November 22, 2022

Questions Answered

Ask a Liberal:

With all the talk about shovel ready projects why don’t we have more high speed trains? - Anonymous

High speed rail (HSR) is a great idea in theory, and works well in many countries. Unfortunately, it faces many obstacles in the US. First, America is largely a car culture; we have highways everywhere but much less in the way of railway infrastructure. “HSR requires a lot more work than just buying faster trains. It needs new tracks and signals and often new routes entirely to both reduce the severity of curves and hills to enable faster speeds and to cut travel distances.”

The US legal system also works against HSR. “The U.S. legal system offers citizens an unparalleled number of veto points at which they can attempt to block government projects. Any infrastructure project bigger than painting a schoolhouse thus has to either fight out the reviews and court cases for years, or buy off the opponents, or more likely, both.”

Another issue is politics, which can drive up costs and derail projects. Describing California’s attempt to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, the New York Times noted: “The train’s path out of Los Angeles was diverted across a second mountain range to the rapidly growing suburbs of the Mojave Desert — a route whose most salient advantage appeared to be that it ran through the district of a powerful Los Angeles county supervisor. The dogleg through the desert was only one of several times over the years when the project fell victim to political forces that have added billions of dollars in costs and called into question whether the project can ever be finished.”

For liberals, the government’s inability in recent decades to complete needed infrastructure projects is a source of great frustration. As Ezra Klein notes, there has to be a better way.

It seems like most liberals don't link this poor economy to White House policies. Why would WH choices (or lack thereof) not affect inflation/gas prices? Why is the blame placed elsewhere instead of taking steps to fix it? - Amanda, WI

It’s true that inflation is high in the US, but it’s also high in most other developed countries. There are many reasons for this, and at least some of them are beyond Biden’s control. The Covid pandemic and ensuing supply-chain disruptions were not caused by White House policy. The same is true of rising energy prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While some of Biden’s policies such as the stimulus checks sent to all Americans may have somewhat exacerbated inflation, they were necessary to help people survive the economic disruption caused by the pandemic. And under his administration, Congress passed several major pieces of legislation that will make our economy more resilient against global shocks. Over the long term, investments in clean energy and electric vehicles will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and investments in infrastructure will improve supply-chain bottlenecks. Short of hiking up interest rates and tanking the economy, there are no quick fixes for inflation. The Biden administration is rightly focused on long-term solutions.

Meanwhile, Republicans haven’t offered any plans to reduce inflation or help people deal with the rising costs. In fact, repealing the ability of Medicare to negotiate drug prices, as they have proposed, would make things worse by increasing prices.

Why did we backpedal on energy independence at the onset of our current administration? - Lauren, TX

The US became energy independent (exporting more than we import) in 2019, and remains so today. In addition, in its first year the Biden administration actually approved 34 percent more permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands than the Trump administration. While the administration did attempt to pause new leases in 13 states, this was blocked by a federal court. Over the long term, the best way to secure energy independence is by investing in green energy technologies.

If China, India, and others are not willing to sacrifice their economies in pursuit of seemingly unattainable climate change goals, shouldn’t we focus on adaptation strategies? - Anonymous

We should absolutely focus on adaptation strategies. This is not mutually exclusive with reducing emissions; we should work to both reduce climate change and adapt to it. The US Forest Service has sponsored numerous adaptation projects, such as restoring beavers to improve aquatic habitats. Another example is improving irrigation systems to conserve water. New York City is building a seawall to protect itself from rising sea levels.

We should also fund additional research. Proposals include using insects to break down plastic, repairing coral reefs by zapping them with electrical currents, adding rooftop gardens in cities, and using invasive plants for construction. With climate, we should adopt a “Yes, and…” approach: invest in research, reduce emissions, and also adapt to rising temperatures.

Ask a Conservative:

What conditions would need to be in place to allow conservatives to be in support of something like universal healthcare? - Lauren, NY

Why is single payer health insurance for all not attainable in the US, but attainable in other developed countries? - Anonymous

The problem with most proposals for universal healthcare is that they simply don’t work, largely due to the huge cost. For example, Vermont passed a law authorizing a single-payer healthcare system several years ago, but was forced to abandon it when the finances did not work. Vermont’s Democratic governor explained, “What I learned the hard way… is it isn’t just about reforming the broken payment system. Public financing will not work until you get costs under control.”

It’s true that the US pays more for healthcare than many other countries, but adopting a single-payer system wouldn’t fix that. Healthcare inflation in the US has been similar to other wealthy countries (including those with government-run health systems), just starting from a higher base.

There are several reasons why US healthcare costs more, none of which would be easy to change. Our medical personnel - not just doctors - have much higher wages than in other countries. US doctors earn an average of $316,000 compared to $138,000 in Britain and $98,000 in France. Americans also use a lot of healthcare. Americans are more likely to receive expensive tests. At the same time, US hospitals have a lot of private rooms, which require more staff to monitor. It would be extremely difficult to cut healthcare spending by the amount that would be required to bring US spending in line with similar countries (35 to 40 percent). This is further illustrated by the fact that US government-run healthcare (Medicare) is more expensive than that of other wealthy countries.

As one commentator noted, “Americans like and trust their health-care providers far more than they do their politicians or journalists, or, for that matter, practically anybody. So when you try to cut the reimbursements that fund their salaries, and all the providers band together to run ads claiming that cost-cutting, health-hating American politicians are trying to kill you in order to save a few measly dollars, guess who wins that showdown?”

One of our contributors adds: I detest when government interferes in people’s health and lifestyle choices. I believe my health is my concern alone. Even without universal healthcare, we have government attempting to control individual behavior in the name of public health. Banning or excessively taxing unhealthy products is an affront to liberty, and universal healthcare opens the door to more such regulations, based on the idea that they will reduce medical costs. This reminds me of those who want to administer drug tests to welfare recipients, except that a universal healthcare system wouldn’t be optional. To have my support, any system of universal healthcare would have to come with safeguards to ensure it would never be used to justify government interference with citizens’ rights to make their own choices.

The minimum wage hasn't gone up since 2009 when I was getting that minimum wage as a cashier scooping custard in Wisconsin. Costs have by no means remained stagnant, so why in God's name has the minimum wage remained stagnant? Why are conservatives, and quite frankly many moderates and Democrats, comfortable with people making $7.25/hr? - Claire, CA

First, it’s worth noting that many states have minimum wages above the federal minimum. That said, the problem with raising the minimum wage is that doing so can reduce employment and thus harm workers. For example, a study commissioned by the city of Seattle to examine the effects of its minimum wage increase found that “The costs to low-wage workers in Seattle outweighed the benefits by a ratio of three to one… the average low-wage worker in the city lost $125 a month.” This was because employers, unable to afford the higher wages, reduced hours or even laid off staff.

Minimum wage increases are an especially bad idea because there is a clearly superior alternative: wage subsidies. With such programs, employers pay their regular salaries, and then the government tops up the employees’ paychecks (think tax withholding on paychecks, but in reverse). The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a version of this, but it could be greatly expanded. Wage subsidies are also quite flexible in terms of their funding: they can be funded through general tax revenue or from targeted taxes on corporations or the wealthy. If they are funded through additional business taxes, then corporations will still be paying the additional wages, but won’t have an incentive to reduce employment as their costs (taxes rather than wages) wouldn’t go down.

Why do you still think trickle down economics work? - Becky

Has there ever actually been a time when cutting taxes on the wealthy and/or corporations has worked to the benefit of the economy as a whole? Specifics please. -Tony, NY

The idea that cutting taxes on the wealthy will benefit the economy stems from the fact that the wealthy are far more likely to invest their savings than others. Such investment can spur productivity and increase long-term growth, as the private sector is better at directing capital than the government. When you reduce taxes on the wealthy, you’re replacing government spending with private investment. If the economy has a shortage of investment, then reducing taxes on the wealthy is good policy. A Treasury analysis of President Bush’s tax cuts “estimated that without the tax relief passed in 2001, 2002, and 2003, as many as 3 million fewer jobs would have been created by the end of 2004 and real GDP would have been as much as 3.5 to 4.0 percent lower.”

It’s also worth noting that the US has the most progressive tax system in the world, even after accounting for varying income inequality. In other words, the wealthy pay a proportionally larger share of taxes than any other income group, and also a larger share than the wealthy in other developed countries. Though the wealthy in the US have a larger share of total income than in many other wealthy countries, they pay an even higher share of total taxes. For example, the top one percent in the US earn 21 percent of total income, yet pay 40 percent of income taxes. European countries, which rely much more heavily on regressive consumption taxes, have significantly less progressive tax systems.

The stereotype about conservatives is that they either don't believe that climate change is affected by fossil fuel usage, or they don't believe that effect is at all dire. Is this true? - Eli, MO

It’s important to differentiate between those who believe climate change is real and those who support expensive mitigation efforts and/or question the efficacy of proposed policies. Even electric cars are not entirely green: battery production involves significant emissions, and the electricity used to charge them is often generated from fossil fuels.

Republicans are also much more skeptical about the effectiveness of international efforts to combat climate change, in large part due to distrust that the likes of China (currently the world’s largest emitter), India, and Russia will meaningfully reduce emissions. Only 23 percent of Republicans think efforts by the international community will be effective, compared to nearly two thirds of Democrats. It’s worth noting that according to the Climate Action Tracker, not a single country is currently on track to meet its commitments from the Paris climate conference.

Only 35 percent of Americans would be willing to pay an additional $10 a month to combat climate change. That said, concern about climate change is not a necessary prerequisite to reduce emissions. The Trump administration oversaw a decrease in carbon emissions, largely driven by economics. The US also achieved energy independence in 2019 for the first time since the 1950s. In addition, between 2005 and 2017 the US oversaw the largest emissions reduction of any country, largely due to increased use of natural gas. Majorities of Republicans favor policies such as planting trees and tax credits for carbon capture and storage. There also appears to be bipartisan support for increasing nuclear energy generation.

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