My top 10 issues to run on and why
An eccentric, but I think sound, program for electoral victory and governance
In the July 1 mailbag, I offered my version of a 10-point “narrow target” program that Democrats could run on without elaborating on any of the items. But people seemed interested, so I thought it was worth a whole article.
It’s important to be clear, though, what this is and is not.
First and foremost, it is not a list of the top 10 things that I personally think are most important. I know that a hip new form of internet paranoia is to suggest that anyone offering an opinion on political strategy is covertly just pushing his policy preferences. So to be really clear, I didn’t try to get cute and sneak in any housing policy or immigration ideas, which are well documented (please read “One Billion Americans”) as two of my top priorities. And I personally believe that the absolute most important things for politicians to focus on are supply-side policies aimed at unleashing abundance, reduction of existential risks, and efforts to help the global poor — we donate 10 percent of Slow Boring subscription revenue to GiveWell for a reason.
But centering existential risk and global poverty in a national political campaign would make your political party sound like weirdos. And the particular elements of energy abundance, while genuinely very important on the merits, are often quite tedious and also pretty non-partisan.
This list is 10 ideas that are all designed to be short, snappy, and popular, while pushing against the Democratic Party’s tendency to be identified with young college graduates living in big cities. This is an agenda for non-college 50-somethings who live in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, Las Vegas, Tucson, Houston, Tampa, and Pittsburgh. Here’s what I wrote in my mailbag answer:
A national ban on gerrymandering.
Age limits for members of Congress.
Medicare negotiation of prescription drug prices.
A federal cap on credit card interest rates.
Free school lunch for everyone.
An “all of the above” strategy for national energy dominance.
A federal crackdown on interstate gun smuggling.
Something like Val Demings’ national initiative to solve more murders.
A federal abortion rights floor; no first trimester bans, there must be meaningful health/life of the mother protections for after that.
Enact meaningful barriers to underage kids’ ability to access internet porn — if porn sites cannot logistically come up with a way to do age real verification then they going to be shut down.
These are ideas that leverage the Democratic Party’s status as the party that is willing to regulate business and spend money but that don’t require large tax increases. They attempt to narrow racial gaps through the traditional method of economic redistribution. They attempt to help the poor in ways that also help the middle class. They attempt to seize a reasonable middle ground on cultural topics. And they attempt to advance a “pro-democracy” agenda in a way that is compelling and non-hysterical.
History is going to look back on the failure of the 117th Congress to enact meaningful political reform as one of its biggest problems. A key issue here is that they ended up fighting and dying on massively overstuffed bills that contained sweeping campaign finance changes rather than trying to zero in on core issues. Even when narrowly looking at voting rights, they failed to make any serious effort to look at the scale of different problems.
Voter ID laws, for example, are very popular and do not have a discernible impact on election results.
When I say that in public, someone will argue that the laws are still bad and the mere fact that the tireless labor of activist groups is able to overcome the vote suppression efforts is no reason to be quiescent about them. And on some level, I agree. But then there’s another level.
Partisan gerrymandering is unpopular and has a large influence on election outcomes.
Voter ID laws are popular and have no influence on election outcomes.
Do you want to go to the voters fighting about (1) or fighting about (2)? It seems to me that (1) is a no-brainer. And much the same is true for the rest of the voting rights agenda. Things like vote-by-mail, early voting, extended hours, and other things that make it easier to vote are nice to have. But there’s very little evidence that any of this really matters for outcomes. Democrats should try to persuade Republicans that these are good ideas that should be enacted on a bipartisan basis to make people’s lives better. But putting early voting into partisan legislation only inspired GOP paranoia about fraud and has made progress on the issue more difficult.
By contrast, Republican Party opposition to gerrymandering reform is extremely rational; it’s just bad on the merits and politically indefensible. Democrats should run on a clear message of banning partisan gerrymandering and lifting the ban on multi-member districts so that states can comply with partisan fairness requirements via proportional representation if they want to.
The age limit thing requires a constitutional amendment so it’s unlikely to happen in practice. But it’s a good idea and since it has no particular partisan implications, it’s at least conceivable it could gain bipartisan support and pass.
When Blue Rose Research tested a ton of policy proposals in a rigorous way with partisan frames and pro/con messaging, the top issue for Democrats was Medicare negotiating prescription drug prices. A few different issues tied for number two, but one of them is capping credit card interest rates. Of the things in the number two slot, I picked this one because it doesn’t require spending any money and because the bill was written by Bernie Sanders and AOC, and as a gesture of good faith they deserve the spotlight on their most popular idea.
On the merits, I have always worried that the public is wrong about this prescription drug thing and the hit to pharmaceutical R&D wouldn’t be worth it.
The standard left response is that there are lots of other R&D models we could support, including prizes or direct public funding, that would generate the same gains with less deadweight loss. And I agree with all that, but the concern remains that Congress puts a tough prescription drug pricing measure in a reconciliation bill and then doesn’t actually overhaul research funding. What I’ve come to see over the past two to three years is that the actual drug approval process is much more fucked up than I’d realized. So I think there’s actually lots of low-hanging pro-innovation fruit to be reaped by rethinking the ethics of clinical research and making the FDA do cost-benefit analyses.
Now to be clear, it’s still true that we actually need to do the pro-innovation stuff. But I think we could absolutely score a huge win-win here where profit margins are lower, but the hurdle to bringing things to market is also much lower.
On interest rates, the downside to a cap is that some people who can currently get credit cards wouldn’t be able to get them. But I am just not persuaded that broader access to that kind of consumer credit is actually beneficial. Credit card companies basically make money three ways: transaction fees from merchants, annual fees charged to consumers, and interest charged to people who don’t pay off their bills. The first two are classic examples of making money by providing people with useful services. But the interest payments seem to me to be mostly taking advantage of people who don’t understand what they are doing. Annamaria Lusardi’s research shows that to a large extent, “poor financial literacy” just comes down to being bad at math. So you have smart people who work at banks designing credit products leveraging the fact that they are better at math than the average person to run scams on people with below-average math skills. That’s bad and we should get rid of it.
Most people, meanwhile, will benefit from lower rates.
Making life easier
Free school lunch is not as popular as those two ideas, but it is Blue Rose’s best-polling education policy idea and it scores very well.
This is another Sanders bill, sponsored by Ilhan Omar in this case, and is again an effort to get the left on board with an agenda that is designed to be popular and that doesn’t implement socialism. Right now some schools, including my kid’s school, already have free lunch for everyone under what’s called Community Eligibility, where if enough poor kids attend then everyone can eat for free. That gives us some evidence of the impacts of universal free lunch.
Nora Gordon and Krista Ruffini find that universal free lunch reduces disciplinary problems in elementary and middle school.
Michelle Marcus and Katherine Yewell find that universal free lunch reduces food insecurity and improves average meal quality at home.
Jessie Handbury and Sarah Moshary find that universal free lunch reduces grocery store prices throughout the local area.
That’s pretty good stuff for a low-cost, broadly popular intervention.
In political terms, the formal structure of the benefit helps middle-class families by making them eligible for a public benefit that is currently reserved for the poor. But in practice it also helps the poor, because right now many objectively low-income families fall through the cracks of the verification process. It also reduces the stigmatization of poor kids by letting everyone just eat as equals. You’re not going to fix all of America’s problems with universal free school lunch, but this is a really good example of a beneficial social democratic idea that can be marketed and sold without selling people on the idea that we need to dramatically transform the whole economic structure of American society.
This isn’t just “drill baby drill” or giving up on climate change.
But it is asking Democrats to recognize that their current passion for restricting domestic fossil fuel supply is misguided policy and extremely eccentric in international terms. Looking around the world, electorally successful social democratic parties in Norway and Alberta and Scotland don’t try to do this. They address environmental concerns by trying to tax externalities on the consumption side and by trying to subsidize and foster clean energy industries.
I think most people underrate the extent to which there are currently large regulatory barriers to deploying zero-carbon energy. One of the main ways the GOP does the bidding of the fossil fuel industry is by not noticing this when engaging in their deregulatory fervor. Because people like to argue on the internet about nuclear power, there is at least some awareness that safety regulation of nuclear energy is much stricter than for fossil fuel plants and ignores cost-benefit analysis. But it’s also the case that geothermal projects on public lands face stricter regulatory scrutiny than oil and gas exploration.
Natural gas pipelines have a lower regulatory standard than the interregional electricity lines that could bring wind and hydro to where it’s needed. NIMBYs stop solar and wind projects all the time.
Rather than trying to strangle fossil fuel infrastructure, we should be unleashing zero-carbon infrastructure.
Smart on crime and abortion
These are all pretty straightforward ideas where I’m just trying to zero in on politically viable forms of basic progressive objectives.
The problem with Democrats’ standard practice on guns, it seems to me, is that because the party has grown so leery of enforcement that they really do tend to trip into “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” territory. At the same time, it is genuinely true that Republicans are so extreme on this subject that they have done a lot to coddle actual criminals breaking gun laws. Crime control is primarily a state and local issue, and blue cities (especially the ones in blue states) need to re-invigorate their enthusiasm for deterring illegal gun carrying. But the federal government should be helping them out by staunching the illicit cross-border flow of guns from Indiana to Chicago or from the South into D.C. and Philadelphia.
We should treat this as a very serious crime, and not accept the idea that just because straw-purchasing handguns and illegally reselling them to criminals is “nonviolent” it should be a low priority for punishment.
Catching murderers, by contrast, has not historically been a major lever of crime reduction. But obviously the rules against murder (which is illegal everywhere) would have a lot more deterrent effect if it were harder to get away with murder. I also think that if you pay attention to complaints about police from actual working-class communities of color (rather than white activists doing a copy of a copy of their complaint), the sense that the cops are unresponsive to victims looms pretty large. There’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing here in terms of how much cooperation police get from the community. But the evidence is pretty clear that departments can do a better job of solving crime if they bother to dedicate people to it.
First trimester abortions and abortions with bona fide life or health of the mother reasons constitute the overwhelming majority of actual abortions, and making them legal is very popular. I think pro-choice groups have let themselves get chased down a lot of weird rabbit holes about unpopular edge cases and it’s time to get serious and win. “Safe, legal, and rare” was a good slogan and every pro-choice group supports improving contraceptive access and enhanced child care support, so there’s really nothing to fight about here.
This got a lot of blowback on Twitter, which surprised me a little, so let me try to be clear. Obviously, an all-out push to make it totally impossible for teenagers to access pornography would be borderline impossible and involve constructing some kind of really draconian regime that would annoy everyone.
But think back to when I was a teenager in the 1990s.
Did teenagers see some porn? Yes, obviously. But there were meaningful barriers to getting it. Most stores didn’t carry pornographic movies or magazines. Those that did maintained them in a special section out of view. You had to show ID to get them and they cost money. So while porn was obviously around, kids’ access to it was limited. And while limiting access crimped porn’s availability to adults, we considered that to be a price worth paying.
What happened over the past 25 years is that technology delivered a huge positive supply shock to the availability of porn. But I don’t think anyone was sitting around in 1997 believing that “there’s not enough porn around” was a huge social problem. If you want to make money hosting or distributing pornography, you should need to become a licensed porn business. To maintain your license in good standing, you should need to be making a meaningful effort to age-restrict access to your material. That probably means a pay model where you need to verify age at point of purchase rather than a free ad-supported model. If you’re distributing without a license, you should get shut down and face serious penalties. If you are licensed, then you should be subject to spot checks and other things to make sure you are maintaining age-gating.
To state the obvious, this is not going to reduce the volume of teens’ porn consumption to zero or even necessarily push it all the way back down to 1997 levels. But I do think it would have an impact, and it is clearly in line with what the public wants.
Why does it belong on a short list of policy ideas? Well, because I think it’s important to do something to signal sympathy for and alignment with culturally conservative people (which includes lots of older, religiously observant non-white voters, not just the stereotypical white evangelicals of the religious right) that doesn’t compromise important human rights. I think this fits.
The most important thing is prioritization
I think these are good ideas. They don’t involve sweeping transformation of American society, but they do involve taking on corporate interests and positioning Democrats as the party of the people. The political reforms are designed to be legible and high-leverage. I’ve deliberately suggested a couple of politically sound leftist ideas, in the hopes of getting that side of the coalition on board with the agenda and focused on good stuff. I want to close racial gaps primarily by helping the poor and help the poor in a way that aligns with middle-class interests, and I want to tackle rising crime in a way that aligns with at least some of marginalized communities’ complaints about policing while also respecting the valued role of policing to the median voter.
But all that being said, even though I like my list better, I also liked Perry Bacon’s list because I think the main value of the exercise is in doing the exercise.
People’s ideas about what is and isn’t politically sound vary, and some people have put more thought and research into this than others. But folks’ ideas generally have a reasonable amount of alignment. And the lion’s share of the political benefits from crafting a list simply come from the editing process. If it’s a 10-item list, it can only include so many things. And everyone who’s passionate about politics has more than 10 things they think are good ideas. So even though I can — perhaps with the power of motivated reasoning — make a case for all more normal YIMBY stuff, I don’t really think it’s top-10 material. That’s just a high bar to cross.
So while I think Democrats should take my 10 ideas, what I more firmly think is that at some point after they get crushed in the midterms and start the process of picking themselves up off the ground, they should pick some short list of items.
"If it’s a 10-item list, it can only include so many things."
So narrow-minded. You need to liberate your agenda to become truly transformational.
You are still trying to appeal to the Democrats' traditional base, namely base ten. Granted, in base ten, a 10-item list can include only ten items. But why not hexidecimal? Why not sexigesimal! A 10-item list can include sixty items!
Once you have liberated your mind, you'll see that a 10-item list can include as many things as you like.
But by all means, eschew the traditional binary. A 10-item list with only two items is never going to win elections.
I'm sure #4 is popular, but you can take my credit card travel rewards from my cold dead hands.
As for #10, when the inevitable security leak happens and people are able to see who's viewing Internet porn, I wonder if some women would be surprised that that list includes literally every single man. (Researchers in the UK tried to study the effects of porn consumption but had to abandon things when they literally couldn't find a control group.)