The World-Historical Significance of Donald Trump

I had a busy night on Twitter recently. When the National Review’s David French posted a piece entitled, “Stop Exaggerating the Importance of Donald Trump,” I felt compelled to respond: The essay I wrote after the 2016 election began with the sentence, “It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of Donald Trump’s victory.” So I tweeted something snarky at French, resulting in this exchange:

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I spent the rest of the night receiving notifications that people had “liked” Cooke’s and French’s replies to me. My own tweet received a paltry four upvotes. You could say I got dunked on. But the point here isn’t to soothe my ego by revisiting stupid online arguments (That’s what Twitter itself is for). Rather, my point is to ask: Who’s right?

French is not the only sentient person to have suggested that, despite Trump, the world is actually in decent shape — perhaps the best shape it’s ever been in. In a recent column entitled, “What’s Wrong With Radicalism,” David Brooks argued that,

[Radicals]  are wrong that our institutions are fundamentally corrupt. Most of our actual social and economic problems are the bad byproducts of fundamentally good trends… Technological innovation has created wonders but displaced millions of workers. The meritocracy has unleashed talent but widened inequality. Immigration has made America more dynamic but weakened national cohesion. Globalization has lifted billions out of poverty but pummeled the working classes in advanced nations.

For once, Brooks is right. Today, average person is better off materially than she’s ever been in the past…

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… and fewer people are living in absolute poverty than ever before:
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People are living longer, healthier lives than ever before, thanks in part to modern medicine and healthier lifestyles…

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…and in part to the decline of violence:
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And, Brooks suggests, compared with trends of such world-historical significance — a sixfold increase in per-capita global GDP since 1900, the doubling of life expectancy over that same span, etc. — Donald Trump can’t be that big of a deal, right?

I have a hard time engaging with French’s piece because his perspective is so different from mine (meaning wrong). Things he sees as good, I see as bad. But like Brooks, he seems to argue that Donald Trump isn’t a disaster because he isn’t powerful enough to be a disaster. French argues that larger beneficent forces mitigate Trump’s malignant impulses. Trump is unfit for office, French says, but Republicans have pushed him in the right direction (Gag me). And — more importantly — while Trump displays authoritarian tendencies,

the American political system was built from the ground-up to resist the corrupting or authoritarian impulses of any single president, even unfit presidents. Presidents can do damage, certainly, but their ability to fundamentally transform America absent agreement with two other branches of government and the sustained consent of the American people is nearly nonexistent.

French is right that under our Constitution, Congress and the courts can check a rogue President. He is laughably wrong to suggest that the current Congress has even attempted to do so. And unchecked, even encouraged, by Congress, Trump has set about destroying the traditions of good governance that actually did make America great, and that were largely responsible for the unprecedented peace and prosperity that the world has enjoyed since the end of World War II. The world is indeed in good shape right now, more peaceful and prosperous than it has ever been. But Trump is a cancer eating away at the institutions that made it so.

Let’s step back and ask: Why is the world such a better place now than it was 200 years ago? The answer is: liberalism (In the European, The Economist sense more so than the current American sense). The defining principle of liberalism — whose root, libérer, is French for “to free” — is that if you want to improve people’s lives, you should give them the freedom to do so themselves. Thus, in the political sphere, liberalism means democracy; in the economic sphere it means free markets. The United States was founded on this principle, and from that foothold liberalism has spread throughout the world because it constitutes the best form of social organization that humans have yet discovered.

I’m not going to try and marshall a full intellectual case for liberalism right now. To be honest, it is something of a faith — admittedly an easy one for a rich white man to hold (Just let people, including me, do what they want!). But it seems to me that history has borne out that faith, and in a few broad strokes, one can begin to see why.

Liberalism presumes that people are selfish but not malicious, that we generally look out for ourselves but don’t go out of our way to harm others (This presumption finds strong support in evolutionary psychology). People can therefore have convergent interests in mutually beneficial rules of social order: Everyone will support a law that benefits everyone. Crucially, liberalism proposes that social life doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game; rather, there are rules to live by that leave everyone better off than without them. (The point of John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” is in part to encourage people to think about such rules.) Often, these rules are ways to escape the collective action problem or prisoner’s dilemma — situations in which, because people’s actions affect not just themselves but others, everyone following their own incentives leaves everyone worse off than if they restrained themselves. Property laws, for example, work to the benefit of all by incentivizing people to use their labor to create tradeable valuable; without property laws, no one would make anything, for fear of having it stolen. As David Hume argued in his Treatise of Human Nature, “it will be for my interest to leave another in the possession of his goods, provided he will act in the same manner with regard to me.” Another classic example of a mutually beneficial rule is pollution control: A rule forcing people to limit their pollution will leave everyone better off than if everyone polluted as much as they wanted.

Democracy is a linchpin of liberalism not because it respects some metaphysical “natural rights,” but because it is the best way to find and enforce social rules that generate the greatest good. Because people are selfish but not malicious, the more people a law benefits, the more people will support it; thus, democratic politicians who want to gain power must propose laws that benefit as many people as possible (A weaker version of this principle is that, while people might not know what’s good for them, they can at least tell when they’re getting screwed. The unpopularity of the GOP’s efforts to repeal Obamacare and cut taxes for the rich aptly demonstrate this principle. Empirically, one of the most important ways that democracy promotes overall well-being is by allowing people to punish politicians who serve themselves rather than the public: established democracies are less corrupt than other forms of government.) Civil rights — free speech, free press, voting rights — further promote the general welfare by ensuring that all people can participate in the political process and have their interests represented. Civil rights thus push democratic governments away from exploitative, zero-sum policies, wherein a group in power exploits powerless minorities, and towards mutually beneficial ones that serve the interests of all (Civil rights and the right to participate in politics generally distinguish “liberal democracy,” which respects them, from pure majoritarian democracy, which may not. Take, for example, Turkey or Hungary, where opponents of the government are badgered into leaving the public square.)

Moreover, liberal democracies have an interest in seeing liberal democracy expand, because liberal democracies get along with each other. First of all, liberal states offer each other opportunities for mutually beneficial trade: Two countries can each specialize in producing what they produce best and then trade with each other, leaving both sides better off than if they had to produce everything themselves. Second of all, as Immanuel Kant predicted back in the 18th century, democracies almost never go to war with each other, because war turns a trading partner into an enemy, and because voters don’t want to go die in foxholes (or pay someone else to go die in a foxhole for them). Historically, wars have generally been fought for the benefit of elites rather than average people, and when average people get a say in the decision, war becomes less likely. Think about 18th century Europe: While kings, emperors and dukes repeatedly plunged the continent into war, England — at the time the only quasi-democracy in Europe, save ever-neutral Switzerland — often stayed back rather than fight to exhaustion, because voters didn’t want to finance the war.

So liberalism makes for good domestic policy, and it tends to spread, both because liberal states want it to spread and because people living under illiberal governments want it to spread. And if you compare the remarkable social progress of the past 150 years to the spread of political and economic liberalism over that same time, you can see a trend:


As democracy spreads…

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…and trade expands…

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… violence declines…

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… and the lot of the average person improves…

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… by a staggering amount in a remarkably short time:

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Like I said, I’m not trying to put together an airtight intellectual case for liberalism (a bunch of graphs with similar slopes is generally not accepted as proof of causation, particularly when discussing complex social systems encompassing billions of people). But the way these graphs track each other — and other related moments in the spread of liberalism, like the Bretton Woods agreement and the GATT in the 1940s, which created modern the framework for international trade — suggests that such a case can be made.

So where does our current President fit into all of this? Right smack-dab in the fucking middle.

The United States gave liberalism its foothold in the world. When the Constitution was ratified and the United States was created, it was perhaps the most radical political act the world had ever seen, a dramatic inversion of the traditional idea that sovereign governments were ordained by god, and citizens had a moral duty to obey them. Although American identity has always been strongly Christian, the Constitution, with its bold protections for religious liberty and its immortal opening words, suggested a different sovereign than God: “We the people…”. As the American philosopher Richard Rorty writes of John Dewey and Walt Whitman, two of the foremost proponents of this secular American identity:

 In the past, most of the stories that have incited nations to projects of self-improvement have been stories about their obligations to one or more gods… [Dewey and Whitman] wanted Americans to take pride in what America might, all by itself and by its own lights, make of itself, rather than in America’s obedience to any authority—even the authority of God.

All too often, the United States has fallen short of Dewey and Whitman’s hopes for a country dedicated to freedom. Our country was founded on slavery and genocide; throughout the Cold War we toppled democratic governments in favor of repressive oligarchs; in Vietnam, Iraq, and a dozen other pointless and evil wars, we have killed millions of innocent people for no reason at all. But despite this, the United States is the main reason that since 1787, the world has become more free, and thus more peaceful and more prosperous.

Since the founding, by example and by policy, the United States has encouraged the spread of freedom throughout the world. The American Revolution helped inspire the French Revolution, which in turn helped inspire the revolutions of 1848 and the spread of democracy in Europe; after World War I, the United States pushed for “peace without victory” and the League of Nations; when these failed and World War II came, the United States helped defeat Nazi Germany and imperial Japan and saved Western Europe from totalitarian communism. After the war, the United States created the UN and the framework for international trade, and rebuilt its two enemies, Germany and Japan, in its own image; they are now two of the most prosperous and powerful countries in the world. China’s explosive economic growth, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty into the middle class, began after it turned away from Maoism — under which millions starved because the government ordered them to melt their farm equipment to make steel — and towards capitalism. In the Cold War, the United States defeated communism not on the battlefield, where our misadventures in Vietnam and elsewhere probably hurt our cause more than they helped, but in the eyes of communism’s own subjects, who saw that the free world offered a better life. Up until recently, Cuban television had to broadcast American baseball games on a delay, so that censors could edit out the at-bats of Cuban-born players who had defected to the United States.

The United States has encouraged the spread of freedom in more subtle ways as well. American politicians and diplomats pester foreign autocrats about respecting human rights. American government agencies and NGOs educate foreign activists, mediate foreign political disputes, and report on government abuses. American trade deals, negotiated by American officials who must take their constituents’ interests into account, require other countries to adopt labor and environmental standards so that foreign companies don’t undercut American ones solely through polluting and exploiting their workers. And perhaps most importantly, simply by existing, the United States provides an example that people stepped on by repressive governments can look to for inspiration. While Americans generally delude themselves about our country’s record on the international stage, we are right to be proud that the world is a more free place because of our influence. And while this would surprise some, the rest of the world appears to appreciate that influence: As of 2013, Pew polls showed that foreigners held strikingly positive views of the United States. (To the people who, not without reason, think the above paragraph is insufferable drivel: If the  United States is as evil as you say, then how and why has its rising power coincided with the spread of democracy and wealth around the world?)

Since January, though, world opinion has soured on the United States. Donald Trump has turned being American from a point of pride to one of embarrassment:
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These ratings are well deserved, because Trump seems bent on destroying the liberal traditions that have improved the world so drastically over the past 150 years and that were thus responsible for the United States’ previously high standing in the world. Liberal democracy requires a common set of rules and institutions, social constructs passed down through and upheld as tradition. Trump has done his best to upend all of them. He attacks the free press, to the delight of authoritarians worldwide, smearing their accurate stories as “fake news”; he lies constantly, and this “ontological warfare” undermines the mutual commitment to truth that must undergird democracy, in which citizens must understand what their government is doing if they are to retain the ability to control it (Hannah Arendt wrote that, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction… and the distinction between true and false… no longer exist.” This idea was also key to George Orwell’s 1984.) Trump attacks his enemies savagely and personally and threatens to jail his political rivals, making a mockery of the ideal that politics should be a dignified and open activity in which all can participate. He hosts parties at Mar-A-Lago where guests can pay $100,000 to rub shoulders with the President and bend his ear in whatever direction suits them. He treats the rule of law as a nuisance to be coped with when necessary and subverted when possible, rather than as a principle to uphold. While Trump hasn’t brought domestic and international order crashing down quite yet, the norms of liberal politics on which the United States and the international order were founded are anathema to him, and his presidency is damaging them severely, with the tacit approval of the rest of the Republican Party (whose dark-of-night overhaul of the tax code would, in any other world, be the gold standard for violations democratic norms). These violations matter because liberalism does not automatically sustain itself; rather, and paradoxically given its spread around the globe, sustaining it is hard, because liberalism requires us to find a way to live with people with whom we (for the time being) disagree about how to live with people. And being social constructs, the norms that sustain liberalism exist only so long as we continue to uphold them. So while the severity of the damage Trump has done is hard to assess at present, I think I speak for many when I say, I fear we’ll be feeling the aftereffects of the Trump presidency for a long time.

Which makes sense given that Trump’s candidacy was part of a wider, semi-conscious revolt against the international liberal order, a revolt that can’t be entirely dismissed as mindless reactionary backlash. The liberal order had problems, chief among them a lack of equity and the dissolution of national identity. Combine those two and you have Trump, Brexit, AfD and Marine Le Pen, all of which present a toxic mix of economic discontent and ethno-nationalist ressentiment.

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How to generate a toxic mix of economic discontent and ethno-nationalist ressentiment, fig. 1.

But this nationalist backlash against the liberal order proposes cures that are worse than the disease: While globalization has been rough on the middle class of the rich world, it has been much better for everyone else (a provincialist blind spot for the Bernie Sanders crowd, who decry free trade as bad for workers everywhere). The liberal order, for all its problems, has been too successful to be now dismissed as yet another passing historical phase. Rather, the United States should stand up, at home and abroad, for the system it helped create and spread. In practice, that means the Democratic Party must stand up for liberalism at home and abroad, because the Republican Party sold what little soul it had left when it accepted Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency. This is actually an opportunity for the Democrats, who should portray Trump as an international embarrassment unworthy of his office and of the proud history it carries. Patriotic Americans proud of their country’s previous role in international politics should be receptive to that message. Some of the strongest moments from the 2016 Democratic National Convention came when the Democrats embraced American exceptionalism and celebrated what makes our country great and unique. As Vox noted at the time: “Democrats have stolen the GOP’s rhetoric – and Republicans have noticed.”

But perhaps liberalism is just another passing historical phase; everything else thus far has been. Maybe it’s hubris to declare that no, this time really is different. Maybe people are too scared of death and thus of each other to live under a system that treats all their dogmas as equally fallible. Maybe the relative peace of the past 70 years is due not to politicians giving grandiose speeches at the UN but to mutual fear of nuclear destruction. Maybe notions of freedom and democracy are just a glossy cover for capitalist domination and exploitation that will eventually destroy itself. But I don’t think so, and I hope not, as do smart political writers with whom I agree and disagree. Just look at the graphs: This time really is different. But that doesn’t mean it will last forever. Nothing does.


Whiny Conservatives and Neutral Norms

I drafted this post during the furor over James Damore’s firing but never posted it. Now, his lawsuit against Google for allegedly discriminating against men, conservatives and white people (I wish I were joking) has given me occasion to publish it. A better response to Damore’s memo comes from the Economist.

In his most recent column, Charles Blow labeled Donald Trump “America’s Whiniest ‘Victim.’” Trump, Blow argues, sees himself as the innocent target of media smear campaigns and deep state treachery, and he responds by whining about how unfair it all is. Blow is correct, but his claim isn’t particularly insightful. Anyone can see that Trump is an experienced whiner unable to cope with anything that doesn’t go his way. More interesting is what Blow fails to mention: That the whiner in the White House has good company among whiny conservatives across the country.

Despite the fact that the Republican Party controls three branches of the federal government and predominate at the state level, whining about supposedly unfair treatment is a major current of contemporary conservative thought. That current was on display this week in the controversy over (now former) Google employee James Damore’s memo criticizing the company’s diversity hiring programs. For what it’s worth, Damore should not have been fired (at least not from an ethical standpoint; the memo may well have violated company policies). His memo, while it reached the wrong conclusions and was often insensitive, at least attempted to be civilized and reasonable. But he was fired, and now many on the right are turning him into something of a martyr, someone who spoke out against liberal intolerance and was silenced for it; the National Review literally compared him to Martin Luther (who I know was not a martyr). This lionization is unsurprising, because Damore’s memo was part of a favorite conservative cause: whining about how liberals are intolerant of conservative opinions. Damore argued that “viewpoint diversity is arguably the most important type of diversity” and that liberals at Google and elsewhere should therefore “[s]top alienating conservatives.” Plenty of other conservatives have argued that liberals are the intolerant ones because they are hostile to conservative ideas; some self-flagellating liberals have even made the same argument. Such arguments often claim that liberals are hypocritical because they preach racial and sexual tolerance but then greet conservative opinions with hostility. As CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said: “Liberals think they are tolerant but often they are not.”

But Damore and Zakaria’s argument about ideological diversity isn’t just whiny. It’s also lazy and intellectually hollow. Sure, leftist college students need to calm down. Yes, we should strive to treat political opponents with respect. But not being open to conservative opinions is not analogous to being racist. It is not a big moral problem that conservatives feel uncomfortable expressing their opinions at Google or on college campuses. And there is nothing hypocritical about celebrating tolerance and diversity while condemning conservative ideas. Conservatives who equate diversity of ideologies with diversity of identities, and ask that they be given similar protections to gay people, black people or other minorities, only expose their own ignorance.

When liberals talk about diversity, they usually mean racial, economic, and sexual diversity: They want workplaces and campuses to have men and women, black people and white people and hispanic people, gay people and straight people, rich people and poor people. Why? For two main reasons: Because people benefit from being exposed to others with different experience, and more importantly, because many of the groups I’ve just mentioned — like women, black people, and gay people — suffer from past and present discrimination that makes their lives more difficult than the lives of people from more privileged groups. This discrimination is unjust because people should not be treated differently because of their sex, sexuality, or skin color, and liberals promote diversity as a way to remedy this injustice.

By contrast, ideological diversity of the kind Damore wants to encourage is not about justice. The justification for ideological diversity rests upon the argument that it is difficult to know what is right, so instead of killing each other based on our own limited conceptions of right and wrong, we should talk to each other and try to figure out a conception of right we can all agree on. But it does not follow from these premises that people should never be made to feel uncomfortable because of what they believe.

As I stated earlier, people should not be treated differently because of their skin color, gender, or sexuality, because one’s moral character does not depend on her identity. Being black or white does not by itself make one a better or worse person, because being black or white does not make the world a better or worse place. To treat someone better or worse because they are black or white, straight or gay, or male or female, is therefore unfair and unjust (Although one can coherently make exceptions for affirmative action, which seeks to remedy past unfairness).

This reasoning obviously does not hold for ideologies. Ideologies matter in a moral sense. They can be better or worse because, when acted upon, they can make the world a better or worse place. So it very well might make sense to treat people differently depending on their beliefs, even if that just means telling some people that their beliefs are wrong and dangerous, and telling others that their beliefs are right and good. When Damore claims that people of all ideological stripes, like people of all races and genders, should feel equally welcome at Google, he misses this point.

This isn’t to say that we should heap scorn and abuse on our political opponents. That only makes them feel bad without changing their minds (To be fair, many liberals often forget this, and attack conservative people rather than conservative ideas. Many conservatives do the same). Rather, we should explain to them why they are wrong. But even doing this in the most civilized manner possible would cause discomfort, because being told you are wrong is uncomfortable. It is especially uncomfortable when everyone on your floor at Google agrees that you are wrong. Tough shit. People who are wrong will often feel uncomfortable expressing their wrong opinions.

Of course, I might not strike this haughty tone if it were liberal ideas being denigrated at Google. If liberals felt uncomfortable at Google, I’d want that to change. But that’s exactly the point. One’s views on whether a given space is sufficiently open to “ideological diversity” will depend largely on one’s own ideology. Liberals will always want liberal ideas to be more welcome; conservatives will feel the same way about conservative ideas. There is no neutral set of rules such that, if everyone played by them, everyone would feel comfortable expressing their opinions at all times. No such set of rules exists because it is inherently uncomfortable to be told that you are wrong, especially by a lot of people. So, as a liberal, I don’t really care that conservatives feel uncomfortable at Google. I don’t think it’s inherently good, but I’m glad conservative ideas are looked down on at Google, and if conservatives feel uncomfortable as a result, so be it. The more places conservative ideas are looked down on, the better, because conservative ideas are wrong and people should not hold them. Conservatives will whine about liberal intolerance, as if liberals were breaking some neutral set of rules that would make everyone feel that their opinions were valued. It’s a false premise. There are no such rules. It is both inevitable and justifiable that people will be made to feel bad because of their opinions.

I can’t think of a smooth segue, but I also don’t really care about ideological diversity among college professors. The argument for hiring more conservative professors undercuts itself. Going back to the underlying justification for ideological diversity and tolerance, conservatives argue that universities should hire more conservative professors because when people are open to all ideas, the best ones float to the top, thanks to some shared human faculty for discerning truth. Conservatives want universities to be open marketplaces of ideas where people can choose conservative ones if they like. So far, so good. The thing is: Universities and university hiring committees already are open marketplaces of ideas. Hiring committees are free to hire who they want; students are free to take the classes they want. But no one wants to hire conservative professors or take their classes. The marketplace of ideas that conservatives claim to want is working fine; it’s just that no one is buying conservative ideas, because the conservative movement in the United States just elected Donald Trump president, and has for decades been built on racism, anti-intellectualism, religious zealotry and greed. Could universities and university students have a little more curiosity and humility regarding new ideas? Absolutely. Is the lack of conservative college professors in the top million problems facing our country today? Not even close.

In sum: If conservatives want their ideas to be heard, they should argue them on the merits, rather than whining about how liberals aren’t playing by the rules. Unfortunately, conservative ideas for the most part have no merit. So perhaps we should get used to the whining.

Are Democrats Getting Ahead of Themselves on Single-Payer?


Single-payer is the word of the day. In the Senate, Bernie Sanders has unveiled his long-awaited single-payer bill, co-sponsored by almost every 2020 Democratic hopeful. In the House, John Conyers’ single-payer bill has more co-sponsors than ever before. Every day, more Democrats are getting on board the single-payer train. But it’s not clear that they know where the train is going. And if the Democrats aren’t careful, they could find themselves barreling down a dead end, towards a repeal-and-replace-style debacle all their own.

The current push for single-payer healthcare is a legacy of the 2016 Democratic primary and general election. After Hillary Clinton defeated Sanders in the primary only to lose to Trump in the general, the left wing of the the Democratic Party argued that Clinton and the Party writ large had lost because they were not far enough to the left economically. The awkward problem with that argument? There wasn’t nearly as much economic daylight between Sanders and Clinton as the Sanders people would have you believe. Tax the rich? Hillary’s for that. Huge increase to the federal minimum wage? Same. Against the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Hillary disowned the agreement, which she had previously supported. Surely, Sanders’ leftism was more convincing: He called himself a “democratic socialist,” while Hillary got paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to give speeches to Goldman Sachs executives. And Sanders was incrementally farther left than Hillary on many issues: A $15 minimum wage rather than $12; free college rather than debt-free college. But to argue that Sanders would have won, and that the Democrats had lost because they weren’t far enough left, Sanders supporters needed to point to a major issue where Sanders was far left of Hillary. One policy fit the bill perfectly: Single-payer healthcare.

Single-payer healthcare was the only major economic issue on which Sanders was clearly far to Hillary’s left. It has thus become the rallying cry for the left wing of the Democratic Party, who want to move the Party left economically, but who struggle to name other economic-policy differences between Sanders and Clinton. And the surge of activist energy in support of single-payer has in turn pushed many Democratic politicians to endorse single-payer plans even Democrats who doubt whether those plans are wise or viable. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias observes: “Members of Congress who’ve signed on as co-sponsors for [the Conyers’ bill], it turns out, don’t actually expect that to happen or think it would be a good idea.”

Democrats are right to harbor doubts about the single-payer plans currently being floated. I think single-payer is probably a good idea because 1) it cuts down on administrative and advertising costs (the government doesn’t need to advertise, and it wouldn’t need legions of actuaries to figure out what to charge people if healthcare was available to all and tax-funded), and 2) it drives down the cost of care by giving the government huge bargaining power with providers. But there are three major obstacles to implementing single-payer healthcare, none of which has gotten adequate attention, and any of which could derail the Democrats if they stay on the single-payer train.

First off: Single-payer would be enormously complicated and expensive. One estimate put the cost of Bernie’s proposal during the campaign at $32 trillion over 10 years. I know, I know we already spend more than that on private insurance, so single-payer wouldn’t be a new expense, it would just reroute the money we spend in our current system. But you would still have to somehow siphon tens of trillions of dollars out of the private insurance system and into a single-payer system, which would require a new, broad-based tax like a payroll tax or a value-added tax. But such a tax would create winners and losers: Under a payroll tax, employers would no longer have to give their employees health benefits, but employees would see a new tax taken out of their paychecks to pay for their new government insurance. Under a value-added tax, people on Medicaid and Medicare, who already have single-payer insurance, would see their taxes rise to pay for other people’s single-payer insurance. And under any plan, people who like their current insurance plan would lose it and see their taxes rise in exchange for a new plan they didn’t want.

What taxes would we impose? And how would we manage the wrenching transition from a private health insurance system to single-payer? There hasn’t been much debate on these vital questions.  As Yglesias and the New Republic’s Clio Chang have separately observed, left-leaning think tanks have yet to produce any comprehensive, detailed proposals for a single-payer system. Perhaps as a result, Sanders’ new Senate bill, and Conyers’ long-languishing House bill, are heavy on optimism and light on details. Sanders’ bill does not say how single-payer would be funded; Conyers’ bill offers only 10 vague bullet points on how his multi-trillion dollar plan would be paid for. And because the bills don’t say what taxes they would impose, they can’t plan for how to manage the transition, with the winners and losers that any eventual broad-based tax would create.

Beyond funding and transition, plenty of questions remain. Would private insurers be allowed to remain in business, or would private plans be essentially outlawed, as Conyers’ bill proposes? If the latter: What do you do with everyone who currently works in private insurance? Would people have to pay a fee at the point of service, as in France, or would the system be free at the point of service, as in England? With the profit motive significantly lessened, how would we maintain our edge in medical and pharmaceutical innovation?

These questions are hardly unanswerable. But they need to be answered convincingly, especially in light of the second obstacle facing single-payer proponents: Americans don’t like big new government programs (especially/specifically when they benefit minorities, as single-payer rightly would). While single-payer has gained support in recent years, with 53% of respondents to one recent poll saying they supported “a national health plan in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan,” that support is vulnerable: It drops to 40% once people hear the criticisms that single-payer would require higher taxes or would “give the government too much control of healthcare.” (Also, that 53% number is itself far from certain: Another poll, this one from 2016, found that only 43% of Americans supported “government-run healthcare”). More broadly, trust in government is at all-time lows, and many of the white working class voters who have prompted so much Democratic hand-wringing since November are skeptical of government redistribution in general. Obamacare, unintrusive and cheap compared to single-payer, only recently reached 50% approval, and was largely responsible for the 2010 midterm election that gave the Republicans a majority in the House.

Obamacare is a good segue into discussing the last obstacle facing single-payer supporters: their complete and utter lack of political power. The Democratic Party is, to quote Matt Yglesias again, “a smoking pile of rubble” both nationally and at the state level. Leftists see single-payer as a path back to power: After all, Bernie would have won. But I think this gets it backwards. To pass transformational legislation, you first have to assemble a powerful coalition that can overcome resistance, get you the votes, and withstand the inevitable backlash. When the dust settles and the benefits of your legislation become clear, you can count on the beneficiaries to defend their hard-won gains. That’s what happened with Obamacare: A Democratic President and Congress passed the legislation; they endured backlash; but at the end of the day, Obamacare remained in place because it helped more than it hurt. Single-payer proponents, however, are putting the cart before the horse. They have an idea for a controversial but transformational law, but no coalition to put it into place; they assume that because they think it’s a good idea, so will everyone else. For the two reasons stated above, that’s a dangerous assumption. It’s not clear that single-payer is a political winner or a coalition-builder. While inequality is a fertile issue and the Democrats should move left economically, single-payer might not be the issue on which to do it, because it’s not the kind of soak-the-rich, we-are-the-99%, us-versus-them idea that fires people up and builds populist coalitions. Despite what the Democratic Socialists of America would like to believe, you can’t pay for single-payer just by taxing the rich. Rather, you would have to impose a new, broad-based tax, much of which would fall on ordinary people.

So single-payer is a risky proposition for the Democrats. While it is probably a good policy, it could also backfire like repeal-and-replace did on the Republicans, with the Democrats caught between emboldened progressives who demand single-payer and a larger electorate that doesn’t want it. It should give pause that California’s first stab at single-payer has resulted in just such a mess. In California, the left wing of the state legislature’s Democratic caucus — backed by Bernie Sanders’ organization Our Revolution and the California Nurses Association, early Sanders supporters — was pushing a single-payer bill that lacked a viable funding mechanism and couldn’t have become law. The Democratic Speaker of the House shelved the bill, and for his troubles was subject to mass protests, death threats, and caustic attacks from those pushing the plan (That isn’t the centrist line: That description of events comes from The Nation’s David Dayen). If that’s what happens when arguably the most liberal state in the country tries to do single-payer, what will happen if the Democrats try it on the national level? (It should be said that peculiar features of the California constitution would have effectively doubled the cost of single-payer there and required a ballot measure to approve the funding. However, single-payer also failed in Vermont, another of the country’s most liberal states, because people didn’t want to pay for it. A ballot measure for single-payer in Colorado also failed, 79% to 21%.)

To keep national single-payer from suffering the same fate as repeal-and-replace or the California bill — both of which fell apart when politicians actually had to grapple with the details rather than banding together under catchy slogans — Democrats need some concrete plans to debate and critique, so they can stop pushing slogans and start deciding what kind of plan they actually want to push. That is, if they want to push a single-payer plan. I’m skeptical. Single-payer became the issue of the moment not because it’s a clear political winner, or because healthcare reform is the most pressing issue facing the country right now: We just went through a massive healthcare reform, and the most pressing healthcare issues right now are holes that need to be plugged in Obamacare. Rather, single-payer became the issue of the moment because it was the biggest difference between Bernie and Hillary, and leftists who felt that the Democratic Party needed to be more like Bernie therefore latched onto it. But there are arguably much better issues for Democrats to focus on, both from a policy standpoint (what would be best for the country) and from a political standpoint (what would help the Democrats regain power).

First, from a policy standpoint: Expending a huge amount of political capital on single-payer healthcare is not the best way to improve people’s lives right now. The Democrats’ political imperative is to address the vast and growing inequality that currently plagues our country. Single-payer would probably lessen inequality by making healthcare cheaper, but it would have to be funded by a broad-based tax; we couldn’t fund single-payer just through taxes on the rich. Moreover, poor people in the U.S. already have government-provided insurance through Medicaid. And finally, it’s not clear that government health benefits are the lifesavers that liberals (myself included) would like to believe they are. Other programs that might produce more social-welfare bang for the Democrats’ political-capital buck include a massive infrastructure program; paid maternity and paternity leave; a rethinking of our antitrust laws to deal with the growing market power of a few huge companies; debt-free college; and improvements to Obamacare.

These policies would also be superior to single-payer from a political perspective. Single-payer would mean the government a) raising taxes and b) taking over a huge swath of the economy. That’s fine with Bernie Sanders’ supporters; less so with a median American citizen. A massive new health program created by Democrats might be a particularly tough sell because we’ve only just completed what was supposed to be the Democrats’ big healthcare overhaul: Obamacare. We’ve had eight years of debates, votes, amendments, court cases, media blitzes, more court cases, scandals, meltdowns, and repeal votes, and now Obamacare is finally above 50% approval. Single-payer proponents want to tear it all down and start again. Voters wouldn’t have to be reactionaries to say: We just gave you a chance to remake the healthcare system. Now you want to do it again? If you didn’t get it right then, why should we trust you now?

Rather than following Bernie Sanders’ lead and raising taxes to pay for single-payer and other social programs, the Democrats should adopt Liz Warren’s economic populism, which instead aims to “un-rig the system” and constrain corporate actors so that people can get ahead on their own, without a handout from the government. Block mergers, break up banks, jail corporate executives who commit crimes, impose price controls on prescription drugs, make class action waivers and noncompete clauses unenforceable: These are all ways to help working people without raising their taxes or involving the government more deeply in their lives. At some point, the Democrats will have to convince voters that government can actually be a force for good. To do so, they should pass good laws once they are back in power, thereby proving the potential of Democratic ideas. Single-payer would be one such law. But right now the Democrats are wandering in the wilderness, and the single-payer train is not going to carry them out of it.

To Beat The Republicans, Fight From The High Ground


Masks and clubs are not a winning look for the left

Today’s Republican Party is a strange and unholy creature. It controls three branches of the federal government and predominates at the state level, with trifectas — control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion — in 26 states. Yet unlike the GOP of Reagan or the Democratic Party of Roosevelt, Republicans in 2017 have no political program that binds their enormously powerful movement together. There is no broad agreement between the party’s base and its leadership as to what the party should do with its power — hence the incredible spectacle of the GOP’s seven-year promise to repeal and replace Obamacare collapsing (at least for now) under the weight of its own contradictions. Other GOP policies, beyond its failed healthcare bills, are unpopular as well. The GOP wants to cut taxes on the rich; 61% of Americans believe the rich pay too little in taxes, while only 15% say they pay too much. Most Americans acknowledge the reality of climate change and wanted to stay in the Paris Accord; Trump backed out of it with the vocal support of Republicans in Congress. The GOP has already voted to let broadband providers sell users’ data without their consent; literally no one wants this, except the broadband providers themselves. The list goes on, but the point is: Republicans vote to serve the interests of wealthy donors and corporations, and most Americans, including plenty of Republican voters, can see that such votes come at their expense.

Donald Trump himself is a product of the conflict between Republican voters and Republican politicians. Trump attacked the Republican establishment during his primary campaign and won voters by promising to preserve Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security while cutting back on free trade, stark departures from GOP orthodoxy.  Yet Trump has now abandoned those promises, repeatedly backing draconian and regressive healthcare bills that would have slashed hundreds of billions from Medicaid. At the same time, he has doubled down on the most noxious aspects of his campaign, the racism, narcissism, dishonesty and authoritarianism that made so many rightly terrified about the prospect of a Trump presidency.

The result is that the GOP is vulnerable. On the one hand, its figurehead is a dangerously unhinged president with record-low approval ratings, who has now taken to equivocating between murderous neo-Nazis and counterprotesters opposing them. On the other hand, its ideas are at odds with what most Americans want. The Republican Party is damaging the country and the world on a daily basis, and most Americans can tell. When confronted with this truth, the only defense that Trump and other Republicans have is to change the subject from the damage they are doing.

For this reason, those opposing Trump and the Republicans need to conduct their fight from the moral high ground. When Republicans seek to deflect criticism of their racist president or their regressive policies, their favorite tactic is to point out the left’s supposed violence and infractions of political order. In the GA-06 special election, Republicans ran attack ads linking Jon Ossoff with antifa violence at Trump’s inauguration: In the ad, footage plays of rioters smashing windows and burning trash cans, while a voice intones,“John Ossoff is one of them.” More recently, after Trump made excuses for violent white supremacists, he and his toadies on Fox News defended his statements by pointing out that the counterprotesters were violent too. Even while criticizing Trump, news anchors covering the controversy over his remarks have felt compelled to note that yes, the counterprotesters were violent, and violence is bad. Many channels and newspapers have run pieces on violent antifa groups.

Sadly, these diversionary tactics work. When both sides of a conflict are violent, people generally give in to their tribal instincts and side with the people they are predisposed to side with (or against the people they are predisposed to side against), because when the other side is violent or breaks the law, that violence or lawbreaking provides an excuse not to consider their moral claims. An unenthusiastic Trump voter who sees antifa violence on Fox News can excuse himself for being on the same side as the KKK by telling himself that the people on the other side are violent and hateful too. Violence does not change minds; it only causes people to dig in deeper. As a New York Times column on effective counterprotest techniques notes, nonviolent political movements are often more effective than violent ones because nonviolent movements attract allies.

Violence, however, will not work in our current situation; it rarely does. The idiots smashing windows during the inauguration did absolutely no good to counter the harm they did to the left’s cause. Nor did the people brawling with Nazis and Klansmen in Charlottesville improve the lives of those whom Nazis and the Klan target. It is tempting to think the Nazis and Klansmen got what they deserved, but Charlottesville and its aftermath have only strengthened and emboldened them — again, without helping those they target.

But nonviolence is difficult for the same reason it is effective: Tribalism and violence are tempting. It’s fun and satisfying to smash Starbucks windows and punch Nazis. But to prevent others from reverting to these base instincts, nonviolent protesters need to resist them as well. Moreover, tribalism and violence are self-perpetuating: When you punch Nazis, they usually punch back, and so on and so on. In a recent CNN segment about the growing ranks of antifa groups, antifa activists argued that by violently confronting white supremacists, they discourage white supremacists from organizing in public. Yet the activists’ argument is undercut by the fact that public, violent clashes with white supremacists have swelled the antifas’ own ranks. Violence does not stop violence; violence perpetuates violence.

To defeat Trump and the Republican Party, the left needs to steer clear of this cycle. As Michele Obama said, when they go low, we go high. We need to rise above our instincts and play by the rules so that Trump and the Republicans can’t defend themselves by pointing to our infractions. Don’t riot when conservative provocateurs come to speak at your college; protest peacefully or simply don’t attend. Pressure your local government to remove Confederate statues, don’t tear them down illegally. Mock neo-Nazis or ignore them, don’t give them what they want by brawling with them. This is a difficult and frustrating mode of politics, but it works, and we need something that works because right now we are losing. If we make the Republicans argue about what the world should look like, not how we should go about making it look that way, we will win.

This argument is premised on the existence of persuadable people. Those people may appear to be a figment of the imagination, but if so, that is because our politics have become so bitterly tribal. True, people don’t like to change their minds; that’s why they use their opponents’ violence as an excuse not to. But if there is moral truth, then confronting people with that truth has power. The unenthusiastic Trump voters, the non-voters, the third party voters: These people may not be the most progressive or enlightened, but if we make them choose between violent white supremacists and nonviolent anti-racists, some of them will choose the latter, and right now we need all the help we can get.

A Nation Divided: Our New Political Fault Line

Donald Trump is probably not going to be removed from office.

There are two ways to read this statement, both remarkable. First, read it with the emphasis on “probably.” It’s remarkable that I have to use that qualifier. For a sitting president to be forced from the office is an earth-shaking event. Yet thanks to the one-two-three punch of Trump firing James Comey, blabbing to Russia about top-secret intelligence, and apparently pressuring Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn, people are beginning to say the “I”-word – Democrats, independents and even Republicans. By pressuring Comey to stop investigating Flynn, and then firing Comey for reasons related to the Russia probe, Trump arguably obstructed justice – an offense that would constitute a “high crime or misdemeanor,” which a President must commit in order to be impeached. Trump could also be removed from office via the 25th Amendment’s provision for the removal of a President deemed unfit to serve by a majority of the cabinet and two-thirds of Congress, a procedure distinct from impeachment but with the same result. That we are even considering these possibilities is remarkable.

Now re-read that first sentence with the emphasis on “not.” It is remarkable that Trump could be removed from office; it is also remarkable that, despite being obviously and dangerously unfit for the Presidency, he probably won’t be. If ever someone needed to be removed from office, it is Trump. In the last month he has produced three scandals that would have destroyed any other presidency. Yet Trump’s unfitness for office has long been evident. He has the temperament and attention span of a spoiled child. He lies compulsively and lashes out violently at anyone who challenges him, yet he sees himself as the innocent victim of a vicious conspiracy. Thanks to these traits, he has already done considerable damage to the United States domestically and internationally (Remember his phone call with the Australian prime minister, whom he berated and hung up on?). And we have not even seen how he would respond to a true crisis like an economic meltdown, a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack. Now, on top of that, he may have committed impeachable offenses. And yet we will probably have to deal with him for another three and three-quarters years.

Why won’t Trump be removed from office? Because he continues to enjoy the support of the Republican electoral base and the Republican political elite. As of late April, 96% of Trump voters said they would vote for him again (although that number has likely dipped slightly as his approval ratings have). Eighty-four percent of Republicans continue to support him, and the conservative media has spun his troubles as the product of a Deep State conspiracy and left-wing media hysteria. While Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have recently conceded that things at 1600 Pennsylvania might not be going as smoothly as possible, they haven’t come close to actually criticizing the President, and in the wake of Comey’s firing, McConnell rejected calls for an independent prosecutor to investigate Trump’s connections with Russia, while Ryan stated that he still had confidence in the President. Aside from the odd Senator or Congressman expressing his “serious concerns” with the Trump administration’s meltdown, Republicans in Congress have remained solidly behind the president. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to appoint a special counsel was not the work of the Congressional GOP (Although they may be secretly relieved: Mueller’s appointment will bring some closure to the matter one way or another, without Congressional Republicans themselves having to investigate the President and thereby antagonize him and his supporters).

For Republicans in Congress, sticking with Trump makes sense on two levels. First, as long as Republican voters stick with Trump, their elected officials have reason to do the same. Republicans who cross Trump will pay for it in their next primary. Paul Ryan, for instance, is less popular than Trump with Republicans in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin. When Ryan uninvited Trump from a campaign event last October in the wake of the grab-em-by-the-pussy tape, Ryan’s favorability among Republicans dropped 28%. But Republicans have another reason to stand by Trump: Despite his campaign-trail pledges not to cut Medicaid or Social Security, Trump has turned out to be just another Republican oligarch who wants to cut services for the poor and middle class and taxes for the rich, and Republicans in Congress have found that they can work with him to achieve those lofty goals. Trump was a driving force behind the travesty that is the AHCA, which includes hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for the rich paid for by hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Medicaid. Any tax plan that he and Republicans in Congress come up with — if it ever happens — will likely be similarly regressive. And Trump sees eye-to-eye with Congressional Republicans on issues (or non-issues, as they see it) like climate change and financial regulation as well.

So Republican politicians have reason to stick by Trump. The only way they might abandon him would be if the wrongdoing becomes so flagrant, and the public pressure and pressure from party members in swing districts becomes so intense, that Republicans conclude they are better off with President Pence, however much it might infuriate their electoral base (and oh boy, would it: Trump would go down kicking and screaming and his ouster would precipitate a bitter rift in the party). In fact, there is already whispering in the GOP ranks about what a President Pence might look like. And for Republican politicians primarily concerned with cutting taxes and generally making our laws even more beneficial for rich people, President Pence would be a godsend. Pence would be happy to sign whatever regressive policies the Congressional GOP dreamed up, and he would do so without constantly shooting himself in the foot or blatantly subverting our constitutional democracy (not that the GOP cares about this second bit — it just looks bad). So the only thing keeping Trump in office is the loyalty of his voters, who would surely punish the GOP if they helped force Trump from the White House one way or another. Which raises the question: Why are Trump’s voters so stupidly loyal to a man who has betrayed one promise after another while embarrassing the United States internationally and doing his best to subvert the peaceful post-World War II order?

During the campaign, part of Trump’s appeal was that he diverged from other Republicans by promising to preserve entitlement and welfare benefits or even improve them. Combined with the racist lie that the real threat to benefits was the immigrants, refugees and black people “cutting the line” to take more than their fair share, this message resonated with Trump’s voters, who skew older and less educated, and tend to live in economically stagnant regions. Since the election, Trump has maintained the ethno-nationalist plank of his platform, but the economic populism has turned out to be utter bullshit. Trump has eagerly embraced the GOP’s reverse-Robin Hood agenda of cutting services for the poor and taxes for the rich, and many of the people who voted for him will suffer as a result. The AHCA’s draconian cuts would fall hardest on older, poorer people in rural areas, a demographic that backed Trump overwhelmingly. There are roughly 1,500 largely rural counties nationwide — about half the nation’s counties — where a 60-year-old with an annual income of $30,000 would lose $6,000 in subsidies under AHCA as compared to Obamacare. Ninety percent of those counties voted Trump. So did 68 of the 70 counties that would be hit hardest by the new law. Yet Trump was an enthusiastic proponent of the AHCA. Given that it passed the House by two votes, it likely would not have passed without his support.

Trump’s proposed budget would hurt his own voters as well. It targeted programs like Legal Aid, heating assistance, job training, and the innumerable other programs that pump money from blue states to red states through the federal government (You’re welcome!). The “liberal elites” that Trump claims to abhor would do just fine without these programs. They might even do better. His own voters? Not so much. And finally, one of Trump’s first moves as President was to roll back regulations enacted in the wake of the financial crisis. Many of his supporters probably lost their homes and savings in the crash, but Trump has now taken the side of the robber barons who caused it. No surprise, given that he is one himself.

Yet Trump somehow retains the loyalty of the vast majority of his voters. If he actually throws millions of them off their healthcare, that may change, but simply threatening to do so has not led his supporters to turn on him. This shouldn’t actually be surprising. There were plenty of Trump supporters who knew that they wouldn’t have insurance if not for the ACA, and knew that Trump had promised to repeal the ACA, but voted for him anyways. Did they really believe him when he said he would replace Obamacare with “something great”? Maybe, but if your first concern is keeping your healthcare, you probably vote for the candidate that promises not to take it away, rather than the candidate who wants to take it away and replace it with some unspecified program that’s going to be a whole lot better, believe me.

The thing is, Trump voters’ first concern wasn’t keeping their healthcare. People’s support for a politician isn’t just a function of the material benefits he promises them individually. It’s also about whether he seems like one of “us” who is willing to take “them” on. Often, what’s good for “us” overlaps with what’s good for me, which is why many voters, like minorities who vote Democrat, vote for policies that will benefit them individually and materially. But voters aren’t just drawn to candidates who promise them material goods: They’re drawn to candidates who appeal to some sense of identity and promise to empower that identity, thereby benefiting those who share it. In this sense, all politics is identity politics. And Donald Trump has tapped into fairly recent but deep divisions in American society to construct a base, unified by some sense of identity, that will stand with him and against “them” in almost any situation.

One divide is cultural. Voters in states that Trump won tend to embrace traditional family values and practices: They get married younger, they have kids younger, they have more kids, and they are less likely to get an abortion or to cohabitate with someone of the same sex. Voters in Clinton states wait longer to get married and have kids, they have fewer kids, they are more likely to cohabitate with someone of the same sex and they are more likely to get an abortion. These differences reflect a stark divide in worldviews: Life in Trump country is more centered around having and raising kids, while couples in Clinton country — driven by the choices of women in Clinton country — wait to have kids and have fewer kids while pouring more energy into their careers and themselves. Thomas Edsall of the New York Times suggests, and I believe, that this divide also tracks with a host of other cultural differences: cosmopolitan versus nationalist, more educated versus less educated, attitudes towards the military, etc. In fact, I would posit that these measures of family values and practices are part of the deep cultural divide at the heart of the “culture wars” of the 1990s. While some issues that were once at the center of the culture wars — abortion, affirmative action and gay marriage — have lost some of their political potency, the cultural divide actually seems to have deepened and calcified into a divide between the two political parties.


That cultural divide overlaps with a geographic and economic divide: Economically, the rural and suburban areas where traditional culture dominates lag far behind the metropolitan areas where liberal norms rule. The 472 counties that voted for Clinton generated 64% of the country’s GDP; the 2,584 counties that voted for Trump generated 36%. The election map below shows how each U.S. county voted, with the height representing a county’s population. The other map shows where U.S. GDP is generated, geographically. Together, the two maps show Democratic votes and GDP highly concentrated into small geographic areas around the country’s major metropolises.



Finally, people living in culturally traditionally, economically stagnant areas between cities also share one more trait: Lower educational levels. Education was one of the strongest predictors of how white people voted last November: Trump won white voters without a college degree by a whopping 39%, 67%-28%, a 14% improvement over Romney’s margin in 2012, while Clinton gained 10% among whites with college degrees. There are more than 100 million white people without college degrees in the U.S, the country’s largest demographic group by race and educational level.



Trump has taken advantage of four overlapping axes of division: Geographic, cultural, educational and economic. The metropolitan areas where liberal norms dominate and educated workers generate most of the country’s GDP went hard for Clinton; the suburban and rural areas in between, where a more traditional culture dominates, economic activity is stagnant, and college degrees are rarer went for Trump. (While the median Trump primary voter actually made roughly $10,000 more per year than the median Clinton primary voter, this might be because the Democratic coalition includes many poor blacks and Hispanics. I’d guess that the median white Trump supporter makes much less than the median white Clinton supporter, given that white Clinton voters were much better educated. This essay is focused on trends within the white electorate, because minority groups reliably vote Democrat, and changes in their voting patterns do not account for the earthquake that occurred last November).

Given the current state of U.S. politics, in which Trump-supporting Republicans seem to live in an alternative universe from big-city liberals (and the rest of the world), you might think these divisions are as old as time. You’d be wrong. From 1968 to 1992, the measure of traditional family values that so neatly predicts Trump’s share of the vote in a state was roughly half as strong as a predictor of voting Republican.



Nor, in 1992, were economic activity and Democratic voters so confined to metropolitan areas:




Finally, as an earlier chart showed, in 1992 Republicans and Democrats won even shares of white voters without a college degree.

The Republican-Democratic divide did not not always reflect a divide between culturally liberal, educated, economically thriving cities and the culturally traditional, less educated, economically stagnant areas in between. The increasing importance of that divide is the story of the 2016 election. So how did it come about?

In an earlier essay, I argued that Trump’s support came from people who feared the decline of white, Christian America. That argument was incomplete, because it can’t account for the voters, counties and states that flipped from Obama in 2008 and 2012 to Trump in 2016. Hillary fared 14 points worse among non-college whites than Obama did in 2012: That’s a lot of white working class voters defecting to Trump. By one estimate, almost one in four white voters without college degrees who supported Obama in 2012 either voted for Trump or a third party candidate in 2016. But people who voted for Obama probably wouldn’t switch to Trump because they were worried about ethnic decline: Obama’s election was a big reason many people worried about ethnic decline in the first place. So while ethnic anxiety obviously played a huge part in Trump’s victory (contrary to the conservative apologists who see the election as a righteous referendum on elite corruption that just happened to choose the wrong champion), the new political fault line that I’ve described requires a fuller explanation than “racism versus tolerance.” We need a fuller explanation for how the country split along these cultural, educational, geographic and economic lines. And if people’s political affiliations stem from their association with some collective identity, we should ask what collective identity binds together the Trump-voting half of that divide: Material similarities in culture, geography and wealth do not necessarily create psychological collective identities. So who is the “us” that Trump speaks for, and how did that identity take shape in the years between 1992 and 2016?

In 1992, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush received even shares of the white working class vote, and Clinton performed well in rural areas and small towns where traditional culture dominated. How did so many of those voters end up in Trump’s nativist camp 24 years later? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the answer is, neoliberalism. 1992 wasn’t just distinct from the present in that non-college whites were split between the two parties. In 1992, working class white voters living outside major metropolises were also significantly closer economically to their city-dwelling, better-educated brethren than they are in 2016. As an earlier graph showed, in 1992, 63% of U.S. jobs were created in counties with fewer than 500,000 people. Also in 1992, a man with only a high-school diploma made 66% the median wage of a man with a bachelor’s degree; for women, that number was 64%. Since 1992, however, working-class white voters outside metropolitan areas have fallen far behind economically. Sixty-four percent of jobs are now created in counties with more than 500,000 people, a complete reversal from 1992. A man with only a high school degree now makes only 56% of the median wage of a man with a bachelor’s degree; for women, 59%. In absolute terms, wages for people without bachelor’s degrees have stagnated since 1980, while wages for people with a B.A. rose over that same period before falling during the recession.

That’s for people who remain in the labor force: Many who lost jobs during the recession stayed unemployed, and now simply watch TV all day, collecting disability and taking opioids. Between 2000 and late 2016, the percentage of Americans aged 20 years or older with a job fell from 64.6% to 59.7% (That number isn’t reflected in the unemployment rate because those who have stopped looking for a job are not counted as part of the labor force, and the unemployment rate is the percentage of the labor force that lacks a job). And the drop in work rates since 2000, most of which occurred after the recession, seems to have take place largely outside metro areas, where the hangover from the recession was worst:


The years since 1992 have seen an accelerating economic divergence between educated cities and the less-educated areas in between. Three main culprits stand out for the decline of economic activity outside metropolitan areas: Automation, globalization, and monopoly power. The first two are most relevant to the decline of manufacturing, a sector that has lost almost six million jobs since 1997. The consensus seems to be that automation has done more damage in this respect than free trade has, but both have had an effect. Regardless, since the 1990s, a lot of good-paying manufacturing jobs that didn’t require a college degree have disappeared from the non-metro counties where manufacturing employment is concentrated:


But the decline of manufacturing is not the only economic scourge afflicting communities outside the country’s metro areas. The American economy is becoming increasingly dominated by a few huge companies that take advantage of economies of scale to undercut smaller businesses and grow into monopolies or oligopolies. More Americans work at companies with more than 2,500 workers than work at companies with fewer than 100 workers; that was not true 20 years ago. Americans are also starting fewer small businesses than they have in the past. And the dominance of large firms is especially pronounced in services and retail, the sectors of the U.S. economy that have added the most jobs since 1980 and taken up much of the slack from the decline in manufacturing. In 1980, 18% of U.S. service workers worked at companies with more than 2,500 employees; in 2014, that number was roughly 35%. Likewise, in 1980, roughly 35% of retail workers worked for a company with more than 2,500 employees; by 2014, that number had risen to roughly 47%.

Huge companies like Wal-Mart drive smaller businesses out of the market, and unlike local businesses, they siphon profits away from the town where a store is located to wherever a firm’s corporate headquarters are. More importantly, monopoly firms can set wages and prices at non-competitive levels, in addition to using non-compete agreements, arbitration clauses, anti-union policies and other forms of pressure to prevent workers from seeking a better deal. Accordingly, since the 1980s, workers at the largest firms have seen their wages stagnate or fall:


The growth of monopoly power and the decline of manufacturing were not inevitable, at least not in the way that they occurred. Rather, they were the result of policy choices: Decisions made by people in government to stop pursuing vigorous antitrust policy and to lower trade barriers with foreign countries, especially China and Mexico. These choices were informed by the neoliberal premises that government intervention in the economy is bad, and free markets are good. There is much to be said for those premises; but in this case, they led to policies that significantly contributed to the economic stagnation in rural and smalltown America that gave us Donald Trump.

But there is a difference between explaining why Trump won and describing his voters in general terms. Trump would not have won if a large group of white working class voters had not defected from Obama to Trump. Those voters would not have defected if they faced better economic prospects (A key distinction here: Trump voters were far from economically destitute overall. But many were worried about their economic prospects that they and their children would face in the future, and understandably so given the growing economic gap between metro areas and the regions outside them). But that is not to say that all, or even most, of Trump’s voters supported him because they were worried about their economic futures. To be sure, 90% of Trump’s voters said they were “very concerned” about the economy, but 89% said the same about terrorism, 79% about immigration and 79% about foreign policy. Trump’s victory represented the joinder of white working class voters as a more unified and distinct bloc than they had ever represented before, but his victory was not just a legitimate economic revolt. Rather, Trump constructed an identity, an “us” that somehow encompassed everyone from former Obama voters to Neo-Nazis, by promising a return to the days when the United States was a white country primarily concerned with the welfare of white people. This is what Trump meant by “Make America Great Again,” and most of his ideas fit neatly under this rubric. A Muslim ban? Sure, some innocent Muslims might get caught in it, but that’s the price of keeping (white) America safe! Rescinding agreements that require police departments to address civil rights violations? Sure, there are some bad cops, but there’s no reason to demonize cops when Black Lives Matter is so much worse! A wall with Mexico and massive deportations? Well, if we have to tear families apart, that’s what’s necessary to stop crime (against white people) and save jobs (for white people). And the cherry on top? Once we kick the Mexicans out, we can keep Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security without worrying that they’re going to steal it!

The “us” that Trump constructed with this story consisted of people who felt that the ruling class of the United States was not sufficiently concerned with the welfare of white people or sufficiently proud of their historical accomplishments (Trump’s anti-elitism was in large part an outgrowth of this ethnic resentment: The “politically correct” ruling class had sold out the country and forgotten its ethnic heritage. While it also includes some more understandable cultural resentments, much Republican anti-elitism is just resentment of those who enforce norms of tolerance and equality). This “us” obviously includes white supremacists, whose enthusiasm for Trump is well-documented. It also includes much of the Republican base, including white voters with college degrees, a slim majority of whom still supported Trump. And crucially, it included white working class Democrats who felt that the Democratic Party cared more about minorities and social issues than it did about their economic situation. In bringing minority groups into its coalition, the Democratic Party abandoned the traditional story of America as “city on a hill” full of morally unblemished white people winning wars and building Fords. But the left’s skepticism of jingoistic nationalism, its embrace of identity politics, and its failure to improve economic conditions outside metropolitan areas left white working class voters asking: If the Democratic Party can’t help me economically and doesn’t want to tell flattering stories about white America, what can it offer me? That former Democratic voters found themselves asking this question is, again, a result of the neoliberal outlook dominant among the American ruling class and the Democratic elite, an outlook that concedes the justice of the market order and thus concerns itself with remedying other, non-economic forms of oppression.

I have some sympathy for these people, for whom Trump’s appeal was in large part economic. I have considerably less for the longtime Republicans who made up the bulk of Trump’s support. Does our current economy work great for many of these people? No, not really, but that’s in large part because they have allowed themselves to be drawn in by the Republican party’s blend of dog-whistle racism and supply-side oligarchy (with a dash of social conservatism thrown in for the evangelicals). The Republican base was not yearning for someone to rip up NAFTA and bring back manufacturing jobs. In fact, much Republican antipathy towards free trade agreements dates only to the ascendance of Trump:


More generally, middle-income voters concerned primarily with making the economy fairer for people like themselves would not have voted for a party whose sole purpose is to protect the interests of the rich. 

Trump’s victory was not the righteous triumph of the proletariat. Most of his voters, with and without college degrees, were diehard Republicans who have long voted to put the interests of white people ahead of the interests of anyone else. But a crucial segment of his supporters were former Obama voters whose economic prospects continued to sour during Obama’s presidency, who felt left out by the Democrats’ turn towards identity politics, and who were therefore susceptible to Trump’s nativism.

Yet Trump still lost the popular vote, because the rightward shift among white working class voters was offset by a leftward shift among white voters with college degrees: Romney won this group by 14% in 2012, but Trump won it by only 4%. In many ways, these voters are the mirror image of the working class voters who switched to Trump. Many probably hold well-paying jobs in large cities and reap the benefits of globalization and monopoly, in the form of cheap goods and services and a share of the monopoly profits earned by the firms where they work. They might be skeptical of affirmative action and redistribution, but they view themselves as tolerant global citizens and interact with minorities frequently, and so are embarrassed by Trump’s crude nativism and his vulgarity. These voters helped turn the country’s cities into the anti-Trump bastions that they are. In Dallas, for example, Hillary Clinton bested Trump by 26%, whereas Obama had beaten Romney by only 15%; in Boston, Clinton’s margin was 82%-14%, while Obama’s 2012 margin was 75%-25%.

The leftward swing of educated, city-dwelling Republicans, coupled with the rightward swing of working class rural voters whose economic prospects have stagnated over the past quarter-century, finalized the political realignment that I described earlier, a realignment that the American philosopher Richard Rorty predicted in his 1998 book, Achieving Our Country:

“Unless something very unexpected happens, economic insecurity will continue to grow in America… This is because a good deal of the insecurity is due to the globalization of the labor market – a trend which can reasonably be expected to accelerate indefinitely… The world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigrants who manned their enterprises.”

As a result, Rorty continues,

“…members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported… At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots… One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out.”

Much of that rings true. But the twist is that Trump, upon election, immediately abandoned the populist economic premises he campaigned on. The bond salesmen remain in power: In fact, they occupy many senior positions in the White House. Rorty failed to consider the possibility that the eventual strongman would distract his supporters with racism while selling them out to the cosmopolitan elite, whose economic interests are now more firmly entrenched than ever.The result is the worst of both worlds: A deeply divided country, a dangerously unhinged President who keeps his supporters in line by whipping up ethnic tensions, and an increasingly stratifying society in which wealth and status are inherited rather than earned. We are, most likely, in for a long three and three-quarters years — if not much longer.

The United States Should Commit to Respond With Force if the Assad Regime Attacks Civilians with Chemical Weapons Again

In the wake of the United States’ cruise missile strikes against Al Sharyat airfield in Syria this Friday, one key question remains unanswered: Were these strikes simply a “one-off” response to the Assad regime’s gassing of civilians earlier this week, as President Trump implied in a speech that focused on the gas attack as the motive for his decision? Or do they represent the first steps in a larger effort to remove Bashar al-Assad from power, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has suggested? Hopefully, the first answer is the correct one. The United States should not use force to influence the outcome of Syria’s civil war, as horrible as that war may be. The risks of quagmire and great-power conflict with Russia are too high. But the United States should commit to respond with force to any further chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime against civilians. While this policy would carry significant risks, it would also bring significant benefits — to the United States, to the civilized world, and most of all to the people of Syria. Those benefits would outweigh the risks associated with adopting such a policy.

Any further chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime against civilians should be met as this one was: With a military response aimed at degrading the Syrian air force’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks. The United States should use stand-off weapons like cruise missiles to hit Syrian airbases without risking American lives. If Assad persists in using chemical weapons against his own people, the scale of the United States’ responses should increase accordingly. This policy would deter Assad from using chemical weapons, and while it would not stop him from continuing to kill his own people by other means, it would spare Syrian civilians from being the victims of one class particularly cruel and destructive weapons. More than a thousand civilians were killed in a single chemical attack in Syria in 2013; in the Iran-Iraq war, chemical weapons attacks killed thousands of civilians on multiple occasions. These are far more civilians than are killed in one of the Assad regime’s typical airstrikes. Stopping Assad from using chemical weapons would save lives, and would reinforce the international norm against using these awful weapons.

Adopting this policy would also strengthen the United States’ hand in international politics, in Syria and elsewhere. John Kerry’s previous attempts to broker an end to Syria’s civil war went nowhere: With President Obama having publicly backed away from a threat to forcefully intervene in the conflict, Kerry had almost no leverage over Assad and his Russian backers, and was essentially reduced to asking Russia and Assad to play nice — an experience that one member of Kerry’s negotiating team, writing recently in the Atlantic, called “degrading.” But now that Trump has proven willing to use force, Putin and Assad might be more willing to listen. The United States shouldn’t actually use force to influence a political settlement in Syria — but we should make Putin and Assad believe that we might, a negotiating tactic that would be more convincing if Trump makes it a policy to retaliate with force for any chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government. Granted, Putin might see through this bluff and refuse to budge, doubting that the United States would escalate and knowing that he could match us if we did. But then we would just be back where we started, nothing lost and nothing gained.

A show of force in Syria would also strengthen the United States’ position in upcoming negotiations with China over the North Korea problem. If Trump proved that he were willing to use force to deal with bad actors, China might become more willing to pressure the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear program, for fear of the United States getting involved.

So: Resolving to forcefully retaliate for any future chemical weapons attacks would carry three benefits. It would alleviate (if marginally) the suffering of the Syrian people; it would strengthen the international norm against using chemical weapons; and it would give the United States added leverage to deal with Syria and North Korea (and Iran and Russia, if we ended up in a dispute with one or both of those countries). However, this policy would obviously carry major risks, the first of which is that it wouldn’t work: Assad uses chemical weapons, we bomb him, he continues to use chemical weapons, we continue to bomb him, and our involvement in Syria escalates without producing any results. The fact that Syrian jets resumed missions out of Al Sharyat airbase a day after the United States hit it with 50 cruise missiles makes this a possibility worth considering: Our strike doesn’t appear to have hurt them very much. Yet I still tend to doubt this possibility. I might be wrong, but I’m inclined believe that the U.S. military can inflict enough pain on Assad to make him stop using chemical weapons, especially seeing as he was winning the war without them anyways. If he does continue using them, we can continue bombing him, which would still send a strong message. In such a situation, Assad might also come under pressure from the Russians to cease chemical weapons attacks. Faced with a stalemate between Assad and the United States, with Assad continuing to use chemical weapons and the United States continuing to retaliate, Russia would face three choices: Retaliate against the United States, sit back and let a client state get bombarded by American cruise missiles, or force Assad to stop using chemical weapons. The easiest choice for Russia would be the last one: It’s not a good look to abandon a client state to face the U.S. military alone.

But what about Option 1: retaliate against the United States? Confrontation with Russia would be the biggest risk of continuing to punish Assad for future chemical weapons attacks. But if you aren’t willing to take any risks, you’re going to lose geopolitically to people who are, and the risk of escalation with Russia is a risk worth taking, given that the Russians would likely take the easy off-ramp of forcing Assad to stop using chemical weapons. Russia said four years ago that they had forced Assad to give up his chemical weapons. It now appears they were lying, or at least weren’t leaning on Assad particularly hard to surrender his chemical weapons. If the United States escalated against Assad, Russia would only have to make good on that previous pledge in order to avoid a standoff. They wouldn’t lose face: They would only be following through on a pledge they made four years ago. Russia doesn’t want a direct confrontation with the United States, and forcing Assad to give up his chemical weapons would be an easy way to avoid one.

Mission creep would prevent another serious risk. Hypothetically, this would be easy to avoid: The United States would attack Syria if they used chemical weapons, and not if they didn’t. Admittedly, Trump doesn’t inspire much confidence in his ability to limit himself, but this is a fairly clear line to draw, and one that would bring grave risks if crossed — something that Mattis, McMaster, and the other adults in the room would understand. Were the United States to exceed its policy of retaliating for chemical weapons strikes, Russia would feel compelled to respond, and there’s no telling how that would end. With a clearly-defined mission, and any action beyond the bounds of that mission carrying a serious risk of great-power confrontation, mission creep could be avoided. And if the United States continued to rely on stand-off weapons like cruise missiles, which can be used without risking American lives, the chance that an American casualty would drag us further into the war would be minimized.

Attacking Assad could affect the battle against ISIS: News reports suggested that the jihadist group had stepped up an assault near the airbase that the United States struck, and if American strikes weakened Assad significantly, ISIS could fill the vacuum. But ideally, American strikes wouldn’t have to significantly weaken Assad — they would only deter him from using chemical weapons. And with ISIS currently fighting a massive and losing battle in Mosul, they might not be well positioned to capitalize on Assad’s losses. More significantly, American strikes against Assad could lead his government to turn the Syrian military’s sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses against American planes carrying out airstrikes against ISIS in Syrian territory. But Assad benefits from American strikes against ISIS, so again, his best option would be to stop using chemical weapons, avoid further American strikes against his government, and let the United States continue to carry out airstrikes against ISIS on Syrian territory.

All these various possibilities could interact in any number of unpredictable ways. But few possibilities are catastrophic for the United States or Syrian civilians. The one truly grave risk — escalation with Russia — is a risk worth taking, because Russia would feel immense pressure to take the easy off-ramp of forcing Assad to stop using his chemical weapons. Committing to retaliate for any future chemical attacks against civilians is a risky policy, but it is a risk worth taking. While there is ample precedent for a President acting unilaterally in a situation like this, Congress should vote now to authorize future strikes as necessary, so as to establish Congressional control over volatile situation and a hotheaded President. 

Trouble Concentrating? Market Concentration and the Hollowing-Out of Small-Town America


Everybody hates Wall Street, and with good reason: Excessive risk-taking on Wall Street led to the financial crisis and the Great Recession, but Wall Street has so captured both parties that no one went to jail and the banks were bailed out on generous terms while ordinary people lost their homes and life savings. Not even ten years later, the already-not-as-tough-as-they-could-have-been rules imposed in the wake of the crash are being rolled back by a sham-populist President who smeared his opponents as stooges of Goldman Sachs but now employs half of Goldman’s executive suite in his White House. The financial industry is a corrosive force in American politics and society, and it needs to be brought to heel.

But it is not the only such force. The accumulation of wealth and power in the financial industry since the 1980s has been accompanied by another unsettling economic trend: A smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger firms are taking over more and more of the American economy and the global economy as a whole. Economists and pundits have noted this trend with some alarm, but for the most part, public debate over economic reform has focused more on the power of Wall Street than on the increasing power of large corporations in general. That’s unfortunate, because market concentration is a serious threat to the welfare of American workers and consumers, and one requiring public action if it is to be remedied.

Many different numbers point to the trend towards market concentration. For example:

  • Between the late 1980s and 2014, the percentage of American workers employed by companies with at least 1,000 employees rose from 40% to 46%
  • Between 1997 and 2007, the market share of the 50 largest companies increased in three-quarters of broad industrial sectors in the American economy
  • The rate of new business formation has declined each decade since the 1970s
  • Over that same period, the number of businesses employing fewer than 50 workers has risen by roughly 50%, while the number of businesses with 1000 or more workers has risen by 100% (see chart).

These general trends have produced plenty of illustrative anecdotes: Wal-Mart owns a quarter of the grocery market; four companies collectively take in more than $7 of every $10 spent at pharmacies. Four companies control 80% of the seats on domestic flights; beer giants Anheuser-Busch and SABMiller are currently moving towards a merger that, if allowed, would create a company responsible for $3 out of every $10 in beer sales in the world.

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But my aim isn’t to catalogue the increasing concentration of the American economy; I take that as a given. Rather, I want to suggest that this market concentration might be connected — through its effect on wages, inequality, productivity, and small-town life — to the social and economic malaise that have upended politics around the globe in recent years. What’s more, market concentration and monopoly power might be a natural feature of a free market economy — one requiring aggressive government intervention in order to restore the balance of power between workers and consumers on the one hand, and employers on the other.

Other people have discussed in greater depth the effects of market concentration on wages, productivity and inequality, so I’ll just outline the problems broadly. First, wages: When firms face decreased competition for labor, they can keep wages below their competitive level — that is, they can pay workers less than those workers are worth, without fear of another company hiring them away. A firm that keeps wages low will hire fewer workers and produce less output than a firm paying an efficient wage, but makes up for this through savings on labor and the higher prices it can charge for the products it does sell. Firms in non-competitive markets can exercise power over workers in other ways as well: For instance, by requiring employees to sign arbitration clauses that prevent employees from suing their employers in court, or by requiring employees to sign non-compete agreements that forbid them from working for a competitor for some time after leaving the firm. Firms in concentrated markets will also find it easier to collude to keep wages down. As this graph shows, while workers at large companies used to receive better wages than workers at small companies, that trend is reversing:

wages and firm size

An implication of non-competitive wage-setting is that wages will become uncoupled from productivity: If competitor firms don’t bid wages up to their marginal product, employers will pay workers less than those workers produce. Indeed, that’s what’s happened since middle-class wages began to stagnate in the 1970s:


The methodology behind this last chart spurred some controversy, but even critics had to concede that wages and productivity have drifted apart since around 1973:

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This second chart serves as a nice segue into a brief discussion of inequality and market concentration. One obvious possibility, which Joseph Stiglitz has suggested, is that the owners (including shareholders) and executives of market-dominating companies will become incredibly rich and leave everyone else in their dust. But some of the benefits of monopoly might make it to a firm’s workers as well, contributing to inequality not just between workers and CEOs but between workers in concentrated versus competitive markets. The difference between average and median wages in this chart suggests that some high-paid workers have seen their wages increase along with productivity, as happens in competitive labor markets, while workers in the middle of the income scale have not. Jason Furman and Peter Orszag, former economic policy officials in the Obama administration, have suggested that monopolistic firms charging monopoly prices then pass some of those increased profits on to their employees. People who work for monopolistic firms see their wages rise; those who don’t, don’t.

But don’t firms in non-competitive markets pay low, non-competitive wages? Yes — that is, firms in non-competitive labor markets. Firms are buyers in the labor market and sellers in the product market, and the same firm might face little competition in one market but plenty in the other (although as fewer, bigger firms come to dominate the economy, both markets will become less competitive). A firm that faces little competition when hiring workers or selling products — like Wal-Mart — can reap immense profits without passing them on to its workers. By contrast, a firm that faces more competition when hiring workers than it does when selling its products — like Apple, which dominates the U.S. smartphone market but has to hire skilled engineers to design its phones — will have to pass some of its monopoly profits on to its workers. Depending on the relative levels of competition a firm faces in the product and labor markets, its employees might benefit from market concentration, or they might suffer. That’s how you end up with a graph like the one above (although it should be said that the workers most hurt by market concentration likely also bear the brunt of outsourcing and automation). This might help explain why the returns to skill increased between the 1970s and 1990s: Skilled workers, whose labor firms continued to fight over, could better resist downward pressure on their wages than unskilled workers could.

A small subset of workers have seen their wages rise along with productivity even as labor markets overall have become less competitive. Yet even these workers may be feeling some ill effects of market concentration, which could be partially responsible for the mysterious productivity slowdown that has afflicted the U.S. economy since the 1970s (with a break during the tech boom of the ‘90s) and the global economy since the turn of the century. Monopolistic firms don’t feel the same pressure to innovate that firms in competitive markets do; there are no rivals to out-compete. Accordingly, firms in non-competitive markets don’t focus as much on developing efficient ways of combining labor and capital into output. But firms will only pay workers as much as the workers produce; thus, a worker’s productivity sets the ceiling on her pay. And if firms don’t find ways to increase worker productivity, wages won’t rise.

When fewer firms compete with each other for labor and market share, wages and productivity fall, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens. But I think market concentration might have another undesirable effect: It might be partially responsible for the hollowing-out of rural and smalltown America. Although Wal-Mart and CVS might pay their workers more than the local businesses they replace, in doing so, they also replace local owners with distant CEOs. That both weakens the fabric of a community and siphons money from the town where a store is located to wherever the company’s headquarters are. The profits from Brothers Pizza in Altoona, Pennsylvania stay in Altoona, Pennsylvania; the profits from the Domino’s down the street go to Domino’s headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While the middle of the 20th century saw economic activity becoming more evenly distributed throughout the country, that trend has since reversed: Since the 1980s, economic inequality between geographic regions has increased, and economic activity and wealth have become more concentrated around coasts and cities. Consistent with the hypothesis that skilled workers may benefit from market concentration, educated elites are becoming increasingly concentrated in a few cities — where, perhaps, they manage and service the huge companies that employ their less-skilled former neighbors back in flyover country.

This isn’t just an American problem: Small towns and local businesses are suffering in France as well. And France and the United States have something else in common: The rise of right-wing nativist populist movements drawing strength from regions that have seen good jobs move elsewhere. Donald Trump won 86% of U.S. counties, but those counties produced only 36% of the country’s GDP. Trump’s victory was fueled by people left behind by the geographic concentration of the U.S. economy.

Why are a few huge firms coming to dominate the American and global economies? In the U.S., one explanation is that the Department of Justice changed its approach to antitrust law in the 1980s. Since then, the Department has allowed mergers to proceed even if they hurt competition, so long as they don’t raise prices. But this doesn’t answer the question of why companies push to grow so large in the first place. The answer is economies of scale: Companies can often drive down the cost of production by producing goods in larger numbers. Neoclassical economics simply assumes this problem away by assuming that firms face increasing, not decreasing, marginal costs — that is, that the 1,000th widget costs more to produce than the 10th. If firms do face increasing marginal costs, then markets will reach an efficient, competitive equilibrium, without any monopolies. The thing is, in many industries — if not most — this assumption simply doesn’t hold. Hamburgers, internet searches, cell phone service: All these things are cheaper to mass-produce than to produce on a small scale. Accordingly, the markets for hamburgers, internet searches and cell phone coverage are dominated by one or a few huge firms, because bigger firms will face lower costs, offer lower prices, and undercut their competitors. Any industry with declining marginal costs will not reach a competitive equilibrium, but will tend towards what economist call a “natural monopoly,” or at least oligopoly. Perhaps that’s true of more industries than microeconomics textbooks let on.

Traditionally, governments have responded to this problem with antitrust laws that prevent companies from growing too big. Maybe the U.S. should return to an antitrust regime premised on encouraging competition, not just keeping prices low. Alternatively, we could impose a progressive tax on inputs for firms facing economies of scale: The inputs a company buys to produce the 1,000th widget would be taxed at a higher rate than the inputs for the 10th. There might be a crippling flaw in this idea; admittedly, I just made it up. But we’ve got some time to think, as no one is going to do anything about this problem at a federal level for at least four years.

Some other interesting pieces on the topic:

A Method to the Madness: Trump’s Chaotic First Weeks

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As we slog through Week Three of the Trump presidency, it’s hard to know what to think. The days since January 20 have been a political whirlwind of haphazard policymaking, nationwide protests, diplomatic tussles, legal battles, and media firestorms unlike anything in recent memory. Along the way, Team Trump appears to have suffered several self-inflicted wounds, including but certainly not limited to: The disastrous rollout of Trump’s promised Muslim ban; the furor over a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that failed to mention Jews; Sean Spicer’s bald-faced lie that Trump’s inauguration drew the biggest crowd in history (Period!); and Kellyanne Conway’s subsequent defense of Spicer’s so-called “alternative facts.” Between these missteps and the general sense of hysteria that has pervaded Trump’s first days, spectators are left with the impression of grossly inexperienced administration flying by the seat of its pants. Two weeks like this would be an unmitigated disaster for any other president.

But Trump is sui generis, and people are finally learning to treat him as such. Accordingly, some have wondered whether the chaos of the past two weeks actually serves Trump’s (Read: Steve Bannon’s) grand-strategic purposes. Indeed, the Trump administration has welcomed conflict and encouraged outrage, from their inflammatory executive orders, to Sean Spicer scolding the media for their “shameful” coverage of the inauguration, to attacks on the judge who stayed the travel ban, to Steve Bannon’s statement to the New York Times that, “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” The Trump White House does not seem to care much for damage control. Actually, the travel ban suggests the exact opposite: In drafting the order, the White House seemed intent on crafting the most controversial and confusing policy possible. Trump’s inner circle drafted the ban with hardly any input from the departments who would have to implement it, and when the Department of Homeland Security reviewed the order and concluded that it did not apply to green card holders, Steve Bannon overruled them. The result of this slapdash and draconian policy — “Malevolence tempered by incompetence,” as Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes put it — was, predictably, confusion and anger at airports and on television screens across the country.

But if the outrage and protest and negative media attention directed at Trump over the past weeks were all part of the plan, what’s the payoff? A few conspiratorial posts on Medium have suggested that the ban was a “trial balloon for a coup,” or that the resulting uproar gave the White House cover to install Steven Bannon on the National Security Council. But no one was going to stop Trump from appointing Bannon to the NSC, and it seems to me that Trump could amass more power with less risk by slowly subverting democratic norms than by trying for a coup. So what has Trump gained from the ban, the protests, the media showdowns, the combative tweets, and the fights with other Republicans that have characterized his administration’s first weeks?

2020 is a long way off, but Trump — and by Trump I mean Steve Bannon — is still thinking about the one thing that all political operatives think about all the time: maintaining power. And if Trump (Bannon) wants a second term, he needs the support of two groups of people: Trump’s diehard white-populist fanbase, and the oligarchic elites who run the Republican Party. But these groups do not have the same interests. Trump’s most dedicated supporters want ethno-nationalist economic populism: They’re tired of sharing their government benefits with immigrants, refugees, and black people. The mainstream Republican Party, by contrast, is a machine created to redistribute wealth upwards. These two groups don’t like each other much: During the Republican primary, Trump spent as much time attacking the Republican establishment as he did attacking Barack Obama. Yet Trump somehow has to keep them both happy-ish. And the chaos of the past two weeks represents the Trump administration trying to resolve this dilemma.

Since November 9, Trump’s broad strategy for keeping both camps happy has been clear: Keep up the post-truth ethnic-nationalist authoritarianism to please the diehards, but drop the economic populism and replace it with classic supply-side voodoo to make sure that Paul Ryan and friends remain pathetically loyal. This great bait-and-switch, as John Cassidy described it, first became apparent in Trump’s appointments. The White House and the Cabinet are full of Islamophobes, immigration hard-liners, and others of a similar ethno-nationalist ilk. There’s Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael “Fear of Muslims is rational” Flynn, the former Defense Intelligence Agency head who believes, as ISIS does, that the West is engaged in a civilizational clash with radical Islam. There’s Jeff Sessions, Trump’s virulently anti-immigration attorney general who used his powers as a federal prosecutor in Alabama to scare poor black people out of voting. And of course there are the Steves, Miller and Bannon, apparently the driving forces behind the travel ban. At the same time, the people making economic policy in Trump’s White House represent the very global-capitalist forces that Trump vilified during his campaign. It’s almost comical how blatant the bait-and-switch is. Trump won by promising to bring jobs back to distressed Rust Belt factory towns, but his Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, made his $3 billion fortune by buying and restructuring — meaning, downsizing — companies in troubled industries, including the steel industry. Trump frequently attacked Goldman Sachs in his campaign speeches, and portrayed his rivals Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton as Goldman’s stooges, but Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, is a former Goldman banker who could be worth as much as $500 million and who got his big break profiting from the wreckage of the financial crisis (Mnuchin is the kind of guy who forgets to disclose $100 million in assets to the Senate). And when Trump announced his intent to gut the regulatory regime put in place after the crisis, there was Gary Cohn, former Goldman president and current chairman of Trump’s National Economic Council, smiling at his elbow. Cohn received a $285 million severance package from Goldman when he left to join the White House. In addition to Ross, Trump’s Cabinet includes three more billionaires: Linda McMahon, Betsy DeVos, and Todd Ricketts. With a combined net worth well north of $10 billion dollars, Trump’s will be the richest Cabinet in history.

Trump’s hard-core supporters are fiercely loyal. But they still might understand that this cabal of oligarchs (a fair approximation of the mainstream Republican Party) does not have their best interests at heart. Many Trump supporters probably lost their houses or their savings in the financial crisis, but Trump’s assault on Dodd-Frank and the CFPB is the first step toward another meltdown (from which the Steve Mnuchins of the world will undoubtedly profit). Paul Krugman estimates that five million Trump supporters gained health insurance through Obamacare, but Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price (Net worth: $13.6 million), has been pushing for years to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a less generous law that’s better for the young, healthy and rich, but worse for the old, sick and poor (the people who need help getting health insurance). And of course, the one thing that Trump and Paul Ryan have always agreed on is that the rich deserve a big tax cut.

A bunch of billionaires and multimillionaires are not going to save the white working class, and if Trump’s supporters thought about the economic policies that Trump and his Republican allies are about to pursue, they might realize they had been played. So Trump distracts them with ethnically-tinged conflict and chaos. Trump’s hardcore supporters see chaos in Washington as a sign that he is doing what he promised, so when Trump picks fights and breaks norms, he shores up his support among the people he is about to abandon economically. The travel ban exemplifies this tactic. From Washington, it looks like a disaster: A pointless policy that generated major protests, negative news coverage, and condemnation from other Republicans. But in Trump country, it’s a winner. According to one recent poll, the ban has roughly 50% support nationwide, but 88% of Republicans support it, and 80% believe it makes them safer. So when Trump’s supporters, seduced by his fearmongering, see newscasters and protesters criticizing a policy that they think will keep them safe from terrorism, they only become more convinced that Washington and the coastal elite care more about brown people than about “real Americans.” And when they see Trump standing up to these corrupt, politically correct elites, they love him even more.

Trump’s feud with the media is another tactical controversy. Since the November meeting where he excoriated media executives for their accurate coverage of him, Trump has gone out of his way to antagonize the press, tweeting about their “fake news” and whining about them at every opportunity, no matter how inappropriate (In front of the CIA Wall of Honor, for example, or at an event for Black History Month). Recently, he went full Ingsoc and declared on Twitter that, “Any negative polls are fake news.” If his supporters grow tired of the mainstream media’s “fake news,” there are plenty of propaganda sites – InfoWars, Breitbart, and to a lesser degree Fox – that will tell them what they want to hear.

The various daily outrages of Trump’s presidency — his attacks on a federal judge; his refusal to resolve his conflicts of interest; the gag orders on federal agencies — play into this dynamic as well: Trump does something egregious; the media, Democrats, and a few principled Republicans object; and Trump’s supporters become more and more convinced that Trump is the only one on their side. Meanwhile, Trump’s spineless abettors on Capitol Hill, happy with Trump’s oligarchic tendencies and terrified of the wrath of his base, look the other way. When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Paul Ryan in November whether Ryan believed Steve Bannon should be in the White House, Ryan responded, “I don’t know Steve Bannon, so I have no concerns. I trust Donald’s judgment.” Asked on 60 Minutes whether he believed Trump’s false claim that “millions” of illegal votes had been cast, Ryan responded, “I don’t know. I’m not really focused on these things.” With regard to Trump’s conflicts of interest, Ryan told CNBC, “This is not what I’m concerned about in Congress.”

This is the political bargain behind the Trump presidency: The Breitbart wing of Bannon, Miller et al. gets to whip up outrage to keep Trump’s base happy, but the Republican oligarchs make economic policy. Both sides need each other; neither has the power to govern on its own. But the exact terms of this alliance are still being hammered out, and over the past two weeks, Bannon and his friends have overplayed a weak hand by generating more controversy than Trump’s Republican allies can stomach. Trump cannot maintain power through outrage alone: The base that rushes to his side at every incitement is significant, but not nearly an electoral majority. He needs mainstream Republican officials, donors and voters on his side if he wants to assemble an effective coalition. But to keep them in his camp without alienating his base, he needs to balance controversy with some respect for political norms: No attacks on federal judges, no “alternative facts,” no ban on green card holders. Right now, Trump’s proportion of outrage to normalcy is off: His approval rating is in the low 40s, historically bad for a president early in his first term, and while his hardcore supporters are still with him, he is putting mainstream Republicans in an awkward spot. Accordingly, Trump appears ready to back off the confrontational, bomb-throwing approach that characterized his first two weeks. Reince Priebus, seen as the establishment-Republican rival to Steve Bannon, has apparently told Trump and Bannon that the administration needs a new approach to communications, and has drafted a 10-point checklist to follow when announcing any new initiative. Trump has also apparently told Priebus to make sure that future executive orders cross Trump’s desk during the drafting process, as is traditional, and not just when they are ready to be signed (It says a lot that he even had to demand this).

It remains to be seen whether Trump can strike a workable balance between ethno-nationalist populism and cynical Republican oligarchy, but don’t bet against it. Republican leaders in Congress have shown that they are largely happy to let Trump subvert democracy as long as they get their tax cuts. Lindsey Graham and John McCain criticized the travel ban, which is not a national security measure but a xenophobic signal to Trump’s base, but Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell were circumspect. “President Trump is right to make sure we are doing everything possible to know exactly who is entering our country,” Ryan said a statement. Ryan sank even lower when he refused to criticize Trump’s attacks on the federal judge who stayed the travel ban. “He’s not the first President to get frustrated with a ruling from a court,” Ryan told the press. Marco Rubio, who could have derailed Rex Tillerson’s nomination for Secretary of State, instead caved and voted to confirm him, further rewarding Russia for their interference in our election. The catalogue of Republicans debasing themselves before Trump goes on, but suffice to say, we should not count on them to restrain the destructive instincts we have seen over the past two weeks. Rather, the marriage of ethno-nationalism with oligarchy could prove durable. Dividing the poor along ethnic or religious lines while the rich run the show is the oldest trick in the proverbial book.

What does this mean for Democrats? First, protest can work, by driving a wedge between mainstream Republicans and Trumpists. If mainstream Republicans can be convinced to break with Trump’s most outrageous proposals, he can be dragged towards the center. Second, some Trump supporters might become vulnerable to Democratic overtures, seeing as Trump will likely do little to improve their lot. If Trump disappoints the Obama voters who flipped this year, Democrats could win them back (although it might be tough). One way or another, I hope the Democrats find an effective way to resist Trump soon, before the looming ethno-nationalist oligarchy he represents becomes entrenched.

Guest Blog Post: Three Reform Suggestions for Obamacare


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A good friend of mine, Eric Xiao, wrote this post in hopes of offering three substantive changes to improve Obamacare. Health care will certainly be a major policy debate for the 115th Congress and President-elect Donald Trump’s administration, and Eric’s suggestions are worth a read. He graduated from Yale in 2016 with a degree in political science and a focus on health care in particular. Check out his Twitter for more health care analysis!

When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 was signed into law, many (correctly) predicted that it would become an unsustainable burden on and an ineffective fix for this country’s ailing healthcare system. From Trump’s erasing of state insurance lines to Sanders’s ‘Medicare for All’ system to the Republican Congress’s CARE Act, many have put forth their own replacements for the ACA, each claiming that their law would swoop in and save American health care from the brink of disaster.

To be fair, the creators of these replacement plans deserve a certain amount of credit for crafting proposals that are comprehensive and sophisticated. But unfortunately, what makes these plans so appealing is also their tragic flaw. You see, the reason why everyone could predict that the ACA would fail is because every major reform law fails in some way. Every landmark piece of legislation has major flaws, and if our solution to these shortcomings is always ‘pass a new landmark piece of legislation’, we will be stuck in an endless sequence of replacing each imperfect law with a new, equally imperfect law. This is the approach of those who are churning out hundred-page ACA replacement proposals day by day, and it will never achieve any good in the long term.

Instead, let us pinpoint the exact parts of the ACA that make it unsustainable, and attempt to fix those before dumping the law altogether. Of course, these ‘repairs’ to the law will not revolutionize health care as we know it, but we need to curb our idealism and admit that no single law can. Strong health systems are built and maintained incrementally. Sustaining them involves diving into details and technicalities, a strategy that is not as flashy as creating the next ‘big’ piece of legislation, but is bound to be more effective. So before we spend years of deliberation and billions of dollars on another major healthcare law that will be just as flawed as the ACA, consider making the following three reforms to the ACA as it currently stands..

1) Lower the Actuarial Value Threshold

The ACA requires that every insurance plan have an Actuarial Value (AV) of 60%. That means that at minimum, every plan must cover at least 60% of the costs of covered benefits under that plan. Setting the AV at such a high level prevents insurers from offering low-premium plans that are more affordable and more suited to healthy patients, as well as low-income patients. Currently, patients earning up to 250% of the Federal Poverty Level ($29,700) receive government assistance to help pay out-of-pocket health costs, and patients earning up to 400% FPL ($47,500) have their monthly premiums capped at anywhere between 2% and 9.5%. Unfortunately, the out-of-pocket maximum for those at the 250% mark is still over $7,000 per year and those at the 400% FPL mark still can pay over $4000 annually in premiums, without any additional assistance for out-of-pocket costs. These sums are crippling the middle class, and are also increasing federal spending as insurers raise their premiums to meet the AV requirements.

To be fair, this minimum AV threshold was imposed in good will, with the intention of rooting out useless plans that do not cover any services and are effectively scams. But empirically, we have only observed that this AV requirement has raised premiums across the board, and at an alarming rate. Premiums have increased every year since the ACA’s implementation in 2014, with a national average rate of increase of 24% from 2016 to 2017.

As a result, we should strike a deal with insurers in which they agree to introduce low-premium plans into the market in exchange for a lowering of the AV threshold. This is not to say that we should set the bar so low that we start seeing plans with 5% or 10% AV, but setting the bar at 60% is too high of a standard. Especially with the rise of Health Savings Accounts and other funds to help pay deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses, there is no reason to expect every insurance plan to cover such a high percentage of total covered benefits (which includes many unnecessary services as well as rare services that are quite expensive). In order to relieve the financial burden on patients as well as insurers, this threshold should be lowered or adjusted so that it only refers to basic health services, such as office visits and common prescriptions.

2) Scale Back Guaranteed Issue Coverage

It is unlikely that any democrat or republican wants to return to the days of insurers kicking patients off of their plans or denying their claims whenever they fell sick, but the current state of guaranteed issue coverage is unsustainable. Under the ACA, patients enrolling in insurance plans cannot be charged more for pre-existing health conditions, health status, or claims history. That is to say, if Patient A incurs $50,000 of medical costs per year and Patient B incurs $500 of medical costs per year, Patient A cannot even be charged a penny more by his/her insurer for needing more care than Patient B. So if unhealthy, higher-cost patients cannot be charged more than healthy, low-cost patients, the only real solution for the insurer is to (you guessed it) charge everyone an equal, and high, premium.

Of course, it would be inhumane to charge higher-cost patients premiums that are 5 or 10 times those of healthier patients, but not being able to charge even a 10% higher premium for patients needing 10000% more care is also unreasonable. We should therefore amend the ACA to allow insurers to increase premiums for high-cost patients by a percentage proportional to the care they need annually, relative to the regional average for each insurer. For example, Insurer A would be able to charge a patient X% more in premiums if their annual medical costs are Y% higher than Insurer A’s per-patient average for that geographic region.

This percentage increase for high-cost patients should have a hard cap to prevent insurers from overpricing their plans, and insurers should also contractually agree to lower premiums for low-cost patients. The details of such proposals will vary between insurer, but a move in this general direction is necessary for the health insurance industry, which has suffered devastating losses across the board since the ACA’s implementation. Otherwise, insurers will continue pulling out of state markets (45 states have fewer than 5 insurers with at least 5% market share in the individual marketplace) and patients looking to enroll in plans will be left with barely any choices.

So what about the high-cost patients who struggle to pay the increased premiums? With the lowering of premiums for millions of low-cost patients, government assistance for those premiums will also decrease. Those savings can be used to better assist low-income, high-cost patients.

3) Overhaul the Employer Mandate

The ACA’s employer mandate requires that every employer with 50 or more full-time employees must offer at least 95% of employees a health insurance plan that meets minimum coverage standards. Again, a policy that was crafted with patients’ best interests in mind, but one that has failed patients and employers alike in practice. The employer mandate has two key problems that must be fixed for it to be a sustainable policy.

First is the issue of requiring a company to go from insuring 0% to 95% of its workforce once it reaches 50 full-time employees. This is a huge investment, and when faced with the requirement of buying insurance for employees, employers are forced to delay or even forgo hiring new full-time employees, which stifles the small business economy. Companies with 55 or 65 full-time employees are not going to be able to afford health insurance for their employees any more than companies with 49 employees can. But at the same time, letting companies not offer insurance to any employees puts a greater financial burden on those employees, as having to shop in the individual market for insurance almost always results in higher premiums.

To lessen the burden on small businesses that are only slightly above the 50 FTE threshold, the mandate should be amended such that the percentage of employees that must be offered health insurance starts at a low threshold and increases with the number of employees at the company. For example, companies with 55 or 60 employees may only need to offer insurance to 15 or 20% of them. This way, companies will be able to expand their businesses and create more jobs without being slammed by a hefty insurance bill at the 50 FTE threshold. At the same time, we can still keep some form of the mandate so that companies with the means to comfortably afford insurance can be required to do so.

The second problem with the employer mandate is that it requires employers to offer their own health insurance plans, which they buy from an insurer of their choice, instead of allowing employees to shop for plans themselves. Unfortunately, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ plan that is appropriate for all employees. Inevitably, some portion of employees at every company will be stuck with a plan that does not suit them well. The solution here is simple: why not allow employers to offer employees a monthly stipend to shop in the individual marketplace in place of the employer-provided plan? And we can require that the stipend be at least equal to the employer’s cost of an employer-provided plan, since the amount that employees pay to employers may be different from the amount that employers pay to insurers. Under this proposed policy, if an employer is paying (or was going to pay) $200 monthly per employee, then that employee’s stipend must be at least $200.  

Did Vladimir Putin Intend to Help Donald Trump?


Editor’s note: Upon checking Twitter after finishing this post, I learned that the FBI now agrees with the CIA that Russia intervened to help Trump. Glad I could persuade them.

Let’s start with a hypothetical. Imagine that someone — let’s call him, I don’t know, Vladimir — is wondering whether to perform action X. Vladimir knows that X will lead to results Y and Z, both of which benefit him. Perhaps he is more interested in one of the two; nonetheless, he knows that both will occur. With this knowledge, Vladimir performs action X. Both Y and Z result. Did Vladimir intend to cause Outcome Z?

You got me: This wasn’t a hypothetical at all! Rather, it was a description of Russia’s interference in our recent election. In deciding to hack the DNC’s servers and release a tide of embarrassing emails about the internal machinations of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the DNC itself, Russian officials knew that they would introduce some chaos into our political system. They also must have known that the chaos they were sewing was likely to benefit Donald Trump. Yet we are now caught up in a stupid debate over whether Russia intended to help Trump. This debate adds up to little more than an impossible-to-resolve argument over the mental state of Vladimir Putin and his cronies. In the words of a U.S. official, quoted in a Reuters story about the intelligence community’s response to the hacks: “[The Office of the Director of National Intelligence] is not arguing that the agency (CIA) is wrong, only that they can’t prove intent… Of course they can’t, absent agents in on the decision-making in Moscow.” But Russian officials must have known that their actions would help Trump. They undertook those actions with that knowledge. If that’s not intent, I don’t know what is: Even under U.S. criminal law, people can be convicted if it was “reasonably foreseeable” that their actions would lead to a certain outcome. At the very least, Russia could have foreseen that its actions would help Trump. More likely, given Trump’s man-crush on Putin, and Putin’s hatred for Hillary Clinton, Russian officials actively hoped that their actions would help Trump.

Here, I think, is the most plausible account of Russia’s evolving intentions. Sometime in 2015, Russian hackers break into the DNC’s computer system, with the aim of sewing uncertainty and chaos among the American electorate — a favorite Russian foreign-policy tactic. At this point, Trump is only one of many Republicans in the race. Putin, whose entire worldview is premised on the fundamental weakness of Western liberal democracy, probably gives Trump a better chance to win than most do, and certainly hopes he will — after all, Russia has been funding right-wing nationalist parties in Europe for years. But Putin still probably thinks a Trump victory is unlikely. So when the DNC hacking begins, Russian officials don’t have any specific outcome in mind. They just want to mess with our democracy.

Fast forward to summer 2016. Trump is the Republican nominee. After the Republican National Convention and the Comey press conference, he briefly surpasses Hillary Clinton in the polls. Nate Silver gives him a 50% chance at winning. And suddenly, as the Democratic National Convention is getting underway, here come the emails. It turns out — shocker! — that the DNC leadership didn’t like the guy who spent much of the campaign complaining about them. The leaked emails don’t show any actual interference with the primary process, but Bernie Sanders supporters take the bait and throw a fit about DNC “corruption,” becoming Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical pawns in the process (How’s that for irony?). DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has to step down on the eve of the convention she was supposed to preside over, and Bernie’s supporters boo when Hillary’s name is announced. For the Democrats, it’s an ugly scene. Donald Trump, meanwhile, gleefully tweets about the DNC’s supposed corruption.

What are the Russians thinking at this point? Their worst-case scenario is that the leaks don’t help one candidate or the other, but simply sew chaos. Clearly, though, that’s not what’s happening: The leaks are hurting Clinton and boosting Trump. This probably makes the Russians very, very happy. And they keep the leaks coming. After the Convention, the leaks tail off for a bit, but then another batch of emails surfaces on Wikileaks in mid-October, and the story has new legs. We learn the contents of Clinton’s paid speeches to Goldman Sachs; we learn that Neera Tanden thinks Hillary’s instincts are “suboptimal.” And as the leaks continue in dribs and drabs throughout October, we can infer that whoever is behind these leaks is interested not in transparency, but in dragging out the leaks, keeping the story in the headlines as long as possible, and continuing to damage Clinton.

Then Comey sends his letter to Congress. October turns into November. We all know what happens next.

So now we’re left with a question: What was Russia’s intent? At first, mainly, to cause chaos: Outcome Y, from our initial hypothetical. But as Trump’s odds of winning increase, and it becomes clear that the emails are helping him, the Russians see another benefit, Outcome Z: They could help Trump win, or at the very least, undermine Hillary Clinton’s legitimacy if she wins. What we’re debating right now is the relative weight of these two motives in Vladimir Putin’s mind. This is a stupid debate, for two reasons.

The first is that we will never know the answer. As that U.S. official said, you can’t know intent unless you’re in on the decision-making process. Absent that, you can only infer intent from actions.

The second is that it is so easy to draw the inference that the Russians put at least some weight on helping Trump. Why wouldn’t they? Anyone who denies that Russia intended to help Trump must answer this question. That’s why some House Republicans have taken to claiming that, because Trump said he wants to beef up our military, Russia would have preferred a Clinton victory. Never mind the fact that Trump also says he would use his beefed-up military to cooperate with Russia.

The only possible argument that the Russians weren’t trying to aid Trump is that they simply took the actions available to them and aided Trump inadvertently. That’s why the question of whether the Republican National Committee was hacked is so key. If the Russians hacked the RNC — as intelligence officials have claimed — but didn’t leak anything, then they actively chose to leak only information damaging to Clinton: a clear sign of intent. If the Russian attempts to hack the RNC were “much less persistent and aggressive than the effort against Democratic officials,” as other sources have claimed, that’s less of a smoking gun, but pretty revelatory as well. According to the sources claiming that the Russians tried and failed to hack the RNC, “the hackers targeted only a single email account of a former RNC staffer” — hardly the sustained cyber-assault that the Democrats sustained.

Yet even if this argument were supported by evidence — which it isn’t — it wouldn’t hold up logically. Because, again: Why wouldn’t the Russians want to help Trump? Trump has praised Putin, refrained from criticizing his support of Bashar al-Assad, refrained from criticizing his annexation of Crimea, questioned the United States’ commitment to its NATO allies, promised to cooperate with Russia in fighting ISIS, denied that Russia interfered in the election, and nominated a Secretary of State who doesn’t believe American sanctions against Russia are working. By contrast, Putin blames Clinton for supporting the protests that broke out after Putin stole Russia’s 2011 election.

Knowing that leaking the hacked emails would hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump, and with good reason to desire that result, Putin leaked the emails. What’s more, there’s evidence that he chose not to take actions that would have created more chaos, but would have hurt Trump and boosted Clinton. So you tell me: Did Vladimir Putin intend to help Donald Trump?