Louis Johnston on “Immigration in Historical Perspective”

Over the past 75 years, the annual number of immigrants into the United States grew along with the percentage of the population born outside the country. The changes wrought by these trends are visible throughout the country, from the faces of the children in our schools to the religious institutions in our towns, to the items in our grocery stores. Policy debates over immigration restrictions, refugee costs, and border walls rage at the national, state, and local levels.

Rarely do these discussions place the issues at hand into a broader, historical context. In this post, I will take a few moments to introduce you to some key trends in American history that relate to immigration and to describe some of the scholarly research regarding the long-run effects of immigration on the US economy. 

Some basic data 

Let’s start with data on immigration as a percentage of the population for the US from 1820 to 2010:

Graph 1

Source: Abramitzky, Ran and Leah Platt Boustan. “Immigration in American Economic History.” NBER Working Paper No. 21882, January 2016.

The picture shows that the number of people immigrating to the US reached a peak in the early 1850s, when measured as a percent of the American population, with similar spikes in the 1880s and 1900s. Relatively open borders in the 19th and early 20th centuries led to immigration levels that far exceeded current levels as a percentage of the population. (The 1986 immigration reforms created the 1990 spike.)

Next, take a look at how these data played out in terms of the percentage of the population born abroad:


Source: Abramitzky, Ran and Leah Platt Boustan. “Immigration in American Economic History.” NBER Working Paper No. 21882, January 2016.

The foreign-born proportion of the population fluctuated around 14 percent from 1860 to 1910, steadily declined until 1970, and converged back towards 14 percent today.

These two pictures tell an important story: rather than thinking of today as anomalous (i.e. why are there so many immigrants today?) we should consider the fact that the years 1940 to 1990 were atypical in American history. That is, an America with relatively low levels of immigration and a relatively small percentage of the population born abroad is the outlier in American history, not what is going on today.

This brings us to a third piece of historical information, the geographic distribution of the foreign-born population:

Graph 2

Source: Abramitzky, Ran and Leah Platt Boustan. “Immigration in American Economic History.” NBER Working Paper No. 21882, January 2016.

European immigration dominated the nineteenth century. The Immigration Act of 1924 effectively closed the door to new arrivals for forty years and enforced this pattern. In particular, the 1924 act both reduced immigration levels and created a quota system based on the proportion of the population that was born abroad in 1890. This scheme favored immigrants from Europe, generally, and western Europe, in particular.

This began to change with the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. With this Act, Congress removed the quota system based on geography and replaced it with guidelines that promoted family unification. The result was a surge in immigration from Latin American and Asia.

Here is where the past differs from the present. Until the 1970s, European-born immigrants predominated, but since then the face of immigration has changed from white Europeans to people of color from Asia and Latin America.

Long-run effects of immigration on the US Economy

The data we’ve just examined describe the flow of immigrants into the United States. What were the effects of these waves of immigration on the American economy? In a series of studies, David Card of the University of California at Berkeley (along with a number or co-authors) tackled two of the key questions that arise in most debates regarding immigration:

  • Immigration does not depress the wages of native-born workers to any significant extent (2012 paper).
  • Immigration is not a driving force in creating income inequality (2009 paper).

Card’s work focuses on recent immigration, but economic historians have begun systematically addressing a bigger question: what were the long-run effects on the US economy of the big waves of immigration in the past?

In “Migrants and the Making of America: The Short- and Long-Run Effects of Immigration during the Age of Mass Migration,” economists Sandra Sequeira, Nathan Nunn, and Nancy Qian matched up US counties with low shares of immigrants in 1880 with similar counties in 1880 that had high immigrant percentages. For example, in Minnesota they matched up Cass County (17% foreign born) with Douglas County (33% foreign born.) They then traced economic development using a variety of factors over the next 100 years.

The authors report that, “Taken as a whole, our estimates provide evidence consistent with an historical narrative that is commonly told of how immigration facilitated economic growth. The less skilled immigrants provided the labor force necessary for industrial development. A smaller number of immigrants brought with them knowledge, skills, and know-how that were beneficial for industry and increased productivity in agriculture. Thus, by providing a sizeable workforce and a (smaller) number of skilled workers, immigration led to early industrial development and long-run prosperity, which continues to persist until today (p. 44).”

Conclusions: past and present

Do these findings apply to today and the years to come? For instance, the US economy no longer rests on a base of agriculture and industry but produces most of its GDP in the form of services; can we draw lessons about the a service economy from an industrial economy’s experience?

Yes, I believe we can apply this study to today’s debates. Immigrants today, just as in the past, bring skills that are valuable to our economy. These include both physical skills (e.g. immigrants working in agriculture or in food processing) and knowledge (e.g. immigrants employed in high-tech industries.) This benefits the American economy today in ways similar to immigrants setting up their own farms and working in factories a century ago. Further, just as over the past one hundred years, the children of these new Americans will gain the knowledge and skills that will drive our economy for the next century.

The economy is not a static phenomenon, with fixed jobs and industries requiring a stable and unchanging range of skills and technologies. It is a dynamic, ever-changing process with jobs morphing and new industries appearing over time. Immigrants are not the same as they were 100 years ago, but neither is our economy. The new immigrants, like the old, will contribute positively to the evolving economic order of the next 100 years.

Derek Larson on “Moving Toward Climate Resilience”

As south Texas begins the recovery process in the wake of hurricane Harvey and Irma bears down on south Florida, good reporters have been careful not to claim these storms are the result of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change. That of course is true: human-driven climate disruption cannot be said to have caused these or any other specific extreme weather events. But it almost certainly has increased their severity; in the case of tropical storms directly as a product of higher ocean surface temperatures lending more energy  to developing storm systems. A multi-decade study published last year in Nature Geoscience found an increase in storm frequency of 2-3 times the baseline rate and increases in average storm intensity of 12-15% across a wide region of the Pacific, giving us some idea of how much worse tropical storms have become within our lifetimes. Neither of those figures may seem that impressive unless you have experienced a Category 3 or 4 hurricane directly, then imagine such events coming more often and with even greater force.

Harvey from space (Image: Colorado State University)

For decades climate scientists warned that we were running out of time to prevent serious disruption of the global climate system, and today the consensus is that our time has expired. We can no longer speak hopefully of preventing climate change, but instead must speak of mitigating its effects and adapting to a new baseline climate. Mitigation refers to efforts to reduce emissions and ideally limit the scope of future warming. Dramatic reductions in fossil fuel consumption, strict controls over greenhouse-gas emissions, and widespread efforts to sequester carbon outside the atmosphere and oceans will be required to prevent catastrophic climate disruptions a century from now. But what of the shorter term, which in the geosciences might mean a generation or two?

Ultimately adaptation to a changed climate will be required because we cannot easily reverse the consequences of actions taken over the last 150+ years as ancient fossil carbon was liberated into the atmosphere. We have, as some climate scientists like to say, “baked climate change into the cake.” At this point some level of overall warming is guaranteed, and indeed we are witnessing its effects already in the form of rising average temperatures on every continent, rising surface temperatures in the world’s oceans, and other signals that a “new normal” is developing around us. Like a massive ocean liner steaming straight ahead, simply turning off the engines can only slow, but not stop, this forward momentum in the short or medium term. We now need to exhibit the critical human trait of adaptation: we must plan for, prepare for, and accept the reality that climate in which our common future plays out will not be like that of our past.

Global fossil carbon emissions, 1800-2000 (Graph: Wikimedia Commons)

The key to climate adaptation is resilience. Both scientists and planners speak of “climate resilience” when asked what we must do to adapt to climate change. This quality of resilience refers to the ability of a society to survive disruption and manage change. It could be local; a coastal city like Houston could intentionally plan to become more resilient to hurricanes, for example by improving infrastructure and limiting new development in flood-prone areas. It could be national; a government initiative could fund both research on and implementation of resilience efforts on a broad scale, from coastal erosion controls to disaster preparedness. It could even be global; bodies like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization could work to secure the global food system against future climate disruption as insurance against famine. Unfortunately, far too little time and energy is actually going into such efforts, and with the ascendency of Trumpism in the United States progress has actually been reversed. Today the U.S., and as result the entire globe, is actually headed in the wrong direction, toward being less resilient, less prepared, and less adaptive to our changing climate. This will not only make things worse for current generations, but will make the challenges faced by future generations even more daunting, surely a moral failing that will not easily be forgiven by our grandchildren.

What we have seen in Houston and surrounding areas was not in itself a direct result of anthropogenic climate change. But human-induced global warming amplified the severity of the storm, and our failure to prepare adequately—to take the idea of resilience seriously –has made the consequences more severe as well. Like other metropolitan areas Houston is a product of urban sprawl that dramatically reduced the capacity of surrounding natural systems to absorb water from major rain events. The unchecked expansion of impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots, and roofs ensured that even more water rushed into overburdened drainage systems, streams, rivers, and soils than otherwise would have. Despite suffering three five-hundred-year storm events in three years, life in coastal Texas has continued under a business-as-usual approach in the era of climate change. This is not to single out Houston; no major US city is prepared for the new normal or has shifted either its resources or policies toward resilience to the degree necessary to do much beyond responding to short-term crises. Adaptation, for all of us, lies well into the future, and perhaps farther off today that it was six months ago.

Visit the Climate Resilience Toolkit

Extreme weather events like hurricane Harvey are part of our new normal. In North America we will see more hurricanes, more flooding, more precipitation records broken—and also more heat waves and droughts, because climate change does not yield similar effects across all geographical boundaries. All we can count on is disruption: more, bigger, stronger, and costlier weather events will take their toll even before the impacts of global sea level rise, new patterns of disease, severe agricultural declines, mass extinctions, loss of the polar ice caps, or other projected threats from climate change are realized. Indeed, responding to the localized weather impacts of climate change may be among the easiest challenges we face at this juncture. We have the capacity to adapt, to become more resilient, and to stop making the problem worse—but we need to muster the collective will make a move in the right direction. The clock has been running since the Industrial Revolution, and our opportunities to keep hitting the snooze button are clearly running out. The political leadership of the federal government has failed America and the world. The responsibility to address climate change and to develop a more resilient society now rests firmly with the states, municipalities, and individuals who are already suffering the consequences of our inaction.

Noreen Herzfeld on “Artificial Intelligence: An Existential Risk?”

Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk recently issued a warning regarding the future of artificial intelligence.   “AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization, and I don’t think people fully appreciate that.” Claiming access to cutting-edge AI technology, Musk called for proactive government regulation, noting that while such regulation is generally “irksome, . . . by the time we are reactive in AI regulation, it’s too late.”

Elon Musk

“I think people should be really concerned about it,” Musk said. “I keep sounding the alarm bell.”  Musk is not alone in sounding this alarm.  Several years ago physicist Stephen Hawking told the BBC: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Really?  How might this happen?  According to Hawking, AI could “take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate. . .. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

This concern has been a staple of science fiction for decades (see The Terminator or 2001).  However, those with a more intimate knowledge of AI disagree.  As MIT computer scientist Rodney Brooks has wryly pointed out, Musk and Hawking “don’t work in AI themselves. For those who do work in AI, we know how hard it is to get anything to actually work through product level.”  Virtual reality pioneer and Microsoft guru Jaron Lanier says anyone with experience of modern software should know not to worry about our future robotic overlords. “Just as some newborn race of superintelligent robots is about to consume all humanity, our dear old species will likely be saved by a Windows crash. The poor robots will linger pathetically, begging us to reboot them, even though they’ll know it would do no good.”

So does AI pose an existential risk?  Not for the reasons Hawking and Musk imagine.  We are unlikely to have “strong AI,” one that thinks in ways we humans think, ways as versatile as the human brain, for many, many years, if ever.  Our brains are vastly more complex than our present technology.  However, that doesn’t mean we are out of the woods.

“Weak AI,” programs that do only one thing and do that thing very well (think Deep Blue) are progressing by leaps and bounds and stand to undermine, or at least drastically change, our economy, our politics, and our personal lives.  In fact, as several studies published in just the last few weeks and months show, they are already doing so.

First, the economy.  A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that hundreds of thousands of jobs in the US have been taken over by automation since the 1990s.  Only one new job in the computer industry is created for every three jobs lost.  It is automation, far more than governmental regulations or off-shoring, that has decimated industrial sector employment. No matter what President Trump says, jobs in coal or manufacturing are not coming back.  Moreover, automated vehicles and Amazon are poised to take over transportation and retail.

Nor are blue-collar workers the only ones who should worry.  A 2013 University of Oxford report estimated that 47 percent of American jobs will likely be threatened by automation in the coming decades, including many white-collar jobs in the legal, health, and educational sectors. A report from the World Bank estimates that this proportion is even higher in developing countries.  AI has begun to shake the foundation of Western capitalism.

Obviously, this has ramifications for our political systems, and we have seen the first of these in the election of Donald Trump in the US and the vote for Brexit in the UK.  Beyond the restiveness of the working class, AI also played a role in our last election through the spread of fake news on social media by bots..  Artificial intelligence makes the development of fake evidence remarkably easy.  A recent study published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications found that people could not identify whether or not a photo had been Photoshopped with any more accuracy than guessing.  Author Sophie Nightingale warns, “Photos are incredibly powerful. They influence how we see the world. They can even influence our memory of things. If we can’t tell the fake ones from the real ones, the fakes are going to be powerful, too.”

And it is not only Photoshop.  A recent article in Wired, entitled “AI Will Make Forging Anything Entirely Too Easy,” notes that video and audio are subject to similar falsification.  “In the future, realistic-looking and -sounding fakes will constantly confront people. Awash in audio, video, images, and documents, many real but some fake, people will struggle to know whom and what to trust.”  This has led to a new form of espionage, one the Russians pioneered in our last election.  While in the past espionage was about obtaining information, in the future it will also be about inserting information wherever one can.  AI has begun to shake the foundation of our trust in our media and our political campaigns.

Our private lives stand to be shaken as well.  Meet Roxxy.

A 2016 study from the University of Duisenberg-Essen found that 50% of men surveyed said they could imagine purchasing a sex robot within the next five years.  Sex robots are already selling well, particularly in Japan, where their use has already led to a decline in human-human sexual encounters.  While I will save an examination of the ramifications of this for a future post, here is one threat to humanity that might truly fall under the rubric of “existential.”

AI is unlikely to threaten human existence, as Hawking fears.  There will be no super-intelligent robot apocalypse.  But AI has already begun to upend our economy, our politics, and even our sex lives.  And this is only the beginning.  While no threat to “the human race,” as Hawking fears, AI does pose a threat to the structure of “human civilization” as we know it.  Perhaps Elon Musk got his terms right.



Nick Hayes on “All the President’s Clowns”

Conversational Russian speech draws upon a trove of folksy proverbs to make a point or simply add a bit of color commentary when conversation nods.  Long ago, in my first Russian language class, a talented teacher required us to memorize Russian proverbs. They added some levity to the drudgery of Russian grammar lessons day after day and allowed us to fake at a better command of the language than we actually possessed.  I forgot all of the proverbs except one. Over the past few weeks, as I have followed the news from the Trump-Putin Show at the G20 Summit to the fiasco of “I love it!” Donald Trump. Jr., this proverb flashed back to my memory. Like an old TV advertising jingle, the old Russian adage keeps ringing in my head.  It goes, “If you invite a pig to the table, he is sure to put his feet on it.”

I would not be the first to suggest that Trump’s behavior is beyond embarrassmentRe-visit the Christopher Steele Dossier and especially its description of Trump’s 2013 night at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton Hotel.  In this story, “golden showers” does not refer to Trump’s taste for gold-plated interior design fixtures. For more recent examples, check out his remarks to the Irish journalist, Caitriona Perry of RTE News. She was covering his telephone conversation from the White House to Leo Varadkav, the Prime Minister of Ireland. Trump gave the journalist a leering smile and motioned for her to come to his desk in the Oval Office. Speaking on the phone with the Irish Prime Minister and simultaneously eying Perry, Trump said, “She has a nice smile on her face . . . so I know she treats you well.”  On Trump’s Bastille Day visit to Paris, he was not in France very long but he did manage to embarrass the French First Lady, Madame Brigitte Macron. “You’re in such good shape,” Trump blurted.  “Beautiful.”  The video shows her awkwardly and hesitantly taking Trump’s offered hand. A few days later, Julie Bishop, the Foreign Minister of Australia commented on the American president’s inappropriate remark and added, “I wonder if she (Madame Macron) could say same of him.”

“I love it!” Donald, Jr. has now made it to the cover of TIME.  Google Trump, Jr.’s key liaison to Russia, Rob Goldstone.  Be sure to check the “images” link.   “I love it!” Donald, Jr. trusted this Fleet Street huckster to set up the now infamous meeting with the Russians at Trump Tower.  Goldstone dangled the promise of “krompromat,” or personal dirt, on Hilary Clinton to lure Donald, Jr., his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort to a meeting with a sorry cast of characters from the B-team of Russian insiders.

Manafort came into the story with some highly suspect baggage.  He had received $17 million as a political consultant to the erstwhile Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. He was Putin’s man in Kiev. The 2014 anti-government protestors toppled his government, came close to killing him, and sent him fleeing to Russia. His four years in office had displayed a level of corruption that would make a Russian oligarch blush.  Investigations have revealed that he paid $2 billion in bribes to election officials.  Was this part of Manafort’s advice? On the grounds of his private mansion outside of Kiev, Yanukovych created an artificial lake.  A replica of a Spanish galleon large enough to accommodate a restaurant inside floated around the lake to the amusement of Yanukovych and friends.  The restaurant’s chef, by the way, was also his mistress. Perhaps Manafort’s testimony for the Special Prosecutor will reveal that he had partied on Yanukovych’s galleon.

Another participant in the meeting, Soviet born and emigrant to the US, Ike Kaveladze allegedly laundered approximately $1.4 billion on behalf of Russian “friends.”   He had set up over 2000 bank accounts and 200 checking accounts for his Russian clients.

Did Putin deliberately choose a pack of clowns for this mission?  Perhaps.  Other attempts to compromise members of the Trump organization may have convinced Putin that there was no need to risk valuable “assets” in the temptation of Trump’s men.  Moreover, the exposure of such sub-prime assets would lend credibility to the Kremlin’s predictable denials of any connection to these novices.  They tarnish the FSB (the successor to the KGB) brand.

And so, the Russian story goes.   The Kremlin denies any involvement and characterizes the story as ludicrous.  Keep in mind that the story can be both ludicrous and true.  The Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller’s investigation widens its reach and aims closer and closer to Trump and his men.  New leaks from inside the White House drip by drip come out every day.  Morning after morning, Trump tweets his innocence and anger in vain.

Meanwhile, Putin gloats.

Things have gone well for Putin this year.   He realized his strategic goals in Syria.  A stalemate in Ukraine amounts to a victory for Putin.  As I write, Trump is now tweeting accusations against the Ukrainian government in Kiev and claiming it interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Hilary Clinton. Was this another one of Manafort’s ideas? Trump is still fighting the 2016 election. Putin is consolidating his victories from the G20 Summit to the Crimea and building his base for a landslide victory in the 2018 Russian presidential election. Putin is signaling to his base that at last the Kremlin has tamed an American president.

One sideshow from the media hype of the G20 Summit expressed Putin’s mood. A week before the G20 Summit, an Italian crop artist had used his tractor to create a portrait of Putin in an agricultural field.  A Russian television newscaster, Dmitry Kiselyov declared that the 452 by 328 foot image was visible from space. “The portrait even reflects the president’s light-blue eyes,” he added.  As you look at the photo, you can almost see a smile on Putin’s face.

Trump’s attention has now turned to examining his power to issue pardons to his family, his inner circle, and himself. His staff is hiring lawyers, “Character is destiny,” Heraclitus wrote.  We know where this story is going. “If you invite a . . . .”

Jim Read on “Wind-powered Log Cabins and Democratic Hope”

When people ask me what I’m doing this summer I reply, “I’m writing a book about Abraham Lincoln, and trying to remove the Creeping Charlie from my yard.” My next door neighbor replied, “The Lincoln book will be easier.”

However, the most common response is, “What can you possibly say about Lincoln that hasn’t already been said?” It is frequently asserted that more books have been written about Lincoln than about any historical figure except Jesus.

I am tempted to reply, “But no one has ever written a book about Abraham Lincoln’s support for wind power.” That is not what my book is about, but someone could write at least an article on the subject. One of Lincoln’s intriguing side projects was a series of public lectures in 1858 on the history of discoveries and inventions. (He also ran for U.S. Senate that year and participated in the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates. I think he needed a break from politics.)

At the close of his First Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, Lincoln speculated about areas in which future inventors might profitably try their hand. “Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power – that is, power to move things…As yet, no very successful mode of controlling, and directing the wind, has been discovered…The wind is an untamed, and unharnessed force; and quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made, will be the taming, and harnessing of the wind.”

Wind-powered log cabins, anyone?

But the actual theme of my book is Lincoln’s defense of majority rule; and in particular, how Lincoln hoped to build an enduring national antislavery majority that would abolish slavery peacefully, democratically, gradually, and constitutionally. This was central to his life and thought in a way that wind energy was not. Yet despite the mountains of books and articles written on Lincoln, I have yet to find one specifically devoted to his defense of majority rule.

It is essential here to explain the context. The slave states of the lower South – South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas – seceded from the Union before Lincoln even took office as president on March 4, 1861. So no one could claim at that point that Lincoln had committed any despotic act justifying dissolution of the Union. It was Lincoln’s election itself that those states regarded as just cause for secession.

Even though Lincoln had been elected freely and fairly according to the constitutional rules, the seceding states claimed that Lincoln was an inherently illegitimate president because of his stance on slavery, and because he had not received a single electoral vote from a slave state. If the South’s favored candidate, John Breckinridge, had won the election, the slave states would have remained in the Union.

They seceded, in short, because they did not like the results of a free election. They feared that Lincoln’s (and the Republican party’s) plan of abolishing slavery gradually through a long, slow, majority-supported territorial squeeze stood a realistic chance of success, and they did not want to give him the opportunity to begin.

In his First Inaugural Address (which came before Fort Sumter, when he still hoped for a peaceful resolution of the crisis), Lincoln argued that for members of a powerful, well-armed minority to resort to violence because they do not like the results of a free election threatens democracy at its core. “A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks, and limitations, and always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people…Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left.”

Lincoln did not claim that the majority was always wise or just. But in every form of government the final power of decision, the right of sovereignty, had to be placed somewhere. In a democracy, that final power, in his view, had to lie with a deliberate, constitutionally-checked majority – not with a wealthy, powerful slave-owning minority. A deliberate, constitutionally-checked majority was “the only true sovereign of a free people.”

Lincoln hoped to use his election victory as a first step toward building a committed, enduring national majority that would first halt the expansion of slavery to new territories, then eventually abolish it gradually and peacefully, with compensation paid to owners.

That is not of course how it happened. Secession forced Lincoln to choose between going to war, or acquiescing in the creation of a powerful new nation on its borders dedicated to perpetuating the institution of slavery, both on American soil and internationally. He chose war. In the course of that horrific war, slavery was abolished by military force, not by peaceful democratic means.

I suspect this is the reason Lincoln’s defense of majority rule has received so little attention: events took a different course, and appeared to render his peaceful democratic hopes irrelevant. Many people argue that a peaceful end to slavery was impossible in the United States.

They may be right. But I still believe it is worth reconstructing the democratic road not taken. Lincoln had as much reason as anyone to be frustrated with democracy. Yet he believed that democracy, operating through the institution of majority rule, was capable of peacefully resolving even the most difficult problems – like abolishing slavery. In our own age of deeply dysfunctional democracy, I find solace in Lincoln’s unshaken democratic faith.

These are my thoughts this summer, as I creep along, weeding my yard, and listening to the rustle of Minnesota’s unharnessed summer breeze.

Political Turmoil and Personal Refuge: Trump Presidency at 100 Days and Beyond

This week the Avon Hills Salon reflect upon where we are headed and what we have experienced, politically and personally, since Donald J. Trump became President on January 20, 2017.

Stupidity or Treason?
Nick Hayes

In October 1916, as the Russian war effort in the First World War stumbled from one catastrophic defeat to another, the leading liberal voice of the Russian Parliament (or “Duma”), Paul Miliukov, rose to the floor. He was an eminent historian, a leader of the Russian “Cadet” Party (the dominant liberal party), and future foreign minister of the ill-fated Provisional Government. He excoriated the unseemly corruption of the Kremlin regime and summed up its foreign and military policy with a question: “Is this stupidity or is this treason?” Take a hard look at the Trump regime’s foreign policy since his inauguration in January and ask yourself the same question.  Stupidity or treason?

Now, l admit that Trump’s performance in office to date makes a good case for defending him on grounds of stupidity.  Only a below average guy would have said, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”   Trump’s comments on Andrew Jackson brought back to my mind the 1960 rock hit by Sam Cook, “What a Wonderful World” with its line, “Don’t know much about history.” Trump spoke of how Jackson agonized over the Civil War.  Jackson had been dead for sixteen years before the start of the Civil War.  Appealing to his supporters on the Christian right, the President attempted to show case his knowledge of scripture by referring to “2 Corinthians” leaving the impression he was talking about two guys from Corinth.  Angry over the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his campaign’s ties to Russia, Trump tweaked his outrage over the appointment of a special “councel.”   (It’s too late to check.  Someone removed the misspelling from the twitter account.)  On his arrival in Tel Aviv during his recent trip abroad, Trump announced that he had just left the Middle East.  He might want to check to see where a map places Israel.

By now, team Trump’s Russia hands are household names.  Paul Manafort.   The onetime campaign manager for Trump colluded with a Putin crony, billionaire, and reputed Russia mafia figure, Oleg Deripasha, to the tune of a $10 million annual contract.   Manafort received $12.7 million in 2007 as a consultant in the campaign and election of Vladimir Yanukovich.  Backed by Putin, Yanukovich won a highly fraudulent election.  In 2014, popular demonstrations deposed Yanukovich and sent him into hiding in Russia.  Carter Page. An advisor to the Trump 2016 campaign, Page received an offer of a 19% stake in Rosneft, a Russian oil company, if after the election he could convince Trump to lift the sanctions on Russia. Michael Flynn.  Is it necessary to list again Flynn’s nefarious record?  For starters, recall Flynn’s $45, 000 payment for a speech and a photo op with Putin at a celebration of RT, the state sponsored Russian television station.

The White House has attempted to distance itself from Manafort, Page, and Flynn as a bunch of out of control clowns.  Then, last week the news of another Trump-Russia connection broke.  The President’s son-in-law and special advisor, the occupant of an office adjacent to the Oval Office, the voice on foreign affairs that Trump listens to, Jared Kushner, had met twice with Russians, a banker with a dubious portfolio and the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.   Kushner’s agenda was to set up a direct line of communication based in a Russian property in the U.S. to establish a direct link between Trump and Putin.

As I write this article, on the morning of May 30, CNN has broken another story.  US intelligence sources have evidence that the Russians believed they had sufficient “derogatory information” on Trump’s inner circle to give the Kremlin leverage over the Trump administration.  The “krompromat,” or incriminating information, the sources say, is “financial” in nature.  Manafort, Page, Flynn, and even the pet son-in-law, Kushner naively and gladly  have walked into a classic Kremlin trap.

Pavel Miliukov 1916

Stupidity or treason?  Actually, you don’t have to choose one over the other.  Trump’s policy is both.  The Russian Miliukov gave his speech on the eve of Russia’s singular national catastrophe, the Russian Revolution whose 100th anniversary we mark this year.  The Trump team’s stupidity and duplicity are the stuff that a nation’s nightmares are made of.




Noreen Herzfeld

In the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency numerous commentators suggested we read Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, propelling it to the top of Amazon’s best seller list.  Lewis’s novel traces the rise of a populist president with autocratic tendencies and the resistance movement that fights him.

While it has resonance for our political situation, the novel that comes to my mind is not Lewis’s, but that of another Minnesotan: The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s examination of wealth and morals in the Roaring Twenties.  The following quotations capture something central to the Trump presidency:

          I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. . . The truth was that Jay              Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was            a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be                    about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. 

 Just as James Gatz changes his name and invents a background to fit his persona, so, while it was not Donald who changed the family name, he did change the family heritage from German to Swedish.  And while Trump downplays the perks of his privileged upbringing, he echoes Gatsby’s display of ostentatious wealth as part of an image he has studiously curated.  Who, but someone with a Platonic conception of himself, would speak of himself frequently in the third person?

Yet while it is easy to compare Trump to Gatsby, it is Tom Buchanan, the large and wealthy husband of the woman Gatsby loves, who channels the same Zeitgeist in the twenties that Trump does today.  Consider the following statement Tom makes early in the book:

          Civilization’s going to pieces. I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things.

 The baseball caps proclaiming the need to “Make America Great Again” showcased the premise underlining Trump’s campaign—that America is in decline and needs to be rescued, and only Trump can do it.  This pessimistic vision came out even more strongly in Trump’s inaugural address, in which he spoke of an American “carnage,” proclaiming that for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

Tom continues:

          The idea is, if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged…It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.

A wall on the Mexican border, his dismissal of a judge of Mexican heritage as biased, his early executive order to restrict Muslim immigrants, his recent call for a commission to look into election fraud—each looks as if it has racist intent.  As Nicholas Kristof puts it, “we have a man who for more than four decades has been repeatedly associated with racial discrimination or bigoted comments about minorities, . . . While any one episode may be ambiguous, what emerges over more than four decades is a narrative arc, a consistent pattern.”

Near the end of the book, Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s narrator, sums up the impact of Tom’s actions:

          They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and               then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that               kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

A string of six bankruptcies in Trump’s past all too often left investors, lenders, and workers holding the bag.  In light of Trump’s leaking of confidential matter to the Russians, David Brooks notes, “the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar. . . And out of that void comes a carelessness that quite possibly betrayed an intelligence source, and endangered a country.”

And one almost pities Mike Pence and Shawn Spicer, recipients of lies and shifting truths, who are, nonetheless, expected to represent and explain the administration to the public.  The rich don’t have to clean up their own messes.  They always have someone else to do that for them.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald captured an enduring element of the American character that Trump embodies in a way that resonates with his base.  The Great Gatsby ends with the line:

          So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 

Trump believes in a glorified past, a past of American greatness built on coal, on manufacturing, on small homogeneous towns.  That past, like Gatsby’s imagined past, never existed.  Gatsby’s dream of making his imaginings real ends in tragedy.  I hope Trump’s equally illusory dreams will not lead to a similar end.

Icebergs Ahead
Louis Johnston

What will block the Trump Administration’s policy agenda: Russian interference in the 2016 election? Executive orders regarding immigration policy?  Firing the FBI director? It’s a parlor game pundits and prognosticators play almost daily.

These matters might grab the headlines but the submerged state may be the ultimate barrier to enacting the Trump program.

Suzanne Mettler defined the term in her book of the same title. She writes, “The ‘submerged state’ includes a conglomeration of federal policies that function by providing [regulations,] incentives, subsidies, or payments to private organizations or households to [require,] encourage or reimburse them for conducting activities deemed to serve a public purpose.”  In particular, it consists of “existing policies that lay beneath the surface of U.S. market institutions and within the federal tax system.”

These government benefits are generally not delivered directly to citizens. Rather, government encourages or mandates that private actors must follow these standards. They are now part of the submerged state, invisible to most of those who benefit from these policies.

This stands in contrast to more direct state programs, such as unemployment benefits or Social Security, in which the government issues a check directly to the recipient.

What is the result of these different pathways of state aid? According Mettler, “Many Americans express disdain for government social spending, incognizant that they themselves benefit from it,” particularly if their benefits arrive via the submerged state. Furthermore, “even if they do realize that benefits they utilize emanate from government, often they fail to recognize them as ‘social programs.’ People are therefore easily seduced by calls for smaller government—while taking for granted public programs on which they themselves rely.”

Health care as an example of the submerged state

Government policy plays a central role in the US health care system. Medicare and Medicaid are single-payer systems, and the Veterans Health Administration is part of the federal government, but public policies shape the private health insurance market as well.  For instance, companies that provide health insurance to their employees can deduct the costs from their corporate income taxes, and state and federal regulations determine minimum levels of coverage for insurance plans.

Many Americans simply do not understand this, and thus our health care systems are a prime example of the submerged state. Americans benefit from an array of government regulations, but often do not recognize this reality. Mettler describes how Americans frequently believe the system, e.g. as in health care, has emerged as a result of private, market actions when, in fact, it is the product of complex public and private interactions.

This fed into the opposition to the Obama Administration’s health care reform efforts, with citizens haranguing their representatives about government interference in what they seemed to think was a private, competitive market system.

Republicans continued this line of attack even after the ACA was enacted.  They spent seven years demonizing Obamacare as a government takeover of health care system, and thought they could ride that demon through Congress.

However, to their surprise, by the time President Trump took office, the ACA was more popular than it had ever been.  For instance, here are the results of an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from January:

Source: “Obamacare More Popular Than Ever, Now That It May Be Repealed.” New York Times, February 1, 2017.

The ACA created public benefits that Americans started taking for granted. They like the idea of keeping their children on the family’s health plan until age 26; they accept the notion that pre-existing conditions should not affect one’s ability to get health insurance; they increasingly recoil at the idea that a family’s ability to afford health care should affect their chances of being covered.  The submerged state shaped their perceptions of what is right and necessary.

This is why the House Republicans barely passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA) in April. The AHCA reduced the minimum benefits required of private health plans; once again, allowed insurance companies to factor in pre-existing conditions when setting premiums; and started tearing at the fabric of what Americans now took as natural, settled parts of the health care systems. Americans were enraged and started calling and e-mailing their members of Congress in opposition.  They were not coming to the aid of a government program; rather, they were angry that Congress was messing with what they now took for granted. The Republicans ran smack into the submerged state.

Icebergs ahead

President Trump, Speaker Ryan, and Majority Leader McConnell will find many more icebergs in their path over the month ahead, most of which are part of the submerged state in their path.  Tax reform and Trump’s budget proposal both promise to affect policies that large numbers of Americans accept as normal such as college saving plans, mortgage interest deductions, and myriad programs administered by private organizations but funded by the federal government.

Russian-American intrigue may dominate the news and congressional hearings, but the submerged state is probably the strongest part of the resistance to Republican policies.

I thank Susan Riley for extensive help with this essay.


What Would Lincoln Do? Action and Reflection in the Age of Trump
Jim Read

I am under contract to write a book about Abraham Lincoln, and I should be spending every available moment on it. But current political events make it difficult to concentrate. I ask myself, “What would Lincoln do?” Answer: he probably wouldn’t be writing a book about Abraham Lincoln.

Donald Trump’s presidency has motivated many people to follow political news and engage in political activity to a much higher degree than usual: marches, demonstrations, blogs, phone calls to elected officials, billions of posts on social media, meetings, meetings, meetings.  If nothing else, Trump’s presidency has reminded many people, including those who were disengaged during the fall campaign, that elections have consequences.

Did Donald Trump or members of his campaign team collaborate with Russian operatives to interfere in the U.S. elections? Will the United States renounce the Paris Agreement on Climate Change? Will Muslims become enduring targets of persecution in the United States? Will “Obamacare” be repealed? Will the Environmental Protection Agency be abolished?

Each new executive order, outrageous 3 am tweet, or headline-grabbing leak follows rapid-fire upon the previous ones, without allowing us to catch our breath. Even keeping track of events, much less comprehending them, is time-consuming and exhausting. What happened yesterday? What is today’s headline? What will it be tomorrow?

I personally have been hyper-engaged since Trump’s inauguration in attempting to understand for myself, and explain to others, this fast-and-furious chain of extremely consequential political events. In one sense, it has been thrilling. Why did I devote my life to teaching and writing about politics, if not for moments like this?

But this political hyper-engagement comes at a price. One risks becomes a reaction-machine of the moment. Abraham Lincoln believed that slavery could be peacefully abolished if — wait, there’s a news flash about what Trump said to the Russians! Sorry, Abe – catch you later.

Of course, the political crisis of the 1850s that preceded the Civil War was very much like our own time in this respect. Then, too, event rushed upon event: Fugitive Slave Act, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Kansas-Nebraska Act, “Bloody Kansas,” collapse of the Whig party, formation of the Know-Nothing and Republican parties, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown, the Democratic party’s self-destruction, Lincoln’s election, secession, war.

The essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (Lincoln’s contemporary) found himself participating in politics to a much greater degree than he had before the 1850s. Emerson felt a strong moral obligation to actively oppose the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which forced citizens of free northern states to become slave-catchers. He spoke at public meetings, rubbed shoulders with abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips (the latter of whom Emerson privately described as having only “a platform existence, and no personality”), stumped for congressional candidates, and raised money for John Brown’s dubious activities in Kansas. He was puzzled by his friend Henry David Thoreau’s record of never once voting in an election.

However, at the same time Emerson feared that for him the moment of quiet reflection, of generating new ideas and modes of experience, of true self-reliance, was being suffocated in the press of antislavery politics. Even as he participated in it, Emerson saw antislavery activism as a distraction from his own proper work of freeing “imprisoned spirits, imprisoned thoughts, far back in the brain of man.” His preferred form of political engagement was the individual conversation. Mass antislavery meetings, though he attended them and recognized their effectiveness, left him cold. (See my 2011 essay “The Limits of Self-Reliance: Emerson, Slavery, and Abolition” in A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson.)

Emerson never satisfactorily resolved the tension between activism and reflection. He took up his pen in support of the Union war effort, especially after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and lived another 17 years after the war’s end. But his significant work as a writer was finished by 1860.

Abraham Lincoln

Does this mean that political action and philosophical reflection are incompatible? Not necessarily. Ralph Waldo Emerson was never able to reconcile them.  But Lincoln himself as president, pressed on all sides by duties and time demands far greater than Emerson’s, found the inner resources to compose prose-poems like the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address that are more enduring than anything Emerson penned. Lincoln could do this because his writing was inseparable from his political-moral vision for American democracy: action and reflection were inseparably fused.

What would Lincoln do? He would act, of course, but he would also reflect. Somehow, amid the crisis and chaos and personal grief, he was able to find that quiet center from which all his words and actions radiated. I find there a measure of reassurance for our own troubling times.

Practicing Silence
Kathleen A. Cahalan

The day after the 2016 presidential election, I took a day of silence.

When the world gets too noisy, it is not unusual for people to turn to the spiritual as a source of solace. The spiritual life director at the Saint John’s Abbey Guest House reported to me that after the election there was an uptick in people coming for personal retreats. I began to ask other spiritual directors if they saw the same phenomenon. Yes, many said. People are confused, hurting, angry, searching. They seek a time and place set apart.

Silence, as a spiritual practice, is embraced by most religious traditions. Most hope that silence will bring them a sense of peace, calm, and rest away from society’s disarray and rampant confusion. That’s what I sought.

* * *

But not before all hell breaks loose.

In turning to silence, peace is about the last thing I find. I don’t know about others, but my inner life, especially on the day after, was as loud and noisy as any newscast. Arguments bounced back and forth between foes as I told someone on the other side, in a spiteful and self-righteous tone, how wrong this all is.

One wise spiritual director told me:  “Beware. In times such as these, people’s afflictions are on the rise.” She was referring to the ancient teaching of John Cassian, an early Christian monastic teacher, who taught that afflictive thoughts are the main obstacle keeping one from obtaining true silence in prayer.

My experience resonates with several of the afflictive thoughts on Cassian’s list, such as anger, dejection, and pride. To his list, I would add fear. I recognize that my stream of consciousness is littered with afflictive thoughts; I can see them seeping out in my chronic tendency to constantly check the headlines, or the ease in which I name enemies, and my gleefulness when I hear that they are losing out. I’m not above mocking or belittling, either.

Cassian taught a basic practice to deal with afflictions: counter this stream of thoughts with another. When afflictive thoughts arise, repeat the words, “O, God come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me” (Ps 70:1). Early Christians adopted such spiritual exercises partly from Greek philosophers who were seeking wisdom, and we can find similar mantra practices in other faiths as well. The practice of silence is quite rigorous if one is to detach from one set of thoughts and attach to another. You become what you think, in order words.

* * *

Much has been said in these 100 days about how to live with integrity in the face of so much duplicity, hypocrisy, and fear-bating. Rod Dreher, in The Benedict Option, opts for one version of the monastic as living apart from the world’s chaos and focusing on local communities. And David Brooks articulated three ways to resist the chaos in Washington:  non-violent protest; also going local and building up a community; or supporting prudent and wise public leaders, of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Saint Benedict, and Gerald Ford, respectively, served as an example of each (marking the first time those three appeared in the same piece together).

But such depictions of the monastic miss an essential point. The step away—in the early desert community or today—is not a rejection or separation from the world but rather a time to face our own inner chaos, struggle, and fake news sources that are rumbling around in our consciousness. As Thomas Merton notes in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, “The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see, we cannot think.” (77).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew the same. To resist the growing Nazi influence over this country, he created a school, Finkenwalde, where a generation of Christian pastors could be trained in a place set apart in order to be strong enough to face their country’s future. As a Bonhoeffer biographer, Charles Marsh, notes, “Dissent and resistance, they were taught, required spiritual nourishment: prayer, Bible study, and meditation on the essential matters to expand the moral imagination” (232).

*  *  *

Practicing silence, then, is an intentional choice to step into a world of deep conflict and affliction. But it is not a permanent place to reside. It is to prepare for stepping back out into the world, ready and willing to embrace the news of the day and be more discerning about which kinds of resistance are called for and on what scale.

In my own Christian practice, I can recognize the afflictions that rumble around in me and they were on the warpath back in November. When I felt my own afflictions rising up, I knew I had to get back to my practice. And the practice I share with other Christians is to seek divine aid by keeping the Word on my lips, in my thoughts, and in my heart. Without this focus, I too easily become my afflictions and am not able to face the challenges that come from a world turned upside down. As the spiritual writer Howard Thurman notes, “In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair.” For the next 100 days, and the next, and the next, practice silence when needed.

The First Hundred Days and the Future of the Planet
Derek Larson

The now-routine evaluation of the first hundred days of a presidency dates back to the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s radio address of July 24, 1933 (recall that until 1937 presidents were inaugurated in March, not January). In that broadcast FDR looked back on the launching of the New Deal and the appropriation of $3.5 billion (about $65 billion in today’s dollars) to support relief and efforts to revive the economy. After a brief assessment of the unprecedented productivity of the first hundred days of the legislative session, he offered a proposal for the next stage in the economic recovery, suggesting that “If all employers will act together to shorten hours and raise wages we can put people back to work. No employer will suffer, because the relative level of competitive cost will advance by the same amount for all.” 

Roosevelt’s address was less a look backward than a bold call for action going forward, proposing the National Recovery Act (NRA) as the New Deal’s greatest leap of faith, a program dependent on voluntary cooperation from businesses and consumers alike. Americans would join in the effort, FDR believed, because they understood the concept of shared sacrifice and need for collective action to address the economic calamity they faced. He closed by saying “I am asking the employers of the Nation to sign this common covenant with me—to sign it in the name of patriotism and humanity.

I am asking the workers to go along with us in a spirit of understanding and of helpfulness.” The official slogan for the NRA would be “We Do Our Part.”

While others have addressed the long list of failings evident in the first hundred days of the Trump presidency, none will have a more serious or longer-lasting impact than his refusal to accept the scientific consensus on climate change and the political solution embodied in the Paris Accord. By even suggesting that the U.S. might withdraw from the accord, Trump has undermined the only global effort we have to stem the impacts of centuries of fossil fuel consumption that has literally altered the planet’s atmosphere in such a way that the collective future of civilization is threatened. While FDR could reasonably expect Americans to accept shared sacrifice and make some concessions to unbridled capitalism to save to economy, Trump and his supporters cannot even be moved to “do their part” to save the planet by accepting their role in a voluntary accord.

President Trump’s nascent environmental record has sometimes been overlooked within the well-deserved flood of criticism surrounding his controversial cabinet appointments, concerns about Russian influence in his campaign, the ill-advised Muslim ban attempts, his cartoonish budget proposals, and the seemingly endless parade of headlines stemming from his unfettered use of Twitter to make policy or attack perceived enemies. But lurking behind his appointment of Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator is the most anti-environmental agenda of the modern age. While other presidents appointed political figures who were hostile to environmental regulation and recommended significant budget cuts for environmental agencies, none have been as boldly oppositional or draconian as Trump’s. Even Reagan’s first EPA administer, Anne Gorsuch, only called for a 22% reduction in the agency’s budget before being forced to resign after being cited in contempt of Congress. Trump and Pruitt want to slash the EPA budget by nearly a third, which would cripple both cleanup and enforcement efforts nationwide.

Our deepest concerns, however, should be reserved for Trump’s pending action on the Paris Accord. He and his advisors have repeatedly stated the goal of withdrawing from the accord and not only rejecting the scientific consensus on climate change but actively working to purge mentions of climate change from federal web sites and to curtain federal spending on climate research. The abdication of U.S. responsibility to address the future health of the planet and the human species will be the lasting legacy not only of Trump’s first hundred days, but of his presidency: he will be the person most directly responsible for our failure to, in FDR’s words, “sign this common covenant… in the name of patriotism and humanity…to go along with us in a spirit of understanding and of helpfulness.” The rest of the world is watching and they have found us lacking—while Europe, China, Japan, Australia, Canada, indeed the majority of the world’s people can say “We do our part” –the United States no longer can. The blame for that does not rest solely on Donald Trump, but his failure to address the climate crisis will undoubtedly be chief among the criticisms future historians lay on his administration.

Participants in the Paris Accord were asked to write letters to their descendants six generations in the future. What can we say to ours?

Speaking in another age, Franklin Roosevelt said “This is no time to cavil or to question the standard set by this universal agreement. It is time for patience and understanding and cooperation.” Unfortunately, during his first hundred days in office, President Trump has evinced no patience, understanding, or cooperation at all when the future of the planet is in question. History will judge his record but the world is watching today and has already found him lacking just months into his presidency.

Louis Johnston on “QWERTY, Health Care, and Public Policy”

Take out your cell phone. Look at the keyboard. Did you know that it is the same keyboard we have used for over 150 years? Why is that? Why do we continue to utilize such old-fashioned technologies?

Paul David, in “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY,” asked this question over thirty years ago. His answer: many technological standards, ranging from typewriter keyboards to railroad gauge to electrical current, did not come about because they were the optimal method for typing letters, setting railroad tracks, or delivering electricity. Rather, they were the product of a process known as path dependence, a situation in which the set-up costs of a particular technology lead to an early lock-in for a popular standard, even if there are superior alternatives later available. The basic idea is that the costs of switching technologies are higher than the benefits gained from the new alternative.

I have another name for this phenomenon: history matters. Where you start determines, in part, where you will end up.  And, this idea applies to public policy just as much as to technologies.  This is important to keep this in mind as we tackle tough issues such as health care.

How many systems?

Health care reform has been a perennial issue in the United States since World War II. Before Congress and President Obama enacted the Affordable Care Act (ACA), we had four health care systems:

  1. YOYO: You’re on your own
  2. Employer-provided insurance
  3. Single-payer
  4. Government-financed and government-produced

You probably recognize YOYO and employer-provided insurance, but you might argue that we don’t have single payer or government-financed and -produced health care in America. Let’s take a closer look.

Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program are all single-payer systems. To access this system, you need to meet age and income requirements, but once you qualify the government acts as a single-payer to cover almost all costs.

The Veterans Health Administration runs much like Britain’s National Health Service: the federal government owns the hospitals and clinics, hires the health care professionals, and all who qualify can get care at these facilities. It’s
government- financed and government- produced
health care.

We have these four health care systems because each piece developed organically through time and rather than sweeping away existing institutions, Americans added new ones. Our health care system looks the way it does because of path dependency; again, history matters.

Path dependence: Government-financed and -produced care

The Veterans Health Administration, for example, grew out of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, when he declared:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations (bold added).

Theda Skocpol, in Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in United States, traces how soldiers’ homes, pensions for Civil War veterans and their families, and a variety of other social policies evolved from the 1870s through the 1910s in the wake of Lincoln’s admonition. Gradually, Americans accepted these arrangements as part of the policy landscape and began taking them for granted.

Path dependence: Employer-provided insurance

Employer-provided health care is the result of price controls during World War II.  As Melissa Thomasson of Miami University documents, limits on wages meant that employers needed alternative methods for attracting much-needed workers. Prepaid hospital plans (such as Blue Cross) and physician plans (such as Blue Shield) had already developed during the 1930s and during the war enterprising employers offered, as a fringe benefit, to pay some (or in some cases all) of these premiums for workers and their families.

After World War II, labor unions and companies negotiated contracts that included employer-provided health insurance. However, it was not clear that health insurance and other fringe benefits were deductible from corporate income taxes; wages and salaries were deductible, and employers argued that fringe benefits were simply another form of compensation and should also be deductible.

So, in the late 1940s and 1950s a patchwork system started to develop. Some employers offered health insurance for which they paid part or all of the premiums without deducting these costs from their corporate income taxes. Others companies offered health insurance, deducted the costs on their taxes, and waited to see if the IRS would allow them to do so. Many firms decided to wait and see how the IRS ruled on the issue.

In 1954, the IRS ruled that employers could deduct the full cost of employer-provided health insurance when estimating their corporate income taxes. Thomasson writes,

The tax subsidy increased the amount of health insurance demanded, and extended access to health care. By fostering an increase in the demand for group insurance relative to individual coverage, it also ensured that health insurance in the United States would evolve as a group, employment-based system (p. 1374)

Thus, early health insurance plans, a demand for war workers, and an IRS ruling all helped to shape our dominant health care sector.

Filling in the gaps

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, there were obvious gaps in the health care system. Older Americans often lost their health insurance when they retired; low-income Americans often worked for companies that did not offer health insurance; and unemployed Americans could not afford to purchase their own insurance.

President Truman proposed a solution in 1948: a single-payer health care system for all Americans. Democratic congressmen and senators proposed variations on this idea, with a focus on senior citizens and the poor, throughout the 1950s – though none passed.

In 1965, President Johnson succeeded in enacting Medicare and Medicaid to cover seniors and low-income Americans. These single-payer systems supplemented, but did not replace, what already existed.

The Affordable Care Act and lessons for the future

President Obama followed this well-worn path of working with existing systems rather than bulldozing the whole works when he proposed what became the Affordable Care Act. The ACA sweetened the incentives for companies to provide health insurance, expanded Medicaid, and created state-level insurance markets so that individuals (and small businesses) in the YOYO system could purchase health insurance.  Additionally, the ACA mandated that everyone be part of one of these systems in order to help maintain its economic solvency. The ACA did not mandate which system a person must join, only that every American had to choose one of them.

Today’s health care system, including the ACA, is the result of a path dependent process. No single entity planned or created it. However, people and institutions are now accustomed to these systems. They have made important decisions based on these particular systems being in place, for example, changing jobs or moving to another state.

Furthermore, many Amercans now see certain health standards as basic rights, such as coverage availability without regard to pre-existing conditions, keeping their children on their plans until age 26, and a variety of other benefits enacted under the ACA. It’s therefore not surprising that those who oppose the ACA and want to eliminate it are having a tough time.

In other words, to understand our health care debates, and public policy more generally, we need to start from an important premise: history matters.

I thank Susan Riley for extensive help with this column.

Derek Larson on “Trump’s War on the EPA”

House Republicans recently introduced legislation to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Sponsored by freshman Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, House Resolution 816 has one operative line of text: “The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”

Normally such a bill might be shrugged off as an act of political theater. Soon after it was introduced Trump transition team member Myron Ebell told The Guardian the president’s campaign pledge to eliminate the EPA was “aspirational” because “You can’t abolish the EPA by waving a magic wand.” But what if he could?

The roots of the EPA go back to the late 1960s when rising public concern over air and water pollution, urban sprawl, and a series of high-profile environmental disasters put pressure on Congress to act. By 1969 a full-blown environmental movement was evident, a complex mixture of suburban residents awakened by Rachel Carson’s 1962 pesticide exposé Silent Spring, urban residents choking on smog and disgusted by dirty rivers, and traditional rural conservationists tired of seeing farms and forests plowed under for development. The war in Vietnam dominated the headlines, but with images of Cleveland’s Cuyuhoga River in flames (it was so polluted it caught fire), a pictures of a massive oil spill on the pristine beaches of Santa Barbara, California, and the flurry of photos of the Earth from space sent back by the Apollo astronauts also caught the public’s attention. The fragile appearance of the planet from afar, combined with regular news of environmental decline in Americans’ backyards, created a powerful sense of urgency around the environment that registered in Gallup polls as a greater concern than racial tensions or crime.

Congress responded to public demands for action with a sweeping piece of legislation, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was signed into law by Richard Nixon on January 1, 1970. In his comments at the  signing ceremony, the President noted that “A great deal more needs to be done [on the environment]. It is a question of whether you put it off or do it now. This is an area where we have to do it now. We may never have a chance later.”

NEPA established a new priority for the federal government: “to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.” As an initial step toward this lofty goal, NEPA established a new Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in the White House to “to formulate and recommend national policies to promote the improvement of the quality of the environment.” One of the first actions the CEQ took was to recommend the creation of a new federal environmental agency, which Nixon did by executive order, establishing the EPA in 1970.

Richard Nixon on the beach, near San Clemente (undated)

Early in its history the EPA established a project called “Documerica,” sending a group of professional photographers around the country to capture images of the American people and landscape in the early 1970s. Much like the famous images of the Great Depression produced by the Farm Service Agency in the 1930s, the Documerica collection offered a warts-and-all portrait of a country striving to move forward despite great challenges—in this case, the challenges of pollution, sprawl, and environmental decline.


These images—and thousands like them –illustrate what the nascent EPA was up against in its early years, and how far we have come from the days when our skies, rivers, lakes, and land were routinely used as dumps for chemical wastes, manufacturing byproducts, and the various effluents of modern living.

Weyerhauser Paper Mills and Reynolds Metal Plant, Longview,WA. 1973

Along Route 580, near San Francisco. 1972 (EPA)

Today the Environmental Protection Agency is headquartered in Washington, DC, and operates ten regional offices under a mission that combines regulatory enforcement, environmental research, and public education derived directly from NEPA. Its 15,000+ employees are responsible for enforcing the provisions of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, regulating the transport of toxic materials, monitoring facilities that generate hazardous waste, and investigating violations of federal environmental laws. Perhaps most prominently they aid state and local agencies in developing and implementing policies intended to bring them into compliance with federal regulations on environmental quality and human health—a direct bridge between Congressional directives to “clean up pollution” and action on the ground.

Waste drums piled near home in Jamaica Bay, NY. 1973 (EPA)

Illegal Dumping Area off the New Jersey Turnpike, Facing Manhattan Across the Hudson River.1973 (EPA)

The drive to eliminate the EPA comes not from the impulse to advance “productive harmony” between humans and nature, as NEPA sought in 1969, but for purely ideological and political reasons. The Congressional sponsors of H.R. 816 all hail from southern states with significant constituencies hostile to regulation of the energy and fossil fuel industries. Donald Trump’s selection of Scott Pruitt to lead the agency stems from similar animus; Pruitt is a long-time opponent of the EPA who in his former capacity as Oklahoma’s Attorney General sued the agency thirteen times to prevent it from enforcing regulations on air quality, drinking water safety, and clean energy. Ultimately,  while Trump may not have a magic wand with which to wave the EPA in oblivion, his administrative appointments and proposal to slash the agency’s budget by over 30% would render it ineffective at its most basic task: keeping our air, water, and land safe for human life.

The impact of these proposed cuts would be felt most dramatically in programs aimed at studying, preparing for, and adapting to climate change. The new administration began slowing down or shuttering climate-related work at EPA and other agencies even before transmitting a budget outline  to Congress. In January, Trump administration officials instructed the EPA  to remove all information related to climate change from its web site, triggering fear among scientists that critical data might be lost. In March, employees of the Department of Energy were told the words “climate change” could no longer be used in official written communication. Less than two weeks ago the President signed an executive order striking down many of the Obama-era programs intended to prepare the nation for the now-inevitable impacts of climate change and dismantling the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of our commitment to international climate agreements.

All of this has happened  before the EPA’s budget is cut and the reality of having a climate-change-denier in charge of the nation’s primary environmental agency fully sinks in.

Almost a half-century ago the public demanded Congress act to ensure access to clean air, clean water, and healthy environments for all Americans. Legislators responded with a forward-looking law that promised to “Fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations… and assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings.” In the decades since, the Environmental Protection Agency has held primary responsibility for that work. That we can breathe freely in our major cities, safely drink our tap water, and even see wildlife like bald eagles and timber wolves without traveling to Alaska all point to a record of relative success—we no longer live in the dirty, stinking, unhealthy world the EPA’s Documerica photographers illustrated in the mid-1970s. But without a functional EPA going forward we may well once again, and likely won’t need another half-century to get there.

Kathleen Cahalan on “Reviving Vocation to Public Service”

In an editorial a few months before the 2017 election, David Brooks argued that the failure of leadership in public service stems from the fact that people find themselves “enmeshed in a system that drains them of their sense of vocation.” Brooks appealed to vocation in its most common terms today: as something you feel called to, the use of your skills and gifts for the common good, something you cannot not do even in the face of hardship. He was looking for a “revival of vocation” in public and professional life.

Such a revival would have to take account of the multiple sources of calling in a pluralist context. Ranging from the purpose-driven life determined entirely by divine order to finding your bliss, the source of callings today vary widely. Nonetheless, religious traditions share five commonalities that press beyond sheer determinism or secular expressive individualism that hold a key to reviving calling to work for public service. Continue reading

Noreen Herzfeld on “The Balkanization of the Media”

noreen-herzfeldTo those who are familiar with the wars in the Balkans, much of Donald Trump’s rhetoric sounds eerily familiar.  Trump’s promise to his base that “You will never be ignored again” brings to mind Slobodan Milošević’s promise to the Serbs on the field of Kosovo Polje: “You will never be beaten again.”  Milošević, like Trump, was an old hand at presenting “alternative facts.” Reporter Peter Maas writes, “Milošević existed in a different dimension, a twilight zone of lies, and I was mucking about in the dimension of facts.”

Sound familiar?  How are these leaders able to bring so many others into their twilight zone?  What makes neighbor turn against neighbor? Continue reading