Chris Christie and the Case Against Term Limits

Social science has proven that Congress is even less popular than Nickelback, so it’s easy to see why term limits for senators and representatives consistently poll well among Americans of all backgrounds and ideological persuasions. Would-be reformers of various stripes have touted term limits as an important good government initiative, and even many who have not championed the cause of formally enshrining them in law have offered up pledges to voluntarily leave office themselves after a fixed number of years.

Notwithstanding the legal setbacks that have been dealt past attempts to enact term limits at the federal level, the idea has always struck me as an overrated and potentially counterproductive “solution” to the problems it purports to solve, like legislative gridlock, political careerism, or corruption. To see why, one need look no further than RM’s very own Garden State, whose chief executive looks to me like a poster boy for the case against term limits.

In 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unilaterally canceled a joint federal-state public works project known as “Access to the Region’s Core” (ARC) that would have involved construction of the first new rail tunnel under the Hudson River in over 100 years, citing the possibility of unforeseen cost overruns. As Rachel M. Cohen explains in an essay for the Winter 2015 issue of The American Prospect,

Many had expected New Jersey to raise its gas tax to meet its obligations for the ARC tunnel and other transportation investments. But Christie was emphatically opposed… [K]illing the ARC project had an additional advantage besides avoiding a gas tax increase. It also enabled him to redirect more than $3 billion that had already been put aside for the tunnel.

Christie’s Democratic predecessor, Jon Corzine, had set off a political firestorm in 2008 when he tried to pass a plan that would have used dramatic increases in highway tolls over a 12-year period to cut the state’s $32 billion debt in half and pay for transportation improvements. Although the plan was defeated, Corzine did succeed in doubling tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike. While the revenue wasn’t enough to resolve the state’s long-term fiscal problems, it included $1.25 billion earmarked for the future ARC tunnel… Christie took that money as well as $1.8 billion from the Port Authority’s ARC capital fund and used the more than $3 billion in total to pay for road and bridge projects in the state.

The existing Hudson rail tunnels suffered significant damage during Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012. According to Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, each tunnel will need to be closed for repairs for at least a year sometime within the next two decades. He has stressed that twenty years is an upper bound on the tunnels’ remaining life, and that they might need to be shuttered in as little as seven.

The closure of even one of the tunnels would be devastating, with New Jersey Transit estimating that the number of commuter trains able to traverse the Hudson every hour would be cut by up to 75%. The result would be utter chaos. Now-unthinkable measures like banning automobiles from using the Lincoln Tunnel would have to be implemented to deal with the loss of capacity. Put simply, the probability that New York and New Jersey could suffer Transitpocalypse within the next ten years is meaningfully greater than zero.

Chris Christie is constitutionally limited to two consecutive terms as governor and will leave office in January 2018. But if he were able to run for and win a third term, he could conceivably serve until 2022. Boardman’s statement was issued last year. Assuming, arguendo, that his most pessimistic prediction were to be the correct one, then the tunnels could be wheeled into surgery as early as 2021 – during the second half of a hypothetical third Christie term.

Of course, Hurricane Sandy had not yet taken place when Christie pulled the plug on ARC, and an accurate assessment of how much damage it had inflicted was not available until some time afterward. But a third-term-eligible Christie might have been galvanized by Boardman’s prognosis to prioritize the development of a funding mechanism for an alternative project like Amtrak’s Gateway proposal that would increase trans-Hudson capacity, knowing that the worst could very well happen on his watch. As it is, Christie was probably correct to gamble that the tunnels will manage to avoid flatlining for the remainder of his time in office.

This is one reason why I see him as an ideal poster boy for the case against term limits: Christie’s decision to raid the funds that had been appropriated for ARC in order to forestall a gas tax increase and have the state still be able to pay for an urgently-needed renovation of the Pulaski Skyway bridge between Newark and Jersey City is emblematic of an important way in which term limits affect political incentives. By guaranteeing that a politician who inaugurates an ultra-long-term public works project will no longer be in office when his constituents begin to reap its benefits, these limits nudge elected officials in the direction of advancing initiatives with more immediate payoffs or those whose costs can be postponed indefinitely.

As Benjamin Kabak of the transit blog Second Avenue Sagas put it in a post on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal for a new subway line down Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, “[o]ne of the reasons why politicians are so hesitant to embrace these ambitious plans concerns timing. If it’s going to take a decade or more from start to finish, those who appear at the ribbon cutting won’t be those who did the heavy lifting and secured the dollars.”

And if you know that you won’t be around for the ribbon cutting, it might start to seem like a better use of your time to focus on something else – like how to position yourself for your next job. Even politicians find unemployment stressful, so it’s only rational than term-limited officials would take steps to plan for the future when they know they’ll be sent home after four or eight years.

Which brings us to the second way in which Christie illustrates the unintended consequences of term limits: knowing that he will not have to face the voters again in his own state, he has devoted more and more energy to burnishing his national image in advance of a run for the White House. In his role as chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association for 2014, Christie frequently traveled out-of-state – and sometimes out-of-country – to campaign for GOP candidates and to promote key planks in the party’s platform. According to NJ.com, the peripatetic governor spent all or part of 137 days last year outside of the state.

The voting public seems to be growing irritated with these absences: a Monmouth University poll released in February found that about two-thirds of voters in the Garden State believed that a trip Christie took to the United Kingdom that was advertised as a “trade mission” was “mainly designed to boost his presidential prospects” (17 percent believed that the primary intent was in fact to strengthen economic ties). Of course, it’s not necessarily the case that someone who believes Christie’s globetrotting is designed to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign is unhappy about that fact, but the same poll also found that a nearly identical percentage of voters “say he is more concerned about his own political future than he is about the state,” which suggests that his motives are viewed with a certain amount of cynicism.

In their 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein express skepticism about the transformative potential of term limits for precisely this reason. They cite other scholars who argue that, in the twenty-one states that instituted term limits for state representatives between 1990 and 2000,

[i]f anything, the limits amplified the corrosive effects of ambition on the legislators, who focused from day one on how best to use their limited time as a springboard to their next post. That produced incentives to go for a big, short-term splash and leave the long-term mess to the next wave of their successors.

One possible counterargument could be that term limits might not actually “bind.” That is to say, ambitious politicians like Christie who believe they can be elected to higher office in the middle of their second term might still believe they could be elected to higher office at the same point in their service even if they were offered the possibility of a third or a fourth term. Perhaps they might feel they had already accomplished whatever they set out to accomplish, or at the very least that whatever accomplishments they had already racked up would make their resumé sufficiently attractive to the voters that they would be better off quitting while ahead (or quitting before their lackeys went rogue and closed down a bridge out of puerile spite, the time for which has, alas, already passed for Christie).

That’s certainly possible, but running for reelection as an incumbent is almost always easier than putting together a winning campaign for a completely new position. I would be surprised if term limits didn’t incentivize at least some politicians to take a leap they otherwise would not have or that they otherwise might have postponed, and in fact there is some research, in addition to the work referenced by Mann and Ornstein, suggesting this could be the case.

If the polling is to be trusted, a large chunk of the New Jersey electorate finds Chris Christie’s pre-campaign antics distasteful, and many of his detractors take pleasure in the fact that he’s guaranteed to leave office less than three years from today. But what those detractors may be neglecting is the possibility that his antics are in part the result of that very guarantee, and that, paradoxically, allowing him to hang around New Jersey a while longer would make him more dedicated to the people of the state and more attentive to their needs.

The Moderation Conversation: The Monstah and the Moderate

Welcome to another installment of the Moderation Conversation, a feature in which Matt and Chris get together for a live chat and completely rewrite the subsequent transcript to make themselves seem more eloquent than they actually are.

Tired of reading about the curious case of Hillary Clinton’s disappearing emails? Weary of pundits debating whether Jeb Bush is really his own man? Sick of seeing the artist formerly known as Donald Trump tease yet another godforsaken non-campaign for the highest office in the nation? RM is, too. As the country homes in on potential candidates for the 2016 election, Matt and Chris discuss two little-mentioned longshots who they would like to see become serious contenders for their parties’ respective nominations. 

(As an aside, this happens to be RM’s one hundredth post since its kickoff in mid-2013. The editors would love to invite all of you over for cake and merrymaking, but they recently squandered their annual budget on some unfortunate online purchases.)

The 2016 Election

Matt: Okay, so now that it’s 2015, we feel somewhat less guilty about talking about 2016.

Chris: Only somewhat.

M: Only somewhat. Because the presidential election is still about twenty months away. But, you know, the race is heating up!

We wanted to discuss the candidates that we would be interested in seeing run and the potential campaigns that we’re most excited about. Not necessarily because we would be backing those candidates, but because we think they might have something interesting to contribute to the conversation.

So Chris, why don’t you kick it off?

 

Bernie Sanders – The Monstah

C: Well, one of the candidates we’ve both been very excited about has been Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont. You were the one who originally got me interested in Bernie’s would-be campaign. You mentioned that one of your friends from Haverford has been a very enthusiastic supporter of Bernie since he started hinting that he might be running. And you showed me a Bloomberg interview that he did in which he lovingly talked about how he plays “monstah” with his grandchildren.

M: For anyone who isn’t familiar with his background, Bernie Sanders is a senator from Vermont but he’s originally from Brooklyn and has an extremely thick Brooklyn accent. So he basically never pronounces the letter ‘R’.

A lot of articles that I read about Bernie say that he always comes off as extremely serious and somewhat pedantic and that he’s constantly painting a very dark picture of things. But I think that if you listen to some of his speeches you’ll find out that he’s actually got a pretty dry sense of humor that I imagine could play well on the campaign trail.

C: I think that’s actually a very big strength, that his rhetoric can be both dry and serious. That could help him quite a bit in 2016.

M: A big potential liability, though, is that Bernie Sanders is the only member of the United States Senate who identifies himself as a socialist. People generally run away from the word “socialist” in American politics. It’s used as a pejorative and politicians usually are not rushing to embrace it.

Do you think that will be a problem for him? That he’ll have to work extra hard to explain that label to an American public that recoils from the word “socialism”?

C: Yes. I think especially if he were to make it out of the Democratic primaries, that would be a huge, huge hindrance. It could even be a problem within the Democratic primary as well, just because his opponents would be able to argue that he is far too extreme for the party.

M: Now, Sanders is not actually a Democrat. He is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. He’s talked a lot about how he’s thinking about running for president, but he’s kept alive the idea that he might run as an independent in order to capitalize on the anger that exists toward the two-party system.

At the same time, he has acknowledged that he doesn’t want to be a Ralph Nader-type spoiler. Even though he doesn’t like the two-party system he believes that the Democrats are a much lesser evil than the Republicans and he wouldn’t want to throw an election to their candidate. So if he runs he’ll probably run as a Democrat, but it’s not 100%.

C: In press conferences and debates he’s been quite critical of the Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and her relationships with big business.

M: Yeah, that’s true. There are also two more reasons why I think Bernie Sanders’ candidacy would be worthwhile even if he doesn’t win. One relates to what you said about socialism. I think it would be valuable to have a somewhat wider range of perspectives represented in American politics. I mean, we tend to believe that there’s a very large ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans, and there is. But when you look at something like the recent election in Greece, where between 10 and 15% of the vote combined went to literal communists or literal Nazis –

C: That’s horrifying.

M: Like, that’s horrifying, and I’m not saying that I’m looking forward to something like that happening here, but in a lot of other advanced countries the political spectrum is much wider than it is in the U.S. Some of that has to do with the fact that we don’t have a system of proportional representation, so it’s much more difficult for smaller parties to really gain influence. But I think in general it would be good for our discourse if we had more marginal voices able to get their thoughts out there, especially on the left. If there weren’t such a stigma against “socialism” as a political philosophy we might be able to hear from socialists in the mainstream media more often and have them actually defend their views rather than just be the butt of some joke.

So that’s one point. The other is that, based on the things that I’ve heard Bernie Sanders say in the videos that I’ve watched of him speaking, it sounds like he is really interested in trying to broaden the Democratic coalition. And for a party that has seemed over the past few months to be trying to do some soul-searching about why it lost so badly in November, someone like Sanders could be able to provide a roadmap for how to expand the Democrats’ appeal.

He really seems to downplay the so-called “social issues”. He’s mentioned in his speeches the events in Ferguson, Missouri and talked about how there’s obviously been a very acrimonious debate about race in America. But he goes on to point out that we don’t really hear a lot about how African-American youth unemployment in Ferguson and in other minority communities nationwide is something like 30 or 40%.

He always seems to try to refocus these debates onto economics and away from tribalist culture war arguments. And I think it would be good to see the Democratic Party pivot away from the culture war and try to reach out to some people who might not accept the entirety of the Democratic platform but who might be on board with some of the more bread-and-butter issues.

C: Great points. To your second argument, in considering his candidacy, I think it’s worth looking at the issues that he’s been discussing to see what he could bring to bear on the Democratic platform in 2016.

Regulation of big banks would be a huge part of his campaign. That’s been probably the number one issue he’s discussed in interviews and speeches in the last few months. That’s certainly important. There is bipartisan support for measures to rein in the big banks, and it seems like he’d be a very good person to channel that anger and that resentment.

M: Why do you say that? Why would he be uniquely well-situated?

C: Perhaps aside from Elizabeth Warren, who still has not indicated that she’s going to run, he seems like the most likely candidate to actually take action against the big banks. According to The Week, some major Wall Street investors have been very positive about a potential Hillary Clinton candidacy, which suggests they don’t perceive her as much of a threat. So if this is a debate that we want to see going forward, if we really would like to crack down on corporatism, it seems like Bernie Sanders would be a good person to do so.

That said, I don’t think that more taxes on large corporations and the wealthiest one percent are enough to solve the structural inequality that he continually highlights. This is something the Democratic Party needs to consider in the run-up to the election, but they probably won’t. Raising taxes on the wealthiest and big businesses is simply not enough to solve every single problem they’re calling attention to.

I’d love to see Bernie gain traction in the primary so he can start a debate on policy planks like infrastructure investment. Things that might not otherwise be talked about. That in and of itself would be a success.

M: Yeah! Just say the word “infrastructure” and I will probably vote for you.

C: He’d also like to expand healthcare further, which is going to die a slow and painful – actually, a quick and painful death, because it’s never going to happen.

M: [Laughs]

Maybe that’s enough about Bernie Sanders. Suffice it to say, he’s a monstah.

 

John Kasich – The Moderate

M: A candidate that we’re both interested in seeing run on the Republican side is someone who has said a little bit less about his intentions for 2016, but who does seem like he might be seriously considering a run. And that would be Ohio Governor John Kasich.

One thing I think we’re both really impressed by, given our general interest in seeing more cooperation among elected officials from different parties, is the fact that he was willing to accept the Medicaid expansion of the Affordable Care Act in Ohio. He opted not to engage in a lot of the confrontational tactics that other Republican governors had chosen to pursue.

C: I think that in looking at Kasich’s appeal, it’s important to consider him relative to the other potential candidates on the Republican side. He may not, in and of himself, be a particularly strong candidate. He’s not someone who’s really well known outside of Ohio. But he just won reelection in the 2014 midterms by double digits, so that’s why he’s been getting some press.

Betsy Woodruff and Daniel Strauss discussed this a little bit in their Bloggingheads podcast, and Betsy argued that Kasich has no chance because we’re so far along in the run-up to 2016 that he simply does not have enough name recognition to gain traction. Which is a shame. As you said, Kasich has shown himself to be open to certain aspects of healthcare reform, saying that expanding access was “doing God’s work.” This indicates that he’s willing to work with Democrats and other members outside his party to accomplish his goals. The fact that he’s able to appeal to voters in the state across party lines will be very important, especially because the other potential candidates include a lot of confrontational figures like Ted Cruz.

M: So, Betsy Woodruff – who we interviewed, by the way! – seemed to think Kasich’s comments about accepting the Medicaid expansion being motivated by his Christian duty to take care of the poor would be a negative, because the Republican base presumably wouldn’t be too pleased with someone who defends Obamacare by invoking Jesus.

At the same time, Mitt Romney got the nomination after having implemented what was essentially Obamacare in Massachusetts. And I think a broad segment of the electorate outside of the Republican base will appreciate that he’s somebody who takes his faith seriously and is motivated by that to want to work towards social justice.

One interesting thing about John Kasich that I didn’t know was that he actually ran for president in the year 2000. He was a Congressman from Ohio and he ran in the Republican primary against George Bush, who obviously ended up getting the nomination and becoming president. Apparently at the time he was a somewhat brash figure, but he has significantly mellowed out since then and is now seen as a more low-key, deal-making sort of politician instead of a firebrand. But again, maybe that’ll be a drawback if it means that he can’t generate a lot of excitement.

C: You had mentioned to me that he supports a budget policy that’s a little questionable…

M: Oh yeah. He’s working for this organization called Balanced Budget Forever. Sounds like a really bad band name.

C: That obviously will be fine in the primaries. But in a general election, those type of fiscal policies could come back to haunt him.

M: Why do you say that? I mean, it seems like a balanced budget amendment might be pretty popular.

C: You think so?

M: I don’t think it’s a good idea from an economic standpoint, but I think it could be popular. It’s something that has a lot of intuitive appeal.

C: I don’t know. Democrats could make convincing arguments for why, especially now, as the United States has been doing quite well economically compared to other European countries, it’s not critical that we balance the budget at this juncture and in fact it could be quite harmful. I think there’s plenty of ammunition on the Democratic side to puncture holes in that.

M: Another Kasich policy worth mentioning: he was partly responsible for implementing an earned income tax credit in Ohio, which the state had not had up until last year. The earned income tax credit is something that, in theory, both Democrats and Republicans like: it was expanded under Bill Clinton but a lot of Republicans also tout it as an alternative to raising the minimum wage. So it’s another indication that he seems to be serious about policies to help lower-income Americans, and if that’s a quality that he would bring to the White House then that makes him very attractive.

C: To that point: I don’t know the exact numbers, but job growth in Ohio has been very strong since he became governor. He’s going to be able to use that as a talking point if he does choose to run. And it’s especially impressive when compared with the record of other moderates like Chris Christie, whose time as governor has actually seen anemic growth in New Jersey. Our state unemployment rate has not really improved since he took office, so it seems like in terms of being a more moderate candidate on the Republican side, Kasich has solid credentials, at least for the primaries.

 

Monstah vs. Moderate

M: There seems to be some asymmetry here. Whereas on the Democratic side we like the candidate who appears to many to be more extreme, we’re gravitating towards the Republican candidate who seems the most moderate. Do you think there’s some disconnect there?

C: Yeah, I’d agree that there’s some disconnect. I think part of it is our appreciation for Bernie Sanders as a political character, almost. Because he is such a unique personality, he’s very interesting to watch. He has passion about what he’s talking about. It’s unlikely he has much of a chance of winning, but we’re rooting for him to run because of his charisma and because policies like infrastructure improvement could be very positive.

Whereas Bernie is one of the lone “fringe” candidates in his party, it seems like on the Republican side most of the candidates and party leaders have been more towards the fringes as of late. So there we’d like to see someone more temperate who can get the party back towards the middle.

M: To me, it seems like Bernie and Kasich might have something uniquely in common: both of them are interested in prioritizing economic issues. I already discussed this in the case of Bernie, but even for Kasich, who is fairly socially conservative, it seems like the issues he’s most eager to address are economic: finding ways to boost wages for low-income workers, finding ways to provide healthcare, and pursuing more traditional fiscal conservative goals like a balanced budget amendment.

C: So do you think this election is going to be focused on economic issues for the most part? It feels like the early stages of Hillary Clinton’s pre-campaign have mostly been based on other things outside of economic policy.

M: I mean, I hope the election is mostly focused on economic issues. I assume defense will also be a pretty big component in light of the upheaval in the Middle East. But I would certainly rather Hillary Clinton’s candidacy not become something like Mark Udall’s single-issue campaign in Colorado, which dealt with the abortion issue and almost nothing else. That’s not to say that abortion is not something we should debate, but it is far from the only issue and I would hope that both parties find a way to talk about other things people care about.

C: It’ll be interesting to see who ends up running. Most of the early coverage has focused on the Republican Party, and we’ve seen names of upwards of a dozen potential candidates who may or may not be interested.

M: Ben Carson.

C: Ben Carson, yes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but on the Democratic side, we’ve only heard from Hillary Clinton, Jim Webb, possibly Bernie Sanders, and probably not Elizabeth Warren.

M: And possibly Martin O’Malley from Maryland.

C: The narrative thus far is that Hillary has already been elected. And again, that’s one of the reasons I’d love to see Bernie Sanders run, just because it’d be good to see someone bring an additional perspective to that debate.

M: Amen.

A Reply to Opus Publicum’s Gabriel Sanchez

Reasonably Moderate is notoriously poor at responding quickly to feedback from readers (and its two halves are even poorer at responding to each other), so I was both surprised and a little bit awed when Opus Publicum’s Gabriel Sanchez published a reply to my recent Ethika Politika article only about twelve hours after it first appeared. I very much appreciate his taking the time to read through it and offer his thoughts on my contention that a “Catholic Party” would be bad for the Church, but I’m afraid that he has misinterpreted several key pieces of my argument.

Sanchez levels two main criticisms at the piece. The first is that my concerns about “the politicization of religion” are at best vague and at worst grounded in a vision of the relationship between (the Catholic) Church and State that is out of sync with Catholic teaching:

Does Mazewski deny that the Church’s hierarchy has the right – indeed the duty – to direct the faithful in socio-political affairs?… If there is anything which is today ‘bad for the Church’ with respect to political and social movements it is its unwillingness to clearly define which matters lay Catholics can support and those they cannot. Today, neither of America’s two major political parties represent the full balance of Catholic principles; both, lamentably, stand in direct opposition to many of them.

In fact, I do not at all deny that the Church has such a right/duty. When I refer to the “politicization of religion,” I don’t mean “the involvement of religious people or institutions in the political process,” or even “political argument that draws on religious values or employs religious rhetoric.” In my original piece, in the paragraph following the one from which Sanchez quotes, I explain what I do mean:

[T]he silver lining of the status quo is that it allows the Church to more easily keep its distance from partisan politics. It would become much more difficult for it to do so were there to be a viable Catholic Party. Worse, the temptation for the Church to overlook corruption and abuse within such a party would be strong, and its public image could be tarnished if it were to be seen as turning a blind eye to wrongdoing by its favored politicians.

I welcome the fact that members of the hierarchy offer commentary on political questions, but I find it troubling when they do so in a way that implies institutional support for a particular party or its candidates (and not just because they could be imperiling the Church’s tax-exempt status). Catholicism should not be apolitical, but it is and ought to remain nonpartisan.

That’s why I’m disturbed whenever someone like Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin brandishes a letter in public confirming that he’s a registered Republican, as Tobin did during a speech to a group of young Republicans in 2013, even if he also insists that his partisan affiliation “doesn’t mean a whole lot”: not because a bishop is talking about politics, but because these kind of actions seem to insinuate that the Catholic Church finds fault with the Democratic Party’s platform but considers the Republican platform to be perfectly kosher (er, so to speak).

Sanchez writes that “the vision [Mazewski] operates with is a liberal one.” One could interpret this statement in a variety of ways, but if he means to say that I believe in cordoning off religion from the public square or in attempting to enforce a “neutral” secular political discourse that itself relies on certain contestable assumptions, then the characterization is inapt. (If he means to say that I believe in the value of pluralistic democracy, well, then guilty as charged.)

His second criticism is that the hypothetical political realignment that I describe in my piece, through which the parties of Left and Right come to be replaced by parties of “Subsidiarity” and “Solidarity,” would not really represent a meaningful development at all from the perspective of Catholic social thought:

According to Mazewski’s other main thesis, namely that we are witnessing ideological realignment within the Democratic and Republican parties, it is not clear what, if anything, this could mean for American Catholics. Any party which, inter alia, supports so-called abortion rights, the redefinition of marriage, and legal protection for immoral, incendiary, and blasphemous forms of speech is beyond the pale. Similarly, any [party] which upholds the tenets of economic liberalism… places itself out of the reach of Catholic support. Even if Democrats and Republicans begin to embrace full-throated solidarity and subsidiarity, that hardly means either will abandon their dubious policy positions. Error can always be repackaged.

I don’t believe that we’re on the threshold of an era when all politicians will “abandon their dubious policy positions,” but as I argue in the original piece,

[a] party that brought together liberals like [Zephyr] Teachout and conservatives like [Rand] Paul under the banner of subsidiarity would have to tolerate a range of views on the most divisive questions. Winters might still have a hard time pulling the lever for particular candidates, but he might also find it easier to make a home for himself in one of the parties without worrying about failing a litmus test.

My thesis is that the issues that would divide a Solidarity Party and a Subsidiarity Party would necessarily be different from those that divide conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats today (“liberal” in the colloquial sense, not in the sense in which Sanchez uses the term here). Certain viewpoints that are now sidelined within one party or the other could come to be tolerated or even embraced in a way that they currently are not. Under the existing two-party system, for example, opinions on the legal status of abortion tend to correlate almost perfectly with party affiliation, whereas thoughts on whether the government should break up large financial institutions do not.

Yet if being pro- or anti-breaking-up-large-financial-institutions were to become the key determinant of which party you ought to belong to, then the association between the abortion question and partisan identity would be greatly weakened. The issue itself would not necessarily lose its valence, just as the cause of breaking up the banks is very much alive despite lacking the institutional backing of one party or the other. But the chances of being marginalized within either party because of one’s beliefs on the matter would be dramatically reduced. (Of course, this would in many ways be a reversion to the status quo ante rather than a novel development.)

I don’t agree with Sanchez when he says that a party’s support for positions at odds with those of the Magisterium necessarily “places itself out of the reach of Catholic support” – a topic for another post perhaps! – but I do think it’s accurate to say, as Michael Sean Winters puts it, that “a person who is 100 percent consistent with the Church’s teachings is likely to find himself politically homeless.” My point is not that political ideas the Church disagrees with would disappear from the scene following the hypothetical realignment I outline, but rather that the resulting political environment would be one in which the “consistent Catholics” of the world would be less likely to be looked at askance by both parties.

Would a “Catholic Party” Be Bad for the Church?

This article first appeared at Ethika Politika.

Last September, Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout dealt Gov. Andrew Cuomo a major embarrassment in New York state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary when she finished with just over a third of the vote and carried 30 of the state’s 62 counties. That may not seem like much of a victory, but few believed that a race between an incumbent governor and someone who had never sought elected office would be at all competitive. The conventional wisdom in the run-up to Primary Day held that Teachout, who ran no TV ads and spent only about $300,000 on her campaign to Cuomo’s $20 million, would be lucky to crack 15 or 20 percent of the vote.

Teachout’s candidacy was portrayed by the media as a challenge to Cuomo “from the left,” but her views are not so easily shoehorned into the usual political categories. In fact, her appeal may be a sign that those categories are breaking down and that a realignment of the coalitions of American politics is in the offing. Such a shift is not likely to produce a party with a platform that lines up perfectly with the social doctrine of the Church, but it could potentially bring about a political milieu in which Catholics who are committed to seeing that social doctrine put into practice as consistently as possible find it more straightforward to reconcile their religious commitments with their partisan loyalties. And as an added bonus, it could even make it easier for the institutional Church to avoid unseemly political entanglements.

Central to Teachout’s message was her claim that concentrated power, whether economic or political, is antithetical to a democratic society. Styling herself an “old-fashioned trustbuster,” she and running mate Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia who coined the term “net neutrality,” called for blocking a controversial cable merger between Time Warner and Comcast and even joined with conservatives like Republican gubernatorial nominee Rob Astorino in opposing “Common Core” educational standards and in pressing Albany to devolve more power to local governments.

Teachout frequently invoked Thomas Jefferson while on the stump. At a campaign stop in Oneonta, she described how he had wanted an explicit anti-monopoly clause to be included in the U.S. Constitution. Yet Jefferson, who believed that the powers of the federal government should be sharply limited and that the American economy should be powered by a strong agricultural sector, clung to a vision of society that would seem to be at odds with that of many contemporary progressives.

Indeed, Jefferson’s vision is at odds with that of many progressives, which is precisely why the Teachout phenomenon may portend a struggle on the Left akin to that between the Tea Party and “establishment” Republicans on the Right. In a recent essay for the socialist magazine Jacobin, New York University’s Christian Parenti argues that the thinking of Jefferson’s foe Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, provides the better template for contemporary liberals. Parenti writes that “Jefferson represented the most backward and fundamentally reactionary sector of the economy: large, patrimonial, slave-owning, agrarian elites,” whereas “[Hamilton’s] mission was to create a state that could facilitate, encourage, and guide the process of economic change.” If progressives like Parenti have any say, Teachout-style insurgents will not be able to take over the Democratic Party without a fight.

The Left generally worries about concentrated economic power but is less concerned about concentrated political power; the opposite is true of the Right. But what if this pattern is changing? We seem to be witnessing the recapitulation of a debate from the earliest days of the Republic: Jeffersonian advocates of the diffusion of power versus Hamiltonian enthusiasts of centralized power put to work for the public good.

It is not inconceivable that the combatants in these intra-party struggles could decide that it is easier to win elections by forming wholly new coalitions than by engaging in an endless war of attrition against their own co-partisans. One reason to think such a development likely can be seen in the early reactions to the possibility of a Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush matchup in the 2016 presidential election. Both Republicans like the New York Times’ Ross Douthat and Democrats like former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have bemoaned the idea of a race between two candidates who both have close ties to the existing power structures in Washington and on Wall Street.

On the other hand, there are some who are eagerly looking forward to just such a contest. Politico reporters Ben White and Maggie Haberman last year quoted an unnamed lawyer from the financial services industry as saying that

If it turns out to be Jeb versus Hillary we would love that and either outcome would be fine … we could live with either one. Jeb versus Joe Biden would also be fine. It’s Rand Paul or Ted Cruz versus someone like Elizabeth Warren that would be everybody’s worst nightmare.

Given the almost insurmountable obstacles to building a successful third party, anti-establishmentarians like Douthat and Schweitzer will only be able to challenge the status quo in a fundamental way to the extent that they can transform one of the two major parties into an effective vehicle for their ideas. And should such a transformation be successful, there would be strong incentives for those on both the Right and Left who oppose Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren-style populism to join forces in the other party.

To borrow from the vocabulary of Catholic social thought, voters could one day find themselves choosing not between a party of the Left and a party of the Right, but between a party of solidarity and a party of subsidiarity.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church defines subsidiarity as the principle that “all societies of a superior order [e.g. national governments] must adopt attitudes of help … with respect to lower-order societies [e.g. local governments, families, etc.]” (186), and solidarity (quoting Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis) as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (193). In other words, we are obliged to work toward eliminating social ills even if they do not affect us directly, but our solutions to those ills ought not to be imposed from on high and should be formulated and implemented by the lowest-level governmental or civic institutions possible.

This would not be quite the realignment for which some Catholics have been hoping. In the wake of Pope Francis’s election in March 2013, the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters penned a piece for the Daily Beast in which he laments the fact that “a person who is 100 percent consistent with the Church’s teachings is likely to find himself politically homeless.” He concludes with a cautious prediction about the future of the two-party system:

The estuary where religion and politics intersect is constantly changing. It may be that in a generation, the two parties will sort out their ideologies, with one party standing for libertarian impulses across the board and the other adopting a more communitarian approach. If that happens, the communitarian party might be the Democrats or it might be the Republicans, but either way, it would be a decidedly Catholic Party.

Winters’s forecast may turn out to be correct, but the Church should prefer the realignment that I’ve outlined to the one for which he yearns. From the standpoint of the American hierarchy, the existence of a “Catholic Party” would be bad news for the same reason it would be good news: The bishops would be free to support a single party and its candidates without reservation. For anyone concerned about the politicization of religion, this would be a worrisome state of affairs.

Catholics like Winters may complain about never being able to vote for a politician who has not taken morally objectionable stances on at least some issues, but the silver lining of the status quo is that it allows the Church to more easily keep its distance from partisan politics. It would become much more difficult for it to do so were there to be a viable Catholic Party. Worse, the temptation for the Church to overlook corruption and abuse within such a party would be strong, and its public image could be tarnished if it were to be seen as turning a blind eye to wrongdoing by its favored politicians.

In a world inhabited by a Solidarity Party and a Subsidiarity Party, though, the hierarchy could still maintain this distance by emphasizing not only the ways in which Catholic social thought is compatible with each party’s outlook, but also how its principles can be served by healthy competition between the two. The Church has already made clear that solidarity and subsidiarity are complementary and mutually reinforcing. It even holds that pursuing one at the expense of the other can lead to social dysfunction:

The action of the State and of other public authorities must be consistent with the principle of subsidiarity and create situations favorable to the free exercise of economic activity. It must also be inspired by the principle of solidarity and establish limits for the autonomy of the parties in order to defend those who are weaker. Solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a “Welfare State,” while subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centered localism. In order to respect both of these fundamental principles, the State’s intervention in the economic environment must be neither invasive nor absent, but commensurate with society’s real needs (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 351).

Another upside for communitarians like Winters is that the alliances that would hold these two parties together would militate against their taking uncompromising stances on hot-button culture war issues in their official platforms. A party that brought together liberals like Teachout and conservatives like Paul under the banner of subsidiarity would have to tolerate a range of views on the most divisive questions. Winters might still have a hard time pulling the lever for particular candidates, but he might also find it easier to make a home for himself in one of the parties without worrying about failing a litmus test.

A “Catholic Party” may seem like an appealing idea to Catholics frustrated by some of the more difficult trade-offs associated with electoral politics, but the cure could easily be worse than the disease. Better, it seems, to hope for a political culture in which both parties eagerly welcome the contributions of those working to advance a Catholic vision of the common good.

Abolish the Senate, but Amend the Amendment Process First

“Abolish the Senate,” declares author Daniel Lazare in the title of his latest essay for the socialist magazine Jacobin, in which he lays out a case for why the upper chamber of the U.S. Congress “needs to go.” Lazare vividly illustrates the ways in which the Senate is “by now the most unrepresentative major legislature in the ‘democratic world’” and draws attention to the fact that the same trends exacerbating that unrepresentativeness are simultaneously pushing reform farther out of reach. Yet his apparent belief that the Senate is the main obstacle to a new era of progressive dominance in Washington is misguided, since the features of the modern-day political scene that he lays at its feet would almost certainly persist in a post-Senate world.

Most of us are aware that the income distribution in the United States skews heavily toward the wealthy, and yet surveys have shown that we tend to grossly underestimate the extent of that skew. Likewise, it’s intuitively clear that sparsely populated states benefit from the fact that every state is constitutionally guaranteed the same number of U.S. senators, but it can be hard to appreciate just how much they benefit without taking a good look at the numbers. Lazare’s piece opens with a list of arresting statistics that make plain the magnitude of the disparity:

  • Although California has the same number of votes as Wyoming, its population, currently at 38.3 million, is now some 65 times larger. One Californian thus has 1.5 percent of the voting clout in Senate elections as someone living just a few hundred miles to the east.
  • Since a majority of Americans now live in just nine states, they wind up with just eighteen votes while the minority holds eighty-two, a ratio of better than four to one.
  • Thanks to the Senate’s bizarre filibuster rules, forty-one senators representing less than 11 percent of the population can prevent any bill from even coming to a vote.
  • Thanks to the requirement that proposed constitutional amendments be approved by at least two-thirds of each house, thirty-four senators from states representing just 5 percent of the population can veto any constitutional change, no matter how minor.
  • The same goes for treaties, which also require two-thirds approval.
  • The Senate “hold” system is even more unjust since it allows a single senator representing as little as one citizen in a thousand to stall a bill or executive appointment almost indefinitely.

At the time the Constitution was ratified, the imbalance was much less stark: Lazare himself notes that the largest state in 1790 (Virginia) had “only” twelve times the population of the smallest (Delaware).

Constitutional safeguards of minority rights are important, but representatives of five percent of the population ought not to be able to block a constitutional amendment. There is a broad consensus on this point, as there should be. Even Antonin Scalia, who I assume agrees with Daniel Lazare about approximately nothing else, is on the record as saying that the Constitution is too hard to change.

Lazare’s framing focuses on the advantages afforded to certain geographic groups by the structure of the Senate, but geography ultimately concerns him only insofar as it is a proxy for political beliefs:

Not unexpectedly, equal state representation also turns out to be racially unrepresentative. While Hispanics and racial minorities make up 44 percent of the population in the ten largest states, all of which are heavily urbanized, they account for just 18 percent of the ten smallest states (in which individual voting power happens to be some eighteen times greater)…

Other groups are also penalized…. [T]he LGBT community, whose most vocal activist base is typically in urban areas, does suffer from the Senate’s reign… The same goes for socialists, labor unions, health-care activists, conservationists, and others. All suffer under an exclusionary system that deprives progressive city dwellers of their rightful representation. Yet all are strangely acquiescent.

It is only because geography and political ideology are today so strongly correlated that Lazare is exasperated by this arrangement; he would presumably be perfectly content to live under a system in which socialists had 65 times the voting clout of everyone else! But if the tight link between geography and ideology is what makes the Senate such a problematic institution, then it is also the reason why excising it from the constitutional order will not be enough to bring about the progressive dominance Lazare seeks. Absent any other changes, abolition of the Senate will leave the Congress consisting solely of the House of Representatives, which at the moment is not exactly a bastion of leftism.

In the 2012 elections, Democratic House candidates won a combined 59,214,910 votes, or 48.4% of the total cast. Republican House candidates won 57,622,827 votes, or 47.1%, yet ended up with a 234-201 majority. The conventional wisdom holds that this GOP edge is primarily the result of partisan gerrymandering in the wake of the 2010 census. According to this line of argument, by packing Democratic voters into as few districts as possible and allowing them to win congressional races there by huge margins, GOP-dominated legislatures had essentially caused their opponents to “waste” votes that could have made contests elsewhere more competitive.

But Democratic voters, who Lazare correctly identifies as more likely to be “city dwellers,” also pack themselves into districts in a way that would tend to diminish their influence no matter how the boundaries were drawn. Washington University postdoc Nicholas Goedert wrote in a post at The Monkey Cage after the 2012 elections that “the Democrats’ loss in the House was caused largely not by gerrymandering, but [by] districting itself [emphasis added],” and that

there appears to be evidence at a state-by-state level that the disparity between the popular vote in the House and the distribution of seats is not just due to Republican gerrymanders, but due to a skewed geographic distribution of population putting the Democrats at an inherent disadvantage…

Other research points to the same conclusion: while partisan redistricting has certainly helped Republicans to cement an advantage in the House, the aggregation of Democratic-leaning voters in densely populated urban areas has simultaneously resulted in a kind of natural gerrymander.

It sounds like what Lazare would really prefer is a system of proportional representation, where seats are handed out to each party in direct proportion to their share of the popular vote. I wrote last year after the statewide elections in New Jersey that the Republicans were justified in their grousing about not having taken over either chamber of the legislature despite having garnered more votes, so I’m sympathetic to electoral reforms along these lines. (Proportional representation has some problems of its own, but there are alternative setups like the mixed-member system that can work to mitigate these.)

As I mentioned at the outset, one of the most insightful pieces of Lazare’s analysis is his observation that the ever more pronounced concentration of the population in large metropolitan areas will tend to make the Senate more unequal even as it makes it harder to reform, because of the requirement that two-thirds of the Senate itself approve any prospective constitutional change (unless a constitutional convention is called by two-thirds of the states, something that has never been pulled off in U.S. history). Amending the Constitution requires a degree of consensus and political will that is almost impossible to imagine us achieving in this day and age. Why pour such unbelievable amounts of energy into a campaign to enact a change that will not even solve the problem it was formulated to address?

In my opinion, the only constitutional amendment worth pursuing at this point is one that makes it easier to amend the Constitution. Altering the structure of our government, even in apparently minor ways, is not something to be taken lightly and should be very difficult. But it should not be impossible. Many states make use of amendment mechanisms that are demanding without being unusable. Common features of these mechanisms include requirements that the legislature sign off on an amendment multiple times in different sessions or that it be approved in a popular referendum, sometimes even by a supermajority of voters.

Once we’ve amended the amendment process and adopted a more streamlined procedure, we can then debate further changes with a reasonable amount of confidence that those debates will have some chance of producing actual results. This approach could even improve the odds of making Lazare’s vision of a Senate-free world a reality. Reformers are much more likely to win an argument about whether to make it easier to tweak the Constitution, something from which any constituency could conceivably benefit somewhere down the road, than they are to prevail when explicitly demanding that small states voluntarily relinquish their perks under the current arrangement.

I share Daniel Lazare’s aim of making the American political system more responsive to the needs and preferences of the voters, though I happen to see that objective as an end in itself and not just as a strategically useful tactic for facilitating a socialist victory at the polls. But even granting that this is a worthwhile goal, his plan for achieving it is inadequate to the task.

Were the effort to bulldoze the Senate somehow to succeed, the subsequent realization that the problems highlighted by the abolitionists still remained would only engender even more cynicism about the ability of any popular movement to ever deliver meaningful constitutional reform. And if Lazare is puzzled by how “strangely acquiescent” people are to the status quo now, then I can only imagine how bewildered he would be then.

A Q&A with Slate’s Betsy Woodruff

Betsy Woodruff is Slate’s staff writer for politics and the co-host of Bloggingheads’ Woodruff & Strauss We’ve really enjoyed Betsy’s coverage of the midterm elections and her insightful podcast commentary, so we reached out by e-mail to get her thoughts on her work, gridlock in Washington, and the political landscape over the next two years. 

Congratulations on your new position at Slate!  What sparked your interest in political reporting?  What do you like most about your work?

My family always followed politics closely. We had lots of dinner table conversations about it, and I grew up very aware of the way public policy impacts people’s lives. It’s always been really interesting to me.  The best part of my job is that I get to meet a huge variety of people, which is really fun.

We hear a lot of talking heads these days lamenting the politicization of journalism and the erosion of even a basic consensus about what the facts are. Yet there are also pundits who take the “This Town” view of DC as a place where politicians and reporters alike are steeped in this common worldview that is totally out of touch with what “real Americans” outside the Beltway think and believe.  As someone who’s worked for outlets like National Review and Slate that come at things from notionally different ideological angles, which of these perceptions would you say has more merit? 

I think that’s probably a bit of a false dichotomy. My top pet peeve is when people refer to “the media.” The media is not a monolith! There are reporters who are really close with top Hill aides, and reporters who cover DC from thousands of miles away, and reporters who are very open about their partisan/ideological allegiances, and reporters who are total straight-shooters and will never betray any bias. And all of that is good. Variety is good. There are stories that outlets like Free Beacon and Talking Points Memo will get that mainstream outlets would miss. And there are stories where Politico and Washington Post will blow everyone else out of the water. “The media” contains multitudes. That’s good, because it means news consumers have a huge number of choices, and it means old media empires have to watch their backs (which makes them better!). Today, people have more access to high-quality political journalism than they have ever had in human history. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but forests, trees, etc etc.

My main concern is that people can get ideologically siloed — in other words, you have liberals only reading liberal outlets and conservatives only reading conservative ones. It’s easy to get lazy and stop thinking critically about the policies you like and the politicians you admire. That’s bad. Conservatives should read Mother Jones and Talking Points Memo. Progressives should read National Review and The American Conservative. Moderates should read all of those. You miss a ton of good journalism if you only read writers who agree with you.

What do you think can be done to ameliorate the gridlock we see at all levels of government? Do we need more politicians willing to engage and compromise with the other side, or more partisans who will resolutely argue for their convictions and push hard to implement their vision?

One man’s Gridlock-mongerer is another man’s Horatius at the Bridge, so I’m disinclined to say that gridlock is necessarily a bad thing. Here’s a non-answer answer: One example of gridlock is in drug sentencing reform. I’ve written a bit about the bipartisan backing this has on the Hill — when Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren are on the same side, you’d think something would get done. But many politicians are terrified of changing mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws because they don’t want their opponents to run TV ads against them saying “Rep. McGillicuddy is Soft On Crime!! Why Won’t He Protect The Children?!?!?! Why Does He Support Heroin?!??!” In that case, I think it’s voters’ responsibility to pay attention to complex issues, to call their congressmen (phone calls make a difference!) when important votes are coming up, to pay attention to advocacy groups who work on issues they care about (in the case of sentencing reform, it’s FAMM), and to shame candidates who use cheap, mendacious scare tactics.

Another point: The same politician can happily compromise one week and resolutely argue for her convictions the next week — in other words, voters don’t always have to pick between “politicians willing to compromise” and “partisans who will argue for their convictions.” Many politicians fit into both categories, depending on the issue. Ted Cruz is a good example of this.

We’ve really been enjoying your Bloggingheads episodes with Daniel Strauss.  How did the idea for the show come about? 

I met Daniel at CPAC this year and he suggested we start doing Bloggingheads. As you can tell from listening to his BH commentary and reading his stories at TPM, he’s an insightful, funny guy who is great to work with. We have a really good time.

Based on the midterm elections, what trends or potential events should we be aware of in the next two years?  What are you most looking forward to covering during the 2016 campaign season?  Any predictions about how the presidential race will play out?

I’m really excited about covering the Republicans. How do they talk about immigration, 4th amendment issues, and foreign policy? Who are the dark horses? Does the Tea Party make up some of the territory it lost in 2014? Does Sarah Palin win back any of her nigh-nonexistent relevance? Do we see the apotheosis of Kingmaker Mitt Romney? I have zero predictions. I have no idea what’s going to happen. Hooray! America!

We’d like to thank Betsy once again for taking the time to answer our questions! Be sure to check out her work at Slate and her Bloggingheads series with Daniel Strauss.

The Moderation Conversation, Email Edition: Standard Time vs. Daylight Savings

This is the second installment of “The Moderation Conversation, Email Edition”, a spin-off of RM’s “Moderation Conversation” feature.  The topic this time was something that seems inconsequential but has inspired one of our most adamant disagreements in ages: is Daylight Savings Time better than Standard Time or vice-versa? 

Chris

Matt, I’m feeling a bit down at the moment and I need your help.  I’m writing this to you on October 30, which means we only have three days left until Daylight Savings Time ends.

For me, this is perhaps the worst time of the year, at least outside of the cold doldrums of February.  The end of Daylight Savings Time means that it will start to get dark around 4:30pm from now through March.  This is terrible!  Two weeks ago, we were enjoying warm, breezy fall days, but by next week, it will be cold and completely dark by the time I leave my office each afternoon.

I love Daylight Savings Time.  I’d endorse a petition to make it the year-round standard in a heartbeat.  What’s the point of changing clocks twice a year?  What’s the benefit of manipulating time such that evening falls before most people clock out for the day?  I’d rather grab an extra hour of sun in the afternoon than an extra hour in the morning, when I’m barely conscious enough to hate the morning traffic, let alone appreciate the beauty of fresh light.

Word on the street is that you actually prefer Standard Time to Daylight Savings Time.  I find this unfathomable and I’m inclined to completely, vehemently disagree, but I’d like to hear: what’s your rationale?  Can you help convince me that there’s value in adopting Standard Time?

Matt

Chris, I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling down, but I do think I might be able to help. What if I told you that getting rid of Daylight Savings Time might literally make all of us a little bit happier?

Before I explain why, I want to point out that one alleged benefit of DST is greatly oversold. The primary motivation for instituting DST was the belief that it would conserve energy by reducing the need for artificial lighting on summer evenings. This argument dates back at least to the time of Benjamin Franklin, who thought that people would burn fewer candles if everyone agreed to wake up and go to sleep earlier during the summer. It was also invoked by Congress as a reason for lengthening DST starting in 2007.

Unfortunately, there’s scant evidence that DST actually saves energy, and some reason to think that it actually has the opposite effect. In a 2008 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, economists Matthew Kotchen and Laura Grant analyze the impact of an Indiana law that required all counties in the state to adhere to DST, many of which had not done so previously. By comparing patterns of energy usage in those counties that had practiced DST before the passage of the law to those that had not, Kotchen and Grant were able to isolate the effect of the time shift on electricity consumption.

Their results show that DST may paradoxically increase the amount of electricity used, perhaps because any savings realized from the “Benjamin Franklin effect” are swamped by an increased reliance on air conditioners or fans (since more sunlight in the evenings also means that the evenings will tend to be warmer). The increase is not enormous – Kotchen and Grant estimate it at a few percentage points – but at the very least it calls into question the main rationale for DST.

But why would I say that year-round Standard Time has the potential to make us happier? Well, science has shown that exposure to bright light in the morning is mood-enhancing, and therapy involving “light boxes” is sometimes used as a treatment for depression. Such therapy is most effective for individuals who suffer from the aptly acronym-ed Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that strikes mainly during the winter months.

Although patients with SAD generally start to feel worse in the late autumn and better in the springtime, some clinicians report that they struggle with the start of DST (when the mornings suddenly become darker) and experience the return to Standard Time as a kind of reprieve (when the mornings become brighter).

Even for those of us who don’t have to deal with SAD, the “spring forward” can still have deleterious consequences for our health. In addition to its effects on mood, there are studies suggesting that heart attacks and suicides also spike around that time of year.

I agree with you that changing the clocks twice a year is pointless – so let’s stick with Standard Time all year long!

Chris

I appreciate your efforts to convince me why Standard Time should usurp Daylight Savings Time all year round.  Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time buying your arguments; even in tandem, they’re not persuasive enough to make me think that darkness at 4:30pm is a worthwhile trade-off.

I’ll readily accept the energy statistics you cite, but by your own evidence, it does not seem like Standard Time has an overwhelming advantage over DST with respect to electricity conservation.  It also sounds like the worst cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder occur during the heart of the winter when Standard Time is most acute and days are shortest.  And the instances you report regarding heart attacks and suicides imply causation with DST when only correlation may exist.  On the whole, all three points strike me as insufficient to justify a full year of Standard Time.

But there are distinct advantages to a full year of DST.  Joe Stromberg at Vox notes how a full year of DST would allow for extra time after work for leisure activities, including shopping, which is why retail sales rise a little bit during the summer.  It’s not a huge increase, but hey, it’s something.  He also reports that DST is correlated with reduced instances of robberies due to the extra light at night.

Benefits for school children are perhaps even greater.  Additional light in the afternoon would allow for more time spent in after-school activities, particularly exercise.  Interestingly, the National Parent Teacher Association has been a key opponent of expanding Daylight Savings Time in the past, arguing that light in the morning is necessary when children are traveling to school.  But this is easily solved by pushing back the start times for school, which is long overdue anyway (and perhaps a topic we could discuss in the future).

More important, though, are the lives that would be saved by full-year DST.  From Time (no pun intended): “Adding an hour of sunlight in the evening year-round would save the lives of more than 170 pedestrians annually, according to a 2004 study in Accident Analysis and Prevention. ”  Says Steve Calandrio, a professor who has studied the effectiveness of DST policies: “At 5 pm virtually everyone in society is awake.  There are far more people asleep at 7 in the morning than at 7 in the evening.”  It’s as simple as that.

Seems like there are benefits to both a full year of Standard Time and a full year of Daylight Savings Time, but the upside to 365 days of DST far outweighs that of ST.  What say you?

Matt

I admit that the research showing a link between the start of DST and heart attacks does not prove causality – it can never be repeated often enough that correlation does not imply causation! – but neither does the study you refer to which claims that DST reduces crime. That said, the evidence is pretty suggestive in both cases, so maybe we both need to acknowledge that our favored regime comes with costs and benefits.

I’m a little confused about the points one of the articles you link to makes regarding DST’s effect on retail sales. The article quotes Michael Downing, the author of a book called Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, as saying that “[t]he barbeque grill and charcoal industries say they gain $200 million in sales with an extra month of daylight saving—and they were among the biggest lobbies in favor of extending DST from six to seven months in 1986.” Downing also mentions the golf equipment industry, the fuel industry, and the “Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association” as advocates of that move.

What do these industries have in common? They all produce goods or services that are people are most likely to consume during the spring or summer. In other words, I can understand why extending DST to cover more of the times when people might be golfing or grilling or driving to the beach would benefit golf club makers or charcoal sellers or oil companies, but now that DST already runs from March to October I doubt that any further economic benefits could be reaped by making it year-round. I imagine that not very many people golf in the depths of winter (although I did see some mini-golfing going down earlier today, and it’s almost the end of November).

I wonder how you might feel about the following compromise, which would both address my concerns about rousing people while it’s dark outside and still grant you your cherished evening sunlight: shorten the workweek so that we can all awaken at the same time we do now and have time to frolic in the natural light after we come home. You might be familiar with the argument made by some economists that a shorter workweek would distribute paid employment more equitably across the population and simultaneously reduce both joblessness and overwork. I can’t say whether anyone has ever argued for such a proposal on the grounds that it would give us more evening sunlight, but it sure seems like that would be one of the consequences. I’d love to get your thoughts!

Chris

Agreed with you that it’s important to acknowledge our favored regimes both come with costs and benefits.  Though I still believe all-year Daylight Savings Time is preferable to the status quo, the arguments and information you’ve brought up against DST are definitely helping me look at the bright side of things.  (Pun sort-of intended.)

As you note, the sales benefits of DST are almost certainly a bit overblown, especially since only a select number of retailers are actually reaping the rewards.  But I still think the arguments I cited about children benefiting from light after school, coupled with research that suggests a causal relationship between Standard Time and pedestrian deaths, tip the scales slightly in favor of full-year DST.

Your compromise proposal about a shorter workweek is fascinating, albeit a few hundred orders of magnitude more difficult to institute than passing a law to mandate year-long DST. But it’s true!  If everyone is working fewer hours, there will most definitely be more time to enjoy the sunlight during short winter days.  Perhaps this will be a byproduct of the basic income policy Bernie Sanders is sure to institute when he wins the 2016 presidential election.  Only two more years!

 

Unreasonably Immoderate: Impressions of Atlas Shrugged Part III

Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who is John Galt? was released to little fanfare and no acclaim last month. As its clunky name implies, it is the final film in a nigh-unwatchable trilogy loosely based on Ayn Rand’s veritable doorstop of a novel. Amazingly, each installment managed to sink lower than its predecessor; the cast was completely replaced for each film, and rumors circulated that Who is John Galt? was originally conceived as a musical. For most people, this combination of awful production and stilted Objectivist dialogue does not an enjoyable evening make.

Not us! Along with our good friend Rory Marinich, we gleefully headed to one of the only movie theaters in our state that was screening Part III and livetweeted opening night. We’re happy to present the fruit of our labors to you here: a timeline of tweets covering our entire journey through this godforsaken film. Enjoy!

#TheShruggening: An Evening of Atlas Shrugged Part III

Some select highlights from the full tweetstorm linked above:

Nate vs. Leo (and Another Nate): On FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot

Statistics guru Nate Silver has long been considered a master political prognosticator, and for some time he held a virtual monopoly over what has since come to be known as “data journalism.” But around the time that Silver ended his four-year tenure at the New York Times to build an expanded version of his popular FiveThirtyEight blog under the patronage of ESPN, several other players moved into the market: Ezra Klein, formerly of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, hired “literally everybody” to help him launch Vox.com, and the Times’ David Leonhardt, creator of the now-defunct Economix blog, succeeded Silver as the paper’s nerd-in-chief with the debut of The Upshot in March 2014.

Much has been written about the strengths and weaknesses of each of the sites, including by our own Chris Fegan a few months back. But there’s one story about the data journalism food fight that has largely slipped under the radar: when it came time to start making forecasts for this fall’s elections for the U.S. Senate, The Upshot and its main politics writer, former New Republic contributor Nate Cohn, somehow managed to completely steal Nate Silver’s thunder.

Part of Silver’s unique appeal during the past few campaign seasons stemmed from the fact that he used statistical models to make quantitative forecasts of the outcomes of presidential and senatorial contests, as opposed to simply offering up the sort of qualitative assessments that are a dime a dozen elsewhere in the world of punditry. For all their weaknesses, these models had some important advantages: they allowed for new data to be quickly incorporated into FiveThirtyEight’s view of a race, and they made it possible to systematically attend to a wider range of variables than a mere human could on his own.

When The Upshot debuted “Leo,” its own model for forecasting the results of the 2014 Senate elections, I initially assumed that it would be a cheap knockoff of Silver’s more refined approach, and that I should really just wait for the new incarnation of the FiveThirtyEight model if I wanted to hear from professionals about what we ought to expect come November.

Leo’s methodology page features a Vox-style Q&A that walks readers through the mechanics of the model. Here’s the response to the first question, which asks about how Leo interprets polls:

We focus on the margin between two major candidates, taking steps to make different polls directly comparable. We tweak polls that count registered voters instead of likely ones. We make further adjustments depending on who conducted the poll.

“Well yes,” I thought, when I read that for the first time, “but they probably don’t make as many adjustments as Nate Silver would, like weighting polls based on their sample size or how recent they are.” Then I scrolled down to the next paragraph:

After adjusting the polls, we take a weighted average for each race, giving more weight to polls with a larger sample size and more recent polls (with a poll’s date being especially important the closer we get to Election Day). We also give more weight to a poll when we are more certain about its pollster’s house effect.

“That’s nice,” I chuckled condescendingly as I kept scrolling, “but I bet Leo doesn’t include any of the other sort of data that Nate Silver would, like candidates’ approval ratings or fundraising totals!” False:

For incumbents running for re-election, we consider their approval ratings. We also consider each candidate’s political experience; money raised; the state’s most recent presidential result; national polls on the public’s mood; and whether the election happens in a midterm or presidential year.

“Alright, this is a little better than I expected,” I said to myself, beginning to furrow my brow, “but Leo probably doesn’t account for the fact that the outcomes of races in different states tend to be correlated, which was something Nate Silver always thought was very important to model.” Also false:

We don’t think the races are independent. If the economy starts booming, it will probably help Democrats everywhere. If President Obama bungles an international crisis, Republicans everywhere could benefit. Even on Election Day, our model assumes the races will be correlated to some extent: The pollsters will tend to miss consistently in one direction or the other across the different races.

I finally realized that Leo was not only quite sophisticated, but that it was virtually identical to the old FiveThirtyEight model. In fact, the methodology page basically admits as much:

Leo owes an intellectual debt to earlier models, including those created by political scientists and especially the FiveThirtyEight model, which popularized ideas about adjusting polls, combining polls with other information and national swings.

FiveThirtyEight has been releasing informal reads on the most competitive Senate races at regular intervals for the past several months. Silver has noted that it is the site’s “tradition” to begin transitioning to algorithmic predictions sometime during the summer. This is indeed what FiveThirtyEight did in 2010, when it began publishing results from its model at the end of August. Yet does one data point make a “tradition”? In 2012, Silver’s model was launched at the beginning of June – right around the same time of year that he made this comment.

One obvious response to those (like myself) who would criticize Silver and his team for letting The Upshot beat them to the punch is that unveiling a quantitative model too early might give a false impression about the precision with which the results of an election can be forecasted many months out. Silver may have been worried that readers would fail to realize just how much uncertainty is associated with early predictions, and would put too much stock in seemingly precise numbers that aren’t really all that informative.

But this is always a danger, and Silver dealt with it in 2012 by posting confidence intervals alongside his forecasts of the popular and electoral votes. Moreover, FiveThirtyEight has argued on multiple occasions that early Senate polls have plenty to tell us about November. Here’s Harry Enten, in a piece from April entitled “Early Senate Polls Have Plenty to Tell Us About November”:

More than six months from the midterm elections, current polling and past precedent are competing for our trust. I analyzed which measure is more indicative come November, and it turns out that polls are a more robust metric even though their numbers are still sparse and there’s still so much time remaining before the election.

It’s not clear what Silver can do at this point to reassert his dominance. Maybe he’ll just try to rely on FiveThirtyEight’s superior name recognition. The site has about three times as many Twitter followers as The Upshot, so it’s possible that the efforts of Leo and Nate Cohn will simply be forgotten in the buzz surrounding the eventual rollout of FiveThirtyEight’s own model. But among hardcore political junkies, I can only assume that Silver’s brand has lost some of its luster. Barring a new model that features some truly innovative bells and whistles, it looks like he allowed himself to be totally outflanked by another guy named Nate.

In Silver’s first post at the new FiveThirtyEight, he explained that “we’ve elected to sacrifice something else as opposed to accuracy or accessibility. The sacrifice is speed – we’re rarely going to be the first organization to break news or to comment on a story.” Fair enough! RM prizes depth over quick turnaround too. (This may or may not be an attempt to offer a noble-sounding excuse for our frequent dry spells.) But it’s not clear that FiveThirtyEight is gaining much of anything by taking its time in rolling out its Senate model. Silver and his colleagues have certainly sacrificed speed, but the upshot is that they seem likely to get nothing in return.

 

Standing with Iraq’s Christians – And All of Its Persecuted Innocents

The militant group ISIS, which began seizing control of Iraqi cities several months back, has decreed that all Christians and religious minorities in the Iraqi city of Mosul will face the death penalty unless they convert to Islam or leave the territory.  The terror organization imposed Sharia law earlier this past June and recently prevented Christian services from being held for the first time 1600 years.  Last week, the city’s remaining Christian families fled – and were reportedly robbed at ISIS checkpoints as they left.

These actions have prompted many Christians around the world to adopt the Arabic character of “nun” on social media in a show of solidarity with the persecuted.  This symbol had been painted and posted on the homes of Christian families in Iraq, marking them as targets for their beliefs.

It is heartening to read the posts and essays by Christian writers who express concern for the welfare of their brothers and sisters suffering in Iraq.  Their work has been a moving testament to the pain fellow Christians are facing and an important reminder that this suffering must not be forgotten.

But there has been a slightly disturbing undercurrent in some of these tributes to Mosul’s Christians: an unspoken indifference to the plight of non-Christian Iraqis who are suffering with their Christian countrymen.  Given that most Christian denominations are defined by their concern for all people regardless of their faith, I fear this is creating a discrete, insular provincialism that does no favors to broader Christian outreach.

As an example, here’s Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at Patheos:

The persecution of Christians happens under a great shroud of silence. Maybe, as John Allen has argued, persecuted Christians are too Christian for the Left to care, and too third-worldy for the Right to care (but, you know, there’s a War on Christmas on). And the worst thing for our governments would be to be seen in non-Christian lands as having any sort of special solidarity with Christians (yes, wouldn’t that be terrible), so better to err on the side of indifference. Right?

This blood is particularly on the hands of the American government, which has a special duty to help them and, I am sure, will do nothing of the sort.

Much credit should go to Gobry and his fellow bloggers for lifting this shroud of silence surrounding Christian persecution through their work – I certainly wouldn’t have learned as much about this crisis without their efforts.  But Gobry’s proposal for a governmental declaration of solidarity with Iraq’s Christians makes little sense.  What reason would the U.S. have for expressing any particular affinity for Christians over Muslims in Iraq, especially when ISIS’ extremism is affecting Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in different but equally disturbing ways?

For that matter, if the U.S. were to signal solidarity with a persecuted minority, why would it limit its symbolic gesture to only Christians?  Human Rights Watch reports that ethnic groups including Turkmen, Shabaks, and Yazidis have also been persecuted for their beliefs and subjected to decrees similar to Mosul’s Christians.  Turkmen are the third largest ethnic group in Iraq; 500,000 live in the Mosul area alone and 30,000 in the city proper.  Despite its Christian origins and its large Christian population, the U.S. government obviously has no explicit Christian affiliation, and to express “special solidarity” with Christians in Mosul, which Gobry sarcastically suggests would be no big deal, is actually a serious affront to the other religious groups suffering similar harm in Iraq.

Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week falls into a similar trap as Gobry, suggesting that Christians are the primary group that deserves American attention:

The U.S. owes Christians and other persecuted Iraqi minorities assistance… Mosul was a home for Christians for as long as Christianity existed. Not anymore. Now, the U.S. cannot restore these people to their homes, or reverse the desecration of Christian shrines. But our diplomatic, financial, and moral energies should be used to protect them from any further harm.

To his credit, Dougherty references other “religious minorities” throughout the essay, but he never actually names any of them.  The piece’s title reinforces a decidedly narrow view of whom American aid should assist: “Why America is duty bound to help Iraqi Christians.”

Dougherty calls for the U.S. to withhold financial aid to Iraq until its government does more to protect only afflicted religious minorities.  To argue this point is to ignore the besieged members of Iraq’s religious majority.  While Islam constitutes 97% of the country’s religious population, Sunni Muslims account for around 35% of the total religious population and Shi’a Muslims account for around 60%.  There have been atrocities committed against both denominations and the Iraqi government is not blameless.  To suggest aid should be preconditioned solely on the welfare of minorities – and to ignore the hardship inflicted on innocent Sunni and Shi’a Muslims – seems tone-deaf at best, since civilians of all religious communities have been unjustly affected.

Rorate-Caeli similarly frames the atrocities in Iraq solely through their impact on Christians in the region:

For two thousand years, our dearest brethren saw it all from Mosul… For years, we have been warning that support for terrorists in neighboring Syria would surely end badly. But even we could not imagine that it would end so badly so fast and over such a vast area. And yet, the insane Empire-builders are still handing billions and billions, and hundreds of millions of dollars to “moderate” terrorists! Where’s the outrage? Have you contacted your congressman, senator, president, MP, prime-minister expressing your outrage, begging this madness to stop?…

After two thousand years, it is finished. It’s over. Who will pay for the lasting damage lying Western politicians created by starting a process that would lead to what not even the first Islamic rulers, thirteen centuries ago, ever did, the obliteration of Christian life and populations?…

In Mosul, genocide has been accomplished. Where’s the outrage?

There is something vaguely, quietly cruel in this call to contact government officials as a response, first and foremost, to Christian persecution in Iraq.  One million Iraqis have fled the country in 2014.  500,000 people in total have left Mosul.  Did the authors of this post think it unimportant to emphasize how a general diaspora of displaced Iraqis is equally unacceptable?  Are we to believe that Christian persecution is more important and worthy of collective action than the pain felt by those of other religions?

This is not to minimize the particularly brutal treatment of Christians by ISIS, but to emphasize that all forms of persecution to every religious group in Iraq are worthy of condemnation.  Christians should not simply stand in solidarity with their tribe, but with all believers of good will who are unjustly harmed or prevented from worshipping by ISIS’ extremism.  Action should not be a consequence of singular Christian oppression; voices should be raised because innocent people are prevented from exercising religious liberty and  fully practicing their beliefs.

I understand that, as Christians, Gobry and Dougherty feel a particular connection with those who share their conception of the world, and I do not mean to suggest that any omission of other religious groups is tantamount to dismissal of their well-being.  But to focus on Christians to the exclusion or marginalization of other religious minorities carries the whiff of a moral calculus wherein Christians effectively matter more.  We must not risk even the slightest chance of conveying this attitude in any dialogue about religious persecution in Mosul.  Framing the unjust conditions that Christians face within the broader context of Iraqi upheaval and violence is critically important as a testament to the hardship endured by all.

Muslims, Turkmen, and Iraq’s other religious minorities are as much our brothers and sisters as Christians in Iraq.  Christians around the world should not forget them as they pray and work for peace.

A Q&A with Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone is an author, poet, and teacher living in New Jersey. He is a staff writer for The Millions and has had his work published in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, and Shenandoah. His new collection of short stories, Good People, will be published later this year.

Nick wrote or was featured in a number of insightful pieces over the last couple of months, including an essay about writing as a sacramental act, a beautiful list of reflections on teaching English, and an interview on the state of Catholic writing with The Jesuit Post. We reached out to Nick to ask a few additional questions about literature, art, teaching, faith, and New Jersey, and he graciously accepted our request.

In “Sacrament of Fiction,” you wrote: “The Garden State is a mixture of the real and the supernatural. We often cannot tell the difference.” Why did you return to New Jersey after college? To what extent does a sense of place influence or weave its way into your work? Given the political and economic tumult that our state seems to face rather consistently, what role (if any) do you believe art and literature can have in shaping public policy?

There are 565 municipalities in New Jersey, each with its own culture and power structure. That observation would apply to any state, but New Jersey is unique in that this fragmentation occurs in a small state with marked economic inequalities in bordering towns and counties. I grew up in a suburban area of the state, my family is from an urban section, and I live in a rural part–Sussex County–which looks like Vermont.

I came back to New Jersey after college for family, and for those geographic and cultural diversities. I actually think being from New Jersey forces one’s imagination to be on high alert, because of all these stratifications. But I don’t often write about this state in my fiction. Place is essential to my work, but not exactly this place. I’m attracted to fiction in which topography dictates culture, so I lean more toward pastoral writers like Ron Rash, Jayne Anne Phillips, Thomas McGuane and Cormac McCarthy. My fiction tends to be set in the West, Midwest, and Southwest, for those reasons. I can write essays about this state, but my fiction is set elsewhere. Our truths are strange enough, I guess.

Now, that’s an interesting question about art and literature in relation to public policy. I worked in a county elections office one summer, and watched all of the handshake agreements and constant “meetings” between local officials and election officers. That made me incredibly skeptical of politicians, and the idea of parties, especially. Unfortunately, I think New Jersey is a place of endless squabbles and backstabbing (or frontstabbing?), so a scene from Hamlet might be most appropriate for what happens at the Statehouse.

I think art and literature can help people transcend the ephemera of the political world. That doesn’t result in the governor’s administration actually making a pension payment, nor does it lower our property taxes, but it might give some solace. More practically, art and literature adds nuance and texture to single-column, talking-point style reporting. There is a great political and social novel to be written about the theater that is Chris Christie’s New Jersey: from Xanadu to closed lanes, we’ve got high drama for low reasons. I tend to think writers and artists do better helping make sense of policy rather than directly shaping or building it.

In what ways is teaching similar and/or dissimilar to writing as a vocational, devotional endeavor?

Although I get paid to teach, if done well, it is also a selfless pursuit, focused on helping students discover themselves intellectually, socially, and emotionally. Teachers are only a part of this process, but they are an important part. At some level, teaching is a kenotic activity. Writing is an inherently selfish activity. I hope that my teaching somehow evens-out my tendency to write (since I think writing for publication is, effectively, the claim that my words are somehow worth the time and money of an audience). There is certainly a penitential aspect to the teaching-writing equation.

Both endeavors require an absolute attention toward an audience, which includes mediation between performance and genuine feeling. Since I write two essays a month for The Millions, an online magazine that covers books, writing, and publishing, I need to craft pieces that are worth reading on the screen. We have a wide audience, but they are a discerning one. When it comes to teaching, I have had students who took several different courses with me, say that I seemed like a different person in each course. I’ll take that as a compliment. When Thomas Merton said “what we have to be is what we are,” I think he was more concerned with our internal than external selves. As a teacher, I play to the audience while trying not to get played (Flannery O’Connor said if a student doesn’t find a teacher’s methods or content to his taste, “Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.” She’s funny, but she never taught high school English. There needs to be some compromise.). There’s a difference between being emotionally raw, wearing your emotions on your sleeves and slacks, and being genuinely interested in the well-being of your students. Many teachers leave the profession because they take it too personally. The same goes for writers.

You’ve published novellas, nonfiction books, poetry collections, and essays. Does your writing and composition process differ for each of these forms?

Yes. My novellas have been pared down from novels. This Darksome Burn, which was published last year, is more than 200 pages less than its longest version. I’m a big fan of almost maniacal line-revision on the printed page (with as sharp a pencil as possible). I like to pare away, clear the chaff, and add more.

I take the same approach to short essay writing. My book of literary criticism, The Fine Delight, was a different beast. That required so much research and sourcing and comparing that I held-off on worrying about the prose until the content was finalized. It was a weird feeling to not write a paragraph and then revise it, but the book was meant to impart information, not be lyric.

I can draft a poem very quickly, but I always put those manuscripts in a desk drawer and let them sit for a few weeks before thinking about revision. I print one poem per page at 14 point font (the errors jump out a bit more there, and it also forces me to make sure my lines aren’t too long). After a line-edit, I do one more run-through since I sometimes am too heavy on concision. I have to resuscitate the rhythm of a line before the poem is finished.

If you had to choose one writer and/or theologian who most influenced the way you think about belief and your craft, who would you select?

This is such a difficult question! Let me start with the runners-up. The only theologian who has really formed me is Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, but he has not had as much influence as Flannery O’Connor, Andre Dubus, Thomas McGuane, Ron Hansen, and Don DeLillo. If I had to pick a runner-up, it would be DeLillo. Raised Catholic, he attended a Jesuit high school and university. His work is profoundly Catholic, but he does not appear to have practiced the religion as an adult. We differ in that sense, but I often learn best from writers who are not quite like myself.

I would choose DeLillo over Dubus and O’Connor because, ultimately, even though I write about the West and Southwest, my soul is from Newark. I’m a Northeast guy with that sensibility, and it’s a sentiment DeLillo captures in everything, from Underworld to Point Omega to my favorite work of his, End Zone, which is set in Texas but is narrated by a character from New York.

The writer who has lived a life of faith that I try to emulate is Ron Hansen. I love his range: he moves from historical fiction like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to a postmodern theological thriller, Mariette in Ecstasy. His collection of essays, A Stay Against Confusion, has helped me as a writer, and has been a spiritual document for me as a Catholic. He’s been the model of a Catholic writer who publishes in the secular world not to proselytize, but to widen the cultural conversation.

The Church has seen a significant amount of change since Francis became Pope. You’ve written about your youthful aspirations to become a priest; do you think we’ll see more substantial changes in Church policy or doctrine in the coming years on subjects such as married priests? Would these kinds of changes be good for the Church?

I think we have seen changes in delivery and tone under Francis, more so than we have seen doctrinal shifts. He appears to be more self-aware of the theater of his role than Benedict. Outside observers, particularly lapsed Catholics or those who have never had a faith, expect swift dogmatic moves. His humble gestures are in the tradition of the name he has taken, and have certainly improved the face of the Church. Fr. James Martin, one of America’s most known Jesuits, has been in magazines, on websites, and on television and radio stations with a consistent refrain: Pope Francis is a brilliant, compassionate man who will likely not deviate from traditional church teachings.

In regards to married priests, I think Francis’s presence will hopefully create more reasonable dialogue about priestly celibacy (and, really, the emotional and physical identities of priests overall), but I do not think the Church will shift its stance here. While still a Cardinal, Francis said that celibacy is “a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.” Some media markets have run with that statement, but to again echo Fr. Martin, it is important to remember that Francis is both a theologian and a Jesuit, prone to extemporaneous thinking. I think that is a positive trait. He is open-minded and dynamic. I don’t think it means he is necessarily malleable. It’s not my place to say whether priests should be married are not. There are instances of Lutheran pastors (and those of other rites) converting to Catholicism and remaining priests, but this gets into theologically murky territory that I don’t have sufficient background in to comment. I think the best thing for the Church is to view the laity as “their people,” not a separate entity. That seems to be happening more under Francis.

In response to Dana Gioia’s essay “The Catholic Writer Today,” you noted the following in an interview with The Jesuit Post:

The ultimate problem is that we are lacking a Catholic critical infrastructure…. Without this critical infrastructure–without conversation and contradiction–we are left with a provincial literature. Catholic stories published in Catholic magazines for Catholic readers, or Catholic books reviewed on Amazon by Catholic reviewers who gauge the writer’s fidelity to Catholicism as you would rate a vacuum.

This quote suggests an aversion to literature that falls in an exclusively “Catholic” genre. Would you say that “Catholic literature” should instead be more of an approach, a movement to interpret and discuss all secular art from a faith-based frame? What steps could we take to initiate conversations on a broader scale? What kind of infrastructure would you want to see created?

I do have an aversion to literature that forcefully identifies itself as Catholic in a genre sense, as if self-identification is an affirmation of aesthetic quality. I like the idea “approach” much better, for the reasons you mention; articulating Catholicism as a worldview. I happen to think it is a wonderfully nuanced worldview. Catholic faith and Catholic Mass are intrinsically analogical and performative. Catholic schooling and upbringing are excellent preparations for sensitive artists. As Catholics, we are taught close reading, the power of song to transform story, the possibility of something being simultaneously a symbol and a real thing, the wealth of community, the models of saints, and more—all experiences that translate well into the creation of, and appreciation for, art.

In order for a return to a significant presence of Catholic arts and letters in the wider secular discussion (as in the time of Flannery O’Connor), we need a recognition of certain aesthetic standards, and the acceptance that not all work written by Catholics (or about Catholics) is necessarily good. There is a difference between private and public literature. Private literature is cathartic, personal, immediate. It does not need an editor. Public literature needs an editor, a publisher, an audience. It needs distribution and discernment. In order for these Catholic conversations to reach a “broader scale,” we need men and women writing from a Catholic worldview articulating that aesthetic sense in the largest and most influential markets, magazines, and locations. I think of Mary Karr, Dana Gioia, Gregory Wolfe, and Paul Elie. But four is not enough.

The infrastructure component you discussed was well-covered in “The Catholic Writer Today” by Dana Gioia, but I would add that we need to bring the private versus public conversation to the undergraduate and graduate classrooms in creative writing. We need top-notch writing programs at Catholic universities, training young writers to also write criticism for wide audiences, not simply peer-reviewed journals (which are excellent, but don’t reach enough readers beyond the academy). These movements will be slow, but they are necessary. Catholicism is a tremendously misunderstood and misrepresented religion, culture, and intellectual space. Catholic writers need to do the work of correcting these errors while inspiring adherents to look at their faith with new eyes.

Thanks again to Nick for responding to our questions. Check out his latest novella, This Darksome Burn, here. For more information on Nick, visit www.nickripatrazone.com.

The Moderation Conversation: Gambling in the Jersey Swamps

This is the fourth installment of “The Moderation Conversation,” an RM feature in which Matt and Chris meet for a live chat and completely rewrite the subsequent transcript so as to appear significantly more eloquent than they actually are. The conversation topic for this edition was gambling in New Jersey. What is the likelihood of casinos opening in North Jersey? Is the proliferation of online gaming throughout the state a good thing? Are there national implications for the Garden State’s current gambling policies? Read on for RM’s thoughts.

Gambling in the Tri-State Area

Chris: So Matt, we’re in a Starbucks. It’s a Saturday night. And we want to talk about gambling in New Jersey.

Matt: I like how you set the scene.

C: Yeah. There’s warm lighting… nice music…

M: It’s almost like a casino!

C: [Laughs] So yeah, in Atlantic City [in southern New Jersey], gambling has been going on for quite a few years now, and recently there have been proposals to move gambling to the Meadowlands [in northern New Jersey]. And online gambling was legalized in Jersey in 2013.

We wanted to talk about how this is going to affect the region and whether it’s a good idea for expanded gambling to come to New Jersey. What are your thoughts?

M: I’m in general opposed to a significant expansion of gambling. Historically speaking, legalized gambling had been restricted to Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and then some people started to argue that that was unfair because New Jersey and Nevada could reap the benefits of legalized gambling while other states couldn’t. They said we should try to expand it further so all states could share equally in the benefits. But I’m not so sure there are a lot of benefits. And I’m not so sure that the states that have legalized gambling are actually any better off than the states that don’t.

C: Okay.

M: I don’t think that it’s a boost to local economies; in fact, I think in a lot of respects it’s a drain on local economies. I think that the tax revenue that comes from legalized gambling is not so much the result of any new economic activity that’s generated as it is just a redistribution of wealth from low-income communities to the government. What are your thoughts?

C: I would tend to disagree with you. I think a limited expansion of gambling, specifically in North Jersey, would make sense, and I’ll go into specific reasons why in a little bit. But to address what you said about local economies: I take your point about gambling revenue, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I don’t have any data on the extent to which revenue from Atlantic City gambling has been benefiting the state, particularly over the last decade or so, but my understanding is that since revenue has been declining in recent years there has been a decline in the quality of services that are offered by Atlantic City. And that decline has been hurting merchants that are down there, too. You see a lot of problems with restaurants and tourism more broadly.

M: But if the goal of legalizing gambling is to stimulate other kinds of economic activity, then why not try to stimulate that activity directly? Why not create tax-free zones to incentivize restaurants to move into an area? I mean, if your priority is not so much collecting tax revenues off of the gambling itself as it is trying to grow these other businesses, then why not just go directly for that?

C: Well, the reason people come to these restaurants, at least in Atlantic City, is because gambling is the main attraction. They go there for a week or however long for the purpose of gambling and the money they spend on restaurants is ancillary to that purpose. And I’d say that’s the reason why legalizing gambling in the Meadowlands would be beneficial: you have the entire New York City market right there. So you would have people coming out to New Jersey then not only to spend money on the casinos – say, perhaps, around MetLife Stadium or wherever else in the Meadowlands – but also on any other local attractions and businesses.

M: Didn’t New York have some sort of limited expansion of casinos last year?

C: They did in northern New York, but nowhere in the New York City area. I think there might be some legalized gambling on Long Island, and there is definitely a casino in Yonkers, just north of the Bronx. But given you have a target market there that’s very, very large, it would make sense to provide an easy access point for those consumers to get to.

 

Casinos, Market Competition, and Online Gambling

M: Do you think that at some point, though, the market would just become oversaturated? Part of the reason why Atlantic City was so lucrative for casinos was that it was virtually the only place east of Las Vegas where you could gamble legally. And if we start to expand gambling so much that we have casinos all across New York state, all across New Jersey, wouldn’t that sort of diminish the value to a casino owner of building a casino? How much of the market am I really going to claim if there are already casinos all around me?

C: Possibly, but I think more competition would be good in this case. I would think having more casinos would be better for making sure that they’re paying out well and/or not encouraging negative behavior on the part of their customers. That is, they would actually try to take steps to make the experience better, and there could be heightened checks to prevent problem gambling.

M: Well, I think that one of the cruxes of the disagreement here is whether casinos would actually have reason to curb negative behaviors. It seems like casinos have a financial incentive for people to continue gambling as much as possible. It seems like the business model of a casino is built around people not exercising a lot of self-control. So I’m not sure how having legal casinos would do anything to address people having gambling problems.

C: I’d posit that having physical gambling establishments is actually more conducive to solving this problem, especially in light of the concurrent rise of online gaming in New Jersey. You’re definitely right – legal casinos don’t necessarily have the incentive to help people limit their gambling addictions. But any potential rise in online gambling would exacerbate this problem significantly because it involves people being able to gamble basically any time of the day at any place. There are very few ways to get people to consider their actions through an online system, right? You have no way to really tell people that they should take a break or get help.

So in that regard, an increase in brick-and-mortar gambling locations instead of expanded internet gambling would be more likely to temper problem gambling. Physical establishments present greater barriers to that kind of destructive gambling. There are costs associated with going out to gamble, like taking transit, staying at a hotel, etc. There’s also the ability for people on site to monitor the behaviors of people gambling. The state could probably step in and say, “If you open a site, you’re going to have to adhere to very specific restrictions on what you can allow your clients to do.”

M: Mhm, that’s true. It could be more tightly regulated. So am I understanding you correctly that you’re generally opposed to internet gambling?

C: Yeah, very much so. I think that’s much more of a problem, and I actually wish New Jersey would take steps to roll back online gambling while it’s still in its infancy. The revenues generated in its first few months have been way, way below expectations. I think it was like a tenth of what New Jersey originally anticipated.

Which I think is a good thing, at least in the short term. We don’t want that to get to a point where a lot of people are consistently gambling and losing money. And given the possibility that online gambling continues to grow in popularity, now would be the time to limit its accessibility.

M: Right. Okay. So I guess that’s our first point of agreement – we both believe that internet gambling is problematic. I would agree with you that it’s potentially insidious because of the fact that it’s very easy to become addicted, and it’s very easy to unwittingly lose a lot of money without really realizing that it’s happening – especially if you’re disposed to some kind of gambling problem in the first place.

But I guess I’m just skeptical that having physical locations really does that much to attenuate those kinds of problems. There’s research which suggests that people who live within a certain radius of a casino are many times more likely to have gambling problems than people who don’t live near casinos. And obviously, as with any kind of social science research, correlation is not causation. It could be the case that people with gambling problems move close to casinos so that they can always be near the casinos. But I think it’s suggestive of the fact that by creating this new form of entertainment (I don’t know if entertainment is the right word), by creating this new outlet for people, you sort of hook them into becoming more frequent gamblers. And it worries me that these corporations have an incentive to prey on people and to encourage the worst kind of self-destructive behavior.

C: Yeah, that’s a very fair concern. I don’t disagree with that; I’d be worried about that as well. I guess I’d propose two things. The first is that if you do have casinos come to the Meadowlands, I’d hope there would be a way to track trends in how people gamble and really incorporate that into the running of the casino. In doing so, you’re able to monitor how people are gambling and the specific decisions that they’re making and you can basically cut them off if they’re at a point where they’re really in danger. And the other point I’d make is that if gambling ever does come to New York City, New Jersey is immediately going to be behind the curve. Given that there are revenues associated either with casinos directly or the secondary businesses they support, I think it’d be better to try to get ahead of the trend, because casino gambling in Atlantic City has been on the decline for 20 years now or so. Revenues have dropped 40 or 50%, I think…

M: Why do you think that is? Why have revenues been dropping in Atlantic City?

C: Well… that’s a good question. I don’t know why people have stopped visiting the city. I’m guessing partly because of all the other casinos that have opened up in the tri-state area and partly because it’s really out of the way. There’s really nothing there besides the casinos, so there’s really nothing to attract people down to that part of the shore.

M: I think part of the issue is probably that there are casinos in eastern Pennsylvania now – I think in Bethlehem there’s the big Sands Casino?

C: I think so. Connecticut, too.

M: So New Jersey’s facing more competition. That’s the problem I was alluding to earlier, that even now, when we don’t have all that many casinos, the market is already getting somewhat saturated. I’m not necessarily saying that’s the sole reason why there’s been a decline in revenues in Atlantic City, but it seems like the more casinos you have, the less lucrative any one casino is going to be.

C: That’s true, but especially considering the Meadowlands is so much closer than anything in Connecticut or Pennsylvania, which is a good hour and a half away, I’d think you’d have more than enough money coming in to make up for declines in Atlantic City traffic. And if anything did open in NYC, I mean, New Jersey would pretty much be shut out completely. That’d be a death knell for Atlantic City, period.

 

Lotteries and Sports Betting vs. Casinos

M: One argument that’s been raised in favor of casinos is that we [in New Jersey] already have a lottery.

C: Ah, yeah.

M: I mean, almost every state has a lottery. If the state were really all that concerned about people profiting off of gambling (or even about the state itself profiting off of gambling!), then they would ban lotteries too. So some say this shows that people who are opposing casinos don’t have any principled objection to casinos per se. They just don’t want there to be a lot of traffic in their neighborhoods, they don’t want these big corporations to be setting up shop near them. There’s really no social harm that comes with casinos.

C: Yeah, that’s a good point to bring up. To be clear: I would not say that casino gambling is an inherent good, and there are definitely dangers associated with it. You have to adhere to it in moderation, as is the case with anything else. But yeah, I’d agree with you that the government has no incentive to ban gambling outright. There are ways to profit from it. Clearly the lottery is doing that to a pretty good degree.

But again, I’m arguing in support of expanding gambling in New Jersey. I’m not arguing for gambling being a social good.

M: I think that my basic feeling about lotteries is that, yes, it probably is the case that lotteries and casinos have a lot of similarities. People could buy a ton of tickets, although it’s harder to become a problem gambler with lotteries that are only drawn once a week or so. I worry more about scratch-off cards, which it’s very easy to buy a lot of in one sitting.

This is similar to our marijuana discussion in that I’m arguing that there’s a difference between tolerating something and legalizing it and having the government or private individuals or firms make money off of it. But just as I don’t think law enforcement should be terribly aggressive in going after people who possess or are smoking marijuana, I don’t think by any means we should be penalizing people who are gambling with friends or anything.

C: Oh, yeah.

M: That said, I don’t think that we should necessarily be expanding gambling any further. When we were talking about marijuana, I think we both agreed that cigarettes are as problematic if not more problematic than marijuana, and so if you’re going to be a purist you could say, “Well, if you want to ban marijuana, why don’t you want to ban cigarettes?” And… maybe I do want to ban cigarettes! But the legality of tobacco and nicotine is not a live political issue right now. The contentious political issue is marijuana. Maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense to oppose marijuana legalization while supporting tobacco being legal, but you know, that’s the reality of the situation.

So yeah, in a philosophical sense, maybe there is no difference between lotteries and casinos. But the political reality is that lotteries already exist and have existed for a very long time and casinos are what we’re debating right now.

C: Well, I think casinos, too, they are much more interactive, and the rapidity with which you can lose money at casino gambling is much greater than that associated with, say, scratch-off tickets. And there’s a specific stimulus associated with gambling, right? Like you’re pulling the lever, you’re seeing things pop up on the screen. I assume it hits a pleasure center in your brain that’s much more reactive than anything involved in playing the lottery.

M: That’s interesting. I would be curious to see if anybody’s done research on that. Is casino gambling more addictive than buying lottery tickets? I would think it is.

C: I would think so, without question.

M: The other thing I wanted to talk about a little bit was the idea of sports betting.

C: Oh, okay!

M: My understanding is that it’s currently illegal in the United States.

C: I think it’s legal in Las Vegas. I think. [NB: It is in fact illegal nationwide, although several states were exempted from the relevant statute because they had already permitted sports betting at the time it was passed.]

M: Okay. I know there was a ballot measure a few years ago to legalize sports betting in New Jersey, but it was very controversial because it was essentially trying to legalize it here while it remained illegal in the United States. You know, it was like California or Colorado legalizing marijuana while it’s illegal under federal law.

C: Is your position that you’re against sports betting?

M: So that’s what I wanted to get into. I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about whether there are – about the similarities and differences between sports betting and something like casino gambling or playing the lottery. It seems to me like sports betting is less problematic, again because it’s harder to – because the bets are tied to discrete events. It’s harder to become addicted and to be constantly placing bets. I mean, there’s an upper bound on how often you can place bets on sporting events.

C: I’m not sure if that’s true. There are a lot of different sporting events that you can place bets on, and my guess is that any sort of sports betting scenario would pretty much involve all of the major sports and then specific events within those games. You could probably go pretty wild with making bets on minutiae within the games.

But that also raises the question about betting on, say, horses or horse racing, which I believe is legal in certain states. I’m pretty sure it’s legal in New Jersey, actually. And you don’t really see any great debate about that. It’s a generally accepted practice.

M: I think horse racing is a pretty marginal sport to begin with. I don’t think the number of people who are betting on horse races is really all that large.

C: But it’s a precedent that’s set, that some sort of sports gambling is allowed.

M: Yeah, that’s true. But to tie this back to the issue of lotteries vs. casinos: yes, you can argue that once you’ve legalized lotteries, there’s no consistent case against legalizing casinos as well. You could also say, well, once you’ve legalized betting on horse races, there’s no principled case against legalizing betting on anything else.

 

Frolicking in the Swamps

M: So just to recap: my argument is that casinos have a business model that inherently tends toward encouraging addictive behavior on the part of their customers, and that their presence has an adverse effect on communities because they lower property values and don’t contribute anything of real economic value.

C: Well, to return to the case at hand, one benefit of having them in the Meadowlands specifically is that there aren’t as many houses around there. If you put a casino out by MetLife Stadium, it’s not going to be as directly impacting communities like in Atlantic City, which has a lot of surrounding suburbs and towns. I mean, obviously North Jersey has that too, but the Meadowlands is an area that’s defined by swamp lands.

And regarding gambling addictions, I think it’d be easier if you create a new casino hub to basically implement best practices to reduce problem gambling from the start. So you could make it the case that there is a mandatory delay time between playing one game and going on to the next, or you could say from the start that there’s no free alcohol being distributed on this floor.

M: So you’re saying that it would be a good idea to put casinos away from heavily populated areas, so that if the research that suggests that casinos have a negative impact on property values is accurate, then at least they’re in a swamp?

C: Yeah. Again, there are some towns nearby. There are towns like East Rutherford around there that might be affected.

M: Why couldn’t – instead of casinos, why couldn’t we just have people, like, play around in the swamp?

C: Just frolic in the swamps?

M: Frolicking in the swamps.

C: I’ve heard reports of convicts escaping into the swamps, and police do not like that, because they can’t find the convicts. So I feel like if you got lost in the swamps, the police would not be too happy.

M: So… [Laughs]… by putting the casino in the swamp, we could actually be creating some sort of lawless zone.

C: Yes… [Laughs]. Precisely. Outside any jurisdiction.

The other benefit is that since there are so many people in New York City and its surrounding suburbs who are potential customers, you could easily get the casinos in Atlantic City to agree to all of these best practices. If you tried to institute those now in casinos in Atlantic City, you’d get a lot of pushback. Casinos would either outright refuse or lose a lot of money because those changes could be quite expensive.

M: But if you make it a condition of opening a casino…

C: Right. Guarantee they’ll participate because the revenues from those casinos will still exceed the potential costs associated with instituting those best practices, only the costs won’t be perceived as a loss. So I’d say far and away that’d be a better idea than either trying to expand online gambling or trying to rehabilitate Atlantic City. Do you have any other thoughts?

M: I’m still unclear on the ultimate motivation here. We’re saying that it’s better to open casinos and require right off the bat that they adhere to these best practices, but why is it better to open casinos that adhere to best practices than to not open casinos at all?

C: I’d go back to the fact that casinos will probably be opening in the city or at least in other areas at some point in the future.

M: So by having NJ set the standard for what a well-regulated casino looks like, we put pressure on other states that might want to legalize them in the future to also adhere to those regulations?

C: Exactly. Pretty much take the initiative in making this the hub of gambling in the tri-state area and making it the most consumer-friendly, safe form of gambling.

M: Okay. So we have an opportunity to start a trend here. You may not be able to buy electric cars in New Jersey, but at least you’ll be able to gamble.

C: I mean, if you somehow win, you could then go to Pennsylvania and buy your electric car and bring it back to New Jersey.

M: Well, you need to win the lottery to be able to afford a Tesla anyway.

C: [Laughs] This is true.

 

The Mississippi Senate Primary and Why We Need Instant Runoffs

Until this past Tuesday’s Senate primary in Mississippi, the pundit class had spent much of this election season pushing the dubious (and possibly incoherent) narrative that the Republican “establishment” has finally tamed the insurgent “Tea Party” and set the GOP up for success in its bid to retake control of the Senate this November. From Sen. Mitch McConnell’s victory over Matt Bevin in Kentucky, to Thom Tillis’ trouncing of Greg Brannon in North Carolina, to the failure of Rep. Paul Broun to advance to a runoff in Georgia, evidence that Republican voters were finally getting tired of rolling the dice on unelectable political novices was said to be everywhere.

But even if there were not already serious reasons to doubt this theory, let alone reasons to question whether the “establishment vs. Tea Party” framing actually makes any sense, there certainly are now. The almost-victory of former talk-radio host Chris McDaniel over six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi is a glaring counterexample to the conventional wisdom.

Or maybe not. We’ll have to wait two more weeks to know for sure, since McDaniel’s 49.5% vote share fell just short of the 50-percent-plus-one needed for him to prevail outright and avert a June 24th runoff. The sprint to the finish line will be an expensive affair: Republican donors and PAC’s are estimated to have spent around $13.4 million on the race thus far, and while some prominent outside groups have announced that they plan on sitting out the final phase of the campaign, Politico has reported that “millions of dollars more” will likely be spent between now and the 24th.

McDaniel and Cochran finished within 1,400 votes of one another, and the former would almost certainly have triumphed were it not for the little-known Thomas Carey, who earned fewer than 5,000 votes out of over 300,000 cast, or about 1.5% of the total (holding the number of votes constant, Cochran would have had to win roughly two-thirds of the ballots that went to Carey in order to prevail). A National Journal profile of Carey, a former realtor who now works in prison ministry and who raised no money and ran no ads, referred to him as “the man who just cost Republican donors millions.”

In light of the fact that we can reasonably assume McDaniel would have won a two-man race against Cochran, and the fact that we can reasonably assume McDaniel will win a two-man race against Cochran, it’s frustrating to contemplate the amount of money that will be spent on this contest in the days ahead. To be sure, runoffs serve an important purpose; guaranteeing that a winning candidate has the support of a majority of voters is important, and one need only look as far as the governor’s office in Maine to see how first-past-the-post systems can allow candidates whose views are clearly at odds with those of the majority to slip into office.

But they’re also incredibly wasteful, especially when you consider the fact that we can accomplish everything runoffs are designed to accomplish in a single election by making use of instant runoff voting (IRV). Under IRV, voters are asked to rank some or all of the available candidates in order of their preference. If no candidate is able to command an outright majority when all of the first-choice votes are tallied up, the ballots going to the candidate who comes in last are reassigned to the second choices of those voters. Depending on the number of candidates and how evenly they split the vote, this process can be iterated as many times as necessary until someone emerges with a majority.

There are some potential pitfalls associated with IRV. IRV is often said to foster greater political competition, because it assures voters that they will not be “throwing away their vote” if they back a third party candidate; whether it actually does so is unclear. Critics also allege that IRV is confusing for voters, and that the rate of mismarked ballots tends to increase under such a system. But research suggests that such worries are misplaced, and the fact that IRV is used both internationally and in a few cities here at home should put to rest fears that it’s not ready for primetime.

Although there are good reasons to abandon runoffs entirely and fundamentally rethink the way that we elect politicians in the U.S., that probably won’t happen anytime soon. In the meanwhile, why not conduct runoffs as cheaply and efficiently as possible? And as for the charge that IRV is confusing, it seems to me that it’s actually less confusing and less of a hassle for voters than a traditional runoff. Not only does everyone only have to turn out on a single day to cast their ballots, but IRV allows runoffs to be conducted without voters having to understand all of the mechanics. Which of the following sounds like a more complicated message to communicate to the public?

  1. “Show up next Tuesday and vote for your favorite candidate. If nobody gets a majority, show up again a few Tuesdays from now and cast a vote for one of the top two finishers, which may or may not mean voting for the same person a second time.”
  2. “Show up next Tuesday and vote for your favorite candidate. Can you also tell us if you have a second choice? And maybe a third? Thanks.”

Educating voters about IRV would not be any more difficult – and might even be easier – than educating them about traditional runoffs. Political junkies have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which most Americans pay attention to politics and elections, but when it comes to IRV the pendulum swings in the other direction and voters are presumed to be too thick to learn a new way of doing things.

The amount of money that will be spent on the Mississippi Senate runoff is miniscule compared to what will be spent on some of the higher-profile races of 2014, but we should not pass up opportunities to reduce waste where we can. Instant runoffs would simplify the electoral process, and would help make sure that unknown real estate agents can’t drag out an expensive campaign for three extra weeks.

Weigel, Will.i.am, and What’s Wrong with the Sunday Shows

A few days ago, Chris retweeted an article by Slate’s Dave Weigel entitled “Will.i.am Is Not What’s Wrong With Meet the Press,” in which Weigel recounts a jarring experience he had last Sunday:

On Sunday afternoon, I found myself among the not-insignificant number of Americans confused to see [The Black Eyed Peas’] Will.i.am on Meet the Press. Armed with an iPhone 4, I took this photo of the proceedings.

[Photo of Will.i.am with a serious expression]

Within a few hours, hundreds of people had shared that twitpic, usually with an aside about how much it revealed about Meet the Press’s well-reported troubles. Only a week had passed since Paul Farhi profiled the show and host David Gregory, which ironically shifted the narrative from ‘why is MTP so lame now?’ to ‘whoa, NBC hired a “psychological consultant” to find out how to maximize Gregory’s reach?’

I too was among the “not-insignificant number of Americans” taken aback by this state of affairs. I usually watch ABC’s This Week on Sunday mornings and hadn’t tuned in to Meet the Press in quite some time, so seeing Will.i.am’s mug immediately upon switching to NBC was perplexing indeed.

Evidently MTP has been experimenting with “adding on layers” and attempting to make the program more “interesting” by hosting “big conversations about religion, foreign events and societal trends,” as Gregory put it in an interview with Politico’s Dylan Byers. But Weigel is skeptical that this is really what the Sunday shows need:

Look, I’m a shmuck with a podcast and Gregory is a well-traveled reporter who’s interviewed basically everyone, but I feel this gets at exactly the wrong definition of ‘interesting.’ More interviews, more voices, does not automatically lead to more ‘interesting’ content. It leads to more content in less time—and less exploration of each subject covered. It robs the Sunday shows of their old advantage, their ability to lock subjects in a well-lit room for most of an hour and boil away their talking points.

As the ‘pack a show with segments!’ standard has spread, marquee guests have gotten used to quick sprint interviews that they can ace with some pablum. The main reason that Chris Christie’s post-election Sunday show interviews in 2013 were so lame and unrevealing was that Christie asked for, and received, only seven minutes on each show. But it didn’t jar, because each show was able to toss the segment into their current formats, in which tedious panel discussions fill out the hours like corn meal fills out a brick of scrapple. How did this happen? Who, in the history of ever, has wanted to hear less from the people who run the country and more from Harold Ford?

All I’m saying is: Lay off Will.i.am. He’s not the problem here. What you want is longer and more probing interviews with more seemingly boring people.

I completely agree with the first part of this diagnosis, since I’ve often complained about This Week’s own trend toward offering up “more content in less time.” The show used to consist of a roughly half-hour interview followed by a half-hour roundtable discussion, but is now typically made up of an interview (or two), a roundtable (or two), a “Sunday Spotlight” human interest story, and even a game of historical trivia with the roundtable participants (in an homage to Mother’s Day, today’s asked for the identity of the first woman to give birth in the White House).

“Boiling away the talking points” is a worthwhile objective, and I sympathize with Weigel’s frustration at Sunday show hosts who are too willing to let their guests get away with dodging questions. But Weigel elides his criticism of the “’pack the show with segments’ standard” with shots at “tedious panel discussions,” even though these are really two distinct problems. As he sees it, the issue is not that the proliferation of segments leads to less time spent on any given subject, but rather that it specifically leaves less time for in-depth interviews with politicians. This is the sense in which “the problem is not Will.i.am”; Meet the Press has, according to Weigel, already veered from its traditional mission.

I’m not so sure this is right. If anything, the total amount of time allocated to roundtable discussion on This Week actually appears to have decreased as the number of segments has multiplied. Weigel seems to forget that even in the good old days when Tim Russert hosted MTP, half of the show still (or already) was comprised of roundtable discussion – and even sometimes featured Harold Ford, Jr. Some of the most venerable political talk shows are, and have been for years, nothing but roundtable discussion. A few, like Gwen Ifill’s Washington Week on PBS, are marked by civility and generally productive conversation. Others, like CBS’ McLaughlin Group, frequently degenerate into shouting and feature Pat Buchanan saying things. It’s a mixed bag, but the format itself is nothing new.

“Tedious panel discussions” do have a role to play in the world of public affairs programming. Sure, it takes hard work to find worthwhile commentators who will offer a wide range of perspectives while engaging one another in a constructive way, but roundtables are not inherently a waste of time. Weigel thinks that any time spent talking about politicians is necessarily time not spent talking to politicians, but having journalists or other experts who can synthesize information and interpret the goings-on in Washington is a key part of keeping viewers informed. It should not be reflexively denigrated.

My own preference would be to see the Sunday shows return to the two-segment model, but also to see them limit the conversation within each segment to just one or two topics. Weigel mentions an episode of MTP where Gregory spent a brief few minutes with Texas Gov. Rick Perry hopping from issue to issue without ever getting a substantive response about any of them. Each segment of one of these shows has, in microcosm, fallen victim to the same ailment that afflicts the shows as a whole. Producers may feel as if they need to acknowledge every single political development of the preceding week, even if only by having each guest or discussant offer a thirty-second comment, but it would be a welcome development if they transformed their programs into something more along the lines of PBS’ Charlie Rose, where an entire hour is spent exploring a single topic in as much depth as possible.

Unfortunately, this might result in fewer employment opportunities for the psychological consultants and the Will.i.am’s of the world, but I’m sure they’ll manage. Maybe they can follow in Weigel’s footsteps and become shmucks with podcasts, too.

 

Dave Camp Makes the Case for Taxing Red Meat

On February 26th, Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, released a proposal for a major overhaul of the individual tax code that he claimed would significantly reduce the amount of effort that individuals would have to expend on preparing their returns. I read a bit about Camp’s ideas when they first came out, and had planned on offering some thoughts here at RM. Unfortunately, his observation that the process of filing tax returns can be quite burdensome turned out to be an astute one: I spent the following seven weeks (right up until midnight yesterday!) working hard on my taxes, and had not a moment to spare to write about the Camp Plan until now.

Okay, not really; I actually just forgot. (I also started and finished my taxes this past Sunday, thank you very much.) But I was reminded of the issue as I filled out my forms and searched under the couch cushions for my W-2’s over the weekend, and now that everything is in the mail I thought I’d take a minute to discuss some of my reactions to Camp’s bold proposal.

And boy, is it bold. The sheer political implausibility of some elements of the plan led many commentators to declare it dead on arrival, with a few even going so far as to claim that its release was only ever intended as a bit of showmanship. Despite the early buzz, the proposal seems to have faded from the headlines; the conventional wisdom is that nothing even remotely that ambitious could pass Congress in an election year.

But that fact alone is no reason to ignore Camp’s work. The Republican Party has seen a relative flowering of policy entrepreneurship in recent months, even if some of the more wonkish conservative thinkers and pundits are misguided about how broad-based the renaissance really is. And even if none of Camp’s agenda has any chance whatsoever of becoming a reality anytime soon, parts of it could very well make their way into the platforms of future Republican candidates for higher office who are eager to present voters with fresh ideas.

On the whole, I think that Rep. Camp’s proposal is a serious one. It contains a number of good ideas that ought (in a less polarized political environment) to enjoy broad appeal among members of both parties. But it is not without its weaknesses, and it certainly isn’t above gimmicky red-meat-throwing. In fact, those two tend to coincide, with the most questionable parts of the plan also those that were most clearly included to score political points and poke political enemies.

First, a few of the commendable bits. Camp advocates scaling back the mortgage interest deduction, which is one of the most expensive tax subsidies in the individual code. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that it reduced federal revenues by about $70 billion in 2012 alone. Since it is a deduction (which reduces taxable income) and not a credit (which reduces the dollar amount of taxes owed, and which in some cases may increase the size of a refund even if nothing is owed), its benefits tend to flow to those in higher tax brackets. In fact, the CBPP figures that in recent years more than three-quarters of the benefits associated with the mortgage interest deduction went to individuals with incomes above $100,000.

Although many budget experts have recommended converting the deduction to a credit, Camp at least takes a step in the right direction by lowering the cap on the amount of mortgage interest that is eligible for the deduction. Rather than allowing filers to deduct the interest paid on the first $1,000,000 of a mortgage, Cap would limit them to writing off only that pertaining to the first $500,000. He projects that this wouls only affect “less than 5 percent of the most expensive homes on the market today.” Given that the intent of this policy is presumably to facilitate homebuying for those who might otherwise be shut out of the housing market, and not to allow those who can already easily afford a home to afford a larger one, this tweak is certainly a sensible one.

Camp also demonstrates some courage by embracing ideas previously endorsed by President Obama and other Democrats, including “eliminating special depreciation benefits related to corporate jets” and treating “carried interest” as regular income rather than as capital gains for the purposes of taxation. He also takes steps toward shedding the GOP’s image as the party of plutocrats by proposing a quarterly 0.035% tax on any assets held by financial firms in excess of $500 billion. He defends this policy on the grounds that corporations designated as “Systemically Important Financial Institutions” or “SIFI’s” by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 are believed to enjoy lower borrowing costs on account of the fact that other market participants think they will be the recipients of public assistance (read, bailouts) in the event of another financial meltdown. Camp argues that taxpayers ought to be compensated for what is in effect an implicit subsidy.

Although – or perhaps because – only a handful of the very largest banks would be affected by this tax, it has provoked a great deal of backlash from lobbyists representing Wall Street banks. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum has wondered whether Camp might have intended to provoke this backlash in order to guarantee that a SIFI tax would not be included in Republican reform plans in the future, but it’s unclear whether his motives were really that cynical. The GOP certainly has an image problem when it comes to its ties to the financial industry (although the Democrats are not immune to this problem either), and Camp seems to be at least trying to do something about it. Moreover, the notion of a financial transaction tax is one that has been endorsed on the merits by economists and pundits from across the political spectrum.

Now for the questionable parts. Camp asserts that waste and fraud in the tax system is an overwhelmingly serious problem:

Not only is the way Washington takes your money unfair, it wastes the money it takes from you… This is particularly true of existing refundable tax credit programs, where the IRS is unwilling or unable to stop the waste, fraud and abuse. For example, over the last 10 years, the IRS erroneously sent out an estimated $132 billion of your tax dollars to false claimants. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the largest refundable tax credit, consistently ranks among the worst government programs in terms of waste, fraud and abuse [emphasis added] – even though it is one of the most important tools to help low-income, working Americans. Last year, 21 to 25 percent of all EITC payments were incorrect, costing American taxpayers as much as $13.6 billion.

Leaving aside the question of whether fraud is really a problem that the IRS has not been effectively tackling, singling out the EITC for special criticism seems strange. The Republican Party’s standard response to calls from Democrats for an increase in the federal minimum wage has been to argue that expanding the EITC would be a much more effective and less costly strategy for boosting the wages of poor and low-skilled workers. Granted, Camp acknowledges that it is “one of the most important tools to help low-income, working Americans,” but this is clearly a footnote to the main argument being made here.

Deficit hawks have plenty of examples of silly or frivolous federal spending from which to choose, and are generally untroubled by creating the impression that spending of that sort represents a much, much larger share of federal outlays than it actually does. So why go after the EITC? Considering that he has three or four more examples of allegedly wasteful programs in the next several paragraphs, why not just omit it?

We should give credit to Mr. Camp for being less demagogic than many of his colleagues and for illustrating his point with more serious examples than “beaver management.” We should also acknowledge that he never actually calls for abolishing or even meaningfully scaling back the EITC. But in his zeal to attack a perennial conservative punching bag, he ends up undermining the plausibility of his own party’s alternative to a hugely popular minimum wage increase. Especially if other Republicans run with this meme in the future, the self-inflicted wound could split open even wider. (For the record, I support an expansion of the EITC in conjunction with a minimum wage hike, and I think Camp’s criticisms are more clumsy than damning.)

Another element of the plan that attracted a great deal of attention in the press when it first came out was Camp’s proposal to repeal the deduction for state and local taxes, including income, property, and sales taxes. His contention is that “[t]his deduction redistribute[s] wealth to big-government, high-tax states from small-government, low-tax states.” Commentators rightly read this as a jab at blue-state governors and legislatures, and Camp correctly notes that this benefit is most valuable to those who live in states with high taxes, which by-and-large are those that lean Democratic.

That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at this deduction is as a benefit that redistributes wealth toward states that are self-reliant and away from those that depend most heavily on the federal government. The states with the largest total burden of state and local taxes also tend to be those that receive the smallest amount of federal spending for every dollar they send to Washington. According to the center-right Tax Foundation,

[t]hanks to a steeply progressive federal income tax, states with higher incomes [i.e. blue states, on average –MM] pay vastly higher federal taxes, payments that are unlikely ever to be matched by federal spending directed to those states.

The Tax Foundation regularly produces a ranking of states based on their average tax burden, excluding federal taxes. In 2011, four of the ten states identified as bearing the heaviest burdens – California, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York – were also among the ten states with the largest net revenue contributions to the federal government, based on tax data from the IRS and spending data from Transparency.gov. Four of the ten states identified as having the lightest burdens – Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas – were among the ten states with the largest net inflow of spending from the federal government (calculations available upon request).

This is just a quick, unscientific exercise, and we can quibble about the best way to measure which states are most “self-reliant.” But they are incredibly suggestive, and provide some support for the intuition that the states that levy the highest taxes on their citizens are also those that are Washington’s largest revenue-raisers. If there’s any redistribution going on here, it’s toward low-tax states. In the absence of the state and local income tax deduction, that redistribution would be even more stark.

Why does this matter? Conservatives are typically champions of devolving as many functions of government as possible to the states, and states that do more for their residents will tend to require more revenue. Yet encouraging states to reduce taxation may incentivize them to shift more of the work of providing public services to the feds. One can understand on a political level why Camp would want to axe this particular piece of the tax code, but he ought to have thought more deeply about the potential policy consequences of doing so.

Rep. Camp has offered a credible template for revamping the tax code. Although his core assumption that complexity is its main defect has come in for some criticism – The New Republic ran a piece for Tax Day presenting survey evidence that most Americans don’t consider it that difficult to do their taxes, and that the ubiquity of tax preparation software could even allow us to implement a system with infinitely many tax brackets without much pushback – it seems like a good idea to regularly reevaluate whether the code makes sense and to pare back some of its kludgy accretions.

Camp is surprisingly honest about the tradeoffs required by any such root-and-branch reform, and is willing to write concrete proposals that take on some of his party’s sacred cows. This is not the plan that I would have come up with, but in a less acrimonious political universe it would offer a reasonable starting point for bipartisan negotiations (I stand by my claim that “reformocons” would have a better chance of getting a hearing in the Democratic Party, but that’s an argument for another day).

Yet whenever Camp indulges in political gimmickry, his plan is consistently the worse for it. Maybe the next congressman to release a brief on tax reform can propose a tax on red meat.

Heartbleed Gushes; How Will Republicans (and Democrats) React?

Bloomberg reports that the National Security Agency allegedly knew about the Heartbleed computer bug for almost two years and exploited its security flaws to collect “critical intelligence,” including passwords and internet records.  Heartbleed, which was revealed to the public on April 7, has been called one of the most significant security threats the internet has ever seen.

According to Bloomberg:

Putting the Heartbleed bug in its arsenal, the NSA was able to obtain passwords and other basic data that are the building blocks of the sophisticated hacking operations at the core of its mission, but at a cost. Millions of ordinary users were left vulnerable to attack from other nations’ intelligence arms and criminal hackers.

The NSA has come under heavy scrutiny in recent months due to Edward Snowden’s leaks on its data-collection activities.  If the Bloomberg report is true, the NSA will have to contend with allegations that it sacrificed the digital security of millions of American citizens in order to collect information on a small cadre of potential security concerns.  The NSA has already issued a statement denying Bloomberg’s claims.

It would be deeply troubling, to say the least, if any of Bloomberg’s assertions are corroborated by additional evidence or reporting.  That the NSA collected bulk quantities of phone records for purportedly defensive ends was and remains highly questionable, but to additionally put huge quantities of personal data at risk in the collection process is a horrifying prospect.  It is difficult to claim a moral imperative for protecting a country when said efforts directly lead to greater, tangible risk for its citizens.

Additional investigations will elicit more information about the NSA’s involvement in perpetuating Heartbleed’s security gap.  But they will also likely invite political commentary and spur a fresh cycle of debate over whether internet privacy and federal data collection have become too invasive.

What’s politically unique about this situation is that both Democrats and Republicans have been surprisingly fragmented in their views on national data collection over the last few months.  Neither party has seen a consensus in terms of a policy imperative going forward.  Huffpost Religion reported back in February:

The Republican National Committee and civil libertarians like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have joined liberals like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on one side of the debate — a striking departure from the aggressive national security policies that have defined the Republican Party for generations.

On the other side, defending surveillance programs created under the Bush administration and continued under President Barack Obama, are Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the House and Senate leadership of both parties.

One might expect the Democratic Party to be the preeminent voice against data collection programs, but President Obama’s proposed security policies aim for cautious reform instead of a full rejection of the status quo.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, as stripping the entire program to the bone could impair key programs that do help prevent terroristic activities.  But the new Heartbleed allegations suggest even greater NSA influence than what was previously understood, and given the President’s figurehead role and current cautiousness in proposing new restrictions, Democrats may be handcuffed in how far they can push back against this kind of overreach.

This would, in theory, present Republicans with the opportunity to remake at least one facet of their national policy platform.  Internet security and “individual digital liberty” could become a significant plank in the GOP’s body politic as it looks to rebound and re-brand after a shellacking in 2012.  To champion individual rights online without government oversight or intervention could be the starting process in building a new coalition of voters, particularly those in the 18-35 range who would otherwise be turned away by the GOP’s current platforms.

The NSA leaks have yielded a Republican Party that has been surprisingly nimble in making that switch.  The Atlantic noted in January:

And is if to signify that the GOP establishment is changing along with its elected officials, the RNC voted in a winter meeting to literally renounce NSA domestic surveillance. “It was passed by a voice vote as part of a package of RNC proposals,” Benjy Sarlin reports. “Not a single member rose to object or call for further debate, as occurred for other resolutions.” That’s incredible, because it’s almost impossible to exaggerate how unequivocally the resolution condemns the NSA.

Of course, as noted above, there are still significant factions in the party that are opposed to how far these kind of condemnations should go.  That Atlantic article notes that Bush-era GOP architects fear that such a full-scale repudiation of the NSA will undo the national security gains made in the preceding decade.  The Huffpost article cited above paints a similarly conflicted perspective of the party as a whole, too, suggesting that things might not be as cut-and-dry as one RNC vote suggests.

Still, it’s striking to see just how far the Republican Party has changed course since President Bush left office in 2008.  Does this suggest the GOP will continue to pursue policies that protect technological liberty going forward?

Not quite, unfortunately.  Other individual-centric digital policies are being opposed by the GOP, and those kinds of policy measures negate credibility earned in opposing domestic surveillance.  For example, Republicans oppose recent FCC measures to re-instate net neutrality rules, arguing that they prevent internet service providers from fairly adjusting service prices based on consumption use.  That kind of policy makes sense from a pro-business perspective but comes at the expense of open, equal access for individuals.  One might say that pursuing such corporatist policies ahead of the interest of individuals will nullify the GOP’s chances to claim the mantle of deregulated, “for-the-people” internet use.  Businesses can be regulators just as much as governments.

The Snowden leaks and the Heartbleed allegations have presented the Republican Party with the opportunity to initiate a much-needed policy refresh.  Unfortunately, it looks like they won’t take that opportunity, at least not in full.  But it is good to see both Democrats and Republicans working together to tackle the problems raised by allegations of excessive data collection.  Hopefully these efforts will lead to both logical change in domestic policy in the short term and additional room for collaboration on other issues going forward.

The Moderation Conversation, Email Edition: Tesla Motors vs. Auto Dealers

This is the first installment of “The Moderation Conversation, Email Edition”, a spin-off of RM’s “Moderation Conversation” feature wherein Matt and Chris get together to record a discussion and then heavily edit the resulting transcript. The exchange took place in cyberspace this time, meaning a lot of their typical malapropisms never even made it into the text in the first place! The topic of the thread was Tesla Motors’ plan to shake up the world of car retailing, and the obstacles that have been put in its path as it attempts to launch its new model around the country.

Matt

I wanted to get your thoughts on an issue that I’ve been hearing about on and off for a while, but that’s recently become the subject of controversy in our own home state [of New Jersey]. The electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla Motors has been attacked by several state governments and by organizations representing auto dealerships over their efforts to sell their cars directly to consumers in their own company-owned showrooms rather than through dealer franchises.

Tesla is essentially trying to sell cars the way Apple sells computers: by managing a network of proprietary retailers where the corporation can more tightly manage the entire consumer experience. My understanding is that they’ve also been trying to give customers the option to order cars online and have them delivered Amazon-style (!).

Now, Tesla argues that they’re bringing efficiency to the whole car-buying experience by cutting out the middleman, and I’m inclined to agree. The arguments I’ve seen for why states should require autos to be sold through dealerships seem pretty weak; I read an article a while back that talked about how they play an important role in their communities by sponsoring things like Little League. Now, I consider myself a communitarian and all, but I don’t think restricting the market share of auto dealerships is what’s going to destroy civic life in America!

One potentially more serious concern I’ve heard is that diluting competition among dealers will increase auto prices, but I wonder about this one too. Isn’t it competition among brands that keeps prices low? I would think that the cost of a Toyota is kept reasonable because there are guys selling Hondas down the street, not because there’s another Toyota dealership in the area. Or like, isn’t the price of a Chipotle burrito held in check by the fact that Taco Bell also sells burritos, not by the presence of other Chipotle locations in the vicinity? (Actually, we could just make this a discussion about Mexican food if you want. Apparently climate change is threatening Chipotle’s supply of guac inputs, which, not good.)

I certainly worry about large corporations engaging in monopolistic/oligopolistic behavior, and I’m all for trying to limit the power of any one firm or handful of firms to distort the market. But I think people are fixating on a red herring here. It seems to me that this is mostly a matter of auto dealers trying to protect themselves against disruptive innovations.

I’m eager to hear your thoughts. The Christie administration has taken regulatory action to keep Tesla from selling direct-to-consumer, but evidently there’s going to be a legislative debate about this in the near future. How do you think that might go down? (Feel free to also comment on [Tesla CEO] Elon Musk, and/or his ideas for using magnets to shoot humans through tubes at several hundred miles an hour.)

 

Chris

Thanks for sending your thoughts about this.  I’m inclined to agree that the crux of this debate is about how the current auto dealership lobby is trying to protect its livelihood in the automotive market.

A little context might be helpful in showing why this issue is important, especially because the facts indicate it should be a nonstarter.  Tesla offers only one model – the Model S sedan – and sells around 7,000 vehicles or so per quarter.  The Model S has a base price of $70,000 and climbs to over $100,000 with larger batteries and additional equipment.  Tesla’s production quantities are increasing monthly, but its total number of cars sold, and the market to which it’s catering, is miniscule compared to all other auto brands sold through dealerships.

On the surface, it seems like an undue amount of outrage is being expended over the slight increase in difficulty for a few really wealthy people to purchase a car.  But this matter is important for two main reasons:

1) Tesla is the most innovative carmaker around that actually has a chance to redefine how we drive.  It’s currently working on a $30,000 entry level electric car that, with federal tax credits, might dip to below $23,000.  A base price at that level would be a viable option for quite a few middle class or upper-middle class consumers.  Not only will consumers save money from the model, but the demand for gasoline will also drop.  Restricting its sales opportunities now makes it more difficult for these positive outcomes to be achieved in the near-term, if at all.

2) Tesla is working to revolutionize the maintenance and car care experience.  This speaks to your point above- it seems like car dealers are opposed to Tesla’s sales model because it totally eliminates the middleman.  Tesla’s model cuts out about $1500 per car sale that are directly related to dealer expenses, and its all-electric technology makes most dealer maintenance services irrelevant.  (All electric means zero repairs for the engine or transmission and no costs associated with oil changes and other maintenance fees.)  Making it tougher for Tesla to initiate this model means the benefits will take longer to be realized.

That said, this entire debate is getting a little out of hand because New Jersey residents can still purchase Teslas.  It’s not like this is an injunction against the ability to buy a car; the law only prohibits the transaction from taking place in one of Tesla’s New Jersey showrooms.  From Elon Musk’s own blog post:

Our stores will transition to being galleries, where you can see the car and ask questions of our staff, but we will not be able to discuss price or complete a sale in the store. However, that can still be done at our Manhattan store just over the river in Chelsea or our King of Prussia store near Philadelphia.

Most importantly, even after April 1, you will still be able to order vehicles from New Jersey for delivery in New Jersey on our TeslaMotors.com website.

What do you think?  It seems we agree that Musk should be able to sell his cars in NJ, but is the issue being unnecessarily blown out of proportion?  And how do you think any sort of legislative amendment process will go down, if at all?

(To answer your last thought- the Hyperloop looks simultaneously amazing and terrifying.  Suffice to say that I would not want to be one of its first test subjects.)

 

Matt

I think we’re in basic agreement about why this has become such a contentious debate. I also agree with you that stymieing Tesla in its efforts to upend the market is shortsighted, given its potential to steer the auto industry (pun certainly intended) in a more sustainable direction. The seriousness of the Christie Administration’s position here is also called into question by the fact that the Republican Party, at least at the national level, is always insisting that the government should refrain from “picking winners and losers” in the realm of alternative energy through subsidies, tax credits, etc. Christie’s stance is somewhat of a political aberration.

Recall that the Solyndra “scandal” was based on the GOP’s belief that extending subsidized federal loans to clean energy corporations is a form of cronyism that can lead to significant losses for taxpayers when those corporations go belly-up. But doesn’t this mean that putting up roadblocks to selling electric vehicles is an equally unwarranted form of market intervention? The opposite of picking winners and losers is not using state power to protect the status quo. Creative destruction sometimes entails destruction.

You’re right to point out that the immediate impact of this rule will be attenuated by the fact that you can still easily buy Teslas in New York or Pennsylvania, and of course by the fact that there are very few people buying Teslas in the first case. (I was surprised to hear that you can still order them online and have them delivered to New Jersey, though. A regulation requiring auto sales to be routed through dealerships seems to lose all of its bite if there’s a loophole so big you can drive a Tesla through it.)

But I think you’re overlooking the fact that this is not just an argument we’re having here in New Jersey. Restrictions on Tesla’s ability to sell its product directly to consumers in its own showrooms have already been enacted in states like Texas, Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, and Georgia as well, and limits have been proposed in North Carolina, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio. This really is a nationwide battle. If Tesla were somehow backed into the same corner in Pennsylvania, potential Garden State customers would have even fewer options. This might be something Tesla could easily ignore if it were only coming up in one state, but if its hands are tied across the country the ramifications could be significant.

You asked about how I think the legislative debate might play out. I won’t pretend to know what the final result will be, but I can say that I don’t think this is going to split down party lines like you might expect. When similar restrictions came up for debate in the legislature in Washington state, they were defeated by an unlikely coalition of environmentalist Democrats and free-market purists on the Republican side.

Business Insider notes that the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers gave almost $700,000 between 2003 and 2009 to politicians of both parties, so opposition to Tesla is likely to be bipartisan in any fight that might break out in the State Assembly and/or Senate. This is not to suggest that money is the only thing driving support for dealerships – I mentioned last time around that skepticism of monopoly power and a desire to empower small businesses could be legitimate grounds for wariness about Tesla’s plans – but it does indicate that this likely won’t be your typical conservative-liberal skirmish.

 

Chris

Great find on that NJ Coalition of Automotive Retailers statistic.  Given that both parties are on the receiving end of its coffers, it does seem improbable that Tesla will have much support should an amendment battle occur going forward.

You question the Christie Administration’s seriousness on the issue and I second your skepticism.  My initial thought was that this decision was a logical reading of the law; the eight members of the Motor Vehicle Commission (all Christie appointees) voted unanimously to prohibit Tesla’s sales model, suggesting a consensus that Tesla’s current model is not compliant.  My amateur reading of the relevant parts of the law in question, N.J.A.C. 13:21, also suggested some seemingly obvious instances where Tesla’s sales practices are of questionable legality.  For example: I’ve visited the Paramus Garden State Plaza showroom and only one vehicle is on display.  N.J.A.C. 13:21-15.4 states that at least two vehicles must be present in any automobile sales establishment.

But the details of the proposed amendment suggest that Tesla was directly, and unfairly, targeted in this attempt to clarify the law.  The same law cited above currently mandates that showrooms have at a minimum of 72 square feet of office space, whereas the new regulations require 1,000 square feet – clearly a constriction against Tesla’s mall outlets.  Moreover, one can’t help but feel the amendment was unnecessarily harsh in redefining dealer requirements and imposing restrictions against Tesla’s selling ability.  It should be equally easy to redefine the established dealer requirements such that Tesla is simply allowed to operate independent of third party sellers.

Jim Appleton, President of the NJ Coalition of Automotive Retailers, told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that “No one wants to see Tesla close their stores in New Jersey.”  He buttressed his claim with an argument for the consumer protection benefits of dealerships:

You have no choice when you buy from Tesla. You buy from a factory store, period, end of discussion. You buy from a new car dealership, you have the choice of buying from several. This is really a consumer protection argument. It`s not consumer choice argument.

Interestingly enough, the law cited above actually falls under “Law and Public Safety,” which suggests that there is some legitimacy to the argument that car dealerships were, at one point, important in helping consumers purchase a car fairly.  Clearly that’s not the case now, or at least it’s not categorically the case, as Josh Barro contends in the Hayes segment.  (Price and amenity competition among different car brands will still exist regardless of whether different car dealerships are around.)  That this is fast becoming a national issue, as you point out, suggests that NJ citizens should lobby for a new amendment that would maintain consumer safety standards but eliminate the mandate of having a dealership involved.

 

Matt

I thought it would be helpful to see if any hard research has been done on market structure in car retailing, and a quick Google Scholar search turned up an illuminating Journal of Economic Perspectives article from 2010 entitled “State Franchise Laws, Dealer Terminations, and the Auto Crisis.” The authors, Francine Lafontaine of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and Fiona Scott Morton of the Yale School of Management, argue that

[t]he laws favoring car dealerships were put in place, according to a representative statement by the Florida state legislature, to “protect the public health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of the state by regulating the licensing of motor vehicle dealers and manufacturers, maintaining competition, providing consumer protection and fair trade” (Florida Law, §320.605). In our view, the current regulations tend too much toward protecting auto dealers from market forces and raising their profits; we argue that consumers would benefit if manufacturers could have much more leeway in experimenting with alternative distribution models than the web of franchise laws currently in place allow them to do.

The paper lists a number of examples of regulations that states have enacted regarding auto dealerships and car manufacturers beyond the one’s we’ve discussed so far, including some really galling ones. There are laws protecting dealers against “encroachment” (where a manufacturer opens another dealership close to an existing one without demonstrating “need”), laws mandating that manufacturers compensate dealers for repair costs, laws penalizing manufacturers when a franchise agreement is terminated even if the dealer terminates it, and laws forcing manufacturers who offer incentives to dealers for facility improvements to pay at least a portion of those incentives even to dealers who decline to improve their facilities.

What’s more, Lafontaine and Morton explicitly address the Little League argument! This must be a popular one:

As an article in an auto industry newsletter comments: “Even if it’s healthy for the auto industry long-term, Chrysler and General Motors closing thousands of dealerships will create a huge amount of collateral damage to Main Street institutions like Little League Baseball and local newspapers. Love them or hate them, car dealers are the go-to donors for local causes and local sports teams, not to mention keeping newspaper advertising in business almost singlehandedly.” Economists will recognize this argument as being overbroad. It could be applied just as well to restaurants and any other local business, and therefore does not provide a convincing economic justification for high profits for auto dealerships in particular. Moreover, if additional subsidies to Little League and local newspapers are desirable, artificially high profits for auto dealers would be a peculiarly inefficient way to provide such subsidies.

All of this feels a bit counterintuitive. How can it be that dealerships, which are – as they are quite eager to remind us – small businesses, have more pull with state lawmakers than the big automakers? How can they convince the politicians to enact so many laws that seem to benefit them at the expense of the automakers? Granted, the auto industry has taken a beating in recent years, but it still seems strange that some of the largest corporations in the world are in fact politically weaker than mom-and-pop car dealers. The authors actually offer a compelling explanation for this apparent incongruity:

States earn about 20 percent of all state sales taxes from auto dealers, and auto dealerships easily can account for 7–8 percent of all retail employment… The net result of all these laws is to raise profits for car dealers. State legislatures may be willing to do this because dealers represent an identifiable source of state employment and tax revenue, while even large manufacturers can site manufacturing plants only in a limited number of states. The result is that new car dealers have an advantage over auto manufacturers when it comes to political leverage in state legislatures, and thus states enact laws that extract rent from manufacturers and redistribute it to franchise dealers.

Aha! So while any individual dealership is economically miniscule, the fact there are a heck of a lot of them means that, collectively speaking, they tend to have a great deal of clout.

The remaining question is whether these regulations are actually bad. It may be the case that the interests of dealerships and consumers are aligned to a greater extent than we might think, and that our own skepticism about their motives (or at least about whether their actions will benefit the public) has been unwarranted. Or maybe not. After considering existing scholarly work on the subject – which they admit is sparse – Lafontaine and Morton conclude that these laws do not serve the common good:

In their review of the limited empirical literature on vertical restraints across different industries—namely exclusive territories, dealer licensing (protection from entry), and termination restrictions—Lafontaine and Slade (2008) find that that while privately imposed restraints seem to benefit manufacturers and consumers alike, when restraints such as these are mandated by the government, as they are in the case of car distribution state legislation, they lead to higher prices, higher costs, shorter hours of operation, lower consumption—and thus declines in consumer welfare…

The economic evidence thus suggests that the end result of the laws is a wealth transfer that benefits dealers at the expense of consumers (and post-bailout, at the expense of taxpayers as well). Moreover, as the European experience shows, the type of contractual restraints contained in state laws affecting car dealerships, if they were imposed privately, would likely be subject to antitrust scrutiny, and might well be prohibited. After all, these restraints limit entry and can be used, and in fact have been shown, to soften competition among existing dealers.

In economics, “common sense” can often be quite wrong. The notion that the government should have to balance its budget during hard times because middle-class families have to do the same is a fallacy that has a lot of intuitive appeal, but it’s a fallacy nonetheless. In this case, however, the limited amount of research that has been done in this area seems to support our initial reaction. The public will not necessarily suffer if Tesla is allowed to sell its cars directly to consumers – though we might not be able to go watch as many Little League games.

The Moderation Conversation: Debating Marijuana Legalization

This is the third installment of “The Moderation Conversation,” an RM feature in which Matt and Chris get together for a live chat and then heavily edit the subsequent transcript.  The conversation topic for this edition was marijuana legalization.  As you prepare to watch the so-called Super Oobie Doobie Bowl on February 2, why not take a minute to read our debate about the future of licit Jolly Green in the United States?

Legalization vs. Decriminalization

Chris: Alright, so this conversation is going to be about marijuana legalization.

Matt: Or decriminalization, as it were.

C: Ooh!  Or decriminalization, whichever. Well, which one… I guess that’s important.  Which one are we talking about here? 

M: Well, what inspired this conversation was a really interesting Bloggingheads episode that we both watched recently, featuring Andrew Sullivan from The Dish and David Frum from The Daily Beast.   And that episode was ostensibly focused on the issue of marijuana decriminalization.  Well, actually, I guess it was focused on legalization.

C: It touched on both. 

M: But they are separate issues, and we should probably discuss that a little bit.

C: Okay. I guess we could start there. 

M: So my view is that the decriminalization position makes a lot more sense than the legalization position.

C: Okay.

M: But I’ve sort of changed my mind about this over time.  I think I used to be a lot more supportive of the idea of legalizing marijuana, and the reason was that I think we’ve been much more effective at controlling the use of tobacco and alcohol by having a regime where those things are legal but regulated and taxed than a regime where they are banned outright.  And I assumed that the same thing could apply to marijuana.  What changed my mind was a lot of discussions that I had with my roommate in college, who was opposed to the idea of marijuana legalization. I remember talking to him about a group at Haverford called the Cannabis Law Reform Club.  And when I made this argument to him about how legal marijuana would be more easily controllable marijuana, his reply was that “these people are not trying to legalize marijuana so that people will use less of it”.  And that really got me thinking about whether the actual motivations of pro-marijuana activists are in sync with my own. 

C: Okay. But you would say that decriminalization is a proper step?

M: I think so.  I agree with the argument that the enforcement of marijuana laws has had a disproportionately negative impact on poor and minority individuals. Given the fact that marijuana doesn’t seem to have very serious negative effects on behavior and doesn’t seem to lead to egregious criminal activity, I think there are strong arguments in favor of directing our law enforcement resources to better uses.

C: So my question, then, is that if we’re both willing to say that decriminalization is probably a social good, why not take that extra step and make marijuana legal?  If you decriminalize it, you have to assume that most people will be able to gain even easier access to it than now.  I mean, you’re essentially just going to have people paying fines for trying to acquire marijuana.  

M: Well, I think this is where we need to define our terms a little more precisely. I think by decriminalization we mean removing or reducing criminal penalties for people possessing or using marijuana, whereas by legalization we mean permitting in addition to that the production and sale of marijuana or marijuana products.  And what worries me about outright legalization is the fact that, once we take that step, we will have a marijuana industry with an economic interest in making marijuana more available and in lobbying against any restrictions or regulations on it that we might want to pass in the future.

C: I don’t know if that constitutes enough of a reason to prohibit the legalization of marijuana, especially if its impact on health is equivalent to or less than that of alcohol, tobacco, or even something like junk food. I agree with you that it would be much more difficult to have any sort of meaningful, extensive rollback of them, and like alcohol it could certainly become something that people can abuse.  But marijuana essentially has the same type of effect as those other substances.  For the most part we don’t think it’s addictive.  No scientific studies have shown it to be strongly addictive. 

M: There is evidence that it’s harmful to at least certain populations.  My understanding is that marijuana has negative effects on cognition and learning ability in young people and adolescents. 

C: I mean, I assume any sort of legalization would only be for people 21 or older.

M: Well sure, but in the grand scheme of things, marijuana hasn’t been studied scientifically for that long.  And given that we know that there are at least some harms to at least some people, if future research on the long term effects of marijuana use shows there are other harms that we didn’t know about, then we’re going to want to react to those harms by introducing new regulations.  And my fear is that that future debate will be distorted by the influence of an industry that has an interest in spreading misinformation about the harms of its product and in lobbying against sensible public policies.

C: That presupposes that any sort of product that might have a detrimental effect on its users should not be legalized. I don’t know if that’s justifiable.

M: I would argue that in the case of marijuana, we have more than ample reason to suspect that more harms might become clear to us in the future.  I don’t think I’m just shooting in the dark here by saying that other harms might become apparent over time.

C: That’s fair.

M: Especially given the fact that we haven’t yet experienced a legal regime where many people are engaged in using marijuana on a regular basis.

C: So you’d say, use Colorado as a test case?  See how that has an impact on the community, on users, over the course of a year, two years, however long?

M: Sure.  And if Coloradan society collapses, then I guess we’ll know not to go ahead with this on a nationwide basis.

C: [Laughs]

 

The Tobacco and Alcohol Analogies

C: At the same time, though, it seems hypocritical then for us to permit legal use and distribution of alcohol and tobacco, which are arguably more harmful.  We don’t see any type of initiative to push back against those things.

M: I agree, though I would make two points here.  One is that in the Bloggingheads episode with Frum and Sullivan, Frum makes the point that if someone invented tobacco or nicotine today and wanted to get FDA approval to sell that as a recreational drug, there is no way that it would be legal.  And I think that the only reason that cigarettes are still widely available is because of accidents of history.  We’ve known for some time that it’s not really something that is good for people.

C: Tobacco has addictive qualities and no redeeming value.  And it’s clearly shown to cause cancer.  There’s no evidence to show that marijuana is nearly as harmful.

M: Well, leaving that aside for a minute – I just wanted to respond to your point about how there really is no political movement afoot today to introduce significant restrictions on tobacco and alcohol use.  That may be true, but there is some movement to try to restrict those things.  There have been efforts in the past few years to try to put more graphic warning labels on packages of cigarettes, or to restrict where cigarettes can be sold, or to restrict smoking in public places. Or even to ban certain kinds of alcohol.  I read recently about an initiative somewhere in the Midwest to ban certain high-proof kinds of alcohol like Everclear.

C: Oh, yeah. No, that’s certainly justified.

M: But I think the reason that those movements haven’t been more successful is because of the fact that they’ve had to go up against an organized lobby, an organized tobacco industry that has fairly deep pockets that it can dip into to spend fighting these measures.  And I worry about the same thing happening with marijuana.

C: Is that enough of a justification to not allow individual use of the drug?  Because it seems like you’re focusing on the greater social harms that will come from these corporations instead of the actual use by people, which… we can say that using marijuana is perhaps not an optimal use of their time, but I don’t think it’s guaranteed to be harmful.

M: I agree, which is part of the reason I support decriminalization. I think that we should be focused on the power of the hypothetical marijuana industry – well, I guess in some states now, the not-so-hypothetical marijuana industry – and less on the clearly relatively harmless teenager who’s smoking pot in his basement. 

I also just wanted to make another point about the Bloggingheads episode. I have a lot of respect for both Andrew Sullivan and David Frum, and that’s why I thought this episode was really interesting to watch, but I thought that Andrew Sullivan relied very heavily on emotional arguments.  He repeatedly made the point that marijuana has helped some of his personal friends deal with illness and deal with suffering, and David Frum agreed with him that marijuana should be investigated for medical applications. But those personal appeals don’t necessarily mean that we need to move to outright legalization.

C: That’s true.  I mean, I think the other arguments Sullivan made, the arguments we’ve been discussing so far, I think they hold up without that type of emotional appeal.

M: Mhm.

C: We had talked earlier about how you were concerned that Sullivan almost seemed to be advocating a pro-marijuana position.   And I agree with you that that’s definitely problematic.

M: Pro-marijuana in that he was…?

C: Advocating the benefits of smoking.  You know, he cited personal experiences with friends to show that marijuana can be good in social settings, like the equivalent of having a glass of wine.

M: Yeah, it wasn’t just an argument that it should be tolerated, it was an argument that people should use it.

C: Yeah, and I don’t think that’s the correct argument that people in support of marijuana legalization should be making. 

 

What Should a Legal Marijuana Regime Look Like?

M: So I would ask you then – in light of the concerns I’ve raised – what would you envision as the basic contours of an ideal legal marijuana regime?

C: I certainly think you need to start with an age restriction, so 21 and over makes sense.

M: Okay.

C: I know that’s not going to be effective in combatting people smoking underage, but I would imagine that right now it’s relatively, perhaps not as easy as Sullivan cites in the Bloggingheads video with Frum – he says it’s very easy for teenagers to get pot.  I imagine that it’s more difficult than Sullivan suggests, but not terribly difficult if you were seriously interested.

M: Well, neither of us really has any experience with how easy or difficult it is to get pot, so I don’t think we’re the best experts on this.

C: [Laughs] That’s true.

M: One thing I think we should note is that our positions on this issue do not in any way reflect our personal consumption patterns. 

C: Yeah, I’ve not smoked.

M: I haven’t either. But many of my best friends use marijuana.

C: [Laughs] Yeah, so we’d probably start with an age restriction.  My concern would be driving while high.  That’s something we’d have to have some sort of very strict policy on, that if you’re caught… although I know there’s no good way to measure when someone has smoked.

M: Right, that’s one of the things Frum brought up. That because marijuana stays in your system for so long, there’s no way to determine whether someone’s currently high in a rigorous way.

C: That’s a very valid concern.  I think we’d have to have some sort of technology that allows officers to at least get a general idea of when you’re smoking, and I think, as harsh penalties as possible for people who do drive while stoned. 

M: Although Andrew Sullivan at one point came dangerously close to making the argument…

C: Yeah, he did…

M: …that people are actually better drivers while stoned.  [Laughs]

C: I totally disagree with that.  I do not know why he was on the verge of making that case.  He said that it’s nowhere near as bad as driving while drunk, but that does not mean it’s okay.

M: Exactly.

C: So you had suggested before the possibility of making it so that people can purchase marijuana but not allowing any sort of large-scale manufacturing of marijuana.  I’d wonder if there would be a way to implement a type of policy that would allow either marijuana growers or sellers to have only a certain capacity for expansion to reduce the risks of what you’re talking about.

M: Well, I think it would be difficult to have those types of restrictions, which is one of the reasons why I oppose legalization. I think it’s difficult to create a legal regime that has effective safeguards against the kind of things that I worry about.  So, yeah, I would say I think we should do whatever we can, if we do legalize marijuana, to limit the concentration of power in the marijuana industry. But I don’t see how you can easily do that.

C: I still don’t know if fear of this type of – maybe not monopolistic but certainly large-scale – corporate behavior is enough to preclude legalization.  I don’t think that’s enough of a basis. But I agree with you that it would be worth making sure there are policies in place that don’t allow for a repetition of what happens with big alcohol or tobacco.

M: Yeah.  You mentioned having a legal marijuana age.  I would add that I think it’s very important to do what we’ve done with cigarettes and make it illegal to try to market to young people.

C: Definitely, yeah.

M: One of the things Frum was most concerned about was that marijuana – people who want marijuana to be legal say that marijuana enforcement disproportionately affects the poor and minorities.  But he believes that if there’s a legal marijuana industry, that industry itself will target the poor and minorities because historically those communities have been targeted by the cigarette industry and alcohol industry, and there’s no reason to think things would be different with a new legal substance.

C: Mhm. I agree with you.

M: So, you know, no Joe the Camel smoking joints.

C: [Laughs]

 

Paternalism and Laissez-Faire

C: I wonder if we were to initiate some sort of legalization measure, if there would be an avenue for getting people to really consider how they’re using it.

M: Yeah. I mean, I think we should be encouraging moderate use, but I also think it’s naïve to suggest that if marijuana is legalized then there will not be a significant incidence of irresponsible use.

C: Mhm.  I appreciate Frum’s admission in the video that his arguments are somewhat paternalistic.

M: Yeah, Sullivan asked if he would concede that they’re paternalistic, and he said that he would not just concede it, but proclaim it.

C: [Laughs] I sympathize with him over his point that any sort of legalization initiative or decriminalization initiative presents just another barrier for people to spend their money and time in productive ways.

M: Mhm.  It puts a lot of temptations in their path that wouldn’t have otherwise been there.

C: Right. Again, I don’t know if that’s enough of a justification to avoid legalization.  I don’t quite buy that.

M: I’m very sympathetic to Frum’s position, so I guess I’m okay with being somewhat paternalistic, but I was a little bit worried by some of the arguments that Sullivan was making at one point about how it is entirely normal and appropriate to want to have a release from the – his phrasing was something like “a release from the daily ordeal of existence.”

C: Yeah.

M: And I agree with him that harmless pleasures are an important part of life, but I think that it’s very easy to see – as Frum sees it – the concept of release or escape from the ordeal of life shading into a sort of escapism or use of substances as a way to not engage with the real world.

C: Would marijuana necessarily result in a higher incidence of that type of escapism?  Because you already have people – Frum was making the case that this disproportionately affects low-income people, those who are currently most disadvantaged.

M: Sure.  They would be the most tempted to –

C: Right.  But you could say right now that people use alcohol or other drugs as a kind of escapism. That’s something they’re currently doing, so why would marijuana –

M: I think that’s problematic.

C: It is. But would marijuana necessarily increase that?

M: Well, I don’t know.  Sullivan seems to think that to some extent people will be substituting the use of marijuana for alcohol, so legal marijuana might lead to less drinking.  I don’t know about that.  I think it’s hard to say that the aggregate use of substances wouldn’t just increase.

C: I don’t know how we’d really determine that.

M: We’d have to do studies.  We’d have to look at those Colorado guinea pigs.

C: [Laughs]

 

Finding Common Ground

M: I take the point that many people can use marijuana and not really be harmed by it.  In fact, as Sullivan seems to believe, maybe even benefit from it.  But the reason I’m generally opposed to marijuana legalization is not because I think each and every person that uses it will be harmed by it, but because I think the regime that would need to be created in order for people to have access to it would necessarily have costs that I’m uncomfortable with.

C: Okay. That’s understandable. I share many of your concerns.

M: I think it will be interesting to see how this whole issue develops over the next several years.

C: I assume that more states will attempt to pass laws similar to Colorado’s.  If we keep getting more of that, we should have a pretty good sample population to work with in the future.  It will be interesting to see if somewhere like California expands beyond just medical marijuana, because that would be a huge population.

M: What’s most fascinating at this point is that marijuana is still illegal in the United States.

C: Right!

M: I read an article recently pointing out that in Colorado, when the state issues licenses to people to sell marijuana it’s essentially issuing licenses to commit a felony.

C: [Laughs] How do you think that will play on the federal level going forward?

M: It seems at this point like the federal government is willing to take a pretty hands-off approach provided people are following state law.  And so I think we’re nearing the point of de facto federal legalization of marijuana, if we haven’t already reached it.

C: Or at least decriminalization?

M: Or, sure, decriminalization, because the laws aren’t being aggressively enforced.

C: I think it’s worth noting that regardless of our different positions on the issue, we certainly don’t think the constant use of marijuana is a social good, so we’re not advocating that.

M: Sure. The Frum-Sullivan video is part of a new video series at Bloggingheads called “The Good Fight,” which is supposedly going to host debates that not only highlight disagreement but work towards productive areas of consensus, and so I think in many ways the goal of that video and that series is very similar to what we’re trying to do here.

C: Yeah. We both agree that decriminalization is worthwhile.

M: Sure, and we both agree that the immoderate use of marijuana is not good for the individual or the society, as is the case for comparable substances like alcohol. 

C: Sounds like our work is done.

M: [Laughs]

Are Republican Reformers Trying to Reform the Right Party?

The recent effort by a handful of Republican politicians to put forward plans to alleviate poverty and boost stagnant incomes, undoubtedly brought on by a Democratic messaging strategy increasingly centered on the subject of income inequality, has been enthusiastically welcomed by the so-called “reform conservatives” or “reformocons.” The reformocons are a diverse and diffuse group of conservative pundits and writers who not only argue that the GOP needs to replace (or at least supplement) its reflexive denunciations of the Obama Administration with a positive economic agenda aimed at providing greater economic security for the poor and middle class, but who have sketched out ambitious ideas of their own for how to accomplish those goals.

Chief among the would-be reformers are the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, who celebrated the movement’s small successes at gaining traction in his latest Sunday column; National Review’s Reihan Salam and Ramesh Ponnuru; National Affairs editor Yuval Levin; center-right healthcare wonk James Capretta; and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Strain. In 2008, Douthat and Salam coauthored a manifesto for “Sam’s Club Republicanism” called Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, the main thesis of which was that the Republican Party would need to craft a domestic policy agenda more attuned to working class anxieties about job loss and declining wages if it wanted to remain competitive in future national elections. In their view, the GOP’s Bush-era economic platform remained stuck in the 1980’s, with lowering marginal tax rates for high-earners, reducing the regulatory burden on business, and balancing the federal budget (primarily if not solely through spending cuts) seen as timeless solutions just as well-suited to the problems of the mid-2000’s as to those of twenty or thirty years earlier.

Of all the specific issues discussed in Grand New Party, Douthat and Salam’s top priority is shoring up the two-parent family, which they consider vital to not only guaranteeing that children are raised in stable homes, but to lessening the extent to which the social safety net is called upon to care for the next generation. To that end, they advocate for an expansion of the child tax credit and a recognition of the fact that raising children is essentially an investment in society’s future that society should strive to encourage and support in whatever ways it can.

The pair also express qualified admiration for the Roosevelt-era New Deal, which they believe was successful in laying the groundwork for the greatest period of shared prosperity in American history, in part because of the New Dealers’ efforts to consciously design programs like Social Security in a way that incentivized marriage and parenthood. And while they agree that contemporary mores forbid us from revisiting some of the New Deal’s more explicitly sexist elements, they are nevertheless critical of modern liberalism for being “allergic to moralism in public policy,” and maintain that it is wholly legitimate for the government to design social programs in a way that privileges certain family structures over others.

The (relative) flowering of Republican policy entrepreneurship in recent weeks, from Marco Rubio’s speech on poverty to the publication of an essay by Michael Strain in National Affairs on why the Right ought to be taking far more seriously the problem of mass long-term unemployment – a piece hailed by David Frum as the “Ninety-Five Theses” of the nascent reform movement – has seemingly made reformocons like Douthat hopeful that their moment has arrived at last. Yet their ebullience has been met with skepticism in certain quarters. In response to a Times column by David Brooks about how “[t]he emerging conservatives won’t have to argue with or defeat the more populist factions on the right; they can just fill the vacuum,” Richard Yeselson penned a strident piece for The New Republic which proclaimed that the GOP base has little appetite for the kind of reforms being pushed by the Grand New Partiers:

The Tea Party (which Brooks never mentions, but which is clearly on his mind) is not some aberrant or exogenous issue for the GOP. It is, in fact, the base of the party, perhaps totaling more than 50 percent of its support… Republicans are, at best, ambivalent about social insurance and transfer payments. They oppose universal health insurance, food stamps, and unemployment benefits…

This is today’s ideologically and ethnically homogenous Republican Party, an institution that must care enough about Yuval Levin’s grand plans to actually convert them into law and policy. There is no evidence that state or national Republican politicians will do so… There are no major policy arguments with the GOP, only tactical disagreements like whether or not to leverage the renewal of the debt ceiling. This is pretty much the agenda supported from everybody from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Majority Leader John Boehner to first-term legislators in Texas, North Dakota, and Mississippi…

Are [the GOP’s donors] any more likely than an Evangelical in the Deep South or a Tea Party libertarian in Arizona to support Michael R. Strain’s job proposal—which, among other things, includes worksharing, infrastructure investment and providing subsidies for workers who move where jobs are more plentiful—rather than their usual demands of low taxes and minimal regulation? Are the Koch brothers reading the National Interest and thinking they need to invest $100 million in passing the Strain plan? The Chamber of Commerce may be looking for smoother, less obviously extreme candidates next time around—but that is a cosmetic, not ideological, difference.

Regardless of how accurate Yeselson’s portrait might be, the reformers do indeed have their work cut out for them. Or do they? If their goal is to transform the Republican Party into a suitable political vehicle for the sort of ideas discussed at length in Grand New Party – tax reform targeted at working families rather than high-earners, near-universal catastrophic health coverage – then the task is certainly daunting. On a range of issues, they are faced with the challenge of not only persuading Republican office-holders or candidates to adopt their particular solutions to problems like widespread unemployment or rising healthcare costs, but to consider those problems urgent priorities in the first place. Douthat has insisted that the innovative conservatism championed by individuals like Utah Sen. Mike Lee is the most intellectually fertile of all the various strains of Republicanism circulating today, and that its future is bright. But that kind of conservatism also has serious liabilities that may limit its ability to turn “Sam’s Club Republicanism” into a reality.

On the other hand, if the goal of the reformocons is merely to see their ideas accepted and implemented regardless of who does the implementing, then their job is potentially much easier. In a recent issue of Commonweal, J. Peter Nixon argued that the “conservative alternatives to Obamacare” advocated by Douthat, Salam, Capretta, and others are not so much alternatives to Obamacare as they are slight modifications to its basic structure. Amending the Affordable Care Act’s minimum benefit requirements to allow insurers to sell plans that would cost consumers less upfront but offer less comprehensive benefits wouldn’t actually be such a terribly radical move. As Nixon sees it, it might be easier for those truly concerned about fixing the law’s structural defects to work on convincing the Democrats to do the fixing:

The irony is that for all these differences, Obamacare and the conservative reform plans have a lot in common. Both subsidize the purchase of private insurance as a means of expanding coverage, both seek to increase competition among health plans as a way of driving down costs, both want to prevent insurers from discriminating against the sick, and both try to make this economically viable by bringing more healthy people into the insurance pool.

One could certainly imagine changes to Obamacare that would address many of the concerns raised by Ponnuru, Douthat, et. al. The benefits package could be made less generous and more catastrophic options could be allowed. States could be given more flexibility in running their exchanges or managing Medicaid. The excise tax on high-cost employer-provided health plans could be raised, making plans less generous and consumers more cost-sensitive.

But that is hardly “repeal and replace.” Rather than being a radically different “conservative alternative” to Obamacare, what the reform conservatives are proposing is just a few steps to the right along the same continuum. While one can hardly expect the left to endorse it, the real problem for reform conservatives may be their friends on the right. For the GOP base, the struggle against Obamacare has become an apocalyptic battle between Freedom and Tyranny, not an opportunity for the kind of policy give-and-take the reform conservatives are offering.

There already appears to be latent bipartisan support for scrapping some of Obamacare’s most controversial elements, like the medical device tax or the employer mandate, so it’s not as if selling Democrats on the political upside of making some “conservative” changes to Obamacare would be an especially Herculean task. It seems as if at least some of the Democratic reluctance to relitigate aspects of the ACA has been motivated more by the political need to defend its legitimacy and general conceptual outline against sustained Republican attacks than by any particular affinity for every last detail of the law.

Healthcare is just one issue, but the same logic applies to others as well. The 2009 stimulus, signed into law barely a month after Barack Obama first took office, could no doubt have been designed and implemented in a more targeted way, and few deny that infrastructure projects can be a breeding ground for cronyism and rent-seeking. But if you are interested in using government power, be it in a restrained or more muscular fashion, to address the lingering unemployment crisis, would it be better to pitch your ideas to the party that considers that problem one of its top priorities, or the one that has moved on to other concerns?

The reformocons are justifiably interested in returning us to a time when real, meaty, center-right alternatives were offered up in response to liberal legislative proposals. The problem is that, as Paul Krugman has opined from the left, the key to restoring a healthy dialectical relationship between the two major parties may not be to focus on changing the tone of the conversation and on refining the intellectual quality of the debate in a hope that substantive policies will follow automatically from the fact that everyone is talking about serious ideas and being nicer to one another.

Rather, it may be to see to it that policies that will reinvigorate the economic fortunes of the middle class are put into place, even if one party has to do so by itself, and then watch as a new bipartisan consensus forms around those policies as it did in the years and decades following the New Deal (in many respects, this was the theory to which the Obama Administration seemed to subscribe early in the president’s first term). The view of someone like Krugman about what policies those should be obviously differs from the view of someone like Douthat or Salam, but the principle remains the same. Get your agenda enacted, get the great mass of the American people behind you, and then see if the other party is willing to engage you in a more productive way.

The counterintuitive bottom line here is that the reformers might have more luck building their Grand New Party within the Democratic Party. Of course, a natural rejoinder will be that the Democrats would be just as opposed to embracing the sociocultural priorities of conservatives as the Republicans would be to embracing the economic priorities of liberals – perhaps more so. I’m not sure this is true. Just as much of the opposition on the left to any tinkering with Obamacare is driven by fears that that tinkering will lead to wholesale sabotage, so too does it appear that liberal apprehension about “family friendly” policies is driven at least in part by a fear that they are simply disguises for anti-gay animus and the like. David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, whose “New Conversation on Marriage” project I wrote about a while back, believes that liberals might be more willing to embrace a “pro-marriage” agenda in a world where same-sex marriage is legal and revanchist attempts to roll it back have largely faded away.

And indeed, there is clear evidence that this could be the case. Public Discourse featured an essay last week that discussed Barack Obama’s support for initiatives to combat fatherlessness, albeit as part of a case that such support is logically inconsistent with his endorsement of same-sex marriage. The most philosophically rigorous social conservatives will no doubt find Obama’s gay rights advocacy to be an insurmountable obstacle to taking seriously his apparent concern about the problem of fatherlessness, but what this anecdote actually reveals is that prominent Democrats, up to and including the most prominent Democrat of all, recognize that family breakdown is a real problem requiring real solutions. Since public opinion is clearly headed in the direction of greater acceptance of same-sex marriage, the day when Democrats are willing to embrace a Blankenhornian or even a Douthatian vision of how the levers of public policy can be used to promote marriage may be nearer than its conservative critics believe.

Douthat’s Sunday column explains how, after years of struggle, reform conservatism is finally ascendant in the Republican Party, but it never defends the tacit assumption that the Republican Party is where it should be struggling to ascend in the first place. Near the end of the piece, Douthat strikes a cautionary note:

The more likely solution for the G.O.P. has always required a two-step process: rising-star politicians coalesce around a new agenda; then a winning presidential candidate puts it into effect. Which may not happen in this case — because the party’s base may be too rejectionist, because Hillary Clinton may actually be unstoppable no matter what her rival’s platform says, because two senators do not a reformist moment make.

As I see it, Douthat underestimates precisely how formidable an obstacle that first threat – the “rejectionism” of the GOP base – really is.

The cover of Grand New Party features an endorsement from David Brooks declaring that the book offers a roadmap for “where the GOP should and is likely to head.” The second half of that statement seems like wishful thinking. If Hillary Clinton “may actually be unstoppable no matter what,” then maybe it’s time for the reformocons to broaden their search for a patron.

Christie’s Missing Coattails

Given New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s status as an early favorite for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, it remains a mystery why the Democrats failed to challenge him more aggressively in this year’s gubernatorial contest. Even if he remained unbeatable, there were strong political incentives for them to have at least tried to deny him the blue-state landslide that will no doubt become his number one calling card should he make a run for the White House. But there’s another ostensibly puzzling fact about the outcome of the Garden State’s latest election: why couldn’t the Republicans pick up a single seat in the state legislature even in the midst of a Christie wave?

Actually, this fact isn’t all that puzzling. The current legislative district boundaries were drawn in 2011 by an eleven-member redistricting commission, and were widely seen at the time as a pro-Democrat gerrymander. In fact, the commission’s lone nonpartisan member, the late Rutgers professor Alan Rosenthal, claimed that he voted for the final plan because it would help to maintain “continuity of representation,” although he also stated that “[i]t is a map, I believe, that gives the minority party a chance at winning control of the Legislature.” In other words, a Republican legislative coup was bound to be an uphill battle, even against the backdrop of a Christie landslide.

Yet some commentators seem genuinely surprised by the fact that Christie’s 60-40 margin of victory over State Sen. Barbara Buono came at the same time the Democrats retained their 24-16 majority in the Senate and 48-32 margin in the Assembly. The Star-Ledger recently featured a piece entitled “Legislative map not to blame for lack of GOP progress, experts and Democrats say.” So what was to blame? Well, based on the evidence presented in the article, it sounds like it was… the legislative map:

This year, Republican Senate candidates overall got almost 65,000 more votes than their Democratic counterparts, but Democrats did not lose a single seat… Democrats won just 48 percent of the vote while taking 60 percent of the seats… On the surface, those are startling numbers, and Christie has not been the only Republican to mention it. But political experts and Democrats say they’re using a misleading method to explain the election results, one that implies Republicans should get more seats just because their voters are more likely to turn out to the polls.

“It would be like determining the winner of a baseball game based on stadium attendance,” said Bill Castner, a Democratic attorney who was a key architect of the Democrats’ legislative district map. “This is not Parliament. This is not Europe. We don’t allocate seats based on who shows up” [emphasis added].

Heavily Republican districts had higher turnout than heavily Democratic districts, even though all districts are roughly equal in population, according to the Census. The 24 districts where Democrats won had an average turnout of 41,000, and the winners had an average margin of 10,000. The 16 districts where Republicans won had an average turnout of 55,000, and the winners there won by about 19,000 votes. That is how Republican candidates got more votes overall. “That’s why the whole thing is false about the statewide vote,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “It’s a false comparison to what voters actually want…”

Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris), who headed the Republicans’ redistricting effort, said it’s just common sense that the party that gets the most voters should get the most seats. I don’t think there’s any question that on Election Day this year, New Jerseyans went to the polls and voted more for Republican legislators than Democratic legislators,” [emphasis added] Webber said. “To me that means they should get a Republican-controlled Legislature. It’s a very simple concept.”

Republicans aren’t alone in using the vote total argument. In 2012, to Democrats’ chagrin, their House candidates across the nation got more votes than Republicans. Yet Republicans held on to a majority…

[Assemblyman John] Wisniewski said the governor’s claim fails to take into account the fact that he won 75 percent of the state’s legislative districts yet failed to bring the down-ballot candidates with him… “Christie’s saying, ‘Don’t blame me for the lack of coattails.’ But the only person to blame for the lack of coattails is the guy wearing the coat.”

That New Jersey and the United States do not have parliamentary systems in which seats are allocated on the basis of the aggregate votes received by each party is obvious. Those who are frustrated by the Republicans’ failure to recapture the majority in either house of the legislature understand this better than anyone, which is precisely why they are complaining about how the district boundaries are drawn. Reminding everyone that “this is not Europe” or that turnout was lower in the districts that lean Democratic does not prove that “the map is not to blame” for the Republicans winning a majority of the statewide vote but only a minority of the seats. All this amounts to is a claim that the map is to blame, but that this is a perfectly legitimate outcome given our system of single-member districts. The “experts and Democrats” cited in the Ledger piece are making normative claims, not descriptive ones.

Consider the reaction of many Democrats (and others) to the result of the 2000 presidential election, in which Al Gore won a majority of the popular vote but failed to win the presidency. Nobody argued that the Electoral College was “not to blame” for this counterintuitive result. Rather, everyone acknowledged that the Electoral College was entirely to blame for this counterintuitive result. What was debated was whether the College is on balance a worthwhile institution because it rewards the building of broad national coalitions over parochial appeals to the denizens of major population centers, or whether it is an outmoded, elitist, antidemocratic relic that ought to have been dispensed with many quadrennia ago.

Likewise, the real debate in NJ – and nationwide, given the fact that John Boehner is still Speaker of the House despite his party’s congressional candidates having earned fewer votes overall in 2012 – is whether a system that can produce such seemingly illogical results really has enough of other redeeming qualities to make it worth preserving. In light of the way in which divided government in an era of sharply polarized parties has been a recipe for gridlock (if at the national level to a greater extent than in New Jersey), reforming our political institutions to make them more responsive and more resilient ought to be a top priority.

I have to side with Christie and Webber on this one. A majority of the voters who turned out cast their ballots for Christie, and a majority cast their votes for Republican legislators. That should be reflected in the partisan makeup of the government that will convene in January. Assemblyman Wisniewski’s observation that Christie ran ahead of most Republican legislative candidates is a non sequitur. The GOP is not claiming that it should take 60% of the seats because Christie won 60% of the gubernatorial vote; it is claiming that it should take 52% of the seats because it won 52% of the legislative vote.

Christie has also claimed that at least some of the Democrats won their down-ballot races by emphasizing their bipartisan credentials. The same Ledger article quotes him as saying that “[t]hey ran on ‘We work with the governor.’ Okay, well time to work with the governor… Their mandate, to the extent they have one, is to work with me.”

I do hope that the Democrats can (continue to) look past Christie’s bluster and maintain a productive working relationship with him, rather than succumb to the temptation to gum up the works out of spite. (This is a two-way street of course, and Christie will also have to avoid some of the pettiness in which he indulged in his first term.) That said, the Democrats can cheer up! As Chris pointed out to me in a recent conversation, they may only have to deal with him for three more years!