Tuesday, January 29, 2019

A Candidate Talks About Intergenerational Justice (Somewhat Coherently)

by Neil H. Buchanan

One of the longest of long shots in the Democratic presidential field is Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.  One of the reasons that he is such a long shot is that, to state the obvious, he is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.  As resumes for presidential candidates go, this is pretty unimpressive stuff.

The mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, is apparently is thinking about running, too, but at least LA is the size of many European countries -- and even then, Garcetti seems an unlikely candidate.  On the other hand, enough people voted for a nobody named Donald Trump in 2016 for him to sneak through the Electoral College into the Oval Office.  Also, Buttigieg's name might sound odd, but we did elect a guy named Barack Hussein Obama -- twice.  Who knows whether Buttigieg might find some traction?

Because political handicapping is not part of my job description, however, I am happy to take Buttigieg's entry into the race as an opportunity to discuss his central message.  He is a policy wonk, but he has an overarching idea that motivates his campaign: intergenerational justice.  He thus offers an exciting opening to address issues of old vs. young and to think about matters that are too often overlooked.

On the other hand, Buttigieg's early statements also show the dangers of framing a vision around the notion of intergenerational conflict.

Longtime readers of Dorf on Law will recall that I have been writing about intergenerational justice for years, including multiple law review articles and columns here and on Verdict.  I developed a book proposal on the topic back in 2011, but that is the year that the debt ceiling craziness erupted, which diverted my attentions for quite some time.

I am now, at long last, returning to the project, and it is quite a pleasant surprise to see an actual presidential contender -- even an unknown one -- talk about my favorite topic.  I suspect that I will return to Buttigieg and these topics frequently in the coming months, so today's column is quite deliberately the proverbial mere dipping of the toe into the pond.

Buttigieg has received respectful -- bordering on enthusiastic -- treatment from both David Leonhardt in The New York Times and Edward Isaac-Dovere in The Atlantic.  Both pieces are interesting and offer plenty of reasons to take the 37-year-old's arguments seriously.  Here is what amounts to Buttigieg's elevator speech:
"If you’re my age or younger, you were in high school when the school shootings became widespread; you’re going to be dealing with climate change for most of your adult life in specific, noticeable ways.  You’re going to be dealing with the consequences of what they’ve done to the debt; you’re on track to be the first generation ever to make less than your parents, unless something changes; and your generation furnished most of the troops for the post-9/11 wars. It just gives you a very different relationship to political decision makers and decision making."
That is (almost, as I will explain below) all quite sensible.  Indeed, nearly every policy issue can be thought of in terms of its impact on future generations -- which is why my book project sometimes can feel overwhelming, with seemingly no limit to the policy issues that deserve to be analyzed through an intergenerational lens.

I think, however, that the biggest issue confronting future generations -- and those of us who care about what we leave for future generations -- is not any of Buttigieg's policy issues but a fundamental question of politics writ large.  Specifically, even if we older people continue to fail on all of the issues that Buttigieg identifies, I would still feel good about our chances on Judgment Day if we are able to protect constitutional democracy from the depredations of Trump and the post-1980 Republican Party and restore our political system to robust health.

Looked at it from the opposite angle, I would suggest that we should not feel proud if we were to solve many (or even all) of the problems that Buttigieg identifies if we simultaneously allow the country to slide into anti-democratic authoritarianism.  Buttigieg is talking about much more than "making the trains run on time," of course, but that is the most unflattering (but plausible) reading of his approach.  I do not claim to know anything about Singapore, but at least the thumbnail version of what we seem to know about that country is that it has traded away democratic freedoms for an extraordinarily ... shall we say ... ordered society.

I have no reason to think that Buttigieg would embrace such a model.  Indeed, I suspect that he would be mortified at the thought.  My point is merely that, if one is to take seriously both our obligations to future generations and the scarcity of political resources available to deal with multiple problems, Buttigieg really should not be privileging issues that -- while profoundly important -- are simply not in the same category as preserving a functioning U.S. political system.

And yes, I even include environmental issues in the category of second-tier issues.  One would hope that the political bandwidth would be sufficient to address climate change even while shoring up our constitutional system, but if push comes to shove, democracy and the rule of law must come first.  I would much rather allow future generations to address the consequences of any issue via a system that protects the vote for all people and is truly representative than to allow the political system to continue to be run by plutocrats and sociopaths -- who can, after all, at will undo any current progress that we might be able to make on environmental or any other issues, if they are allowed to continue to dominate the political system.  I will expand on this trade-off in a future column.

One could respond, however, by saying that Buttigieg is right to make the case in favor of taking younger people's interests into account on all of these issues, even if there is a much bigger threat to their future.  And I would agree.  I will, however, note that Buttigieg includes in his bill of particulars that younger people are "going to be dealing with the consequences of what [their parents and grandparents have] done to the debt."  That sounds all very chin-strokingly sage, of course, but it is also incredibly fraught in the current political environment.

The last thing we need is for Democrats to tie their own hands by buying into budgetary orthodoxy -- again.  This happened to Bill Clinton, who -- during the post-election transition in 1992, thus even before he took office! -- abandoned a program of public investment in favor of a commitment to balanced budgets.  Barack Obama also fatefully embraced the 2010 pivot toward fiscal orthodoxy that needlessly extended the painful process of economic recovery -- a process that was particularly brutal for younger people, by the way.

In upcoming columns, I will discuss the "new economics" of budget deficits (which is not, in fact, new at all) in some detail, but suffice it to say here that Buttigieg's approach is at worst sloppy and at best an ill-considered repetition of a very dangerous conventional wisdom.  If we are to think about the interests of future generations -- as we most definitely should -- it would be wise not to buy into a worldview that stands in the way of the adopting policies that would help young people the most.


David Ricardo said...

It is the maximum of irony that the one issue that people focus on in terms of inter-generational conflict is the one major issue that is not an inter-generational conflict, the national debt. We expect the Republicans to be ignorant on the issue, it is what they are. But any Democrat who is fixated on the national debt as a threat to future generations generated by past generations is so blatantly ignorant that it is disqualifying.

And Mr. Buchanan is correct to highlight the crisis in democratic institutions created by the Republicans and Trump. It is entirely possible that the destruction of democratic norms will be so great by the time this President leaves office that they cannot recover.

This is why the earlier post by Mr. Dorf on the role of emergency powers is so critical. What is at stake is in the event of a declaration of emergency by the President and the seizure by him of the congressional power of appropriation is allowed then we have the beginning of the end of Constitutional rule. This is because it would mean that the executive branch can, by fiat, seize all of the constitutional powers allocated to the other two branches by the simple act of a discretionary declaration of an emergency. Hence the reason to focus on constitutional aspects of executive action that would re-direct spending to an area not authorized and appropriated by Congress rather than the sub-constitutional aspect of the intent of the various statutes that allocate emergency power to the executive.

If emergency powers that allows the President to unilaterally allocate funding to a project not only not authorized by Congress but also specifically rejected by Congress exist then you would have a significant vehicle by which the system of constitutional government can be fatally wounded by the current generation. Mr. Buchanan fears for future generations whose legacy of constitutional government is destroyed by the current generation. Emergency powers that allow a President to supersede the Constitution is a way of how it could happen.

Michael C. Dorf said...

There are very few circumstances in which a commitment to democracy conflicts with a commitment to protect the environment. To be sure, democracy isn't always good at responding to environmental threats--especially long-term ones. E.g., gas taxes are unpopular in the US, France (see yellow vest protests), and elsewhere. But we have reason to think that undemocratic regimes are even worse. Some of the worst pollution has occurred under autocratic or totalitarian regimes; and conversely, genuinely democratic countries respond to popular discontent in the face of visible environmental degradation. Thus, I would say that while Buttigieg can be faulted for not emphasizing the need to protect democracy, adding that to his list would not compete with anything already on it.

David Ricardo said...

I would go further than Mr. Dorf and argue that a committment to democratic norms is not only not competing with goals such as environmental protection, but that such a committment is a necessary but not necessarily sufficient condition in order to promote and achieve environmental protection.

The reason for this is that a significant component of the group that is opposed to environmental regulation is the small number of wealthy and very wealthy individuals who profit from environmental degredation. To the extent that these individuals have influence in government far in excess of their numbers due to their wealth means that they can subvert the will of the majority along with passing on huge costs to future generations. Part of promoting democracy is to strongly limit the power of these American oligarchs so that their influences is more in line with their numbers rather than their wealth. Failure to do so, that is continuing the status quo, will mean more environmental problems in the future.

If the Koch Brothers were in Germany and not the U. S. that country would not have abandoned nuclear energy and would not be in the process, just announced, or eliminating coal fired power generators. In the United States though their billions are just buying politicians along with1 greater air, water and ground pollution.

Shag from Brookline said...

Before reading his post, I read Paul Krugman's surprise Tuesday column in the NYTimes highly critical of Mayor Mike Bloomberg's "Venezuela" critique of Sen Warren's wealth tax proposal. Krugman was sharp, and on point. Then at Daily Kos I read of a panel member at Davos critical of billionaires talking philanthropy rather than taxes, taxes, taxes. Today's NYTimes online features a lengthy "The ‘Rotten Equilibrium’ of Republican Politics - Charlatans rise. Government falls." By Thomas B. Edsall

These serve as good background for this post and comments. on the dangers to democracy from today's Republicans. The Democrats need a strong candidate for 2020. Progress is intergenerational by definition.

David Ricardo said...

"Progress is intergenerational by definition."


But in the past it has always been that a current generation made sacrifices and accepted a lower standard of living so that their children and grandchildren could have better lives. Today would seem to be the first significant instance where the current generation, through polluting the environemnt, refusing to remediate it, and foisting large personal debts on future generations etc. is incurring no sacrifices and obtaining a higher standard of living resulting in their children and grandchildren having poorer lives.

Shag from Brookline said...

Higher taxes on the wealthy might reduce those debts. That's a goal of some, perhaps many, Democrats contending for 2020.

Here's an interesting paragraph fro Edsall's column"

"I asked scholars and officials at the Niskanen Center — a Washington think tank that recently received favorable coverage for its efforts to resolve contemporary ideological division — whether they thought the Republican Party has come to recognize that prosperity helps Democrats, while economic adversity engenders hostility to immigrants, resentment of liberal elites and animosity among rural voters toward urban America. Does this awareness give politicians on the right a motive to support policies and actions that foster government dysfunction and further impair sections of the country that are in decline?"

Joe said...

I just did my taxes as well as someone else's so this whole conversation is somewhat topical for me personally. It is striking how many different things pop up in the tax code, in my case three levels of government. Government itself is basically about taxes on some level -- the parliament at core about the power of the purse.

Some years ago, a progressive blog or something reminded us that rich people are rich on the back of us all. It's akin to someone I know upset about needing to pay for local services when he isn't living there. As if the roads etc. do not benefit him. Or, the idea people are paying for health insurance for "doing nothing." Patently absurd.

This talk about democracy underlines, as the House debates the "for the people" voting legislation (see Rick Hasen's piece in Slate), that we are again at a moment essential for the fight of democracy, comparable to the fight for voting rights of blacks and women. The power the rich have these days, ever more so given economic policy over the last few decades, is an important part of this. The discontent that helped elect Trump is real. The problem is to address it without further enriching the plutocracy.

David Ricardo said...

Per the above comment I would direct everyone to the interview Mr. Coffee gave on MSNBC this morning. It seems the individual thinks that 'he alone can solve it' and that the fact that he grew up in the projects and made a success of himself is enough of a credential to be President. He argues that Dems and Republicans will flock to his campaign and once in office he will bring Senate and House leaders together and work out everything.

There were zero specifics but he did inovke every cliche and platitude known to the English language. It was a magnificant comvbination of arrogance and ignorance. On second thought you might want to avoid watching unless your upchuck reflex is very resistant.

The good news, if he does run the revulsion he will create in voters of every political belief means he maybe would not throw the election to Trump. He is proof positive that we do not need a billionaire as President, although to be fair didn't we already know that.