Wednesday, November 08, 2006

An Eye on the Democrats

Announcement: It appears that my bid to get an article into Issue 25 of Carnival of the Liberals was a success. I invite you to check it out.

Before going into today's posting, I would like to say that I have gone through the day with a great sense of relief. I had been truly concerned with the direction things were going, and welcomed the bulk of the results from the election.

News reports are just now reporting that the Democrats have taken control of the Senate. Now that they have some measure of power - and may still gain control of the Senate - I want to briefly outline some of the good and the bad that I see from this shift in power.

(1) Revenge.One fear that I have had is that the Democratic leadership will seek revenge on the Republicans for the exclusive way the Republicans have run Congress over the past four years. They largely shut the Democrats out and excluded them from anything. It may be tempting for the Democrats to respond in kind. However, I hope they seek to "do unto the Republicans" as they would have had the Republicans do under them.

(2) Judicial appointments. As I wrote before the election, I put the theocratization of the judiciary as my number one concern in this election. We do not need a judicial branch that decides cases by appeal to the Bible - we need a judicial branch that decides cases by appeal to the Constitution. To put it simply, scripture is a very poor source to appeal to when it comes to establishing standards of justice.

(3) Checks and Balances. The establishment of a Democratic majority in at least one of the houses of Congress means that the system of checks and balances have been restored. The next question is whether the Democrats will use this power to actually check and balance the Bush Administration's usurpation of power. I have sometimes worried that the Democrats have not effectively opposed Bush's power grab because too many Democratic leaders are secretly rubbing their hands and saying, "Imagine what I could do if I had all of that autocratic power!"

(4) Energy policy. Here, I have some reason for hope that the Democrats will bring us a better response to the problem of global warming - particularly with a push towards alternative energy. At the same time, I have worries that they might also pursue a couple of destructive policies. For example, Democrats might consider legislation to force energy (e.g., gasoline) prices artificially low through legislation. Artificially low prices mean artificially high consumption - and less of an incentive to invest in alternatives to fossil fuels. For example, artificially low gasoline prices means that people will have less of an incentive to switch to hybrid cars. If one is truly interested in attacking the profits of the oil companies, my recommendation is to have them pay for the harm (pollution, global warming, etc.) their products cause. Let them decide whether to take the costs out of their profits or pass them along to customers.

(5) Embryonic stem-cell research. A Democratic leadership will likely move this avenue of investigation forward, potentially providing a benefit for a great many people who will otherwise suffer from illness, injury, and death. The time that we have until death is the only time we have. It is a tragedy when people must spend it in needless suffering. I recognize that the counter to this is to say that the research kills innocent people. In act, it does not. There is no 'person' there to be killed. That which does not have a brain has no interests. That which has no interests cannot be harmed in any morally relevant sense.

(6) Prescription Drugs. It is possible that the Democrats will attack the Pharmaceutical industry just as it is possible for them to attack the energy industry. The worry is that they will do so in a way that will hinder research into new drugs and medical procedures - by simply making it less profitable to do this type of research. It would be a shame to open up embryonic stem-cell research by removing the Republicans' mis-guided barriers to that research, only to slam the doors shut again by taking away the profits of doing that research. If Democratic policies get in the way of the discovery and use of better medical techniques, then they will be promoting death and suffering in the same way that Republicans did with their legislative barriers.

(7) Minimum wage. The Democrats will almost certainly push for a higher minimum wage, which will do a great deal of harm to the poorest people in this country, even if it produces a higher average benefit.

For example, take a community with 10 people making $5 per hour, and turn it into a community where 8 people make $7 per hour and 2 people make nothing. This increases the amount of money for the group as a whole from $50 to $56 (a net increase). Still, the damage done to the two people who are forced out of the market is so utterly destructive we have to question the fairness.

And where are the companies going to get this extra $6? One of the options available include raising prices. Look for Wal-Mart in particular to raise prices to cover any cost increase. And it is not the "top 1%" who shop at Wal-Mart. Look, instead, for those people making more than minimum wage - whose average income has not gone up in over 30 years - to discover that they can now buy less with what they earn.

Also, look for businesses to cut benefits to the bulk of their employees. For example, I expect that fewer businesses will offer health insurance and those that do will increase the amounts that all employees pay for their share of such benefits.

Over time, expect more companies to move their businesses overseas to where labor rates are lower, companies to replace low-skilled employees with machines or alter their business model to require fewer people in this wage bracket, and to simply close their doors because it is no longer worthwhile for them to stay in business. Also, look for people who would have otherwise stayed in school to, instead, choose the job market over education.

To help the poor, and to help the rest of the country at the same time, the best thing to do is to help those below a particular income level go to school. See item (12).

(8) The war in Iraq. As I wrote yesterday, I think that Ted Lamont's defeat in Connecticut has purchased us an ability to have an intelligent debate on what to do in Iraq that includes the possibility of keeping troops there. Once again, I am not saying that this is 'the right move' - I am saying that a lot of people who claim to know the best option are basing their conclusions on pure ignorance. I want the decision to be made by those who know the situation and who know what they are doing - and I want to give them the freedom to pursue the option of staying in Iraq if this looks like the best option.

(9) Corruption. I have written in the past that a probable explanation for why all of the corruption scandals involved Republicans is that Democrats had no power. They had nothing to sell, so nobody was buying. Now that they have power again, they have something to sell. No doubt, in this election, a lot of special interest groups were at work buying special influence over Democratic congressmen, and I expect some of those special relationships to show up in the news some time in the future. In other words, I need to wait and see just how sincere the Democratic opposition to 'corruption' actually turns out to be.

(10) Terrorism. The Democrats have two years to prove that they are not the villains of national defense that the Republicans claimed them to be. They have an opportunity to rewrite some of the anti-terrorist law so that it is truly anti-terrorist and not anti-American. That is to say, the law needs to be rewritten to provide for judicial and legislative oversight with the clear intent to make sure that those gathering intelligence are actually spying on al-Queida and not abusing their power.

(11) Research. The Democrats need to unleash the scientists that the Bush Administration and the Republican Party have kept shackled for six years. We have six years of garbage wearing the label of government reports - 'research' substantially created for the purpose of claiming that the Republican agenda is right (rather than Republicans building an agenda that matched the research). It would be useful to give scientists an opportunity to go through that research and remove the partisan edits - allowing the reports to reflect the scientists' actual findings. In addition, the world could use a lot more research in the fields of medicine, climate change, agriculture, energy, ecology, space development, weather, tsunamis, and a host of other fields that are vital for the well-being of so many people. As a side-benefit, the smarter people are, the less the chance that they will fall for stupid and poorly considered ideas.

(12) Education. The Democrats can do a great service to the country and the world, as well as consolidate their base, by focusing their efforts on improving education. This means employing educational techniques that actually work. Educated people know how to think - how to draw reasoned conclusion from available evidence. We have had six years' experience seeing what happens when people are put into positions of power without having this skill. Unless the Democrats think that they need to keep people dumb to stay in power, they should put some effort into helping to make sure that the next generation of Americans have some intelligence.

So, this is a preliminary list of things to keep an eye on over the next couple of years with the Democrats in power.

I am more than pleased at the fact that they have won. Yet, I am disinclined to give Democratic leaders the type of blind worship that many Republican leaders have received over the past few years. We have all seen how dangerous this type of blind worship can be.


Anonymous said...

I agree with most of these hopes and concerns. In particular, I don't want to afford the Democrats blind worship either. I would also probably add something about election reform to your list.

But I'm not as yet convinced about minimum wage objections.

Is there conclusive evidence that indeed, any increase in the minimum wage will necessarily lead to the problems you cite?

Finally, how do you respond to the letter signed by over 650 economists (including some Nobel Prize winners and some former presidents of the American Economics Association)urging a modest increase in the minimum wage? []

Among other things they say (parding the longish quote): "We believe that a modest increase in the minimum wage would improve the well-being of low-wage workers and would not have the adverse effects that critics have claimed. In particular, we share the view the Council of Economic Advisers expressed in the 1999 Economic Report of the President that 'the weight of the evidence suggests that modest increases in the minimum wage have had very little or no effect on employment.' While controversy about the precise employment effects of the minimum wage continues, research has shown that most of the beneficiaries are adults, most are female, and the vast majority are members of low-income working families."

I'm not arguing that this proves you're wrong, but that it seems to indicate controversy on this topic amongst professional economists; which, leaves me a bit confused on the topic.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Part of my response will rest on the fact that economists are not ethicists.

I have been reading a lot of economics recently, and I have noticed that economists tend to treat "economic efficiency" as a moral good - an intrinsic value. They make their recommendations according to whether this intrinsic value is maximized.

Economic efficiency is a very poor moral theory.

I'm going to be writing about this in some of my upcoming "weekend theory" posts.

I built much of what these economists claim into the example I constructed.

It includes a net benefit for people in the affected income group (an increase in net income from $50 to $56).

I can further stipulate that the 8 beneficiaries in the example are mostly female adult members of low-income families. This will have no affect on the argument.

In my example, the loss jobs that I described would, when figured into the economy as a whole, count as 'little change in unemployment.' My point concerns the total devistation that is inflicted on those who are the victims of 'little change' - one of the ways in which my moral theory differs from the 'economic efficiency' moral theory of economists.

And that the economists did not mention the ways that companies can shift the burden to just-slightly-above-minimum-wage workers, such as eliminating or reducing wage increases for such workers and reducing company benefits; or the way in which they can get us to pay for the wage increases through higher prices.

Most importantly, do not think that our options are either 'raise the minimum wage' or 'do nothing.' My alternative to raising the minimum wage is to offer education subsidies for those who make less than the minimum wage. These education vouchers will not only help the worker, it will help the country by creating a more educated population.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Allow me to be a bit more specific with my above post.

I used an example that involved a $20 gain distributed among 8 people, and a $14 loss distributed among two.

Economists tend to argue, "20 > 14; so this is a good policy!"

I argue that the $14 loss has a higher MORAL value than the $20 gain, because it is so utterly devistating to the lives of those who suffer the loss.

So, we reach different conclusions as to which policy is best.

I will be defending my position in a few of the upcoming weekend theory posts.

Anonymous said...

The problem I find with your analogy is that it presumes that companies are already trying to pay their workers as much as they can, and any forced increase will result in them having to let workers go. This is certainly not typical of any place of employment I have ever worked.

The typical goal is to pay workers as little as you can get away with so that you can profit more. This is especially true at lower wage jobs where the people working them are desperate for any kind of income. Their employers CAN afford to pay them more, they just choose not to, because they can make more money.

This is a capitalist economy, businesses aren't in business to provide people with jobs, they're in business to make themselves money. Many businesses choose to at least be responsible to their employees, but many do not. That is why we have a minimum wage. An as it stands the current national minimum wage isn't sufficient for many people to actual live on (subsist maybe... but have an actual living wage... no)

I believe that an increase in minimum wage would be a good thing for this country as it will do nothing for most people except help those at the very bottom who are being taken advantage of by their employers.

At any rate it will take more evidence to convince me that any increase in minimum wage will immediately result in people having fewer jobs.

Anonymous said...

I thought of a better way to articulate my last post. The basic distribution of profit in a capitalist business is weighted towards the top. The purpose of a minimum wage is to force a more even distribution of profit throughout the business. And in most businesses the positions at the bottom are the ones that are actually indisposible to the business. If it takes 8 people to run the kitchen in McDonalds, the McDonalds has to have 8 people in the kitchen. That means that if anything the only people who will be losing their jobs are peole higher up, who may be forced to get lower paying jobs.

So the ethical question is which is worse: raising minimum wage to improve the condition of people at the bottom of society at the expense of middle and upper class society? Or keeping minimum wage the same and keeping the same struggles of today? I think I have to side with the increased minimum wage, as I see it now as people struggling to keep roofs over their heads and their children fed versus someone being able to afford a new SUV.

Anonymous said...

Robert, you say the people at the bottom are the most indisposible to the business, but this isn't really true. Anyone, from the janitor to the CEO, can be replaced. How disposable you are to a business, and correspondingly how much you are paid, is based on how much it would cost the company to replace you. The skills and training required to effeciently run a bank (for example) are very expensive. They take years of (expensive) college-level schooling, and then often decades of real-world experience in the workplace. The skills and training required to replace the janitor, on the other hand, can be taught to almost anyone (even someone who has not completed high school) in a matter of days. Because of this, finding a new CEO is very hard - the supply of good CEOs is quite limited. However finding a new kitchen worker is very easy - the supply of kitchen workers is almost infinite. This is part of the reason the CEO is paid more.

If the kitchen workers were truely indisposable they could ask for almost any wage be get it without hesitation. If you make $5 Billion a year making burgers, and only 5 people in the world can make these burgers, they could probably demand $100 Million per year and be paid it without question. As it is, anyone can make a burger. Even the guy willing to work for just $99 Million.