The election is fast approaching. And when I’m not preoccupied with wearing a mask, washing my hands, maintaining a safe distance and disinfecting everything, my thoughts turn to other matters that concern me every bit as much, particularly at this fraught time. 

Climate Change

As toxic as fossil fuels—coal, natural gas, oil and shale—are to the environment and our health and well-being, their production and processing (refining) are just as vital to those who derive their livelihoods from this industry. At nearly 20% of the world’s aggregate production, the United States is the single largest producer, and Pennsylvania, Texas, Wyoming, Louisiana, and West Virginia are the industry’s top-producing states. That four of these five have been reliably politically conservative helps to explain partisan resistance that is every bit as noxious as the products that are the subject of this debate. 

In the meantime, the West burns and the South drowns. 

The mistake, though, is believing that flipping a lever will abruptly move the U.S. economy from brown to green, leaving hundreds of thousands to fend for themselves as their mining and refinery employers are shuttered. Instead, consider this simple analogy that my brilliant daughter—who happens to be living in a state that is currently on fire—dreamed up when we spoke about this issue: “Think about what happens when a bridge is being replaced. The new one has to be completed before traffic can be diverted from the old one.”

Like many other things, transitioning to environmental sustainability will take time. The key is to set aside the obstreperous opposition and begin that process in earnest. 

The Supreme Court 

The Judiciary Act of 1789, signed into law by President George Washington, set forth that the Supreme Court would be comprised of one chief justice and five associate justices. The Judiciary Act of 1801 (which was later repealed), reduced the number of associate justices by one. The Seventh Circuit Act of 1807 added two associate justices for a total of six. The Eighth and Ninth Circuits Act of 1837 added two more associate justices; the Tenth Circuit Act of 1863 added yet another associate justice; the Judicial Circuits Act of 1866 reduced the total by three; and the Judiciary Act of 1869 increased the number by two for a total of eight associate justices plus the chief justice, where it has remained to this day.

Although I see no intellectually honest way to square the Senate’s refusing to consider Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination in 2016 with pushing through Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination today, I struggle with the notion that adding associate justices (i.e., packing the court) is a reasoned response to a political ploy. 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted the maneuver via his originally proposed Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937. The bill had the potential of adding as many as six additional associate justices for overtly political purposes: he wanted to ensure that his various New Deal programs would survive high-court challenges. Fortunately, FDR abandoned that effort once he realized that he risked alienating the critical support of the moderates within his party. 

As an alternative to court packing—which I fear can lead to an associate justice arms race between opposing administrations—consider mandatory retirement and term limits in place of lifetime judicial appointments under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Present day average longevity is a good deal longer than it was more than 200 years ago. What’s more, the ghoulish practice of eagerly awaiting the demise of a justice whose outlook does not coincide with one’s political beliefs or personal narrative is corrosive to public discourse. 

And then there is the matter of stare decisis, Latin for “to stand by things decided.” Those on both sides of a particular ideological debate are understandably exercised over the possibility that the combination of the right case coupled with a freshly reconstituted court could lead to overturning some long-standing precedent. Consider requiring in these instances a supermajority of justices who were nominated by presidents from opposing parties. 

The point is not just to bring order and predictability to this process but also to heighten the attention the electorate should rightly pay to the broader—multigenerational, potentially—implications of the votes they cast in every election cycle. 

Black Lives Matter

I’ve heard the same thing over and over from many self-identifying conservatives: “All lives matter, not just black ones.” 

Sure, but the point is that black lives should matter every bit as much as that of those who are not black. In other words, black lives matter too, which probably would have made more sense to say at the outset.

Yet the discussion often turns to a politically charged referendum on whether our country is systemically racist, notwithstanding the well-documented employment, educational, housing and financial disparities that exist between blacks and whites. 

The crux of this matter is the need for the consistent application of laws and economic and social mores. There is no DNA sequence for racism. Rather, it is a learned behavior that is reinforced between generations. Likewise, in social settings because we are drawn to those who are like us, and in professional settings as well, often for the same reason.

As such, those who are responsible for continuing its odious practice should be held to account, just as the rest of us must accept and act upon our moral obligation to teach and exemplify the opposite. 

Taxes

No one enjoys paying taxes, even though at its core it is an indication that we’ve earned enough money to be taxed. But does that also mean we should celebrate those who are “smart enough” to avoid paying their fair share? 

Consider what our taxes are intended to fund: national and local defense; veteran support; education; infrastructure, including roads and bridges; health care, including Medicare, the FDA, the CDC and institutions such as the National Institutes of Health; subsidies for economic sectors under duress, such as agriculture; environmental protection and management and, of course, the various safety net programs including Social Security and SNAP. 

Sure, there is a good deal of waste and fraud embedded in each of these budgetary categories that require unceasing vigilance to expose and uproot. But that’s not a reason to laud those who have the means to research, execute and defend aggressive strategies to diminish their tax obligations to unreasonably low levels, relatively speaking. 

Look, someone has to pay for the roads on which we travel, the education and health care we receive, the protection we are afforded and all the other support we enjoy within our towns, counties, states and country—and not just those who can’t afford tax counsel. 

Student Loans

This last topic is one on which I have frequently written. 

Forty-five million borrowers owe an aggregate of $1.6 trillion in education-related debts, of which more than $1.5 trillion is funded through the various taxpayer-backed federal student loan programs. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Quarterly Household Debt and Credit report for the period immediately preceding the first month in which the CARES Act’s moratorium on student loan payments was put into effect, 10.75% of total education loans were 90 or more days delinquent. 

Given that this delinquency data point is measured against total education loans while only half of those are actually in repayment (the other half is deferred because the student borrowers are still in school), the true level of 90-plus day delinquencies is more than 20%. And what of the loans that are 30 and 60 days past due, and those that were already in forbearance or had been modified under the Education Department’s various income-based repayment plans? 

All that considered, it is not unreasonable to estimate that 30%, 40% or more of all education-related debt that is currently in repayment is seriously troubled. It is also not unreasonable to conclude that these loans were improperly structured at the outset and mismanaged since.

The consequences are ominous. 

Individuals and households with high values of education-related debt versus income are also less likely to purchase homes, cars and other durable products—all of which is deleterious to macroeconomic vibrancy. 

Certainly, there is enough blame to go around on this problem—the schools that took advantage of the “easy money” that was made possible by the federal government, lax credit-underwriting standards and poor personal financial management. Which is why the notion of amnesty for student loan debt is as contentious as any of the aforementioned topics, not least because forgiving all or part of this debts will, in effect, shift the financial burden to taxpayers, many of whom borrowed their own way through school and fully repaid the debts they accumulated. 

The better course is to address the original sin: the egregiously flawed repayment structure of these loans. Doubling the durations of all outstanding debts, whether they are in deferral or repayment, will approximate the typical structures of the ED’s income-based repayment plans. Couple that with permitting fee-free prepayment for those who are able to retire their loans more rapidly (and save on interest), reforming the bankruptcy law to permit the discharge of these obligations in Chapter 7 filings and neutralizing prior student loan delinquency history for credit scoring purposes for loans that are ultimately restructured will yield a more equitable approach to the problem at hand. 

All of these topics are worthy of the robust debate that is currently taking place. My hope is that some longer term good will actually result.

Mitchell D. Weiss
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