Tilting at Windmills

Four regulations and a funeral

A few years ago, my wife became a funeral director. She has a special emphasis on “back to basics” funerals: simple caskets, avoiding embalming if possible, woodland burial, personal attention from the funeral director. She’d like to set up her own small funeral establishment some day, but she discovered a roadblock. New York State requires that funeral homes have embalming rooms and chapels. That means you have to have an enormous amount of start-up capital to launch a new enterprise.

This reminded me of one of the greatest myths of modern politics and policy: that the fight over regulation is usually between lefty public interest groups and free-market-oriented conservatives. On the state level, regulation is often imposed by a set of businesses to keep out newcomers.

Normally I’m against forest fires but …

Driving along a highway in New York State, I came across a sign for Donald J. Trump State Park. How is this possible???

Obama and Clinton complete each other

The Game of Thrones fans among us can’t help but speculate about the behind-the-scenes relationship between the Clintons and the Obamas. Surely these bitter rivals must be planning how to poison or impale each other. Conservatives, meanwhile, enjoy stoking a conflict, arguing that Obama has abandoned the centrism of good-ole Clinton in favor of 1970s liberalism. “President Obama has now effectively undone everything that Clinton and the New Democrats did in the 1980s and ’90s,” Michael Gerson wrote.

In fact, the Obama and Clinton presidencies complement, complete, and reinforce each other. To oversimplify, Clinton provided the policy and ideological original thinking; Obama’s the one who got the policies over the goal line.

Obama has not often been a policy innovator. Most of his big proposals were designed in the Clinton administration or by Clintonites. Obamacare was close to what Hillary proposed in 2008 and to the right of what the Clintons proposed in the 1990s. His first big environmental push was a centrist, market-oriented cap-and-trade regime. His stimulus package was almost one-third tax cuts. For all the attention to Obama’s slight weakening of the welfare law, the more striking thing is that he has pretty much left welfare reform—the most conservative thing Clinton did—intact. Many of Obama’s key aides—Rahm Emanuel, Jack Lew, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, John Podesta, Larry Summers, Susan Rice, Gene Sperling, Bruce Reed—served in the Clinton administration. That’s not including his first secretary of state. It’s a testament to how much Clinton changed the Democratic Party that even a conventional progressive like Obama ended up being “New Democrat” on most issues.

Conversely, Obama completed and expanded on the Clinton presidency in key ways. The most obvious is passing health care when Clinton couldn’t. That’s a big what-Joe-Biden-said. There’s more: Clinton started a modest-sized “direct lending” program that allowed college students to borrow straight from the government, bypassing banks; Obama got the banks out entirely, saving taxpayers billions in the process. Clinton proposed raising fuel efficiency standards for cars from 27.5 mpg to 40. He failed. Obama has successfully raised them, with a target of 55 mpg by 2015. Clinton moved the military from being actively hostile to gays to the milder-but-problematic policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; Obama allowed gays to openly serve.

One can debate the extent to which these achievements happened because of Obama’s skills or his timing. I think his long view, maturity, and pitch-perfect sense of when to take the big risk (e.g., jamming through Obamacare after the Scott Brown election; invading Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden) were major factors.

But the bottom line is an impressive list of large policy accomplishments. Clinton’s legacy wasn’t undone by Obama; it was enlarged. We tend to think of Clinton as the canny pol and Obama as the visionary, but the truth is closer to the opposite. Clinton was the philosopher who reimagined progressivism in the modern era; Obama is the guy who made it happen. Clinton was the JFK; Obama the LBJ.

I don’t expect Bill or Hillary to get misty-eyed and declare, “You complete me!” But the Clintons and the Obamas have been good for each other.

What Obama and Taft should have in common

If Hillary Clinton wins, Obama should be her first Supreme Court appointment. It’d be good for her, and very good for progressives.

Would he want it? It’s possible he’d view it as too confining, but it may be the only job a former president can get that won’t seem like a step down.

Speak softly and carry a venti latte

There were many amazing moments in the Ken Burns series about the Roosevelts that ran last year. But none was as significant as this: Teddy Roosevelt drank a gallon of coffee a day. This changes everything. All this time I thought TR had a preternatural zest for life. Now we must wonder if the bursts of bully-bully-bullyness were just caffeine spasms.

Be careful in the echo chamber

In the 1980s, we bemoaned that the rise of talk radio was polarizing. The types of shows that succeeded pushed outrage and extremism, usually on the right. When cable TV exploded, we thought, Oh, good, with hundreds of channels, we’ll have a real diversity of voices. Instead, the economics of niche programming brought us Fox News and, later, MSNBC.

Then we thought the internet might at least display a fuller range of perspectives. It’s true that an almost infinite number of viewpoints can be found online, but it turns out that the same qualities that drive ratings on radio or cable drive clicks and shares online: outrage and passion.

Twitter is fueled by retweets, and strong opinions are more likely to be retweeted. Facebook’s algorithm rewards posts that prompt shares or comments. Which of these three posts is the least likely to draw comments: “Keystone will destroy the planet!,”

“Keystone will save America!,” or “Keystone may not be all that important”?

Slate did a great package on 2014 as the Year of Outrage, including this admission from the writer Jordan Weissmann: “Of the top 10 most read stories I’ve written since joining Slate, at least five of them could be characterized as outrage bait.”

As with cable and talk radio, one does not necessarily get an accurate sense of broad public opinion by hanging out on social media. For instance, Twitter reaction was 77 percent positive about Obama’s reelection. Of eight cases studied by the Pew Research Center, six showed significant differences between Twitter reaction and public opinion measured through random sample surveys.

And as with talk radio and cable, bubbles form within social media. Another Pew study found that discussion on Twitter formed around distinct, polarized communities. On Facebook, they found, conservatives are more likely to read posts that reflect their views. This all matters because social science has shown that in group situations, people’s opinions tend to evolve toward the majority view and become more rigid.

Progressives may think, Oh, good, we finally have an echo chamber of our own to counterbalance the conservatives. But just as regular Fox News viewers become detached from reality, progressives who shape their views based on what they read on Twitter will be in for a rude awakening.

Freudian slipping

My younger son came home from college after his first semester reporting that one of his favorite courses had been Intro to Psychology. “Oh,” I asked, “what did you think of Freud?”

“He didn’t come up,” my son reported. The focus, appropriately enough, was on neuroscience, which has dramatically improved our understanding of the brain. We now know that, say, depression comes from the lack of certain hormone receptors in the brain, not, for the most part, having a mom who criticized you.

Who ruined Mike Huckabee?

I’ve long felt that Fox News has done the Republican Party far more harm than good. It promotes issues like Benghazi and the IRS scandal that drive ratings but don’t appeal to a broad range of voters. It is the main overseer of the conservative bubble that insulates their leaders from actual public opinion.

There’s another way Fox News has hurt the Republicans: it ruined Mike Huckabee. I met Huckabee in the 2000s when I was running a multifaith religion website called Beliefnet. Huckabee was making the rounds promoting his efforts to encourage healthy eating. He was charming, reasonable, smart, and funny—conservative, to be sure, but empathetic and appealing. During his underfinanced campaign in 2008, he proved himself to be a far better candidate than John McCain. In a party that’s forever searching for the next Ronald Reagan, he’s the closest to the Gipper in temperament than anyone else out there.

He had troubles with the GOP establishment, however, in part because he raised taxes as the governor of Arkansas. And he once called the Club for Growth the “Club for Greed.” That independent streak was part of his appeal. He could have energized religious conservatives while seeming hopeful to the rest of the population.

Then he got a Fox News TV show. He evolved into an uninteresting, standard-issue religious-right pundit. He repeatedly said that Obama grew up in Kenya. He defended Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin. He champions David Barton, who argues that the Founding Fathers did not believe in separation of church and state. He even mocks Michelle Obama’s healthy-eating efforts, even though being the Biggest Loser (in terms of pounds, not votes) was his claim to fame once upon a time.

He’ll still do well despite his pickup-truck-full of new baggage. He might even win the nomination with the help of his Fox fans. But thanks to having spent the last few years pickling himself in the cable TV/talk radio marinade, he won’t become president.

Priorities in order

Vox recently ran a chart based on Facebook activity showing what Americans were most grateful for. The contrasts were delightful. California thanked the stars for YouTube. South Carolinians were most grateful for salvation. And for New Yorkers? The word was “apartment.”

Obama’s sleeper legacy

One of the great sleeper legacies of the Obama administration may be another idea he got from Bill Clinton: income-contingent college loans.

Back in 1991, when Clinton talked about national service—what would eventually become AmeriCorps—his pitch actually had two parts: “Opportunity for all means giving every young American the chance to borrow the money necessary to go to college and pay it back as a percentage of income over several years, or with years of national service here at home—a domestic GI Bill.” Clinton’s main interest in loan payment reform was that people shouldn’t be forced to give up jobs in public service, if that’s their wont, because they have to pay off massive amounts of college debt.

I wrote a book, The Bill, about what happened to that applause line. The gist: In 1993, the income-contingent loan idea become subsumed in another debate about whether to kick out banks from the guaranteed student loan program. That proposal, known as Direct Lending, drew all the attention because it involved a big industry being skewered. There were rallies, AstroTurf lobbying drives, revolving-door fixers—all the elements of modern political conflict. But virtually no attention was paid to income-contingent loans—which I attempted to sex up by calling them “pay-as-you-can loans.”

Behind the scenes, the higher education community was split on loan repayment reform. Expensive private schools liked the idea; people who go to private schools tend to graduate with more debt than those who go to public schools. But public school advocates objected that it would encourage people to take on more debt and shift government resources away from needier students.

To make a long story short, Clinton got a narrow victory on direct lending and the statutory authority to start pay-as-you-can loans. But his Department of Education was not able or willing to push the payment reforms.

Flash-forward to Obama. A combination of new legislative authority (including some signed into law by George W. Bush) and more aggressive action by Obama has made the income-based repayment plans start to flower. The volume of income-based loans more than doubled from 2013 to 2014, to $102 billion in loan volume, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

It’s still overly complex, and there are several variants of the approach, but the key is that borrowers don’t have to pay more than 10 percent of their income. And if they are still paying after twenty years, the remaining debt would be wiped out. What’s more, if they work in government or some nonprofit jobs, the remaining debt would be wiped out after ten years.

Income-based loans don’t just help the Ivy Leaguer who wants to try Teach for America. They are also ideal for a forty-year-old parent who has decided to work part time to take care of his kids and therefore has less income to pay back loans—or a working-class student who took on debt going to school at night only to find that the customer service job he wanted has been outsourced to India. It helps not only those who choose public service but also those who struggle for reasons of global economics, family raising, or bad luck.

Implicit in all of this is a fairly radical principle: If you have tried for twenty years to make a solid income and still can’t, we’re going to give you a retroactive subsidy. Until now, financial aid was based on the income of the parents or student at the time of schooling. Under this system, a judgment about a subsidy will occur a second time, at the end of twenty years.

Did homophobia hurt traditional marriage?

The story in the current issue (“Can Gay Wedlock Break Political Gridlock?”) about the possibility for a new left-right coalition around marriage makes me wonder whether religious conservatives made a history-altering blunder when it comes to marriage policy. They were among the first to express concern about rising rates of out-of-wedlock births. In the 1980s, many progressives expressed concern too.

Then came the gay marriage debate in the late 1990s, and religious conservatives suddenly decided that was the big threat to marriage. So they spent the next decade or so trying to make the transparently silly argument that if gays embraced marriage, the institution would crumble. Had they not been blinded by their own aversion to homosexuality per se, they could have helped create an alliance with gays and other progressives around a pro-marriage agenda.

Instead, a real debate about how to improve the institution of marriage never happened. Their homophobia undermined their ability to save marriage.

In which a bureaucrat tries to find stuff out

A few years ago I did a stint in the federal government, working for the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The experience certainly makes me agree with the gist of the argument Lee Drutman and Steven Teles make in this issue (“A New Agenda for Political Reform”) that one of the most important, and least understood, maladies of Washington is the extent to which corporations can create a blitz of research to back up their positions.

The basic process at the FCC for finding out the truth about something is to put out a Notice of Inquiry or a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and then read the material that industry associations, companies, or public interest groups send in. Sometimes you might take a meeting, too. Relying on material in “the public record” was thought to be more “transparent” and make policy decisions less vulnerable to legal challenge.

When we started on my project (which was about the state of the news media), we figured we should proactively do interviews. But this was such an alien concept at the FCC that we had lengthy conversations with the general counsel’s office about whether it could even be done. Wouldn’t interviews violate rules of transparency and balance?

Many of the FCC staffers were quite talented. But they didn’t have anywhere close to the bandwidth or resources to do their own research on most topics. “Objective” policymaking often amounted to a game of choosing among ideas suggested by interest groups.

The chairman, Julius Genachowski, tried to solve the problem by bringing in a gaggle of outsiders, each with their own expert networks and backgrounds. And on high-profile items, like the broadband strategy or the future of media projects, it worked. But on second-tier issues the imbalance persisted.

The crisis of statehouse reporting

That 2011 FCC report on the state of the media raised special concerns about international and local reporting. There are some signs of hope on the international side, thanks to new players like Vice and Ground Truth and the ability Americans now have to easily read journalism created by foreign publications and citizens.

On the other hand, the problems with state and local coverage have not gotten better and may have gotten worse. From 2003 to 2011, the number of statehouse reporters dropped by almost one-third. During that same time, spending by states grew from $977 billion to $2 trillion.

Newly created entities have not filled the gap, and I don’t think the commercial sector will either. The reason is scale. While ad rates online are low, publications with national appeal like Huffington Post and Politico can outrun the lousy ad rates by reaching massive numbers. But that can’t happen with coverage of the Nevada statehouse. That piece about the new ruling from the Nevada Department of Administration is just not likely to go viral.

Nonprofit news organizations will need to play a bigger role. Unfortunately, most foundations do not view local journalism as anywhere near as important as other topics. Even when they do fund journalism, nitty-gritty civic reporting isn’t the emphasis. From 2009 to 2011, five times as much philanthropic money went to journalism education as to investigative reporting.

We preempt this program …

One of the greatest special interest triumphs of the last decade has been the successful drive by the phone companies, cable companies, and other internet service providers (ISPs) to wipe out local efforts to provide municipal wi-fi. In nineteen states, they used their awesome power in the state legislature to override local programs. (Another reason we need better statehouse reporting is that special interest influence is often greater at the state level.)

On January 14, Obama urged the FCC to preempt the preemptions, and let the locals do wi-fi if they want. In response, Republicans in Congress moved to preempt the FCC’s effort to preempt the preemptions.

As policy, the Obama push is a great idea. The best way to ensure that ISPs don’t raise rates and lower service is through competition. As politics, it’s also pretty good: force Republicans to defend the phone and cable companies—perhaps the two least popular industries on the planet—in their drive to eliminate local competition.

It worked

My older son has been working in Democratic campaigns in Wisconsin while going to college and has developed important skills. A few weeks ago, I forgot to send money for college, and got the following email:

Subject line: Steven, I need your help
Steven,
I need your help now more than ever. The cost of living in Madison is rising by the day and soon, I won’t be able to support myself. With bills piling up, the future looks grim unless more supporters like you make a small contribution.
Can I count on you to make a small contribution of $500 to the Joseph Waldman for America’s Future Fund?
I live in fear everyday that I will be the next college student to fall into debt or lose the ability to afford the necessary beer and Buffalo Wild Wings that I need to survive. But with your help, I can get the support I need to live on my own and soon, get a quality job that will support your retirement.
Donate in the next 24 hours to make sure the Joseph Waldman for America’s Future Fund gets the support it desperately needs. Can I count on you to make a small contribution of $500?
Thank you for your continued support,
Joe Waldman

The politics of community college

I know there are some substantive challenges with President Obama’s proposal to make community college free. But, damn, isn’t it brilliant politics? Republicans have long cast the Dems as being only for education of the elites. By focusing on community college, Obama makes the case that higher education matters for the working class, not just the creative class. It seems tied to job success, not merely intellectual fulfillment. And requiring that the students get decent grades makes it seem tough-minded.

The X-Men voting bloc

In the not-too-distant future, the technology will be available to provide genetic enhancements before and after birth to improve your intelligence, strength, memory, empathy, bravery, and just about anything else.

My younger son, who brought this to my attention, pointed out the mind-boggling ethical implications. Naturally I went to the far more important question: Who will this help win the Iowa caucus?

The politics of genetic enhancement might not follow normal patterns. Republicans, being the Lord’s party, might be expected to take the “Don’t mess with what God gave you” position. But they’re also the free market party, and the party of the rich, so they’d also be inclined to say, “If you have the money to improve yourself, why not do it?” After all, these enhancements are just an extension of modern medicine, fundamentally no different than any life-improving/-extending techniques used today. And perhaps religious conservatives would enjoy the chance to change their homosexual fetus into a straight one.

Democrats might typically embrace a live-and-let-live philosophy. But they’d also be repulsed by the gargantuan implications for equality. If you think having better schools or SAT prep warps the notion of equal opportunity, just wait until the wealthy can buy higher IQs or better memory genes. Maybe liberals would propose making genetic enhancement a new entitlement program.

Perhaps there is a political consultant being hatched in a test tube as we speak who will figure it all out.

Mortgage refinancing and nasal cleansing

My neighborhood in Brooklyn is heavily populated by Caribbean immigrants. As in most immigrant neighborhoods, you find the occasional store created by some incredibly hardworking person offering a particularly disparate collection of services that he or she happens to know how to do.

The store closest to me offers mortgage refinancing, faxing, and nasal cleansing. Another offers an internet café, kung fu DVDs, and cell phone accessories. A third provides finger printing and driving lessons. And the one right around the corner markets “Keys made … bags of ice … send money.”

Please, gentrifiers, spare them.

“As a job creator …”

In 1999, I started an internet business that, at its peak, employed about fifty people. I never thought of myself this way, but I guess I was what Mitt Romney and John Boehner obnoxiously call a “job creator.” But the funny thing is that the success of my business was not affected by regulation, taxes, OSHA, the availability of easy loans, “uncertainty” in Washington, or any of the issues that the pro-business party emphasizes. Corporate tax cuts didn’t help my small business, because we had no profit to tax. We were just trying to break even, as is the case with many outfits. And my personal tax rate had no influence at all on how my business did.

What policies would have helped? Our fate was determined by whether consumers were spending money with our advertisers, so policies that boost consumer spending would have been most useful. Efforts to promote broadband adoption would have helped too.
Oh, and it would have been great if they could have stopped the creation of economic bubbles that then burst. When the internet bubble broke in 2001, my company almost went under, and business dropped precipitously again during the 2007 economic crisis. Loose financial regulations were bad for us.

But perhaps my situation is anomalous. I think I’ll go to the small businessman in my neighborhood who does the nasal cleansing and tax prep and ask whether their innovation has been stifled by those bureaucrats in Washington.

Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is founder of LifePosts.com, a platform for online memorials and life milestones. He's a Washington Monthly contributing editor, journalist and author.