The Daily Discourse with Zach and Matt : Episode 5


Zach: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Daily Discourse with Zach and Matt. I’m Zach.

Matt: And I’m Matt, if I sound weird today, it’s because I’m participating over the phone. I came down with a bit of a cold this week. 

Zach: Yeah. You know, Matt, this, this gig just keeps getting better every single week I get to talk politics. They pay me to do it. And now I don’t even have to look at you when I do it. And this is great.

Matt: No need for the nose plugs either to sit in the room with me. 

Zach: Right. Well, and I’m sitting in the room alone, so I don’t even need to wear a mask either.

Matt: Beautiful. 

Zach: So, today we’re talking now after already having given and discussing our monologues. And I think I can say for both of us that they’re quite interesting. Mine was about what we can learn from the pandemic and about our government’s ability to help us and Matt’s monologue covers the Senate hearing with Attorney General Merrick Garland. Matt’s monologue sparked a good discussion on polarization and rank choice voting. You will want to stay tuned for that. But before we get to all of that, we’ll have a quick discussion about the reconciliation bill. But first, we have a word from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. 

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Zach: So, Matt, I think the news of the week, the news of the past month, the news of the past couple months comes down to the reconciliation bill in Washington. It’s really the most interesting thing I think of the past couple of months that we can talk about. I think before we get going, I’ll just read off where we’re at right now. This is the $1.75 trillion plan as the White House outlines. So there are $400 billion going to childcare and preschool, $150 billion going to home care, $200 billion going to the child tax credit, an earned income tax credit, $555 billion going to clean energy and climate investments, $130 billion going to Affordable Care Act credits include into those uncovered red states, $35 billion in Medicare hearing, $150 billion in housing, 40 billion in higher ed and workforce. And then there’s just some other stuff in their equity and other investments, $90 billion adding up to $1.75 trillion, or as they say $1,750 billion either way. So what are your thoughts, Matt, before we get going on this?

Matt: Well, it’s obviously not what, at this point, it’s not really what anybody had hoped for going into it. It’s whittled down from, I forget what the original was. Three…

Zach: Yeah, 3.4. When Bernie started negotiating, he was up even higher than that, but the agreement that some people thought we had was around 3.4 trillion, but now we’re down even farther.

Matt: So it’s a lot of compromise that’s happening. But that’s kind of how these things go. I mean, even though the 3.4 seemed like a more sure thing, and now we’re all the way down to 1.75. I think this is still, there’s still value to be had here. Hopefully this is as low as it goes and we could maintain a lot of these services and steps forward, but I’m, happier than, than if it was zero, I guess.

Zach: Yeah, that’s totally fair. I think the issue that I would say I have with it is I think, and Jeff Stein, who’s probably my favorite reporter that I read on Twitter, he does a great job of analyzing all of this and he knows everybody. The thing that he outlined is the debate that was being had was whether to do just a few programs really well, or to do a bunch of programs and just give them a little bit of funding. And it seems like they’ve more so opted towards that second option where they’re giving a ton of programs, just a little bit of funding, which, you know, people are going to — the issue with doing the first option, doing only a few programs well, is everyone has their thing, you know. Bernie will always talk about Medicare expansion to 60 and including dental, hearing, vision, those types of things will be his big thing. Other people might say they really want to expand the child tax credit. There’s some people who really care about housing and they all want their thing. So then it turns into this mess. If you ask me when you’ve got just a bunch of different things — and I’m totally on board with you, that any amount of money is better than $0. The issue that I have is if Americans see us spending $1.75 trillion, they’re going to expect it to be good and really make an impactful, noticeable impact on their lives. And I’m just not sure, as this is constructed, if this is necessarily going to do that, I think they would have been better off if we could have gotten climate money, expanded Medicare, lowered it to 60 and done child tax credit. I mean, whatever the number ends up being, if that ends up being lower than 1.75, I still think that would be better than what we have right now. 

Matt: Yeah, I think one of the, one of the kind of responses that I have to that is, it seems to me like the goal here by making it a really broad bill is to kind of touch as many Americans as possible, and making sure that everyone stands to gain somehow from this. If you specifically had a large, expensive climate policy bill, then if some people don’t really care about climate spending, then they’re not going to back it, but if we can have something that’s really, really broad and at least has like some sort of effect and some sort of benefit for pretty much every American then I think, you know what I’m saying? You can get wider support for it.

Zach: No. Yeah. I mean, I agree. And I think only time will tell what actually ends up happening. But the thing that I worry about with the route that they’re going and all of this means testing, which I think, you know — I wrote a column on that. Hopefully people check out that column if they haven’t, shameless plug, never hurt anybody. 

Matt: Always.

Zach: But the problem that I have is with all of this means testing that is bound to happen is they try to hold on to as many of these programs as they can, but they have to cut them, so that means means testing. The thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to miss people when you means test. Oftentimes that means you’re going to miss the poorest Americans who maybe don’t even meet a work requirement. But if we expanded these programs, made them universal, even if we had fewer programs, you kind of avoid that. Which, I don’t know. I mean only time will tell, but I think that the route that we’re going is bad politics, and I think it’s just the White House saying, you know what, we don’t care. We just need to check a box and say, “we completed a large reconciliation bill.” That is the largest since whenever, I mean, technically you can say it’s the largest if you act like inflation isn’t a thing, which I’m sure that they’ll probably try to do. They’ll probably try to do that, which is obviously a little bit misleading, but I don’t know.

Matt: No, I totally take your point. I think that a lot of this too, is this kind of rhetoric about like bringing the country together and having something that we can all be united about and agree upon. I think partly this, this approach seems like an effort to have a really really broad package that people can at least find something they like about. And whether that will actually be effective in practice or not, like you said, we’ll just have to wait and see, but I totally see where you’re coming from.

Zach: Yeah. I, I don’t know if you ever read The Onion. This is going to sound very, very informal discussion for a supposedly formal podcast, but —

Matt: I think we’re all right.

Zach: But the thing that I saw and I’m trying to pull it up, but I’m not going to be able to pull it up in time. Is there’s talk about, you know, doing what I say and doing what maybe you say or what some other people would say, which is the debate about doing a few programs well, or doing a lot of programs and cutting them. And I think the thing about all of this is that Biden is kind of just hanging around and letting whatever happens happen. And The Onion headline that I was talking about was “Biden concerned ambitious agenda could be stalled by him not really caring if it happens or not.” And I think that kind of nails it on the head that Biden is just kind of hanging out and he’s letting you know, he’s letting Bernie, especially, stick his neck out for him. He’s letting the progressive caucus in the House stick their neck out for him. But he’s kind of just hanging around and not really playing as much bully ball as I think many people like me would like him to where … he’s the president of the United States, and I think if he came out and he said, “You know what, no, this is what we’re doing,” and he said it to the American people at seven o’clock on all the networks for everyone to hear. I think that would have a lot of pull, but he just seems to not really care. And it’s just, “whatever happens happens,” which I don’t think is good, but we’ll see what happens. 

Matt: Yeah. I think that’s a really good point. I think putting forward this framework, the most recent one, is something at least, but the kind of public push for it hasn’t really come from Biden himself. I think that’s a good point.

Zach: Right, and that framework while yes, it was released by Biden, it was whittled down because of Manchin and Sinema who are really just running the show right now. It seems whatever Manchin and Sinema want seems to go without really that much public pushback from Biden and I understand that maybe Biden’s having some pushback behind the scenes, but if you really want to make something happen, go public with it, go to the American people and say, you know, “Sinema and Manchin are against you. They’re against me. And we’re going to run a primary opponent against them. If they don’t do what I say,” you gotta say whatever you got to say, but actually care about your own agenda and whether it passes. It doesn’t seem like he has really put much effort into that.

Matt: Yeah, no, that’s a good point and something to kind of keep paying attention to throughout the rest of his first term at least and see how active he is talking to legislators.

Zach: Yeah. And I guess the distinction I like to make, because obviously a lot of what we talk about is public policy. This is just politics, and no matter where you lie, whether you agree with Biden on his policy proposals or not, this is just bad politics. He’s not doing a good job of getting what he wants. You know, Trump, I mean had Trump had bad policy proposals, but he was much more willing at least than Biden to play some bully ball and rip on a Senator if they weren’t doing what he wanted them to do, which you got to have, if you want your agenda to happen. 

So I think we’ll leave that discussion about the reconciliation bill there. We’ll take a short break. We’ll come back and we will have Matt’s monologue for you.

Matt: On October 4th, the Department of Justice released a memorandum addressing what they call a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff” at public schools. The memo announces that within the thirty days following its release, the DOJ will solidify steps that it will take in response to the trend. For example, Merrick Garland has directed the FBI and each U.S. attorney to convene meetings with local law enforcement and prosecutors to increase communication on these issues. The express purpose of the memo and the meetings it will produce is to ensure that local law enforcement has lines of communication for identifying, reporting, and possibly prosecuting federal crimes in the context of the tension at public schools. That is the whole extent of the language in the letter. 

I have to be totally clear here as well. The memo that AG Garland wrote seems to be almost completely informed by a letter sent to the White House by the National School Board Association on September 29. In that letter, the NSBA cited threats and acts of violence against school staff and school board members from coast to coast, at one point likening these threats to domestic terrorism and hate crimes. The NSBA has since rescinded the letter, maintaining their continued concern for school safety, but apologizing for some of the language. 

The whole saga has unfolded during a very real increase in tension at school board meetings. The original letter sent by the NSBA detailed threats, angry mobs and acts of real violence that have been reported to them in the last year. Most of the tension comes from hot-button issues like teaching Critical Race Theory and requiring masking in schools. Both issues have become emblems of the ideological, culture war side of American politics that seems to be taking the main stage in the Trump and post-Trump era. And of course, politicians looking to get a quick sound bite and convince potential voters of their cultural leanings are quick to take advantage of the opportunity. It seems to me that one of the ready-made platforms for these easy quips is congressional hearings, and Republican congresspeople like Tom Cotton (R-AR), Josh Hawley (R-MO), and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) have used 3 separate hearings of Garland and Deputy AG Lisa Monaco to address the topic of the memo. 

Now, I get pretty disillusioned watching these committee hearings. You may remember former Iowa Republican Representative Steve King questioning Sundar Pichai about an issue he had with his granddaughter’s iPhone. (Sundar Pichai is the CEO of Google and had no idea how to answer the question). Or worse, only about a month and a half ago, Senator Jim Risch of Idaho made Secretary of State Blinken laugh by asking him whether or not there was a mute button that someone in the White House could press and stop Biden in the middle of giving a speech. They can be a little outrageous. 

When Senators and Representatives, specifically Republicans in this case, asked Lisa Monaco and Merrick Garland about this memo, however, I noticed something slightly different. All of the questions made heinous leaps of logic from what the memo actually said, to what the consequences of the memo could be. I heard Republican congressperson after congressperson equate the DOJ’s memo with sicking the FBI on parents, politicizing the Justice Department, and calling upset parents a domestic terror threat. None of which it did. At all.

Let’s put it into context. The memo’s language expresses concerns arising from a spike in three things: harassment, threats of violence and intimidation. All three of these are legally defined terms, which Garland reiterated over and over in his testimony. We all may feel intimidated or feel harassed by certain things; we tend to say “he intimidated me” in casual conversation, and it may seem like Garland is using a subjective word. That doesn’t really matter here. Yes, in theory, person A could accuse person B of threatening them when person B really was just passionately expressing their opinion. But (if you have any trust in the legal system at all), person B would not be persecuted or prosecuted in any way if they didn’t commit a crime, and surely would not face any consequences. Keep in mind here that the memo was addressed only to law enforcement and prosecutors at the federal level, who fully understand what these definitions are, and understand that when the Attorney General sends a memo with these terms in it, he is referring to the legally defined version of them. Further, the memo only states that the FBI and federal prosecutors will convene meetings with their local counterparts to discuss plans moving forward. There is no mention of the FBI infiltrating school board meetings, no conflation of parents with domestic terrorists. 

Senator Josh Hawley used his time at an Oct. 5 hearing to tell Lisa Monaco that “I think we both agree that violence shouldn’t be condoned or looked aside from in any way swept under the rug, but harassment and intimidation … what do those terms mean in the context of a local school board meeting?” He goes on to make the point that “in the first amendment context, we talk about … the chill to speech. If this isn’t a deliberate attempt to chill parents from showing up at school board meetings — for their elected school board meetings I don’t know what is.” Tom Cotton, junior senator from Arkansas, asked Monaco and Garland on separate occasions whether or not they think that parents expressing concern are akin to domestic terrorists. Both called for Garland’s resignation in response to their own misreadings of his memo. The examples continue, and I urge you to watch the hearings if you want more, but it takes too much time to go through them all here. I’m more interested in this pattern. 

You see, Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley went to Harvard and Yale Law Schools, respectively. Ben Sasse, who also had some choice, but misleading, words for Garland, got his undergraduate degree at Harvard and his PhD in history from Yale. Whatever that may mean to you  (I know there are inequities in how colleges and universities select their students), but I take it as evidence that these guys are at least relatively smart. Even worse, they understand the difference between legal language and casual language, and they understand that an AG’s letter to law enforcement and prosecutors uses the former. I worry more than anything that it isn’t Garland that is chilling people and whipping up tension surrounding school board meetings, but these Republican Senators. The one page memo never once says that parents are domestic terrorists; it encourages spirited debate. It never once says that FBI will be present at school board meetings. It only says that local officials should have open lines of communication to report crimes that have occurred. Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn said in her questioning of Garland that “sometimes perception is reality” to tell Garland that people may perceive his words as chilling. But all I saw was Garland trying desperately to set the record straight that no one who is within their rights has any need to worry about persecution. The only people I see stoking fear in the hearts of the Republicans are the Republican senators. 

All right, Zach. So I’m kind of interested in what you might have to say about these trends, where we see people specifically kind of stepping to one side of this culture war, in the context of primaries that are coming up. All of the senators that I mentioned in the monologue are Republicans from pretty solidly red states, and I wonder what you have to say about the ways that our election system and the primaries may shape this kind of rhetoric.

Zach: Yeah. So, right at the end, you kind of alluded to the point that I was going to make, which is that you’ve got these people that went to Harvard and Yale, and they have law degrees, and they have a PhD. These aren’t dumb people that are making these comments in front of the Attorney General of the United States. So they know exactly what they’re doing. And if you are Josh Hawley from Missouri, if you’re Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee, if you’re Tom cotton from Arkansas, you’re not worried about a Democrat beating you in a future election. 

Matt: Yeah.

Zach: The only thing you’re worried about is a primary. And so they know that the way that our primary system works now is you need to win a very narrow base in a primary election where it’s only Republican voters that are voting, and those are usually the most polarized voters, and not everyone is going to vote. So you just have a very narrow base that you need to cater to and say the things that you know that they want to hear. And this is a case where you have Joe Biden in an office and he nominated Merrick Garland to be the Attorney General. And they’re just trying to score political points, asking dumb questions, dumb things.

Matt: Yeah. I mean, also Merrick Garland was the nominee for the Supreme Court that the Republicans shut down at the end of, or debatably at the end of, Obama’s second term. So there’s kind of a history here with  scoring points by taking sort of cheap shots at this figure who’s established as kind of a mainstay in the federal legal system, I guess you’d say.

Zach: Right. Absolutely. And I mean, we’ve kind of alluded to it already, but I think kind of what this shows is that we’ve got the incentives wrong in politics and just in democracy where if you have this primary system where in many states it’s closed primary system, so you actually have to be registered as a Republican or a Democrat to vote in that primary. These are the results you’re going to get. And if you have something more like a rank choice voting system, which you now have in Alaska, you don’t see Senator Lisa Murkowski out here making these dumb comments in front of the Attorney General because she needs to cater to the whole state of Alaska, even Democrats. And she needs to win an approval of actually everyone in the state, not just the Republicans. 

Matt: Yeah and not just the vocal minority, right? Because the people who vote in primaries usually are the most engaged, most passionate, people that may not be representative of the state as a whole.

Zach: Right. And we need to understand that. And I think people need to look at it from both angles where I don’t know about you, but I know personally, I am probably someone who is further left than a lot of people. And I am also someone who votes in primaries and we need to understand that not everyone is like me. Not everyone votes in primaries. And if you want to have the best democracy, I think the thing is we need to realize quickly, before long that ranked choice voting is kind of the way we have to go, because these are just meaningless conversations that are only going to spark more outrage, and it’s going to rile up some more people who, this is all they see. And it’s another reason for them to hate Democrats and not like Democrats. And it just doesn’t really do anything positive other than help Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, Marsha Blackburn avoid a primary that’s … that’s all it does.

Matt: And I think the important thing too, to mention here is it certainly can go both ways, with the Democrats. This can be a phenomenon on both sides, because I think it is attributable to the way that we decide to elect representatives. In this case I’m using the Republicans. And I think that if you talk to anyone, if you talk to most people that I know at least, we’d probably agree that the Republicans are in a little more of a fraught situation than the rest of them. Yeah, I guess more than the Democrats, but yeah, so I use them here as an example, but it’s not just a Republican thing.

Zach: Yeah. You know, I agree Matt, and I think we can really expand this to everything in the culture war, you know, you mentioned critical race theory. I think that applies well. You can apply it to mask mandates, vaccine mandates, that really the whole goal for these Republicans and these Democrats is to keep getting elected. It’s not necessarily about enacting good public policy. It’s not about bringing the country together. It’s about winning elections and making sure that you stay in office. And the best way to do that is to cater to your hyperpolarized base and say the things that they want to say, and these politicians on both sides of the aisle are too good at that. 

Matt: Yeah, I completely agree. 

All right, we’re going to take a quick break and we’re going to come back with Zach’s monologue about celebrating the effectiveness of government and what we can learn.

Zach: Alright we’re back.

This past year and about eight months has been tough on everyone. The pandemic has changed how we do many of our day-to-day activities, and it has changed the way we look at many things, especially for me in the world of politics. In my monologue today, that is my main goal — to try and show how the world has changed because of the pandemic, and how this should change our views on our government. 

The most obvious way our lives have changed since the pandemic began was with the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. Contrary to popular belief, these vaccines were not wondrous inventions that we should forever be thankful to the private sector for. The United States government gave over a billion dollars to Johnson and Johnson for vaccines, in addition to spending over a billion dollars on the vaccine doses themselves. The U.S. also funded much of Moderna’s mRNA vaccine, giving them billions of dollars. The only covid vaccine in the US that wasn’t funded by the US government is the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That one was funded in part by 445 million dollars from the German government. 

In short, these vaccines would not have happened nearly as quickly as they did if not for billions and billions of dollars in public, taxpayer money going to not just research, but also into pre-ordering these vaccines before trials were even completed. 

I, personally, am quite thankful for the good that these government-funded vaccines have done. As I’m giving this monologue, my mom is just about a week out of quarantine after having covid herself. She was fully vaccinated, so I had little reason to worry about her getting seriously ill. People are often quick to trash on the government, but this is a clear example of the government doing good and helping people. Why don’t we let the government help us more often? 

The vaccine isn’t the only way our government has done good since the pandemic hit in March of 2020. What about those cash payments? Census data estimates the first two stimulus checks lifted an estimated 11.7 million Americans out of poverty in 2020. The Child Tax Credit expansion has drastically cut child poverty, and if the payments are extended, estimates are that the child poverty rate could drop from 14.2% to 8.4%. 

Since the neoliberal era began with Ronald Reagan, the idea that the government is bad has become the mainstream ideology. You might remember Republican president Ronald Reagan’s famous quote: 

Ronald Reagan: “I think you all know that I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help”

Zach: … and you might remember Democratic president Bill Clinton’s famous quote: 

Bill Clinton: “The era of big government is over.”

Zach:  Those on the left are sometimes wishy-washy in their response, but I won’t do that; Reagan, Clinton, and conservatives in general are wrong. Not only is the government not always bad, but actually sometimes it can do some good. 

Now, I’m left wondering: why don’t we extrapolate this success? Why can’t the stimulus checks and Child Tax Credit expansion’s success lead us to a universal basic income, or at the very least an even more robust child allowance program, so we can permanently make drastic cuts to child poverty and poverty in general? Why can’t our success at funding vaccines that are free at the point of service lead us to realize that our government could fund everyone’s health care and make it free at the point of service as well?

As Twitter user James Medlock once tweeted, “The era of ‘the era of big government is over’ is over.” Or it should be, at least. Imagine the good that could be done if we all agreed — as Operation Warp Speed, stimulus checks, the child tax credit expansion, and more have shown us — that our government can do good for us all. But only if we let it.

So Matt, that’s kind of just something I’ve wanted to rant about for a while that people will say that, you know, the government is bad and we need small government, but actually the government can do some good. And I think someone needed to say it. So I said it, and I don’t know what your thoughts are.

Matt: No, I think I totally agree. I think at the very least coming out of the pandemic is signaling a sort of inflection point where we are rethinking what big government can do for us. I think these kind of blanket statements about whether or not government is good or bad or is helpful or unhelpful, statements like that are kind of, they don’t say enough for me. I think it’s important to find out where government can be helpful and then use it for those things. I think one example of this kind of broader discussion happening in the country is with the reconciliation bill, widely expanding social services, I think, is a manifestation of exactly this stuff you’re talking about. Maybe a large swath of the American people are rethinking what government can do for us. But yeah, I think you tapped into something.

Zach: Yeah. You know, I agree that I think a lot of people in the United States would agree with us that these are some programs that we should implement. I think the issue still is going to be getting Congress to implement it on a full scale, because if you looked at the full $3.4 trillion reconciliation bill, that polled like it was looking pretty popular, but now we’re down to 1.7 trillion. I mean, who knows what it actually is going to end up being, but that’s what we’re looking at now, 1.7, 1.75. And if this ends up being a flop by over means testing things and really making things look ugly, could this actually turn out poorly? I worry about that with the reconciliation bill.

Matt: Yeah. Almost like a step backwards, like one step forward, two steps back.

Zach: Right. And I think, I think part of the problem is I think, you know, where I stand on this politically, but I think they tend to overcomplicate these things. You know, a book I’m reading right now is by Annie Lowrey, she’s a writer for the Atlantic and its titled “Give People Money” and it’s talking about poverty, give people money. That’s how you solve poverty. And I think part of the issue is we try to make things so complex with how we’re going to implement it. And I hate to rip on Manchin in Sinema again, but … 

Matt: Do you?

Zach: … they just like to make things so complex that sometimes I worry if that will actually slow the success.

Matt: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s no denying that the reconciliation bill, its original plan, would have been a big step forward, and however people whittle it down regardless to me, and this is what I think is important is: It was popular, and whatever Congress decides to do, I think the popularity of it at the beginning is representative of the American people being a little more open to big government solutions to their everyday problems, like how are they going to get their kid childcare? So I think that that is exciting and hopefully the actual government will kind of catch up, but it’s exciting to me.

Zach: Yeah. I absolutely agree. And I think the distinction that I’ll make and we’re getting a little bit off track, but it’s whatever. The distinction I’ll make is that sometimes I think both Democrats and Republicans will overestimate our ability to implement positive change in other countries. Like if you think about Afghanistan or Central America with Ronald Reagan.

Matt: Yeah, sure.

Zach: But we underestimate our ability to just help people in the United States where we currently are. And even though it was temporary, the good that those stimulus checks and the child tax credit expansion have done shows us that we can do good. The government can do good in the United States, as long as we just let it, as long as people agree that it can because we’ve shown that it can.

Matt: Yeah, no, I completely agree. I hope that that’s the direction we move towards, but I also think it will be really important for the proponents of these services, the people who want big government solutions to these problems, they need to kind of pick their battles really specifically too and make sure not to overextend only in that there are a lot of Americans who still don’t want these things, right? There are still a lot of Reagan Republicans out there that you’ll run into who are really against big government. And they’re kind of set in that track, and incremental steps are still steps. We need to choose which services we decide to expand, how we pick the issues that we want to fix with big government. We need to do that carefully to kind of bring more people under this tent.

Zach: Yeah, I agree. But I think we’ll leave that there. We’ll take a short break and we’ll come back with a short conclusion.

Matt: That’s it for us today at the Daily Discourse. We had a lot of fun talking about congressional hearings and the efficacy of big government and we’re glad that you came along for the episode. Thanks for listening. And we’ll be back with another episode in a couple of weeks.