Friday, June 29, 2018

The Immigration Paradox Revisited

I posted about this awhile ago but the release of new and interesting data by Pew is a good reason to revisit the topic.
Here are three things we know about the American public and immigration.
1. The American public is becoming more favorable, not less favorable, toward immigration. In fact, the public is not only more favorable but it is now at historically high levels of favorability toward immigration and immigrants. New Pew data tell us:
* The percent saying legal immigration should be decreased has gone down fairly steadily from 53 percent in 2001 to 24 percent today, while the percent saying it should be increased has gone from 10 to 32 percent. Even among Republicans there's been a 10 point fall in the "decreased" percentage and a 7 point rise in the "increased" percentage.
* 69 percent of the public says they are "sympathetic" toward undocumented immigrants who are in the US illegally. This includes a 48 percent sympathetic/49 percent unsympathetic view among Republicans.
* Overall, by 71 to 20 percent, the public believes immigrants mostly fill jobs US citizens don't want and by 65 to 26 percent, they say undocumented immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than US citizens. The analogous figures among Republicans are 57-30 and 46-42.
* The public overwhelmingly believes (67 percent) that giving people who come to the US illegally a way to gain legal status does not constitute a "reward" for wrongdoing. Just 27 percent endorse the reward for wrongdoing perspective. Even among Republicans, the split on this question is very close to even (46/47).
* Finally, fewer and fewer people say they are bothered by encountering immigrants who speak little English. Currently, the not bothered/bothered split is 73-26. And 59 percent of Republicans put themselves in the not bothered category.
2. The places with the most immigration tend to be the ones least supportive of Trump and a hard line on immigration. Conversely, of course, if the exposure to immigrants is limited, that tends to correlate with high support for Trump and being hostile to immigration. And yet...despite a public that's trending favorable toward immigrants, especially in areas where they are common, we have the third thing we know about the public and immigration:
3. Anti-immigrant feelings now have more political salience than they have had a very long time and that is hurting the Democrats. It is clearly the case that for an important minority of--primarily white noncollege--voters, they feel intensely enough about this issue to respond positively to anti-immigrant messages and candidates. Trump would not be President if this were not true. And Trump and the GOP--as their conduct this election cycle underscores--clearly hope they can continue to use this issue to keep these voters away from the Democratic party, a strategy that has worked to perfection in Rustbelt and other declining areas of the country.
Can the Democrats resolve this immigration paradox so they do not suffer politically for being pro-immigrant in country that is increasingly pro-immigrant? We shall see. But it would appear they need to think carefully about how to reach voters outside of blue America who do not start with the presumption that all immigration is completely beneficial. They may have concerns about it, both cultural and economic, despite holding at least some positive feelings about immigrants and immigration (as the Pew data on Republican immigration views suggests). It would be wise for Democrats to take these concerns seriously and not reflexively tar such people as "racist", which, as Thomas Edsall noted in his most recent New York Times column, simply drives them into Trump's hands .
Otherwise,the immigration paradox is likely to continue, and continue to hurt the Democrats.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Personally, I wish we had more robots.

The fear that a coming wave of automation tied to robots and AI will put zillions of people out of work is a staple of the commentariat and, sadly, considerable sectors of the left. This is absolutely the wrong way to look at the issue and flies in the face of abundant historical and economic evidence. The case for looking at the rise of the robots, not as an impending cataclysm, but as a potential path to higher living standards and a better society is laid out neatly in a new paper from the Roosevelt Institute's Mark Paul. If you read just one report about the robots/mass unemployment issue, I urge you to read this one. It is clear, based solidly in the available literature and provides good recommendations for moving forward.
From the executive summary:
"The narrative that large-scale automation will imminently lead to mass unemployment and economic insecurity has become prevalent in the media. As the story goes, we are on the cusp of a major technological change that will drastically alter the nature of work, leave masses unemployed, and exacerbate already high levels of economic inequality.
In this paper, we argue that this narrative detracts from the bigger underlying problems with the rules of our economy and the distributional consequences of increased automation under current institutional arrangements.
First, we find that there is little evidence to suggest that the U.S. economy is approaching massive technological change: productivity levels are remarkably low and capital investment is significantly slower than would be expected under impending technological upheaval. Second, historical evidence suggests that even if we were on the verge of rapid technological change, mass unemployment would not be inevitable. In the past, the long-term effects of technological advancement on employment have been positive. Technology has allowed workers to do their jobs better and faster, which in turn, increased output and raised living standards.
As with any major structural shift in the economy, technological change has the potential to create job loss in the short term but does not necessarily lead to net job destruction in the long term. The amount of work available is not a fixed quantity, and technology can complement labor, instead of substitute for it, making workers more productive rather than simply replacing them. The job gains from technology often outpace the job losses over time and allow workers to focus on better, high-productivity jobs.
However, we should not trivialize the costs of this kind of economic transition for workers in the short term, nor can we ignore the structural disadvantages in today’s economy that define economic outcomes. Workers are right to be concerned about the negative effects of technological change because the historical link between labor productivity and wages, which grew side-by-side for most of the 20th century, is broken. In the past, productivity growth from technological innovation led to shared prosperity for workers, including higher wages and better living standards. When that link broke, it changed how the economic pie was divided.
In order to fix this broken link, we propose...policy changes [like full employment] that would ensure that economic growth from technological change benefits everyone."
Exactly. That is the problem, not a highly improbable rise of mass unemployment. The rise of the robots should mean higher productivity which, in turn, should mean better lives for all of us IF we can restore the broken link the report alludes to.
In Don’t Fear the Robots: Why Automation Doesn’t Mean the End of Work, Roosevelt Fellow Mark Paul challenges the narrative that large-scale automation will imminently lead to mass unemployment and economic insecurity. He debunks the idea that we are on the cusp of a major technological change th...

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

I ❤️ GMOs

One of the more unfortunate tendencies on the left is to embrace causes with shaky scientific underpinnings and then to persist in supporting such causes when the science shows the cause is bogus. A great example of this is GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The hysteria against genetically modified crops is ridiculous and utterly without scientific merit. And of course that hysteria slows down the rate at which actual people--many of them quite poor--can benefit from GMO advances.
Don't believe me? I refer you to the recent Saturday essay in the Wall Street Journal by science writer (and former anti-GMO activist) Mark Lynas. Lynas points out:
"The problem isn’t just that almost all of the alarms about GMOs were false. It’s that the anti-GMO campaign has deprived much of the world of a crucial, life-improving technology—and has shown the readiness of many environmentalists to ignore science when it contradicts their prejudices. That’s not the example we need just now as the planet faces the very real threat of climate change.
Contrary to our initial fears, the overall impact of genetically modified crops has been to dramatically reduce the amount and toxicity of pesticides sprayed by farmers. Crops such as Bt corn, so called because it incorporates proteins toxic to insects from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, have enabled farmers to rely less on sprayed insecticides. A meta-analysis, combining the results of nearly 150 peer-reviewed studies, was published in 2014 in the highly regarded journal PLOS One. It concluded that GMO crops used 37% less chemical pesticide (that is, both insecticide and herbicide) than conventional versions of the same crops, thanks largely to the new crops’ internal biological protection against insects....
Perhaps the most egregious and now-exploded myth is that GMO foods are somehow bad for human health. Doctored graphs showing purported correlations between rates of autism and GMO crop adoption, or suggested links between genetic engineering and cancer rates, have become widespread internet memes. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found that only 37% of U.S. adults in the general public believe that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, as compared with 88% of American scientists.
The reason for this gap is clear enough: Anti-GMO activists have peddled a great deal of misinformation to the general public, while the scientific community, in the U.S. and elsewhere, has known for years that there is no basis for the health concerns that have long bedeviled GMOs.
A massive 2016 report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded that “the data do not support the assertion that cancer rates have increased because of consumption of products of [genetically engineered] crops.” Moreover, “patterns of change in cancer incidence in the U.S. are generally similar to those in the United Kingdom and Europe, where diets contain much lower amounts of food derived from [these] crops.” The NAS reached the same conclusion for obesity, diabetes, celiac disease, various allergies and autism, pointing to no evidence of higher rates in countries that use GMOs.
The view that GMO foods have no discernible impact on health is now the well-established consensus across the international scientific community. It includes not just the NAS but the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.K.’s Royal Society, the French Academy of Science, the African Academy of Sciences and numerous others.
Even the usually GMO-skeptic European Commission admitted in a 2010 report: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than … conventional plant breeding technologies.”
Particularly striking to me was the strongly worded statement issued in 2012 by the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It declared, “The science is quite clear: Crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.“
So let's get a grip here! Science is our friend; we should welcome technologies that improve millions of lives, not fear them.
About this article
Genetically modified crops have been vilified and banned, but the science is clear: They’re perfectly safe. And what’s more, the world desperately needs them.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Time for the Left to Think Big!

And by "big", I don't mean just plumping for a big program like Medicare for All, however worthy an idea that may be, and trying for a big election victory, however desirable that may be. I mean thinking carefully about the left's overall objectives in both the short and long term and how they could be implemented in the face of inevitable reactionary counter-attack.
Paul Mason has a very interesting analysis along these lines in his latest monthly column on the Open Democracy site. There's a lot in this ambitious piece, but this sets the scene:
"[T]he project I am trying to outline in this series – namely the programme, philosophy and moral basis for a radical social democracy in the 21st century – has increasingly to be conceived as a plan for picking up the pieces, not the deepening and extension of an essentially stable system.
In my book ‘Postcapitalism’, I argued that information technology creates the possibility of a long transition beyond market-based societies towards an economy based on relative abundance, high automation, low work and free utility produced by network effects. This remains, for me, the 21st century equivalent of the “maximum programme” adopted by social-democracy in the 1890s.
However, the crisis of the short-term demands answers – and better ones than the re-treaded Keynesianism on offer from the traditional social-democratic left.
A programme of immediate, “minimum” actions and principles – which social democratic parties across Europe and North America could sign up to – would have at its heart two twin aims:
1. to revive economic growth, prosperity and social cohesion in Western democracies; and
2. to defend and deepen their democratic rights and institutions.
It would also need to contain elements of “transition” – though not of the kind originated by the Communist International in the 1920s and later associated with Trotsky’s Fourth International. Then the aim was to introduce elements of planning and workers control into the programmes of left governments, moulded around scarcity. Today the transition path has to embrace the potential for abundance contained in information technology and, of course, to deal with climate change as an urgent issue.
So the core issue for those who want to radicalise social democracy is: what kind of capitalism is it possible for us, in these conditions, to create?
Before attempting an answer I want to recapitulate the argument of my previous essays in this series for openDemocracy:
To solve the problem of working class atomisation, and create a narrative for social democracy, the British Labour party and other social-democratic parties should focus their efforts on achieving a tangible upward movement in incomes, health, lifestyles and prospects for working age adults over the next 10 years.
To solve the problem that globalisation empowered corporations while limiting the sovereignty of electorates, we must be prepared to retreat from extreme globalisation, into a “second trench”, consisting of national economic policymaking in the context of international solidarity, abandoning certain supranational regulations deemed currently to have the force of eternal law.
To solve the problem of agency, we need to understand that oppression and exploitation take many forms in late-neoliberal capitalism, and that the movement to deliver a progressive government will most likely be a tribal alliance of people adversely affected. In that alliance, the traditional working class and labour movement structures will exist, but will not have hegemony; where working class culture has been inverted into a form of nostalgic ethno-nationalism, the movements and demands it produces will have to be resisted."
Mason develops his ideas at length in the rest of essay, which is admirably informed by his deep understanding of the history of the left and its challenges to capitalism. By no means do I agree with everything he says, but this is a very serious contribution that asks a lot of the most difficult and important questions--questions that most on the left don't even bother to ask.
Oh, and you really must read his book Postcapitalism. I promise it will make you think new thoughts!
To win power, the left must build a narrative around ending privatisation, empowering the workforce and borrowing to invest. To stay in power, left governments must transition towards an economy based on high automation, shorter working hours and free services. *** After Trump, Brexit, the formation...

Monday, June 25, 2018

How Likely Is It that Democracy Will Collapse in the United States?

It's easy to get depressed and anxious about the state of democracy today. That's understandable given the Trump presidency and and rise of populism in Europe. But how much danger are we really in?
Perhaps not as much as commentary in the popular press would have us believe. That's not to say current trends don't deserve pushback. But we are in less danger of failing in our pushback efforts than many suppose.
Political scientist Daniel Treisman explains in his article on the Monkey Cage blog:
"Previous scholars found — and I have confirmed — that certain types of democracies are more likely to fail. Breakdowns are more common in countries that are poor, that have had less experience of democracy and that are in economic crisis. By contrast, no democracy has ever failed while its citizens had a per capita income above $22,000 or after surviving for 65 years.
Using a statistical model, I estimated how often democracies with particular income levels, growth rates and political histories have become dictatorships. I also included the average Polity score of neighboring countries, since democracies tend to cluster.
Of course, such estimates should be taken with a grain of salt. Exact predictions depend on details of the model, and the pattern could change. Still, they provide a useful baseline...
The model suggests the risk was significant in the 19th century — up to almost 1 in 25. That makes sense; breakdown did come close during the Civil War. After that, the rate declines, rebounds a little during the Great Depression, but then falls consistently. By 2016, the estimated probability is less than 1 in 3,000.
For comparison, the risk in Weimar Germany in 1932 — based on its income, growth rate, political history and politics of its neighbors — was 78 times higher. In 1972 Chile, before Pinochet’s coup, it was 203 times higher.
No democracy has ever failed with a figure as low as the United States has today. It’s possible — but highly unlikely."
So, I wouldn't say "relax". But I would say: pushing back against anti-democratic practices and norm-breaking is not only the right thing to do, but also--despite all the gloom and doom--likely to be successful.

Are Trump's Approval Ratings Going Up?

There's been a lot of talk in the news lately about Trump's approval ratings and how they're paradoxically going up, even as he commits one outrage after another. What's the real story?
1. On where Trump's current approval rating, note that today Gallup released a new week of polling and he is back down to 41 percent, after the 45 percent reading from Gallup the week before that got quite a bit of notice.
2. In the 538 average, he is now a little over 42 percent; since close to the beginning of this year he's been in a pretty tight range between 40 and 42 percent. This range, while low, is several points higher than he was running late last year.
3. Compared to other presidents, his approval rating at this point in his term, while running about 20 points below the historical average for all Presidents, is very close to Jimmy Carter's, a little below Ford's and 3-7 points below Reagan, Obama and Clinton (he is way below everybody else). So true that he is not at unprecedentedly low levels but also true that he is still dead last on net approval (approval-disapproval), as he has been throughout his Presidency.
4. So how to think about this? It's bad but to many seems not as bad as it should be, given all that things Trump has done and said since he's been in office. But given the state of the economy and other "fundamental" factors, a reasonable case can be made that he is drastically underperforming where he should be. I believe this to be true. Going by economic performance alone, historical patterns suggest that his approval rating should be somewhere in the 50's rather than in the low 40's..
5. It still seems to be the case that the latest outrageous behaviors by Trump, even if they aren't pushing his ratings up, don't seem to be pushing his approval ratings down either and, as noted, their current range is a few points higher than their range at the end of last year. Why is this? One possibility is that keeping the political spotlight on Trump as a singular individual and leader--however reprehensible many of his statements may be--diverts attention from various unpopular policies he and his party are intimately associated with. This helps solidify his base and reduce attrition among more persuadable voters, thereby keeping his ratings in their current low but stable range.
I think that's the context you need to think about the latest ups and downs in Trump's approval rating.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Whither White People?

Non-Hispanic whites will continue to be the majority of the country for a considerable time. But how long is a matter of some debate, since a number of factors could affect the rate at which minorities increase and whites decline. Sabrina Tavernise had a good article in the New York Times today running down some recent relevant data.
"Deaths now outnumber births among white people in more than half the states in the country, demographers have found, signaling what could be a faster-than-expected transition to a future in which whites are no longer a majority of the American population.
The Census Bureau has projected that whites could drop below 50 percent of the population around 2045, a relatively slow-moving change that has been years in the making. But a new report this week found that whites are dying faster than they are being born now in 26 states, up from 17 just two years earlier, and demographers say that shift might come even sooner.
“It’s happening a lot faster than we thought,” said Rogelio Sáenz, a demographer at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a co-author of the report. It examines the period from 1999 to 2016 using data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the federal agency that tracks births and deaths. He said he was so surprised at the finding that at first he thought it was a mistake.
The pattern first started nearly two decades ago in a handful of states with aging white populations like Pennsylvania and West Virginia. But fertility rates dropped drastically after the Great Recession and mortality rates for whites who are not of Hispanic origin have been rising, driven partly by drug overdoses. That has put demographic change on a faster track. The list of states where white deaths outnumber births now includes North Carolina and Ohio."
Of course, this trend has political implications, though those who read automatic Democratic dominance into these figures should take a deep breath and consider all the moving parts here. If I may quote Tavernise quoting me:
"Despite demographic change, whites — and in particular less educated whites — will still make up the bulk of eligible voters in the country for a while. Whites without a bachelor’s degree will make up 44 percent of eligible voters in 2020, said Ruy Teixeira, a political scientist who did a broad study of demography and politics this spring. College-educated whites will be about 23 percent. Mr. Teixeira said Republicans could continue to win presidential elections and lose the popular vote through 2036 if they did even better among whites who had not graduated from college, while other voting patterns held steady.
That is giving politicians incentives to emphasize issues, like immigration and race, where there are the biggest differences in views by education. A class divide has been growing for years among whites. In 1988, there was no difference between whites with a college degree and those without, Mr. Teixeira said. Both voted for George Bush over Michael Dukakis by a 20-point margin. By 2016, Mrs. Clinton lost noncollege whites by 31 points, double Mr. Obama’s 2012 loss, while carrying college-educated whites by seven points.
“This is a real sea change,” Mr. Teixeira said. “This is why Republicans have been able to weather these demographic changes, entirely on the backs of white noncollege voters.”
So, consider and absorb the data but be careful what you read into it. The world is a complicated place and the astute progressive avoids easy answers.
About this article
The pattern first started more than a decade ago. But lagging fertility rates and rising white mortality rates have sped demographic change.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Trump's Base Vs. the Rest of the Republican Party

Stan Greenberg has an important new article out in the New York Times online. His core argument, backed up by considerable data, is that there is a significant divide in attitudes between Trump's base and the rest of the GOP--a group that is quite large and whose flagging enthusiasm and potential openness to Democratic appeals could loom large in the coming election.
Greenberg draws the picture as follows:
"President Trump surprised nearly all political analysts with his decision to govern as a militant Tea Party and evangelical conservative and to make this the heart of his strategy for the midterm elections. Each provocation and each dog whistle — if we can even call them that anymore — make Democrats even more determined to vote and to register their rejection of Mr. Trump’s remade Republican Party. In our polling of registered voters nationally and in the Senate battleground states, a remarkable 79 percent of Democrats strongly disapprove of Mr. Trump, a number that rose to 87 percent in a survey completed last week. Mr. Trump is making Democratic base voters even angrier than you might expect.
But each provocation also produces a reaction in the non-Trump remnant of the Republican Party, and that is the political reaction most observers are missing. Moderate Republicans are much more likely than the rest of the party to be college graduates, to favor abortion rights, to be relaxed about gay marriage and Planned Parenthood, and to believe that climate change is a human-created problem. They were feeling homeless in the Republican Party even before Mr. Trump’s triumph.
The Catholic and nonreligious conservatives base may not be as animated as Mr. Trump’s base is by attacks on the Republican establishment, free trade and Nafta. They are less worried about the Affordable Care Act and would amend rather than overturn it. And they are more like Republicans in the past who accepted the welfare state and the social safety net that earlier generations had bequeathed to them.
Mr. Trump’s ever more aggressive vision pushes his “strong” job approval to an impressive 71 percent with the Tea Party and to 62 percent with evangelicals, but that does not quite match the enthusiastic, anti-Trump reaction among all types of Democrat.
Mr. Trump’s red meat strategy gets a decidedly less enthusiastic response with Catholic and nonreligious conservatives: Less than half of them strongly approve of Mr. Trump’s performance. The enthusiasm gap between the Tea Party and moderate Republicans stands at a stunning 40 points: 71 percent of Tea Party supporters strongly approve of Mr. Trump, compared with 31 percent of moderates.
As of now, those muted reactions to Mr. Trump among these other Republicans are translating into reduced interest in the elections and a potentially lower turnout in November.....
Mr. Trump’s base strategy has allowed him to take over the Republican Party and to marginalize and defeat those who will not get with the program, but it has also unified Democrats around their values and created an opportunity for anti-Trump Americans to engage with these Republican voters, even (and especially) if Mr. Trump will not.
It may be as straightforward as reminding them why the Trumpified Republican Party needs to be repudiated in November. They may be looking for a genuinely conservative party. But these voters may also be open to voting for Democrats."

Sunday, June 17, 2018

A Useful Typology of the Useful Left

What is the biggest question facing the left today? Paul Mason, in his latest piece for the New Statesman, says it is:
"[W]hat do we do about long-term economic stagnation, which has led to a rush for the exits from the multilateral global system, posing the possibility of trade wars, the fragmentation of the global finance system, military conflict and a threat to the global architecture that protects universal human rights?"
Agreed. He answers:
"[D]esign and execute a new kind of capitalism that meets the needs of people in the developed world. The design is not impossible: the elements of it lie in the provision of universal basic incomes or services, a Green New Deal, rapid automation and the creation of increased leisure time, massive investments in education, and an end to outsourcing, offshoring and privatisation.
We can either do this collectively, as Europe, or the G7, or as NAFTA. Or, more likely, as a series of national projects where borrowing to invest, printing money where necessary and stimulating moderate inflation creates the same - albeit unstable - synergies as in the “thirty glorious years” after 1945.
For the left it means thinking beyond party designations. In Britain, the Greens, Momentum, maybe 50-plus truly Corbynite Labour MPs, half the SNP and the diffuse membership of two or three big NGOs are those who really get it. In Europe, however, many green parties have become bastions of neoliberal complacency: they will be musing on the possibility of degrowth and digging their organic allotments the moment the AfD and the Front National take power.
As for social democracy, it falls into three camps: outright conservative economic nationalists, as in Slovakia; enthusiastic participants in the failed neoliberal model, as in Germany; and people like Austria’s Christian Kern – a technocrat flung into a crisis who had to throw away the playbook – or Spain’s Pedro Sanchez, who understand the need to reconnect and rethink. And of course Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.
We now need an alliance of parties, movements and individuals who are not going to fight for the system that has failed but to imagine a new one: a capitalism that delivers prosperity to Wigan, Newport and Kirkcaldy, if necessary by not delivering it to Bombay, Dubai and Shenzhen.
Is that an argument for economic nationalism? No, rather an internationalism that says to the rest of the world: if the developed, democratic countries of Europe, America and Asia collapse into authoritarian rule, the 400-year upswing of industrial societies alongside democracy will have, once again, stalled - and, with China's inevitable hegemony, it might go into reverse.
To save what we can of the multilateral order, we need to reverse out of its extreme forms. It’s a tragedy that it took the Five Star Movement in Italy to argue for a pre-Maastricht form of the EU. That position is implicit in the left’s critique of the eurozone and of German mercantilism. As progressives, not nostalgics, however, we should argue for a post-Lisbon Europe."
In short, the left has to reinvent itself so it can reinvent capitalism. In the process, the left will likely be reconfigured to include many new political actors in increasingly influential roles as part of a broad, and perhaps messy, coalition. That will upset many traditionalists on the left who see their party or ideology as entitled to lead. But recent history indicates that their leadership has been woefully lacking. It is time to try something new.
Neoliberalism and the revolt against austerity have pushed powerful states to impose social and economic pain on each other, or on smaller states.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Our Social Democratic Future: The Progressive 2020's

One of my favorite analysts, sociologist Lane Kenworthy, is out with a terrific new article in Foreign Affairs on "How the Safety Net Can Survive Trump". Kenworthy opens his piece as follows:
"During his campaign for the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump promised to protect the foundations of the United States’ public insurance system. “I was the first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid,” he tweeted in May 2015. “The Republicans who want to cut SS & Medicaid are wrong,” he added two months later.
Trump’s commitments to the safety net set him apart from his Republican competitors during the campaign. But since taking office, the president has fallen in line with Republican leaders in Congress who seek to roll back the social programs he pledged to preserve. Last year, with Trump’s support, Republican lawmakers tried and narrowly failed to slash Medicaid, which helps pay for health services for low-income Americans, as well as government subsidies for private purchases of health insurance. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, have said they will seek to scale back Medicare this year. The partial privatization of Social Security could be on the table, and food stamps, disability benefits, and housing assistance are also likely targets.
Such proposals seem to threaten the progress the United States has made toward social democratic capitalism—a system that features modestly regulated markets, a big welfare state, and public services meant to boost employment, such as childcare and job-placement assistance. The evidence suggests that social democratic policies improve economic security and well-being without sacrificing liberty, economic growth, health, or happiness. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the country has gradually come to embrace this model over the last century. The federal government has built public insurance programs that help Americans manage old age, unemployment, illnesses, and more. Since 2000, California, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Washington State, which are home to around one-quarter of all Americans, have gone further, introducing such policies as paid parental and sick leave and a $15 minimum wage. Although the United States has not reached the level of social democratic protections that exists in countries such as Denmark and Sweden, it has been moving steadily, if slowly, in that direction.
Republican control of the presidency and Congress has put that march on hold. But the United States’ social democratic future is not over. The structure of the U.S. government and popular support for public services will be formidable obstacles to the small-government vision of the current Republican majority, as well as to the vision of future ones. The United States has weathered a number of challenges in its progress toward social democracy, and the trials of the present era will likely prove a brief detour rather than a dead end."
I agree with this strongly, as I explained at some length in my book, The Optimistic Leftist. Kenworthy goes on to say:
"The Trump administration has instituted some cutbacks on its own, without congressional action, and it may put in place more. It has weakened and delayed regulations protecting workers’ safety, ensuring access to fair pay, and securing the right to organize, and it has issued executive orders allowing states to require able-bodied low-income recipients of Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance to have a paying job in order to qualify for benefits. Although these changes have real effects on people’s lives, they don’t amount to a frontal assault on the U.S. welfare state, and they can be quickly reversed by a future president.
In the longer term, public support for government services will probably deepen. Many of the groups that back such programs—including professionals, minorities, immigrants, millennials, and single, secular, and highly educated people—are growing as a share of the U.S. population. The opposite is true of groups that are more skeptical of the safety net, such as rural residents, working-class whites, the religious, and the rich but not highly educated. And not everyone in the latter set opposes a bigger role for the state: Trump’s pitch for a government that would secure jobs and maintain public insurance programs helped him win over many working-class whites in 2016. (That plenty of those voters still support Trump despite his abandonment of his earlier commitments to the welfare state may be explained by the president’s positions on cultural issues and his rhetorical commitment to job creation.)
To be sure, the 2017 tax cuts will reduce annual federal revenues by around one percent of GDP, and that could pressure lawmakers to shrink government programs and limit new spending. But recent history suggests that tax cuts tend to be followed by tax increases. Tax rates fell under Reagan, rose under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, fell under George W. Bush, and rose again under Obama. By 2016, tax revenues equaled 26 percent of the country’s GDP, just as they did the year before Reagan took office."
In Kenworthy's view, the biggest threat to our social democratic future is a sustained economic slowdown. I think this is an extremely important point, one I myself have made many times. It never ceases to amaze me the so many on the left do not appear to understand the centrality of economic growth to so many of the goals they hold dear.
"The real threat to the United States’ social democratic future is a sustained economic slowdown. Over the last century, the country’s GDP per capita has grown at an average rate of 1.9 percent per year. But between 2000 and 2007, the rate dipped to 1.5 percent, and from 2007 through 2017, it fell further, to an average of just 0.6 percent. The Great Recession is the chief culprit: its arrival in 2008 cut short an economic expansion, and its depth dug a big hole from which the U.S. economy has yet to emerge. Yet some analysts believe that the United States has entered not a moment but an era of slow growth. One version of this story points to weak demand, perhaps due to the rising share of income that goes to the rich, who tend to spend a smaller fraction of their earnings than do middle- and lower-income households. Others contend that the problem is a decline in competition in important sectors, such as the technology industry, or a slowdown in the formation of new businesses. The most pessimistic assessment comes from economists such as Tyler Cowen and Robert Gordon, who argue that inventions such as electricity, railroads, and the assembly line boosted productivity and growth in earlier eras to a degree that more recent innovations cannot match.
The slowdown is worrisome because economic growth facilitates the expansion of public social programs. For one thing, it makes them more affordable; as the economy grows, so do tax revenues. Economic growth also increases public support for the welfare state. Most people are risk averse and altruistic, so as they get richer, they tend to want more protections for themselves and more fairness in their society. If the United States suffers years of slow growth, Americans’ embrace of generous public insurance programs may wane."
But, Kenworthy argues:
"...{G]rowth could return to a higher rate in the coming decades. There have been previous periods, such as the 1930s, when the economy slowed down before returning to the long-term trend. And the productivity benefits of new technologies such as the Internet may take years to appear; after all, the period of strongest productivity growth stemming from electricity and other nineteenth-century innovations occurred decades later, between the mid-1940s and the mid-1970s. Moreover, economists have an array of proposals for remedying the slowdown, from improving the educational system to toughening antitrust efforts to reducing income inequality.
Even if the slowdown in the rate of economic growth persists, the United States could still become far richer in the coming decades. Over the last 70 years, per capita GDP in the United States, adjusted for inflation, has increased by about $40,000. The country is now wealthy enough that securing the same increase over the next 70 years would require a yearly growth rate of only 0.8 percent."
He concludes:
"At some point, perhaps as soon as 2021, there will again be an opportunity to move federal policy in a social democratic direction. When that happens, policymakers should push for public investments in early education, universal health insurance coverage, paid sick and parental leave, upgraded unemployment insurance, and more. There is evidence that such programs improve lives. Less clear is which measures to prioritize—and how to implement them. Should the United States move to universal health insurance coverage by expanding Medicare, Medicaid, or both? Should public preschool begin at age four or earlier? Should paid parental leave last six months or 12 months? Questions such as these, rather than whether or not to shrink the government, should be at the center of policymakers’ debates."
I look forward to the progressive 2020's! In the end, we will likely find that the welfare state--updated, modernized and, yes, expanded--is a great deal more durable than people today tend to think.
The United States has weathered a number of challenges in its progress toward social democracy, and the trials of the present era will likely prove a brief detour rather than a dead end.