A Fork in the Road.

“All I know is just what I read in the papers, and that’s an alibi for my ignorance.”—Will Rogers.

One sign of our political paralysis/polarization shows up in the reliance on special bi-partisan commissions to deal with troubling issues.  The 9/11 Commission did an excellent (if imperfect) job.  The Simpson-Bowles Commission[1] also did an excellent, if imperfect, job.  The work of the 9/11 Commission requires no explanation.

The Simpson-Bowles Commission sought to address the growing problems with federal spending, taxation, and deficits.  Basically, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and Defense each consume about 22 percent on federal spending.  So, two-thirds of the budget goes to old people and to psychological Viagra.  Even though reforms in 1983 cut benefits by 25 percent, the dynamics remain unsupportable.  Simpson-Bowles made a series of recommendations to address the rising cost of entitlements.  The Commission recommended a combination of tax reforms to enhance revenue with spending cuts.[2]  These recommendations went nowhere, for reasons that are equally disgraceful to both parties.   President Obama returned to the need for cuts in his failed effort to strike a budget deal with the Republicans.

Currently, the trust fund for Social Security is projected to run dry in 2034.[3]  After that the system will have to rely on only withholding taxes from current workers.  That, in turn, will mean that payments will fall to 79 percent of the promised level.  One alternative would be to increase withholding taxes by something like 25 percent.  Another alternative would be to reduce benefits by limiting the cost-of-living adjustments.  A third would be to increase benefits.  Some argue for a 10 percent raise for recipients, others for 100 percent of their own benefit plus 75 percent of their deceased partner’s benefits.  A fourth alternative would be to give care-givers and widows who left the work force an equivalent pay for their loss of Social Security income (although they paid no withholding tax during that period).

The current presidential campaign has shifted the debate on this issue.  The white populist revolts led by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have racked the Republican and Democratic parties alike.  Established party positions have had to shift in response.  According to Nancy Altman, “the real question is whether you expand Social Security across the board, so middle-class workers get an increase,…Then you can argue about how big to make the increase.”

Democrats have endorsed expanding and “modernizing” Social Security.  Three years ago “Progressives” began looking for a new issue to galvanize the Democratic electorate after the end of Barack Obama’s presidency.  [NB: So, the Democratic agenda is driven by the search for new ways to extend the role of government?  Rather than,…?]  First, Bernie Sanders took up the cause; then Hillary Clinton joined in.  Characteristically, realizing that she would have to veer to the center after winning the nomination, she took the low road: expanded benefits for widows and widowers and for those who lost benefits because they served as caregivers.

Still, how to pay for the expanded benefits?  One answer would be to raise the cap on taxable income above the current $118,000.  Another answer advanced by Democrats would be to “privatize” Social Security funds by investing them in equities.  The Bush II administration tried this on without success.  Now it may become a Democratic policy.

What can we afford?

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Commission_on_Fiscal_Responsibility_and_Reform

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Commission_on_Fiscal_Responsibility_and_Reform#Final_plan

[3] Mark Miller, “Social Security Expansion Gains Support in Washington,” NYT, 16 July 2016.

Trump l’oeil 1.

Just over a third (38 percent) of Republicans are satisfied with Donald Trump as the Republican presidential nominee.[1]  How will they respond in November?  Will they turn out in full force to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House?  Will some sit out the election?  The Republican Party needs a big turn-out.  Even if they don’t want Trump as president, they do want lots of Republicans to vote for all the other candidates down ballot.  The Republicans seem likely to retain control of the House, but control of the Senate doesn’t seem to be a lock.  Then there are all the state and local races.  How to get Republicans to turn out in large numbers?

There are two answers.  First, Clinton is deeply unpopular with all Republicans (and many Independents).  Keeping Clinton out of the White House probably will overshadow putting Trump into the White House as a Republican campaign theme.[2]  This is going to get very ugly, even by current standards.  The foolish Benghazi investigation has been done to death.  However, F.B.I. Director James Comey’s brutally honest assessment of her e-mail issue hurt her on the competence argument that she wants to make against Trump.  Polls run after Comey’s press conference reported a 5 point fall in her favorability rating and a 7 point fall in her honesty and trustworthiness ratings.[3]  This is worth pondering.  The honesty and trustworthy score fell more than the favorability score.  Some 2 percent of the respondents think worse of her as a person, but still prefer her as the candidate.  That’s because Trump is the rival candidate.  However, it also shows that personal attacks can drive down her favorability rate.

Clinton has provided a lot to work with here.  Both the Clinton Foundation and her post-Secretary of State speeches are still ripe for the plucking.  It should come as no surprise if the Republican rage-generators use these topics as a device to portray Clinton as an influence-peddler, or bribe-taker, or even extortionist.  This could end in a scorched-earth campaign founded on fanning the flames of personal animus.[4]  The day after the election, Americans are going to wake up to a legacy of ill-feeling and failure to address real issues.

Second, Republicans have already begun to sell themselves on the idea that a President Trump could be “managed” by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan.  Solid Republican majorities in the House and Senate would give them control over the Trump administration’s legislative agenda.  In this view, Trump really is just an empty suit who wants to fly around on Air Force One and tell the U.N. to its face where it can get off.  There is a large measure of self-delusion in this view.  Trump is a guy from New York City.  Regardless of anything he has said so far, he probably doesn’t believe in a “right to life”; probably isn’t any more homophobic than most Americans (Republican or Democrat); and isn’t a racist just because he takes a really hard line on both illegal immigration and immigration from Muslim countries “compromised” by Islamist terrorism.  “Because the New York Times says so” isn’t much of an argument.[5]  A guy who has used corporate bankruptcy to force his creditors to write down a lot of debt isn’t going to feel that McConnell and Ryan have got him over a barrel once he becomes President.  What is a Republican Senate going to do if Trump nominates Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court?

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 29 July 2016, p. 17.

[2] Probably there will be a lot of work for Trump-wranglers to keep him from saying or doing something that makes her seem the less-repellant candidate.

[3] “Clinton: a wounded candidate,” The Week, 29 July 2016.

[4] There is a certain passing similarity to Democrats’ personality-based attacks on Richard Nixon throughout his career.  None of that did America any good.

[5] See the column by NYT Public Editor Liz Spayd, “Why Readers See The Times as Liberal,” NYT, 24 July 2016.

The Least Generation.

A BA may not guarantee you a job, but not having a BA will guarantee that you don’t get a job.  Since the 2008 recession, the American economy has created 11.6 million new jobs.  Of  those new jobs, 99 percent went to people with at least some college and predominantly to people with a BA.[1]  A lot of those jobs probably were as managers, supervisors, and support staff.  Between 1983 and 2014, those job titles increased in number by 90 percent, while other occupations grew by only 40 percent.[2]

Since 1981, more than half of all BAs have been earned by women, rather than men.  Thirty-odd years of that trend has shifted the balance in the population at large.  Now, 29.9 percent of all men hold BAs, while 30.2 percent of all women hold BAs.  Obviously, at this rate the gap will become ever more stark.[3]

Back in 2005, about 40 percent of the graduate students studying science and mathematics in the United States came from foreign countries; in 2015, about 50 percent of the graduate students studying engineering came from outside the United States.[4]

According to the bipartisan commentator Juan Williams, the public schools have failed minority children.[5]  In 2015, 18 percent of black and 21 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders scored as “proficient” readers.  Among those aged 25-29 years, only 15 percent of Hispanics and 20 percent of blacks had BAs.  The Dallas sniper, Micah Johnson, had a high school GPA of 1.98.[6]  In turn, 2.00 is a “C” grade or “Average.”  At the same time, the Micah Johnson, graduated 430th out of a class of 453 seniors, in the bottom 5 percent of his class.  So, 95 percent of students in his class had a GPA of 2.00 or higher.  His GPA is emblematic of things that have gone wrong with American education.  A lot of grade inflation has taken place.  It looks like grades are almost entirely meaningless as an evaluation of work-ethic, knowledge, or intelligence.  Problematic kids get passed along by teachers.

However, two-thirds (68 percent) of Americans do not have a college degree.[7]  When the “Great Recession” hit in 2008, employment slumped.  Kinfolk said “Jed, improve your skills!” So, college enrollments jumped by 25 percent, from 2.4 million in Fall 2007 to 3 million in Fall 2009.  By Fall 2015, 52.9 percent of these students had graduated with either an AS or a BS.[8]  But why didn’t the others graduate?   Over a third (38 percent) of people with college loan debt didn’t graduate.  Almost half (45 percent) of people with college loan debt think that college wasn’t worth the price.[9]  Better than three-quarters (78 percent) of those who think that the game wasn’t worth the candle earn less than $50,000 a year and better than two-thirds (68 percent) are having trouble paying their debt.

You need a BA for success.  Women do college better than men.  Whites do college better than blacks or Hispanics.  Americans don’t do math, science, or engineering.  Money shouldn’t be a barrier to talent, such as it is.  It would be easy to join the pack and throw all this on the schools and on the teachers.  However, there is a lot of parental malpractice evident.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 16.

[2] “The bottom line,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 31.

[3] “Noted,” The Week, 30 October 2015, p. 16.

[4] “Noted,” The Week, 15 July 2015, p. 18.

[5] Juan Williams, “The scandal of our failing public schools,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 12.

[6] Dan Frosch and Josh Dawsey, “Dallas Shooter Bought Weapons Legally,” WSJ, 12 July 2016.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 16.

[8] “The bottom line,” The Week, 4 December 2015, p. 36.

[9] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 17.

Common Sense 1.

In 2014, 32,675 people died in traffic accidents.[1]  In 2014, 11,593 people died in homicides, mostly from fire-arms.[2]  Obviously, what we need are common-sense car control laws.

We have abundant mass transportation in many parts of the country.  Take SEPTA’s Regional Rail system as an example.  All this could be expanded to meet the needs of a greatly increased ridership.  The use of trains and buses would greatly reduce traffic jams on roads and highways.  This, in turn, would have many beneficial effects.  It would give Americans much more free time or work time that they would otherwise idle away stuck in some jam-up.  That, in turn, might reduce deaths from hypertension in addition to the many lives that are lost through traffic accidents.  Moreover, the walk home from the local train station would have other beneficial health effects.

It would reduce the amount of carbon burned, to the harm of the climate.  It would ease the congestion in parking places in cities.  Many parking garages could be converted to homeless shelters and many parking lots could become community gardens.  It would end the difficulties with getting snow-plows down city streets in winter.  It would end the quarrels over parking spots that one person had dug out and another had used in spite of the plastic lawn chair having been placed in the spot.  It would allow for much expanded bike-lanes in cities and suburbs (along with expanded sales of brightly-colored Spandex clothing).

Now, let me be clear, this would not mean an end to privately owned automobiles.  Legitimate motorists would still be able to obtain cars from Federally Licensed Car Dealers.  There would, of course, need to be a background check and a waiting period.  All this could be handled by an expanded Transportation Security Administration.  Automobiles are, after all, a form of transportation.

Moreover, very few people actually need an F-150 or a T-top Camaro with a scoop on the hood.  Yes, we live in a time of change that many people find disruptive.  Some people cling to their God and their gear-shifts.  However, both Smart cars and those little Italian thingees painted the color of urinals offer superb solutions to American driving needs.

In closing, I welcome a dialogue on these important issues.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 16.

[2] See: http://www.statista.com/statistics/195331/number-of-murders-in-the-us-by-state/

The Crisis of 2008 and the Return of New Deal Economics.

The “Great Recession” of the 2000s and since has inspired a certain interest in the “Great Depression” of the 1930s.[1]

The New Deal’s economic policies were grounded in historical precedents.  On the one hand, various forms of relief and public works projects put people to work, while the Agricultural Adjustment Act shored up the situation of farm-owners—at the expense of tenant farmers and share-croppers.  Like the Medieval three-field system, these policies put a floor under the economic collapse.  Thank God for that.

On the other hand, the New Deal tried to come to terms with the modern industrial corporation.[2]  This would be one engine of real recovery.  The Democrats along with some Republicans were divided on this subject.  For some, big business was inherently bad.  Businesses grew by swallowing up smaller firms; then they produced monopoly effects—higher prices, lower quality, a slowing of innovation.  This analysis was rooted in the “Populist” attack on railroads and other big corporations in the “Gilded Age.”  Subsequently, Democratic “Progressives” led by Woodrow Wilson had embraced a version of this policy.  They rejected big interest groups and wanted a strong national government to break-up or prevent their formation.  This strand of the New Deal pursued various anti-monopoly initiatives.

Others, however, accepted big interest groups (Big Labor as well as Big Business) and wanted a strong national government to hold the ring between them in the national interest.  This strand of thought pushed European-style “cartelization” to prevent the competitive price cutting that led to mass business failures, and downward pressure on both wages and demand; and promote efficiency through cooperation between big corporations and the government.  This strand sprang from the government directed economies of the First World War.  Allied with this strand of thought were intellectuals who had been deeply impressed by the Soviet “achievement” (although they sometimes shuddered at the human cost) and who favored “planning.”

The two strands struggled all through the New Deal.  Most often, anti-monopoly policy lost out because the efficiency and production advantages of big corporations far outweighed the gains from limiting the logical effects of competition.

Now the anti-trust arguments have reared their head again.[3]  Business concentration seems to be increasing.  Democrats focus on the real or imagined malign effects.  Bernie Sanders has called for the big banks to be broken up; Elizabeth Warren has called for an anti-trust assault on the big companies of Silicon Valley; and Hillary Clinton argues that big business uses its power “to raise prices, limit choices for consumers, lower wages for workers and hold-back competition from start-ups and small business.”

The New Deal analogy suggests that there is something to be said on the other side.  The New Deal’s first effort at “cartelization,” the National Recovery Administration (NRA) ended because the Supreme Court ruled against it in 1935, not because it had (yet) failed.  Later, with American entry into the Second World War, the New Deal abandoned its anti-business stance to get the massive increase in production needed for victory.  Both production and working-class incomes rose sharply.  That settled that question.  From then on, American liberalism rejected both government planning and attacks on monopoly.  Until now.

[1] See Amity Schlaes, The Forgotten Man, and Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, as examples.

[2] Ellis Hawley, The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly: A Study in Economic Ambivalence (1966).

[3] Eduardo Porter, “With Competition in Tatters, The Rip of Inequality Widens,” NYT, 13 July 2016.

Assault Rifle.

Rates of gun ownership in the United States have fallen sharply since the 1970s, from 50 percent of households to 30 percent of households.[1]  However, ownership of “assault-style weapons” has increased dramatically.

An “assault rifle” is a military weapon that is shorter and lighter than a traditional military rifle; and has a “selective fire” capability.[2]  The latter term means that it can fire on “automatic” (pull the trigger once and then hold on until all the ammunition is gone); “burst” (fire 2-3 rounds each time the trigger is pulled); and semi-automatic (fires and then loads one round each time the trigger is pulled).  In most cases, private ownership of automatic weapons like assault weapons was banned by the National Firearms Act of 1934.[3]

The weapon that is commonly referred to in the media as an “assault weapon” or “assault rifle” actually is an “assault-style weapon.”  These are solely semi-automatic versions of the “selective fire” assault weapons used by the military.  They look the same, but they don’t do the same.  Neither gun control advocates nor journalists care about the distinction.  Maybe they’re right.

Generally speaking, “assault-style weapons” make little contribution to America’s high homicide rate.  In 2014, 3 percent of homicide victims were killed with any kind of rifle.  On the other hand, the weapons have been used in several spectacular mass shootings in recent years.  The killers at Sandy Hook, Aurora, San Bernardino, Orlando, and Dallas all used “assault-style weapons.”

“Assault-style weapons” have long been a bete noire of gun control advocates.   In 1994 Congress passed a ten year ban on the sale of 19 different variants of “assault weapons.”  Mass shootings increased slightly during the period of the ban.  Congress did not renew the ban when it expired in 2004.  Mass shootings increased slightly after the ending of the ban.

The most popular “assault style weapon” in the United States is the AR-15 or one of its many knock-offs.[4]  (There are more than 8 million AR-15s in private possession in the United States.)  The AR-15 is the semi-automatic version of the fully automatic M-16 rifle used by the Army and the Marine Corps.  The weapons are light, rugged, carefully machined, and easily personalized.  They’re a lot of fun to shoot.  It is also likely that gun owners want them just because control advocates want to ban them.

This impulse appeared in the huge increase in sales of “assault-style weapons” after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.  President Barack Obama urged Congress to re-instate the expired ban on “assault-style weapons.”   Gun-owners flocked to buy the weapons before Congress acted.  They needn’t have worried.

While most Americans move—ponderously in the eyes of enlightened opinion here and abroad—away from gun ownership, a minority of Americans embrace more extreme forms of gun ownership.  It is trite, but true, to see two cultures struggling to assert their views.  America has a long history of the majority trampling on minorities; and of minorities finding ways to survive.  It might be better to treat guns like smoking: “education” rather than coercion.

[1] The Sixties and Seventies were more menacing times to live through than they appear in gauzy hindsight.  The men of the “Greatest Generation” had some experience with handling firearms and didn’t have an attack of the vapors in the presence of firearms.  The rural areas hadn’t emptied out yet.

[2] Generally, these weapons have a much shorter range than traditional rifles.  The effective range of an AR-15 is less than 500 yards, while the effective range of the M1903 Springfield used in the First World War is 1,000 yards.

[3] “Why assault weapons are so popular,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 11.

[4] The patent expired, so more than 280 manufacturers crowded into the market to compete with Colt.