Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

27 October 2016

Halfway There

[For discussion of yesterday’s October surprise, click here. For a recent post on Hillary’s hidden virtues and voting early for her, click here.]

If you despise Donald, help this go viral.

1. Backwards tax policy: “trickle down”
2. Selling jobs abroad
3. Overpriced health insurance

According to the polls, Hillary is likely to win. Her margin of victory will likely be larger than Obama’s in 2012, but smaller than Obama’s in 2008 or Bill’s in 1996. It may be a decisive and unquestionable victory, but not a landslide.

So don’t throw a party yet. Two big things tell us that progressives are only halfway there. First, there’s a lot of uncertainty. If you look at the daily listing of poll results on Real Clear Politics’ website, the results look like a scatterplot. If you take them as such and use a standard measure of probable error in a scatterplot—the so-called “root-mean-square” test—you get an error margin of about 4.4 percentage points.

So the margin of error suggests that Hillary will win by a victory margin between 1.6% and 10.4%, for a mean of 6%.

The second reason for withholding your celebration is much more important. Even if Hillary wins, we may still have legislative and judicial gridlock. Republicans have already said they will continue to block her appointments to the Supreme Court, just as they have blocked President Obama’s. They just won’t do their constitutional jobs unless things come out their way. They’ll take their judicial marbles and go home.

More important, the three abysmal policies that have brought our nation low and are destroying our middle class will remain as strong as ever. They are not hard to see, or to understand, if you can just penetrate the gigantic smokescreen of lies and propaganda that the GOP has thrown up for over a generation. Here they are:

1. Backwards tax policy: “trickle down.” To see why the middle class is in decline, you need know only four numbers: the top individual and corporate tax rates under Eisenhower, and the same numbers today.

Top Tax Rate Comparison

Top Individual RateTop Corporate Rate
Under Eisenhower (1952)92%52%
Today39.6%35% [page 17]

The entire philosophy of “trickle down” is in these numbers. You let the rich and corporations keep more of their money and make the middle class give up more of theirs, and the middle class will become poorer and poorer.

This is not rocket science or Nobel-prize winning economics; it’s cause and effect. Trickle down has failed to create jobs and stimulate the economy, over and over again, just like Communism. The historical evidence is irrefutable. But still the GOP promotes it. Why anyone would believe that giving already-rich people more money promotes economic growth and equality boggles the mind.

If you want to get rid of trickle down and go back to the tax policy that produced the longest and strongest spurt of growth in our nation’s history, you are going to have to turn the Senate and the House blue.

2. Selling jobs abroad. Our nation has sold some 60,000 factories abroad over the last generation. The GOP wants you to believe it was all about “free trade,” and that, if we try to stop the job drain, the postwar economic order will collapse.

That is nonsense. Maybe free trade made selling our factories abroad possible. But free trade didn’t require that result. The greed of our economic ruling class did. Selling factories abroad was how our 0.1% got obscenely rich and left the rest of us behind. It’s the precise cause of our obscene economic inequality.

Selling factories abroad was not an inevitable result of free trade, far less of capitalism. It was a conscious and deliberate policy choice. It was and is a result of tax policy and our policy of refusing to regulate international capital flows for the common good.

Economists note that these conscious policies have massively benefitted countries like China, Mexico, Vietnam and Bangladesh and have raised billions of foreigners out of extreme poverty. And so they have. But at the same time, they have bled the middle class not just here in America, but also in Britain, Continental Europe and (to a lesser extent) in Japan. The results: the middle class is poorer, more insecure and angrier in all these places, and right-wing anti-immigrant and racist political parties are on the rise. Do you really think a narcissistic megalomaniac like Donald Trump would have had a chance at our presidency, or that Brits would be Brexiting, if our global middle class were happy?

The basic fact is that letting our 0.1% get rich by selling our factories abroad was a conscious and deliberate policy choice, which has had terrible unintended consequences. We can reverse that choice just as consciously and deliberately as we made it. We can do so without abandoning free trade in goods and services, without protectionism, and without upsetting the postwar economic order. I have proposed one method, but there are several others, including tighter control of domestic-origin intellectual property. Yet we can’t begin to implement any of these methods with a red Senate and House.

3. Overpriced health insurance. Are your health-insurance premiums too high? Wonder why? The answer is simple, but little known.

Insurance is a unique business. It works by having a big risk pool, i.e., a large number of insured people. The larger the risk pool, the lower the premiums. Unlike other businesses, insurance doesn’t respond well to competition, which breaks up the risk pool and decreases the size of the fragments, and thereby raises premiums.

Contrary to GOP propaganda, the rest of the developed world doesn’t have single-payer health insurance because it loves “socialism.” It has single-payer for a simple, mathematical reason: the more people you insure, the lower the premiums. (Balkanized private insurance also has much higher administrative costs because of multiple incompatible procedures, rules, claims, forms, computer systems, and accounting for profit. But that’s another story.)

So if you want lower insurance premiums, you have to get the whole population of the United States into a single insurance program, something like Medicare for All. That’s what Hillary wants to do, at least for people over 55, who are the ones most in need of good health insurance.

But Hillary can’t do it alone. Neither could Obama. In 2007, before he even became president-elect, he recognized that single-payer is the best system. But he viewed it as politically impossible and so went for private “Obamacare.”

Obamacare has shown that you can add over 12 million news insureds without causing capitalism and free enterprise to collapse. If you want to let Hillary take the next step, you have to give her a blue Senate and House.

Conclusion. Even if Hillary wins decisively—an outcome that is far from assured now—your job as a voter is not yet done. You have to vote blue—for Democrats—all the way down the ballot, down to city council and board of education. And you have to do a little online research to find which of those running for so-called “nonpartisan” offices, including judgeships, is or was a Democrat.

Why? Because if you don’t, Republicans will fill those offices, gerrymander legislative districts, suppress your vote with “voter ID laws” based on nonexistent “voter fraud,” and take away your political power so slowly and subtly that you won’t even notice.

Don’t believe that? Well, read this analysis. It shows that, if legislative districts had not been gerrymandered by the GOP, the House probably would be blue right now.

So no, my fellow progessive voters. It’s not enough just to keep Donald out of the White House. That’s the easy part. We have to turn the Senate and the House blue.

Otherwise, we will have Barack Obama all over again, this time in female form. We’ll have a good, progressive president stymied by a minority-rules political system, and nothing will get done.

So take some time before you vote. Download and print out a sample ballot. Research who on it is progressive and vote for all of them, even if unopposed. Don’t vote for anyone else. And remember to vote early; it will be easier on you and will give people who can only vote on election day a shorter wait and a better chance to make a difference.

If enough of us do that, we can turn this country around in less than three months. If not, we will all have plenty of opportunity to complain and lament, as national gridlock continues.

Footnote As of Wednesday, October 26, the results of the fourteen national, general-election presidential polls on Real Clear Politics’ poll page were as follows (with pluses for Hillary leading and a minus for Donald): 3, 5, 4, 6, 9, 10, 14, -1, 1, 2, 9, 8, 1, 13. According to the root-mean-square formula, the margin of random error (in deviation from the mean of 6) for this sequence of numbers is about 4.42. Given the large number of possible sources of systematic error in this election, that is probably a fair estimate of the actual margin of error for the poll results shown. [Erratum: An earlier version of this post erroneously calculated the margin of error as 7.5%, for failing to calculate with respect to the mean. I regret the error.]

The October Surprise

Well, we now have our October surprise. It may not be the only one, so the definite article “the” may be inapt. But surely it’s big enough to qualify as one.

The “surprise” actually comes in disguise. By now, no one should be surprised that Hillary, as Secretary of State, was careless with her e-mail. That’s old news. Nor should anyone be surprised that Hillary’s confidant Huma Abedin and her bizarre husband Anthony Weiner (well named!) have become permanent albatrosses around Hillary’s neck, which she should have jettisoned long ago for the good of her candidacy, her party, and the nation.

The real surprise is what James B. Comey did as FBI director.

You may remember Comey for his derring deed of 2004, while Dubya was president and Comey himself was Acting Attorney General. Comey was standing in for Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was having emergency gall-bladder surgery. Sycophant White-House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card planned to confront Ashcroft in his hospital room, while he was still sedated, and get him to expand a program of secret spying on Americans that the Justice Department had concluded was illegal.

With sirens blaring, Comey rushed to the hospital to thwart the palace coup. He arrived before Gonzales and Card and confirmed his previous agreement with Ashcroft, who upheld the law and would not bend. When Gonzales and Card went to the president, Comey, Ashcroft and then-FBI-Director Mueller all offered their resignations, and the president backed down. The rule of law prevailed.

Based on this history, the Democratic Obama Administration appointed Comey, a Republican, head of the FBI. The Administration believed that Comey was a straight-shooter, a “by-the-book” lawyer, who would uphold the law regardless of party or politics.

Until yesterday. Through a letter to congressmen, which they or their staff apparently made public, Comey disclosed new “evidence” about possible breaches of confidence involving Hillary’s e-mails to Abedin. The “evidence” was a computer shared by Abedin and Weiner, which apparently contained e-mails sent by Hillary when she was Secretary of State.

No one had yet examined the computer or its contents. No one knew whether it contained any classified information or even any sensitive information of State. No one knew whether or not every e-mail on it had already been examined by the FBI in determining that, although Hillary had been “extremely careless,” no “reasonable prosecutor” would bring a criminal complaint against her.

Disclosing the possible existence of possibly relevant evidence at that early stage of examination was a breathtaking violation of the most basic professional discipline. No investigator would, in the normal course of professional work, ever disclose to the public the source or nature of evidence at that early stage. Nor would any prosecutor. Unless his office provides him some kind of immunity, it is likely that Comey could be disbarred as an attorney for that single act.

But he, the same guy who had offered to resign and had gotten two others to do so, all in order to uphold the rule of law, did the deed. In one moment, he forfeited his reputation as a straight shooter, “by-the-book” lawyer and partisan of the rule of law for partisan politics. (It was not only foreseeable, but inevitable, that such a letter sent to members of Congress in the middle of the most contentious presidential election in recent memory would be made public.)

The sad thing is not that Hillary may have made yet one more bad judgment about e-mails. We won’t know until well after the election whether the computer at issue contains any new, let alone relevant, evidence. The sad thing is that a rare Republican known for absolute punctiliousness in upholding the rule of law threw his reputation away in a single transparent attempt to sway the election.

When you think about what Comey has done, and how solid his reputation had been beforehand, you come to an unavoidable conclusion: partisan politics in the United States has become the non-lethal equivalent of “total war.” It is unlikely that any administration, of either party, will ever again appoint anyone from the other party for a position as sensitive as Attorney General or Director of the FBI or CIA. Even if not a possible subject of attorney discipline, what Comey did has raised hyperpartisanship to celestial levels.

In all likelihood, his unprofessional disclosure will not stop Hillary from becoming president. There are many voters who, like me, have believed from the beginning that Hillary’s carelessness with e-mails was a serious lapse of judgment. But we also believe that, bad as it was, it cannot justify electing a totally unqualified, narcissistic, megalomaniac, crypto-fascist as president. These voters will not likely change their minds.

What will change is that some Republicans, motivated by further “evidence” of Hillary’s malfeasance, will vote for down-ballot candidates whereas otherwise they might not even go to the polls. At the same time, some erstwhile Bernie supporters, having their assumed moral superiority further thrown into question by such “evidence,” may refrain from voting at all. As a result, Hillary’s chances of taking the Senate and the House with her will be reduced.

No one who looks straight at Comey’s professional malfeasance can have any doubt that this was its motivation. It certainly wasn’t good for Comey’s career as an investigator or an attorney. Nor was it good for the investigation he supervises or the Constitution he had sworn to serve.

The concept of “total war” arose during a real war—World War I—from the fevered brain of an obscure German Zeppelin captain. It nearly extinguished our species during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. For a species like ours, whose major evolutionary advantages are empathy and cooperation, and whose cleverness at destruction far exceeds its cleverness at politics, “total war” is an extinction warrant.

As another German observed, “war is just politics by other means.” So “total war” is just as deadly in politics as it is in hot war.

In its no-holds-barred quest to rule as a minority party, the GOP was waged total war for far too long. It has gerrymandered state and federal legislative districts unrelentingly and has resisted every legislative and judicial attempt to make them fairer. It has tried transparently to disenfranchise the poor, the elderly and minorities by claiming to “cure” non-existent voter fraud. Through the most powerful and effective propaganda machine in human history (Fox) it has promoted big lies like “trickle down” and denied global warming. It has applied filibusters at 142 times the historical rate, and it has achieved minority rule in the House through its so-called “Hastert Rule.” And its individual senators have used so-called “Senate holds” as unchecked individual vetoes of legislation and Executive appointments, resulting in individual power never contemplated by our Constitution.

The GOP’s latest example of “total war” is its promise never to advance Supreme Court nominations made by Hillary, if elected president, after having implicitly promised last summer to leave such nominations to the next president. Donald’s refusal to accept the results of the election unless he wins was just a baby step beyond.

Against the backdrop of these relentless and endless assaults on democracy, the professional defalcation of a once-respected law enforcer should come as no surprise. But it was a surprise to those who thought that Hillary had the White House sewed up, and perhaps the Senate and House, too.

So Donald may be right: the election is “rigged.” But it’s not rigged against his party, or by tampering with or fraudulently reporting the vote. It’s rigged by the tactics of “total war” in politics that the GOP has pursued for a generation: gerrymandering, vote suppression, big lies and propaganda, filibusters, minority rule in the House, abuse of Senate holds, constitutional defalcation and (now) refusing even to accept an undesired outcome.

The result has been a total conversion of the Party of Lincoln into a party of extremists, which has utterly abandoned the tolerance, prudence and common sense of its founding. Now it has nominated the most bizarre, unqualified and dangerous candidate in our nation’s history.

Unless the stress of Donald’s candidacy causes the GOP to splinter, progressive forces may never have another chance as promising as this election to win the “total war” the GOP is waging. But in order to win it, our voters—including independents, Republicans uncomfortable with Donald, and millennials—must recognize the “total war” against them and against simple democracy, despite Hillary’s flaws.

Will they do that? Will they understand the moment and its urgencies? Or will they turn aside, let the best become the enemy of the good, and ignore the challenge laid before them? On the answers to those questions depend not just the results of this election, but the future of American democracy and whether, a few years down the road, we Yanks will have a democracy at all.

Endnote: In making information about the newly-discovered computer public, not only did Comey violate ethnical norms that apply to every person trained as a lawyer. He also violated policies, customs and specific rules of the Justice Department, which have been renewed every four years, including this year.

Finally, Comey also violated the hierarchy of the Justice Department itself: Department officials, not the FBI head, make public announcements of the results of investigations, and then only when they have been fully completed. For corroboration of and detail about these points, read this op-ed by two former deputy attorneys general, one of whom was my law-school classmate at Harvard, 1975-1978.

The point of all this is not to pile on Comey for apparently unprofessional grandstanding and possibly partisan action, but to emphasize a painful fact of life. Professionalism in any profession goes out the window when partisanship takes over, just as it does in science, for example, in global warming. The only reliable way to restore professionalism and the discipline and rationalism that accompany it is to remove the people responsible for abandoning it from positions of power and influence.



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