Bern’in for Hillary

DemDebateLast night’s Democratic candidate debate was far and away the most debate-y event held to date on either side. It was substantive and informative while remaining cordial and not devolving into an ad-hominem slug-fest. Moreover, it drew a delightfully bright line between Clinton and Sanders that even the candidates don’t disagree with.

Bernie Sanders is the ideological heir to Obama’s 2008 candidacy. He’s inspirational. He’s all about hope and dreams of a better tomorrow. His vision is transformational.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is practical, prepared, and ready to get down to business. She’s all about the art of the possible. She is the heir to Obama’s Presidency.

Obama campaigned as a visionary. But when faced with the realities of Washington and the lack of a similarly visioned Congress, he pivoted to governing as a moderate. He focused on figuring out what bits he could get done. His vision remained intact, but his aspirations were tempered with reality. Most importantly, rather than wallowing in the disillusion of his inability to transform Washington, he opted for tactical, directional, and practicable progress.

While I like much of Sanders’ vision, his ability to execute on it is, by his own admission, predicated on the political revolution he’s trying to foment. He may well rally a swell of people behind him, but there is no complementary group of Democratic Socialist Senate and House candidates running who could sweep in with him to affect the transformation he envisions. He’s a one man show. And Sanders’ career indicates he’s a determined ideologue. He’s unlikely to compromise his dream and pivot to practical matters. I fear that at best, he spends four years inspiring future Congressional candidates who would be elected in 2018 or 2020. But by then, the Bern Legacy will have worn off. His accomplishments will be non-existent. His movement will be considered a failure. And we’ll move on to something else. After all, Americans are not known for their patience and willingness to endure a long slow slog toward an aspirational goal. “Squirrel.”

OTOH, Hillary. She’s competent, capable, and better vetted than possibly any other candidate in history. But she’s not exciting. She’s frankly not even too likable. Sure, she’ll keep the lights on. She’ll get done what needs doing. Yet she’s unlikely to take us anywhere too far off our current trajectory. She’s like our safety candidate.

And then there’s the practical matter of the general election. Sanders is likely to draw more people to the polls, which helps the Democrats up and down the ticket. Will people come out to vote for Clinton? Probably not. About the only thing she truly inspires is enmity from the right.

In many ways, Hillary and Bernie are like Obama was a victim of some Star Trek transporter malfunction that split Barack into Candidate Obama and President Obama. And in many ways, what I pine for is Scotty to make an 11th hour appearance and put Clinton and Sanders back together again. That’s a candidate I could get behind.

Left vs. Right – A Clash of Worldviews

left-vs-right-politicsThis editorial piece by author William Voegeli in The Daily Signal is somewhat ineptly titled, “MSNBC Shrill Is No Accident. It’s How Liberals Really Think.” It’s intended as a take-down of liberals and liberalism as a danger to America. In that regard, it’s kind of standard political blather.

However, in the last two paragraphs (feel free to skip straight there), Voegeli offers up some interesting contrasting perspectives on liberals vs. conservatives that at least to my mind don’t shine as favorably on conservatives as I think he intended. To wit:

Liberalism exists to solve problems, and liberals regard every source of dissatisfaction or discord as a problem, not an aspect of the human condition that we must always contend with but can never sanely hope to eradicate.

It seems what he’s saying here is that conservatives have bonded with the reality that human misery, misfortune, and suffering are just things we have to live with, and since we can never hope to eliminate them, it’s insane to try.  He goes on to say:

…the conservative belief that constraining human wickedness through stern disincentives is plausible, but solving it therapeutically through social work is deluded […] Liberal disdain for the wary view of human nature, which is conservatism’s foundation, turns out to be of one piece with the “idealism” and “compassion” that culminates in governmental malpractice […]

This would seem to say that conservatism is all about sticks, while liberalism is all about carrots.

This reads to me like an assertion that conservative ideology stems from a recognition that, at their core, people are mean-spirited self-indulgent asshats. Conservatism is all about tamping down, containing, and punishing those inherent aspects of this “wary” human nature. Meanwhile, liberals are just nice people who want the world to be a nicer place, and liberalism proceeds from an assumption that people are worth investing in.

Given the intent of the article, it’s understandable that Voegeli would create a caricature of the left as close-minded, silly, and naive. But for the same reason, we assume he’s trying to paint the right in the best possible light, which is more than a little disconcerting. He’s painted the right as believing that giving hungry people food is misguided and destructive. The proper course is a zero-tolerance policy on bread theft so the miscreants are motivated to teach themselves to read and then go get a job before they starve to death.

It’s hard to read this article and imagine coming away as proud to be a conservative. But apparently that’s not a problem everyone in my social media circle is experiencing.

Minimum Wage, Maher, and Math

CORRECTION: The original article contained an assumption of 25m people currently at minimum wage. That number is incorrect in that it actually represents the number of workers below $11.50/hr that would be impacted by a new $10.10 minimum wage. This did, in fact make the math wrong. The article below has been changed to include more accurate numbers.

Maher-MinWageThe ongoing political battle over minimum wage too often seems to lose site of the larger goal each side is trying to achieve. And further, I’m increasingly understanding that the stated goals are not too far apart. This leads me to believe that someone has an actual goal different from their professed goal, or that my math is just way the hell off.

As Bill Maher alludes to in the depicted quote, the right is frequently on record as having a desire to reduce or eliminate safety net programs. This is also a goal of the left. The difference being that the right seems to want to eliminate the net on the premise the need will then go away, whereas the left wants to eliminate the need for the net so it can die of natural causes.

Let me start by asserting something I hope everyone can agree on. As a society, we will not simply remove the safety net and let any significant portion of the population wallow in abject poverty. While some may see this as an obvious humanitarian position, even the most pure-blood capitalist has to recognize that, historically, having a large, persistent, impoverished, and increasingly desperate economic underclass never ends very well for those who control the wealth and resources. To that end, there is an inherent balance between the government subsidizing low-skill workers through safety net programs and having private industry pay full freight for the labor they are using. Someone is going to pay for these folks.

My second assertion is that there is no ideological reason to keep the minimum wage at the current $7.25 rate. If you accept minimum wage as adding value to the economy and to society, then it should represent a living wage that would allow a worker to live without government supplements. If you fall on the side of free market capitalism, then there should be no minimum wage and the market should set the rate at whatever it will bear.

Third, let’s assume that the current minimum wage, in addition to current safety net supplements, are minimal but sufficient compensation for low-skill workers. Finally, let’s assume the CBO report (PDF) on the impact of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 is a reasonable predictor of the outcome.

Given these constraints, the cases to consider are an increased minimum wage at which workers’ dependence on the safety net would be lessened or eliminated, verses a natural wage floor that if lower than the current minimum wage would require an increase in safety net benefits just to keep workers even with where they are today.

Now for the math: the CBO says there are 17m low wage workers (currently making below $10.10/hr), and as a result of raising the minimum to $10.10/hr, 500k (3%) would lose their jobs and the remainder would get a raise. As seen in the worksheet below, assuming the lost jobs are all at the current minimum wage end, the newly unemployed represent a $7.25b loss of wages.

In the other case, I think we can agree that given the current unemployment rate for low-skill workers that there is an excess of supply. This means the $7.25 minimum wage is holding the wage floor artificially high. Market forces should seek a lower wage, and I think we can say with confidence that absent a minimum wage law, the wages of the majority of low-skill workers would fall.  For the model below, I somewhat generously assumed that 20% of workers currently at the minimum wage would retain that wage because their value to their employers warranted it. I also assumed that the actual wage for the remaining 80% would fall by only $0.30/hr, which is almost certainly a low number. Still, the resultant wage losses for the group amount to $7.92b.

In addition, the CBO estimates that 8m workers who are currently above the $10.10/hr rate would see a net positive gain from the ripple effect of a higher minimum wage. While not stated, presumably this group would be negatively effected by the ripple of the wage floor falling. (None of the 8m were included in this corrected analysis.)


In either case, we’ve assumed the government is on the hook to provide some form of substitute compensation to make up the loss for the effected workers. Clearly, it’s cheaper for the government to wholly pay for the unemployed 3% than to offset the loss of the 97%.

Further, the minimum wage increase should lessen the dependence on the safety net for the workers who get raises. Assuming workers only reduce their dependence by $600/yr, the result is a $7.92b savings that more than offsets the payments to the 3%. Given that Food Stamp benefits alone are about $1600/yr/person and EITC ranges from $500 to over $6k, recovering $600/employee seems pretty conservative. This is backed up by the CBO report that concludes for the raised minimum wage case that the impact on the federal budget would be a wash.

There is no obvious offsetting revenue stream for letting the market set the wage floor unless we assume a rise in corporate profits and increased revenue from corporate taxes. If this new tax revenue offsets the incremental safety net cost, then why not have the companies pay the money directly to their workers through wages rather than paying it in taxes and having the government redistribute it to those same workers?

All bleeding heart issues aside, I can’t see how raising the minimum wage is not a net economic benefit to society as a whole. Certainly it’s not a disaster as federal minimum wages have been around since 1938—a period during which the USA rose to be the preeminent economic power in the world. This does not prove causation, but does prove that prosperity is very possible with a minimum wage in place.

Further, economically speaking, having the government set a minimum wage is not different than a union or other collective bargaining organization setting a wage-price above what the natural unregulated non-unionized worker price would be.

It seems that advocating for the alternative to a living minimum wage necessarily admits some hidden ideological agenda. Perhaps the motivation is really to benefit individual companies rather than society. Perhaps the assumption that we wouldn’t financially marginalize chunks of our population is not valid. But it’s unclear how it can be rationalized to be about macroeconomic benefit to the country. Or maybe my math really (still?) is whacked. I’m happy to have the error in my ways pointed out, because I’m clearly missing something here.

Threaten Me, Please…

HTF__Threatening_Base_by_FlameBunny700As an atheist, I have a recurring conversation with many believers. They can’t understand why I bother to try to be a good person without the impending fear of judgement and damnation. If I don’t think God is watching me and keeping score, why don’t I just go on a hedonistic binge of barbarism?

I always try to patiently respond that my motivation is mostly internal. I want to judge myself to be useful, productive, helpful, and caring. There is an external aspect to it as well. I want my family and friends to judge me positively. I don’t believe in life everlasting. My only shot at living beyond my mortal years is in the recollections of those who might remember me. And for reasons of my own making, I want that legacy to be based on fondness, respect, and maybe even admiration, not on infamy. That is what I aspire to, and what inspires me.

What I don’t usually share is that their question frightens the hell out of me. The implication (or in some cases, the outright admission) is that the only thing standing between them and a life of raping and pillaging is belief in some exogenous force poised to reign retribution down upon them. They are not a tamed animal, they are a caged one.

Of late, I’ve begun to wonder if this same need for external fear-based motivation extends beyond the realm of religion and morality. In economics, I hear the repeated notion that minimum wages, guaranteed health care, food stamps, unions, and any other program designed to help the poor or the working poor is inherently destructive. It removes the incentive to work harder, train harder, or even to work at all. The underlying assumption seems to be that absent the fear of homelessness and starvation, no one would get out of bed in the morning. It isn’t enough to have a sizable carrot in front of you unless there’s a big angry stick behind you to keep you moving.

This same attitude seems to bleed into foreign policy as well. The notion that the USA must remain the preeminent military power on the planet because otherwise we’ll lose our ability to influence other countries seems predicated on the notion that our power comes from fear that we instill. We repeatedly demonstrate that fear of terrorism will motivate us to actions we would otherwise never consider. In fact politics has largely degenerated into a game of which party can paint the scarier future if the other guy wins.

It even strikes me that much of our gun-culture stems from fears that everyone else, left to their own devices, would pose a threat. It is only by being a bigger threat yourself, that you’re able to keep them at bay.

I do believe that most people view others through their own life-lens. That is, they project their own desires, tendencies, and morality onto the behavior of others. People who worry about the downside of atheism, economic security, and world peace are reacting from the awareness that they themselves realize that in such a world, they would rapidly fall into an existence of varying degrees of unfettered sociopathy.

That there exist so many people contained only by a variety of fears is more than disconcerting. And it would be one thing if there was a recognition that fear-based motivation was destructive and there was a collective consensus to mitigate it. Conversely, what we’re seeing is a resurgence in the idea that fear-based motivation is essential and good.

I had hoped for better, but in the end, maybe we are just barbarians with iPhones.