Third Way Perspectives

Subscribe via RSS

Archive for February, 2014

What America’s leftward shift means for elections

February 24th, 2014

by

With each new poll, it’s becoming clear that the United States is shifting to the left. A majority of Americans now supports same-sex marriage.  And legalization of marijuana.  And normalization of relations with Cuba.

Gallup reports that, in 2013, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as liberals reached its highest level since 1992. True, it’s only 23 percent. Conservatives, at 38 percent, still outnumber liberals. But the trend has been slowly and steadily upward for liberals since 1996, when it was 16 percent.

This shift is due entirely to Democrats becoming more liberal — 29 percent of Democrats in 2000, 43 percent in 2013. At the same time, Democrats have won the national popular vote in five out of the six presidential elections since 1992 (all but 2004). Barack Obama won a majority of the popular vote twice — something Bill Clinton couldn’t do.

Read the rest of this entry »

It’s Good News When Terrorists Break Up

February 24th, 2014

by

What happens when you’re the meanest player on a team with a history of violence (say, the Philadelphia Flyers from the 1970s), but you disobey the coach too many times? No matter how good on the field, pitch or ice you may be, the head office has no choice but to cut you from the roster.

This happened recently in the world of international terrorism, where al-Qaida Central became fed up with one of its franchises and disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, or ISIS. This is the first time al-Qaida cut ties with one of its regional groups — surprisingly so since ISIS has been successfully driving the jihadist agenda in the heart of the Middle East.

This split is good news for the U.S. and its allies. Here’s why:

Read the rest of this entry »

What unites Democrats? Republicans!

February 13th, 2014

by

Back in 1901, Finley Peter Dunne’s character Mr. Dooley said, “The Dimmycratic Party ain’t on speakin’ terms with itsilf.” Is that happening again now? You might think so, given the talk about a populist revolt on the left.

But Democrats are in fact remarkably united on most issues. They agree on everything from increasing the minimum wage, to extending unemployment benefits to raising the debt ceiling.

Yes, there are divisions emerging over trade and energy. But it’s not anything like the bitter confrontations we used to see among Democrats over civil rights and the Vietnam War. It’s also not anything like the bitter civil war that’s broken out in the Republican Party. No one is threatening to walk out.

Read the rest of this entry »

Goodbye and Good Riddance

February 13th, 2014

by

The Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS, program was dealt a death blow last month when the Pentagon advised the Navy to purchase only 32 of the small, fast and much maligned ships that were originally designed to combat three distinct threats — submarines, mines and groups of small boats.

This was absolutely the right move for at least three reasons.

The first, and most glaring, deficiency of the LCS is that, as a recent Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation report states, the “LCS is not expected to be survivable in high-intensity combat.” While the Pentagon has used similar language in previous reports, the level of detail explaining why the boat wouldn’t survive a real fight is unprecedented.

The report indicates the ship’s vulnerability is inherent in its design. In dry Pentagonese, the LCS  does “not require the inclusion of survivability features necessary to conduct sustained combat operations in a major conflict as expected for the Navy’s other surface combatants.” Thus, despite having “combat” in its name, the LCS is pretty lousy at fighting enemies.

Read the rest of this entry »

GOP Health Care Reforms would Affect Jobs, Too

February 10th, 2014

by

Lost in the back-and-forth over the most recent CBO report on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a simple fact that any expansion of health care coverage for Americans will inevitably have an impact on America’s working habits. It is no less true of GOP proposals than Obamacare.

To make coverage more affordable, any proposal must provide some sort of subsidy. For example, the recent Republican proposal from Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Richard Burr (R-NC), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) includes a tax credit for lower income workers. The act of giving someone financial assistance for health care will naturally reduce the need to work somewhat.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) thinks this creates a poverty trap. While Ryan neglects the fact that millions of Americans are bankrupted every year due to medical bills, he instead focuses on the ACA’s subsidies to buy coverage through the federal and state marketplaces. These subsidies decline as workers earn more money, which means that workers have to work a little harder to keep another dollar in take-home pay. So yes, some people will choose to work less to keep their subsidy. But does that make the ACA a poverty trap? Of course not. We have dozens of social insurance programs ranging from food stamps to the Earned Income Tax Credit, and yet we remain the world’s greatest economy.

The alternative to phasing out benefits by income is to provide the same benefit to rich and poor alike, as many European nations do. But that requires higher tax rates or cuts in government services, which, in turn, leads to greater burdens on everyone.

Here is how CBO describes this problem in their most recent report:

CBO’s estimate that the ACA will reduce employment reflects some of the inherent trade-offs involved in designing such legislation. Subsidies that help lower- income people purchase an expensive product like health insurance must be relatively large to encourage a significant proportion of eligible people to enroll. If those subsidies are phased out with rising income in order to limit their total costs, the phaseout effectively raises people’s marginal tax rates (the tax rates applying to their last dollar of income), thus discouraging work. In addition, if the subsidies are financed at least in part by higher taxes, those taxes will further discourage work or create other economic distortions, depending on how the taxes are designed. Alternatively, if subsidies are not phased out or eliminated with rising income, then the increase in taxes required to finance the subsidies would be much larger. 

This is nothing new. CBO had previously estimated that the ACA would have some impact on jobs. What’s new is that the CBO has refined his estimate and made it more precise based on the latest research.

Some conservative commentators like Avik Roy have acknowledged that GOP plans will also affect working habits due to income-based subsidies. But conservatives persist in the belief that GOP alternatives are morally superior even though their actual solutions are just different choices about the amount of the subsidies and the degree of security offered to American workers.

Economics is called the dismal science because it shows the downside to any choice. But there’s nothing dismal about having security and stability in your health care. As Jason Furman, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors at the White House explains, the ACA provides many economic benefits. Today, under Obamacare, millions of Americans no longer have to worry about getting coverage for a pre-existing condition.  They don’t have to stay in a job that they don’t like because of their health insurance. And they don’t have to worry about losing their health care coverage if they lose their job. The GOP needs to make it clear whether they disagree with the goals of Obamacare or the means.

Can Obama circumvent Washington?

February 3rd, 2014

by

Washington is broken,” Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for president, said in September 2008. “My whole campaign has been premised from the start on the idea that we have to fundamentally change how Washington works.”

There are three ways that Washington works: compromise, crisis and clout. Compromise is the way Washington is supposed to work. It’s practically mandated by the Constitution, with its complex system of checks and balances and separation of powers. It’s the way the U.S. government has worked for more than 200 years.

But it’s not working very well any more. Party positions have dug in. Deal-making is harder now that there are fewer moderates in Congress. It has taken more than two years for the House of Representatives to pass a farm bill, and it’s already under attack by both conservatives and liberals.

Congress did pass a budget deal last month, and there’s a reasonable chance that some version of immigration reform will go through this year. In both cases, the driving force is fear. Congressional Republicans are desperate to avoid another government shutdown over the budget. They are also determined to avoid a repeat of 2012, when minority voters, angry over Republican opposition to immigration reform, voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

Things can get done quickly in Washington if there’s a sense of crisis in the country. It took only a few weeks after September 11 to pass the Patriot Act, for example. The financial crisis of 2008 drove a whole slew of legislation — from the government bailouts under President George W. Bush to Obama’s economic stimulus plan.

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, remarked early in the first term. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

But a crisis cannot be declared. It has to be real. Voters have to feel an overwhelming sense of urgency. That’s why politicians are always hyping issues. They declare an education crisis or an environmental crisis or an energy crisis. Or they try to rally the country to fight a “war” on something — a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on poverty, a war on terror. If the public urgency is not authentic, however, opponents won’t have much trouble blocking government action.

Recently, Democrats have been talking about a growing crisis over income inequality. “Those at the top have never done better,” the president said Tuesday night. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened.”

The income gap between rich and poor in the United States is the widest of 10 advanced countries, according to the Pew Research Center. But fewer than half of Americans think it’s a big problem. That’s the lowest level of concern of any country except Australia, which has a much smaller income gap.

Obama is counting on the inequality issue to get two significant pieces of legislation through Congress this year: an increase in the federal minimum wage, which was last raised to $7.25 an hour in 2009, and an extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed.

“This Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people,” Obama told Congress.

The measures are far from certain to pass. Which is why the president decided to resort to Option 3 — clout. The White House calls it a “pen and phone” strategy. Use the pen to sign executive orders. Use the phone to persuade private operations to adopt policies that are in the public interest. No congressional action required.

During the State of the Union, the president singled out the owner of a Minneapolis pizza parlor who just gave his employees a raise. “Tonight,” Obama said, “I ask more of America’s business leaders to follow John’s lead and do what you can to raise your employees’ wages.”

Then Obama announced he was signing an executive order requiring future federal contractors to pay workers a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. He also said he would sign executive orders mandating higher fuel efficiency standards for trucks, more investment in classroom technology and better federal job training programs.

“Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I am going to do,” the president told Congress.

Republican lawmakers are calling it a power grab, but who cares? The public’s opinion of Congress could hardly be worse. The problem is that executive orders are usually narrow and impermanent. “How many people, Mr. President,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) asked, “will this executive action [requiring future federal contractors to pay at least the minimum wage] actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero.”

An executive order can always be rescinded by the next president.  It’s much harder to repeal legislation — as Republicans are discovering with Obamacare.

Clout is an assertive approach to governing that usually produces modest results. Usually, but not always. The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, using his wartime authority as commander in chief. But it still did not have the force of law. In order to abolish slavery permanently, Lincoln had to maneuver Congress into passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution two years later. (It’s all in the movieLincoln.)

Obama’s speech was an acknowledgment of failure. He has not been able to “change how Washington works.” So he has to circumvent the process.

Obama is not alone. The last four presidents — two Democrats and two Republicans — all tried to change Washington. They all failed.

The problem isn’t Obama. The problem is the problem.

This piece was originally published via Reuters.