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Elections Matter. Redistricting Matters More.

Poor redistricting. Given the tremendous impact redistricting has on all levels of government, voters simply do not tend to give it too much attention.

There are undoubtedly numerous reasons for this. For one, redistricting — the process by which legislators redraw the political boundaries defining what towns and communities they will represent at the next election — just isn’t a ‘sexy’ issue. It deals with technical issues like adjusting districts to account for population shifts and make sure each lawmaker represents about the same number of constituents as his or her colleague. It doesn’t easily lend itself to the types of human interest stories journalists use to pull readers into articles on, say, immigration, war, abortion, and many other high-profile issues.

It’s difficult to put a face to redistricting.

Also, unlike other issues, redistricting is only really pushed into the spotlight once a decade. Although voters have to live with its effects at every election, redistricting is really only brought up in discussion when legislators engage in it, after the U.S. Census information is released. Any disgust or disapproval inevitably dies down soon after, leaving lawmakers with little incentive to reform the system.

Redistricting allows lawmakers to redraw their districts in ways that benefit them. (Image from Governing Magazine's website.)

In fact, not only do lawmakers have little incentive to consider redistricting reform, they actually have every reason to actively oppose it, because reforming redistricting would dilute their own power to choose their constituents by drawing voters in or out of their districts.

For anyone who has watched the American version of the political drama House of Cards, the characters bring up redistricting several times as key to the Democrats’ efforts to hold onto the U.S. House of Representatives. They pin their hopes on a special election for Pennsylvania governor — because without a Democratic governor to oversee Pennsylvania redistricting, the Democrats are sure to lose a number of its U.S. House seats, and thus lose control of the House.

House of Cards is fiction, but the stakes are just as high in real life, as well. It was one of the first things Republicans in Texas did in 2003 once they took full control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, allowing them to lock down their control. Democrats, knowing full well the power Republicans now wielded, broke quorum and fled the state rather than allow the legislature to meet and redistrict. Eventually, though, the Republican majority passed its redistricting plans, turning the 17-15 Democratic majority in Texas’ U.S. House delegation to a 21-11 Republican majority.

Pennsylvania serves as a reminder of the power of redistricting as well. Pennsylvania Republicans have controlled the redistricting process for decades. Most recently, that control paid off in 2012. Even though Democrats swept every office up for statewide election and received more than half of all votes cast in the state for U.S. House, Republicans not only kept their majorities in the state legislature, they actually gained a U.S. House seat.

After an election in which a majority of Pennsylvanians voted for a Democrat for U.S. House, Republicans still wound up holding a full 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 U.S. House seats – or about 72 percent of Pennsylvania’s U.S. House delegation.

(It should come as no surprise, then, that Pennsylvania Republicans have also put forward plans in recent years that would distribute electoral votes in presidential elections according to redistricting, rather than popular vote. For instance, if one of these proposals, put forward by PA Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and Gov. Tom Corbett, had been in place in 2012, Gov. Mitt Romney would have lost the popular vote to President Barack Obama 52 percent to 47 percent — but Romney still would have taken home more electoral votes. Under this plan, Romney would have received 13 electoral vote to Obama’s 7 votes.)

Redistricting has very real effects on both state and national politics. The immigration legislation pending in Congress is a fairly good case study.

Although a rough consensus seems to have formed around immigration reform and the U.S. Senate passed immigration legislation by a healthy and bipartisan 68-32 vote, the bill has stalled in the U.S. House. This seems contrary to the post-2012 election narrative that Republicans are reevaluating their Hispanic outreach efforts, considering Hispanic voters tend to support comprehensive immigration reform. But it makes perfect sense once you consider U.S. House members’ narrow constituency.

After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans swept into power in state capitols all over the country — just in time for redistricting. House Republicans’ seats are safe. Unlike U.S. Senate and presidential candidates, House Republicans do not have to worry at all about swaying Hispanic voters. Their districts have been specifically designed in a way to ensure they win the general election.

Instead, House Republicans have to worry about other Republicans challenging them in primary elections. As a result, they have to tack harder to the right to avoid offending their base voters and to fend off any primary challengers. That means opposing the immigration reform bill, which is generally unpopular with conservatives. This is not to say passing the bill is impossible, only that it is made much more difficult due to the perverse incentives created via redistricting.

And perhaps that is the hook that journalists need to raise awareness about and put a human face on redistricting — by connecting redistricting to other issues, such as the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America. At that point, it becomes less about lines on a map and more about the very real impact redistricting has on American families and communities.


2013 Legislative Preview Issue Brief: Elections.” Gaudini, Michael; Proft, Lena; & Rocha, J.J. Center for Politics and Governance.

Redistricting Texas: A Primer.” Gaudini, Michael.

The War on Democracy: Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.” Gaudini, Michael.

Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again.” Gaudini, Michael. Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.

Reforming Redistricting.” Gaudini, Michael. Baines Report.

Republicans Win Fewer Votes, but More Seats than Democrats.” CQ Voting and Elections Collection.

Immigration Reform: Clearing the First Hurdle.” Economist.

What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA,” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.

Corbett-Pileggi Election Plan Bad For Democracy,” Gaudini, Michael. Main Line Times.

What Would Have Happened in 2012 Under Gov. Corbett’s Election Plan?” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.


The Republicans’ European Dream

Often, when a Republican politician uses the phrase “European-style,” you can generally assume it is not a compliment. It is usually used pejoratively in a sweeping dismissal of federal social programs, especially Obamacare (though the more popular Medicare and Social Security programs generally escape such criticism). Yet there are two significant areas in which the Grand Old Party aspire to be just like Europe: budget-cutting and monetary policy.

The United States acted aggressively to counteract the Great Recession in textbook fashion: fiscal stimulus (increasing government spending) and loose monetary policy (expanding the money supply and keeping interest rates low). And, despite backlash against these measures from the right, it has so far been able to maintain both. The Fed, not directly subject to the politics of Congress, kept interest rates low. The Congress, with little stated appetite for more stimulus, has nevertheless provided it with unemployment extensions, food stamps, and extended tax cuts and credits.

Thus, the government propped up demand through a period of rapid private sector deleveraging. Household debt fell as families paid off their loans (or were foreclosed upon), while government debt rose to make up for part of the demand that was lost when people took money they would normally spend and used it to pay down their debts.

The result is that the Great Recession in America was shallower than it otherwise would have been, and the economy is again growing, albeit slowly. Yet to hear many prominent Republicans tell it, the fiscal stimulus and monetary easing have been abject failures.

I’ve already discussed the theoretical reasons why too much austerity (cutting spending and/or raising taxes in order to balance the budget) too soon (before the recovery is fully in hand) is a bad idea here. I also discussed the drag that state-level austerity had on economic recovery here.

But perhaps it would be prudent to also look at some of the policies Republicans have been ardently advocating in action. Fortunately, Europe provides us with just such an opportunity. There, expansionary policy in the immediate wake of the economic downturn gave way to insistence (by Germany, especially) that Eurozone countries balance their budgets. Countries, like Greece, that needed bailing out were (rightly) subjected to preconditions for assistance, but the focus on heavy austerity in the short term (and in the absence of an offsetting monetary loosening) worsened both their economies and their budgetary outlook.

So what does that mean?

Well, let’s pick it apart, piece by piece. The Great Recession has put enormous stress on public finances. Spending on welfare programs generally increases during economic downturns (higher unemployment means more people drawing on unemployment benefits, for example), and the Great Recession was especially deep. The housing crash at the heart of the downturn also forced governments to prop up their heavily exposed banking systems, causing public debt to rise even higher. At the same time, tax revenues cratered (low wage growth and high unemployment means less taxes flowing into government coffers).

In this way, government debt is (generally) an effect, not a cause, of Europe’s recessionary woes — though, admittedly, the two often bleed into each other because higher government debt makes investors warier, leading them to demand higher interest rates on government bonds, which in turn makes borrowing more expensive, worsening government budgetary outlooks, and so on.

The American right, however, has painted Europe’s plight as one of profligate governments now suffering the consequences of their free-spending ways. Because of this, much has been said about Greece, which had high debt-to-GDP levels even before the crisis. But consider Ireland and Spain. Both had very low government debt levels before the Great Recession — lower even than Germany’s (see chart).

Government Debt-to-GDP Ratios, Europe (Google)

Government Debt-to-GDP Ratios, Europe (Google)

The main issue for both Spain and Ireland were huge property bubbles. The banking systems of both countries, heavily exposed to the real estate market, had to be rescued from imminent collapse by their governments when the bubble burst, sending government debt skyrocketing. At the same time, high unemployment numbers and a tanking economy led to increased social spending, further adding to government debt.

Their worsening economic outlook and accompanying rapid rise in government spending worried markets, causing fear that governments may default on their debts. This fear, in turn, causes interest rates on government debt to rise, which actually makes it even harder for governments to pay back their debts. To counter this, governments move to cut their budget deficits, to demonstrate that they are a safe investment and thus lower interest rates on government bonds.

But passing austerity packages to cut budget deficits (cutting spending and/or raising taxes) hits demand. The public sector lays off workers and cuts pay, while also taking more money out of the private sector via decreased social spending and increased taxes. Moreover, public sector layoffs lead to private sector ones as well. As public sector workers are laid off, they consume less from the private sector, which then likewise cuts back in response. The economy shrinks as a result of all this, decreasing tax revenues, and making deficit reduction harder.

Markets, seeing both a worsening economy and worsening public finances, worry that slow economic growth will hinder government’s ability to pay its debts, and drive interest rates up higher, continuing the cycle.

Studies of austerity programs bear this conclusion out. A recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) paper that look at austerity concluded that:

fiscal consolidations typically have the short-run effect of reducing incomes and raising unemployment. A fiscal consolidation of 1 percent of GDP reduces inflation-adjusted incomes by about 0.6 percent and raises the unemployment rate by almost 0.5 percentage point (see Chart 2) within two years, with some recovery thereafter. Spending by households and firms also declines, with little evidence of a hand­over from public to private sector demand. In economists’ jargon, fiscal consolidations are contractionary, not expansionary.

Source: International Monetary Fund

And that is just looking at a consolidation of 1 percent of GDP. As the Washington Post notes, Spain had an austerity package worth 3.1 percent of GDP, with England and Italy a little bit lower, at 2 percent and 1.8 percent respectively. Greece’s clocked in at just over one-tenth of their entire economy.

Disturbingly, the IMF also notes that austerity has long-term effects, as well. Three years after austerity takes place, the temporary rise in short-term unemployment caused by said austerity generally ends. But long-term unemployment lingers, and is still higher than normal five years later.

Now, all of this is not an indictment of all austerity in every single circumstance. There are conditions under which austerity is both justifiable and desirable (or, at least, acceptable). But I do think it is fairly compelling evidence against immediate austerity in today’s economic climate, for several reasons.

First, the economic recovery is still fragile, and unemployment still quite high. Forcing through a harsh austerity plan would undermine the recovery and drive unemployment higher still, which would pose acute political problems. For one, civil unrest almost always accompanies austerity programs.

Additionally, fiscal consolidations often make it paradoxically more difficult for ruling parties to carry out their programs to their conclusions. Voters in France, Greece, and the Netherlands have all, in the past few weeks, rejected austerity measures and ousted their ruling parties. Yet the implications extend far beyond national politics — they represent a huge turning point in the Eurozone.

Take France’s newly elected François Hollande, its first Socialist president in 17 years. Mr. Hollande rightly wants to focus the Eurozone on more growth-oriented policies, but he also appears hostile to structural reforms in France that would cut expenditures in the medium- to long-term. He has yet to govern, but should he be unwilling to accept structural reforms of the bloated French state, it may endanger the entire Eurozone. After all, some of the most needed fixes for the currency union (such as mutualized debt in the form of ‘eurobonds’) are unpalatable to the Germans — and if France will not hold their nose and take their medicine, why, then, should the Germans?

Another reason why fiscal consolidation is a bad idea in today’s economic climate is timing. Simultaneous budget-cutting by numerous governments across the developed world will deliver a harsh hit to global demand, especially if the world’s largest economy (the United States) embarks on an austerity program as well.

Also, the effect of monetary policy (how the central bank grows or constricts the money supply, and influences interest rates) cannot be ignored. Fiscal policy (government spending) does not occur in a vacuum but, rather, within the context of monetary policy.

Because of this, fiscal stimulus under normal circumstance is usually a wash. The Economist explains:

When the economy is near full employment, deficits crowd out private spending and investment. In a recession the central bank will respond to fiscal stimulus by keeping interest rates higher than they would otherwise be. Both effects mean that in normal times the fiscal “multiplier”—the amount by which output rises for each dollar of government spending or tax cuts—is probably close to zero.


Such constraints are not present now. Investment and demand are deeply depressed and the central bank, having cut interest rates to zero, is not about to raise them. The multiplier is higher than usual as a result.

Consider America’s economic recovery for a moment. It has been fairly anemic due to weak demand. That demand hole could be filled by either fiscal or monetary policy actions. In the case of the former, it is filled by direct government spending. In the latter, it is filled by the government keeping interest rates down so individuals are encouraged to spend.

Today, however, interest rates are already close to zero, meaning that a contractionary fiscal policy cannot be offset by lower rates much further. On the other hand, fiscal stimulus offers more ‘bang for the buck’ under current economic circumstances than it does normally, because interest rates are already near zero, and will not be raised to offset the fiscal expansion.

Monetary policy also ties into the argument that austerity is expansionary — because it can be, but, again, not in today’s economic climate. Austerity is expansionary when the central bank loosens monetary policy to offset the fiscal consolidation. (Interestingly, this usually happens when spending cuts are the dominant form of austerity, instead of tax increases. Indeed, review of successful austerity programs over the years shows that the most successful budget-cutting endeavors lean more heavily on spending cuts.)

The problem, for our purposes today, is that further monetary loosening to offset austerity is not really an option — not with interest rates already extraordinarily low. The situation in Europe is different, but with similar effects. There, the European Central Bank (ECB) sets monetary policy.

This means that individual nations do not have control over their monetary policy, and could not loosen it to offset austerity. (And, even when the ECB finally injected money into the European economy, the influential Bundesbank (Germany’s central bank) undercut it over fears of inflation.) The effect, in both the American and European cases, would be (and in the latter, is) contractionary, as described in detail above.

Finally, I should address the argument that the Great Recession was caused by unnaturally low interest rates and that today’s loose monetary policy is accordingly inappropriate. There’s something to that, but it is much more complicated than simple cause-and-effect. The subject deserves a post of its own (if not several), but in short, the Great Recession was the result of a crash in the housing market (other factors, like heavily indebted households, have contributed to a more sluggish recovery).

Austrian economists maintain that low interest rates are almost wholly to blame for the housing bubble, by providing easy money. While low interest rates did contribute to the crisis, they are certainly not the only (and likely not even the main) factor — existing alongside the deterioration of lending standards, the creation of exotic mortgages, and the government encouraging the extension of mortgage lending, among others.

The fact of the matter is, the crash was far too large to be explained solely by interest rates alone. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, on the New York TimesEconomix blog, writes that:

So theory and data both predict that the 1.2 percentage point drop in real interest rates that American experienced between 1996 and 2006 should cause a price increase of somewhat less than 10 percent, yet prices actually rose over this period by more than 40 percent.

Some people have thus made the argument that low interest rates today may cause an asset bubble in the future, and so must rise to head off that possibility. This, of course, ignores the reality that a rise in interest rates would cause both a more immediate contraction in demand and rising unemployment (which then feeds upon itself and undermines public finances through the the falling tax revenues that result).

The costs of raising interest rates and undermining economic recovery while unemployment is still high greatly outweigh the more uncertain benefit of potentially heading off an asset bubble at some vague point in the future — especially when there are no real signs of an asset bubble yet forming.

All of this should tell us that the appropriate policies to pursue under current economic conditions are short-term fiscal stimulus investments that can deliver long-term returns (think infrastructure spending that will result in productivity gains), loose monetary policy, and a credible medium- and long-term package of structural reforms.

Taken as a whole, a package containing both short-term fiscal stimulus and medium- to long-term structural reforms would demonstrate to markets that the government is both determined to pursue a pro-growth strategy while also keeping its fiscal house in order. Of course, such a package would be politically difficult, because any credible package would have to reform popular entitlements. Social Security and the three federal health insurance programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program), at 41 percent of the federal budget, could not be spared reform.

And yet, despite all of the evidence pointing toward a responsible, pro-growth policy, Republicans are steadfastly pushing for the immediate austerity packages and higher interest rates that have treated Europe so poorly.

Whereas America is expected to grow at 2.1 percent this year, Europe (with widespread budget cuts hitting demand and Germany’s overblown inflation fears keeping the Eurozone’s monetary policy tighter than it should) could actually shrink. Britain is projected to grow a 0.8 percent, ahead of Germany’s projected 0.6 percent.

Source: IMF

We could also benefit by taking a look at our own history. After all, the Great Depression in America in the 1930s was made deeper by the same policies now being employed in Europe: fiscal and monetary tightening. And we relapsed into recession in 1937 when policymakers tried to implement them yet again.

This time around, America has managed to avoid the mistakes of the Great Depression, despite continued Republican calls for European-style fiscal and monetary policies.

I think I’ll stick with American policy on this one.

(For sources and further reading, click here)


The Ron Paul Presidency You Will Never See

What do the following have in common?

  • Limits on the amount of money corporations can spend on political candidates
  • Government regulations and testing to make sure children’s toys are not contaminated with lead
  • Environmental Protection Agency standards ensuring clean water
  • Laws protecting workers against sexual harassment in the workplace
  • Laws protecting whistleblowing offshore oil workers from retaliatory firing
  • Public schools

The answer? These are all things Ron Paul opposes.

Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear: I respect Ron Paul personally. I think it is wonderful that he has remained true to his principles, and not conveniently changed his views for political gain. I admire his ability to unflinchingly take unpopular stands and break rank with his nominal party (I say “nominal” because although Paul is technically a Republican, it would be more accurate to describe him as a Libertarian). I like that he has brought obscure economic ideas into the public spotlight for debate. And, not for nothing, he also seems to me to be a genuinely honest guy.

So for that, I respect him. Of course, I also think he is generally unelectable and would make an awful president. This is the point at which I expect some people will stop reading and immediately begin pondering ways to decry this post as a vast conspiracy of big business, big government, and the media. But before that happens, let me just ask that this post be judged on its accuracy, rather than any emotional attachments to Paul’s candidacy.

Bizarrely, some Ron Paul supporters point to the fact that Paul was elected to Congress as evidence of his electability, regardless of the fact that he represents a district of only 651,619 Texans. To put that into perspective, that is about 0.2 percent of the United States population.

A more common claim is that his second and third place finishes in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively, support his electability. Of course, Rick Santorum finished second (or first, perhaps) in Iowa, but I have yet to hear someone tell me with a straight face that they think Santorum is electable, largely for the same reason that I think Ron Paul is unelectable: once the public takes Paul’s views to their logical conclusions, they will shy away.

Perhaps the Santorum comparison is unfair. After all, Rick Santorum’s views are extreme and out of touch with public opinion. Banning abortion under any and all circumstances? Bombing Iran? That’s crazy talk. Any Paul supporter will tell you that he wants to pursue commonsense reforms, like rolling back our overreaching military and cutting a bloated federal government.

Things start to break down when the discussion goes beyond these generalities into specifics. Paul’s libertarian utopianism envisions a country in which private industry self-regulates itself at almost every turn. Should the government ensure that citizens have clean drinking water? Or that every child has access to a public education? Most Americans think so, even if they advocate some sort of reform of the current system. But Paul eschews such things. This is an ideology based not in small, efficient government — but, rather, in no government (or, as close to no government as you can get).

The problem is that following his positions to their conclusions produce grim results in the real world. Unemployment benefits would end for thousands of people, causing a large contraction in demand in the economy, helping derail a fragile economy and causing greater hardship for the unemployed. Failure to raise the debt ceiling (an action against which Paul voted) would have caused enormous turmoil, and the first ever American default, exacerbating, rather than alleviating, the current economic situation. As it happened, the near-failure caused the first ever downgrade in America’s credit rating.

Many Americans agree that the Pentagon should share the sacrifice of spending cuts, but Paul’s advocacy of large-scale shuttering of overseas military bases is dangerously naive. Despite the harsh lesson America has learned about its own limitations over the past decade, it remains the global hegemon, and a stabilizing force. An Economist article notes the possible unintended consequences of military cutbacks in Europe:

The thinking behind the “rebalancing” looks flawed for several reasons. The first is that far from being on oasis of stability, EUCOM’s 51-country region covers some pretty flammable trouble spots, among them Georgia’s border with Russia, Kosovo’s border with Serbia and Turkey’s border with Iraq and Syria. Israel is also within EUCOM. There are less conventional security threats too, from terrorists moving between safe havens to cyber attacks.

The second is that—quite apart from possible flashpoints in its own region—Europe is closer to many of the fights that American forces may be committed to in the future than bases in the United States.

The third is that the new strategy places great emphasis on military-to-military co-operation with other countries. The best way of enhancing that is for American soldiers to train with their counterparts from other nations. General Hertling says that after training, the command’s second priority is to enter into effective partnerships with the many different countries in its region. “By sharing ideas, tactics and procedures,” he says, “you build trust with partners.” During the final readiness exercise before deployment to Afghanistan, the 172nd trained with troops from nine other countries, the same ones, notes the general, whom they would later find themselves fighting alongside.

And that article is talking about President Obama’s comparatively modest rebalancing of American forces. Paul advocates a much larger drawdown, which would inevitably gut NATO, and further weaken our military capacity and lessen global stability.

The thing is, people can get behind the generalities of his platform. They (rightly) do not think we should be overreaching in two simultaneous ground wars. But, more than that, I think people can get behind the Ron Paul persona. Americans love to identify with the underdog and the straight-talker, and Paul has both in spades. His unpolished speaking style has a genuine, endearing feel to it that many Americans take to heart. He’s that kindly old gentleman that could well be your own uncle (albeit, your slightly crazy old uncle).

And, indeed, polls of Republican primary voters show Paul ranks highly in questions about his personal character and human interactions. Voters say he stands up for what he believes in and is honest, and that counts for a something when faith in government (and Congress in particular) has fallen to new lows. Indeed, right now he is polling fairly well among independents.

But throw him in the general election and that will all change. His views will not only be revealed as outside the mainstream, but will also leave him open to attacks from both the right (on defense and social issues) and the left (on economic and labor issues). President Obama’s current edge in the polls when hypothetically matched against Paul would quickly expand.

Yet, for a moment, let us imagine a world in which Ron Paul wins the nomination and the presidency. What then? Well, as president, he would have little control over enacting his particular agenda and would face a Congress that has absolutely no interest in moving his legislation. The right would bristle against his demobilization, while the left would staunchly oppose gutting entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. His average man persona would be of no help in dealing with Washington’s power brokers.

You thought the gridlock of the past few years has been bad? A Paul presidency would be a million times worse.

Economic liberalization and free trade agreements, which one might hope for from a libertarian candidate, would languish. This seems counter-intuitive, considering Paul’s ideology, but his voting record in Congress (against free trade agreements) shows that the strictures of his views lead him to the belief that free trade results from less government intervention, not from agreements with foreign nations. While wonderful in theory, this, of course, is utterly unrealistic.

Stymied by Congress and his own beliefs, Paul’s biggest effect would be through his appointive and veto powers, the latter of which he would undoubtedly use with relish.  Congress, not up to the task of overriding his vetoes, would sit by helplessly as little to nothing becomes law. The de-stimulative effect of vetoed federal spending would shrink the economy (sorry, no more unemployment benefits for you, never mind that your job search keeps turning up nothing), possibly even pulling it into a double-dip recession, like the austerity-laden Europeans. Courts and federal agencies would be filled with people that believe the job they are being paid to do should not exist in the first place, and that the federal government has little role in anything at all. So, in sum, little would get done, but the effects would be long-ranging.

I appreciate Ron Paul’s character, his dedication, and his role in bringing alternative economic ideas to the public debate (no matter how incorrect I believe that they are). All of that makes him a man that I would love to sit down and have a nice, pleasant dinner with. What it does not make him is a good president.

Remembering Nixon

Details about the Watergate scandal are still emerging, almost forty years after the botched burglary and subsequent cover-up consumed the presidency of Richard Milhous Nixon. Earlier this month, Nixon’s grand jury testimony fromthe Watergate trial was finally released, as per judicial mandate. Obviously, Nixon’s legacy will always be marred by the Watergate scandal and the subsequent revelations about his use of presidential power to punish his political enemies.

This is just. His administration misused the great power it was handed; his cover-up and handling of the Watergate scandal (including the “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which he fired the special prosecutor investigating Watergate), and his resignation amid impeachment proceedings led to national trauma and constitutional crisis.

Yet, it is important to remember Nixon’s other legacies as well. Somewhere behind that iconic scowl was the vulnerable boy who watched two of his brothers die young, who felt guilty because his college education was paid for with money that had been earmarked for his dead brother’s medical care.

Nixon surely could not compete with John F. Kennedy’s sex appeal, but his courting of Pat Nixon is a lesson in loyalty and determination. Certain that Pat was he soul mate, he withstood her initial rebuffs, and even drove her to dates with other boys, before he was finally given his own chance.

His friendship with John F. Kennedy is often underplayed. The two were elected to Congress in the same year, and held similar views: both internationalists, both determined to confront communism, both skeptical of the New Deal. The Kennedy family covertly contributed $1,000 to Nixon’s senate campaign, and both JFK and his father, Joe Kennedy, said they would vote Nixon in 1960 if Kennedy was not on the Democratic ticket.

Despite contrary appearances, Kennedy was in poor health most of his life, and was administered the Catholic Church’s last rites several times. When it seemed Kennedy would pass away in the 1950s, Nixon cried for the imminent loss of his friend.

Of course, Nixon and Kennedy were also quite different — and the vicious 1960 election marked a sharp end to their friendship. Nixon, like many of his supporters thought that Kennedy had stolen the election through fraudulent ballots. Kennedy seemed to be everything Nixon loved and loathed, all in one. Kennedy was a wealthy “elite,” unlike the working class Nixon. He was smart, sexy, and media-savvy. These things were anathema to Nixon. The Whittier College grad distrusted the ‘Ivy Leaguers’ and their ‘elite clubs’ as much as he distrusted a media he was always certain was out to destroy his reputation and career.

And Kennedy was loved. That seems to be what Nixon longed for: he wanted the respect and the love of the America people. After the National Guard killed several people at Kent State, Nixon made an impromptu visit to student protesters camped at the Lincoln Memorial in the dead of night. He spoke to the unimpressed crowd at length about what he was trying to accomplish for America, about improving race relations and, when that failed, about college football.

Despite his frustration at the protestors that he claimed ‘weakened’ America’s position abroad and caused (again, in his view) unnecessary conflict at home, Nixon nevertheless seems to have desired their approval and love.

He felt as if he had earned them. After all, Nixon took the reins of the presidency during the most unpopular war in American history and earnestly wanted to draw the war to a close. In 1960, he considered pulling the troops out of Vietnam over the next year and a half, though Kissinger talked him out of it. He reached out to the North Vietnamese for peace talks, though in the end he kept the United States snarled in the Vietnam War while doggedly pursuing his “peace with honor.”

He pushed for a volunteer army, rather than a draft. He created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He created the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for the elderly and disabled. He proposed universal health care.  He opened up diplomatic relations with communist China, while his political allies howled at home. He pursued detente with the Soviet Union.

Nixon truly believed he was a man of the people; he saw himself as the spokesman for the “Silent Majority.”

We should not overlook, nor excuse, his failures. Clearly, Watergate and the misuse of executive power had a profound effect on the country. But neither should we ignore his successes. In the end, Nixon was neither the bloodthirsty villain his opponents decried, nor the perpetual victim he claimed to be. The truth, as always, was far more nuanced.

The Ideology of Superman: Morning in America

This is Part 4 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).


The blockbuster comic event Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped the DC Universe’s slate clean in 1986-1987, allowing writer John Byrne to rebuild the character from the ground up. Byrne stripped Superman down to his core elements, while simultaneously building up a large and strong supporting cast. For the first time since Denny O’Neil’s attempt in the 1970s, Superman’s power levels were reigned in. The Man of Steel was still strong, but he no longer boasted every conceivable power.

Byrne also shifted the Clark Kent-Superman dynamic, writing Superman as the alter ego for Clark Kent. Many previous interpretations had portrayed the bumbling Clark Kent as the mask and the strong, confident Superman as the true identity. Byrne reversed this, making Kent confident and successful, and emphasizing Superman as the “mask.”

Clark Kent was re-imagined as a more confident character.

Confidence was returning not only to Kent, but to America as well. Fed Chairman Paul Volker determinedly wrung inflation out of the U.S. economy, while large, simultaneous tax cuts and ramped-up government spending stimulated the stagnant economy (creating huge deficits in the process). Unemployment was dropping and the economy was picking up steam. It was, as Ronald Reagan proclaimed, “morning in America.”

Both Superman and the United States had weathered the turbulence of the 197os and emerged more self-assured, in a more stable environment. John Byrne’s new Superman universe would persist until the late 2000s, when DC’s latest blockbuster event, Flashpoint, would re-launch the character’s books. Tellingly, this same general period parallels the prolonged economic stabilization that followed the U.S.’s defeat of high inflation, and the ascendancy of Washington’s neoliberal consensus. (The neoliberal consensus, broadly, refers to general agreement during this period over issues like deregulation and the lowering trade barriers.) Both periods began in the 1980s and lasted until the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

Of course, this period also saw its share of changes. New creative teams would introduce or remove characters, and take the Superman books in different directions. Retcons (or “retroactive continuity” — essentially when a later comic book retroactively changes something about past continuity) were many and frequent. Likewise, American society would experience the AIDS crisis, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the contentious 2000 presidential election, the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and much, much more. But all of these various events took place in the broader context of a political period ushered in by the Reagan presidency, and thrown into disarray by the War on Terror and the Great Recession (or, in Superman’s case, ushered in by Crisis on Infinite Earths and re-launched by Flashpoint).

In addition to restoring America’s confidence in itself, President Reagan also brought about a revival of nationalism. America in the 1960s and 70s confronted the uncomfortable truth that various social groups were excluded from mainstream society. This, along with the traumas of Watergate and the Vietnam War, fractured a sense of national identity. Reagan restored this vision of an average American identity — the hard-working, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American, who is able to achieve the American Dream via an honest job. There was great pride in being an American.

At the same time, Mexican immigration was beginning to increase dramatically, leading to an immigration policy overhaul in 1986. As with other periods of high immigration, certain nativist, anti-immigration sentiments began to spread.

John Byrne turned Superman into a full-fledged American citizen.

And so, for the first time, Superman — whose story was always that of the assimilated immigrant — was made a native-born American citizen. To be sure, this new origin still retained immigrant underpinnings. Superman’s biological parents were still Kryptonian. But now, instead of an infant Kal-El (Superman’s Kryptonian name) being rocketed to Earth, a developing fetus was sent in a “birthing matrix” (a futuristic baby incubator, of sorts). When the “birthing matrix” opened on Earth, Superman was born into the world, making him a full-fledged American citizen (thanks to the 14th Amendment).

Now, instead of being a story about an immigrant assimilating into American society, it became a story about the American boy discovering and studying his Kryptonian heritage, but still reaffirming his American identity. As Superman says in Man of Steel #6:

Krypton bred me, but it was Earth that gave me all I am. All that matters. It was Krypton that made me Superman, but it is the Earth that makes me human!

This new origin was later retconned in subsequent stories, reverting Superman back to his immigrant roots, but it nevertheless stands as a testament to the strong sense of a revived American identity.

Continue on to Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.

The Ideology of Superman: Breaking Down the Old Order

This is Part 3 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World here (when the post is ready).
Read Part 6: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).


Many factors shook American society through the late 1960s and the 1970s: the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, oil shocks, the feminist movement, a new environmentalist movement, rampant inflation coupled with high unemployment, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s subsequent resignation, and so on. The first of the baby boom generation (born in the late 1940s) were reaching maturity and causing shockwaves throughout society. Many rejected the traditional outlooks of their parent’s generation, endorsing the counterculture of the hippie movement.

Comics began to leave behind the outdated and outmoded Comics Code Authority. The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 featured a story arc in which the webslinging hero’s friend, Harry Osborn, is shown to be addicted to pills. The Comics Code Authority refused to give the issues its approving stamp, but Marvel ran it anyway. It sold tremendously well, condemning the Comics Code Authority to increasing irrelevancy.

DC dealt with various issues, including cocaine addiction, in its "Green Lantern" title.

DC also dealt with tough issues, most notably in its Green Lantern title, written by Denny O’Neil. That book constantly pitted Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) in a battle of ideologies against his friend and sometime partner, Green Arrow (Oliver Queen). The series addressed issues such as environmental protection, race relations, and, famously, drug addiction as Green Arrow discovered his ward, Speedy, was addicted to cocaine. And yes, countless others have noted the irony of a character named Speedy eventually being addicted to cocaine, so I don’t need to do so. But really, Green Arrow should have seen the writing on the wall with that one.

Superman’s world changed as well. The late 1960s saw new creative teams and a new art style mark a departure from the Mort Weisinger era (Weisinger edited the Superman comics during the 50s and 60s. He retired from DC Comics in 1970.).

The familiar elements of a Superman story changed drastically. An all-new supporting cast was introduced, new villains challenged the Man of Steel, new situations arose. As CBR’s Robot6 blog notes:

Before long, readers got to know his neighbors in 344 Clinton Street’s apartments, as well as various Kryptonians (like Supergirl, Krypto and the other Super-Pets, the Phantom Zone criminals, and residents of the Bottle City of Kandor).

Indeed, the revamped Superman titles added new characters of their own almost from the very beginning. Cat Grant, Jose “Gangbuster” Delgado, Maggie Sawyer, Colin Thornton, Ron Troupe, Jerry White, and Emil Hamilton all interacted with the existing supporting cast, and with each other, in various combinations.

Print journalist Clark Kent got a promotion when Galaxy Broadcasting System president, Morgan Edge, bought the Daily Planet and made Kent a TV news anchor. Big business was back in action, and deregulation was gaining steam. A Republican governor named Ronald Reagan was gearing up for a presidential bid to unseat incumbent Gerald Ford.

The 12-issue maxi-series "Crisis on Infinite Earths" rebooted the entire DC Universe.

The structure of a Superman story changed as well. Gone were the normality-interrupting gimmicks that defined the previous period. Now, stories were more character-driven. Writers were disassembling the status quo of Clark Kent’s world, albeit less violently than many of the social and economic forces challenging America in the real world.

American confidence was sinking, and with it Superman’s powers. Denny O’Neil’s brief stint on the comic saw Superman’s powers diminished by a third in a story arc entitled “Kryptonite Nevermore!” The description for the collected edition even says that “this story turned Superman’s status quo on its head.” The depowering would not last for long, however, as subsequent writers soon took to re-powering the Man of Steel for their own purposes, but Superman was no longer a static character replaying the same tired formula over and over again. His world was in flux.

Superman’s world would shift hugely one last time in the 1980s, and then settle into a new norm. The huge, company-wide crossover blockbuster event of 1985-86, Crisis on Infinite Earths hit the re-start button on all of DC’s properties, including Superman. The Man of Steel was de-powered yet again, his cast culled and revised, and his convoluted history streamlined, all marking a new normal.

It was morning in America.


Continue to Part 4: Morning in America here.

The Ideology of Superman: Defender of the Status Quo

This is Part 2 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).


The war would change everything for Superman, much like it would for the United States. Depression-era America was a body in turmoil, where societal ills were brought to the fore in the hopes that they could be redressed by a powerful government. But Post-War America was a booming society unified by a common enemy — first the Axis Powers, then the Soviets. The economy, stimulated by rapid mobilization for the war effort, was sprinting ahead mightily. Soldiers returned from the horrors of war intent on starting families, getting a good education through the G.I. Bill, and earning an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

These forces upheld a status quo that imagined all wrongs were already righted, all battles already won. Yet just below the surface, new, uncomfortable conflicts were roiling, ready to engulf the country.

For Superman, these were the days of the Comics Code Authority, a body established by the comic industry after Congress launched an investigation of comic books based on accusations (most prominently made by Dr. Fredric Wertham in his “Seduction of the Innocent”) that they were corrupting the youth. The Comics Code Authority set strict guidelines about which types of stories were acceptable. Authority figures could not be questioned. “Good” had to prevail. “Evil” was always punished. Moral ambiguity was a no-no.

A typical Superman comic from the 1950s and 60s involved a temporary changing of identity.

Gone was the social crusader of the Depression. Now, Superman upheld the status quo: one that was challenged (unsuccessfully) by various madmen every issue, and restored before the final panel. No changes were necessary, because the status quo was the ideal.

It was during this period that the famous description of Superman standing for “truth, justice and the American way” became nailed into the national consciousness. Recall that in his first appearance, Superman was simply a “champion of the oppressed.” Later, in the Adventures of Superman radio shows, the Man of Steel was described as a

…defender of law and order, champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice, who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice.

Noticeably absent is any mention of the “American way.” In fact, “American way” did not enter Superman comics until World War II, and was removed after.

In the 1950s, however, “American way” made its way back into the Superman mythos, by way of the Adventures of Superman television series.’s “Comic Book Legends Revealed” blog has a good history of the “American way” phrase.

But, of course, Superman’s “never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way” had a clear purpose. These were the early years of the Cold War — a period defined by stark contrasts between an American “us” and a communist “them.” Americans were being blacklisted for having supposed communist ties or sympathies, and Senator Joseph McCarthy led the nation on a witch hunt for potential spies. Superman, as a proud American (he even clothed himself in the colors of the American flag), stood for nothing less than distinctly American ideals — “truth, justice and the American way.”

Another major difference between the Superman of 1938 and that of the 1950s was Superman’s power level. In 1938, Superman was super-fast, super-strong and could leap an eighth of a mile! Little by little, the Man of Steel gained more powers, like flight, heat vision and whatever else writers felt like adding.

By the 1950s he had become infinitely powerful, able to weather a nuclear explosion. Americans of the period lived in the shadow of the all-power bomb, frightened of a the possibility of an all-destructive nuclear war. And yet here, the American superhero, was smiling bravely in the face of nuclear holocaust, certain that he could handle anything such existential threat.

Lois Lane became more obsessed with marrying Superman than her career.

The post-war period affected Superman’s supporting cast as well. Lois Lane largely gave up her feisty pursuit of front page stories in order to court Superman (unsuccessfully). The workplace gains made by women during the war, when many able-bodied men were drafted or joined the service were erased as those same men returned to claim their jobs.

The economy soared, supported by the fact that all our major competitors’ industries were completely annihilated during the war. They turned to the United States, buying U.S.-made products as they recuperated. Emboldened unions demanded better benefits for a growing middle class, and American industry, with an effective global monopoly, readily agreed.

Wealth was spread more evenly among the various social classes, and many families could be supported on one income alone. Without a harsh economy or depleted labor force to support the need for women in the workplace, they participation in the workforce quickly dropped. Women who had taken up jobs to support their families during World War II were suddenly back at home. Rosie the Riveter was out. The Happy Housewife was in.

And so, Lois Lane too gave up her obsession with career and focused all her energies on tricking Superman into marrying her. She even got her own comic book during this period: “Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane.” Even in her own comic, her worth was judged by her relationship to Superman.

But social change was just below the surface. Tellingly, many conflicts in the 50s and 60s involved identity crises. The main conflicts of many issues revolve around a character transforming into something or someone else entirely, either by their own volition or through some wacky turn of events. Often, some sort of Kryptonite (like Red Kryptonite) would temporarily alter Superman’s mind or body. But identity crises were not limited to the Man of Steel.

For instance, in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #91 (1966), Olsen infiltrates a group of delinquents by acting the part. Obviously, our Olsen could not be a member of this counterculture “motorcycle mob” (the kind of young men Wertham was convinced comic book immorality was producing), with their leather jackets and their disregard for authority figures. But for a bit, he could act the part, coming into direct conflict with Superman on the issue’s cover. (For more on the subject of identity crises during this period’s comics, see Grant Morrison’s new book, Supergods.)

Conflict was boiling up in America, ready to devour the rapidly deteriorating status quo.

Continue on to Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.

The Ideology of Superman: The New Deal Democrat

This is Part 1 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).


Superman, "Champion of the Oppressed."

When Action Comics #1 hit newsstands, America was mired in the depths of the Great Depression. Although still nursing an isolationist foreign policy, U.S. domestic policy had shifted radically. An ascendant Democratic Party brandished the full force of the federal government. Without passing any judgment (positive or negative), it is safe to say that during this time unions were strengthened, social safety nets fortified, big business strictly regulated. This was FDR’s New Deal.

New Dealers were self-proclaimed champions of the common man, and Superman was no different. In fact, Action Comics #1 describes him as a “champion of the oppressed.”

This image may seem foreign to many people today who see Superman as the embodiment of the status quo, but Superman of the 1930s and 40s was a social crusader, in both identities. Muckraking journalist Clark Kent spoke truth to power in his job at the Daily Star (later, Daily Planet), while pining after Lois Lane. In another indicator of the times, Lois Lane was introduced as a gossip columnist who wrote “sob stories,” but desperately wanted to a real reporting beat. The ironic twist of the comic was that Lois Lane was “manlier” than bumbling, impotent Clark Kent, though Lane’s pursuit of true news pieces would inevitably lead to some sort of danger from which the masculine ideal (Superman) would need to rescue her.

Superman destroys slums so that the government will be forced to improve living conditions.

Not much escaped the super-crusader’s youthful eyes in those days. Though he could only jump an eighth of mile (a far cry from his later ability to fly), Superman had no trouble taking on wealthy mine owners for the lax safety standards they subjected their workers to, or slick businessmen who tried to co-opt the Superman image for profit. In fact, in Action Comics #8, Superman destroys a city’s dilapidated slums in order to force the government to rebuild better housing. Just before he does so, he tells a group of delinquent children: “It’s not entirely your fault that you’re delinquent– it’s these slums– your poor living conditions.”

As a product of the times, Superman was also something of an isolationist at first. A story spanning Action Comics #1 and 2 saw Superman taking on the fiendish military-industrial complex about 23 years before Dwight D. Eisenhower made the term famous in his farewell address. The complaints sound incredibly familiar: corrupt politicians, influential lobbyists, deceitful arms producers and manufactured wars. Who says Superman isn’t in touch with today’s issues?

Luckily for the fictional Americans of the late 1930s, Superman was around to prevent the United States from being needlessly embroiled in a conflict between two fictional (though perhaps European) countries.

Superman joins the war effort.

All for naught. America’s isolationist tendencies would crumble before the full force of the Pearl Harbor attacks. And even before that, President Roosevelt angled to help the Allied cause in any way possible, through programs such as “Lend-Lease.” And as America mobilized for war, so too did Superman. The July after Pearl Harbor, for instance, Superman was seen on the cover of Superman #17 holding a shocked Adolf Hitler and grotesque Prime Minister Tojo, the much-despised leaders of the Axis Powers.

Families across the United States bought war bonds, rationed goods, planted victory gardens, and build weapons to help the war effort. Superman assaulted Axis leaders on the covers of his comics.

American had entered the second World War.

Continue on to Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.

The War on Our Border: Why Mexico is Important

The United States needs to have a serious discussion about Mexico and spillover violence from its war with drug cartels. Here’s why it matters and what can be done.


Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, announced a war on Mexico’s drug cartels in late 2006. Since that time, at least 35,000 (and probably more) people have been killed. Corruption remains rampant, with the cartels often recruiting directly from police forces. A recent Time article by Tim Padgett reported that:

The corruption watchdog Transparency International estimates that Mexicans paid $2.75 billion in bribes to police and other officials last year. Meanwhile, 95% of violent crimes in Mexico go unsolved.

Drug thugs killed by their competitors are easily replaced. In a country where most workers earn less than $10 a day, the cartels have little difficulty recruiting new legions. The Chihuahua state attorney general estimates that close to 10,000 Mexicans work for drug cartels in Juárez alone, not least because even foot soldiers can earn hundreds of dollars a week as sicarios, or triggermen. It isn’t just the unemployed who get sucked into the war. If you have a pilot’s license, for example, you’re useful to a cartel, which makes you a target for rival gangs.

But the crisis is not confined to Mexico. Violence has spilled over into U.S. border states. An ABC article from March notes that:

The ambush of two U.S. special agents in Mexico last month, the December murder of a Border Patrol agent in Arizona by Mexican bandits and the beheading of a Phoenix man in October by Mexican cartel members are the latest signs that the drug-fueled violence has even become a direct threat to Americans.

Additionally, American drug, gun and immigration policy directly affects to both the cartel war in Mexico and the spillover violence in the border states. Guns smuggled in from the United States arm the cartels, with “70% of the guns seized in Mexico in the past two years” coming from the U.S. Drug use in the United States fuels demand for the cartels’ product, sustaining them and ensuring that they continue to operate in their U.S. market.

And defective U.S. immigration policy forces many regular, non-threatening Mexicans who are desperate for jobs to immigrate to the United States illegally. Previously, immigrants would turn to “coyotes” to help smuggle them across the border, but cartels have since gotten into the human trafficking business themselves. They charge illegal immigrants huge sums of money for a journey many immigrants don’t survive — often because the cartel members rape and murder them along the way.

All of these factors sustain demand for the cartels, and keep them economically strong: heightening demand for drugs and trafficking services, as well as producing a steady supply of weaponry. Stronger cartels keep Mexico mired in a state of corruption, violence and dysfunction that contributes to lower economic growth, which further contributes to higher levels of illegal immigration. It should be noted that Mexico has huge potential for growth, as a result of free trade agreements (NAFTA), and attracting foreign investment. But violence caused by the cartels creates a volatile atmosphere that is not attractive to investors or conducive to business.


So far, the United States has taken some steps to address this issue. President Obama has expanded the U.S. border patrol and provided more funding for Mexican law enforcement, but these address mostly consequences, not causes. The administration did, in 2009, launch an initiative (“Operation Fast and Furious“) to track guns purchased in the United States back to the cartels. But it ended up losing track of many of these weapons, leaving them still in the hands of gangsters.

The Economist also notes several steps the Obama Administration has taken:

The administration has stepped up security co-operation with Mexico, deploying drones and American agents south of the border and allowing Mexican police to use American territory as a launch pad for surprise raids southward. It helped to organise a donor conference in June aimed at improving security in Central America. It is paying Colombia to provide training for helicopter pilots and police from Mexico and Central America.

The United States and Mexico are also working more closely together to speed legal trade across the border. Earlier this year Mr Obama at last allowed Mexican trucks to operate north of the border. And the two countries work together on many world issues at the United Nations, says Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s ambassador in Washington, who says the relationship is closer than at any time in the past 15 years.

Admittedly, addressing the sources of this problem does not seem politically viable in today’s partisan atmosphere — especially considering the issues at stake (guns, immigration and drugs). Nevertheless, I will present several brief policy options I think could help in the war against the cartels.

  • Gun Control.
  • Immigration Reform.
  • Reassessing Drug Policies


Let me preface this section by saying that I support the right to bear arms — but that I do believe that it is within the government’s purview to regulate gun ownership. In the same way, government regulates automobile travel for the purposes of public safety. Especially when discussing spillover violence from Mexico, there is a direct correlation between firearm availability in the United States and the arming of cartels.

Several gun control measures might help on this front:

  • Strong background checks, to prevent guns from being sold to people who will funnel them to the cartels. Of course, I should note that this is not without its own limitations — one of which being the simple fact that cartels will try to enlist people who will pass such checks. Background checks may make it more difficult (or costly, if they are forced to pay more for agents who can pass such checks) for cartels to acquire weapons, but it will by no means make it impossible or implausible.
  • Requiring gun permits or licenses, and registering transactions at gun shows. Again, these measures would make it more difficult for cartels to acquire guns, and will provide law enforcement with more information with which to track guns that do find their way to the cartels, and gun traffickers. But they will not stop such purchases fully, either.
  • Assault weapons ban. This is a measure for which President Obama has voiced support. As a 2009 State Department travel advisory noted: “Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades.” [emphasis mine]

Such measures seem to have had an effect in California, which accounts for only 3 percent of guns smuggled to Mexico (and later recovered).


As noted earlier, cartels thrive on the demand for human traffickers from illegal immigrants. Immigrants that, it should be noted, are willing to face potential raping and death at the hands of their cartel traffickers in order to find employment opportunities and a better life in America. Comprehensive immigration could, among other things:

  • Streamline the immigration process
  • Strengthen border patrol and law enforcement to crack down on cartels
  • Provide guest worker program

The guiding principle of immigration reform, as it relates to the cartel problem, should be to make the immigration system in America more responsive to changes in supply and demand for immigrant workers, as well making it more streamlined and efficient. This should lower the incentive for illegal entry to the United States.

And lowering incentives for illegal immigration could help focus law enforcement on fighting cartels, instead of draining precious time and resources to track and deport illegal immigrants — immigrants who, as workers, are adding to economic activity.

Also, reform can help lower illegal immigration by including immigration policies that promote Mexican economic development. (It should be noted that the number of illegal immigrations has decline recently, for various reasons including the recession, fallen Mexican birth rates, and economic development in Mexico). An Economist blog post advocates

…an EU-like common North American labour market, as well as expanded Mexican access to American colleges and universities. But I would happily settle for a large guest-worker programme that would make it much easier for Mexicans to legally live and work in America, as well as taking the risk out of cycling back home.

With incentives for illegal immigration lowered, a strengthened border patrol could focus their energies on violent criminals smuggling drugs into and guns out of the United States.


U.S. demand for cartel-provided drugs obviously helps keeps the cartels in business. The main policy options I would advocate here are drug prevention and rehabilitation programs.

They would relieve our overburdened court systems and overcrowded prisons. Such measures would approach drug use as the non-violent, or “victimless crime” that it is, rather than focusing on jail time and harsh punishments. For drug users, prison is not a huge deterrent anyway. A March 2009 report by the Berkley Foundation Drug Policy Programme in London notes that:

For problematic drug users, it is perhaps not surprising that the threat of
punishment will have a limited effect. Many suffer from other serious
problems and it can be argued that being punished is not an over-riding
concern for them. For example, according to the US government’s
Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 53% of drug
users have a diagnosable mental disorder. Many hard-core users in
inner cities already lead such high-risk lives on the streets that prison
is not perceived as a much riskier or more threatening alternative.

Shifting focus from punishment to treatment would not disrupt deterrence, because current prison sentences do not do much in the way of solving drug issues anyway. The report also says that “many users have been led to control or give up their drug use because the toll on personal relationships and home and work lives was too high and the rewards for quitting were attractive.” Supporting these factors with better treatment programs would help address drug issues and, in turn, decrease the demand for cartels’ services.


The Mexican government’s war with drug cartels should concern all Americans. Violence from the drug wars spills over the border into the United States, while U.S. drug and gun policy figure prominently into the supply and demand of cartels. Smart policy options work to decrease the supply of guns to the cartels while simultaneously working to decrease demand for the drugs and illegal immigration services cartels provide.

A stable and successful Mexico is in America’s best interests — both from a security perspective, and an economic one. And working to systematically weaken its drug cartels should be a priority for the United States going forward.


Why the DREAM Act Should Pass

A recent Gallop poll shows a slight majority of Americans favor passing the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (or DREAM Act). The DREAM Act was first sponsored in 2001 by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch (UT). It passed in the House this year and even had a majority of support in the Senate (55-41), where it failed to overcome a filibuster.

Basically, the bill would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children if they join the military or pursue higher education. Read the text of the Senate bill here, and the House bill here.

The consideration of the DREAM Act by this Congress stands as perhaps the most meaningful attempt at immigration reform since the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. That bipartisan bill (brought down by bipartisan opposition) actually contained the DREAM Act as one of its provisions. While the DREAM Act is only a small step on the longer road to comprehensive reform, it is nevertheless worth passing. Here’s why:

  • It is a step toward resolving the status of illegal immigrants currently living in America
  • It will provide the military with ample recruits
  • It will yield economic benefits for the entire country and raise government revenue

Let’s examine these points one by one.


Illegal immigration is tough to measure, but a Department of Homeland Security report places the number of illegal immigrants in America in 2009 at approximately 10.75 million. For context, that’s about 3.5% of the entire U.S. population that same year (which, according to Census Bureau estimates was about 307,006,550 people). That’s bigger than the population of Native Americans (1%) and only a little bit less than the Asian American population (4.6%).

The question that has been plaguing Congress is: what do you do about this sizable segment of the population?

Although many conservatives advocate mass deportation, this is a costly and utterly unrealistic solution. Prominent Republicans like President Bush and George Will have recognized this fact. Immigration and Customs Enforcement head Julie Myers has placed the cost of mass deportation at around $94 billion. From

“An ICE spokesman later said the $94 billion did not include the cost of finding illegal immigrants, nor court costs — dollar amounts that are largely unknowable.

He said the amount was calculated by multiplying the estimated 12 million people by the average cost of detaining people for a day: $97. That was multiplied by the average length of detention: 32 days… Finally, the department looked at personnel costs, bringing the total to roughly $94 billion.”

What is notable about these rough calculations is that they also fail to take into account the economic impacts of mass deportation. Illegal immigrants both work and consume — two basic tenets of any human existence. In fact, many illegal immigrants came to America because of the job availability. In 2009, Mexicans were about 62% of all illegal immigrants. Part of the reason for the influx of undocumented immigrants from Mexico is due to the fact that Mexico’s labor market cannot currently sustain the number of workers it has at its disposal (though this may change in the near future). Put another way, there’s too many people and not enough jobs. Combine this with American companies’ willingness to hire low wage workers in order to keep prices down, and you have a recipe for mass migration, though the poor economy has actually decreased the number of illegal immigrants in America in the last few years.

The result is that illegal immigrants are firmly implanted in the American labor market. In fact, immigrants often produce jobs where they live, mainly due to the basic economic laws of supply and demand. Immigrants, like every else, have to consume in order to survive. They must rent a home, buy food, clothes, etc… This increased economic activity gets money circulating and creates jobs. Removing this large segment of low wage workers would shock the American job market by removing a huge segment of the population that contribute to both supply and demand.

And that’s only if the government had the stomach for taking such drastic measures. For one thing, mass deportation is a political nonstarter. It would be a difficult issue for American businesses to support. The reasons for this are simple: companies always want to have the advantage over their competition, and immigrants provide companies with that advantage. A 2009 paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta concluded that “firms employing undocumented workers enjoy a competitive advantage over firms that do not employ undocumented workers.”

Illegal immigrants are too frightened of deportation to complain about poor working conditions or low wages, and so accept these conditions, which drives prices lower for the consumer and provides the company with an advantage. Rising prices would be bad for business, as would be losing thousands of workers, so its easy to see why large businesses would likely oppose a mass deportation plan. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, predicts that mass deportation would reduce United States’ GDP by 1.46%. Also, mass deportation could take years to fully implement (and that’s only if it turned out to be possible), and companies would not wish to see their advantage erode if rivals were able to maintain their advantage for a bit longer.

So, that is the state of the debate. To be sure, there are issues I have not touched on, like whether illegal immigrants cause violent crime (studies show they do not, and they may even make some areas safer) or depress wages (maybe for a smallest, lowest paid segment of the population, though it is also linked to wage increases for many others), but this blog post is to focus mainly on the DREAM Act, so I don’t want to get too sidetracked.

With mass deportation untenable, the only other plausible way of solving this issue is some form of legalization. Critics like to use the term ‘amnesty’ to describe any legalization of illegal immigrants currently in the country, despite the variety of ways it could be handled. For historical context, one should remember that President Reagan signed a bill that both tightened border security and provided amnesty for about 3 million illegal immigrants living in the country.

The lack of real alternatives to some sort of path to citizenship and the partisan attacks on ‘amnesty’ has led to an atmosphere where Congress refuses to pass any immigration reform, and states end up taking matters into their own hands. The DREAM Act, however, stands as a politically viable bill that could partially alleviate some of the problem (though not all).

The Migration Policy Institute reports that around 2.1 million illegal immigrants could become citizens under the DREAM Act’s provisions. That same study estimates “that roughly 38 percent of potential beneficiaries — 825,000 people — would likely obtain permanent legal status” under the DREAM Act. Under the Senate version of the bill, illegal immigrants who entered the country as children (younger than 16) and have lived continuously in the United States for longer than 5 years are eligible. Even though it still leaves some illegal immigrants in America without a path to citizenship, it nonetheless provides a sizable segment of the illegal population with the opportunity to become American citizens. This will have economic benefits for the country (as described in the final section) and brings the entire country a step closer to resolving the status of illegal immigrants already living in America.


The DREAM Act would provide the American military, currently fighting two wars, with additional, much-needed recruits. A key provision of the bill dictates that one of the ways an illegal immigrant child could become a citizen is through military service.

This would be a boon to the military, which saw a dearth of recruits in the 2000s and failed to meet many of its recruiting standards. In those years, according to a 2005 Guardian article, the military “stopped battalion commanders from dismissing new recruits for drug abuse, alcohol, poor fitness and pregnancy in an attempt to halt the rising attrition rate in an army” and “recruiters, who were under pressure to meet their monthly quotas,” let their standards slip.

The recession has largely reversed this trend, as more people are unemployed and attracted by the pay and benefits of the military as opposed to the uncertain American labor market. In 2005, the unemployment rate was around 5%. Now (December 2010), it stands at almost double that (9.8%). Still, this is no reason to discount the benefit of added recruits that the DREAM Act would provide. For one, the enhanced recruitment numbers of the recession may continue into the recovery, or they may not. This likely depends on the state of the job market, which is lagging behind most other recovery indicators with high unemployment. Either way, the DREAM Act would be beneficial for the purposes of recruitment levels.

Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute noted in “Staying Power” in Foreign Affairs that counter-insurgency doctrine “implies that security in Afghanistan could be maintained by a competent force of roughly 400,000 troops.” He adds that by the end of 2010, “there will be roughly 300,000 competent security personnel in place, half foreign and half indigenous,” which is far short of 400,000. Theoretically, 100,000 Afghan or coalition forces should make up this gap. Now, it is extremely unlikely that President Obama will send an additional 100,000 troops to Afghanistan. O’Hanlon notes that already, “Obama has more than doubled the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.” This, along with the administration’s decision to provide 30,000 additional troops instead of the higher requests made by then-Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2009 and the hope for a drawdown makes it unlikely that Obama will consent to doubling the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan yet again. Still, the commander-in-chief cannot command troops that do not exist. The DREAM Act provides the ways and means, though the ultimate choices of command lies with our leaders.

The main point is that the DREAM Act would provide a needed supply of soldiers in return for granting them citizenship. And, really, would we want to deprive American citizenship of men and women who are willing to defend America with their lives?


Some opposition to the DREAM Act is coming from people who do not want federal dollars extended to these immigrants to help pay for their schooling. Participating illegal immigrants would be able make use of various loan programs (Federal Direct Loans, Perkins Loans) and work study programs, although they would not be extended grants (like the Pell Grant).

The key difference here is that loans are repaid, unless they default (but, of course, default has its own consequences). Recent figures suggest a 7% default rate of college loan borrowers (legal) in the United States — an increase over earlier years, likely due to the recession.

In general, criticism of this facet of the bill (providing college loans to illegal immigrants) seems to come from people who do not want federal dollars to go to illegal immigrants for a couple general reasons:

  • They think that this would reward breaking the law and incentivize people to come to America illegally, and
  • That illegal immigrants (because they are not citizens) should not benefit from tax dollars.

These are legitimate concerns, but (in my estimation) the long-term benefits outweigh any short term costs.

The first concern is easy to address. The law specifically identifies young children (younger than 16 years old when the entered the United States) who have been in the U.S. “for a continuous period of not less than 5 years” before law passes. In other words, it will only be available to illegal immigrants who were not the decision-makers in their families, and who have already been in America for several years. It (unfortunately) does not address the underlying needs for more comprehensive immigration reform, and thus would not reduce the rate of illegal immigration, but neither would it prove to be an opportunity for new illegal immigrants. It would only apply to those already here.

The second concern takes a bit more explaining to address. For one, illegal immigrants do pay taxes — various studies say that between 50% and 75% of illegal immigrants pay state, local, and federal taxes. Certain taxes are inescapable, like sales and property taxes. Corporate taxes can be included as well, since those are generally passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices. Illegal immigrants also pay payroll and income taxes through withholding (and “about 6 million unauthorized immigrants file individual tax returns each year” according to the IRS).

This latter point about withholding and entitlement taxes is especially important. Because of withholding, many people qualify for refunds come tax season. Illegal immigrants often do not file for refunds because they do not want to attract any federal attention. Likewise, illegal immigrants still pay Social Security and Medicare taxes even though they will not be able to use either program unless they become legal.

Still, illegal immigrants seem to be a drag on state and local budgets. Whereas federal tax money goes to programs illegal immigrants will never utilize (Social Security and Medicare, for example), state and local dollars are spent on things like education and welfare services, which illegal immigrants families will use. In general, the amount of state and local tax dollars spent on illegal immigrant families is a small part of the total, but it is still more than they contribute to state and local taxes.

The obvious solution (since mass deportation is unrealistic and expensive) is to remove all the boundaries to their attaining higher paying jobs, and paying taxes on those higher wages. A Center for American Progress study noted some of the effects of the 1986 immigration reform. For instance, barriers to illegal immigrants’ upward mobility are removed, and their newfound citizenship “encourages them to invest more in their own education, open bank accounts, buy homes, and start businesses.” Additionally, it notes that legalization is correlated with higher wages (which translates into increased tax revenue)

Yet, the DREAM Act does simple legalization one better. It encourages higher education. In 2008, the median income for male high school graduates was $32,000, while that of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 71.88% larger ($55,000). The jobs these college graduates will be going into will not only be higher-earning, but also more highly skilled, which should help the United States stay competitive in a global marketplace. Legalization will also have the benefit of making these higher incomes fully taxable.

Providing student loans is crucial to this goal, despite opposition to the parts of the bill that allow the government to extend them to illegal immigrants. First of all, it is incredibly difficult (if not nearly impossible) for students from low-wage earning families (as most illegal immigrants are) to make their way through college without some kind of student loan. American students of many different socio-economic backgrounds take out student loans. If a middle class American must borrow in order to feasibly pursue a higher education, how much more difficult will it be for a lower class illegal immigrant to fund higher education?

If the aim is to encourage higher education (and thus higher paying jobs) and citizenship, it would seem counterproductive to deprive these children of the means to invest in their (and our) future.


The DREAM Act is not a comprehensive immigration reform that will provide a needed overhaul of the current system. Yet, it deserves passage because its provisions would greatly benefit the country — it would take a step toward solving the issue of illegal immigrants currently residing in America in return for a service. That service (either military or educational) would yield future benefits for American security and prosperity. The DREAM Act may have recently failed passage in the Senate, but it is a proposal that has been around for almost a decade. Here’s to hoping it stays around, and becomes law in the near future.