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How A Russian’s Grocery Store Trip In 1989 Exposed The Lie Of Socialism

The fall of the Berlin Wall was indeed a watershed in the collapse of the Soviet Empire, yet one could argue the true death knell came two months before at a small grocery store in Clear Lake, Texas.

By Jon MiltimoreThe Federalist

The fall of the Soviet Union is sometimes remembered as Nov. 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall symbolically collapsed. While the physical barrier endured for some two more years, on that day, East German Communist Party officials announced they would no longer stop citizens of the German Democratic Republic from crossing the border.

The fall of the barrier that scarred Germany was indeed a watershed in the collapse of the Soviet Empire, yet one could argue the true death knell came two months before at a small grocery store in Clear Lake, Texas.

An Unexpected Trip

On Sept. 16, 1989, Boris Yeltsin was a newly elected member of the Soviet Parliament visiting the United States. Following a scheduled visit to Johnson Space Center, Yeltsin and a small entourage made an unscheduled stop at a Randalls grocery store in Clear Lake, a suburb of Houston. He was amazed by the aisles of food and stocked shelves, a sharp contrast to the breadlines and empty columns he was accustomed to in Russia.

Yeltsin, who had a reputation as a reformer and populist, “roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement,” wrote Stefanie Asin, a Houston Chronicle reporter. He marveled at free cheese samples, fresh fish and produce, and freezers packed full of pudding pops. Along the way, Yeltsin chatted up customers and store workers: “How much does this cost? Do you need special education to manage a supermarket? Are all American stores like this?”

Yeltsin was a member of the Politburo and Russia’s upper political crust, yet he’d never seen anything like the offerings of this little American grocery store. “Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev,” Yeltsin said.

A Sickening Revelation

It’s difficult for Americans to grasp Yeltsin’s astonishment. Our market economy has evolved from grocery stores to companies such as Walmart and Amazon that compete to deliver food right to our homes.

Yeltsin’s reaction can be understood, however, by looking back on the conditions in the Soviet Union’s economy. Russia grocery stores at the time looked like this and this:

Now compare that footage to the images of Yeltsin shopping at a U.S. supermarket. The contrast is undeniable. Yeltsin’s experience that day ran contrary to everything he knew. A longtime member of the Communist Party who had lived his entire life in a one-party system that punisheddissent harshly, Yeltsin had been taught over and over that socialism wasn’t just more equitable, but more efficient.

His eyes were opened that day, and the revelation left the future Russian president feeling sick.

“When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people,” Yeltsin later wrote in his autobiography, “Against the Grain.” “That such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it.”

Yeltsin was not the only person fooled, of course. There is copious documentation of Western intellectuals beguiled by the Soviet system. These individuals, who unlike Yeltsin did not live in a state-controlled media environment, saw the Soviet system as both economically and morally superior to American capitalism despite the brutal methods employed in the workers’ paradise.

“I have seen the future, and it works,” the Progressive Era journalist Lincoln Steffens famously said.

Paul Samuelson, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics and one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, was a longtime enthusiast of Soviet central planning and predicted it would lead to a higher standard of living. “Who could know that [the data] was all fake?” Samuelson is said to have asked a fellow economist following the empire’s collapse.

The Truth About Socialism Revealed

Despite decades of propaganda and obfuscation, the great fiction of socialism was eventually fully exposed with the fall of the Soviet Union and the publication of its archives in the 1990s. No longer could academics deny the truth that the people of the Soviet Union endured a painfully low standard of living despite the vast wealth of its empire.

“Their standard of living was low, not only by comparison with that in the United States, but also compared to the standard of living in countries with far fewer natural resources, such as Japan and Switzerland,” the economist Thomas Sowell observed in “Basic Economics.”

Yeltsin deserves credit for laying bare the lie of socialism that so many others had refused to see. “[T]here would be a revolution,” Yeltsin told his entourage that fateful September day in 1989, if the people in the Soviet Union ever saw the prosperity in American grocery stores. Yeltsin was more right than he knew.


Trump should scrap the flavored vaping ban

Hysteria over 'vaping-related lung illness' puts pressure on politicians, but vaping is safer than smoking

By Peter RoffThe Washington Times

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There are those who say vaping is a public health menace, that it’s designed to appeal to young people as a gateway to tobacco with no redeeming social values whatsoever. Others who say it’s a public health miracle that’s made it possible for tens of thousands of people addicted to cigarettes to quit and live healthier lives.

It’s not clear who’s right but the evidence thus far hews toward the idea that vaping, from the standpoint of public health, is largely beneficial. There have been a few deaths among young people but, as we’re now finding out, those can be attributed to carelessness, black market formulas based in oil rather than water, and the effort to get a quick high by employing a THC-like additive. They did not result, as the proponents of regulation and abolition led us at first to believe, because all vaping technologies are medically and scientifically unsound.

Vaping is 95 percent safer than smoking, according to some estimates. Unlike inhaling cigarette smoke, vaping is not carcinogenetic and not, as some have claimed, a proven gateway to teen smoking. Yet it’s under attack as never before.

The hysteria over what’s been called “vaping-related lung illness” has generated enormous pressure on politicians from President Donald Trump on down to do something. That’s understandable but not necessarily right. The attack on the science showing that vaping generally leads to reductions in cigarette smoking and that favored vaping is very much a part of helping people quit is leading to a situation where even more people may die.

For more than a few years, the nascent vaping industry has tried to work with the government to set rules everyone can live with. They’re on board with an under-21 vaping ban, and the biggest player in the marketplace, Juul, has voluntarily agreed to withdraw its few flavored formulas from the U.S. market. No more mint, no more crème, no more cucumber, no more fruit and no more mango — even though studies have shown cigarette smokers find it easier to refrain from smoking if the vaping options available to them are flavored.


The Berlin Wall Is Gone, but Its Lessons Remain

Socialism is not cuddly or compassionate, and it has been tried many times, to ruinous effect. Will today’s young people have to learn this all over again?

By JOHN FUNDNational Review

The Berlin Wall stood for 28 years until in 1989 a wave of citizen protest forced the East German Communist government to open its gates. We’ve now gone longer without the Berlin Wall than it existed.

As we marked the anniversary, on November 9, of its demise, I couldn’t help but recall with wonder how astonishingly quickly the ugly scar of the wall along with its guards, dogs, and mines were all swept away in a wave of euphoria.

I visited the Berlin Wall and crossed into East Germany several times during the 1980s while I worked at the Wall Street Journal. I will never forget the brave dissidents I met on the Eastern side who never accepted the wall, or the bureaucrats who ran the state machinery that sustained it.

While it now appears easy to simply divide the East German population into oppressors and the people they oppressed, I learned that the truth was a bit more complicated even for someone like me who grew up with anti-Communism in his bloodstream.

Here are some snapshots of people I met before the fall of the wall whom I will never forget.

One: Christa Luft, was the last person to serve as minister of economics in the East German government. Appointed just after the wall fell, she faced the daunting challenge of holding together a collapsing centrally planned economy. When I interviewed her just before Christmas 1989, I asked her how long East Germany could have preserved Communism if the wall hadn’t collapsed. With remarkable candor she said: “We had at most six months to a year.” The economy, she explained, was so inefficient at the end that if a machine tool broke down in Leipzig there would likely be no spare part available. A factory manager desperate to produce his quota of goods would often pay to have the needed part stolen for him from a factory in another city.

Excited to hear such a realistic explanation of the collectivist system, I then asked how the American CIA had possibly calculated that East Germany had a higher GDP than Ireland did, and indeed that West German per capita GDP was only 32 percent higher than East Germany’s. A clearly exhausted Christa Luft started to offer a rationalization and then gave up. “We lied,” she suddenly burst out. “But it wasn’t entirely our fault. You in the West believed our lies, and even gave us loans and other money based on our lies.” The wildly inaccurate economic statistics of the regime became so much a part of the system that even the ruling Communist Politburo members were not given the most accurate numbers.

Two: Peter Janz, who was the energetic first secretary of the East German Embassy in Washington during the 1980s and the point man for arranging interviews and journalist visas for me. He was always politem and he never engaged in attempts to peddle the more preposterous of Communist spin.

After the wall came down, he naturally wasn’t kept on by the German Foreign Ministry. I visited him a couple of years later after he’d settled down as owner of a video-rental store in Berlin. I asked him when he first realized that he was working for a regime that didn’t serve its people and was built on untruths.

He explained that as the son of Communist Party insiders, he had gone to high school in Moscow and been trained for a career as a top government official. But a school vacation trip he and four fellow East German classmates earned to the Baltic States changed his perspective.

He explained that he and his friends had been taught that Estonia, Latviam and Lithuania had all been liberated by Stalin from Nazi rule during World War II. They were now proud, loyal republics of the Soviet Union. But when he and his friends spoke Russian on the streets, they were met with hostile glares and suspicion by the local population. When they switched to German, they were approached by curious passersby and greeted warmly. “I suddenly realized my world was upside down. Nazis had indeed brutalized the Baltic States, but the Soviets had been at least as bad and stayed far longer,” he told me.

What did he do with this new knowledge, I asked him. He explained patiently that his options were limited: “I could become a dissident and give up hope of university or a career. I could leave my entire family and try to start over elsewhere. Or I could stay on my career path and try not to become too morally compromised and perhaps even do some good around the margins.” To those who would criticize his choice, he had a tart response: “People who’ve never grown up in a dictatorship should ask themselves how easily they would rebel against it and risk its full wrath,” he said. “Many of us have no idea how we would react until we are confronted directly with such choices.”

Three: Monica Stern, who was one of four teenage girls whom a German friend of mine and I encountered in 1984 while touring an East Berlin museum. Their teacher had brought them from a rural area to see their nation’s capital and had given them the afternoon off. My friend and I knew Berlin far better than they did, so we volunteered to be their tour guides.

By dusk it was time for my friend and I to return to the glittering lights of West Berlin. The girls came along to bid us farewell. They had never seen the Berlin Wall, but they sensed it was close. They stopped on a street corner and said, “We really shouldn’t go any farther. We are not Berliners. If we are stopped, the guards will ask us why we are so close to the border.”

As we stood in the growing darkness, a feeling of sadness came over me. I wasn’t rich, but I could go anywhere in the world from that street corner for a few hundred dollars. They could not go another 100 yards. Their world ended at the wall. They were trapped in a human zoo.

To keep the conversation going, I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. One said a beautician, one said a nurse, and one said a teacher. But the oldest and wisest, whose name was Monika, looked up at me and said very slowly: “It doesn’t matter what we become when we grow up. They will always treat us like children.”

That sentence really defined Communism in its waning years. People were rarely taken away to a political prison. Instead, there was an insufferable and widespread paternalism. It weighed down people’s spirits and prevented them from becoming what was the best within them.

We parted almost tearfully, exchanging addresses so we could swap postcards at Christmas. She wrote that her application for university studies had been rejected because of her views.

Five years later, in 1989, Monika turned 19 and the Berlin Wall came down. I watched in New York as East Germans crossed over, and I wondered if Monika and her friends were among them.

At about ten o’clock the next morning, the telephone rang. AT&T, already trying to introduce a consumer culture to the 84 percent of East Germans without a telephone, had set up phone kiosks near the wall. They gave prospective customers the chance to make a call anywhere in the world for free. Monika called me. Her first words were, “John, this is Monika. I am over the wall.”

We talked for a few minutes, and I reminded her of our talk on a street corner in East Berlin. “Well, does this mean you country has grown up, and you are no longer to be treated as children?” I asked. She responded with a laugh. “I think my entire country has graduated from kindergarten to high school overnight.”

Today, Monika is happily married and a successful veterinarian. But after more than a generation during which civics, Cold War history, and Communism were barely taught in American public schools, today’s young people know very little about this era.

A new poll by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation finds that Communism is viewed favorably by more than one in three Millennials (36 percent). Only 57 percent of Generation Z and 62 percent of Millennials believe that China is a Communist country and not a democratic country. And finally, only 57 percent of Millennials (compared with 94 percent of the World War II ‘Silent Generation’), believe that the Declaration of Independence guarantees freedom and equality better than the Communist Manifesto does.

Luckily, many Millennials either don’t understand what collectivism is, or they want “an imaginary, pure, democratic, cuddly socialism,” in the words of Daniel Hannan, a British member of the European Parliament. “Even where history has given us laboratory-condition experiments — East and West Germany, and Hong Kong and mainland China — they refuse to infer anything from them, airily dismission each actual instance of socialism as ‘not real socialism.’”

West Berlin’s fight for freedom is now part of history, but here’s hoping that the human-rights story of 2019 — the fight of another isolated “island of freedom” called Hong Kong to protect its institutions from an authoritarian takeover — similarly captures the attention of the world and prompts young people to better comprehend the difference between free and controlled societies.


First Common Core High School Grads Worst-Prepared For College In 15 Years

This is the opposite of what we were told would happen with trillions of taxpayer dollars and an entire generation of children who deserve not to have been guinea pigs in a failed national experiment.

By Joy PullmannThe Federalist

For the third time in a row since Common Core was fully phased in nationwide, U.S. student test scores on the nation’s broadest and most respected test have dropped, a reversal of an upward trend between 1990 and 2015. Further, the class of 2019, the first to experience all four high school years under Common Core, is the worst-prepared for college in 15 years, according to a new report.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is a federally mandated test given every other year in reading and mathematics to students in grades four and eight. (Periodically it also tests other subjects and grade levels.) In the latest results, released Wednesday, American students slid yet again on nearly every measure.

Reading was the worst hit, with both fourth and eighth graders losing ground compared to the last year tested, 2017. Eighth graders also slid in math, although fourth graders improved by one point in math overall. Thanks to Neal McCluskey at the Cato Institute, here’s a graph showing the score changes since NAEP was instituted in the 1990s.

“Students in the U.S. made significant progress in math and reading achievement on NAEP from 1990 until 2015, when the first major dip in achievement scores occurred,” reported U.S. News and World Report. Perhaps not coincidentally, 2015 is the year states were required by the Obama administration to have fully phased in Common Core.

Common Core is a set of national instruction and testing mandates implemented starting in 2010 without approval from nearly any legislative body and over waves of bipartisan citizen protests. President Obama, his Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, and myriad other self-described education reformers promised Common Core would do exactly the opposite of what has happened: improve U.S. student achievement. As Common Core was moving into schools, 69 percent of school principals said they also thought it would improve student achievement. All of these “experts” were wrong, wrong, wrong.

“The results are, frankly, devastating,” said U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement about the 2019 NAEP results. “This country is in a student achievement crisis, and over the past decade it has continued to worsen, especially for our most vulnerable students. Two out of three of our nation’s children aren’t proficient readers. In fact, fourth grade reading declined in 17 states and eighth grade reading declined in 31.”

On the same day the NAEP results were released, the college testing organization ACT released a report showing that the high school class of 2019’s college preparedness in English and math is at seniors’ lowest levels in 15 years. These students are the first to have completed all four high school years under Common Core.

“Readiness levels in English, reading, math, and science have all decreased since 2015, with English and math seeing the largest decline,” the report noted. Student achievement declined on ACT’s measures among U.S. students of all races except for Asian-Americans, whose achievement increased.

ACT was one of the myriad organizations that profited from supporting Common Core despite its lack of success for children and taxpayers. Its employees helped develop Common Core and the organization has received millions in taxpayer dollars to help create Common Core tests.

“ACT is one of the best barometers of student progress, and our college-bound kids are doing worse than they have in the ACT’s history,” said Center for Education Reform CEO Jeanne Allen in a statement.

These recent results are not anomalies, but the latest in a repeated series of achievement declines on various measuring sticks since Common Core was enacted. This is the opposite of what we were told would happen with trillions of taxpayer dollars and an entire generation of children who deserve not to have been guinea pigs in a failed national experiment.

Perhaps the top stated goal of Common Core was to increase American kids’ “college and career readiness.” The phrase is so central to Common Core’s branding that it is part of the mandates’ formal title for its English “anchor standards” and appears 60 times in the English requirements alone. Yet all the evidence since Common Core was shoved into schools, just as critics argued, shows that it has at best done nothing to improve students’ “college and career readiness,” and at worst has damaged it.

While of course many factors go into student achievement, it’s very clear from the available information that U.S. teachers and schools worked hard to do what Common Core demanded and that, regardless, their efforts have not yielded good results. A 2016 survey, for example, found “more than three quarters of teachers (76%) reported having changed at least half of their classroom instruction as a result of [Common Core]; almost one fifth (19%) reported having changed almost all of it.”

An October poll of registered voters across the country found 52 percent think their local public schools are “excellent” or “good,” although 55 percent thought the U.S. public school system as a whole is either just “fair” or “poor.” Things are a lot worse on both fronts than most Americans are willing to realize.

Compared to the rest of the world, even the United States’ top school districts only generate average student achievement, according to the Global Report Card. Common Core was touted as the solution to several decades of lackluster student performance like this that have deprived our economy of trillions in economic growth and would lift millions of Americans out of poverty. That was when U.S. test scores, while mediocre and reflecting huge levels of functional illiteracy, were better than they are now.

It is thus still the case, as it was when the Coleman Report was released 53 years ago, that U.S. public schools do not lift children above the conditions of their home lives. They add nothing to what children already do or do not get from at home, when we know from the track record of the distressingly few excellent schools that this is absolutely possible and therefore should be non-negotiably required. But because the people in charge of U.S. education not only neither lose power nor credibility but actually profit when American kids fail, we can only expect things to get worse.


Study: Free College Plans Leave Vast Majority Worse Off

'Over 86% of all households would lose' from free tuition policies

By Yuichiro KakutaniThe Washington Free Beacon

The “free” college plans touted by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and other Democratic presidential hopefuls will require radical tax hikes and leave 86 percent of American households worse off, a recent study found.

Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) often promise tuition-free higher education and student debt cancellation on the campaign trail. However, a National Bureau of Economic Research study conducted by University of Wisconsin researchers found that free college translates to a hollowed-out higher education system that leaves many Americans worse off.

Researchers simulated two scenarios: one in which the federal government forces states to adopt tuition-free public colleges and another in which it provides subsidies to encourage states to do so. They calculated how each plan would affect the welfare of American households. The welfare function was derived from, among other things, the positive and negative impacts of higher tax rates and lower education costs.

“Over 86% of all households would lose while about 60% of the lowest income quintile would gain from such policies,” the study found.

In both scenarios, the free tuition policy benefited a group of the poorest Americans at the expense of everyone else. For the vast majority of U.S. households, any benefit derived from a free college plan was outweighed by its negative consequences.

Sens. Warren and Sanders, as well as former Obama official Julián Castro, want to make public college free for all Americans. Other presidential candidates, including South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D., Hawaii), backed a less ambitious plan that removed tuition costs only for middle- and low-income families.

Such proposals could end up hurting students before they get to college. For example, Warren said she would pay for her free-tuition plan by levying an up to 2 percent wealth tax on “ultra-millionaires.” She claims in her policy plan that states will split the cost of college tuition with the federal government but still “maintain their current levels of funding” for academic instruction even after her plan is implemented.

Warren’s plan would force state governments to withdraw resources from public K-12 education to fund the free college program, worsening the overall quality of education students receive before college. The lower education quality, along with higher tax rates, would contribute to a decline in welfare for U.S. households, according to researchers.

“The idea of ‘free’ public colleges is politically seductive. But of course a college education can’t actually be free—someone must pay for it,” the study said. “Allocating additional resources to the college stage may be self-defeating if this entails a reduction of public expenditure in the earlier stages.”

Some scholars, however, argue that lower per-pupil costs do not necessarily lead to lower education quality, but may reflect a more efficient school system. Analysts at the Heritage Foundation found that D.C. public school students drastically underperformed despite the district spending nearly double the national average per pupil.

Other academics have found flaws in existing free college programs. A Harvard University study found that a Massachusetts tuition-free college program for high-performing students actually lowered the students’ college completion rate, complicating claims from 2020 Democrats that their education plans would allow more students to graduate.


Elizabeth Warren’s Untenable Plans

If you’ve been having trouble finding someone to walk your dog, don’t worry. Any day now, Elizabeth Warren will announce “a plan for that.” It will undoubtedly be comprehensive, detailed, and replete with subsidies for lower- and middle-class dog walkers and underserved breeds. It will cost tens of billions of dollars and will receive widespread positive notice from the media. However, to judge by her other recent plans, the one thing it won’t include is any discussion of how she plans to pay for it.

The Massachusetts senator has challenged and possibly overtaken former vice president Joe Biden as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, largely based on having a plan for the government to tackle every problem facing this country, no matter how big or how small, from issues with military housing to Puerto Rican debt to climate change.

The price tag for this massive expansion of government is enormous. Much of the attention in recent weeks has been focused on Warren’s embrace of Medicare for All, which she refuses to admit would require an increase in middle-class taxes. Even Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has conceded that such proposals, which would cost $30–40 trillion over 10 years, cannot be financed without tax hikes. Warren’s refusal to address this obvious fact makes her look less like a would-be policy wonk and more like a typical politician.

But even setting aside Medicare for All, Warren’s plans are likely to dump oceans of red ink onto our growing national debt. Her non-health-care spending proposals already total some $7.5 trillion per year over the next 10 years. Although these are not quite Bernie levels of government largesse, her proposals would still require nearly double our current levels of spending.

To pay for all this, Warren proposes a variety of tax hikes, mostly designed to hit corporations or high-earners: higher payroll taxes for those earning more than $250,000 per year; a 7 percent profits tax on companies earning more than $100 million; a 60 percent lobbying tax on firms that spend a million or more on lobbying, and so forth. But the biggest chunk of money would come from Warren’s proposed “wealth tax,” a 2 to 3 percent levy on net worth above $50 million. Warren estimates that this wealth tax will pull in more than $2.75 trillion over ten years. It won’t.

First, there is the slight problem that a wealth tax is probably unconstitutional. Of course, constitutional constraints are quaint notions in the Age of Trump. Regardless, it is worth noting that the Constitution permits the federal government to impose only “direct taxes,” such as a property tax. That’s why it required a constitutional amendment to enact the federal income tax. Many constitutional scholars warn that a wealth tax is neither a direct tax nor income tax.

Even if Warren can find a way around the constitutional guardrails — perhaps by something such as a retrospective wealth tax in which you wait until a taxpayer sells assets or passes away — a wealth tax is unlikely to raise anywhere near the amount of money she predicts.

Simply look at Europe’s experiments with wealth taxes. At one time, a dozen European countries imposed wealth taxes. Today, all but three have abandoned those levies. Among those repealing their wealth tax are the Scandinavian social democracies that Warren admires, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. Norway retains a wealth tax but has significantly reduced it in recent years. Additional countries abandoning the tax include Austria, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Other countries, such as Great Britain, have considered wealth taxes and rejected them.

They did so because wealth taxes are administratively complex and difficult to enforce. Also, they significantly reduce investment, entrepreneurship, and, ultimately, economic growth. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, European wealth taxes raised, on average, only about 0.2 percent of GDP in revenues. By comparison, the U.S. federal income tax raises 8 percent of GDP.

Two groups, however, would benefit substantially from a wealth tax. The tax would be a full-employment opportunity for the tax-preparation industry and for lawyers. After all, we would now have to determine fair market value for everything from homes and vehicles to artwork and jewelry to family pension rights and intellectual property. The other big winner would be lobbyists, who could be expected to descend on Washington en masse seeking exemptions and exceptions for their clients. If you think the tax code is a mess today, just wait until D.C. is done with Warren’s plan.

There is an old Yiddish proverb that goes “Mann tracht, un Gott Lacht,” or “Man plans, and God laughs.” It is all well and good that Senator Warren has a plan for everything. But until she actually figures out how to pay for everything without crippling our economy, such plans really don’t add up


We Are All Ukrainians

Column: How wealth and cronyism transformed American democracy

By Matthew ContinettiThe Free Beacon

Trump and Zelinsky

Ironies pile up. Both participants in the July 25 call between President Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky are outsiders whose fame catapulted them to high office. Foreign policy experts assumed their similar profile would promote goodwill and understanding. That was incorrect. This star-crossed encounter has damaged the careers of both men. It also has thrown light on the nature of their societies.

Reality TV star Trump leveraged social media and anti-establishment politics into a takeover of the Republican Party. In his television show Servant of the People, comedian and filmmaker Zelensky portrayed a high school teacher whose rant against the political class goes viral and becomes the basis for a successful presidential campaign. Servant of the People debuted in 2015 and proved disturbingly prescient. In a double case of life imitating art, both Trump and Zelensky wound up portraying versions of Zelensky’s character Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko in real life.

What is real life? These days it is hard to tell. The impeachment drama commingles fact and fantasy, ineptitude and insinuation, in a plot that may be more familiar to Ukrainian audiences than to American ones. The opening scene of Servant of the People takes place on a balcony in Kiev overlooking the Maidan. Three oligarchs discuss the forthcoming elections and the rival candidates they support. At the end of the day, the trio concludes, all that matters is they maintain control of the political process. That’s not how it works out.

The show is a comedy. And there are certainly humorous aspects to the present situation. But, if you watch Servant of the People on Netflix today, the parallels between its storyline and contemporary politics are glaring and serious. The fictional conversation described above could have taken place in certain quarters of the United States in 2015, in London in 2016, in Kiev in 2019. It cannot be a good thing that American democracy has taken on some of the characteristics of the Ukrainian version.

In a sense it is fitting that a former province of the Soviet Union beset by corruption, cronyism, and war has become the crux of Democratic efforts to impeach Donald Trump. This beleaguered country is not only a crossroads between West and East, Europe and Eurasia, NATO and Russia. It is also a field from which America’s bipartisan elite has reaped considerable bounties in contracts and directorships, in consulting and lobbying. What has been happening in Ukraine for decades is emblematic of the self-dealing and self-seeking that has exhausted voting publics and inspired populists across the world. Unexpectedly, Trump’s relation to Ukraine threatens the viability of the movements it helped create.

Just as Trump needn’t have broken any laws for the Democrats to impeach him, Hunter Biden needn’t have violated any statute to symbolize the cronyism of America’s political class. It takes the willing suspension of disbelief to argue that politics had nothing to do with the appointment of the son of the vice president to the well-compensated board of an oil and gas giant two months after he was kicked out of the U.S. Navy for cocaine abuse.

And it requires unblinking partisanship to deny that both Republicans and Democrats, from Paul Manafort to Greg Craig, from BGR Group to the defunct Podesta Group, have profited from connections to Ukraine’s various governments and officials. “If you want me to leave the U.S. on Monday 6/16 and return on Friday 6/20,” Democrat Tad Devine wroteRepublican Rick Gates in reference to a Ukraine job in 2014, “that would be 5 days at $10G/day for $50,000.00. You would need to make the travel arrangements, and transfer the $50G before the trip.” That’s top dollar for someone who once consulted a socialist.

For decades, the economies that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Empire have been playgrounds for American political professionals to deploy their tricks of the trade, their skills at campaign management and public relations, in lucrative arrangements. Perhaps we should have expected these politicos might return home with pieces of post-Soviet political culture in their carry-ons: love of intrigue, of information operations conducted in digital and social media, of conspiracy theories, of national populism and of socialism, of high-dollar payouts made against the backdrop of gray-zone conflict between authoritarian and democratic states. The vocabulary of American politics has appropriated Russian terminology: maskirovka and kompromatnomenklatura and czar.

This influence is manifest in the conduct of impeachment so far. Anonymous whistleblowers from within the intelligence services trigger investigations of the president. The speaker of the House announces an impeachment inquiry but does not call the roll. The quasi-official status of the investigation allows the Democratic majority to minimize Republican involvement. Hearings are secret. Selective leaks to media drive the impeachment narrative and consolidate partisan support for the president’s removal. To speak of narratives rather than evidence is to acknowledge our postmodern condition, where interpretations are more powerful than facts.

From Varsity Blues to Jeffrey Epstein, from China and the NBA to Ukraine and Hunter Biden, Americans are taking a crash course on the ways in which powerful people manipulate the system for personal advantage and globalization merges political cultures as well as economies. What has been uncovered as impeachment rolls on does nothing to spur confidence in the integrity of our system. America is exceptional, but our elites are not. Today we are all Ukrainians.


Obamacare for illegal immigrants may cost taxpayers $23 billion a year, study shows

By Stephen DinanThe Washington Times

Taxpayers could have to shell out nearly $23 billion a year to provide Obamacare coverage to illegal immigrants, according to a new analysis being released Thursday that puts a high price tag on one of the Democratic presidential candidates’ top election promises.

Nearly 5 million illegal immigrants have incomes that would qualify them for Obamacare’s subsidies that help pay lower-income Americans’ premiums, and they would average about $4,600 a year, the Center for Immigration Studies calculates.

If all of them signed up, that would total $22.6 billion a year. Even assuming a more realistic enrollment rate of about half, it would cost taxpayers $10.4 billion a year, according to the organization, which advocates for less immigration overall.

Under an alternative plan, in which the lowest-income illegal immigrants are put on Medicaid while others receive Obamacare subsidies, the costs would be similar, the study found.

“Any serious debate on providing health care coverage to those in the country illegally requires a cost estimate,” said Steven Camarota, research director at the organization, who said his findings were a reminder that “tolerating illegal immigration creates a significant burden for taxpayers.”

The group released another report Thursday calculating that immigrants who use Medicaid — legal and illegal — already cost more per family than native-born Americans. The reason, the analysis says, is that they are more likely to be less-educated and have larger families.

It’s become a must-have position for Democratic presidential candidates that illegal immigrants deserve access to government-sponsored health care. At one of the debates, all 10 candidates on stage raised hands when asked if they backed the idea.

But the candidates have different ideas about how to get there.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, father of “Medicare for All,” says he would cover illegal immigrants through his fully government-run system.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden at the debate agreed that illegal immigrants should get coverage — “It’s the humane thing to do,” he said — but later slimmed down that commitment, saying they should be allowed to buy into Obamacare and should be able to get emergency coverage. That latter part is already the law.

Mr. Camarota warned that if illegal immigrants are covered, the next steps could be to offer taxpayer-sponsored health care to guest-workers in the U.S. on temporary visas.

“The high cost of providing healthcare to less-educated workers who earn modest wages is a reminder that tolerating illegal immigration or allowing such workers into the country legally is likely to create a significant burden for taxpayers,” he wrote.

He said he couldn’t calculate how much of an incentive health care could be in enticing people to enter the U.S. illegally.

President Trump is moving in the other direction.

In an executive order last week, he announced a new policy banning entry of immigrants deemed likely to become a drain on the U.S. health care system — chiefly those who show up at emergency rooms, where they can’t be denied care, and then leave the public with the bill.

Whether to extend Obamacare to illegal immigrants was an issue Congress grappled with in 2009 and 2010 as it was debating passage of the Affordable Care Act. The party’s leaders concluded such a step could poison the entire health care effort, since the public seemed opposed to the idea.

It’s not clear much has changed in public attitude.

A CNN poll over the summer found 59% of Americans opposed offering government-sponsored health care to “undocumented immigrants.”

In the absence of federal action, some Democrat-led states have taken steps.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation in July to expand state health care assistance to low-income young adult illegal immigrants, granting them coverage under Medicaid. The state had already covered juvenile illegal immigrants and “Dreamers” who had status under the Obama-era DACA program, but the new law expands coverage to any illegal immigrant up to age 25.

The state estimated roughly 90,000 people will get coverage, at an additional cost of nearly $100 million a year.


Best Way To Lower Seniors’ Drug Costs? Reverse Obama Rule-Changes

By George LandrithRedState

One of the problems in health care today is that it turns Oscar Wilde’s quip on its head: In the United States, everyone knows the value of health care, but nobody knows the price of anything (because most spending is covered by insurance or by federal programs such as Medicare).

Pricing information is crucial in any system, because when people know what price they’re paying for a good or service, they can make informed decisions. Also, prices tend to come down over time as people demand better service at lower prices.

However, unlike Walmart or Amazon.com, the federal government isn’t especially good at negotiating lower prices. And now, crony health care interests are fighting to eliminate one of Medicare’s few pricing successes.

The issue involves prescription medicines. Since Medicare Part D was put into place to cover prescription drugs, generic and biosimilar medicines have usually been added to the program as soon as the FDA approved them. That’s given seniors access to safe, effective drugs at a much lower cost. In 2018, for example, generic drugs saved consumers almost $300 billion, with $90 billion of that going to Medicare recipients.

Sadly, though, they could have saved much more. In 2016, the Obama administration changed Medicare policy so that many generics would be priced in the same band as name brand drugs. That’s increased prices for seniors by more than $6 billion.

A good chunk of that money flowed to Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs), which negotiate to get the generic meds priced in a higher band, then pocket “rebates” (kickbacks) from the big drug companies that make name brand drugs. Consumers, meanwhile, miss out on potential savings.

Under the Trump administration, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is finally taking steps to roll back the price increases. Next year, it wants to stop Medicare Part D plans from moving generic drugs into branded drug tiers. Instead, it plans to create a new tier reserved just for generics and biosimilars.

Many lawmakers support this sensible policy. “I am pleased to find that CMS is considering an ‘alternative’ policy,” Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana wrote to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “I applaud CMS for considering these cost-effective policies and urge the Agency to make them final for CY2020.”

Cassidy is a doctor and a leader in the fight for a more conservative approach to health care. He also joined fellow Republican Senators Steve Daines and James Lankford and Democrats Sherrod Brown and Robert Menendez in sponsoring an amendment to The Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act of 2019 that would have “ensured lower-cost generic drugs are placed on generic tiers and higher-cost brands stay on brand tiers.” They dropped that amendment for internal reasons, because Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley told them he’ll make certain the language makes it into the final bill.

Many other lawmakers are also pushing for the reform. “We encourage CMS to move forward with this policy effective CY2020 to lower out-of-pocket costs for millions of Americans, ensuring that they receive the full value of generic and biosimilar competition,” a bipartisan group of House lawmakers wrote to Azar. “Price competition is vital in the Part D program and beneficiaries deserve a choice at the pharmacy counter when possible.” 

Seniors can thank these lawmakers, and should keep a sharp eye on Sen. Grassley. He has a chance to move forward in a bipartisan fashion with a plan that would save Medicare recipients money. That ought to be an easy sell in these divided times.

Conservatives are wary about expanding Medicare, of course. But we’re eager to use pricing power to improve the state of American health care. Let’s not allow PBMs to block this important step toward systemic reform.


The Best Economic News No One Wants to Talk About

Something’s happening to wages that neither Democrats nor Republicans care to acknowledge.

By Derek ThompsonThe Atlantic

Stop me if this sounds familiar: For most American workers, real wages have barely budged in decades. Inequality has skyrocketed. The richest workers are making all the money. Earnings for low-income workers have been pathetic this entire century.

These claims help drive the interpretation of breaking economic news. For example, the Labor Department yesterday reported that the unemployment rate fell to a 50-year low, while wage growth stalled. “The wage numbers here are INSANE,” the MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted. “The tightest labor market in decades and decades and ordinary working people are barely seeing gains.”

So, let’s play a game of wish-casting.

  • Imagine a world where wage growth was truly stagnant only for workers in high-wage industries, such as medicine and consulting.
  • Imagine a labor market where earnings growth for low-wage workers, such as those who work in retail and restaurants, had doubled in the past five years.
  • Imagine an economy where wages for the poorest Americans were rising twice as fast as hourly earnings for high-wage earners.

It turns out that all three of those things are happening right now.

According to analysis by Nick Bunker, an economist with the jobs site Indeed, wage growth is currently strongest for workers in low-wage industries, such as clothing stores, supermarkets, amusement parks, and casinos. And earnings are growing most slowly in higher-wage industries, such as medical labs, law firms, and broadcasting and telecom companies.

Bunker’s analysis is not an outlier. A Goldman Sachs look at data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found growth for the bottom half of earners at its highest rate of the cycle. And even among that bottom half, the biggest gains are going to workers earning the least. A New York Times analysis of data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that wage growth among the lowest 25 percent of earners had exceeded the growth in every other quartile.

In fact, according to Bunker’s research, wages for low-income workers may be growing at their highest rate in 20 years.

What’s happening here? Donald Trump hasn’t sprinkled MAGA pixie dust over the U.S. economy. In fact, his trade war has clearly diminished employment growth in industries, that are sensitive to foreign markets, such as manufacturing. Rather, a tight labor market and state-by-state minimum wage hikes have combined to push up wage growth for the poorest workers. The sluggishness of overall wage growth is concealing the fact that the labor market has done wonderful things for wages at the low end.

One reason you haven’t heard this economic narrative may be that it’s inconvenient for members of both political parties to talk about, especially at a time when economic analysis has, like everything else, become a proxy for political orientation. For Democrats, the idea that low-income workers could be benefiting from a 2019 economy feels dangerously close to giving the president credit for something. This isn’t just poor motivated reasoning; it also attributes way too much power to the American president, who exerts very little control over the domestic economy. Meanwhile, corporate-friendly outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, have reported on this phenomenon. But they’ve used it as an opportunity to take a shot at “the slow-growth Obama years” rather than a way to argue for the extraordinary benefits of tight labor markets for the poor, much less for the virtues of minimum-wage laws.

Democrats don’t want to talk about low-income wage growth, because it feels too close to saying, “Good things can happen while Trump is president”; and Republicans don’t want to talk about the reason behind it, because it’s dangerously close to saying, “Our singular fixation with corporate-tax rates is foolish and Keynes was right.”

But good things can happen while Trump is president, and Keynes was right. “Tighter labor markets sure are good for workers who work in low-wage industries,” Bunker told me. “This recovery has not been spectacular. But if we let the labor market get stronger for a long time, you will see these results.”


Let Seniors Use Health Security Accounts to Buy Better Care

By Peter RoffRealClear Health

Atop the list of what America’s senior adults want are the preservation of their independence and a secure retirement. Admirably they don’t want to end up being a burden anyone, not their spouse, not their children, and not the rest of us. The way the system is rigged, however, almost guarantees they will

Medicare-for-All, which most of the Democrats running for president have endorsed, will only lead to increased dependency. It’s a typical one-size-fits-all proposal that sounds good from the stump and may look good on paper. The numbers though, just don’t work.

The way forward is to expand choice and to allow seniors to take advantage of competition in the health care marketplace to bring prices down. Some already have supplemental insurance that helps fill the financial gap between what they need and what Medicare will pay for but it’s not enough. Some people need more than one walker in order to stay in their homes.

This is where creativity is needed. The green-eye shade types who approve Medicare expenditures spend lots of time thinking about what things cost. Considering how many taxpayer dollars are involved in later-in-life health care, that’s not such a bad thing but it doesn’t always take into consideration what people need.

That forces seniors to make hard choices that can threaten their independence. They need to have more options as they would under a proposal by Dr. Ami Bera, D-Calif., and Jason Smith, R-Mo., that would let them use pre-tax dollars stored up in health savings accounts to fill the gaps between items covered under Medicare and what they are expected to pay for out of pocket.

“Having a Health Savings Account is a powerful resource that reimburses everything from doctor and dentist visits to prescription drugs, first aid supplies, and eyeglasses. Health Savings Accounts also incentivize saving for health-care expenses by providing critical tax benefits, just as we do for saving for retirement or college,” says Kevin McKechnie, the executive director of the American Bankers Association’s Health Savings Accounts Council.

Money put away in an HSA can stay there for decades. Under current law, there’s no “Use it or lose it” provision. That means younger workers can start saving for retirement health care upon entering the workforce and, through the magic of compound interest, build up a nest egg that’s there for them anytime they need it.

That means, if they’re lucky enough to remain relatively healthy and can be disciplined financially, it can be there for them in their retirement years which, it has suddenly become clear to me, come around a lot faster than it seems they will when you’re just starting out.

The tax benefits associated with HSA’s, McKechnie wrote in a recent op-ed, “have become even more important as deductibles and other health-care costs continue to skyrocket.” Struggling families, especially those that include senior adults facing the challenges associated with aging, are finding it harder and harder to plan for they can’t see coming. Expanding the range of services that can be paid for out of health savings accounts give them an additional hedge against the unexpected.

A recent Luntz Global poll found 46 percent support for the Bera-Smith plan and the idea of using HSA funds to fill the Medigap. Expanding the list of approved items upon which HSA dollars can be spent without tax penalties is low hanging fruit as far as health care reform goes. That’s probably why the idea has bipartisan support.

The challenges presented by an aging America in which people living longer and healthier must deal with diseases that can lead more quickly to economic ruin should give us all pause. New thinking is needed, not just where treatments are concerned but in how we make it possible for people to pay for it. We could as a country decide to turn the whole business over to the government but that inevitable means care will be rationed, fewer options will be available, and decisions regarding life and death matters will almost inevitably be taken out of our hands by the bureaucracy.

No one wants to live like that, and no one wants a loved one to die like that. The Bera-Smith Health Savings for Seniors Act will cover the gaps and help bring the cost of health care under control. At least 82 percent of those who answered the Luntz Global survey think it will. It’s time to give it a chance.


Tax Backed by 2020 Dems Would Hurt Retirement Accounts, Report Finds

Average retirement account would lose $20,000 to tax

By Charles Fain LehmanWashington Free Beacon

A financial transaction tax, though popular with 2020 Democrats, would raise little revenue and substantially shrink the U.S. economy, a recently released report concludes.

A transaction tax takes a percentage from financial trades, such as the sale or purchase of stocks, bonds, or derivatives. The United States levies an extremely small charge on each transaction to fund the Securities and Exchange Commission. A number of Democrats would like to bring a full-fledged financial transaction tax (FTT) back for the first time since 1965.

The idea’s most vocal proponent is presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) who has introduced a plan to charge a 0.5 percent fee on financial transactions. Sanders has made the tax “on Wall Street” a central revenue source to pay for his exorbitant spending proposals.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) introduced her own FTT proposal in 2015, Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) wants one to pay for expanding Medicare, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg has also said that he is “interested in” implementing an FTT. Congressional Democrats have supported the idea outside of the campaign trail. Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) has his own0.1 percent proposed FTT — the bill has more than 200 co-sponsors in the House, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.).

These Democrats and others cite several justifications for an FTT. The tax is aimed at “Wall Street,” a preferred target of populist liberals—at least in principle, that means it also falls more heavily on those who hold a lot of wealth in investments. Additionally, such a tax would impose major restrictions on so-called high-frequency trading, which involves computer-run trades at fractions of a penny—profits that could be wiped out by the tax.

“This Wall Street speculation fee, also known as a financial transaction tax, will raise substantial revenue from wealthy investors that can be used to make public colleges and universities tuition free and substantially reduce student debt,” a brief from Sanders’s office reads. “It will also reduce speculation and high-frequency trading that is destabilizing financial markets. During the financial crisis, Wall Street received the largest taxpayer bailout in the history of the world. Now it is Wall Street’s turn to rebuild the disappearing middle class.”

The scope of the tax, however, would extend beyond the confines of Manhattan, according to a report from the Center for Capital Market Competitiveness, an affiliate of the Chamber of Commerce. The report argues that FTTs shrink the economy and hurt every-day Americans, not just Wall Street fat cats.

“Main Street will pay for the tax, not Wall Street,” the report argues. “The real burden [of an FTT] will be on ordinary investors, such as retirees, pension holders, and those saving for college.”

Much like a sales tax, the costs of a financial transaction tax would be passed on to consumers, who would pay more for each trade. Taxing transactions does not just drive up costs for the ultra-wealthy, but the 6 in 10 American households that own some kind of investment. Increased costs would have substantial effects on American savings. Under the Sanders plan, for example, the report estimates that a typical retirement investor will end up losing about $20,000 on average from his IRA.

These direct effects are arguably less significant than the overall effect that an FTT would have on the financial side of the economy. As multiple Democrats have acknowledged, the goal of an FTT would be to crack down on complicated financial instruments, such as high-frequency trades, to reduce what they perceive as dangerous market instability.

These instruments mostly serve vital functions greasing the wheels of the economy, according to the center’s report. An FTT would erase the razor-thin margins on which market makers operate, and severely constrain other forms of arbitrage. They would also reduce the use of vital risk-management tools, like many derivatives and futures contracts.

An FTT, the report argues, would thus serve to substantially slow the economy. Trade volume would fall; consumer good prices would rise; municipal bonds would generate less revenue for infrastructure; the cost of credit would increase, making mortgages more expensive—in turn exacerbating the homelessness crisis, depressing young home-ownership, and reducing family formation.

Obviously, each of these effects may not be massive—the U.S. economy grew substantially even during the 50-year period when we had an FTT. But, the new report argues, the experience of other nations indicates that the costs to the economy would substantially outweigh any benefit.

For example, they cite an economic analysis of a proposed 0.1 percent transaction tax in the EU—the authors found that “such a tax would lower GDP by 1.76 percent while raising revenue of only 0.08% percent of GDP.” Sweden’s 1 percent FTT caused a 5.3 percent drop in the Swedish market—meaning a 0.5 percent FTT, as Sanders proposes, would analogously cut nearly $800 billion from U.S. market capitalization. The evidence runs the other way, too: In the year following the repeal of the U.S. transaction tax, New York Stock Exchange trade volume increased by 33 percent.

All of this is why many countries—including Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Portugal, Italy, Denmark, Japan, Austria, and France—have eliminated such transaction taxes.

“Bad ideas have a habit of coming around again. The U.S., like many other nations, experimented with an FTT and wisely got rid of it. Yet each generation seems to be tempted by the false promise of a painless revenue stream,” the report said. “It would be wise to pay attention to the wisdom of experience and again avoid this false temptation. After all, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”


New Poll: 64 Percent Of Democrats Now Support Socialism

By Tristan JusticeThe Feralist

A new study shows Democrats running to embrace socialism in the Trump era as radical progressives dominate the 2020 Democratic primary field.

The study, conducted by the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, shows a dramatic shift towards socialism among Democrats since 2016, with 64 percent of Democrats holding a favorable view of it today compared to 56 percent three years ago. Today, only 45 percent of Democrats hold favorable views of capitalism while 58 percent shared the same view in 2016, according to Cato.

Half of Democrats blamed President Donald Trump for making them “like capitalism less.”

While Democrats increasingly flock to socialism, the study shows that a vast majority of Americans still favor critical elements of a capitalist society and report being skeptical of government programs to alleviate poverty.

The study found that 84 percent of Americans believe it’s not wrong for people to make as much money as they can honestly, and 69 percent of respondents agreed that billionaires “earned their wealth by creating values for others.” The authors also found that 60 percent of Americans rejected the idea that welfare programs were created to bring people out of poverty.

The report comes in the middle of the Democratic presidential primary where left-wing candidates supporting proposals such as “Medicare for All,” a “Green New Deal,” reparations for slavery, and other massive expansions of the U.S. welfare state are conquering the field, proposals which experts say are mathematically impossible to fund even with near-impossible tax increases on the rich.

The Democratic primary’s front-runner, former vice president Joe Biden, has worked to frame himself as the moderate in the race, which, compared to the rest of the candidates in the race appears accurate. As The Federalist’s Emily Jashinsky has pointed out however, Biden is by no means a moderate, the whole field’s platforms are just farther left. The former vice president’s platform itself has gone even further leftward of Hillary Clinton’s in 2016.

On health care, climate change, and criminal justice reform, Biden has adopted the prescriptions of the left with the drastic expansion of the federal government cloaked in moderation by the cover provided by openly socialist candidates competing in the race.


The Sixth Circuit Pounds Another Nail in the Coffin of the University Speech Code

The day when universities are forced to rediscover their historic role as guardians of open inquiry and debate is coming, whether they like it or not.

By DAVID FRENCHNational Review

There was a time, in the recent past, when universities were in the grip of a kind of speech-code fever. Even as recently ten years ago, after a wave of litigation striking down campus speech regulations, the vast majority of American colleges and universities still kept clearly unconstitutional speech codes on the books. They kept losing in court, yet they still couldn’t quit their codes.

Fast-forward a decade and that’s changed. Between 2009 and 2019, the portion of surveyed American universities with what the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education classifies as “red light” speech codes has shrunk from 74.2 percent to a mere 28.5 percent, and a total of 17 states have enacted some form of campus free-speech legislation. But the impulse to censor dies hard, and some schools have been nothing if not creative in their efforts to control speech without explicitly and clearly running afoul of the law. Witness, for example, the phenomenon of the “bias-response team.”

While the system varies from university to university, in general a bias-response team represents an institutional effort to identify alleged student bias and bigotry and eliminate it through some form of reeducation. Students report speech they find discriminatory or otherwise problematic, a university team investigates the “incident” — including sometimes meeting with the alleged offender — and then often creates a report describing the events. Sometimes bias-response teams can and will refer conduct to university disciplinary officials or university police if they feel more substantial punishment is warranted.

Last year, a group called Speech First filed an important lawsuit against the University of Michigan, challenging the content of the university’s bullying and harassment policy and its bias-response team’s procedures. The district court denied Speech First’s request for an injunction, holding in part that the group lacked standing to challenge the policy. Under the law, a court will not grant standing to a plaintiff in the absence of what’s called an “injury in fact,” and the question was whether the members of Speech First had suffered an “objective chill” to their free-speech rights or a mere “subjective chill.” For the chill to be objective, there must be proof that a “concrete harm” (enforcement of a statute or regulation) “occurred or is imminent.” If the plaintiff is concerned merely with the defendant’s “data-gathering activity,” and can’t meet the “concrete harm” standard, then the chill is subjective.

Make sense? To put it as plainly as possible, Michigan argued that the courts should move along — that there was nothing to see here because the bias-response team itself couldn’t punish anyone. Speech First said that actually, there was a problem, because the bias-response process itself could act as a form of punishment, and the team could still refer incidents to those with power to explicitly punish students.

Yesterday, in a decision with national implications, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Speech First, reversed the district court and ordered it to reconsider the group’s request for an injunction. Its ruling recognized the obvious power of the bias-response team:

The Response Team’s ability to make referrals — i.e., to inform OSCR or the police about reported conduct — is a real consequence that objectively chills speech. The referral itself does not punish a student — the referral is not, for example, a criminal conviction or expulsion. But the referral subjects students to processes which could lead to those punishments. The referral initiates the formal investigative process, which itself is chilling even if it does not result in a finding of responsibility or criminality.

This is quite right: There isn’t a student alive who wouldn’t find the bias-response team’s investigative process intimidating. But the problem extends beyond the team’s ability to refer students for punishment; it reaches to the team’s power to request a meeting with an accused student, as the court went on to explain:

Additionally, the invitation from the Response Team to meet could carry an implicit threat of consequence should a student decline the invitation. Although there is no indication that the invitation to meet contains overt threats, the referral power lurks in the background of the invitation. It is possible that, for example, a student who knows that reported conduct might be referred to police or OSCR could understand the invitation to carry the threat: “meet or we will refer your case.” Additionally, the very name “Bias Response Team” suggests that the accused student’s actions have been prejudged to be biased. The name is not the “Alleged Bias Response Team” or “Possible Bias Investigatory Team.” It is the “Bias Response Team.”

The dissent argues that Speech First did not present any evidence of actual or imminent interaction with the bias response team, but — as the majority notes — that’s the entire point of the chilling-effect analysis. When the spectral threat of government action looms, private actors will refuse to engage in any speech that could even potentially result in state investigation.

The university will now be required to defend its response team on the merits, and it is highly likely to lose. But even this standing ruling alone is likely to spawn additional litigation, including in different federal circuits. Once again, universities will find themselves on the defense — at least until the day comes when they at long last rediscover their true historical purpose, to serve, in the court’s words, as “guardians of intellectual debate and free speech.”


The Danger of the Attacks on the Electoral College

The following is adapted from a speech delivered on April 30, 2019, at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C.

By Trent EnglandImprimus

Once upon a time, the Electoral College was not controversial. During the debates over ratifying the Constitution, Anti-Federalist opponents of ratification barely mentioned it. But by the mid-twentieth century, opponents of the Electoral College nearly convinced Congress to propose an amendment to scrap it. And today, more than a dozen states have joined in an attempt to hijack the Electoral College as a way to force a national popular vote for president.

What changed along the way? And does it matter? After all, the critics of the Electoral College simply want to elect the president the way we elect most other officials. Every state governor is chosen by a statewide popular vote. Why not a national popular vote for president?

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 asked themselves the same question, but then rejected a national popular vote along with several other possible modes of presidential election. The Virginia Plan—the first draft of what would become the new Constitution —called for “a National Executive . . . to be chosen by the National Legislature.” When the Constitutional Convention took up the issue for the first time, near the end of its first week of debate, Roger Sherman from Connecticut supported this parliamentary system of election, arguing that the national executive should be “absolutely dependent” on the legislature. Pennsylvania’s James Wilson, on the other hand, called for a popular election. Virginia’s George Mason thought a popular election “impracticable,” but hoped Wilson would “have time to digest it into his own form.” Another delegate suggested election by the Senate alone, and then the Convention adjourned for the day.

When they reconvened the next morning, Wilson had taken Mason’s advice. He presented a plan to create districts and hold popular elections to choose electors. Those electors would then vote for the executive—in other words, an electoral college. But with many details left out, and uncertainty remaining about the nature of the executive office, Wilson’s proposal was voted down. A week later, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts proposed election by state governors. This too was voted down, and a consensus began to build. Delegates did not support the Virginia Plan’s parliamentary model because they understood that an executive selected by Congress would become subservient to Congress. A similar result, they came to see, could be expected from assigning the selection to any body of politicians.

There were other oddball proposals that sought to salvage congressional selection—for instance, to have congressmen draw lots to form a group that would then choose the executive in secret. But by July 25, it was clear to James Madison that the choice was down to two forms of popular election: “The option before us,” he said, “[is] between an appointment by Electors chosen by the people—and an immediate appointment by the people.” Madison said he preferred popular election, but he recognized two legitimate concerns. First, people would tend toward supporting candidates from their own states, giving an advantage to larger states. Second, a few areas with higher concentrations of voters might come to dominate. Madison spoke positively of the idea of an electoral college, finding that “there would be very little opportunity for cabal, or corruption” in such a system.

By August 31, the Constitution was nearly finished—except for the process of electing the president. The question was put to a committee comprised of one delegate from each of the eleven states present at the Convention. That committee, which included Madison, created the Electoral College as we know it today. They presented the plan on September 4, and it was adopted with minor changes. It is found in Article II, Section 1:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.

Federal officials were prohibited from being electors. Electors were required to cast two ballots, and were prohibited from casting both ballots for candidates from their own state. A deadlock for president would be decided by the House of Representatives, with one vote per state. Following that, in case of a deadlock for vice president, the Senate would decide. Also under the original system, the runner up became vice president.

This last provision caused misery for President John Adams in 1796, when his nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, became his vice president. Four years later it nearly robbed Jefferson of the presidency when his unscrupulous running mate, Aaron Burr, tried to parlay an accidental deadlock into his own election by the House. The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, fixed all this by requiring electors to cast separate votes for president and vice president.

And there things stand, constitutionally at least. State legislatures have used their power to direct the manner of choosing electors in various ways: appointing them directly, holding elections by district, or holding statewide elections. Today, 48 states choose their presidential electors in a statewide, winner-take-all vote. Maine and Nebraska elect one elector based on each congressional district’s vote and the remaining two based on the statewide vote.

It is easy for Americans to forget that when we vote for president, we are really voting for electors who have pledged to support the candidate we favor. Civics education is not what it used to be. Also, perhaps, the Electoral College is a victim of its own success. Most of the time, it shapes American politics in ways that are beneficial but hard to see. Its effects become news only when a candidate and his or her political party lose a hard-fought and narrowly decided election.

So what are the beneficial effects of choosing our presidents through the Electoral College?

Under the Electoral College system, presidential elections are decentralized, taking place in the states. Although some see this as a flaw—U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren opposes the Electoral College expressly because she wants to increase federal power over elections—this decentralization has proven to be of great value.

For one thing, state boundaries serve a function analogous to that of watertight compartments on an ocean liner. Disputes over mistakes or fraud are contained within individual states. Illinois can recount its votes, for instance, without triggering a nationwide recount. This was an important factor in America’s messiest presidential election—which was not in 2000, but in 1876.

That year marked the first time a presidential candidate won the electoral vote while losing the popular vote. It was a time of organized suppression of black voters in the South, and there were fierce disputes over vote totals in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Each of those states sent Congress two sets of electoral vote totals, one favoring Republican Rutherford Hayes and the other Democrat Samuel Tilden. Just two days before Inauguration Day, Congress finished counting the votes—which included determining which votes to count—and declared Hayes the winner. Democrats proclaimed this “the fraud of the century,” and there is no way to be certain today—nor was there probably a way to be certain at the time—which candidate actually won. At the very least, the Electoral College contained these disputes within individual states so that Congress could endeavor to sort it out. And it is arguable that the Electoral College prevented a fraudulent result.

Four years later, the 1880 presidential election demonstrated another benefit of the Electoral College system: it can act to amplify the results of a presidential election. The popular vote margin that year was less than 10,000 votes—about one-tenth of one percent—yet Republican James Garfield won a resounding electoral victory, with 214 electoral votes to Democrat Winfield Hancock’s 155. There was no question who won, let alone any need for a recount. More recently, in 1992, the Electoral College boosted the legitimacy of Democrat Bill Clinton, who won with only 43 percent of the popular vote but received over 68 percent of the electoral vote.

But there is no doubt that the greatest benefit of the Electoral College is the powerful incentive it creates against regionalism. Here, the presidential elections of 1888 and 1892 are most instructive. In 1888, incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland lost reelection despite receiving a popular vote plurality. He won this plurality because he won by very large margins in the overwhelmingly Democratic South. He won Texas alone by 146,461 votes, for instance, whereas his national popular vote margin was only 94,530. Altogether he won in six southern states with margins greater than 30 percent, while only tiny Vermont delivered a victory percentage of that size for Republican Benjamin Harrison.

In other words, the Electoral College ensures that winning supermajorities in one region of the country is not sufficient to win the White House. After the Civil War, and especially after the end of Reconstruction, that meant that the Democratic Party had to appeal to interests outside the South to earn a majority in the Electoral College. And indeed, when Grover Cleveland ran again for president four years later in 1892, although he won by a smaller percentage of the popular vote, he won a resounding Electoral College majority by picking up New York, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and California in addition to winning the South.

Whether we see it or not today, the Electoral College continues to push parties and presidential candidates to build broad coalitions. Critics say that swing states get too much attention, leaving voters in so-called safe states feeling left out. But the legitimacy of a political party rests on all of those safe states—on places that the party has already won over, allowing it to reach farther out. In 2000, for instance, George W. Bush needed every state that he won—not just Florida—to become president. Of course, the Electoral College does put a premium on the states in which the parties are most evenly divided. But would it really be better if the path to the presidency primarily meant driving up the vote total in the deepest red or deepest blue states?

Also, swing states are the states most likely to have divided government. And if divided government is good for anything, it is accountability. So with the Electoral College system, when we do wind up with a razor-thin margin in an election, it is likely to happen in a state where both parties hold some power, rather than in a state controlled by one party.

Despite these benefits of the current system, opponents of the Electoral College maintain that it is unseemly for a candidate to win without receiving the most popular votes. As Hillary Clinton put it in 2000: “In a democracy, we should respect the will of the people, and to me, that means it’s time to do away with the Electoral College.” Yet similar systems prevail around the world. In parliamentary systems, including Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom, prime ministers are elected by the legislature. This happens in Germany and India as well, which also have presidents who are elected by something similar to an electoral college. In none of these democratic systems is the national popular vote decisive.

More to the point, in our own political tradition, what matters most about every legislative body, from our state legislatures to the House of Representatives and the Senate, is which party holds the majority. That party elects the leadership and sets the agenda. In none of these representative chambers does the aggregate popular vote determine who is in charge. What matters is winning districts or states.

Nevertheless, there is a clamor of voices calling for an end to the Electoral College. Former Attorney General Eric Holder has declared it “a vestige of the past,” and Washington Governor Jay Inslee has labeled it an “archaic relic of a bygone age.” Almost as one, the current myriad of Democratic presidential hopefuls have called for abolishing the Electoral College.

Few if any of these Democrats likely realize how similar their party’s position is to what it was in the late nineteenth century, with California representing today what the South was for their forebears. The Golden State accounted for 10.4 percent of presidential votes cast in 2016, while the southern states (from South Carolina down to Florida and across to Texas) accounted for 10.6 percent of presidential votes cast in 1888. Grover Cleveland won those southern states by nearly 39 percent, while Hillary Clinton won California by 30 percent. But rather than following Cleveland’s example of building a broader national coalition that could win in the Electoral College, today’s Democrats would rather simply change the rules.

Anti-Electoral College amendments with bipartisan support in the 1950s and 1970s failed to receive the two-thirds votes in Congress they needed in order to be sent to the states for consideration. Likewise today, partisan amendments will not make it through Congress. Nor, if they did, could they win ratification among the states.

But there is a serious threat to the Electoral College. Until recently, it has gone mostly unnoticed, as it has made its way through various state legislatures. If it works according to its supporters’ intent, it would nullify the Electoral College by creating a de facto direct election for president.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or NPV, takes advantage of the flexibility granted to state legislatures in the Constitution: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors.” The original intent of this was to allow state legislators to determine how best to represent their state in presidential elections. The electors represent the state—not just the legislature—even though the latter has power to direct the manner of appointment. By contrast, NPV supporters argue that this power allows state legislatures to ignore their state’s voters and appoint electors based on the national popular vote. This is what the compact would require states to do.

Of course, no state would do this unilaterally, so NPV has a “trigger”: it only takes effect if adopted by enough states to control 270 electoral votes—in other words, a majority that would control the outcome of presidential elections. So far, 14 states and the District of Columbia have signed on, with a total of 189 electoral votes.

Until this year, every state that had joined NPV was heavily Democratic: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The NPV campaign has struggled to win other Democratic states: Delaware only adopted it this year and it still has not passed in Oregon (though it may soon). Following the 2018 election, Democrats came into control of both the legislatures and the governorships in the purple states of Colorado and New Mexico, which have subsequently joined NPV.

NPV would have the same effect as abolishing the Electoral College. Fraud in one state would affect every state, and the only way to deal with it would be to give more power to the federal government. Elections that are especially close would require nationwide recounts. Candidates could win based on intense support from a narrow region or from big cities. NPV also carries its own unique risks: despite its name, the plan cannot actually create a national popular vote. Each state would still—at least for the time being—run its own elections. This means a patchwork of rules for everything from which candidates are on the ballot to how disputes are settled. NPV would also reward states with lax election laws—the higher the turnout, legal or not, the more power for that state. Finally, each NPV state would certify its own “national” vote total. But what would happen when there are charges of skullduggery? Would states really trust, with no power to verify, other state’s returns?

Uncertainty and litigation would likely follow. In fact, NPV is probably unconstitutional. For one thing, it ignores the Article I, Section 10 requirement that interstate compacts receive congressional consent. There is also the fact that the structure of the Electoral College clause of the Constitution implies there is some limit on the power of state legislatures to ignore the will of their state’s people.

One danger of all these attacks on the Electoral College is, of course, that we lose the state-by-state system designed by the Framers and its protections against regionalism and fraud. This would alter our politics in some obvious ways—shifting power toward urban centers, for example—but also in ways we cannot know in advance. Would an increase in presidents who win by small pluralities lead to a rise of splinter parties and spoiler candidates? Would fears of election fraud in places like Chicago and Broward County lead to demands for greater federal control over elections?

The more fundamental danger is that these attacks undermine the Constitution as a whole. Arguments that the Constitution is outmoded and that democracy is an end in itself are arguments that can just as easily be turned against any of the constitutional checks and balances that have preserved free government in America for well over two centuries. The measure of our fundamental law is not whether it actualizes the general will—that was the point of the French Revolution, not the American. The measure of our Constitution is whether it is effective at encouraging just, stable, and free government—government that protects the rights of its citizens.

The Electoral College is effective at doing this. We need to preserve it, and we need to help our fellow Americans understand why it matters.


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