The 2020 Election, First Thoughts

Anybody knows we need a better choice in 2020, and not some billionaire who thinks he alone can fix it. The question is how to get there.

What I’ll be looking for is two-fold:

  1. Serious policy—Do they have proposals for the major challenges we face? Healthcare? Climate change? Poverty? Infrastructure?
  2. Seriousness about policy—Do they have alternatives? How will they get the legislators on board?

Horse racing is not something worth visiting. If any candidate waves their hands at a serious problem, they aren’t a serious candidate. If any candidate can’t talk about the heavy lifting, or says our challenges are insurmountable or would require something scary like socialism, and so we can’t fix the thing, they aren’t serious candidates.

Medicare for All is still just one way to achieve universal, affordable healthcare. But the achievement is necessary for our society. If it takes socialism, in that small part, just as defense does, then we’ll do more socialism. If you don’t like it, propose something better or lobby for an opt-out for yourself on grounds that you’re a billionaire who is afraid of people having access to healthcare.

We’re past the point of no-return, we have to do the things our society needs to thrive in the coming centuries. Those who want to pretend it’s 1952 can find the nearest time machine and run against Eisenhower and Stevenson.

In 2020, and beyond, we can remain flexible about how things work, but not in the need for them to work. Any serious candidate knows that, welcomes tough compromise that will result in putting the choices we face in starker terms, that will propel better future compromises. Government is expensive, but the costs are minimal compared to what our world would be without government. Those who want that world can also find a time machine and go for it.

And remember, the president only signs the bills into law and appoints the people that implement them. It all still has to go through a fairly conservative legislature. Medicare for All will be a heavy lift, but having leadership willing to step up to that stone and to try to pull the stone from it is something better than one who will say, “If it’s broken, why fix it?”

How High Should Taxes Be?

70% on the ten-million-and-first dollar? A wealth tax? How high should we tax the wealthy?

First, why do we tax at all? The theory of taxation is that, contrary to those who call it theft, taxation is payment of debt. By virtue of the services rendered, the tax is how the services are paid for. Larger earners, conducting more commercial activity, using more of the legal system, shipping inspection, and so forth, are to pay a higher percentage due to their higher rewards and higher use.

Economists get into the effects of tax more than the reasons for it, or the fairness of it. Things like the Laffer Curve are drawn up, to theorize that taxation matters a lot and that government revenue can be equal at very different places along the curve, while private spending and overall economy can be very different. Politically-embedded economists thus focus on an apolitical, theoretical system to make a political argument.

But the woman waiting for a bus to take her to her minimum-wage job isn’t rewarded by such abstractions. She knows that the nominal rate and the effective rate are about the same for her, while they are a Grand Canyon apart for those who can afford a team of accountants. She knows that she could pay 100% of her whole life’s wages and never pay as much as some of the wealthiest should in a single year.

None of which answers the question of how high taxes should be. The ultimate answer to that query is that nobody knows, and unfortunately, we’re not planning to find out. The answer to how high taxes should be is that we should adjust them continuously, and find out based on the experimentation. That we have the knowledge and ability to do so, we lack only the political will.

For example, we could start with the current tax rates, and make half-point adjustments to all brackets, or add new brackets and adjust those too. As long as the timing is regular and the adjustments are gradual, we can account for a lot of the noise. As long as we are willing to tweak the rates based on current conditions, lowering taxes in recessionary times, raising them in times of health, the slow and methodical march of the tax rates could yield us with something better than arguing will.

The interest rate already works this way. Is it not time for the tax rate to join it?

To Argue for a Wall

The president and the Republicans in the Senate have not made the argument for the wall. It’s a curiosity that they would bother to keep the government shut down without doing so.

I oppose the wall. I think it’s a stupid idea. Fencing in strategic locations along the border already exists. If there we need more limited fencing, that’s something that can be done. Indiscriminate fencing, whether concrete, steel, or pyrite, is pointless.

But if you want to argue for it anyway, there’s a basic formula for the argument that hasn’t been aired. Probably because the numbers (see e.g., Brookings: Vanda Felbab-Brown: August 2017: “The Wall: The real costs of a barrier between the United States and Mexico” and CATO: Alex Nowrasteh: 24 April 2017: “The Border Wall Cannot Pay for Itself”) don’t work, but possibly because the administration doesn’t care to make any reasoned argument (about anything, really).

  1. You start with the cost of the wall.
  2. Next, you add up the savings the wall will provide.
  3. You point at the two numbers, and say that the first is smaller.

In other words, you show that it is cost effective.

Again, I’m not going to get into the numbers too much here, but in a more detailed form:

The Cost of the Wall

Materials costs, including concrete, steel, paving materials assuming there’s a road to be added for patrol and maintenance. There will also be land preparation requirements, including fill and excavation.

Then labor costs, including upkeep. The cost of buying the land, including legal fees. There will be the cost to border communities that may see their property values diminished (Trump made a big deal out of wind turbines being put up near one of his golf courses in Scotland for just this reason) and other economic disruptions.

There are other cultural factors, but there’s also the environmental costs (which the administration doesn’t care about anyway).

The $5.6 billion is an appropriation figure, not the true cost of a wall. That number hasn’t been reported, partially because it’s impossible to know exactly. But looking back on other large-scale constructions, building a wall would likely cost more than even the sticker price, due to delays, budget overruns, etc.

The sticker price by DHS from February 2017 was $21.6 billion, which attempts to account for legal costs, but there is no definitive plan at for the wall, so estimating the cost is all the harder. Indeed, as recently as this week, Trump himself claims it will be steel instead of concrete.

How can anybody have a serious discussion about a wall that’s still just a campaign slogan and not even a serious plan?

The Savings of the Wall

Assuming you do have an idea of the various costs to various interests, now you need to know how much you will save.

First, what could you save? The annual budget of CBP and ICE? $17 billion and $9 billion, which includes some activities that would still be necessary. You also have to balance that savings with maintenance and (and!) with increased enforcement in places or ways that people would begin to enter where they might previously have used the unwalled border.

There is at least some loss of tax revenue and economic growth that would have been accrued by the labors of crossers. So cut the savings there, too (it’s widely believed that the economic benefits from undocumented work exceeds its costs, but falls short of the benefits of making such labor official, documented, and lawful).


The administration doesn’t care about reasoned arguments. It’s a shame, and good leadership is always a matter of taking the facts and finding the best way forward. Trump, his administration, and the congressional Republicans don’t bother with any of that. Some wonkish sites like Brookings and CATO did back in early 2017, but we’re having a shutdown in 2019 because the president has tied himself to the mainmast of a ship called The Wall. Mitch McConnell is now lashing himself to it, too.

But none of them, apparently, care that it’s a foolish idea.

Replace Bad Leaders

There’s an argument that, though Mr. Trump broke the law, he should not be indicted because it would be burdensome on the execution of our laws. And that same argument seems to be making the rounds against impeachment. The argument is that if he merely conspired to cover up personal scandals using illegal means during the campaign, that isn’t bad enough for the House to bring charges and have a trial in the Senate.

But my personal view of the presidency is incompatible with that outlook. There’s an old joke by Jerry Seinfeld (as I recall) about why all the men at a wedding dress the same—that if the groom doesn’t show up, they can just take a step over and continue on. Presidents are replaceable. Though the position does hold a large stock of power, and it has become more powerful over the decades (largely as Congress has avoided hard decisions, preferring to see the nation damaged over risking their seats), it’s supposed to be one of management, not of personality.

In a management role, the goal is to help remove obstacles to the smooth functioning of the organization. Some cities have elected to hire rather than elect a manager in order to see the smooth execution of local laws. CEOs famously get paid megabucks, apparently on the assumption they will smooth the operations of their companies, leading to better revenue.

No company should abide a CEO that lied on eir resume to get the job. The uncertainty to investors, the bad signals it sends to the organization, the company would have to see itself cleansed of the bad blood. And that’s what we’re talking about with corrupt executives in government. They should be tried in order to maintain our government’s integrity. Not lightly, not without due process and thorough investigation, but the public and voters, especially the ones who voted for the accused, deserve it.

The Clinton impeachment trial was warranted by the facts. His removal, according to that Senate, was not. As the charges and investigations into Trump continue, it seems it will be right at some point to ratify articles of impeachment against him and let the Senate hear the case. But we should not fear replacing our president. We do it every four years. We should take pride in the smooth transition of power, in the replaceability of our leaders. We have no kings because we know too well that man is fallible. If one turns sour, we should replace em.

Because They Can

There’s an old joke:

Q: Why do dogs lick their own genitals?
A: Because they can.

The modern Republicans function on the same principle. It sees no cost to hypocrisy, it says that it can do whatever it wants, and if you try to stop it, there’s always a 2nd Amendment Solution threat to toss around like a grenade with the pin removed.

Under Barack Obama, the deficit was a major threat to our future. It was stealing bread from future generations to prop up silly programs (like roads and bridges!) today. And then, the clock struck midnight, Trump entered, and lo! cutting taxes to create a massive deficit is what all the cool kids do.

What would happen if they defied illogic and stood up to dumbassery?

  1. They would be primaried, losing 30-60% of the challenges
  2. The alt-right boneheads that replaced them would also lose 30-60% of their races

So, the GOP would be in a temporary setback, until the voters realized that getting creamed in the legislative races doesn’t do them any good and would inevitably moderate.

What does happen, instead?

  1. They adopt alt-right dumbassery
  2. They remain viable enough to slip farther into the pit of doom they will soon call home (and if we’re not careful, we all will as well)

Even now, before the Democrats take the gavel in the House, parts of the news media are back to treating Trump as a normal president. They think, wrongly, that being bested at the polls might make him face the music. There are takes along these lines:

  • Dems should prioritize legislation over investigation
  • Trump seeks to cut deals with the Democrats

To the first, it’s a false dichotomy. There will be investigations. There will be legislation. Those are both jobs of the Congress when it’s operating properly. Moreover, they go hand-in-hand. You have to investigate in order to legislate properly.

As to making deals, that’s part of the job, too. Not just with the president, but with other legislators, with the minority. There are a thousand deals done in Washington per day (including Xmas!), but almost no good (and only a little evil) comes of most of them.

Why does the news media fall back to the same worn narratives at each stage of the disaster of Trump? Because that’s their reflex, their muscle memory. They are working off a parametric equation that says something like:

  Republican president
+ Republican Senate
+ Democratic House
——————————————————————
  Democratic cooperation

It’s the same reflex that was at work when they did a wholly-inadequate job questioning the intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq war. It’s the same reflex that couldn’t properly deal with Trump in 2015-6. This is an industry that had tape ready to roll as soon as President George Bush’s death was announced. It’s not the investigative journalists that are the failure in media, it’s the rank-and-file paper-pushers that are merely providing a nice Muzak-esque environment for advertisers.

Which is the same God damned thing that the rank-and-file Republicans (and plenty of Democrats, to be sure) are doing for all sorts of dubious organizations and industries.


There’s a reason that the odds of Paul Ryan coming out in favor of doing something about climate change jump from 0% to at least 50% as soon as he is out of office. It’s the same one, over again. He can’t say that in the House, he has to wait until he’s a civilian. It takes time to sober up from the years-long binge on campaign adrenaline. The scent of lobbyist cologne and perfume does wash off, but it lingers awhile.