Sometimes Too Much Agreement is the Worst of All
~by Anderson Tuggle
The other day I came upon a rather odd—though not unusual—bill currently in our Congress: The All-American Flag Act.
The AAFA requires all federal agencies to purchase American flags “made from articles, materials, or supplies 100% of which are grown, produced, or manufactured in the U.S.”
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio has called for the House to take up the Act, which was passed by unanimous consent in the Senate last July, saying, “We should do all we can to support American manufacturing and job creation, especially when it comes to our most treasured of patriotic symbols — the American flag.”
Apparently the news that China supplies millions of dollars worth of American flags every year would not, could not stand in the halls of power.
Yes, the AAFA makes little sense as policy—shameless electoral-year nationalism and rent-seeking by some flag manufacturers seem to be the driving forces—but it does minimal economic damage.
Nonetheless, bad policy sailing through the Senate without a single vote against it concerns me. What was particularly striking about the AAFA, though, was how it is a synecdoche for certain kinds of bi-partisan, populist measures: measures that usually revolve around patriotism, the military, and the elderly.
Acts like the aforementioned receive far too little press as a sign of misguided politics, in my humble opinion. While scholars like Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have a very valid point that “the core of the problem [of dysfunctional politics] lies with the Republican Party,” I think unchecked populism can be a more nefarious issue.
Before continuing, however, I must say that I do not mean to play the siren-call of imminent American decline due to dysfunctional politics (ala Edward Luce’s “America in an Age of Descent”). I agree more with Ryan Avent’s response to Mr. Luce that: “I don’t dispute that America has political problems; rather I argue that America’s political system is better equipped to handle them than those of some ‘challengers’ and America’s economy is less dependent on the national government for its success than economies elsewhere.”
With our favorable demographics and open labor market, America is far, far from the worst of the European PIIGS excesses. Thus, to return to the aforementioned problem of an unchecked populist spirit in politics, it isn’t as much a looming sword of death as it is a topic that gets undue recognition next to issues of political polarization or an ever-more-conservative GOP.
So, what other recent populist legislative trends concern me?
I’ve compiled a quick list here, though there is plenty of room for discussion and disagreement. [Note: For simplicity, I’m talking federal politics here, but thoughts on state politics would be useful too]:
- First and foremost: raising an iota of federal revenue from anyone not in the top 2-5% of earners. Yes, I realize Republicans are vastly more responsible for this state of affairs, but, as Ezra Klein astutely noted, “Democrats have, for the most part, admitted that Bush was right, and the Clinton-era tax rates were too high on most Americans. For all that Democrats talk about returning to the Clinton-era tax rates, they only ever mean for the top two percent of taxpayers — the folks who are now in the 35% bracket, but whom they would like to see in a 39.6% bracket.” For other examples of this American tax-phobia, look at the hoops the President jumped through in not calling the individual mandate a tax or the federal tax on petrol not receiving a much-needed raise since 1993—even as we drive less in more efficient cars.
- I say this next area with great reluctance, but the Department of Defense and veterans receive too much unquestioned deference from Congress when it comes to doling out federal benefits. To me, it was eye-opening to see the flack Chris Hayes got for even feeling “uncomfortable” at calling all veterans heroes—and that’s just a matter of semantics. Per policy, those in the military (and not just those fighting) receive universal healthcare, childcare, and collegiate education; the Obama administration recently granted additional tax benefits to companies that hire veterans; with the recent sequester, Congress tacitly agreed to make some defense cuts, but the proposal to bump up any (already low) fees or co-pays for TRICARE was shot down by even the likes of Ron Paul. All that being said, I’ve never served in the military and think many benefits are well-earned, but I don’t see why even bringing up the financial trade-off is heresy.
- Another major area that comes to mind is that of the little-questioned expansion of the national security state and the terrorist meme that typically stands behind it. As Glenn Greenwald has written on our policy toward Iran, “What’s most notable is how suffocatingly narrow the permitted views are in the U.S. on this question…What we have, instead, is — as usual — virtually absolute bipartisan consensus on the most consequential foreign policy issues.” A specific example of this fear-mongering bipartisanship is the NIMBY attitude behind not transferring those in Guantanamo to Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois. Admittedly, I’m not as convinced of the apocalyptic consequences of this issue as someone like a Greenwald, but, again, dubious policy sailing through Congress unchecked is troubling.
- Quick last thing: The denial in Congress of the Prohibition-like status of marijuana. Even with Ron Paul and Barney Frank’s noble effort to leave marijuana to the states, I have heard far, far too few national politicians come out and admit that pot’s illegality makes zero sense when compared to alcohol and tobacco’s legality. For a prime example of this denial, watch this clip of a DEA administrator struggling to differentiate pot from heroin or watch President Obama laugh off a question about whether or not pot should be legal.
Among the other policies I considered including were entrenched support for never changing entitlements, excessive praise for the wonders of a bygone era of American manufacturing, and unlimited backing for all things Israel.
Yet, I found these policies to generate more divisiveness among our politicians than the aforementioned—which is a good thing, as sometimes too much unity on an issue is not a cause for rejoicing.
To return to my original argument, acts like the AAFA rub me the wrong way because they are framed in a way that any dissent will be construed as “abnormal.” At least there’s a point-counterpoint on most other issues. Maybe I’m just being too cerebral about the messy art of democracy (aka Stop me before I turn into David Brooks). After all, death and taxes notwithstanding, a certain degree of populist politics is just life.
But what do you all think?
Are there other flawed policies that are implicitly accepted by Congress with far too little debate?
Or does every one of these policies have a strong political counter-point and I’m just being daft?
(Photo: A picture of an American Flag that I took at this year’s 4th of July – Erik)