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The Right Question About Government

SAN FRANCISCO — Many conservatives and most libertarians argue that every new law or regulation means that government is adding to the sum total of oppression and reducing the freedom of individuals.

This way of looking at things greatly simplifies the political debate. Domestic issues are boiled down to the question of whether someone is “pro-government” or “anti-government.”

Alas for the oversimplifiers, it’s an approach that misreads the nature of the choices that regulators, politicians and citizens regularly face. It ignores that the market system itself could not exist without the rules that government establishes, beginning with statutes protecting private property and also the various measures against the use of force and fraud in business and individual transactions.

More importantly, it overlooks the ways in which the steps government takes often empower citizens and expand their rights. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of work.

The run-up to Labor Day this year brought a spate of news stories and commentaries on the actions of the National Labor Relations Board and other government agencies to strengthen the rights of workers and enhance their bargaining power relative to employers.

Last week, Noam Scheiber offered an important account in The New York Times of how the Obama administration has been “pursuing an aggressive campaign to restore protections for workers that have been eroded by business activism, conservative governance and the evolution of the economy in recent decades.”

Among the milestones Scheiber cited was a recent Court of Appeals decision upholding an Obama-era rule providing minimum-wage and overtime protections to nearly 2 million home health care workers. They certainly felt empowered by government, not oppressed. So did the employees of contractors and franchises who were granted collective bargaining rights by the National Labor Relations Board.

Fast-food chains provide the obvious example of how loopholes related to new work arrangements and franchise agreements can let employers out of their traditional obligations. In the case of purveyors of hamburgers and chicken tenders, the parent companies set all sorts of detailed requirements for how these businesses should operate — and then turn around and claim that when it comes to workers’ rights, their franchises are utterly independent.

One of the most fascinating struggles, still ongoing, is over new regulations that the Labor Department is trying to establish to ensure that those who give investment advice to people with 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts base their judgments on the best interests of their clients. Along with defined-contribution retirement plans, they involve some $13 trillion in investments.

The Labor Department proposal would require investment advisers to abide by a “fiduciary” standard — meaning that the best-interest-of-the-client yardstick should be their sole criterion in offering counsel to clients. If this seems obvious, that’s not what the current law requires. As Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said in an interview, the standard now is only that an investment be suitable. “What the hell is ‘suitable’?” Perez asked, noting that he would hope for more than just “suitable” advice from his doctor.

The issue is whether some investment advisers might offer conflicted guidance influenced by “backdoor payments and hidden fees often buried in the fine print,” as the Labor Department put it in a document explaining why change is needed.

“I don’t believe that folks who provide advice wake up with malice in their hearts,” Perez said. But he added that it is only natural that advisers might lean toward investments from which they can also benefit. “Surprise, surprise, if you have four or five products that are suitable and one gives you a commission, guess where you will go?” The new rules, which are being heavily contested by parts of the financial industry, are an attempt to realign the incentives, Perez argued.

The investment-rule battle is a near-perfect example of how the government is plainly promoting free markets — what’s more market-oriented than building an investment portfolio? — but is also trying to make sure that the rules regulating the investments tilt toward the interests of the individual putting his or her money at risk.

As long as there are markets, government will have to establish rules determining how they operate. These necessarily affect the interests of market participants. Many of the choices are not between more or less government. They are about whether what government does provides greater benefit to workers or employers, management or unions, individual investors or investment firms.

“Which side are you on?” This question from the old union song is the right question to ask about government.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats via Flickr

Healing The Nation’s Wounds

SAN FRANCISCO — We have a choice to make.

We can look at both violence and racism as scourges that all of us must join together to fight. Or we can turn the issues of crime and policing into fodder for racial and political division.

In principle, it shouldn’t be hard to recognize two truths.

Too many young African-Americans have been killed in confrontations with police when lethal force should not have been used. We should mourn their deaths and demand justice. Black Lives Matter turned into a social movement because there is legitimate anger over the reality that — to be very personal about it — I do not have to worry about my son being shot by the police in the way an African-American parent does.

At the same time, too many of our police forces are killed while doing their jobs. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 1,466 men and women in law enforcement died in the line of duty over the last decade. We should mourn their deaths, appreciate the dangers they face, and honor their courage.

Now I’ll admit: It’s easy for me to type these words on a computer screen. Circumstances are more complicated for those on either side of confrontations over the obligations of our police forces. Things get said (or, often, shouted) that call forth a reaction from the other side. A few demonstrators can scream vile slogans that can be used to taint a whole movement. Rage escalates.

Moreover, there are substantive disagreements over what needs to be done. Those trying to stop unjust police killings want to establish new rules and practices that many rank-and-file officers resist, arguing that the various measures could prevent them from doing their jobs. This resistance, in turn, only heightens mistrust of the police among their critics.

But politicians and, yes, even political commentators have an obligation: to try to make things better, not worse. There is always a choice between the politics of resentment and the politics of remedy. Resentment is easier.

And so it was this week that the murder of Texas sheriff’s deputy Darren Goforth inspired Sen. Ted Cruz to say on Monday: “Whether it’s in Ferguson or Baltimore, the response of senior officials of the president, of the attorney general, is to vilify law enforcement. That is fundamentally wrong, and it is endangering the safety and security of us all.” For good measure, the next day, Cruz condemned President Obama’s “silence” on Goforth’s murder.

The problem? For starters, Obama was not silent. He called the slain officer’s widow on Monday and issued a statement saying he had told Kathleen Goforth “that Michelle and I would keep her and her family in our prayers. I also promised that I would continue to highlight the uncommon bravery that police officers show in our communities every single day. They put their lives on the line for our safety.” Obama has made statements of this sort over and over. Vilification this is not.

Over at Fox News, the campaign against Black Lives Matter has become fierce. Bill O’Reilly called the organization a “hate group” and declared: “I’m going to put them out of business.”

Let’s take five steps back. The movement for police reform was not the invention of some leftist claque. It was a response to real and genuinely tragic events. Silencing protesters won’t make anything better.

And some potential solutions don’t even make the political agenda. The easy availability of guns on American streets is a threat to police officers and to African-Americans in our most violent neighborhoods. Why are those who seek reasonable gun regulations regularly blocked by interests far more powerful than those who demonstrate in our streets?

On April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy — who himself would be fatally shot exactly two months later — said this to the Cleveland City Club:

Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily — whether it is done in the name of the law or in defiance of the law, by one man or by a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence — whenever we tear at the fabric of our lives which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, whenever we do this, then the whole nation is degraded.

How much more pain must we endure before we recognize that these words are still true?

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne. 

Photo: Brandon Anderson via Flickr

Iran And The Case For Realism

WASHINGTON — Foreign policy debates rarely get away from being reflections of domestic political conflicts, but they are also usually based on unstated assumptions and unacknowledged theories.

That’s true of the struggle over the Iran nuclear agreement, even if raw politics is playing an exceptionally large role. There are many indications that Republican Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Susan Collins (R-ME) might in other circumstances be willing to back the accord. But they have to calculate the very high costs of breaking with their colleagues on an issue that has become a test of party loyalty.

There is also the unfortunate way in which Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen to frame Congress’ vote as a pro- or anti-Israel proposition. Many staunch supporters of Israel may have specific criticisms of the inspection regime, but they also believe that the restraints on Iran’s nuclear program are real. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) for example, has said that American negotiators “got an awful lot, particularly on the nuclear front.” And the “nuclear front,” after all, is the main point.

But the pressures on Cardin, who is still undecided, and several other Democrats to vote no anyway are enormous. A yes vote from Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, would be a true profiles-in-courage moment — and have a real influence on his wavering colleagues.

President Obama and his allies are right to say that the dangers of having the agreement blocked by Congress are much higher than the risks of trying to make it work. The notion that the United States could go back and renegotiate for something even tougher is laughable because this is not simply a U.S.-Iranian deal. It also involves allies who strongly back what’s on the table. Suggesting that the old sanctions on Iran could be restored is absurd for the same reason: Our partners would bridle if the United States disowned what it has agreed to already.

The administration’s core challenge to its critics is: “What is the alternative?” It is not a rhetorical question.

The counts at the moment suggest that Obama will win by getting at least enough votes to sustain a veto of legislation to scuttle the pact. He has a shot (Cardin’s decision could be key) of getting 41 senators to prevent a vote on an anti-deal measure altogether.

But once this episode is past us, the president, his congressional opponents and the regiment of presidential candidates owe the country a bigger discussion on how they see the United States’ role in the world. Obama in particular could profit from finally explaining what the elusive “Obama Doctrine” is and responding, at least indirectly, to criticisms of the sort that came his way Friday from Republican presidential hopefuls Scott Walker and Marco Rubio.

There are many (I’m among them) who see Obama primarily as a foreign policy realist. Especially after our adventures in Iraq, realism looks a whole lot better than it once did. I say this as someone who still thinks that the U.S. needs to stand up for democratic values and human rights, but also sees military overreach as a grave danger to our interests and long-term strength. The principal defense of Obama’s stewardship rests on the idea that, despite some miscues, his realism about what military power can and can’t achieve has recalibrated America’s approach, moving it in the right direction.

A useful place to start this discussion is “The Realist Persuasion,” Richard K. Betts’ article in the 30th anniversary issue of The National Interest, realism’s premier intellectual outpost. Betts, a Columbia University scholar, argues that realists “focus more on results than on motives and are more attuned to how often good motives can produce tragic results.” While idealistic liberals and conservatives alike are often eager to “support the righteous and fight the villainous,” realists insist that the actual choices we face are “often between greater and lesser evils.”

“At the risk of overgeneralizing,” he writes, “one can say that idealists worry most about courage, realists about constraints; idealists focus on the benefits of resisting evil with force, realists on the costs.” On the whole, “realists recommend humility rather than hubris.”

For those of us whose heads are increasingly realist but whose hearts are still idealist, realism seems cold and morally inadequate. Yet the realists’ moral trump card is to ask whether squandering lives, treasure and power on impractical undertakings has anything to do with morality. Critics of realism confront the same question that opponents of the Iran deal face: “What is the alternative?”

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (2nd R), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (L) talk to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as the wait for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (not pictured) for a group picture at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Trump’s Video Game Mastery

WASHINGTON — This summer’s political madness was nicely captured by a confluence of events over the last few days: While global financial markets teetered, the campaign news was dominated by Donald Trump’s personal feuds with journalists.

Trump’s insults directed toward Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and his confrontation with Jorge Ramos, Univision’s anchor, were bound to get some attention, especially from journalists inclined to stand up for our colleagues. But the tale wasn’t primarily about journalism. It was just another episode in a TV series, a sign of how brilliantly Trump has succeeded in transforming a battle for the presidency into a reality show starring himself.

In the late 1980s, the journalist Martin Schram wrote a book about presidential politics in the television age called The Great American Video Game. The Trump obsession shows just how prophetic Schram’s title was. Television is about ratings; Trump delivers ratings; therefore, Trump, whose speeches are 90 percent about Trump — his feelings, experiences, feuds, grudges and, of course, genius — is on television nonstop.

The Trumpification of the news is also a reaction within the media to the initial reaction of so many in the ranks to Trump. The widespread view was that his personal insults, his nasty remarks about Mexicans (whom he now says he “loves”), and his conversion of the political speech into a form of self-involved stand-up would doom his chances.

This was wrong because (1) Trump’s celebrity, built on the idea that a smart dealmaker can get anything done that he wants, gives him a base among those who don’t care much about politics, and (2) parts of the Republican Party are so fed up with their leadership that the more “in your face” Trump is, the happier they are.

The most concise explanation for the Trump phenomenon came from Erick Erickson, editor of the popular right-wing blog RedState, in an interview earlier this month with The Atlantic’s Molly Ball. “The Republican Party created Donald Trump,” Erickson said, “because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them.”

Republican leaders care primarily about a low-tax, pro-business agenda. But they have kept their most conservative supporters at a very high level of angry mobilization, exploiting anxieties about demographic and social change. They kept pledging they would really and truly repeal Obamacare, even when they knew they didn’t have the votes. Trump is the revenge of the party’s non-insiders who are tired of being used.

But there’s a major problem with all of the Trump coverage: It’s based on the assumption that he is leading a formidable mass movement when his following is nothing of the sort. The Trump partisans are, in fact, a very small minority of Americans. Do the math. The polls show that Trump is supported by about 25 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who, together, account for somewhere between 40 percent and 45 percent of the country.

So, generously, the Trump insurrection is built on the backing of all of about 11 percent of Americans.

The limits of Trumpism are further underscored in one of the best deep-dives into polling on Trump by Henry Olsen in National Review. Olsen notes that Trump’s “favorable-to-unfavorable ratio is the lowest of the major candidates.” And when asked if there is a candidate they would never vote for, Republicans are more likely to name Trump than any of his major foes. Trump’s favorability ratings are especially negative among moderates and only slightly less so among Republicans who call themselves somewhat (as opposed to very) conservative.

Trump has certainly gotten further, faster than any of his Republican opponents. But all the free television time he is getting cannot be justified by a claim that he is sitting atop some broad uprising akin to the Goldwater or Reagan rebellions. His visibility is the product of circular television logic: Celebrities bring audience share and the resulting attention they get further enhances their fame.

Trump’s unique contribution has been to achieve a complete fusion of the culture of celebrity to politics. It brings to mind the mystery writer David Handler’s great line about “the power of positive self-delusion.”

Television is a business like any other, but journalism in a democracy is supposed to be about more than that. Nowhere is the tension between financial and public imperatives more obvious than in the massive coverage of the Trump spectacular and the parsimonious attention given to anything serious any other candidate might say. But hey, how often does a serious speech about our economic troubles win ratings for anyone?

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder