems ever more likely that further losses in sovereignty are necessary to preserve the union.

This convergence of policies will not be confined to Europe, however.  Rather, the economic globalization of the past few centuries has transformed many economies into one, though they continue to be impacted by many often contradictory policies and politics.  The Global Financial Crisis demonstrated the need for further political globalization to occur; the United States “sneezed” and the rest of the world caught a cold, resulting in several international conferences that called for a global implementation of Keynesian-style fiscal stimulus across several states to quickly re-inject falling economic demand.  After the crisis faded, industrialized nations further realized that a coordinated revamping of financial regulations, including new minimum reserve requirements and capital controls, were necessary.  This new-found synchronization of global politics will not fade, and will in fact be aided by the structure of capitalism itself.  Since capitalism values efficiency, anything that makes economic transactions more difficult – such as borders, differing policies, different legislation & regulations, etc. – will be fair game for phase-out or elimination.

It isn’t just economic forces that will be inducing further political unification.  As diverse peoples increasingly interact with one another due to advances in communication, transportation, and wealth, I believe that the “us” vs. “them” mentality that differentiates states will slowly fade, even if not entirely eliminated.  Increasingly, an identity as being a “citizen of the world” (cosmopolitanism) has gained some traction, with people becoming less likely to identify with the state they reside within/are formally a citizen of.  This increases the likelihood of further political globalization; as people increasingly recognize one another as fellow human beings, there will be pressure on governments to harmoniously synchronize their policies and politics to match one another.  Eventually, this could lead to a proliferation of regional supranational unions, such as the European Union, and perhaps one day a global union.  Such efforts will be further strengthened by the gradual realization that ironically, though tasked with the security and protection of their citizens, the current Westphalian nation-state system has in many ways decreased their security.  The “us” vs. “them” mentality states and state borders help to create often leads to vicious competition and/or security dilemmas (think realism and neorealism) that arguably can make the world worse off than it otherwise would be.  People may take this as an indication that a harmonization of political identities, borders, etc. is necessary.

This isn’t to say that regional or a one-world state is inevitable, or even probable (especially not in the near future). The nation-state system has been entrenched for hundreds of years now, and nationalism continues to exert strong influence (a la Russia, or even America following 9/11).  Additionally, most people (myself included) are weary of the idea of abdicating national sovereignty to a higher political entity, for multiple reasons (loss of a cherished national identity, pragmatism, religion, etc.)   Regardless, however, the forces that are shaping the world today and a widespread reevaluation of the Westphalian system will undoubtedly lead us to a new phase of political globalization and an overhaul of how states interact with one another in the future.  The question is, are we prepared to adapt?