My Pieces at The Henry Clay Institute

I copy here several pieces I wrote some time back, in the late summer of 2015. Some colleagues of mine and I had set up a small network of Centrist-Whig policy thinkers under the somewhat pretentious working title, “The Henry Clay Institute.” Alas, life happened and we all got busy, and we put the project on hold for some time. 

I am re-posting these pieces, on a couple of policy issues, for the sake of having them saved on my blog.

Welcome to the Henry Clay Institute

Welcome, dear reader, to the Henry Clay Institute. The HCI is a group of centrist, reformist, nationalist political thinkers and policy wonks across the United States, all dedicated to resurrecting the American Whig tradition and updating it for the 21st Century.

A conservative temperament about human nature, a penchant for energetic but limited government, an overriding concern for national union- these are the defining characteristics of Whigs across the centuries. From Alexander Hamilton to Henry Clay, through Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, best expressed in the 20th Century through Dwight Eisenhower, the Whigs have been nation-builders and guardians of Americanism. National greatness and individual opportunity have been their prime directives. And they have by and large succeeded.

Unfortunately, though some key politicians and thinkers display the tendencies of Whiggery described above, there is no longer a Whig movement in the United States. This crucial tradition has been lost for all practical purposes.

We at the Henry Clay Institute intend to bring it back.

Through periodical columns and reports, we will build the intellectual foundations of a new American Whiggery, and invite centrist politicians of all partisan persuasions to join our quest for a better future for our country. In time, we hope our research inspires a broader movement.

If you’re interested in being a part of this project, contact one of the co-founders, Luke Phillips, at lukenathanphillips2012@gmail.com. We look forward to hearing from you.

Pave the Way- Introductions

Pave The Way- Luke Phillips’s Column

Introduction, August 1 2015

You’re most likely a concerned American; that’s what led you to this column. And regardless of where you’re from or where you’re going, you’ve probably noticed a couple of things about the state of the Republic.

Our government doesn’t work. We’re stuck in a bureaucratic governing model- and, for that matter, a political language- that was designed in the era before globalization and the internet. It was clunky to begin with. And it no longer works.

Our government is bought. Decades of solely financial growth has both exacerbated inequality and privileged the political power of the very rich in ways not seen since the Gilded Age. We live in a democratic oligarchy, and it’s not going away any time soon.

We don’t know who we are or why we’re here. We’ve lost our capacity to articulate ideas about what makes us special, and we no longer have a sense of national purpose. We’re a nation that’s lost its soul.

And very few of our national leaders are bringing any convincing and reasonable solutions to the table. The redistributionist narratives of the Left and the libertarian ideology of the Right are boring, overused, and inaccurate.

But there’s another tradition in American politics- the Whig tradition. Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt embodied it. Its philosophy can be summed up in Adam Garfinkle’s memorable phrase: “Pave the Way!”

Whigs sought to use the power of government for a wide array of national purposes- to promote broad-based economic growth and opportunity, to spur technological advancement and modernization, to unite the nation with infrastructure. But they did not seek to manage the economy, to perfect society, or to serve entrenched interests like corporations and bureaucracies. And since its role was limited, government could- and usually did- accomplish its aims efficiently. The Whigs’ preferred tool was energetic, yet limited, national governance.

Everything Whigs did in government was in service to the greatness of the American nation and the opportunity for individuals to better their lot in life. They were truly the party of the American Dream.

But Whiggery has largely disappeared. It persists, but only survives. This is dangerous- the small-government and big-government ideologies now dominating Washington cannot provide the answers to the challenges America faces. The Whigs must rise again.

And to do that, we must first think up and articulate the ideas of a 21st Century Whiggery, and disseminate them far and wide. We must approach contemporary issues with the wisdom of our forefathers. We can provide a blueprint of the future informed by the lessons of the past.

That’s what I intend to do with this weekly column. “Pave the Way!” will run in Modern Whig Party-published media and, hopefully someday, in more widely-read outlets. It will explore Whig philosophy and policy for the 21st Century, providing cultural commentary and analyzing policies at the national, state, and local levels. It will incubate the ideas necessary to fuel a Whig revival.

This should be an interesting journey. Stay tuned.

Misplaced Priorities

Pave The Way! Luke Phillips’s Column

August 5, 2015

Misplaced Priorities

These last few months, the U.S. Congress has been working on bills that address crucial questions about the nation’s economic future. In particular, Congress passed the “Doc Fix” bill some time ago, and will likely pass an infrastructure bill soon.

Doc Fix, passed back in April, fixed a minor flaw with doctors’ payments and made Medicare “smarter.”

This last week, the Senate and House have passed different versions of a bill to fund highway repair. The one that gets past both houses will probably only be good for three months.

Both of these stories illuminate the mediocrity that passes for lawmaking in today’s polarized Washington. Doc Fix has been an issue for the last two decades. There is nothing particularly innovative about the bill- it just verifies a payment transfer system. Our healthcare system remains the same. The highway bill leaves much to be desired, too. It’s a stopgap funding measure that pays contractors to patch up some decaying interstates- the same transport infrastructure we’ve used for over a half-century.

Neither of these patchwork bits of legislation does much of anything to fix either our budget deficit or our investment deficit.[1] Meanwhile, mandatory spending (that’s entitlements, folks, and we can’t reduce it arbitrarily) continues to skyrocket and drive up our deficit, while discretionary spending (of which infrastructure spending is but a fraction) remains low. And the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a “D+” in 2013, in their most recent infrastructure report card.

What we have here is a severe case of misplaced priorities. Every year, almost two-thirds of the federal budget– over $2 trillion– goes into Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and various other entitlement programs. Meanwhile, less than $300 billiongoes into infrastructure, innovation[2], and education- the three chief “Hamiltonian investments.” That means that we spend roughly seven times as much on middle-class redistribution as we do on productive investments.

Entitlements are one-time expenditures. But infrastructure, education, and innovation are investments that pay for themselves in the long term. We’re throwing money down the drain.

If Congress’s objective is indeed increasing the size of the national pot of gold rather than merely filling the retirement accounts of its constituents, it should reorient its policy toward bold entitlement reform and better-funded Hamiltonian investments. It doesn’t even have to decrease the overall size of the federal budget- it just needs to make some great compromise to shift money around. There would be three components to such a compromise.

First, overall spending would not decrease. If investments are done properly, they can help to grow the economy, increase federal revenues, and gradually eliminate the deficit and debt.

Second, there would be comprehensive entitlement reform that reduces overall entitlement spending by at least 20%. This would require amendments or even total overhauls of several federal laws. It would be wise to look, too, for new entitlement models for the digital age, instead of just figuring out how to make the old model work.

Finally, the cuts from comprehensive entitlement reform (probably totaling around $400 billion) would be directly invested in infrastructure, education, and innovation, more than doubling our current Hamiltonian investments. And they wouldn’t just go into the pockets of contractors and unions- they’d have concrete goals attached to them, such as a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, universal computer education, or programming a nationwide driverless car network. We’re talking generational shifts.

Policy should be forward-looking; we should talk about building the institutions of the future, not stewarding the programs of the past. A massive compromise proposal of this sort-one that would modernize and streamline our entitlements system, give our investments a new direction, and shift the balance of the budget- would be the epitome of the Hamiltonian way.

[1] See the Breakthrough Institute’s excellent report, “Taking On the Three Deficits.”

[2] However, military spending-which takes up about $600 billion- includes more innovation spending. It’s not clear how much, though.

New Workers in an App Economy?

Pave the Way! Luke Phillips’s Column

August 7, 2015

New Workers in an App Economy?

With controversies over the ride-sharing app Uber in locales as diverse as New York, France, and California, and with multiple 2016 presidential candidates opining on tech issues, one thing is clear- the “app economy” is disrupting the old ways of business. Today, taxis and hotels. Tomorrow, what? Healthcare? Education? Insurance? Finance?

America’s regulatory and governing institutions have been slow to catch up to the technological innovations that have already transformed many sectors of business and commerce, as well as social life. And attempts to provide a blueprint for the new model- most conspicuously, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom’s Citizenvillehave generally fallen short on the policy meat.

Out in California, there’s a legal case that may well escalate into a class-action lawsuit, pitting Uber’s current and former employees against the corporation. The issue? Some former Uber drivers (not all) would like to be classified as employees rather than independent contractors. This, of course, would grant them all the benefits of employees, including healthcare, and job security. Uber would prefer not to classify them thus for obvious financial reasons, but it also has its brand on the line- the tech entrepreneurs who built the company see it as a revolutionary new business model based on contracting and IT, rather than just a particularly glitzy taxi company.

And who’s to say one or the other is right? In an age of accelerated creative destruction, workers do need more protections and benefits. But if the spirit of the age is decentralization and democratization, are the old mid-century ways of doing business really viable or desirable?

The labor advocates will insist that Uber and other companies like it provide extensive worker protections, forcing an old labor model onto 21st century companies. The corporate advocates will hide behind trickle-down ideology and insist on the independent contractor model as the wave of the future.

And in the end, both sides will be right. Workers need protections, and businesses need flexibility. But what is important now is not so much defining what kind of workers these new laborers are- that distinction was only valid in an age when there was, in fact, a distinction. Given the nature of their work and their relationship to the parent company, Uber drivers are both independent contractors and employees.

Instead, aside from defining what these workers “are” legally (a matter of semantics, as the market will keep producing them regardless of whether or not they have an academic name,) policy wonks should focus on thinking up institutions that can preserve economic dynamism while promoting a safety net that protects workers during the constant job search such dynamism will likely spawn. As Via Meadia points out, we “need a positive vision for what a social system of support looks like for workers… one thing [Obamacare] did do right was make insurance coverage less tied to employment, so that it’s become easier for people in new kinds of employment situations to get insurance.”

Regardless of its flaws, it seems Obamacare has delivered us the safety net model of the future- health insurance and other benefits based on a compact between the individual and the government, rather than between the individual and their employer. People are only going to keep switching jobs more- it would be better for them to have a government security account, perhaps universal unemployment insurance, to fall back on.

That’s what true progressives- and Whigs- should be focusing on now when thinking about the app economy. Licensing requirements, regulatory reform, and other adjustments will be crucial, but if we want the app economy to become our new low-skill, high-wage, mass-employment middle-class sector- which it very well might, if it continues to infect older sectors- we need to design a new social model with periodic unemployment, multiple employment, and other new trends in mind. Especially if companies in other industries begin using this hybrid worker model, as the IT revolution will likely impel them to.

Debates about old categories just don’t cut it. We need people thinking up new ways of doing things, testing how they work, and implementing the most successful practices. That’s how we move forward into the next American economy.

Truly “Green” Energy

Pave the Way! Luke Phillips’s Column

August 11, 2015

Truly “Green” Energy

Out on the San Luis Obispo coast, California’s last nuclear plant- Diablo Canyon- may be breathing its last. The Breakthrough Institute recently published an articledetailing the consequences of the plant’s closure.

“Shuttering Diablo Canyon would have the same impact on carbon emissions as tearing down every wind turbine and rooftop PV panel in California. If Diablo Canyon is closed it will be replaced mainly by fossil fuels because replacing the nuclear power plant with an equivalent capacity of wind and solar would cost upwards of $15 billion compared to about $2.5 billion for a comparable natural gas plant.

The high cost of solar and wind is why, after Friends of the Earth and other antinuclear environmentalists forced the closure of California’s San Onofre nuclear power plant in 2013, Southern California’s power became dirtier, with most of the replacement power coming from natural gas.

Diablo is the workhorse of California’s low-carbon power sector. Its output last year exceeded the electricity produced by the state’s wind turbines by 31 percent and California’s solar electricity by 24 percent. Coming on top of San Onofre’s closure, the loss of the state’s nuclear fleet would wipe out low-carbon generation equal to the output of California’s entire wind, solar, and biomass sectors combined, thus nullifying decades of climate efforts.

Need more be said?

California has a few energy options on the table right now. Coal is dirty and cheap. Oil and natural gas are less dirty but still cheap. Nuclear is clean and expensive. Hydroelectric is clean and expensive (but there aren’t many more rivers available for damming.) Wind and solar are clean and super-expensive.

Wind and solar are super-expensive because, as those technologies are currently configured, they just don’t provide as much bang for your buck as, say, oil or coal or gas. Or nuclear. Which means that in order to provide, with wind and solar, the equivalent energy a nuclear plant is capable of providing, you’re going to need a lotof wind and solar plants. And that, ultimately, will be more expensive than a single nuclear power plant. You can see why, as the Breakthrough report notes, people reverted back to gas when San Onofre shut down.

Now, this is not to say that there’s absolutely no merit in wind and solar technology- in the future, there may well be, but it will require more research and development. In the meantime, if we’re going to reduce carbon emissions to zero (which would be beneficial for a number of health and environmental reasons besides fighting climate change) we need a more pragmatic strategy.

greennuclear

I outlined such a strategy at NewGeography a few months ago. California- and the United States, really- could use a fleet of highly-advanced nuclear reactors. The money and technical skill are there, and there’s plenty of open land out west available if you want to avoid urban NIMBYism. The benefits are incalculable- carbon-free, abundant, cheap energy for a longer period of time than most would care to think about, complete energy independence, and a booming new sector based entirely in the homeland. And, as I like to say, why harness the power of the sun when you can have the heat of a thousand suns at your disposal here on Earth?

The only sort of government that could carry out a national economic plan of this sort, though, is an activist Hamiltonian one. Current liberal dogma eschews the very mention of any energy plan besides “sustainability” and caps on power use, while conservative ideology opposes the significant government investment and intervention that a comprehensive energy plan would require. Only the big-spending, pro-growth centrist types would seriously consider a proposal like this. And right now, they are next to powerless on the national stage.

If such a nuclear strategy were to take hold, then, it would most likely have to start in one of the fifty states, where lower-stakes politics would grant enterprising centrist politicians more room to maneuver. And it would probably have to be in a blue state, with a political culture already accustomed to big projects and environmentalist rhetoric.

California is arguably the best place to start. Beset as it is with worsening inequality and declining social mobility, no state in the country could more deeply desire a source of cheap, abundant energy. Cheap energy could drive down the cost of housing, utilities, services, transport, and basically everything else, allowing Californians to keep more of their earnings and rise on the socioeconomic ladder.

But moreover, California has already set itself on a crusade to stop climate change. There are echoes of John Winthrop’s “cittie on a hill” speech in that objective, as Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown have sought to catalyze a revolution in climate and energy policy across the country and world by providing a working example of zero-carbon restraint in California.

Predictably, no other states have shackled themselves to stifling cap-and-trade laws, and California’s carbon emissions have not declined significantly. By focusing on propping up presently-unworkable renewables and curtailing the use of energy- and thus economic growth- California is only shooting itself in the foot.

It would be far better if California sought to build a network of nuclear plants out in the Mojave or along the Central Coast. As Breakthrough demonstrates, a single plant can prevent a lot of carbon from being released into the atmosphere. What could five, or eight, or twelve do?

In this model- the Hamiltonian environmentalist model- broad-based growth and opportunity are allies with environmental consciousness. The technology that can bring our economy and infrastructure into the next age of abundance and prosperity is the same technology that can reduce our carbon footprint to zero. We need only be willing to invest in it.

So there you are, Governor Brown. You can save the planet and help Joe the Plumber with the same fell stroke. I hope your successor embarks on that path.

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