United States

How to drain the swamp NYT 10/26/17

Article (Opinion): "Trump Made the Swamp Worse, Here's How to Drain It"  

 Hard copy here.

> Trump won in part because of our eroding faith in our governing institutions. Long-term wage stagnation and income inequality has convinced many that the system is corrupt and rigged in favor of the elites - only an outsider like Trump can “clean it up”. The slow growth/income inequality economy that has been the norm for the last decade is a sign that powerful insiders (big business, the wealthy) are using the system to both increase their own wealth and protect themselves from competition.

> Four ways in which this is done - first, the financial sector lobbies for laws (like the mortgage interest deduction) that encourage high levels of debt which can then be securitized (and monetized). With regulations removed, the financial sector has grown too large. Next, intellectual property laws protect both media and pharmaceutical conglomerates. Third, at the state and local level, occupational licensing artificially boosts the pay of those being licensed and restricts entry. And finally, at the local level, zoning laws inflate the home values of the current owners while making it more difficult for newcomers to move in.

> High profits and wealth have been used by the incumbents to fund think tanks and policy research centers and pay for lobbyists who promote policies that support the status quo and stifle competition. Example: Big Pharma funds research that shows loosening patent laws would stifle innovation, instead of increase it. Lawmakers get only one side of the issue.  

> Reform idea - Congressional staffs need to be expanded, upgraded and professionalized so that members of Congress are no longer dependent upon lobbyists for research.

> Reform idea: at the federal level, the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) independently reviews the impact of federal regulations. No such agency exists at the state level. There should be one.

> Reform idea: private philanthropy should fund new interest groups and think-tanks that will make lawmakers aware that other points of view exist besides those of the entrenched wealthy and powerful.

> Authors Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles work for libertarian think-tank the Niskanen Center and have authored the book The Captured Economy.

Special Counsel Appointed 5/20/17

Article: "Deep breath, America"  

On May 17, former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel to take over the FBI probe into Russian influence in the 2016 US Presidential election.

Some highlights: 
> In December 2016, US intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government had interfered with the election. Trump denied this and denied any connection between his campaign and the Russian government.
> In January of 2017, Trump insisted on hiring Flynn as National Security Advisor despite multiple indications that he was deeply compromised. Trump would later fire Flynn.
> AG Jeff Sessions was found to have lied about contact with Russian ambassador Kislyak and had to recuse himself.
> Trump leans on FBI Director Comey to go easy on Flynn - “I hope you can let this go” - then fires Comey in May.

Comment from John McCain - the President’s scandals are of “Watergate size and scale.”


Reforming taxes will not be easy 4/1/17

Article: "The red and the brown"  

Tax reform hasn’t been accomplished in the US since 1986. Where once the passage of bills was smoothed by including federal money for pet projects in congressmen’s districts, tax breaks are now the preferred lubricant. The growth of the federal tax code, which has tripled in length in the past 30 years, is often cited as proof that the country is overtaxed. But its size reflects all those special tax breaks. For individuals, the exemptions turn a tax system whose headline rates are redistributive, by rich-world standards, into one which is not. The two most popular exemptions are the mortgage interest and charitable giving deductions, both of which will be difficult to change.

The same is true of company taxation. The top marginal rate, of 39%, is an outlier by international standards (the OECD average is 25%). But between 2006 and 2012, two-thirds of companies paid no federal tax, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Large companies that were profitable paid a federal tax of 14% on their net income between 2008 and 2012, according to the GAO, a rate that rose to 22% once state and local taxes were included.

Killing the special exemptions will be critical but will be the hardest to accomplish politically as those exemptions exist because of powerful, influential lobbyists. Over 230 House Republicans have signed a pledge not to vote for any tax rise, giving them cover to reject a bill that offends constituents or donors by killing a tax break.

>Interesting comment: “Mitt Romney had one decent idea back in 2012, and that is to set a limit on either the amount of deductions or the percentage --- say a maximum of $50,000 deductions, or perhaps cap it at 10% of gross income. “

Election Meddling Investigation 4/1/17

Article: "Trump and Russia: the never-ending story   

A look at the investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. As James Comey, director of the FBI, told Mr Nunes committee on March 20th, it is that individuals in Mr Trump’s campaign may have coordinated with the Russians in what, according to America’s intelligence agencies, was a bid to help him win the presidency. That would be a scandal whatever impact the Russian antics had.

A checklist of all the suspicious activities we know about so far:

> Michael Flynn misled Mike Pence, the vice-president, about his chats during the presidential transition with Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. Flynn said they didn’t discuss sanctions, but they did; since he was forced to resign as national security adviser, more details have emerged about his paid speechmaking for Russian companies (and lobbying for Turkish interests).

> Paul Manafort stopped being Mr Trump’s campaign manager amid consternation over his ties to Viktor Yanukovych, the disgraced ex-president of Ukraine who has been given refuge in Russia. According to the Associated Press, Mr Manafort was once retained by Oleg Deripaska, a tycoon close to the Kremlin, allegedly undertaking “to benefit the Putin government”.

> Roger Stone, a longtime associate of Mr Trump, seemed to have advance notice of Democratic emails published last year by WikiLeaks, the portal through which, according to Mr Comey and others, Russian hackers released their loot. Mr Stone has admitted being in indirect contact with Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, and exchanging messages with “Guccifer 2.0”, an online persona considered a front for Russian spooks.

> Carter Page, once named as an adviser by Mr Trump, made an interestingly timed trip to Moscow last July. And has been under investigation by the FBI since 2013 for his Russian connections.

> Jeff Sessions, the attorney-general, recused himself from all Russia-related inquiries after failing to disclose his own meetings with Mr Kislyak at his confirmation hearing.

> During the transition Jared Kushner met both Mr Kislyak and (it has emerged) Sergei Gorkov, the head of a Russian state bank placed under sanctions by Barack Obama’s administration.


Checks and balances on Trump 4/1/17

Article: ""Constrained"   

 > How can America’s checks and balances restrain the excesses of Trump? The Presidency has gained much power over the last fifty years (the “Imperial Presidency”). As Congress has descended into partisanship and dysfunction, the President (with a staff of hundreds of assistants and lawyers) has governed through executive orders. Still, restraints remain on Presidential power, including:

> The States: example: NY AG Eric Schneiderman (who also prosecuted Trump for his University) put together state-level legal defenses against Trump plans for increased deportations and reductions in climate change efforts. California is doing similar things, especially in regards to immigration.

> The Courts: Judge Robart blocked the Trump Muslim travel ban - and earned the “so-called judge” label from Trump.

> The Congress: Trump (and Speaker Ryan) were unable to get a ACA repeal bill through the House. There was opposition from radical Republicans like the House “Freedom Caucus”.

> The Media: both the NYT and the Washington Post released stories linking Flynn and Sessions to Russian contacts that were undisclosed. This led Flynn to resign and Sessions to recuse himself from the Russian investigation.   

> NGO’s: the ACLU has had some of its best fundraising after Trump’s election. 

Teacher Training 6/11/16

Article: ""How to make a good teacher" 

Overview of teaching profession and conclusion - if you want better student outcomes, train better teachers. The top 10% of teachers impart three times more knowledge than the bottom 10% according to an “American study” cited in the article (this might have been “The Impact of Individual Teachers on Student Assessment: Evidence from Panel Data” by Rockoff, published in 2004 ). Comparison to the situation with doctor training a century ago - “Teacher-training institutions need to be more rigorous—rather as a century ago medical schools raised the calibre of doctors by introducing systematic curriculums and providing clinical experience.”