Is America a socialist country? And if it is, so what?

Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s The Last Word appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal this morning. One of the callers chastised him and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for supporting socialism. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez last week defeated Representative Joseph Crowley in the primaries for the 14th district. The 14th district is heavily Democratic, having favored Democratic presidential candidates all the way back to William J. Clinton. Sixty-one percent of the 14th district’s voter population is black or Latino. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is favored to win and Establishment Democrats are not too excited about a Bernie Sanders supporter (Ms. Ocasio-Cortez worked on Senator Sanders’ campaign) infiltrating the halls of Congress.

Republicans may see this single win as a virus that is about to spread through the Democratic Party and may position themselves as the cure. While Nancy Pelosi may express outwardly a lack of concern about a democratic socialist win in a single district, democratic socialism has attracted more attention since the November 2016 election as an alternative to a Democratic Party that has been enjoying a quarter of a century of corporatization.

No doubt Establishment Republicans are enjoying the schism being caused by a socialist insurgency, but I sense run-of-the mill conservatives within and outside the Republican Party like the C-SPAN caller are concerned that a seemingly increasing number of young people are moving toward socialist philosophy. Mr. O’Donnell adroitly addressed the caller’s vitriol arguing that the United States has a political economy that mixes certain aspects of market and centrally planned economies. Conservatives tend to focus on the anti-freedom approaches of socialism such as limited speech, and a lack of universal suffrage at the voting booth. They focus on the brutality of a socialist State toward dissidents, currency manipulation, and closed access to economic markets. They assume that socialism is the only top-down, lock down system on the planet.

They are wrong.

Just one look at America’s monetary system alone should tell a critical thinker that the economy of the United States is top-down and centrally planned. Most people do not issue their own currency. That job is for America’s central bank, the Federal Reserve. See mortgage rates going up and you can reasonably tie some action by the Fed to your pain. And while Republican members of Congress scream about free markets and alleviating the tax burdens of entrepreneurs, they add to the entrepreneur’s burdens by increasing budget deficits creating spending gaps that have to be filled by more borrowing which increases demand for loanable funds which leads to higher interest rates which leads to businesses facing increased barriers to entry into the credit markets. This is top down, centrally planned, oppressive economics in American form.

And let’s not forget our tax system. Talk about centrally planned. Have you ever been asked to give direct insight and opinion on whether your marginal tax rate or effective tax rate should be increased? Of course not. America’s version of the National People’s Congress does that, with the only difference between China’s legislative body and America’s is the frequency of meetings and the amount of checks they place on their executive.

Conservatives would argue that the American electoral system is indicative of an open democracy. That fallacy has been exposed twice in the past eighteen years where the “people’s choice” lost because a small body of unknown electors decided five weeks after a presidential election who the winner was and had that decision certified three weeks later by members of Congress. Top-down. Centrally planned.

Lastly, if Obamacare didn’t convince you that your healthcare finance system is centrally planned, then the history of Medicare should inform you as to the impact and influence the federal government has on the insurance industry. Medicare opened up two markets for the private insurance industry: the administrative services market, where private insurers invested in and provided the administrative infrastructure for serving an influx of newer patients, and underserved market of people over the age of 65 and medical insurance supplemental market, where insurance services gaps in Medicare are filled by private insurers. It is hard for conservatives to argue that the free market met these needs when on the contrary government action created the markets and the opportunity for private insurers to increase revenues.

You can probably find more examples, but the point here is that too many Americans express their lack of economic literacy when wailing about the ills of central planning. While I don’t want to give liberals credit for much, they do make a point when clarifying that the United States’ economy is a mixed one and expose the irony that many critics are likely enjoying some of these socialist programs themselves.

When asked to choose an “ism”, my response is either one, whether socialism or capitalism, represents top down suppression of individual choice because government exercises an inordinate amount of influence under either paradigm. The individual has no say in the crafting of policy in either framework. It is a take it or leave it scenario either way. The questions conservatives should be asking themselves is, can I create a better benefit for myself on my own terms?

Of Congressional factions, disruptive economy, and Donald Trump

The Goodlatte-McCaul Immigration & Border Security bill, HR 4760, failed to pass a few minutes ago.  I believe that Mr. Trump will gain more traction from the failure of both bills to pass and from the further weakened position of congressional Republicans as their majority starts looking like the majority that former president Barack Obama had in the first two years of his first term in office.  I would go further and argue that the sweet spot for Donald Trump would be the finish the second half of his first term with at least one chamber of Congress under the control of Democrats.

While on the surface the disruption may seem abnormal or undesirable, disruption, as represented in a split Congress, disruption is what Americans should expect. A majority of interests cannot exist without a minority of interests.  There is no such thing as congressional harmony.  There cannot be harmony given the political goal of a party: to persuade the electorate that the party should have a monopoly on the power and prominence that comes with office.  Mr. Trump, I believe, already had a sense of this going into office and the dysfunction of his party may have strengthened the rationale for his findings.

For example, take Obamacare. The premature consensus was that with majorities in both chambers, Mr. Trump would be able to move a repeal of the controversial Affordable Care Act through a friendly Congress. Pundits and constituents were wrong. The Affordable Care Act is still on the books thanks primarily to its provisions that extend care to children up to age 26 and its protection of consumers with pre-existing conditions.  Mr. Obama put a bomb in the ACA that Republicans are now afraid to detonate.

Another example: tax reform. While the GOP was able to pass some measure of tax reform, the level of difficulty in getting a bill to Mr. Trump to sign caught Congress watchers off guard.  Did Republicans doubt their chances so much in November 2016 that they started a new Administration and entered the 115th Congress with no coordinated plan?

It doesn’t help that the electorate does not look favorably on Congress. The average approval rating for Congress is 17%, according to a May 2018 Gallop poll.  Among Democrats the approval rating is approximately 12% while Republicans hold Congress in slightly higher regard at 22%.  The President’s approval rating is another matter.

According to Gallop, Mr. Trump’s current approval rating is approximately 45%, up from a low of 35% back in December 2017.  While his overall approval rating gives him some cushion against the low view of his colleagues in Congress, what is being overlooked is his performance among independents and Democrats.

Mr. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is 90%. No surprises there. Among independents, Mr. Trump’s current approval rating among independents is 45%. At the low point the approval rating among independents was 29% but has been hovering in the thirties throughout 2017 and 2018. Meanwhile, a small number of Democrats are flirting with the idea of liking Mr. Trump. While his favorable rating among Democrats has mostly been in the single digits, since his inauguration his weekly average favorable rating has been in the double digits twelve times. It is currently at 10%.

I see Mr. Trump having room to maneuver away from the congressional Republicans and while moving away from the party may seem disruptive, disruptive is the modus operandi in today’s economy. We hail disruptors like Elon Musk, Brian Chesky, and Garrett Camp for using technology to upend the electricity, hotel, and transportation industries. Mr. Trump is doing the same thing, albeit not with the smooth intellect of an Elon Musk.

He has shown no fear in governing as an executive, using the executive order option with no hesitation. And while his ability to transfer his deal making skills from the world of real estate to the game of thrones has taken heat, his negotiations with Kim Jong-Un could move him toward silencing critics.

Politics is about creating the political packages that win over the pawns necessary for winning the throne. Mr. Trump, so far, is beating the Democrats.

Why is net neutrality a partisan issue and how is it negatively impacting privacy rules?

Net neutrality shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The internet isn’t a government agency even though a number of governments around the world would like to restrict their citizens access to it and regulate the content that flows through it. If the internet, as it is viewed in the United States, is a means by which liberty, equality, and democracy intersect and are expressed, then shouldn’t the Republican and Democratic wings of Congress unite on those three pillars of American society?

Is there any contention in the area of liberty as it pertains to the internet?  It does not appear that way. The left replaces the word “liberty” with “freedom” and sticks pretty close to the traditional wording of the open internet, meaning no blockading of consumer access to the legal content of a website.

The right would agree with the left that consumers should be able to access the legal content of their choice. This issue goes to the fundamentals of conservative philosophy, liberty.

Regarding equality, I see contention. On the left, equality on the internet means that traffic from one website is treated the same as traffic from another website. A broadband access provider should not be allowed to throttle a site’s traffic prior to delivering the traffic to a consumer. The principle of equality would also hold, according to left internet philosophy, regarding the issue of paid prioritization. Paid prioritization occurs when a content provider pays a broadband provider for the privilege of special treatment of its traffic. The broadband provider may provide the content provider with “faster lanes” or some other privilege that grants that content deliverer’s traffic some priority over other traffic.

The right may not necessarily disagree that paid prioritization grants a one provider an advantage over another. Whether that advantage is fair or merely a valid business decision is the question and if the decision to provide priority to one type of service versus another is reasonable, then why not?

Prioritization occurs every day. Take the example of packages sent via a common carrier such as the post office. A consumer of postal services has an option of paying to send mail via regular mail or by priority mail, getting his package to its final destination within the next one or two days. The content of the mail may be such that rush delivery is of the essence.

Taking a flexible approach to prioritization may be in keeping with varying demands of different applications. In its recommendation for bipartisan legislation on net neutrality, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation noted that:

“Legislation should allow clear flexibility for traffic differentiation for applications that require it, avoiding an overbroad flat ban on prioritization, while clearly prohibiting anticompetitive conduct. Legislation should put some restrictions on paid prioritization to limit the potential for abuse, such as a simple ban on exclusive dealing or a requirement
to offer similar terms to all customers.”

Finally, the left has made vigorous arguments that broadband access providers have the potential to threaten democracy on the internet because of their technical capability to block and throttle traffic. This potential bad behavior would restrict a consumer’s ability to choose or produce the content of her choice.

While conservatives may empathize with the self-expression argument, I would expect a two-pronged rebuttal. First, since broadband access and the internet (for the most part) is a private, commercial enterprise, there is no state action intervening in a citizen’s right to participate in the political process. That alone should make the concerns about democracy moot. Second, it is not in a broadband provider’s best business interest to discourage the use of its network. The more users and more traffic exchanged, the greater the revenues and profits and lower the operational costs of the network.

Given the heightened concern over the last two years about privacy on the internet, the left and right wings of Congress should use the need to bring certainty to privacy as a catalyst for closing the philosophical gaps in the vision for the internet. Privacy is being placed on the backburner which is unfortunate because while most consumers are fine for the most part with the internet as it is (growth in ecommerce is one such indicator of the internet’s health), codifying net neutrality principles, general principles that the left and right agree with, in the form of a statute plus providing bright-line rules on privacy and privacy enforcement will bring certainty to consumers of broadband services as to a safer internet and certainty to broadband providers that wish to continue investment absent the nightmare that a back-and-forth that the current regulatory framework creates.

What happens when the State abandons black Americans?

In their book, The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age, James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg describe the demise of the welfare state with the political changes the information age will bring about. Those who can garner, manipulate, organize, distribute, and monetize information and use today’s digital technology to deploy this new capital from anywhere in the world will be able to achieve a level of individual sovereignty such that the protection services of the old nation-state will no longer be needed. The internet, cyberspace, will be their new jurisdiction, and with capital in the form of information, they will be able to carve out a minimized or tax-free environment in whatever physical jurisdiction they choose.

Information losers, according to Davidson and Rees-Mogg, won’t like this new world. This information-based economy will challenge their welfare state “employee” status. It is a welfare state employee status because in exchange for the “work” that they do at the polls i.e. their vote, information losers are awarded with transfer payments such as Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, and low-income housing. As the hoarders of the new capital, information, choose lower tax jurisdictions, information losers are left holding the bag containing reduced benefits, the result of a lowered tax base.

The recent tax reform legislation passed by a GOP-led Congress and signed by President Donald Trump is a small indicator of the leverage the wealthy have, especially those who make their income as sole proprietors or partners in a business where they are now beneficiaries of a 20% reduction in the taxes they would normally pay on pass-through income. Congress and the President will now have to reduce or eliminate programs made infeasible by a $1.5 billion tax cut.

There is no guarantee that tax cut goody bags will be continually given out in the future. If the GOP loses both chambers of Congress in this year’s midterms, then Democrats will pursue a rewrite of the tax reform, or at least put on a good show effort.  I say a good show effort because the response by the wealthy will be, “Remember the two trillion dollars we have stashed overseas? How about we keep it there?”

Black Americans are not in the information age game even though blacks over-index on social media sites and, as a proportion of their population, own as many smartphones as whites and Latinos. Black Americans are under-indexed when it comes to employment in information technology. In an article for The Huffington Post, Jamal Simmons noted that black women may be able to scrape up $36,000 for a tech start-up, but white males scrape up on average $1.3 million in start-up funds.

And while blacks and Latinos continue to represent low single-digit proportions of actual STEM employees (technologists, mathematicians, engineers), there are plenty of black consumers of entertainment content on Facebook and Instagram. This content is low value. It differs from information which can be used as an input for production.

You may ask, “Don’t blacks have a right to consume entertainment?” My answer would be, “It’s not about rights to consumer content. It’s about channeling as much time and energy into mining and distributing information that creates knowledge that solves the deep well of problems in the black community.

Meanwhile, the State apparatus that blacks have disproportionately relied on for economic support and political protection is becoming bankrupt. Based on this recent tax reform, one would not sound too cynical in concluding that the GOP was in cahoots with the plot to blow it all up.  The information winners will not think twice about leaving information losers behind.