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Professor Cornbluthe's presidential political calculus. E=MC[scared].

October 22, 2016

 

 

Rather than add to the cacophonous ensemble of those choosing to identify themselves politically in terms of what they're against, I thought I'd take the opportunity to reiterate, for myself and for those several people bored and/or masochistic enough to read this, exactly what it is I think I might be for.  I am- after all the noise- unable to bring myself to decide how to cast my vote for President based on criteria like, for example, how much of a personal dirtbag is Mr. Trump, or how poor the judgement is possessed by Mrs. Clinton.  In the end, I've decided that, right or wrong, I'll be once again voting based solely on my understanding- limited though it may be- of the merits of each candidates' official position on the most important national issues of the day.

 

To do this, I will go through several policy areas, state my general philosophy surrounding them, and then indicate to what degree either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton reflects or diverges from my own thinking.

 

Taxes:

 

After a couple solid years of superficial flirtation with Marxist concepts like Dialectical Materialism (the historical theory that the development and evolution of ideas is inextricably tied to economic [material] context), the problem of the alienation of workers from their labor, and the potential value of subsidizing culturally valuable skills and careers (like artists, doctors, etc.), I still find myself persuaded by beauty of conservative economic theory.  So....

 

The supply side tax cut is a brilliant tax policy partly described by various conservative economists like Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, and former Reagan economic advisor Arthur Laffer.  It suggests that, if the goal is to maximize the total tax revenue from the wealthiest wage earners, we must set the top marginal rate at around 25%.  This is the 'magic number' at which the richest among us are incentivized, through simple economic consideration, to cease allocating resources to shelter their income from taxation and simply pay them.  The economic calculus that demonstrates this is the famous (or infamous, if you sneer at what detractors have since termed "trickle down economics," which was really nothing more than a distortion of what Laffer and others propose) Laffer curve.  The Laffer Curve shows that there are two points on a continuum at which absolutely no tax revenue will be received from top earners, 100% top marginal rates, and 0%.  The 0% point is obvious- 0% of anything is always 0.  But, less obviously, at 100%, we still see no taxes paid because no one would report earnings above that dollar amount if they knew they wouldn't be able to keep any of it.  This may sound like an indictment of the inherent greed of 1%-ers, as it were, but it's really just a measurement of basic human response to economic incentive- and it's pretty much universal.

 

So, there's good news and bad news.  Well. there's lots of bad news. The good news is that our current top marginal rate, which taxes all income above $250k, I believe, is now 39.6%, so we have plenty of room to come down, right?  Well, technically the answer is yes.  But, here's where things get discouraging. Our national political discourse has propagated the pervasive and near-ubiquitous notion that the rich don't pay their fair share- or that, like Warren Buffet,* "they pay less than their secretaries" in effective taxation. This might actually be true in some cases, but it's not because tax rates are too low, it's because they're too high, and that high rate, along with endless legal tax loopholes with which to 'game the system,' provides the all too powerful incentive to hide money taxed at higher rates.  This really should be obvious to everyone, but, sadly, most media sources scoff at the idea that actually lowering taxes could guarantee the rich pay more.  Even president Obama, when asked if he would still seek to raise the top rate even if it could be shown that a lower rate results in higher revenues, indicated that he cares less about revenue than about the social justice of getting the rich to "pay their fair share."

 

*The Warren Buffet case is ridiculous on it's face.  Stop and consider for a moment that one of the world's richest men is complaining that he pays so little in taxes when he clearly has taken the trouble himself to find and take advantage of the legal shelters provided for him by the tax code.  Don't believe this B.S. for a minute- it's purely pseudo-moral posturing on his part to make such a scene over something he knows well and good is blatant political manipulation, and it's egg on our collective faces that we buy into such pandering from a guy like this.

 

For the record, Trump wants to lower the top rate to 33%, while Hillary wants to slap a "surcharge" of 4% on all income above $5 million.  Unfortunately, Clinton doesn't indicate whether this surcharge will be for all the income of the top wage earner, or just the income above the $5 million mark.  

 

Tax policy winner: Trump

 

 

Trade:

 

Free trade policies like NAFTA constitute not only a significant part of the foundation upon which our current relatively high standard of living rests, but also the rising standard of living for the developing world.  Our ability to purchase goods at relatively low prices from foreign markets compared to what we could buy for domestically-produced goods, is a win for consumers,  It's a policy that, despite a growing sense of suspicion in public opinion, is actually more demanding for producers, who are often forced to compensate for expanded competition by engaging in foreign labor markets to drive down their own production costs.

 

As a result of international trade, the US experiences trade deficits with some of our principle trade partners like China and Mexico.  What this means is that we're simply buying more goods from China than China is buying from us.  But, lest we lose ourselves in a Trump-esque fit of indignation, we must remember a couple things about trade dynamics.  One thing to remembers that all trade dynamics tend to be temporary and, well, dynamic, rather than static.  This deficit with China will equalize when their markets, flooded with American currency, decide to buy more and more American products.  Of course, the products they'll be buying won't be the same kind of products that they're already producing- duh. They'll be products they aren't producing and making available to their own domestic markets.  They'll be high end consumer goods like software, golf courses, etc. In other words, stuff that we make.  Thus, the rise in tech, niche manufacturing, and service oriented jobs here in the states. Yay jobs!  That's right, they're still here, they just look different than a couple decades ago.

 

To the extent that China refuses to import certain items from us (like cars), they do so really just to the detriment of Chinese consumers, not American auto makers and workers.  Yes, we'd benefit from selling cars to China, but history shows very clearly that desperate attempts to artificially equalize deficits in markets have negative consequences on the ones attempting those policies (Smoot- Hawley).  As for the workers that may lose their jobs because China isn't buying cars... I know it sounds insensitive, but they have to get jobs in other industries.  

 

Trump wants to impose a tariff on incoming goods from China, which would likely result not only in a significant rise in the cost of consumer goods domestically, but quite possibly result in punitive action from Chinese markets, endangering the kind of free trade that has made so many products available to so many Americans and Chinese alike.  If trade protectionism is what you want, then you have to take the consequences that come with it.

 

Hillary Clinton says little to nothing in her official online campaign documents about foreign trade other than to indicate she'll oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-nation treaty to reduce or eliminate current trade barriers that will result in net increase in GDP and trade between member nations, because "they won't create high enough paying jobs."  Boo.

 

Trade policy winner: Neither.  It seems they both want to indulge in the contemporary America fiction that "protected" economies are somehow better for workers and consumers.

 

 

Foreign policy:

 

Most political moderates support a certain level of foreign interventionism, or, the tendency of the US to engage either militarily or diplomatically in other parts of the world- ostensibly for both the good of the nation's with which we engage, as well as the benefit of US interests.  Conversely, many on the far right (Ron Paul) and far left (Noam Chomsky) are bitterly and utterly opposed to the US constantly throwing it's weight around in the foreign theaters for the obvious (to them, at least) reason that is privileges the economic interests of the wealthy elite.  

 

I am not a true believer on either side and could be persuaded to embrace a moderately isolationist US stance toward other countries if it could be shown that doing so would, as many on the left insist, actually make us safer by virtue of not upsetting the sovereignty of the nations with which we are currently interacting.  Unfortunately, I have yet to see a convincing historical or even hypothetical scenario in which withdrawing our military presence in places like the middle east, South Korean, Germany, Japan, etc. would reduce the threat of violent reprisal to western hegemony (as Chomsky likes to put it) by those who reject it in favor of their (often oppressive and ant- human rights) provincial autonomy.

 

I don't believe that the US invades other countries for simple economic gain (war for oil) and suspect that those who do think this are simply allowing their wholesale (and rather arbitrary) commitment to isolationism to express itself negatively against all foreign action.  Rather, I think we intervene in foreign affairs as an attempt to stabilize regional upheaval of the kind currently underway in Syria and Iraq.  That this current conflict is a result, direct or indirect, of the US's campaign against an unpredictably dangerous rogue nation in Saddam Hussein's Iraq is an important point of consideration but speaks much more to the manner in which we prosecuted our involvement there than it does to the justness of the involvement itself.  As I stated above, I have no tried and true method by which I gauge the moral justness of any intervention in any part of the world.

 

Lest we get caught up in the ever-papular sentiment that Republicans like war and Democrats don't, we must remember that, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has green-lit more than one military intervention in a middle-eastern dictatorship with the intent of stopping a totalitarian madman.  And, adjusting only for degree, the results have been more-a-less the same in all cases- bombs are dropped, civilians die, dictators are killed, and the aftermath is an ugly and drawn-out affair.  Tump says he will fight ISIS, which we're already doing, but has made no indication that he will try to topple any dictators abroad.

 

Foreign policy winner: Depends on what you're into.  They both essentially uphold foreign interventionism to one degree or another.  To the degree that Hillary has more experience green-lighting and toppling dictators, she may be seen as preferable to her opponent.  However, if you're utterly opposed to this kind of foreign entanglements, you might consider voting for Trump as he has expressed more than a little antipathy for Hillary's record and has no plans to bomb any bad guys other than ISIS, who, by all measures probably deserve a little bombing here and there.  Also, many will say that Trump's threat of shooting at Iranian ships that attempt to intimidate our economic and military interests reveals a dangerous trigger happy mentality, and they might be right.  Again, he makes little to no mention of his Iran policy on his website, so I'll leave it to you to decide how to weigh his words against his opponent's record.

 

 

Education:

 

Ed policy (as esteemed political philosopher Matt Damon would say), is an area that seems to me to defy common wisdom and expectation.  I dare say that most people believe (likely because of the ubiquity of levying property taxes as a primary mechanism to raise the funds necessary to 'improve' local schools) that more money for schools is going to improve educational outcomes.  However, I don't believe that this is supported by the evidence.  In fact, most studies show that, despite a dramatic increase in education spending on both the local and Federal level over the past couple of decades, educational outcomes have not dramatically improved- and, in some cases, have gotten worse.  This is concomitant with the reality that many states (including our own) have had consistent budget shortfalls that make allocating money for existing education budgets quite challenging indeed.

 

It seems to me that it may be worth trying some of the 'private' solutions that conservatives have been recommending for years.  School choice initiatives, despite being somewhat unpopular among many public educators, would allow parents of students currently attending underperforming schools to send them to private ones of their choosing by giving them the money that would've been spent on them in the public schools.  Programs like this may have the capacity to improve outcomes by providing incentives to students and parents to become more active in choosing education programs that best fit the students' needs, as opposed to the state making those choices.  In addition, federal programs like No Child Left Behind or Common Core curriculum, both of which are expensive programs aimed at pushing back against falling test scores, could be phased out if the lever of choice proves effective in addressing the needs of education consumers. The main problem is that because education is considered such a sacred and basic right, we think that the only party that could possibly administer such a resource is government.

 

As to the issue of how to make college less expensive, I say that's not the issue at all.  We've collectively bought into the notion that most if not all people should go to college.  That notion has led to two things: One, government has poured money into subsidizing college educations which has resulted in higher demand for college education, which always results in higher prices! Second, the quality of education as a result of herding more and more people into higher learning who likely would never have chosen to go to college necessarily brings down the quality of the education for all because of the basic fact that institutions must now academically accommodate those who are not adequately prepared or even interested in what a college is supposed to be.  The solution here is to stop artificially incentivizing young people to pursue college degrees at the expense of the their ability to gain skills in the work place.

 

Trump emphatically supports school choice whereas Hillary can't wait to spend as much as humanly possible in another vain attempt at improvement that will likely not come.  Hillary also wants to try and make college more affordable and reduce the amount of debt owed by graduates.  See the last paragraph.

 

Winner: Trump

 

 

Immigration and Economic policy:

 

The two main issues surrounding immigration policy seem to me to be the legal status of migrant labor and how many refugees of war-torn foreign states to admit.  

 

As to the first issue: I happen to believe that our economy, as it currently operates, must utilize low cost, migrant labor in order to allow some industries like farming, home care/construction, child care, etc., to operate within reasonable economic parameters.  The reason this is can be shown to be tied historically to the establishment and subsequent growth of federal minimum wage laws. Gasp!  As a person that does quite a fair bit of business and spends a decent amount of time in the fair city of Seattle, I can say this idea likely comes as a surprise to many of my friends who believe our recently enacted $15/hour city-wide minimum wage law will help those at the bottom of the wage/skill scale achieve an acceptable standard of living.  

 

However, as Dr. Thomas Sowell (Senior Fellow, Hoover Institue, Stanford University) is constantly pointing out, all historical data points to the tendency of minimum wage laws to exacerbate unemployment.  For example, recently freed Black Americans constituted the vast majority of southern construction workers in first part of the 20th century.  This was a time before federal minimum wage laws and black men could barter for wages below their white counterparts.  It was this reality, so disturbing to so many white members of Congress, that led to, among other things, the establishment of a Federal Minimum wage so low skilled black workers could not underbid white workers of similar skill.  So began decade after decade of oppressive government action against the economic freedom of people of color.

 

So, regardless of your feelings about whether immigrant laborers are a good thing for our country, or whether or not we should keep our southern border reliably impassable with a physical barrier, you should understand that minimum wage laws, despite their intended benefit, actually incentivize people to come here illegally to underbid domestic workers. The question then remains as to what to do with those that are here illegally and have expired or overstayed their work visas.  President Obama's executive orders DACA and DAPA, which are designed to defer the deportation of eligible illegals, are simply stopgap measures that don't fix long term problems.  I think abolishing minimum wage laws actually goes a long way to adding stability and equity to an otherwise problematic immigration system because it allows low skilled domestic workers to legally barter for entry level jobs that immigrants are now rushing in to fill.  However, this is a medium to long term solution to our immigration issue and may have to be implemented over time.  

 

As to the matter of letting in refugees from places like Syria and other parts of the world that are hemorrhaging citizens, I'm convinced by the example of western Europe and Eastern cosmopolitan Canada that our standards must continue to be very strict indeed in determining the likelihood of incoming Muslims, for example, to carry with them what are in some cases alarmingly high rates of intolerance for western cultural values, women's rights, Jews, homosexual rights, etc.  That these people constitute a minority of Muslims is true but is mostly irrelevant in terms of constructing and maintaining a policy that reliably filters out those who would, by their very presence, irrevocably alter our shared western values of prosperity, equal protection under the law, religious freedom, free speech, etc.  If you don't believe me, take a look at places that are well into a liberal policy of admittance of cultural Muslims. It's time we had a more substantive conversation about what it means to allow people to practice their cultural traditions even if it means that women, homosexuals, and other religious minorities suffer for their freedom.

 

Trump wants to immediately deport illegal immigrants that have a violent criminal record and of course, build a wall on the southern border.  A wall is good for keeping bad guys out but does nothing to address the millions that are already here and just want to work.  Hillary wants to treat those that are here more humanely, which is important but also costs a lot more money than we're currently spending.  Also, none of her proposals, in my assessment, even begin to address the big picture of why we have so many people here who just want to work but can't do so legally.

 

Winner: Neither have made the connection between minimum wage laws and immigration dynamics so neither are positioned to enact effective long term policy solutions.

 

 

LGBTQ Rights (versus religious freedom??):

 

The Supreme Court decision that finds Constitutional guarantee for same sex marriage (Oberfell vs. Hodges) more-a-less settles the issue (in the same way that Roe vs. Wade settles abortion rights) as to whether or not gay men and women can fully enjoy the benefits of legal marriage.  I've spoken and written on this issue in the past so my friends and family know that I support same sex marriage based on the need for gay-led households to protect and support their families- not necessarily on the basis of the civil rights of the married individuals. I fully understand and respect many traditional oppositions to this new institution especially considering the reality that it's only recently the case that same sex partners could reliably and consistently bear children as a product of their union.  With today's medical technology, this new reality makes readdressing and expanding the purview of family rights necessary and prudent.  However, I also respect the opposition from the left that insists marriage is a fundamental human right guaranteed by The Constitution and/or The 1964 Civil Rights Act.  However, I'm not fully convinced that marriage as a simple contractual arrangement between individuals falls within the purview of a constitutional right "to define and express one's identity." Maybe that's just a semantic hangup on my part, though.  For the record, there are opinions even just on The SCOTUS that reflect all above positions.  So, the idea that we've moved past this issue on a cultural level seems a little dubious to me.

 

One example of how we might not be out of the woods on this issue has to do with a new and/or heightened possibility that individuals may bring law suits against private organizations that deny any kind service to gay couple for their weddings arrangements.  Churches, bakeries, florists, and other kinds of organizations involved in the wedding industry are now being sued by those claiming personal injury as a result of being denied weddings services, cakes, and other amenities they believe they have a right to access based on the Supreme Court Decision.  It's possible that most of these suits won't pass muster but, regardless of how you feel about gay rights versus religious autonomy, the fact that a church who refuses to perform a gay marriage ceremony on the basis of a sincere adherence to their faith- wrong though they may be, ultimately- should give us a moment of pause.  If the exorbitant cost of malpractice insurance is a part of high health care costs, than churches and bakeries buying more expensive insurance premiums to cover possible law suits may also affect the wedding industry similarly.

 

Hillary promises to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination and violence- to the extent that can happen on the federal level.  Trump says nothing about it, which could lead those that already hate him to think he may be biding his time in order to launch some concerted attack on the gains made by the gay community.  Or, perhaps he plans to nominate a Supreme Court Justice that doesn't like the Overfill vs. Hodges ruling.  We don't know and I think it's somewhat disingenuous to just assume that he'll fight against gay rights.  I think he'll stay far away from it.  But then again, he's proven to be pretty inconsistent on many things in interviews, speeches, and debates, so holding him to account is pretty tough.

 

Winner: Hillary, I guess??  Unless you're concerned about law suits against churches and businesses being a real threat, then, probably Trump.  But, let's remember that The President doesn't try cases or set judicial precedent so there's not much either could do if that begins to happen on a large scale- 

 

 

Health Care:

 

The Affordable Health Care Act is a law that is more-a-less built on yet another pervasive misunderstanding of how big systems operate,  Anyone who says that you can legislate down the cost of health care is either dramatically over-simplifying a very complex issue, doesn't know what they heck they're talking about, or is just lying.  Sure, a small part of the problem has to do with how much doctor's are getting paid, which is driven, in part by how expensive medical schools are (remember our discussion about government subsidies making things more expensive?  Heyyyoo!)  But, the main reason the cost of health care services like doctor's visits, MRI's, C.A.T. scans, lab work, surgery, etc., has risen is because the demand has steadily gone up.  This has been largely due to the role that insurance companies play in replacing consumer choice with their own financially-based limits on what services policy holders can and can't get covered for, for what deductible, at what premium, etc.  

 

Unfortunately, if a health care system run by government turns out basically the same way subsidized colleges have, then the coveted single payer system- rather than bringing costs down due to the powerful priced controlling factor of government negotiating- might make costs go up at an even higher rate given the universal access that would be granted to everyone it covers.  If the response to this problem is to highly limit and regulate what and how much health care services those who are covered receive, then I don't see how it would do any good at all.  If the solution is to truly make available to everyone covered all health care services they need, I don't see how the government can pay for it along with everything else it must pay for.

 

Trump wants to repeal The Affordable Care Act and allow individuals to save a portion of their taxes in a dedicated Health Savings Account (HSA), which has been shown to be effective in some countries because of the interest it can accrue during the healthy years of most people's lives.  In my opinion, it beats paying that money into the insurance model that can only remain viable if most people lose most of the money they put into it over the years.

 

Hillary wants to expand The ACA and get more people covered under medicare and medicaid. Unfortunately, she gives little to no detail in terms of how she'll pay for it outside of that 4% surcharge on the rich.

 

Winner: Oddly enough, both are half good.  I admit I'd like to see the advent of HSA's for people entering the workforce and perhaps expanding medicare/medicaid for those for whom HSA's won't work, like people over 40 or 50.  I think this would likely allow our health care system to operate at a lower cost and provide for more consumer choice.

 

 

 

So, there you have it.  I suppose that, based purely on policy, Mr. Trump aligns with my stated political positions and values slightly more than Mrs. Clinton, which, I understand may be mind-blowingly hard for some to process- I might even get punched or yelled at for it at some point.  I absolutely agree that Trump is personally repugnant in many ways and I have the greatest of sympathy for those who believe that he may likely be a bad president for reasons having to do with bad policy making and personality issues.  The fact that he's said and done the things he has is rightfully cause for alarm.  But, if you just look at stated policy positions, I calculate that, if he actually has the opportunity to carry out his ideas- again, not accounting for his personal behavior- he may actually do less damage than many think. However, I also think a Hillary presidency will be essentially more of the same, and, while I believe that's far from ideal, it won't be the doomsday catastrophe that her detractors insist.

 

There are a few important issues I didn't cover like 2nd Amendment rights, environmental policy/climate change, concerns about fatal police shootings of black men, and some others, but I think I'll stop here and barricade my windows against the inevitable crap storm coming my way......

 

- Professor Cornbluthe

 

 

 

 

 

 

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