Get Off My Lawn!

Yesterday the Niskanen Center submitted a comment letter on the National Park Service’s proposed changes to the rules governing demonstrations and protests in Washington, D.C. Remarkably, proposed changes read like they were drafted by minions of Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or Vladimir Putin.

Our letter, which was co-signed by 35 prominent individuals and 8 organizations, focuses on just three of the more galling proposed rule changes: requiring all demonstrations to get permits, making demonstrators pay for these permits, and closing the White House sidewalk to protesters.

Here’s a thought experiment: imagine asking Ben Franklin, Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or any other signer of the Declaration of Independence whether they thought it would be a good idea to necessitate the King’s permission (and pay for the privilege of doing so), before they could protest the Stamp Act or the Townshend Duties.  

It actually gets worse. While the Park Service at least said what it was planning to do about permits and fees, it did not say a single word about closing the White House sidewalk to protesters.  Instead, it quietly slipped that provision into the proposed changes to the regulations without any discussion in the regulatory prologue, which is where agencies describe what changes they are proposing and why they are doing so.

That is correct: the Park Service tried to ban demonstrations at the most iconic public forum in the country without letting anyone know it was doing this.  

If the Park Service gets away with this, the nation’s capital would effectively go silent. This is how authoritarianism begins.

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How the SALT Deduction Subsidizes Opportunity Hoarding

As part of last year’s tax reform, Congress introduced a $10,000 cap on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction. The change has been controversial, splitting members of Congress across regional and party lines. Now, the controversy has been rekindled by the push to make the tax reform’s changes to individual income taxes permanent (they are currently set to expire after a decade) and by a recent report from the Tax Policy Center showing that the benefits of repealing the SALT cap would accrue overwhelmingly to high-income taxpayers.

Among policy experts, there is a consensus that the cap disproportionately affects upper-income taxpayers in blue states. Stakeholders have used these basic facts to frame repeal proposals as either a valid response to a partisan attack on blue states or a hypocritical rationalization of tax cuts for the rich. Although the distributional effects of the SALT deduction cap are important, advocates of its repeal argue that what we really want to consider are its political effects. This is where we find more disagreement. Experts typically focus on two behavioral responses to higher real-estate taxes — migration and support for financing increased spending — but have ignored a third: support for housing regulations.

Missing Political Feedback Effects

The debate surrounding the merits of the SALT deduction is linked with debates about the appropriate size of government spending and structure of the tax system. On the spending side, demand for government services is constrained by the willingness of taxpayers to finance them. Because the SALT deduction lowers the cost of financing state/local government spending, residents will demand more spending with the deduction than they would in its absence. In other words, the SALT deduction incentivizes (depending on your perspective) big government or a generous social safety net.

On the tax side, the argument is that the SALT deduction incentivizes a heavier reliance on progressive taxation. Because it is only available to taxpayers who itemize, and it typically only makes sense for high-income taxpayers to itemize, the SALT deduction has the effect of reducing the cost of levying taxes on high-income earners relative to everyone else. In both cases, it potentially changes people’s incentive to vote in the ballot box or with their feet.

Many conservatives believe that in the absence of the SALT deduction, residents of high-tax states would quickly see the merits of moving to low-tax states after finding themselves forced to pay the full costs of higher government spending. There have been countless studies on the migration patterns of select groups of wealthy taxpayers (e.g., superstar athletes) in reaction to state tax changes, but the most comprehensive comes from sociologist Cristobal Young. He finds that tax rates have a negligible effect on the rich when it comes to decisions about state residency. For all the talk of capital being highly mobile, the owners of capital are just like everyone else. They set down roots in a certain region and are unlikely to move cross-country just to save a few dollars on their taxes. As the Brookings Institution’s Vanessa Williamson reasons, “blue-state Democrats may have reasons to alter their tax systems to avoid the new SALT cap, but the threat of losing revenue to millionaire flight should not be one of them.”

Many liberals believe that the SALT deduction reduces political resistance to higher taxes among the rich. As such, the new cap will make it harder to raise revenue through progressive taxes, forcing policymakers to look elsewhere for revenue or reduce spending. Because the SALT deduction was introduced as part of the original 1913 federal income tax, it is impossible to study its impact by seeking variation over time or across states. Some economists have tried to measure its impact by studying small changes that have been made to the deduction and come away with mixed results. Those that do find some evidence the SALT deduction induces states to rely more on progressive taxes often fail to account for basic alternative explanations, such as partisan control of state governments.

Moreover, this debate neglects one of the basic facts in the literature on fiscal federalism: The United States is the only country in the world that allows taxpayers to deduct the cost of state and local taxes. Despite this, it spends less than most rich democracies. For example, the absence of a SALT deduction has not stopped Canadian provinces from raising three times as much revenue from progressive income taxes as American states.

The problem with these claims about the SALT deduction is that they focus almost exclusively on the state level — whether people move from one state to another or whether they support more progressive state taxes. Few are discussing the SALT deduction’s potential effect on local communities. We do see feedback effects on peoples’ decisions about where to live and how to vote, but not in the way most people think.

SALT Deduction and NIMBYism

An emerging literature in sociology and political science is shifting our attention to local politics. Many of these studies focus on the problem of “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) politics.  We know that self-interested homeowners take their property values into consideration when voting and even do so at the expense of their ideological preferences. We know homeowner self-interest propels them into action at greater rates than other stakeholders. The result is the growth of exclusionary, NIMBY housing policies that exacerbate racial inequality and reduce social mobility.

In contrast to other tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction, the potential role of the SALT deduction in reinforcing or undermining exclusionary housing policies has drawn little attention from opponents of NIMBYism. It is worth unpacking its political effects, however, because the evidence suggests capping the SALT deduction dealt a substantial blow to NIMBYism.

From the perspective of pure self-interest, affluent homeowners have two major reasons to promote exclusionary housing policies. First, because such policies push up the value of existing housing, current homeowners see their property values skyrocket. This is important in the United States, where credit is cheap for those with the requisite collateral to take out loans. As the values of their homes rise steadily over time, homeowners build more equity that they can use for big-ticket items such as home improvement projects, their children’s college educations, and even medical emergencies.

Second, high prices make exclusionary communities unaffordable for most families. In keeping them that way, wealthy homeowners engage in a form of opportunity hoarding whereby they ensure their property taxes go exclusively toward the safest neighborhoods, best schools, and most amenities for themselves, to the exclusion of lower-income families.

The affluent town of Wellesley, Massachusetts, is a perfect example of these political dynamics. It is consistently ranked as one of the best places to live in Massachusetts, in large part because it excludes nonaffluent families by regulating housing so tightly that it is nearly impossible to build multifamily housing there. In theory, exclusion can be expensive though. As the value of your home rises, so does your property tax burden.

Imagine owning a house in Wellesley with today’s median value of $1,267,000. The property tax rate of 1.18 percent, while below the state average, means you will be end up paying $14,938 in total property taxes each year. It turns out that exclusion is very expensive. As exclusionary policies continue to drive up the value of your home, your taxes will get more expensive. In this scenario, a self-interested homeowner is forced to weigh the benefits of home equity and municipal services against the cost of property taxes. In other words, the homeowner must bear the cost of their NIMBYism.

Pouring SALT on the Wound

This is where the SALT deduction is important. Rather than subsidize property tax rate increases with the noble end of providing services, it looks like the SALT deduction incentivizes increases in the assessed value of the underlying property, bought through exclusionary policies. Prior to the introduction of the $10,000 cap, that homeowner was able to deduct the entire cost of their property taxes from their federal liability. For simplicity, let us assume they are in the 24 percent income-tax bracket. Of the $14,938 they paid in local property taxes, the federal government will refund them $3,585, effectively reducing their property tax burden by 24 percent. This amounts to a $3,585 incentive for residents to support exclusionary policies because they gain all the benefits while the full cost is subsidized by taxpayers outside of the community.

With the new SALT deduction cap, that same homeowner can only deduct $10,000 worth of property taxes, reducing the NIMBY subsidy from $3,585 to $2,400. They must now pay more of the cost of their NIMBYism. As their home value increases and the real value of the unindexed cap decreases, they will be forced to pay even more of that cost over time.

It is no coincidence, as many blue-state politicians have complained, that the cost of the SALT deduction cap falls disproportionately on residents of states like California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. It is a downright lie to say that it falls predominantly on the middle class in these states, though. The reality is that the SALT deduction cap reduces subsidies for affluent people in affluent exclusionary communities who have been collecting a NIMBY premium for far too long. We should be celebrating it as a victory for inclusion and affordable housing.

As members of Congress begin to think more seriously about what kinds of federal policy changes can help tackle the scourge of local NIMBYism, dropping efforts to repeal the SALT deduction cap are a great start. But ultimately, they need to move toward the goal of eliminating the SALT deduction altogether.

Joshua McCabe is an assistant professor of sociology and the assistant dean for social sciences at Endicott College. He is an expert on tax and social policy; author of The Fiscalization of Social Policy: How Taxpayers Trumped Children in the Fight Against Child Poverty (Oxford University Press); and a Niskanen Center Senior Fellow. 

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Winning Isn’t Everything

“You, sir, under historic scrutiny, were proven innocent.” Donald Trump to Brett Kavanaugh, Oct. 8, 2018

“The President addressed the comments back during the campaign. We feel strongly that the people of the country also addressed that when they elected Donald Trump president.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Donald Trump’s taped comments bragging about groping women, Dec. 7, 2017

“The White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns. We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care. They voted for him.” Kellyanne Conway, Jan. 22, 2017


Not for the first time, and probably not for the last, the Trump administration is trying to persuade its audience of a deeply pernicious version of “might makes right:” that a political victory counts as moral vindication. The case at hand is the idea that now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation by the Senate somehow disproves the allegations of sexual assault against him. Trump was unusually explicit about this on Monday, but expect to hear variations of it from him, other members of his administration, and the talking-points-reciting apologists in Congress and elsewhere for a long time to come.

No one actually, consciously believes that a political victory can prove the victor innocent of charges that were under dispute at the time. In any dispute about whom to elect or appoint to a public office, many different issues are in play and the decision-makers (voters, senators, etc.) might decide that a particular charge is true, or probably true, and yet outweighed by other considerations. Or the decision-makers might think the charge is false and be wrong about that, since the election or the confirmation hearing wasn’t a criminal trial and didn’t involve the careful presentation of all the evidence. (And even a not-guilty verdict at a criminal trial doesn’t prove innocence; it only says that proof beyond a reasonable doubt hasn’t been provided to the satisfaction of these jurors and/or this judge.) Stated generally, there’s surely nothing controversial about any of this. Treating an election or a confirmation vote as proof of innocence is an updated version of the superstition associated with trial by combat: If I were guilty, the gods wouldn’t have let me win.

And yet the repeated use of this kind of might-makes-right argument by the Trump administration doesn’t strike their audience as jarringly absurd. It resonates, and lends itself to easy repetition. Why?

Part of the answer, of course, is simply that this is the kind of thing Trump does, and does well. Big, absurd lies have their own value as demonstrations of power. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has been emphasizing since Sean Spicer’s term-opening lies about inaugural crowd size that the administration relies on a strategy of clouding the existence of a shared reality based on shared facts (remember Conway’s “alternative facts” or Rudy Giuliani’s repeated variations on Pontius Pilate’s shrugging question, “What is truth?”), with the effect of solidifying the Republican base’s resistance to any evidence of wrongdoing. That such nonsense “triggers the libs” is a bonus.

But some nonsense works better than others, and this nonsense both rhymes with some truths and rests on a very widespread kind of mistaken belief.

Trial by combat was an absurd method for discovering the truth, except insofar as the participants believed in it and guilty parties therefore didn’t see it through. I have no view on how widespread such belief was, but in at least some eras it probably resulted in better-than-random outcomes: The innocent were more likely than the guilty to use it, and half the time or so they were therefore acquitted. But its social value probably survived the loss of the associated superstition, and that value was to settle the matter. The ability to reach a conclusion is a key virtue in a legal system; the endless spiral of the blood feud can be replaced with a procedure that people can coordinate around as an end point.

The prohibition on double jeopardy in criminal trials provides a modern kind of closure and conclusion. The important doctrine of res judicata does the same in civil trials, preventing the same dispute from getting refought over and over again by losing parties seeking out new courts. There’s a real value to these rules, and res judicata has been metaphorically extended beyond the courtroom with the increased adoption of the word “relitigate” in political contexts — always as something that one should not do.

The metaphorical extension has something to be said for it. Max Weber cautioned us against treating political disputes — including war — as an excuse to assign guilt or to wallow in old feuds. “Everything else is unworthy and will enact its own retribution… Every new document that comes to light after decades have passed will revive undignified quarrels and stir up all the hatred and anger once more…”

He wrote these words while the Treaty of Versailles was being negotiated, and their warning not to compound the injury of loss with the insult of punishment looks wise in that context. The end of the next World War, though, teaches us that this wisdom has limits, and sometimes guilt is very important to determine indeed. And if this is true for wars — which, like trials, must be allowed to really conclude — it’s that much more true for ordinary political life that just always goes on happening.

The inchoate idea that election results reveal some kind of truth that can’t be revisited finds explicit defense in Rousseau: The losers of a vote learn that they were mistaken even about what they themselves wanted. But it neither began nor ended with him; the saying vox populi, vox Dei is well over a thousand years old. And when we remember that ancient Greek democracies relied on lottery rather than election (which was considered the tool of aristocrats), and that introducing an element of chance has a traditional association with a moment of letting the gods decide for us, we can see something similar to the superstition of the trial by combat at work.

There is an upsurge of interest in selection by lottery in contemporary political theory. I don’t really know what to think about that overall, but the part of it that appeals to me is that we don’t think about random chance the way the ancients did. Maybe we’d have a harder time mistaking the outcome of a coin flip for the vox Dei.

What I hope is that we can instead learn to see elections, referenda, confirmations, and similar moments in politics as just moments: contingent, filled with accident and chance, settling one question for the moment — who will take office? — but not drawing a curtain over the disagreements that preceded it. In a particularly important passage of his essay “Realism and Moralism in Political Theory” the late Bernard Williams wrote:

“A very important reason for thinking in terms of the political is that a political decision — the conclusion of a political deliberation which brings all sorts of considerations, considerations of principle along with others, to one focus of decision — is that such a decision does not in itself announce that the other party was morally wrong or, indeed, wrong at all. What it immediately announces is that they have lost.”

This is precisely the victor’s modesty that was absent in, for example, Trump’s remarks on Kavanaugh. The opponents of Kavanaugh’s confirmation have lost. And that’s all that we should say for sure.

Does it follow that relitigation can continue forever in politics, that there can be no closure? Not quite. We’re never done arguing about the political past: What caused this era of economic growth or that of slowdown? Was the war entered into too slowly, teaching us the dangers of appeasement, or too rashly, teaching us the dangers of warmongering? What groups have suffered which injustices that call for remedies today? Those questions of historical interpretation are always with us in current politics, and should be.

But in the normal course of healthy politics, criminal charges shouldn’t hang over everyone’s head. The urge to criminalize ordinary political disagreement is another species of the toxic belief that the democratic people naturally forms a united whole, a belief that the Founders struggled with in the era of the Alien and Sedition Acts but gradually overcame with the development of permanent party competition. Such ordinary political disagreement should normally be forward-looking: what each party proposes to do, informed by historical judgments about what programs have worked well in the past.

The problem is that preventing the criminalization of ordinary political disagreement must not be a barrier to the prosecution of actual criminal activity, whether it be sexual assault or tax evasion or perjury or the obstruction of justice. Nor may it interfere with retrospective judgments of misconduct in office of the sort that rightly generate impeachments, such as violations of the emoluments clauses of the Constitution. The idea that ordinary politics does not include the threat of criminal prosecution rests on the background thought that ordinary politicians are not credibly chargeable with criminal activity or abuse of office for such aims as personal enrichment. Matters are necessarily different when when procedural victors may also be, in their personal capacities, guilty of crimes. In such cases the reason for provisional settlement in ordinary political disagreement doesn’t apply (we’re not criminalizing disagreement); neither does the reason for provisional settlement after a trial apply (the question at hand hasn’t ever been squarely addressed by a competent body; it hasn’t been litigated the first time.) The reasons for provisional settlement provided by either trials or ordinary political disagreement don’t apply

Of course, claims that elections or procedures have stood in the place of vox Dei are that much more absurd when elections are won through technically legitimate rules that nonetheless endorse the second-place candidate in terms of vox populi, or when confirmations are provided by senators who represent a much less than a popular majority of the country as a whole. I believe they are absurd in any case — a nomination by a popular-majority president followed by confirmation by a popular-majority Senate still would not stand for vox Dei and would not constitute proof of innocence —  but the absurdity is multiplied when what has taken place is really the equivalent of a series of coin tosses.

The boundaries to draw here are matters of judgment, not of bright-line rules. There is a genuine danger of procedural victors engaging in prosecutorial overreach to punish those who have only lost, and to create a veneer of criminal prosecutability to cover for it. But still, procedure is not substance, politics is not law or morality, and victory is not vindication. When the winners treat winning as res judicata, when the powerful proclaim that their gained-by-the-flip-of-a-coin power constitutes judgment from the heavens of their innocence, when they treat their might as making right, then we know we’re being lied to.


Jacob T. Levy is Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory and Director of the Yan P. Lin Centre for the Study of Freedom and Global Orders in the Ancient and Modern Worlds at McGill University; author of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom and scholarly articles including, most recently,”Contra Politanism” and “Political Libertarianism;” and a Niskanen Center Senior Fellow and Advisory Board Member.

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The War in Afghanistan Turns 17

As of Sunday, the war in Afghanistan is 17 years old. That sentence alone is shocking. Most teens that age have “senioritis” and thoughts about the independence college will bring at the forefront of their minds. Many of those same teenagers will enlist in the military and possibly fight in a war that began before they were born.

Explanations for the war’s persistence can be found in three spheres: political, military, and societal. In short, no American president wants to be the one to “lose” Afghanistan, military leaders generally believe that “there is no substitute for victory,” and the American public is divorced from the costs and consequences of the war but has outsized fears of terrorism.

The Bush administration launched the war on Oct. 7, 2001, less than a month after the attacks of Sept. 11. Despite Afghanistan’s reputation as the “graveyard of empires,” U.S. military success was stunning. In line with what later became known as the “Afghan Model,” U.S. airstrikes and special operations forces combined with Afghan rebel forces to oust the Taliban from power. A new government was established under Hamid Karzai, but the situation has continued to deteriorate ever since. “Victory” has remained elusive across three administrations. Despite increasing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, the Obama administration pledged that it would remove troops by the end of 2014. President Donald Trump also railed against the wisdom of the conflict, but he, too, increased the American military presence — claiming he would pursue a radically different strategy that was, in reality, little different than that of his predecessors.

How does a country remain in a war that is old enough that the children of its veterans can serve in it? It makes little strategic sense to do so given the likelihood that success will remain elusive at any acceptable cost and the need to dedicate resources to looming major power competition. Why does the conflict persist?

First, no American president wants to be blamed for losing the war. The image of U.S. troops retreating is bad enough; the victors’ messy consolidation power over the fallen country threatens to add insult to injury.  For example, the Nixon administration wanted to create a situation in which there was a “decent interval” between an American withdrawal from Vietnam and the day North Vietnam “gobble[d] up” the south, so that the fall could be blamed on the government in Saigon. Multiple presidents have understandably chafed at the prospect of images of Taliban forces overrunning Kabul on their watch.

Second, while military leaders are reluctant to start wars, generally speaking, they believe in finishing them. As one of President Trump’s favorite generals, Douglas MacArthur, declared, “there is no substitute for victory.” And while it is not at all true, the sentiment is understandable and encapsulates how many military leaders feel. America’s military leaders have been unified in their belief that the war should continue, and several have gone to great rhetorical lengths to convince the president of that. Secretary of Defense (and retired U.S. Marine Corps general) James Mattis, for example, told the president that the United States needed to stay in Afghanistan — and send troops elsewhere — because doing so was necessary to prevent a terrorist attack on Times Square. Then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, at the time an active-duty U.S. Army three-star, reportedly showed the president pictures of Afghan women in 1970s Kabul wearing miniskirts to convince him of what could be if the military remained. The military also routinely reports progress in the war. Yet after 17 years, so many corners have been turned, the war effort is going in circles.

Third, the American public feels no pain from the war. A number of scholars have demonstrated how the failure to internalize the costs of war — in treasure or blood — disconnects the American people from the consequences of 17 years of fighting. With less than 1 percent of the population serving in the active-duty military, few Americans personally face the risks of combat. More importantly, as Cornell University political scientist Sarah Kreps has written about extensively, the lack of taxes to pay for the war divorces the American people from the financial consequences of the effort.

Foreign policy generally plays little role in elections, but the fact that the war continues to feel cost-free for the American people all but ensures voters will fail to pressure their elected leaders to end it.

Making the problem more intractable is that the three factors discussed here are interrelated. For example, while foreign policy writ large generally plays little role in electoral politics, terrorism looms large. The American people have an outsized fear of terrorism. Analyst after analyst has found that the odds of dying are infinitesimal. Yet Americans in 2016 ranked the issue’s importance to their decision at the ballot box disproportionately high when compared to the real-world impact terrorism has.

The electoral salience of terrorism makes Mattis’ warning about preventing an attack on Times Square weighty. President Trump ran, in part, on being tougher than everyone else on terrorism. He would “bomb the shit” out of ISIS, go after terrorists’ families, and reintroduce torture as a counterterrorism measure. A successful terrorist attack following a withdrawal from Afghanistan would shatter the image he has attempted to project and reinforce the narrative that a war was “lost” on his watch. Meanwhile, public ambivalence about the war itself means there is no political counterweight against these arguments.

This analysis paints a pretty dismal picture, suggesting as it does that the war in Afghanistan will still be with us when it becomes old enough to drink in a few years. Some analysts have suggested foreign policy overreach will not end absent some “shock” to the American political system, most likely in terms of a financial catastrophe. And while such an event cannot be ruled out, there are options available for more proactive solutions — specifically, internalizing the costs of the war in ways that might put a dent in the American public’s ambivalence to toward it.

Photo credit: Creative Commons 2.0 by the U.S. Army. 

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How the Democrat and Republican Parties Are Changing

Are the Democrats becoming a more ideological party while the Republicans emphasize social identity? The one year anniversary special edition of the podcast experiments with a more conversational format to discuss party change. Matt Grossmann is joined by his Asymmetric Politics co-author, Boston College political scientist David Hopkins. They discuss how much, and in what direction, the parties are changing. They both see more change on the Democratic side, but no decline in asymmetry.

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Matt Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, are the Democratic and Republican parties becoming more similar or different? For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. It’s the one-year anniversary of the podcast, and we’re experimenting with a more conversational format for this special edition. Today my guest is my co-author, Boston College political scientist, David Hopkins. We’ll be talking about how much the parties are changing since our book, Asymmetric Politics in 2016. I also got a chance to ask Dave about his new Cambridge University Press book, Red Fighting Blue. In Asymmetric Politics, we described the Democratic Party as a coalition of social groups and the Republican party as a symbolic ideological movement. We’ve all seen more change on the Democratic side since 2016, but most lines up with our theory.

David Hopkins: It seems to be the biggest change by far is this mobilization of women in the 2018 election, or really since the victory of Trump in 2016. We see it not only in terms of general activism and political donations and other forms of political participation, but also particularly candidates. A lot of candidates running, female candidates running at record rates, but also Democratic primary voters supporting women for Congress and other offices at record rates. We’ve seen just in one election cycle a transformation of the candidate and activist population of the Democratic party. It’s tough to come up with a clear precedent for such a big change over such a short time.

Matt Grossmann: I mean that’s obviously, in some ways, consistent with our argument that people identify with a social group and its policy priorities in the Democratic party, but it hadn’t heretofore really sort of been a group that had been active as a group within Democratic party politics. What changed and why, I guess? Feminists have always been part of the Democratic party coalition going back a long way, but I guess why hadn’t it materialized in terms of candidates and interest groups until now?

David Hopkins: Obviously there’s a Trump story here, that Trump in particular inspires this level of engagement and opposition, specifically among women, specifically among Democratic women. When we get to the bottom of the evidence of what’s driving this change this year, I’m sure a big part of the story is going to be just that Trump provokes this particular counter mobilization more than previous Republican candidates.

I also think there’s an interesting story about Hillary Clinton. I mean Hillary Clinton was not someone who inspired enthusiasm among Democratic voters and activists, certainly not to the extent that Obama had done. I do think there was something very meaningful about the idea of a woman president, that in some ways the meaning became greater when she was denied the presidency. Of course most people kind of assumed going into election day she was going to win.

I think for a lot of Democrats, especially a lot of Democratic women, as a genuinely historic moment, you know, make sure the kids stay up to see the first woman in history become president. I’m from Rochester, New York, which is where Susan B. Anthony is buried, and on election day in 2016 there were a long line of women coming to the grave site of Susan B. Anthony and sticking their “I voted” stickers right on the marker. I do think that there was something that was important, that then when it was, in this major upset, it was denied so abruptly, immediately generated this incredibly powerful political and emotional response. We saw it right from the beginning with the Women’s March in the first week of the Trump presidency, that from the beginning, the legacy of 2016 on both sides, both Trump and Clinton, has translated into this unprecedented engagement among Democratic women this year.

What about young people as a social group within the Democratic party coalition? Obviously they were associated with the Bernie Sanders candidacy to some extent. We’ve seen some recent successes of younger candidates. Are they operating more as a sort of a group constituency within the Democratic party than they used to be?

It seems like that’s possible. You know, young people are still obviously less likely to vote or to participate in general in politics than older people, but I do see some dynamics within the party, at least in some of the primaries and some of the districts we’ve seen this year, where there’s sort of a distinctive political style that plays better with younger voters, and as millennials and the younger Gen X generation sort of start reaching the age where they would be expected to vote and otherwise participate at higher rates, I think that may, going forward, be a more powerful constituency within the party. Certainly as a coalition partner, young people are starting to be important. If you’re running in a Democratic party primary and you can put together a coalition that’s young people plus, say, African-American or Latino voters, plus women, plus some other group, then it’s very easy-

Matt Grossmann: You can add to what you have already.

David Hopkins: Yeah. It’s very easy to make the math work in the Democratic primary. Only being the candidate of the young probably doesn’t get you the nomination in most parts of the country, but if you’re the candidate of the young and somebody else too, then maybe you’re in good shape.

Matt Grossmann: Yeah, and I mean that’s a very old story in some ways in the Democratic party. The party reforms had quotas for young people in addition to racial minorities. We saw Howard Dean and Obama run. They drew disproportionately from young people initially, and as you say, because there weren’t very many people born in the 1970s, there was actually a time period in which there were just fewer young voters relative to other generations. The sort of lynch pin in the Democratic party has always been racial minority voters. That is, you need to have some support from that constituency to win primaries, and African-Americans in particular had acted often as a block and a constituency that wants to be heard as African-Americans in the party. Is that changing at all? Is that constituency rising or falling or not really seeing much of a change?

David Hopkins: Well I think we’re seeing cases where they are a critical constituency. You know, Andrew Gillum in Florida, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, cases of African-American candidates in Democratic primaries that, again, have been able to sort of put together a coalition that’s quite formidable. We saw here in Boston with Ayanna Pressley versus Capuano in the seventh district of Massachusetts, where again an important element of that coalition is getting strong support and strong turnout from African-American voters. Yeah, as the Democratic party becomes more racially diverse, I think they increase, in some ways, in importance over time.

Matt Grossmann: One of the major questions we get all the time, sometimes it’s phrased as a criticism, but sometimes it’s just a, “What’s likely to happen in the future?” is that the left is really rising as the left in the Democratic party, and obviously there are a few examples that are consistent with that thesis, although the sort of broader analyses of Democratic primaries this year haven’t really shown much of an ideological effect. That is, liberal candidates were no more likely to win compared to other candidates in Democratic primaries, but there does seem to be more liberal candidates running, and in particular on social issues, Democrats as a whole moving leftward or at least towards more acknowledgement of racial discrimination and towards more liberal positions on social issues. To what extent is the Democratic party moving left, and to what extent is it moving left because of this liberal movement within the Democratic party?

David Hopkins: That’s a great question. I think that we may see some overstatement of the change that has occurred. This one primary win in Brooklyn and sort of cherry picked few primary results in 2018 don’t really add up to a coast to coast transformation of the party, but I do think there’s something to the idea that the left is becoming somewhat stronger in terms of its organization and its mobilization within the Democratic party. That has been something that has sort hurt the left historically, has been organizational weakness, number one, in general, in America.

Matt Grossmann: There’s sort of been a protest politics preference.

David Hopkins: Right, over electoral politics, and also a sort of ambivalent relationship at best with the Democratic party. You know, a lot of lefties have not been really sure whether the Democrats are their friend or their enemy, or whether it’s better to work within the party or to try to pressure the party from outside. Maybe this is partially a legacy of the Sanders campaign. Maybe this is partially just a change in experience or in strategy or in ideas, but it does seem like there’s more organizational energy than there was in the recent past behind kind of a Democratic socialist of leftist kind of politics within the Democratic party that’s putting more focus on winning, backing candidates in Democratic primaries and trying to get them into office.

Now having said that, I do think that’s limited to certain parts of the country, to certain constituencies that already were usually represented by pretty liberal Democrats. I don’t think there’s a huge transformation, ideologically speaking, in the party at large, but I do think there’s maybe a change in the balance of pressure, where there’s a bit more pressure coming from the left wing on Democratic elected officials than probably they’ve been used to for the past 20 or 30 years.

Matt Grossmann: We also discussed what had not changed for the Democrats. Surprisingly, they’re looking fairly united. Any other changes that people sort of expected from the Democratic party that have materialized? I guess the one that I would point to might be this continuing fight between the Bernie and Hillary factions as if they were kind of these constant blocks. The resistance seems to have incorporated both pretty easily, and sort of Trump is uniting the Democratic party.

David Hopkins: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think you would normally think after a loss like the Democrats had in 2016, that there would be an incredible amount of internal conflict within a party in the Democrat’s position, if only to assign blame for the blowing of a winnable election against a candidate that they very much opposed. I don’t know if it’s that Democrats feel like the health of the republic is in the balance and this is no time to point fingers or what it is, but there’s really been less internal disagreement, ideological, tactical, really along any lines than you would sort of expect from a minority party that had just lost the White House in the fashion that they did.

I don’t know if this is related, but I think another point that comes out of what you said is that’s sort of surprising, sort of a dog that didn’t bark, is Bernie Sanders has sort of been much less of a factor in national politics post 2016 than I think a lot of people expected after 2016. I think they expected him to sort of claim the mantle of spokesman for the Democratic left or the American left, to play a very prominent role in debates over the future of the Democratic party to sort of try to consolidate influence.

Matt Grossmann: How about the Republicans? Hopkins says they’ve united around Trump to a greater extent than expected, but with surprising continuity in their views.

David Hopkins: One thing about the Republicans that may be somewhat surprising, I think, again, compared to expectations prior to 2017 is how thoroughly Trump has managed to consolidate power and leadership within the sort of electoral and candidate wing of the party. There really is no anti-Trump faction that you can really point to that speaks for a set of leading Republican office holders or Republican-aligned interest groups. He’s really succeeded pretty thoroughly in marginalizing opposition, not within the entire party, but within the kind of candidate and elected official wing of the party. He’s done that even though his broader appeal is so limited that at least if you’re representing a district that is open to competition in a general election, distancing yourself from Trump might be smart politics for other Republicans, but they haven’t really organized in any kind of systematic way to put any sort of limits on him or to separate themselves from him in any kind of consistent manner over the past two years. I think this is very-

Matt Grossmann: It doesn’t seem to be necessarily, on an ideological or issue basis. People aren’t really changing opinions on trade or anything like that. They’re just kind of going with Trump because they know the Republican base is with Trump. We actually saw this in the Michigan governor’s race too, where, if you want to say, the more Trumpian candidate won the primary, and it’s having problems in the general election for Bill Schuette, because he’s aligned himself more with Trump. There was nothing about him that necessarily connected him with Trump. I don’t think he’s endorsed any new Trumpian issue positions, so it seemed to be just a very that they want to make a personalistic attachment to Trump, but not necessarily kind of change their issue agenda.

David Hopkins: Yeah. I think it goes to show the power of the conservative media. The conservative media, by and large, has decided with, you know, a few exceptions in terms of …

Matt Grossmann: On the more elite side, especially.

David Hopkins: Yeah, elite, George Will, a few of the people at National Review are obviously exceptions to that, but in terms of the sort of popular media, cable news plus internet plus talk radio, you know, Trump’s their guy. If you’re a Republican even in a vulnerable district, you’re scared to death that if you get crossways with Trump that the conservative media will sort of come down on you and the voters in your party will side with Trump in part because of that.

Matt Grossmann: That’s sort of an unexpected lack of change in some ways. You know, parties always get behind their incumbent president. Some people expected it to be different this time because we have such a different president. What about broader changes to our view of the Republican party? Does symbolic ideology still play the same role that it played, and has Trump taught us anything about the content of that symbolic ideology?

David Hopkins: It seems to me that Trump is a good test case for the extent to which symbolic conservatism at the mass level has a strong nationalist component to it, and even ethnocentric component to it. People who thought that symbolic conservatism was a completely different animal from that, I think, have been forced to grapple with that as a component. I would also say-

Matt Grossmann: I mean one of the points that I always make about it is that how can symbolic conservatism contain both the George Bush’s foreign policy and Donald Trump’s foreign policy as he articulated it in the campaign? The answer is it stays at this very symbolic general level of America might is right, even though there’s two different sets of policy positions associated with that view. You can imagine the very same people thinking that they’re holding the same view of America’s role in the world and endorsing these two very different candidates.

David Hopkins: Yeah. I think that’s right. According to my observation, I also think Trump has shifted a bit to sound more like a traditional conservative over time.

Matt Grossmann: Certainly on economic issues.

David Hopkins: Certainly on economic issues. In the 2016 campaign, for example, he almost never said anything about shrinking the size of government. That really wasn’t part of his message. Since he’s gotten into office he’s talked that kind of more traditional Republican talk much more.

Matt Grossmann: And obviously gone along with the tax cut.

David Hopkins: Yeah. Gone along with the specific policies that kind of flow from that. Trump has changed the party and changed conservatism to a degree, but I also think we can see the impact of the party and the ideological movement on Trump as well, that in some ways he’s become more conventional in his rhetoric as time has gone on.

Matt Grossmann: Let’s take, I guess, the more stark view of this. Some people say to us that, “What you say is symbolic conservatism was always racist or racially tinged White nationalist politics.” To what extent should we reach that view due to Trump, and have you changed you view on the extent to which that’s true?

David Hopkins: Yeah, I mean I remember when we published the book and even while we were writing the book, there was sort of a common critique from liberals that we were taking the small government conservative ideology too seriously as something sincere and not just kind of a dog whistle for ethnocentrism of various types. I think probably if we were writing the book today, we’d talk about that issue more in the book. Trump obviously brings this issue out more, and I think he shows that there is some truth to that. I also think he shows that there isn’t just a simple equation. We can’t simply say that symbolic conservatism is merely ethnocentrism or racism in disguise. One of the ways I think that that is important is you can sort of see people who have gotten off the Republican or conservative bus with Trump, who in fact are the people who are opponents of Trump from within the Republican party or within the conservative tradition. If it were just about taking what was always subtext and making it text and so who really cares, he’s just being honest, I don’t think we would have seen that change.

Matt Grossmann: Especially among folks that are, you know, economically invested in the Republican party’s policy priorities and sort of on board in other ways.

David Hopkins: Exactly right.

Matt Grossmann: There are people who are so disgusted by the racial politics or the gender politics that they’re making that move.

David Hopkins: Yeah. They’re not a majority of Republicans, but they are important in various ways. One population is just a lot of conservative intellectuals, professional Republicans in Washington who, you know, want nothing to do with the Trump administration, don’t want to work in the government under Trump, don’t support Trump actively within the party, and that has had an effect on Trump’s governing ability and the kinds of people who he’s been able to attract into power. That’s an important story even if it’s not the average Republican voter.

There are also pockets of previous Republican voters in a few key places, especially house districts in this election, districts that are upper middle class, white collar, professional, suburban, traditional red districts that are now in play or even leaning to the Democrats in part because you have these voters who were happy to support George W. Bush or Mitt Romney, but are not willing to support Trump. Some of them, again, actively opposed to Trump. It depends on how things go in November. It could turn out tha

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The Niskanen Center’s Poverty Program Welcomes Three New Fellows

The Niskanen Center Poverty and Welfare Program was founded on the premise that economic freedom and efficient systems of social insurance, far from being at odds, are in fact close complements. As such, we are excited to announce the addition of three new fellows — Joshua McCabe, Peter Jaworski, and Ted Marmor — each of whom brings expertise and passion to a different facet of our mission.


Joshua McCabe, Niskanen Center Senior Fellow

Joshua McCabe is an assistant professor of sociology and the assistant dean for social sciences at Endicott College. He is an expert on tax and social policy and author of The Fiscalization of Social Policy: How Taxpayers Trumped Children in the Fight Against Child Poverty (Oxford University Press). His current project looks at the comparative politics of fiscal federalism and regional inequities in the United States and Canada, focusing on intergovernmental grants for healthcare and social assistance programs.

Joshua McCabe has previously contributed to the Niskanen Center in support of our work on cash-based solutions to child poverty and household stability, with an eye to the ultimate goal of a fully refundable child allowance. McCabe’s current project (see: “The Real Source of Teachers’ Struggles” and “Federalism in Blue and Red”) brings to light how fiscal federalism, as currently instituted in FMAP formula and various grant programs, hampers the provision of equitable public services in the poorest parts of the country. Additionally, McCabe’s thoughts on the comparative health systems of the U.S. and Canada provides a fresh perspective on trade-offs associated with popular “Medicare for All” proposals, and suggests a path forward for universal health insurance delivered at the state level.

Peter Jaworski, Niskanen Center Adjunct Fellow

Peter Martin Jaworski is an Assistant Teaching Professor teaching business ethics. He was a Visiting Research Professor at Brown University, a Visiting Assistant Professor at the College of Wooster, and an Instructor at Bowling Green State University. His research interests include repugnant markets, especially donor compensation for blood plasma donations, the ethics of immigration, and social and political philosophy broadly. Peter’s has been published in academic journals including Ethics, Philosophical Studies, The Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, The Journal of Business Ethics, The Journal of Value Inquiry, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, amongst others. He has also  been cited in or written for popular venues including The Economist, Bloomberg, The Washington Post, USA Today, Maclean’s, the National Post, Reader’s Digest, Canadian Business, amongst others. Along with Jason Brennan, Peter is the author of “Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests” published in 2016. He is a co-founder, and Vice-Chairman of the Board of the Institute for Liberal Studies (Ottawa), an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute (Washington, DC), an Academic Advisory Board member with the Greater Mekong Research Center (Phnom Penh), and an Advisory Board member with the Freedom and Entrepreneurship Foundation in Poland.

Peter Jaworski’s work embodies our commitment to economic rights as individual rights, and has previously collaborated with the Center in our successful push to legalize compensation for bone marrow donors. We hope to extend this work into more ambitious proposals going forward, harnessing, a website Jaworski founded to lead campaigns on behalf of the rights of donor, most recently in an effort to block a Canadian proposal to ban compensation for blood plasma donations.

Theodore R. Marmor, Niskanen Center Adjunct Fellow

Theodore (Ted) Marmor’s scholarship primarily concerns welfare state politics and policy in North America and Western Europe. He particularly emphasizes the major spending programs, which is reflected in the second edition of The Politics of Medicare (Aldine de Gruyter, 2000) and the book written with colleagues Mashaw and Harvey in the early 1990s, America’s Misunderstood Welfare State (Basic Books, 1992). The author or co-author of eleven books, Marmor has published over a hundred articles in a wide range of scholarly journals, as well as being a frequent op-ed contributor to U.S. and Canadian newspapers. Professor Marmor began his public career as a special assistant to Wilbur Cohen Secretary of HEW in the mid-1960s. He was associate dean of Minnesota’s School of Public Affairs, a faculty member at the University of Chicago, the head of Yale’s Center for Health Services, a member of President Carter’s Commission on the National Agenda for the 1980s, and a senior social policy advisor to Walter Mondale in the Presidential campaign of 1984. He has testified before Congress about medical care reform, social security, and welfare issues, as well as being a consultant to government and non-profit agencies.

Ted Marmor brings to Niskanen a storied academic career as a trenchant and truthful scholar of social insurance in America. Consistent with our work on “The Free-market Welfare State,” Marmor sees public programs, from health insurance to Old Age Social Security, as essential compliments to a dynamic market economy. Through countless books and articles, Marmor has helped to not just describe how the American welfare state works, but also why it works the way it does, through nuanced analysis of the historical and political dynamics also help inform the space of possibilities for future reforms.

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NAFTA 2.0 Will Benefit the Digital Economy

The United States, Canada, and Mexico are set to be free of digital trade barriers, and that deserves a thumbs-up emoji. On September 30th, after more than a year of intense negotiations, a last-minute trade deal was reached to replace the longstanding North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The new agreement – informally dubbed “NAFTA 2.0” – includes major changes to trade in the automotive and dairy industries, while leaving wheat and grain industries largely unchanged. While we have all been closely watching the fate of cars, cows, and corn, what has evaded the headlines is something significant: the digital fingerprints left on our computers and other devices. Whenever we make an online purchase, post on Facebook, or type a query into Google’s search engine, we are creating new digital information which then travels across computers around the globe in what is known as cross-border data flows.

Data is the New Dairy

Brand new in NAFTA 2.0 is a chapter on digital trade which emphasizes free trade principles for the digital world. The addition of this chapter was uncontroversial among the three players, but not inconsequential. The original NAFTA took effect in 1994, preceding the modern Internet. Today, more than half of the world’s population is online, and in 2015 the global electronic commerce market amounted to $22.1 trillion according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, making the Internet economy the globe’s fifth largest economy. Cross-border data flow is integral to how the Internet works — without it, the Internet as we know it would cease to exist. Data is the currency of the Internet economy. For example, Facebook provides services to its users for “free” in exchange for personal information which is then packaged in meaningful ways for advertisers – creating value for all parties. Since these data exchanges either directly or indirectly become linked to commercial activity, they are “traded.” While trade in goods has flattened since 2010, cross-border data flow has been skyrocketing, contributing more to global GDP than trade in manufactured goods.

NAFTA 2.0 Commits to Free Trade in the Internet Economy

The digital trade chapter puts a hard stop to protectionist data measures — trade barriers that attempt to restrict cross-border data flow — in favor of a market liberalism approach to digital trade. The parties agreed not to place customs duties on digital products, not to restrict cross-border data flows, and not to require companies operating in their respective territories to use or build local data servers. The chapter also prohibits governments from requiring companies to disclose proprietary information such as computer source code. All of these provisions favor digital innovation.

Proponents of data protectionism point to concerns over personal information privacy and cybersecurity. It is unlikely that far-reaching data protectionist measures can mitigate those concerns. Requiring data to be stored on servers within a country increases costs and stifles competition while undermining security and privacy since local providers typically lack the expertise of global providers. On the other hand, restricting cross-border data flow reduces public access to information. An extreme example is China’s Great Firewall, which blocks certain websites, including Facebook and Google.

The digital trade chapter also includes safeguards intended to protect public interests. The agreement calls on each country to adopt domestic legal protections for personal information and allows for exceptions to free digital trade to meet public policy objectives such as blocking data flow for national security reasons. The language in the agreement is vague, however, and it is not clear what level of privacy and consumer protection it requires of each country. Currently, the United States has no baseline federal data protection law, while Canada and Mexico have more comprehensive legal protections. Despite some loose threads, the digital trade chapter could set a global standard for future trade agreements.

A Win For Whom?

Some argue that the free flow of data will disproportionately benefit the U.S. economy as it is home to 11 of the 15 leading Internet companies. That may be true, but digital free trade is still a net benefit for all three countries. Mexico has been gaining steam in the app development economy, while Canada is establishing itself as a leader in artificial intelligence. Unimpeded data flows are invaluable for innovation in the tech sector. A 2016 study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that 86% of tech-based startups rely on cross-border data flow. Free trade in the digital space is a win-win-win for North America, and NAFTA 2.0 delivers those wins.

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