Month: April 2018

How Voter ID Laws Disenfranchise Millions Of Americans

You may have heard that strict voter ID laws help reduce voter fraud, but this is statistically extremely rare. In fact, studies have shown that an American is more likely to be struck by lightning than to try to impersonate another voter at the polls.

Thirty-four states currently have laws that request or require citizens to show some form of identification to vote. The ACLU points out that ten states have strict voter ID laws “under which voters must present one of a limited set of forms of government-issued photo ID in order to cast a regular ballot -– no exceptions.” While for some, having an ID is a normal part of life, more than 21 million Americans do not have government-issued photo identification.

Proponents of voter ID laws argue that it helps prevent in-person voter impersonation. However, numerous studies have shown that this type of fraud is exceedingly rare. The Brennan Center for Justice found that the incidence of this type of fraud is between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent and that it is more likely that an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”

Instead, these laws disproportionately disenfranchise the elderly, the poor, and minorities. A quarter (25%) of African American voting age citizens do not have a government-issued ID, compared to only 8% of white Americans. In fact, a number of voter ID laws across the country have been ruled discriminatory and are “now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention,” according to Judge Richard A. Posner, a member of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

A Washington Post study found “a significant drop in minority participation when and where these laws are implemented.” In contrast, white voters are largely unaffected. Below is a chart that shows the turnout gap between different minority populations and the white population. It shows that strict voter ID laws exacerbate the voting gap and that this is particularly true of primary elections.


Voter ID Turnout Difference


The Post explains its chart this way: “In general elections in non-strict states [states without strong/any voter ID laws], for instance the gap between white and Latino turnout is on average 4.9 points. But in states with strict ID laws, that gap grows to a substantial 13.2 points.”

Achieving 100% Renewable Energy

We watch in horror as the damages from climate change continue to mount.

Last year, Hurricane Harvey dropped more rain on Houston than any storm has ever dropped on any American city, ever. Hurricane Maria set back development in Puerto Rico 25 years, according to early estimates. And the tab keeps mounting: in 2017 alone, the economic cost of hurricanes and wildfires was greater than the cost of paying tuition for every American in a public college or university. We can’t have a working nation or a world if we don’t stop the climate from careening out of control. That’s been clear for decades now, but what’s been less clear is precisely what we should do about it.

Happily, that’s no longer the case. We now know exactly what to do, and we’re increasingly certain it can be done. We have to switch off of coal, oil, and gas, and on to 100% wind, water, and sun energy sources. And though this drive for a conversion to clean energy started in northern Europe and northern California, it’s a call that’s gaining traction outside the obvious green enclaves. More and more major US cities have taken the pledge to go 100% renewable by the year 2050, while others have taken action to sever their ties with the fossil fuel industry, signifying a global shift in how we’re thinking about our energy system.

What Medicare for All is to the health care debate, or Fight for $15 is to the battle about inequality, 100% Renewable is to the struggle for the planet’s future. It’s how progressives will think about energy going forward.

Former President Barack Obama drove environmentalists crazy with his “all of the above” energy policy, which treated sun and wind as two items on a long menu that also included coal, gas and oil. That’s simply not good enough. No more half-measures.

Scientists now tell us that at current rates, within a decade we’ll likely have put enough carbon in the atmosphere to warm the earth past the Paris climate targets. And in any event there’s no need any longer to go slow: engineers have in the last few years brought the price of renewables so low that it would make sense to switch over even if fossil fuel wasn’t wrecking the earth. In fact, that’s why the appeal of 100% renewables goes well beyond the left: if you pay a power bill, clean energy is increasingly the common-sense path forward. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen automatically: the fossil fuel industry recognizes its peril, and is rallying all the political power its cash reserves can buy to prevent the idea getting traction. It’s going to be a hell of a fight.

“..if you pay a power bill [100% renewable] is increasingly the common-sense path forward.”

To understand why it took a while to get here, consider the solar panel. We’ve actually had this clever device for quite a while: Bell Labs produced the first recognizable models in 1954. They were only about four percent efficient, and they were incredibly expensive to produce, which meant that they didn’t find many uses on planet Earth. In space, however, they were essential: Buzz Aldrin deployed a solar panel on the moon not long after Apollo 11 touched down.

Improvements in efficiency and drops in price came slowly for the next few decades (Ronald Reagan, you may recall, took down the solar panels Jimmy Carter had installed atop the White House). But in 1998, with climate fears on the rise, Germany’s Green Party found itself holding the political balance of power after a close election. In return for its support, the Social Democratic government began moving quickly toward renewable energy. German demand for solar panels and wind turbines coincided with rapidly growing Chinese industrial capacity in the early years of the new millennia, as factories across the People’s Republic learned to make the panels ever more cheaply.

There are now days when Germany generates half of its power from the sun—and, more to the point, the price of a panel began to truly plummet years ago, a freefall that continues to this day. By 2017, solar or wind power had won most competitive bids for electric supply, and India announced the closure of dozens of coal mines and the cancellation of plans for dozens of new coal-fired generation stations because the cost of solar power was badly undercutting fossil fuel. Even in places like Abu Dhabi, the comparative advantage of free power from the sun is impossible to resist, and massive arrays are going up amidst the oil fields.

“What Medicare for All is to the health care debate, or Fight for $15 is to the battle about inequality, 100% Renewable is to the struggle for the planet’s future. “

One person who noticed the falling prices and improving technology early on was Mark Jacobson, the director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Energy Program. In 2009 his team published a series of plans showing how the United States could generate all its energy from the sun, the wind, and the falling water that produces hydropower. Two years later,  along with actor Mark Ruffalo and other co-conspirators, Marc co-founded The Solutions Project to take the idea out of academic journals and into the real world. The group has since published similarly detailed plans for most of the planet’s countries. (If you want to know how many acres of south-facing roof you can find in Alabama, or how much wind blows across Zimbabwe, these are the folks to ask).

With each passing quarter the price of solar and wind power has fallen farther, moving the 100 percent target from aspirational goal to the obvious solution. I spent the spring of 2017 in some of the poorest parts of Africa where people—for the daily price of enough kerosene to fill a single lamp—were now installing solar panels and powering up TVs, radios, and LED bulbs. If you can do it in Germany and you can do it in Ghana, you can probably do it in Grand Rapids and Gainesville.

That’s especially true since renewable energy is lights-on popular across the American political spectrum. The polling data is almost unbelievable: in a country with a yawning partisan gulf on virtually every issue, one poll after another shows that massive majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents favor government action to develop renewable energy.

“The fossil fuel industry is well aware that they’re not the future, yet they’re determined to keep us stuck in the past as long as possible.”

Even 72% of Republican voters want to “accelerate the development of clean energy” in the United States. That helps explain why, say, the Sierra Club is finding dramatic success with its Ready for 100 campaign. Sure, Berkeley was quick to sign on, and Madison, Wisconsin. But by the early summer of 2017 the U.S. Conference of Mayors had endorsed the drive, and leaders were popping up in unexpected places.

Columbia South Carolina mayor Steve Benjamin even said, “It’s not an option. It’s an imperative.” Environmental groups from Climate Mobilization to Greenpeace to Food and Water Watch are backing the 100% target, differing mainly on how quickly we must achieve the transition, with answers ranging from 2028 to 2050. (The right answer, given the state of the planet, is 25 years ago. The second best response: as fast as is humanly possible.)

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders joined with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley in the spring of 2017 to propose the first federal 100 percent bill. It won’t pass Congress any time soon, but Congress is not the only legislative body that matters in America—you could make an argument that in the Trump era capitals like Sacramento are just as important.

In a conscious bid to recreate the spirit of the Paris climate talks, California governor Jerry Brown summoned the world’s “sub-national” leaders—governors, mayors, regional administrators—to a giant San Francisco conference in September of 2018:

“Look, it’s up to you, and it’s up to me and tens of millions of other people to get it together to roll back the forces of carbonization and join together to combat the existential threat of climate change,” said Brown, as he invited the world to his gathering. If activists have their way over the next few months, many of those cities and states will arrive in the Bay bearing pledges to take their places totally renewable.

That’s not to say that this fight is going to be easy. The fossil fuel industry is well aware that they’re not the future, yet they’re determined to keep us stuck in the past as long as possible. Every year they can drag out the transition means billions of dollars in revenue.

The arguments against renewables has always been: the sun goes down, the wind ceases to blow. Indeed, one group of academics challenged Jacobson’s calculations last spring partly on these grounds.  But technology marches on: Elon Musk’s batteries work in Tesla cars, but scaled up they also make it possible, and economic, for utilities to store the afternoon’s sun for the evening’s electric demand. As one California utility executive said at an industry meeting in May 2017, “The technology has been resolved. How fast do you want to get to 100 percent? That can be done today.”

The trouble,  however, is that most utility executives think in very different ways. The growth in new rooftop  solar installations has come to what the New York Times called “a shuddering halt,” largely because of “a concerted and well-funded lobbying campaign by traditional utilities, which have been working in state capitals across the country to reverse incentives for homeowners.” Instead of cutting residents a break for helping solve the climate crisis, the utilities—led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Edison Electric Institute (whose lobbying efforts ratepayers actually underwrite)—are eager to end “net-metering” laws that let customers sell excess power they generate back to the grid. That’s pretty much the law that Germany used to make itself a renewable energy powerhouse—and in the process cause huge losses for its utilities.

Rather than trying to adapt to renewable energy, says industry observer Nancy LaPlaca, “utilities have a great monopoly going and they want to keep it.” They use their political clout to make sure that state regulators roll over.  Sometimes the results are truly ludicrous—Arizona, for instance, whose capital lies in the “Valley of the Sun” and whose sports fans root for the Suns and the Sun Devils, produces only about 4% of its power from solar energy. Its biggest utility has showered state regulators with dark money to keep it that way—in fact, in the spring of 2017 a former utility commissioner and his wife were indicted by the feds, along with an industry lobbyist, for their role in anti-solar shenanigans.

And it’s not just right-wing Republicans who want to keep business as usual chugging along. Democrats have often found themselves supporting new fossil fuel plans because they are beholden to the building trades unions for campaign support. That was the case last fall when the AFL-CIO, reflecting those building trades members, released a statement supporting the Dakota Access pipeline days after the security companies hired by the oil industry had sicced German Shepherds on indigenous protesters:

“The AFL-CIO supports pipeline construction as part of a comprehensive energy policy,” labor chief Richard Trumka said in a statement.  “Pipeline construction and maintenance provides quality jobs.” And of course Donald Trump approved the project early in his presidency, shortly after a cheerful meeting with the heads of the building trades unions. The first oil flowed through it the same afternoon that he pulled America out of the Paris climate accords.

That means, of course, that renewables advocates need to emphasize the jobs that will be created as we move towards sun and wind—and since those jobs aren’t always going to be in the same places as the fossil fuel ones they replace, a just transition for displaced workers is needed. There are already far more Americans employed in the solar industry than in the coal fields, and we’re still near the start of the conversion: Sanders and Merkley produced studies to show their federal 100 percent bill, beyond its generous transition benefits, would produce three million net new jobs over the coming decades.

Environmental justice advocates, who have been at the front of the climate fight, are quick to point out that a push for renewables needs to means more than EV charging stations and solar panels on the roofs of people who can afford big roofs. If a city announces it’s going 100% renewable and then keeps buying diesel buses (or stops buying buses altogether, relying on Lyft and Uber to create an alternate transit system), then it would be an empty boast.

“America’s twisted politics may slow the transition to renewables, but other countries are now pushing the pace.”

Meanwhile, renters need ways to join the renewable revolution, just like homeowners. None of it’s easy. As Jacqui Patterson, who heads the NAACP’s environmental justice work, says: “people now lose their lives for not being able to pay for electricity—they’re burning down their houses by using candlelight, or because their oil has run out and they have to use heaters,  or they’re on respirators and their electricity goes out. So as we’re transitioning to renewables, we need to make sure there are not unintended consequences in term of rate increases–for those communities ‘just transition’ means their bills don’t fluctuate upwards. Ideally their bills would go down.” In the best of worlds, she adds, “just transition means they’re owning part of the energy infrastructure. They’re not just a consumer writing a check every month, but they see now a chance to own part of that infrastructure.”

There are signs that’s starting to happen. When Sanders and Merkley announced their federal legislation in April of 2017, leaders of groups like Green for All and Brooklyn’s feisty UPROSE were featured speakers; one of the most impassioned endorsements came from Mustafa Ali of the Hip Hop Caucus: “This act gives our country an opportunity to embrace a just transition, honor the innovation and hard work that exists in communities that are often overlooked and forgotten, and revitalize  communities of color, low income communities and indigenous populations,” he said.

In May of 2017, the Wallace Global Fund, one of the big environmental philanthropies, pointedly awarded the Standing Rock Sioux a million dollars to build renewable energy on the reservation, a fitting commemoration to the bravery of protesters who tried to hold the Dakota pipeline at bay and a reminder that private charities will need to play a role in this transition as well. But the political battle will be hard-fought: the New York Times reported last year that the Koch Brothers have begun to aggressively (and cynically) court minority communities, arguing that they “benefit the most from cheap and abundant fossil fuels.”

America’s twisted politics may slow the transition to renewables, but other countries are now pushing the pace. In July of 2017, for instance, the Chinese announced that Qinghai Province—a territory the size of Texas—had gone a week relying on 100% renewable energy, a test of grid reliability designed to show that the country could continue its record-breaking pace of wind and solar installation. (About the same time the Chinese released aerial photos of their newest giant wind farm—which seen from above depicts a cheerful black-and-white panda).

China is not alone:

  • One Friday in April of 2017, Great Britain managed to meet its power demands without burning a lump of coal for the first time since the launch of the Industrial Revolution.
  • Solar production has grown six-fold since 2014 in Chile
  • Santiago announced that starting this year, their subway system will be running entirely on the sun.
  • Since January 1 of 2017, Holland’s train system has been entirely powered by the wind.

These are all good signs—but set against the rapid disintegration of ice caps and the record global temperatures set each of the last three years they also seem like too little. It’s going to take a deeper level of commitment—including turning the federal government from an obstacle to an advocate over the next election cycles. That’s doable precisely because the idea of renewable energy is so popular.

“There’s a few reasons why 100% renewable is working—why it’s such a powerful idea,” says Mike Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “People have agency, for one. People who are outraged, alarmed, depressed, filled with despair about climate change—they want to make a difference in ways they can see, so they’re turning to their backyards. Turning to their city, their state, their university. And, it’s exciting—it’s a way to address this not just through dread with something that sparks your imagination.”

Sometimes, he said, all environmentalists have to rally together to work on the same thing: the Keystone pipeline, the Paris accord. “But in this case the politics is as distributed as the solution—it’s people working on thousands of examples of the one idea.”  An idea whose time has come.

Michael Lighty On Medicare For All And Accepting No Substitute

Regular viewers and listeners of the The Zero Hour know that RJ Eskow is a supporter of Medicare For All. In this episode, RJ welcomes back Michael Lighty to talk about being a leader and expert in the healthcare field, accepting no substitutions for Medicare For All, and the progress thus far as more and more Americans and political figures embrace the idea.


Felon Disenfranchisement

Rates of felon disenfranchisement vary dramatically between states. In Vermont and Maine, felons never lose their voting rights, while in others, felons regain their right to vote when the state deems they have paid their debt to society – either after they are released or after parole and/or probation. Still other states, however, do not restore voting rights to felons unless they apply for and receive a Governor’s action or court action allowing them to vote.

In addition, this disenfranchisement disproportionately affects African Americans. According to the Sentencing Project “1 of every 13 African Americans has lost their voting rights due to felony disenfranchisement laws, vs. 1 in every 56 non-black voters.”


Felon Voting Rights


Some states, however, have begun to look into these laws. A judge recently deemed this practice unconstitutional in Florida. Currently in Florida, convicted felons cannot vote unless they are granted restoration through a governor’s or court order. The judge stated “[Elected], partisan officials have extraordinary authority to grant or withhold the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of people without any constraints, guidelines, or standards… Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration. … The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not.”

Similarly, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced that he “intends to restore voting rights to felons on parole, a move that could open the ballot box to more than 35,000 people.”

Despite these advancements, in many states, these disenfranchised Americans are people who have served their debt to society and yet continue to be punished well beyond their time served in prisons, jails, probation, and parole.

Ultimately, these men and women across the United States have little to no political recourse for challenging or changing the laws that took away their vote. While some of these laws address actions that will always be felonies, keep in mind that possessing marijuana can still accrue a felony in many states despite support (61% of Americans) for legalization.

A Path To Full Employment

By: L. Randall Wray, Flavia Dantas, Scott Fullwiler, Pavlina R. Tcherneva, Stephanie A. Kelton

Despite reports of a healthy US labor market, millions of Americans remain unemployed and underemployed, or have simply given up looking for work. It is a problem that plagues our economy in good times and in bad—there are never enough jobs available for all who want to work. L. Randall Wray, Flavia Dantas, Scott Fullwiler, Pavlina R. Tcherneva, and Stephanie A. Kelton examine the impact of a new “job guarantee” proposal that would seek to eliminate involuntary unemployment by directly creating jobs in the communities where they are needed.

The authors propose the creation of a Public Service Employment (PSE) program that would offer a job at a living wage to all who are ready and willing to work. Federally funded but with a decentralized administration, the PSE program would pay $15 per hour and offer a basic package of benefits. This report simulates the economic impact over a ten-year period of implementing the PSE program beginning in 2018Q1.

Unemployment, hidden and official, with all of its attendant social harms, is a policy choice. The results in this report lend more weight to the argument that it is a policy choice we need no longer tolerate. True full employment is both achievable and sustainable.


Despite headline-grabbing reports of a healthy US labor market, millions of Americans remain unemployed and underemployed. It is a problem that plagues our economy in good times and in bad—there are never enough jobs available for all who want to work. The problem is most acute for women, youths, blacks, and Latinos, although research also finds a persistent lack of employment for large numbers of working-age men.

This report asks a set of big questions:

  • What if we sought to eliminate involuntary unemployment across all demographic groups and geographic regions, by directly creating jobs in the communities where they are needed through a federally funded Public Service Employment program?
  • How could such a radical transformation of the labor market be implemented?
  • What would it cost, and what would it mean for the US economy?

A number of important implications emerge from this analysis. Joblessness, defined as the inability to secure a job at a living wage ($15 per hour), can be eliminated in every corner of America for every eligible person who desires to work. With a standing job offer—a “public option”—available at all times, the US labor market would transition to a permanent state of true full employment. Millions of American families would be lifted out of poverty, and the economy would grow as the benefits of the program spill over into the private sector.

Perhaps most astonishingly, this can all be done without the need to raise taxes and without creating an inflation problem.

We propose the creation of a Public Service Employment (PSE) program that would offer a job at a living wage to all who are ready and willing to work.

This is a “job guarantee” program that provides employment to all who need work by drawing from the pool of the otherwise unemployed during recessions and shrinking as private sector employment recovers. Federally funded but with a decentralized administration, the PSE program would pay $15 per hour for both full- and part-time positions and offer benefits that include health insurance and childcare. In addition to guaranteeing access to work on projects that serve a public purpose, the PSE program establishes effective minimum standards for wages and benefits. We have simulated the economic impact over a tenyear period of implementing the PSE program beginning in 2018Q1. Drawing from the unemployed, underemployed, and those who are out of the labor force, the program would attract roughly 15 million people into the PSE workforce, based on our higherbound estimates of likely program participants.

While the report also presents lower-bound estimates, the results highlighted here correspond to this higherbound scenario:

  • Real, inflation-adjusted GDP (2017Q4 dollar values) would be boosted by $560 billion per year on average, once the PSE program is at full strength (from 2020 to 2027).
  • The economic stimulus generated by the PSE program would also increase private sector employment by up to an additional 4.2 million private sector jobs relative to the baseline, due to the “multiplier effects” of the program.
  • Even though it boosts GDP by over $500 billion per year, adds more than 19 million private and public service jobs, and raises wages nationwide above $15 per hour, the program’s impact on inflation is minor: the boost to inflation peaks at 0.74 percentage points higher than the baseline projection and then progressively falls to a negligible 0.09 percentage points higher than the baseline by the end of the simulation period.
  • The program’s net impact on the federal budget averages 1.53 percent of GDP in the first five years of the program (2018–22) and 1.13 percent of GDP in the last five years (2023–27). These net budgetary impacts could be significantly overestimated, since the simulation makes very cautious assumptions about offsetting reductions in Medicaid and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) expenditures that would result from higher employment and wages. Executive Summary 2 Public Service Employment
  • State-level government budgets are improved by a total of $53 billion per year by boosting employment and growth.
  • Based on the demographics of estimated PSE participants, the program would disproportionately benefit women and minorities.
  • One full-time worker in the PSE program could lift a family of up to five out of poverty. With one full-time and one part-time worker, a family of eight could rise above the poverty line.
  • In addition to these measured benefits, the PSE program would lower spending by all levels of government, as well as by businesses and households, on a range of costly problems created by unemployment. It is possible that the program would “pay for itself” in terms of savings due to reduced crime, improved health, greater social and economic stability, and larger reductions in Medicaid and EITC expenditures than those assumed in the simulations.
  • The projects undertaken in every community would provide visible benefits, meeting specific local needs through work that involves caring for people, strengthening communities, and protecting and renewing the environment. This report develops a blueprint for the design, jobs, and implementation of the PSE proposal for the United States. Unemployment, hidden and official, with all of its attendant social harms, is a policy choice. The results in this report lend more weight to the argument that it is a policy choice we need no longer tolerate. True full employment is both achievable and sustainable.

Download The Full Report Here: A Path To Full Employment

Associated Program: Employment Policy and Labor Markets

Related Topic(s): Economic Policy, Employer of Last Resort (ELR) Policy, Employment Guarantee, Job Guarantee

Use Fiscal Policy, Not The Fed, To Fight The Next Slump

This economic recovery is looking long in the tooth. It’s already the third longest U.S. expansion on record, and many observers are worried about what will happen when this phase of the cycle is over and the country falls into recession. That’s unavoidable, of course, so it makes sense to think ahead about what policy-makers should do to fight the next downturn. Don’t think a fiscal response is off the table.

Normally in a recession, everyone expects the Federal Reserve to handle the situation. That’s because, in 1977, Congress effectively shifted the burden of maintaining a good economy — defined as one that delivers “maximum sustainable growth” with modest inflation — onto the central bank. When the economy goes sour, the dual mandate requires the Fed to fix it.

Prior to the Great Recession, the Fed had a straightforward way of fighting recessions: It dropped its short-term interest rate until things improved. That might mean a few substantial cuts or a series of smaller reductions that cumulatively total 4 percentage points or more. Eventually, the theory goes, credit gets cheap enough that businesses and consumers can be enticed to borrow and spend enough to counteract whatever had dragged the economy down.

There’s just one problem (actually, there are two, but I’ll save discussion of the other for another day). The Fed’s target rate is now 1.25 percent to 1.5 percent. Even if the Fed tightens three or four times by the end of the year, as many expect, it would put rates between 2 percent and 2.5 percent. That doesn’t leave much conventional ammunition in the event of a meltdown.

Matthew C. Klein, at the Financial Times, neatly captures this concern.

“It’s not difficult to imagine the US economy tipping into recession by the early 2020s, if not before. Monetary tightening has already squashed the difference between short-term and long-term interest rates to its narrowest level since the start of the financial crisis. Federal Reserve officials forecast slower growth and higher joblessness over the next few years from further interest rate increases. The danger is that the tools used to fight the last downturn may be insufficient next time around. Investors should prepare for some radical innovations.”

So let’s suppose he’s right, and the next recession hits before the Fed has raised rates high enough to be able to cut them enough to fight the slowdown in the usual way. What then?

In 2016, then Fed Chair Janet Yellen talked about this at the Fed’s annual convening in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She basically argued that the Fed could deal with any future recession, even without the space to cut interest rates by 4 percentage points or more. In a pinch, she insisted, the Fed could always return to unconventional policy. In other words, we got this.

She spoke, not of “radical innovations” but of becoming creative in ways “that have been employed by other central banks.” Instead of restricting themselves to buying mortgage-backed securities and U.S. Treasuries, “future policy-makers may wish to explore the possibility of purchasing a broader range of assets,” she said. That might mean following the lead of the European Central Bank or the Bank of Japan, which have purchased corporate bonds, stocks, real estate investment trusts and securitized small-business loans as part of their expanded quantitative easing programs. Who knows, maybe the Fed would even consider emulating other banks’ negative interest rate policies or targeting nominal gross domestic product as part of the new toolkit.

I, for one, hope we can avoid relying on the Fed to get creative when the next crisis hits. As former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke explained, “unconventional monetary policies come with possible risks and costs,” and monetary policy “is not a panacea.” But what else is there?

Fiscal policy, of course!

The problem is, there’s a growing perception that we’re going to find ourselves up recession creek without a fiscal paddle. It’s an argument that former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew made last week during an interview on CNBC:

“If we had a crisis right now whether a financial crisis or a business cycle recession, we don’t have the fiscal policy to respond or the monetary policy. It’s quite scary… We now don’t have a fiscal arsenal because we spent it on the tax cut and on the spending agreement. We’ve kind of spent the fiscal resources.”

He’s not alone. One of his predecessors, Larry Summers, has also complained that the tax cuts have seized valuable fiscal real estate. But Summers’ assessment is even more alarmist than Lew’s:

“Our country will be living on a shoestring for decades because of the increases in the deficits that will result. This is a serious threat to our national security because of what it will mean over time for our ability to fund national defense.”

This kind of rhetoric worries me for at least a couple of reasons. First, the tax cuts didn’t weld the fiscal door shut. There’s nothing to prevent lawmakers (in this Congress or any other) from voting for legislation that will further expand budget deficits. It’s purely a political choice, as Summers surely knows. What he must mean, then, is that Americans are so turned off by deficits that future lawmakers won’t have the courage to vote to protect our economy or our nation. (In that case, be thankful for the automatic stabilizers.)

Second, what happens if the “blue wave” continues, and Democrats end up controlling one or both houses of Congress, along with the White House in 2020? Are they supposed to govern as if reducing the budget deficit is the great legislative challenge of our time? Or should they learn a little something from the Republican Party, namely that voters really don’t seem to care all that much about deficits, so it’s better to stay focused on delivering your agenda?

The fiscal paddle isn’t broken, but the policy narrative is.

Unaffiliated Primary Voters

In his farewell address, President George Washington warned: “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Despite this impassioned warning, the United States has developed a strong two-party system in the past two centuries, which has allowed our Founding Father’s grim vision to take hold. In fact, the last time a third-party candidate won any state’s electoral college vote for president was in 1968. Americans are ultimately given a choice between only two candidates on the day of the general election.

What makes matters worse is that a substantial number of Americans are barred from voting to decide on who those final two choices will be. According to the organization Open Primaries, thirteen states and DC hold closed primaries for presidential primaries (laws vary for congressional and states primaries.) The National Conference of State Legislatures explains that in closed primaries, “a voter seeking to vote … must first be a registered party member…. Independent or unaffiliated voters, by definition, are excluded from participating in the party nomination contests.”

In addition, other states have less strict rules but still bar certain voters from participating. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures:

Partially closed primaries: “Permits political parties to choose whether to allow unaffiliated voters or voters not registered with the party to participate in their nominating contests before each election cycle”;

Partially open primaries: “Permits voters to cross party lines, but they must either publicly declare their ballot choice or their ballot selection may be regarded as a form of registration with the corresponding party”;

Open to unaffiliated voter primaries: “Allows only unaffiliated voters to participate in any party primary they choose, but do not allow voters who are registered with one party to vote in another party’s primary.”

The only primaries that allow for total participation from all voters in the state are open primaries. There are 16 open primary states.

The map below shows which states have Closed, Mixed, or Open Primaries for presidential elections:


Open and Closed Primaries


According to Gallup, a little under half (46%) of Americans do not identify with a political party. Only a quarter (25%) identify as Republican, and 27% identify as Democrat. This means voters are either forced to choose between a political party they may not fully identify with or they are barred from participating in many state primary elections.

If we want to consider ourselves a democracy, we should allow all of our citizens to participate fully in choosing who leads our country. Otherwise, the votes these people are allowed to cast on election day could be practically meaningless.

How Our Industrial Policy Is Leaving Us Behind

“It’s nonsense that there’s a beautiful free market in the power industry,” Energy Secretary Rick Perry said last week as he pushed for a government bailout of coal-fired power plants.

Republicans who for years have voted against subsidies for solar and wind power – arguing that the “free market” should decide our energy future – are now eager to have government subsidize coal.

Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is also scrapping rules for disposing coal ash, giving coal producers another big helping hand. As if this weren’t enough, a former coal lobbyist has just become Number Two at the EPA. If Scott Pruitt leaves (a growing possibility), the coal lobbyist will be in charge.

Meanwhile, Trump is imposing a 30 percent tariff on solar panels from China, thereby boosting their cost to American homeowners and utilities. The Trumpsters say this is because China is subsidizing solar.

To Trump and his administration, boosting coal is fine. Helping solar is an unwarranted interference in the free market.

Until about a decade ago, the United States was the world leader in solar energy. Federal tax credits along with state renewable electricity standards helped fuel the boom.

Then China decided to boost its own solar industry. State-controlled banks lent Chinese solar companies tens of billions of dollars at low interest rates.

Chinese firms now produce three-quarters of the world’s solar panels.

China’s success in solar has inspired China’s new high-tech industrial policy – a $300 billion plan to boost China’s position in other cutting-edge industries, called “Made in China 2025.”

Besides subsidizing these industries, China is also telling foreign (usually American) companies seeking to sell in China that they must make their gadgets in China. As a practical matter this often means American firms must disclose and share their technology with Chinese firms.

“We have a tremendous intellectual property theft situation going on,” said Trump, just before upping the ante and threatening China with $100 billion of tariffs.

China’s theft of intellectual property is troublesome, but the larger issue of China’s industrial policy is not. The United States has an industrial policy, too. We just don’t do it well – and Trump is intent on doing it far worse.

The United States government used to incubate new technologies through the Defense Department, allocating billions of dollars to R&D that spilled over into commercial uses.

Out of this came the Internet, new materials technologies, and solar cells that helped propel the United States into space – and, not incidentally, seeded the commercial solar industry.

America’s high-tech companies have continued to depend on government indirectly – feeding off breakthroughs from America’s research universities, along with the engineers and scientists those universities train (think of Stanford and Silicon Valley). Much of this research and training is financed by the U.S. government.

Trump’s original budget would have slashed funding of the National Science Foundation and related research by nearly 30 percent. Fortunately, Congress didn’t go along.

Meanwhile, federal, state, and local governments in the United States spend over $2 trillion a year on goods and services, making them together the biggest purchasers in the world. Due to “buy American” laws, about 60 percent of the content they purchase must be made in America.

As Steven Greenhouse points out in April’s American Prospect, a few state and local governments are taking a page out of China’s book – luring foreign firms to the United States to make high-tech products that are good for the environment and good for American workers.

As one example, Los Angeles has contracted with BYD, a Chinese company that’s the world’s leading producer of zero-emissions electric buses, to make its buses in California.

BYD’s huge factory north of Los Angeles has already created six hundred well-paid unionized jobs and two hundred white collar jobs.

America has always had an industrial policy. The real question is whether it’s forward-looking (the Internet, solar, zero-emissions buses) or backwards (coal).

Trump wants a backwards industrial policy. That’s not surprising, given that everything else he and his administration are doing is designed to take us backwards.

Facebook And The Future Of Online Privacy

The EU has taken the lead in responding to abuse by the likes of Facebook, thanks to its new privacy standards and proposed greater taxation of peddlers of online personal data. Yet more is needed and feasible.

Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, recently noted that the public scrutiny of Facebook is “very much overdue,” declaring that “it’s shocking to me that they didn’t have to answer more of these questions earlier on.” Leaders in the information technology sector, especially in Europe, have been warning of the abuses by Facebook (and other portals) for years. Their insights and practical recommendations are especially urgent now.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the US Senate did little to shore up public confidence in a company that traffics in its users’ personal data. The most telling moment of testimony came when Illinois Senator Richard Durbin asked whether Zuckerberg would be comfortable sharing the name of his hotel and the people he had messaged that week, exactly the kind of data tracked and used by Facebook. Zuckerberg replied that he would not be comfortable providing the information. “I think that may be what this is all about,” Durbin said. “Your right to privacy.”

Critics of Facebook have been making this point for years. Stefano Quintarelli, one of Europe’s top IT experts and a leading advocate for online privacy (and, until recently, a member of the Italian Parliament), has been a persistent and prophetic critic of Facebook’s abuse of its market position and misuse of online personal data. He has long championed a powerful idea: that each of us should retain control of our online profile, which should be readily transferable across portals. If we decide we don’t like Facebook, we should be able to shift to a competitor without losing the links to contacts who remain on Facebook.

For Quintarelli, Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of data acquired from Facebook was an inevitable consequence of Facebook’s irresponsible business model. Facebook has now acknowledged that Cambridge Analytica is not alone in having exploited personal profiles acquired from Facebook.

In personal communications with me, Quintarelli says that the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which takes effect on May 25, following six years of preparation and debate, “can serve as guidance in some aspects.” Under the GDPR, he notes, “non-compliant organizations can face heavy fines, up to 4% of their revenues. Had the GDPR already been in place, Facebook, in order to avoid such fines, would have had to notify the authorities of the data leak as soon as the company became aware of it, well in advance of the last US election.”

Quintarelli emphasizes that, “Effective competition is a powerful tool to increase and defend biodiversity in the digital space.” And here, the GDPR should help, because it “introduces the concept of profile portability, whereby a user can move her profile from one service provider to another, like we do when porting our telephone profile – the mobile phone number – from one operator to another.”

But “this form of ownership of one’s own profile data,” Quintarelli continues, “is certainly not enough.” Just as important is “interconnection: the operator to which we port our profile should be interconnected to the source operator so that we don’t lose contact with our online friends. This is possible today thanks to technologies like IPFS and Solid, developed by the web inventor Tim Berners-Lee.”

Sarah Spiekermann, a professor at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU), and Chair of its Institute for Management Information Systems, is another pioneer of online privacy who has long warned about the type of abuses seen with Facebook. Spiekermann, a global authority on the trafficking of our online identities for purposes of targeted advertising, political propaganda, public and private surveillance, or other nefarious purposes, emphasizes the need to crack down on “personal data markets.”

“Ever since the World Economic Forum started to discuss personal data as a new asset class in 2011,” she told me, “personal data markets have thrived on the idea that personal data might be the ‘new oil’ of the digital economy as well as – so it seems – of politics.” As a result, “more than a thousand companies are now involved in a digital information value chain that harvests data from any online activity and delivers targeted content to online or mobile users within roughly 36 seconds of their entry into the digital realm.” Nor is it “just Facebook and Google, Apple or Amazon that harvest and use our data for any purpose one might think of,” Spiekermann says. “‘Data management platforms’ such as those operated by Acxiom or Oracle BlueKai possess thousands of personal attributes and socio-psychological profiles about hundreds of millions of users.”

While Spiekermann thinks “personal data markets and the use of the data within them should be forbidden in their current form,” she thinks the GDPR “is a good motivator for companies around the world to question their personal data sharing practices.” She also notes that “a rich ecosystem of privacy-friendly online services is starting to be up and running.” A study by a class of WU graduate students “benchmarked the data collection practices of our top online services (such as Google, Facebook or Apple) and compared them to their new privacy-friendly competitors.” The study, she says, “gives everyone a chance to switch services on the spot.”

Facebook’s immense lobbying power has so far mostly fended off the practical ideas of Quintarelli, Spiekermann, and their fellow campaigners. The recent scandal, however, has opened the public’s eyes to the threat that inaction poses to democracy itself.

The EU has taken the lead in responding, thanks to its new privacy standards and proposed greater taxation of Facebook and other peddlers of online personal data. Yet more is needed and feasible. Quintarelli, Spiekermann, and their fellow champions of online ethics offer us a practical path to an Internet that is transparent, fair, democratic, and respectful of personal rights.