Malice, Incompetence, and the Trump / Russia Saga

A lot of people are very worked up over the Nunes memo. Most liberals see it as an obvious hit job on the FBI to protect President Trump (I’m in that camp) while conservatives seem to view it as an attempt to shed light on some very troubling allegations against an agency that’s supposed to be above politics.

Jay and I chose not to discuss the memo on this Saturday’s show (February 10), because we’re waiting to see if President Trump authorizes the release of the Democrats’ rebuttal memo. When that happens – or if it doesn’t – you can be sure that we’ll be talking about it.

To me, this is largely a distraction. Any memo written by only one party for public consumption is going to be so partisan that it will be nearly worthless. The sort of information I’m interested in is what the parties involved *don’t* want the general public to see.

At some point the various congressional investigations will conclude, and final reports will be issued. But if these are also party-line affairs, I don’t see things changing all that much. I do hold out some hope for the Senate, which seems to be slightly less riven by partisanship than the House (at least on the intelligence committee).

While I refuse to take part in the ad nauseam analysis of the partial facts that have so far been revealed / released / leaked, my general view is guided by a principle I use to think about so much in politics: “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” (Some attribute it to Napoleon, but there’s no record of it.)

Here’s how I think this applies to the whole Trump / Russia saga. Because much of the Republican Establishment turned away from candidate Trump, he surrounded himself with second, third, and sometimes fourth-stringers. These people may be very bright, but many of them were political neophytes. And because running a major party presidential campaign and then running an administration is so incredibly difficult, they made plenty of mistakes. Mistakes like meeting with Russians – something almost no experienced, high-level political operative would have done.

And even smart, experienced politicians routinely screw up by covering up what turn out to be minor offenses. Clinton with Whitewater is the classic modern example, as well as Nixon and the bungled break-in at the Watergate Hotel. “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover up.” is one of the hoariest of clichés, but we hear it so often because most politicians instinctively try to hide even perceived transgressions, instead of getting out in front of them before they can do real damage.

I think they do this largely because of hubris. These are people who, by and large, have been enormously successful throughout their lives and have incredibly high opinions of their abilities. This is accentuated by electoral politics, which rewards massive self-confidence and selects against caution and humility.

I have no idea how this will all play out, though I suspect that the Democratic base will force an impeachment vote if the Democrats take the House this November. Barring a true smoking gun from the Mueller investigation (or President Trump firing Mueller), there won’t be enough votes in the Senate to convict and remove the president.

That might be for the best, because in the end I’d probably prefer the blustering incompetence that’s characterized much of the Trump administration to what would assuredly be a far more organized and efficient Pence presidency. Then again, if President Trump ends up starting a shooting war with North Korea, my preference for him over Pence will be tragically wrong. But as things stand, and media freak outs notwithstanding, I feel fairly confident that President Trump won’t lead us into a war with North Korea.

Is College Worth It?

In November of 2016, I had the opportunity to interview  George Mason economist Bryan Caplan about his book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. It’s a book I not only enjoyed, but one I’ve been assigning in my economic policy class for years.

Recently, Caplan came out with a new book, once again with a provocative title: The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. I’m looking forward to getting a copy (it was just released on January 30) and, with any luck, having him back on the show.

While I haven’t read the book, I do know the basic argument, and it’s one I find myself somewhat in agreement with. Caplan believes that most of what students learn in college doesn’t really help them when they’re in the ‘real world’. If that’s true, why do college graduates make so much more than people without a degree? It’s mainly do to signaling, Caplan thinks.

What a college degree mainly signals to potential employers is that the degree holder knows how to jump through hoops, that they can give people in positions of authority (professors, like me) what they want, and that they were organized and determined enough to slog through four (or five, or six) years and somewhere between 40 – 50 classes.

I’m sure you can see the value of this information to employers. And of course, college has other benefits that have nothing to do with economic utility – things like exposure to new ideas, meeting different people, playing (or watching) college sports, and so much more.

But how much are all these benefits worth? Are they worth the $80 billion (excluding loans) the federal government spent on higher education in 2014? Are they worth the $90.5 billion that state and local governments spent in 2016? Are they worth the nearly $1.5 trillion in student loan debt graduates are currently saddled with?

In one interview, Caplan suggested that only around five percent of people need a traditional four-year degree – about the percentage of Americans with a degree in 1945, before the G.I. Bill transformed higher education.

Five percent seems low to me – right now, we’re at just over 33 percent, and while I agree with Caplan that there are lots of people with degrees that didn’t teach them anything ‘useful’ (in an economic sense), I can’t imagine us ever wanting to get much below 20 percent. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to discuss this and more with Bryan Caplan sometime within the next few months.

I’d love to know what you think. Was your college experience worth the cost in both money and time? Do you think a system that dramatically reduces the number of people in college – presumably along with a major expansion of technical education – would be a good idea? You can send me your thoughts at

Give Trump His Wall – On Our Terms

The immigration plan released by the Trump administration this week provides legal status and a path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers. Of course, any immigration proposal that has the support of hard-liners Stephen Miller and Tom Cotton is going to contain some pretty tough provisions, as this one does. There are plenty of things in the plan that I  think Democrats are right to resist. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if we should be willing to give some ground on what many see as an absolute deal-breaker: funding an expanded border wall.

Exactly how much of a wall President Trump wants is unclear, though Fortune puts it at 722 total miles, most of which would update the 653 miles of currently existing ‘wall’ (a combination of actual walls, various types of fencing, and vehicle barriers). I think walling off nearly 40 percent of our border with Mexico sends a horrible symbolic message, and it may not even be the most effective way to limit illegal immigration. (Believe it or not, there’s been almost no high quality research on this.) But a bigger border wall is a price I might be willing to pay to help out those nearly two million Dreamers – if it’s the right kind of wall.

What if, instead of some hulking concrete eyesore, we went with something more aesthetically pleasing, like a variant of the below proposed design?

proposed border wall design

Not only does it look a lot better than much of what already exists, there are environmental and security benefits too. The open structure lets water flow, small animals can get through, and U.S. Border Patrol agents can see what’s happening on the other side (sort of -at least more than with a solid wall).

If I were negotiating a border wall deal, I’d want a provision giving border wall communities funds for ‘wall beautification’ projects – say $5,000 for each 100 foot section. I’d mandate that the money go to local artists, picked by residents of the communities. The total cost for this, along the entire wall, would be about 190 million dollars initially, though I’d push for that funding to be automatically renewed every 5 years (adjusted for inflation) to keep the wall art fresh and relevant. That would be a significant boost for artists – and not the sort of ‘liberal coastal elite’ artists that so many conservatives decry, but local artists.

‘Jubilant Rhythms of Roselawn’, a wall mural in Cincinnati

Is this a ridiculous idea? Maybe. But if President Trump is willing to make significant concessions in exchange for his ‘big, beautiful wall’ we should at least consider if we can counter with a wall that’s worth the trade-off.

The Strange World of Medical Pricing | Why I Gave Up Football

This week, I got a call from the nursing supervisor at my mom’s assisted living community. She told me that my mom needed to have a minor outpatient procedure performed, and asked if I wanted to take her. I did, which was how I spent most of my Friday morning.

In thinking about the experience, a few things struck me. First, when the nursing supervisor called, she simply told me where the procedure would be taking place, and I automatically accepted that. It didn’t even occur to me to ask why that was the outpatient center her doctor had chosen and what, if any, other options there were. I’m someone who comparison shopped for days before buying a new laptop, but when it came to an invasive (albeit minor) medical procedure, I didn’t shop around at all. But even if I had, it would have been incredibly difficult for me to get any solid information about pricing and quality, because that’s just not how things work in American medicine.

The last thing I did before my mom had her procedure was to pay the bill. Except it wasn’t a bill – not exactly. When the administrative person told me there would be a charge of $127.19, the oddness of that number struck me and so I asked her how she arrived at that figure. “It’s our best guess as to what you mother will owe after insurance.” Best guess – that was the phrase she used. How absolutely bizarre, and yet I accepted it and paid the ‘best-guess bill’.

People can – and have – written books about this craziness. I’ve even taught an entire course about the extreme weirdness of American health care policy. I’m planning on doing a series of blog posts that examine various aspects of our broken health care market (blog posts that will later become short podcast episodes). For now, I’ll recommend this article from the always excellent Kaiser Health News site (my go-to place for health policy news) about why doctors and hospitals are pushing back hard against attempts to make medical pricing more transparent.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about football. It’s NFL playoff season, which would normally mean that I’d be glued to my TV set. But this year something changed. Over the last few years I’ve been reading plenty of articles about football and brain trauma. It seems very clear to me that professional football, as it’s currently played, is very bad for the long-term health of players. Yet I kept on watching, though with a growing sense of discomfort. But something changed after I witnessed the awful spinal injury suffered by Steelers’ linebacker Ryan Shazier. From that point on, I found that I could no longer enjoy the game like I used to. And so I quit watching.

It may seem strange to non football fans, but the decision has left a noticeable void in my life. I know that there are inherent risks in football, but I also know that the rules could be changed to far better protect players. And the government could play an important role in this, like it did back in 1905, when President Theodore Roosevelt (my all-time favorite president, if you didn’t already know), brought top college coaches together to make the sport less brutal. Some even claim that by doing so, T.R. saved the game.

I say it’s time for the federal government to once again intervene. It seems unlikely that President Trump will do so, as he’s actually remarked that today’s NFL is too soft, and that the game has been ‘ruined’ by rules designed to better protect players.  But under a different president (something I hope will be the case in January of 2021), Congress could pressure the NFL to make some major player-safety changes by threatening to revoke the league’s anti-trust exemption.  What sort of changes might make a real difference? Physician Paul Auerbach has what I think are some good ideas concerning that.

Putting Faces to Voices, Recommended Reading, Big Changes Coming

Putting Faces to Voices
When I teach online classes, one of the first things I do is post a picture of myself so that students can see who’s teaching them and to try to make more of a connection. Strangely, in the over two years we’ve been doing The Politics Guys, I’ve yet to do the same thing here.

Recently, a listener mentioned that we needed to get some pictures of ourselves up on the Politics Guys website, which finally prompted me to action. Here’s what The Politics Guys look like (for better or worse). I’m first, followed by Jay, then Trey.

What I’m Reading
I think I may have mentioned Jonah Goldberg from time to time on the show. If not, I should have, because he ‘s one of the most interesting and engaging conservative columnists around. For years, Jonah has been writing a column for National Review called ‘The G-File’. I frequently disagree with him, but I value his perspective and his humor – so much so that I’ve subscribed to The G-File in order to ensure that I see it every week.

As many of you know, Jay is a big fan of the Wall Street Journal. I have a subscription as well, but I understand that not everyone is interested in shelling out money to support a Murdoch-owned media outlet. So if you’re looking for solid, conservative commentary but you don’t want to get a WSJ subscription, I highly recommend National Review. They feature a range of interesting and thoughtful articles and they don’t have a paywall, like the Journal does.

Finally, I’m going to re-recommend Tyler Cowen – more specifically ‘Stubborn Attachments’, his recent long essay on morality and economic growth. I just finished reading it and ended up taking a ton of notes (I’m hoping to get Tyler on the show). In the essay, he makes what I think is the best ethical argument I’ve seen for focusing on sustainable economic growth over everything other than fundamental human rights.

Big Changes Coming to The Politics Guys
On February 8, our contract with audioBoom runs out, which means that we’ll be ad-free. It also means we’ll be free to pursue our efforts to turn The Politics Guys into a nonprofit organization. We’ve already chosen a name – the Bipartisan Political Education Project – reserved a web domain ( – which isn’t active yet, so you won’t see anything if you go there), assembled a board of directors, and filed for nonprofit status.

We’re still keeping ‘The Politics Guys’ name and there shouldn’t be any big changes to the podcast – at least not at first. There may be a few technical glitches as I move everything over from audioBoom, so if you run into any issues with shows not downloading or anything else, please let me know.

Our plan is to not only keep on doing the podcast, but to expand and improve our website, branch out into video on YouTube, and even work with schools on helping to improve political media literacy.

It’s an ambitious agenda, and we’re going to be doing it without the support of advertisers. If this is something you’d be willing to get behind financially, we could most definitely use your help. To contribute, just go to and click on either the Patreon or PayPal links you’ll find there.

New Year’s Resolutions

Over the past few weeks, I’ve mainly been focusing on my classes at Northern Kentucky University, both the super-intense three week class I’m currently teaching (American Politics in Film) and the four classes I’ll be teaching when our spring semester starts on Monday.

But in addition to that, I’ve been thinking about something lots of people think about this time of year: resolutions for the new year. I have some personal resolutions (none of which I’ve broken – at least not yet) as well as a couple of resolutions for The Politics Guys, which I’d like to share with you.

My first resolution is to use social media more thoughtfully. Last year, I too often succumbed to the temptation to post something inflammatory, or superficial, or snarky. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy inflammatory, superficial, snarky stuff as much as the next guy, but Facebook and Twitter are already overflowing with that. You don’t need more of it from me, and this year I’m resolving to limit my social media posts to things that pose thoughtful questions or somehow serve to advance political conversation in a sane and rational manner.

My second resolution is to give Politics Guys listeners more in-depth debate. Back in the early days of the show, Jay and I regularly featured mid-week shows in which we picked out an issue or two and really dug into it. Last year, we turned almost exclusively to interviews and listener question shows. I think they were some great shows, but a number of listeners have told me that they missed those in-depth debates. You’ll get more of those in 2018.

I’m telling you about these resolutions because I’m hoping you’ll hold me to them. If you think I’m slacking, please let me know. And if you have any suggestions for debate shows, definitely pass those along (you can reach me at

I’ll close with a new year’s recommendation. I’m sure you know the importance of seeking out views that conflict with your own – if you didn’t, you wouldn’t listen to the Politics Guys podcast or read this blog. But I know how difficult it is to commit to following ‘the other side’. Here’s a suggestion: pick out one decent columnist whose views tend to differ from yours and make a point of reading them on a regular basis. I’d suggest making it someone who isn’t a ‘paint-by-numbers’ ideologue: you know the type – someone whose views you know even before you hear from them. Find someone decent and respectable and – most important – someone who might just surprise you every once in a while.

I’ve got a couple of suggestions here. My fellow liberals might want to give Tyler Cowen a try. He’s a hugely intelligent conservative economist who I hold in the highest regard, even though I think he’s off-base about plenty of things. He blogs at Marginal Revolution as well as at Bloomberg View. (He’s also written a great mini-book call Stubborn Attachments that I’m currently in the middle of. He posted the whole thing on Medium, so you can check it out for free.)

If you’re a conservative, you might want to give Jonathan Bernstein a try. He’s a political scientist who used to run a blog called ‘A Plain Blog About Politics’ until the folks at Bloomberg View plucked him out of semi-obscurity to give him the platform his well-reasoned, thoughtful articles and links deserved.

One final thing before I sign off. Listener response to my food politics mini-podcast episode was very positive, and so I’ve decided to record more. One thing I’m not sure of is the best day to release them. Our weekend news analysis shows drop on Saturday afternoon and our midweek show hits your podcast app Wednesday morning. When would you like to see a food politics episode? (And while I’m thinking of it, what do you think of my spinning off the food politics show and making it its own thing?)

I hope you had a great 2017 and that you’re looking forward to the new year as much as I am. (I can’t wait for those elections in November!)

The False Choice Between ‘Big’ and ‘Small’ Government

Now that my sabbatical is over, I’m back to teaching four classes each semester, which means I’ll have a lot less time to research and write food politics blog posts. I’ll still be posting every Saturday (aside from January 30, when we won’t be doing a podcast either) but more often than not those posts will be links to things I think are worth reading, listening to, or watching, along with some thoughts on why I believe they might be worth your time. Which brings me to my suggestions for this week:

Shrinking government isn’t something I’m necessarily opposed to, but I think the focus on ‘big government’ vs. ‘small government’ often misses the point. What I believe most people really want is efficient, effective government. Sometimes, that means cutting bloated programs. But in other cases it might actually be better to increase government employment, salaries, and resources. As special interest lobbyists have grown more and more powerful, the ability of our government to independently assess and evaluate their claims has diminished. Whether you’re a libertarian concerned with crony capitalism or a liberal worried about income inequality, this is something that should matter to you. Below are two articles that flesh out this argument for investing in government capability.

Congress just doesn’t know enough to do its job well. Here’s why. 
An article from the Washington Post’s ‘Monkey Cage’ blog, where political scientists descend from their ivory towers and talk about real-world politics. The writing can sometimes be sort of stiff (I mean, what do you expect from academics?) but it’s rare that a week goes by in which I don’t find something very worthwhile there.

Members of Congress should get higher salaries
This is not from some lefty, mainstream media outlet but from the conservative Washington Examiner. One thing I’d add is that the author’s proposal to increase congressional salaries to $225,000 isn’t nearly enough. I’d like to see a system like they have in Singapore, where legislators earn close to $2 million per year.

One final recommendation. During the holidays, I try to remember to not only be grateful for all that I have, but to be aware that life is short and very precious. Not too long ago, Sam Harris started this excellent podcast episode with a short story that brought home this point in beautiful fashion. The story is only about seven minutes long – quite possibly the most meaningful seven minutes of podcast listening I did all year.

Happy Holidays!

The Politics of Better Beer

This is a golden age for American beer. It’s never been easier to find an amazing ale, a hearty porter, or a hoppy, refreshing IPA (my personal favorite). It’s all thanks to the explosive growth of craft brewing in the United States. In 2016, craft breweries (defined as breweries producing under six million barrels per year and not owned by a larger brewer) sold 24.1 million barrels of beer – that’s 747.1 million gallons, enough to fill 95.6 billion bottles.[1] Over 98 percent of the 5,301 brewers in the United States are craft breweries or brewpubs, which account for 42 percent of all employment in the domestic brewing industry.[2]

How did this craft beer revolution come about? The answer to that question has a lot to do with politics.

I still remember the first time I tried Great Lakes Christmas Ale – it was one of the greatest beer experiences of my life!

In 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. The amendment prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” within the United States. It also closed down the over 1,000 brewers then operating in the United States. When the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933 breweries started to open up again, but in nowhere near their pre-Prohibition numbers. The market quickly became dominated by a small group of mega-brewers who churned out bland, insipid lagers for a mass market.

source: Brewers Association (

This ‘beer dark age’ began to end thanks to two laws passed in 1978. The first of them lowered the excise tax on beer for small brewers (those with overall production of under 2 million barrels per year). Previously, they’d paid $9.00 in federal tax for every barrel, just like the mega-brewers. The new law cut that to $7.00 per barrel for their first 60,000 barrels.[3] The second law repealed the excise tax on wine and beer for personal and family use, so long as you weren’t making more than 200 gallons per year (and if you need more than 200 gallons of beer per year for ‘personal and family use’, I’d say you’ve got bigger problems than an excise tax).

These laws led to a renaissance in home brewing, which in turn revitalized the craft-brewing industry as first hundreds, then thousands of home-brewers thought, ‘I should do this for a living.’ Most of them were wrong about that – if you’ve tasted much home-brewed beer, I’m sure you’ll agree – but as successful homebrew entrepreneurs began to start businesses, more and more Americans discovered that beer could actually taste good. Word began to spread, and the number of craft breweries and brewpubs soared.

source: Brewers Association (

Over the years, the federal excise tax on beer has gone up, though nowhere near as much as the rate of inflation. The current rate is $18 per barrel, which in unadjusted terms looks like a huge increase over that $9.00 rate from 1978. But in inflation-adjusted terms, $9.00 from 1978 is roughly the equivalent of $33 today, which means that in real terms the tax on beer has gone down considerably.

The special rate for small brewers is still around – it’s $7 per barrel on the first 60,000 barrels.[4] That tax, combined with various state and local taxes, accounts for about 41 percent of the price of every beer, according to an analysis commissioned by the National Beer Wholesalers Association.[5]

Congress has definitely taken notice of the growing interest in craft beer. Both the House and Senate have formed Small Brewers Caucuses, with 226 members in the House and 37 in the Senate.[6] [7] Recently, there’s been a bipartisan push in Congress to lower the federal tax burden on craft brewers. The latest effort, was the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act of 2017 (S.236 / H.R. 747). It was introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) with a companion bill in the House introduced by Representatives Erik Paulsen (R-MN) and Ron Kind (D-WI).

The legislation called for the excise tax to be reduced from $7 all the way down to $3.40 per barrel on the first 60,000 barrels for small brewers, along with a reduction in the standard excise tax from $18 to $16 per barrel. This bill was rolled into the recently passed House and Senate tax reform legislation, with one small change – the lower rate for craft brewers was changed to $3.50 per barrel. More important to brewers is that it’s not a permanent tax cut. Under both the House and Senate versions, the lower rates only apply to beer ‘removed for consumption’ between January 1 of 2018 and December 31 of 2019.[8]

Why only a two-year cut? One reason is the deficit. Almost all independent and nonpartisan estimates of the tax bills conclude that they’ll add a minimum of $1 trillion to the national debt (currently at $20 trillion plus) over the next decade. Not only do Republicans in both chambers want to keep this number as low as possible, but the Senate can’t approve legislation with more than a $1.5 trillion increase if they want to use reconciliation rules, which prevent a Democratic filibuster. Another reason is that when Congress makes tax  cuts temporary, the industry benefiting from the cuts will almost certainly come calling when the cuts are due to expire, usually with campaign contributions.

The House-Senate conference committee kept the reduced excise tax, and given the near certainty of the bill becoming law, brewers will soon be getting a sizable tax break. Conservatives argue that this is a good thing, believing that reducing the tax will create even more growth in the brewing industry, boost employment, and result in more, better, and less expensive beer.

Many liberals counter that the industry is growing just fine without extra incentives and that, if anything, taxes on alcohol should be increased. According to economist Adam Looney of the left-leaning Brookings Tax Policy Center, the tax cuts for alcohol producers would not only lower federal alcohol tax revenue by 16 percent, leaving it at a rate not seen since 1950, but would lead to an increase in drinking that would ultimately result in over 1,500 additional alcohol-related deaths every year.[9]

I’m old enough to remember the days when good beer was hard to find, and I’m glad Congress acted back in 1978 to help the cause of good beer (a truly noble cause, in my book). But now that there’s a thriving craft beer industry in the United States, I think the potential benefit of even greater tax cuts is outweighed by the effect those cuts will have on the national debt ($20 trillion and growing) and the role they’ll indirectly play in more alcohol-related deaths.


[1] “National Beer Sales & Production Data,” Brewers Association, accessed December 5, 2017,

[2] “Historical U.S. Brewery Count,” Brewers Association, accessed December 13, 2017,

[3] Alistair Williams, “Exploring the Impact of Legislation on the Development of Craft Beer,” Beverages 3, no. 2 (March 28, 2017): 18,

[4] TAD NRC, “TTB | Tax Audit Division | Tax and Fee Rates,” Data & Tools, accessed December 5, 2017,

[5] John Dunham & Associates, “A Study of the U.S. Beer Industry’s Economic Contribution in 2016,” May 2017,

[6] “House Small Brewers Caucus Members,” Brewers Association, accessed December 13, 2017,

[7] “Senate Bipartisan Small Brewers Caucus Members,” Brewers Association, accessed December 13, 2017,

[8] Kevin Brady, “Text – H.R.1 – 115th Congress (2017-2018): Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” webpage, December 4, 2017,

[9] Adam Looney, “Measuring the Loss of Life from the Senate’s Tax Cuts for Alcohol Producers,” Brookings (blog), November 22, 2017,

My Mini-Vacation

I took a mini-vacation this week to deal with a bit of burnout, which means there’s no food politics post this week. Prior to my break I was researching something I think you’ll enjoy reading about: the politics of beer. In my beer politics article, which will be up December 16, I’ll explain how Jimmy Carter, homebrewing, and tax subsidies made the craft beer revolution possible.

I don’t want to leave you with nothing new to read, so I’ve put together some … well, I was going to say ‘recommended reading’, but that doesn’t sound very enticing, so I’ll go with ‘interesting things I’ve found this week’.

(Which reminds me – if you’re interested in getting 3-5 article links like this every week, send me an email  ( to let me know. If there’s any sort of demand for it, I’ll make it a regular feature.)

Conservatism is dead.  Matthew Walther.
A smart and frequently funny look at what it used to mean to be a conservative and why the future prospects for ‘real’ conservatism are very dim.

The Closing of the American Mind.  Jacob Hamburger.
Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was probably the most important book to me in my days as a young Burkean conservative. While I’m now a liberal, I still consider myself a Burkean, and I still view Bloom’s book as a revelation. This article does a great job of explaining what Bloom and the book were all about – the role of higher education, the meaning of true freedom, why democracy needs elites, and much more.

Net Neutrality: A Primer.  Daniel Lyons
I think this is essentially what Jay would have to say about net neutrality if he decided to write an article about it. You probably know that I’m a strong supporter of net neutrality, but I think it’s useful to understand the best arguments that opponents of it can bring to bear. (One thing you’ll notice that’s not in this article is any discussion of the lack of real broadband competition in nearly two-thirds of the country and the related issue of natural monopolies. That’s central to my support for net neutrality, as well as my call for a nationwide fiber-optic infrastructure project.)

The Politics of Organic Meat

In my pre-Thanksgiving post last week I wrote about the politics of turkey, as well other meat products. One thing I discovered is that thanks to good inspection standards, the meat supply in the United States is very safe. While food-borne illness is extremely common – the CDC estimates that over 48 million Americans are affected every year – most cases are relatively minor. In 2016, only 0.007% of the U.S. population sought medical treatment for a food-borne illness of any kind.[1] The vast majority of these cases aren’t caused by contamination occurring at slaughterhouses or meat processing plants. You’re a lot more likely to get sick from contaminated produce or under cooking your meat.

tasty – but potentially dangerous

As I mentioned last time, animal welfare is another story. Groups like PETA have repeatedly and convincingly documented the horrific conditions livestock and poultry are subject to. (A brief definitionary aside: under federal law, ‘livestock’ includes cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, mules, donkeys, and goats, whereas poultry refers to domesticated birds including chicken, turkey, duck, and goose.)

The only federal law that addresses treatment of animals intended for the dinner plate is the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. It limits or prohibits the use of certain livestock driving methods (you can’t, for instance, whack a cow with a piece of pipe or a sharp metal object to keep it moving) and requires that livestock be rendered insensible prior to slaughter, but that’s essentially it. Also, as the name suggests it only applies to livestock, so chickens, turkeys, and other poultry aren’t covered by even these minimal protections.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, the factory farm situation may be pretty grim, but I only get good, organic meat.” If that’s actually you, you’re in a very small minority – over 99 percent of all meat in the U.S. comes from factory farms.[2] But let’s say that is you, or at least the meat-eater you aspire to be. What’s the USDA Organic seal mean when it comes to meat?

First off, in order to be designated as organic, animals have to be fed organic feed, which basically means feed that doesn’t contain pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or animal protein or by-products. In addition, cows and other ruminants have to be able to graze a minimum of 120 days each year as well as get 30 percent of their feed from pasture.

That covers what goes into organic animals, but what about their living conditions? Going by the USDA’s Organic Livestock Requirements Fact Sheet (which, oddly, also covers poultry) standards seem pretty good. Organic-certified animals must be “raised in a way that accommodates their health and natural behavior”, which includes access to the outdoors, clean & dry bedding, shelter, exercise space, fresh air, clean drinking water, and direct sunlight and shade.[3] Just like how you’d imagine old Farmer Brown does it.

The reality is considerably different. For instance, while organic animals must be given access to the outdoors, that requirement can be satisfied by opening a single small door for an hour a day, a door none of the animals, crammed into unnaturally small spaces, can really access.

‘free-range’ organic-certified chickens

But what about that ‘accommodates their health and natural behavior’ clause? That shouldn’t allow for unnatural things like overcrowding, or chickens not ever going outside. I agree  it shouldn’t, but since there aren’t any specific requirements, the determination of what ‘accommodates natural behavior’ is made by organic certifiers. The certification isn’t actually done by the government – they approve third-party organic certifiers to do the job. (And as you might expect, there are more than a few quality-control problems with this setup, as government investigations have repeatedly uncovered.)

In the absence of clear federal guidelines, and not wanting get sued by producers, the standards certifiers adopt are generally far better for producers and certifiers than they are for animals. For example, it’s considered acceptable for producers of organic meat to de-beak their chickens, dehorn their cattle, and cut the tails off of their pigs.

chicken in a de-beaking machine

In April of 2016, the USDA introduced a rule that would provide far more extensive protections for organic-certified livestock and poultry, a rule that was made final on the very last day of the Obama administration. The ‘Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices’ rule clarifies and tightens animal welfare standards, prohibits certain ‘physical alterations’ of animals, such as de-beaking, beak clipping, tail clipping, and tail docking, sets maximum indoor and outdoor densities for chickens, and defines required outdoor space for animals, among other things. The rule was scheduled to go into effect on March 20, 2017. Producers were given a year after that to meet the new standards, with producers of broiler chickens given an additional two years to meet the new indoor space requirements.

Once a ‘final rule’ has been published in the Federal Registrar, it can’t be revoked without a lengthy and difficult administrative process, which meant that the decidedly anti-regulation Trump administration wasn’t able to simply ignore the new rule on organic-certified animal welfare. But what the new administration could do was delay its ‘effective date’, which they’ve now done three times, with the latest effective date being May 14, 2018.

An agency can’t simply say, ‘we don’t like this rule so we’re going to stall’ – they have to submit  ostensibly good reasons for why they’re stalling. In this case, the USDA gave two main reasons. First, they said they needed more time to properly evaluate the costs and benefits of the rule, which they contend the Obama administration had miscalculated, to the detriment of farmers. In other words, they believe that making conditions better for animals would cost farmers and more than the Obama-era USDA said it would.

The second reason they gave for delaying was the need for more public input on the new rule. To get more comments from the public, the USDA opened up a 30-day public comment period that ended on June 9. The public responded with over 47,000 comments. Over 40,000 of them –  over 85 percent  – urged the agency to implement the rule. Most of these comments weren’t exactly handwritten, heartfelt letters though – as is usual for  public comments on regulatory changes, the bulk of the responses were via form letter. The USDA made sure to point out that of those 40,000 ‘implement it’ letters, 34,600 were form letters. They didn’t bother to provide similar information concerning the under 7,000 letters from those who wanted the USDA to delay, suspend, or withdraw the rule. I don’t think that was an oversight.[4]

The Organic Trade Association, which is the main lobbying group for organic producers, filed suit against the USDA, arguing that it unlawfully delayed the rule as well as ignored the overwhelming percentage of public comments calling for implementation of the law. Lawsuits concerning administrative rules are incredibly common, and often take many years to resolve. If you’re a fan of the status quo that’s pretty good news, because every day you delay the implementation of a rule, you save yourself the cost of complying with it. In this case, even if everything moves along incredibly fast by regulatory lawsuit standards, I wouldn’t bet on  conditions getting any better for organic-certified animals before the next presidential election.


[1] “Foodborne Illnesses Hit 24,000 Americans in 2016,” Medscape, accessed November 28, 2017,

[2] “Farm Animal Welfare,” ASPCA, accessed November 28, 2017,

[3] United States Department of Agriculture, “Organic Livestock Requirements,” accessed November 28, 2017,

[4] “National Organic Program (NOP); Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices,” Federal Register, November 14, 2017,