December 22, 2020

Questions Answered

Welcome to Day Two of our Q&A. Here is yesterday’s edition. Here’s even more answers from a previous round of questions (it’s very long, but searchable by keyword!)

As noted previously, while we received many questions about COVID, we’re not medical professionals, and so we’ll refer any concerns about masks or vaccines to medical authorities. You can read about masks from the CDC and Mayo Clinic, and about vaccines from the CDC and USA Today. Here’s a tracker of current vaccine doses by state.

Without further ado, let’s get to it!

“Can the incoming Biden administration point to anything positive left behind by the Trump administration? Something they can build on.” - Cheryl, Tennessee

“My conservative friends often say that President Trump has done many amazingly good things for the country. But when pressed about the specifics of these good things I never get an answer about why that was good and what the actual ramifications have been. Can you shed some light on this?” - Carol, Unknown

Many on the left would argue that while Trump’s attitude towards our traditional allies has been destructive, the Biden administration should appreciate how he has handled some of our adversaries. The Trump administration sanctioned China for human rights violations and created a new bipartisan consensus to push back against its trade abuses. Trump brokered several peace deals between Israel and Middle Eastern countries, ending decades of animosity. USMCA, Trump’s replacement for NAFTA, received support from Nancy Pelosi and the AFL-CIO, a major trade union group. Trump also oversaw the destruction of ISIS and has had many successes freeing American hostages. Notably, Trump is the first president since Jimmy Carter not to commit US troops to any new foreign conflicts.

On domestic policy, Trump passed the First Step Act, which reformed the criminal justice system to reduce sentences for certain drug crimes and expanded apprenticeships. He pushed to approve generic drugs and signed an executive order to lower drug prices. Finally, his administration worked to develop a COVID vaccine which is now available through “Operation Warp Speed,” which made large strategic investments into several different promising vaccines, reduced red tape such as unnecessary animal trials and contract negotiations, invested in manufacturing capacity, and worked with providers to coordinate distribution. Despite recent logistical hiccups, there are several examples of Operation Warp Speed successfully coordinating logistical support to ensure that critical equipment arrived on time.

Conservatives also celebrate Trump’s record of confirming well-qualified judges, safeguarding religious freedoms, restoring due process on college campuses, and further strengthening the already-strong economy prior to the pandemic. They also praise Trump for passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that reduced taxes for all income brackets.

Read our previous coverage of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Israel-UAE deal, USMCA, ISIS, First Step Act, Title IX, tax cuts, and the COVID vaccine.

“Being the “spenders” of the two parties, where do liberals expect funding to come from and what are the consequences for overspending? (Loan forgiveness, bigger stimulus bills etc.) Are there any negatives to big government in their eyes?” - Amanda, Wisconsin

Many on the left argue that concerns about deficits are overblown. US borrowing costs are currently extremely low; 10-year treasury bond yields are negative when adjusted for inflation (which essentially means the government can borrow for free). Republicans also seem to only worry about deficits when Democrats are in power. As one commentator states, “The things to watch are whether the country’s borrowing costs are rising, whether its budgetary allotment for payments on the debt is increasing, and whether it is spending on good priorities. Those big, scary debt numbers are not as big and scary as they used to be.” This is especially true during economic downturns; additional government spending increases incomes, which allows consumers to spend more, which grows the economy and in turn results in higher wages and more jobs.

Some (though far from all) on the left argue for Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which advocates printing money to finance government spending. The government could use the additional funds to create a jobs guarantee, fund college tuition, build infrastructure, and invest in renewable energy. While some worry that printing money would lead to hyperinflation, proponents note that inflation has been very low in recent years, indicating that there is substantial room for additional expenditures.

The left also argues for raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and reducing tax loopholes to increase revenue. They want to significantly cut military spending; the US spends more than three times what China does on defense and more than the next 10 countries combined. They also point out that Democratic presidents have overseen smaller deficits than Republican ones.

“I'd be interested in seeing a comparison of thoughts on student loan forgiveness.  All my lefty friends think it's a no-brainer, and I'd like to see what the reasoned arguments are against it.” - Anonymous

One major issue with student loan forgiveness is how to implement it fairly. Is it fair to forgive one person’s loans when another person just finished repaying theirs? Will the government issue refunds to people who already paid off their loans? What about people who saved and/or worked through school rather than take out loans in the first place? It’s also worth noting that only about a third of US adults have a college degree, and that those with degrees tend to earn significantly more than those without them. Thus any loan forgiveness, which would be paid for with tax dollars, could be seen as a transfer of wealth from non-graduates to wealthier graduates. Here’s our recent coverage of student loan forgiveness.

“How do you feel President Trump has affected the image of conservatives and the Republican Party?” - Anonymous

Conservatives note that Trump’s populist approach has in many ways remade the Republican party. Trump’s fusion of working-class populism with traditional social conservatism won over many formerly Democratic blue collar workers and propelled him to the highest vote total of any Republican in history. Many conservative politicians who initially rejected Trump and his candidacy, like Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsay Graham, became ardent loyalists not necessarily because they now agree with his ideals but rather due to the recognition that he was able to bring new voters into the party. The real question is whether Trump’s successor (or even Trump himself in 2024) can maintain that support.

It’s worth noting that while Trump has a habit of using colorful and even inappropriate language at times, former President George W. Bush was also routinely called a Nazi, racist, homophobe, and so on, as were Mitt Romney, John McCain, Ronald Reagan, etc. Despite the rhetoric, Trump performed much better among minorities in 2020 than previous Republican nominees.

“The Republican party seems to be very anti government regulation. It seems to me the economic policies that Reagan used are still very popular amongst conservatives. Based on data from the Pew Research Center it seems inflation-adjusted wages have stayed the same since the Reagan administration. How would deregulation and other conservative economic policies address the fact that the most wealthy continue to amass wealth while the middle class is left behind?” - Stephen, Pittsburgh

“What parts of government do conservatives see as essential and/or worthy of increased spending?” - Lauren, Oregon

Conservatives argue that the primary purpose of government is to give citizens the freedom to seek success. The founders worried that concentrations of political power created a risk of tyranny. At its most basic level, the government ought to be protecting the natural rights of citizens and providing for national security and defense. Arguments could be made for education, social security, and other safety nets, but only under strict conditions. Elsewhere, we should be looking for ways to reduce government intervention and cut spending, returning that money to the citizens who earned it in the first place.

In terms of policy, we should cut ineffective regulations and programs and invest more in evidence-backed, cost-effective programs. Funding for technical/vocational schools, along with charter schools, should be increased. Zoning restrictions, which drive up the price of housing, should be cut to increase affordability. Federal funding for student loans should be reduced as it has caused tuition costs - and thus student loan balances - to increase substantially. Excessive occupational licensing requirements, which serve mainly to prevent competition, should be abolished (for example, requiring hair braiders to have cosmetology licenses, even though many cosmetology schools don’t teach braiding but do require coursework to study various chemicals that braiders don’t use).

We should not raise the federal minimum wage, as doing so would reduce employment; the CBO estimates that a $15 federal minimum wage would cost approximately 1.3 million jobs. To maintain work incentives, we should require able-bodied adults to work or study in order to receive means-tested government assistance; research has shown that such requirements increase employment. Given the correlation between marriage and child success, we should promote marriage and parenting skills and eliminate marriage penalties in transfer programs where married couples receive fewer benefits. Simultaneously, we should expand programs that are both effective and pay for themselves, such as direct investments in child healthcare, education, and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

It’s worth noting that while wages themselves have not increased, part of that is because the cost of benefits has gone up. For many middle class workers, health insurance now accounts for nearly a third of their total compensation; increases in employer costs for insurance are thus displacing wage increases. Wages also don’t tell the full story about the quality of life; cell phones (including high speed data plans) computers, televisions, etc. have all become much more affordable, but that is hard for measures of inflation to capture, as they do not account for innovation/quality. Samsung notes that “Today’s smartphones are faster than the mid-’80s Cray-2 Supercomputer, faster than the computer onboard the Orion spaceship NASA is currently testing to go to Mars and — perhaps most significantly — faster than the laptops most of us are carrying around.”

In terms of inequality, the problem as many conservatives see it is one of absolute poverty rather than relative inequality. We should be careful to avoid the zero-sum fallacy: the assumption that as the rich get richer, the poor must get poorer. The supply of wealth is not fixed; economic activity often benefits both parties and creates value for society. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has earned billions of dollars while also providing billions of people with a free service that they find valuable. If there was no Facebook, Zuckerberg would be a lot poorer but those who value being able to stay in touch with friends and family easily via Facebook’s platform would also be worse off. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has been criticized for underpaying workers (though Amazon now pays all workers at least $15/hr), but has also provided millions of people with access to quick delivery of cheap items. Such access disproportionately benefits the less fortunate, as they may not have time to visit a store or the ability to pay higher prices, particularly during the pandemic. Research indicates that when people differ in productivity some level of inequality may be necessary for cooperation.

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