Opinion

Reihan Salam

Can our mayoral candidates tackle the most urgent city issues?

Reihan Salam
Apr 15, 2013 15:24 UTC

Less than two years after resigning from Congress under less than ideal circumstances, Anthony Weiner is reportedly giving serious consideration to running for mayor of New York City. During his first bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination in 2005, Weiner distinguished himself as a voice for middle-income outer borough voters who felt left out of Michael Bloomberg’s Manhattan-centric vision for the city’s future. To some, Weiner seemed like a younger, scrawnier Ed Koch, with the same bulldog tenacity and populist brio. Having graciously conceded defeat that year in the name of Democratic unity, many believed Weiner had a strong shot at winning the mayoralty once Bloomberg left the picture. Then, of course, he was caught sending creepy photographs of himself to various young female strangers, and then lying about it to the press.

So why, one might ask, is Weiner being taken seriously as a potential mayoral candidate? One reason is that he has $4.3 million in campaign funds, and he is entitled to an additional $1.5 million in public matching funds under New York City’s generous campaign finance system. The bigger and more depressing reason is that the leading Democratic mayoral candidates are hilariously ill-equipped to face the fiscal challenges to come, and voters are very open to someone new.

There are  some solid candidates in the mix, but they’re not running as Democrats. Joe Lhota, the former MTA chief who served as Rudolph Giuliani’s right-hand man throughout the 1990s, has a wealth of administrative experience that would serve him well. Adolfo Carrión Jr., the Independence Party nominee and former Bronx borough president, is running on an innovative platform centered on revitalizing New York City’s neglected outer boroughs. But short of a miracle or a Bloomberg-level injection of super PAC money, it will be hard for either candidate to overcome the fact that they aren’t Democrats.

It is true that New York City hasn’t had a Democratic mayor since Giuliani’s election in 1993. Yet it is also true that the city is reliably, almost monolithically, left of center, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans 6 to 1. The city that elected Giuliani 20 years ago has changed in profound ways: The Latino, Asian and black shares of the electorate have climbed considerably; lower-middle-income white ethnics have lost political clout relative to upper-middle-income college-educated liberals; and crime rates have plummeted. In other respects, however, the city is much the same. While local public-employee unions have lost ground in states like Wisconsin and Indiana, they are as strong and influential as ever in New York.

As Christopher Elmendorf and David Schleicher, law professors at the University of California at Davis and George Mason University, respectively, observe in their 2012 paper, “Informing Consent: Voter Ignorance, Political Parties, and Election Law,” voters in cities such as New York with partisan elections for local officials vote for the party they support on the national scene. This is despite the fact that issues at the local level are radically different from those at the national level. One might be a “liberal” on abortion rights and federal higher education funding but a “conservative” on fixing potholes and controlling crime. In an ideal world, we might have local political parties ‑ say, the Free Subways Party, the Stop-and-Friskers and the Anti-Tax Free Love Alliance ‑ organized around specifically local issues. But national political parties have the First Amendment right to take part in local races, and they take advantage of it.

Why is immigration reform taking so long?

Reihan Salam
Apr 4, 2013 19:32 UTC

You’d think comprehensive immigration reform legislation would be a done deal. President Barack Obama has promised to overhaul immigration policy since his 2008 campaign, and leading Republicans have been keen to do the same in the wake of the last presidential election. Last week the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, representing the interests of Corporate America and organized labor, respectively, endorsed a series of reform proposals, including a substantial increase in work visas and labor-friendly prevailing wage requirements. A bipartisan group of eight senators has been working toward a deal, and a bipartisan group of eight House members is also in on the act. So what’s the holdup?

The basic problem is beautifully illustrated by two little controversies, one sparked by liberals and the other by conservatives. On the left, there is a widely held belief that U.S. immigration laws are far too stringent, and that we’re not doing enough to help low-income immigrants become citizens. On the right, there is an equally common conviction that U.S. immigration laws should not, as a general rule, have the effect of expanding the number of people who depend on means-tested government benefits to maintain a decent standard of living.

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Rahm Emanuel, the blustery mayor of Chicago and Obama’s former chief of staff, and Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois congressman who represents a large share of Chicago’s Latino population, argue that, in order to apply for citizenship, Citizenship and Immigration Services is charging immigrants too steep a price – $680, including a fee for fingerprinting. Emanuel and Gutierrez observe that as the fee has increased over the past decade the number of lawful permanent residents who apply for citizenship has declined. They neglect the possibility that other factors could be at play.

Waiting on the world to change

Reihan Salam
Apr 1, 2013 17:00 UTC

As the Supreme Court weighed arguments over California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act last week, the cultural and political momentum in favor of same-sex civil marriage was extraordinary. One after another, prominent Democrats who had been reluctant to endorse same-sex civil marriage switched their positions, recognizing that they were in grave danger of being “on the wrong side of history” (a phrase we’re hearing a lot lately). Some of the reversals have been surprising only because they’ve come so late, as in the case of Hillary Clinton. Others, like Senators Jon Tester and Kay Hagan, were surprising because they represent states, Montana and North Carolina, where same-sex unions aren’t recognized.

But this rush among politicians, including a small but growing number of Republicans, to back same-sex civil marriage won’t settle the issue. Assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t decide to invalidate the laws of the 37 states that limit civil marriage to opposite-sex couples, 31 of which have constitutional amendments to that effect, this debate will go on for many years. And we’re already starting to see the contours of what comes next ‑ a battle between those fighting to return cultural values to what they were before the sexual revolution, and those convinced that there is no turning back.

A number of conservatives, myself included, have argued that the right needs to shift from opposing same-sex civil marriage to focusing on the broader erosion of marriage, particularly among working- and middle-class Americans. Over the past half-century the share of 18- to 29-year-olds who are married has fallen from 60 percent to 20 percent. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if young adults were delaying child-rearing until after marriage, as is true among college-educated Americans. But the out-of-wedlock birthrate now stands at 41 percent. By changing the subject from fighting same-sex civil marriage to strengthening marriage for all families, conservatives who believe that stable marriages are crucial for child-rearing and economic advancement can form alliances across the political and cultural spectrum. Although this argument has gained at least some currency among younger conservatives, who’ve been raised in a culture that takes gay equality as a given, it is far from becoming the conservative conventional wisdom. If anything, opponents of same-sex civil marriage see this “call for a truce” as a reflection of a basic misunderstanding about the real meaning of marriage.

Should Congress create a national health-care exchange?

Reihan Salam
Mar 22, 2013 16:33 UTC

One of the core ideas behind the Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Obama’s ambitious and very controversial effort to expand access to medical insurance, is that state governments will work with the federal government to make high-quality care more accessible and affordable by creating subsidized state-based insurance exchanges. For those who aren’t covered by employer-sponsored insurance or Medicare or Medicaid, the exchanges are meant to offer a range of affordable insurance plans, with subsidies varying by household income.

The architects of the ACA believed the exchanges would be one of the more politically attractive aspects of the law, as they were designed to give states considerable latitude and to harness the power of market competition. But 34 states, representing two-thirds of the U.S. population, have thus far refused to establish their own exchanges, and the federal government is scrambling to create its own exchanges in the states that have refused to play ball.

Defenders of the ACA have noted the irony that conservatives, who tend to champion state autonomy, have led the opposition to the creation of state-based insurance exchanges. Yet as Douglas Holtz-Eakin of the American Action Forum, a leading critic of the ACA, has observed, the state-based insurance exchanges are best understood as “a second Medicaid program,” which will likely suffer from the same misaligned incentives as its more familiar cousin. While the federal government will cover the entire cost of the subsidies designed to make the insurance plans offered on the exchange affordable, state governments will be free to impose regulations and mandates on insurance plans that could raise their cost. State lawmakers might want to reward medical providers by deeming that various expensive and non-essential medical treatments must be covered by insurance, but state governments will be under no obligation to bear the cost of having done so.

Paul Ryan, Patty Murray and a budget walk into a bar

Reihan Salam
Mar 15, 2013 15:38 UTC

This week, House Republicans and Senate Democrats released budget resolutions that illustrate the chasm that separates the two parties.

The Republicans, led by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, aim to shave $4.6 trillion off of the federal government’s spending trajectory. They get there primarily by reducing the growth rate of domestic social programs like Medicaid and rolling back the coverage-expanding provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Although the Ryan budget accepts the revenue increases that were part of the fiscal cliff deal and the Affordable Care Act, it does not allow for any further revenue increases.

The Democrats, led by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, aim to reduce spending by $975 billion. Yet they also call for $100 billion in new stimulus spending and shutting off the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts scheduled to take place under sequestration, which suggests that spending reductions will be more than balanced by spending increases. And while the Ryan budget resists revenue increases, the Murray budget calls for $975 billion in revenue from unspecified cuts to loopholes and spending in the tax code.

To create growth, unleash the invisible foot

Reihan Salam
Mar 1, 2013 16:58 UTC

Across the political spectrum, there is a growing recognition that while short-term battles over government spending are important, they would be far less ferocious and intense if our economy were growing at a faster clip. But while conservatives and liberals alike clamor for more growth, they disagree about how to produce it. The key is unleashing what the economist Joseph Berliner once called the “Invisible Foot,” the neglected counterpart to Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.”

Before we turn to the Invisible Foot, let’s think through the prescriptions for growth offered by Democrats and Republicans. President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies often argue that substantial increases in public investment will deliver robust growth. Republicans, in contrast, emphasize the notion that reductions in marginal tax rates will spur growth by increasing the incentives to work and invest. These approaches are obviously far apart, yet they face at least two common obstacles. First, the aging of the population and the high cost of health entitlements severely limit the government’s ability to increase spending or cut taxes. Second, advanced economies have by definition already taken advantage of the most obvious sources of productivity growth and so are forced to innovate to find new sources of productivity growth. And innovation is a trial-and-error process that is far more expensive and arduous than simply following the leader.

So the question of the day isn’t whether we want growth (yes, we want it badly) or whether we can dramatically increase public investment or dramatically cut taxes (neither strategy is in the cards). Rather, it is whether there is anything we can do to make the American economy friendlier to the kind of risk-taking and innovation that will eventually yield productivity gains without breaking the bank.

A poor solution

Reihan Salam
Feb 15, 2013 16:55 UTC

The minimum wage debate is back, thanks to President Barack Obama. In his State of the Union address this week, he noted that a full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would earn $14,500 a year. This is an amount that would be very low for a single adult living alone, let alone the parent with two children whom the president invoked in his speech. And so he called for a sharp increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour, an amount that would be indexed to inflation, as a way to fight poverty and to give the economy a boost.

What the president didn’t mention is that the share of full-time workers who earn the federal minimum wage is very low. Mark Perry, an economist affiliated with the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, observes that as of 2011, only 1.7 percent of full-time hourly employees were earning the minimum wage or less. Minimum-wage earners were more common among those aged 16 to 19 – 22.8 percent of these workers were earning the minimum wage or less. Of course, many of these workers live with their parents and are generally not the sole source of support for themselves or their families.

Another reason why so few workers earn the federal minimum wage is that as the value of the federal minimum wage has eroded, dozens of states have established or raised their own minimum wages. Thus far, only the state of Washington has a minimum wage, at $9.19 an hour and indexed to inflation, higher than the president’s proposal.

For states, Washington’s budgetary seduction proves too hard to resist

Reihan Salam
Feb 6, 2013 14:22 UTC

Federalism’s days appear to be numbered. The reason isn’t so much that the power of the federal government has increased, though that’s part of it. Instead, the slow-motion death of federalism flows from the fact that a wide array of federal programs have seduced state governments into playing Washington’s tune.

This week, for example, Ohio Governor John Kasich, a conservative who first came to prominence as one of the foot soldiers of the 1994 Republican Revolution, announced that he supports the federal expansion of Medicaid, one of the central pillars of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA). Opposition to ACA, and to the enormously expensive Medicaid expansion, had until recently been considered a conservative litmus test.

Kasich is the fifth Republican governor to embrace the Medicaid expansion, alongside Arizona’s Jan Brewer, Nevada’s Brian Sandoval, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, and North Dakota’s Jack Dalrymple. And he almost certainly won’t be the last. Florida Governor Rick Scott, a former healthcare executive who strongly opposed to the Obama administration’s health reform effort in his 2010 campaign, is widely expected to do the same.

Fixing immigration, but not necessarily the Rubio way

Reihan Salam
Jan 22, 2013 22:44 UTC

In U.S. political debates, there is a tendency to separate economic issues, like taxes, spending and regulation, from social issues, like abortion rights, gay rights and gun rights. Immigration, as a general rule, tends to fall in this latter bucket, as an issue that comes up mainly because it matters to Latino and Asian voters and a handful of vocal immigration restrictionists.

There is a decent case that immigration should really be understood as an economic issue – indeed, as the most important economic issue facing U.S. policymakers. That is part of why Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has attracted so much attention for his recent call for comprehensive immigration reform, a call echoed by voices across the political spectrum, including President Barack Obama’s. But Rubio’s plan has been met with considerable resistance, in large part because debates over immigration policy also have a moral dimension. Understanding it is key to breaking out of our immigration impasse. 

But first, it is important to understand why the immigration issue is gaining momentum. Back in 2011, J.P. Morgan released a report that found that U.S. households own $70 trillion in physical and financial assets. This same report found that America’s stock of human capital, i.e., the collective education and experience of all U.S. workers, amounted to $700 trillion. Rather than pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into new roads, bridges and housing units, the surest and cheapest strategy for increasing our collective wealth is to import talented workers. Even as the United States is mired in a sluggish semi-recovery, vast numbers of skilled English-speaking foreigners are eager to settle in, to start  businesses and buy homes. These keen would-be immigrants represent low-hanging economic fruit, a fact that is well understood in Silicon Valley and Wall Street, where high-wattage immigrants have made an outsized contribution.

Somebody find the GOP a carrot

Reihan Salam
Jan 11, 2013 21:47 UTC

As House Republicans gird themselves for battle over the debt limit, they are united by an adamantine conviction that something must be done about federal spending, and soon. The challenge Republicans face, however, is that they’ve become the party of all sticks and no carrots.

Back in 1976, Jude Wanniski, the idiosyncratic supply-side guru, published a short essay arguing that while the Democrats are the spending Santa Claus, bearing promises of more government benefits, Republicans should become the tax Santa Claus, bearing promises of tax cuts. That is famously what happened during the Reagan era.

But as the tax burden on middle-income households dwindled, middle-income swing voters started to care less about taxes and more about the cost of medical insurance, higher education, and a whole host of quality-of-life issues. President Bill Clinton exploited this dynamic by politically championing middle-income tax cuts and tax increases on high earners at the same time, a tactic that has paid dividends for Democrats ever since. Republicans have found themselves defending tax cuts for high earners while offering little if anything to middle-income voters but calls for entitlement reform. Whether or not this stance is defensible on policy grounds, it’s certainly not what Santa would do.

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