FiveThirtyEight, created by Nate Silver, who is best known for election forecasts such as the 2012 presidential election in which FiveThirtyEight correctly predicted the vote winner of all 50 states. The site regularly publishes articles by creating or analyzing statistical information on a wide variety of topics in current politics and economic news.
Bipartisanship? What is going on here? First, on policy, it’s clear that the economic issue divides within the two parties that were exposed in 2015 and 2016 remain unresolved, as both the Democratic and Republican parties have establishment wings clashing with populist blocs. Second, I suspect that some Democrats running for re-election in more conservative-leaning states are looking for ways to make their public profiles less liberal by aligning with some of Trump’s positions.
It seems like the energy and passion of the Democratic grass roots is now on the left, echoing the more populist visions of Sanders and Warren. So I am a bit surprised both by the size of the bloc of Senate Democrats who voted to roll back some of Dodd-Frank (16 Democratic senators and one Democratic-leaning independent joined Republicans — more than a third of the Senate Democratic caucus) and by the individual members from more liberal states who joined this effort, like Virginia’s Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. But I was not surprised by the reaction of Warren, who has suggested that her Democratic colleagues who backed this bill are tools of Wall Street and that they will be partly responsible if there is another stock market crash and taxpayers bail out the large banks again.
The embrace of this bill by those 17 members of the Senate Democratic caucus suggests that the populist wing of the Democratic Party has not completely taken over. The Democrats backing the bill argue that this is simply a readjustment of the measure’s language to get rid of some of its unintended consequences — they feel that the Dodd-Frank rules were meant to apply to the biggest banks in the country but are currently hitting too many smaller banks. (A key provision that the Senate is considering stipulates that only banks with more than $250 billion in assets would be considered “systemically important financial institutions” and therefore subject to a number of provisions in Dodd-Frank targeting the largest banks. Under current law, that oversight applies to banks with more than $50 billion in assets.)
But it’s easy to see this dispute as a manifestation of the tug-of-war going on between more liberal and more centrist Democrats. The 10 Senate Democrats with the lowest Trump Scores (FiveThirtyEight’s measure of how often they vote with the Trump administration) all opposed this legislation. The 10 Senate Democrats who vote most with the Trump administration all backed this bill.
On the other side of the aisle, the split on tariffs is even sharper: One man (Trump) stands against the Republican Party establishment. Before Trump formally announced the tariffs, which are expected to go into effect this month and are designed to lift the U.S. steel and aluminum industries, a group of 107 House Republicans signed on to a letter expressing concerns about them. In contrast, there is really no organized effort in the broader Republican Party or on the Hill to defend the tariffs. The president had the power to implement his policy anyway, but he does not appear to have persuaded the rest of the GOP leadership to move in a different direction on trade.
Tariffs do have their supporters, though — among the opposition. Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia were among those who spoke positively about them, along with Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, a coalition of unions across the U.S. Brown in particular has long warned about the dangers of international trade for American workers. On trade policy, Trump is simply more aligned with Democrats in the Rust Belt than Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan.
And here’s where we come to politics. What if the reshuffling of the party lines on Dodd-Frank and tariffs is all about the midterms? Seven of the 10 Democrats running for re-election this year in states Trump won in 2016 support the Dodd-Frank rollback. Brown and Casey, who are among that 10, don’t support that legislation — but aligning with Trump on tariffs could help their prospects, since these members may need some Trump voters who liked his rhetoric on economic issues in 2016 to back them this fall.
Similarly, opposing tariffs and supporting a rollback of Dodd-Frank, which are the positions of most congressional Republicans, align perfectly with the views of the Koch brothers and other big-money donors who will be critical to Republicans keeping control of Congress. Backing Trump’s protectionist policies could help GOP candidates with the party base, which strongly supports both the president and tariffs, but donations and support from the GOP’s establishment donors may be even more valuable. (We should note that backing a rollback of Dodd-Frank could help Democrats get more money from the financial community, too.)
While these political considerations matter, I think there is at root a real ideological split within the two parties on economic issues. If Trump continues to take more protectionist positions, that is going to force the Republican Party to either move toward his views or use congressional authority to stop him. It’s not clear if Sanders or Warren or both will run for the 2020 Democratic nomination, but the broader issue of how opposed to big banks and Wall Street the party should be will surely factor into the next presidential party primary.
Though they are widely vilified, tariffs actually can work, providing protection for a few vulnerable companies, safeguarding entire industries, maybe even encouraging a wholesale reassessment of what counts as fair trade. Tariffs also come with considerable costs and risks, however, and making the gambit work requires a well-defined goal and a winning strategy. And it’s not clear that Trump has the detailed plan needed to make this gamble pay off.
One early estimate of Trump’s plans, for example, uses a variant of a well-respected model to project that the tariffs would eliminate five jobs for every one they save, because the help they offer steel producers is more than offset by the elevated prices that users of manufactured steel, like car manufacturers, wind up having to pay. This is often a risk with tariffs: By raising the price of imported goods, tariffs strain the budgets of companies — and consumers — who buy those goods. In addition, tariffs can provoke an escalating trade war in which foreign countries who resent the new border tax fight back by implementing protectionist measures of their own.
But these risks don’t mean tariffs are doomed to fail; they just require a long-term goal that justifies the short-term cost in jobs and dollars — and a way to reach it.
This kind of targeted tariff helped save Harley Davidson, for example. In the early 1980s, the company was losing market share to smaller, more affordable imports from Japan. Bankruptcy seemed a real possibility until President Ronald Reagan agreed to introduce a severe protective tariff.
Deliberately designed to be fast-acting and short-lived, the tariff started at a steep 49.4 percent before gradually falling back to the normal 4.4 percent rate over the course five years. In the end, it didn’t take that long for Harley Davidson to reorganize its operations, fix manufacturing problems and return to profitability. By year four, they felt secure enough that they actually asked for the tariffs to be lifted early (presumably because the tax had already fallen dramatically and because a show of strength was good PR).
To some observers, that turnaround might still count as a failure because the company recovered not on its own but with the help of regulations that, by their very nature, interfere with the free market, limiting consumer choices and putting upward pressure on prices.1 But clearly the tariffs accomplished their basic goal, blunting competition from Japan in order to give an iconic U.S. company breathing room to catch up.
Now consider a broader example of tariffs in action, namely the heavily protectionist world of European agriculture. The EU operates under an integrated set of policies designed to ensure a decent standard of living for Europe’s farmers while also guaranteeing a reliable supply of food for European citizens. Among those policies are direct payments to farmers, funding for rural development — and also tariffs, including some tariffs that bite deeply into the pockets of U.S. farmers. When sending goods to Europe, American farmers face an average tariff of 13.7 percent, or nearly three times what E.U. farmers face when exporting their products to the U.S.
All this special treatment for native agriculture comes at a serious cost, of course: Over a third of the E.U. budget goes to support the roughly 5 percent of citizens involved in farming, which is money that can’t be used for other urban or industrial priorities. But what really matters is whether Europeans think these costs are outweighed by the benefits that come with tariffs and other agricultural supports. And in a recent Eurobarometer poll, 52 percent of respondents said they “totally agree” or “tend to agree” that the EU should have trade barriers for agricultural products, compared to 34 percent who disagreed.
Which brings us back to Trump’s decision to impose a 25 percent tariff on steel imports from outside North America and a 10 percent levy on aluminum. Here, too, the defining question shouldn’t be, “What will it cost?” but rather, “What’s the underlying goal, and can it be achieved at a reasonable cost?”
The chosen goal might be quite narrow, along the lines Trump himself outlined when he signed the tariff proclamations last Thursday: “A strong steel and aluminum industry are vital to our national security.” Ensuring that the U.S. can produce enough steel to keep building planes and ships in the event of a military emergency seems like a tailored and well-defined objective, not unlike the aim of the tightly targeted Harley Davidson tariff.
But narrow efforts aren’t always the most successful. The last time the U.S. imposed steel tariffs in an attempt to bolster the industry, under President George W. Bush, the real-world effects proved rather meager. Imports did decline, but seven U.S. steel companies still went bankrupt and the number of workers in the industry seems to have dropped. Partly, this may be because the tariffs didn’t last long enough to allow for the kind of restructuring that U.S. steel mills really needed; they were lifted within two years, after the World Trade Organization ruled them illegal. But it’s also possible the industry needed more help than tariffs alone could provide as a result of high pension costs and a history of inadequate investment.
With the virtue of hindsight, it seems like the time was ripe during Bush’s presidency to pursue a bigger goal: not just helping America’s struggling steel industry but helping many U.S. industries fight off the full force of what’s sometimes called the “China shock” — the sudden rise in Chinese imports of all kinds after the country joined the WTO and gained broader access to U.S. markets. Between 2000 and 2007, America lost about a million manufacturing jobs, affecting industries well beyond steel. A more ambitious plan — one that included steel tariffs alongside other protections and supports — might have helped defend U.S. industries across the board.
Trump may indeed have something bolder in mind, in which case steel and aluminum tariffs may merely be the opening move. At times, he seems ready to embrace a widening trade war, saying that if Europe retaliates against the steel imports, the U.S. could impose a new tax on EU cars. And during his campaign, he floated the far more disruptive possibility of a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports.
But if the goal is indeed grander — a realignment in global trade that opens space for more U.S. exports and U.S. manufacturing jobs — then tariffs alone probably won’t suffice. Remember that to build a unified agricultural support system, the EU created a complex package of tariffs, subsidies, regulations and rural development aid that all operate in concert.
To ignite a renaissance of U.S. manufacturing, a lot of other things would have to change: The dollar would probably need to fall further, which would help spur exports; countries like China and Germany would have to start saving less and spending more, thus creating more demand for foreign goods, including those made in America; and the U.S. would likely have to pare back its own appetite for imports, including getting Americans to save more money.
Whatever the objective, it needs to be paired with the appropriate tactics. For some goals, tariffs make sense, even if they do come with costs. Ultimately, the only way to assess Trump’s tariff plans is not with a ledger comparing the boon for steel producers against the cost for steel users, but by identifying the broader goal — and seeing whether it gets met.
President Trump boldly announced last week that he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to talk disarmament, working to fulfill his recent State of the Union promise to prevent Pyongyang from obtaining nuclear missiles that could hit the U.S. homeland. In making that pledge, Trump declared, “I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations.”
At the same time, Trump has been relentless in criticizing predecessor Barack Obama not only for failing to defuse the North Korea threat, but also for the nuclear disarmament deal he did succeed in striking — the agreement with Iran. Calling that pact fundamentally flawed and unenforceable, Trump indicated that his standards for non-proliferation agreements are exceptionally high. (He still hasn’t spelled out clearly what “denuclearizing” Pyongyang — the Trump administration’s stated goal — would look like).
The contrast between the Trump administration’s approaches to North Korea and Iran indicates how difficult it will be for the president to fulfill his promise regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear program — Trump so far has put himself in a worse bargaining position with North Korea than Obama was at the start of the Iran talks, and the challenge in North Korea is even greater.
Obama was in a better position with Iran
After several months of secret contacts between U.S. and Iranian officials, Obama signed off on the start of a formal negotiation process in November 2013. He entered those talks with several advantages over Trump’s current situation; in particular, Obama had secured an interim agreement in which Tehran promised to freeze its nuclear progress, meaning that it couldn’t use the talks simply to buy more time as it tried to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Trump has no such commitment. While Kim allegedly offered to halt nuclear and missile tests this week while negotiating with the Americans, he made no pledge to stop the work that precipitated the current crisis: miniaturizing a nuclear warhead and fitting it atop an missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. And North Korea has dragged out negotiation processes in the past.
Obama was in a better position with the world
The main reason that Iran came to the negotiating table in 2013 is that the world had unified behind a far-reachinginternational sanctions campaign targeting Tehran over its nuclear work. Led by the U.S. but brokered through the United Nations, there was near-universal agreement that it was essential that Iran be kept from getting the bomb, even at the price of hurting domestic economies. The result was sanctions that caused Iran real pain.
In addition, five world powers (the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.K., France, Russia and China — and Germany) had come together with the U.S. to conduct the negotiations, meaning that Iran couldn’t play countries off one another and any agreement signed had much greater heft.
Obama also had the full support of his Cabinet — necessary for a negotiation that requires the tireless diplomatic efforts of a secretary of state, the scientific expertise of an energy secretary, the sanctions enforcement of a Treasury secretary and the muscle of a defense secretary. Each step of the process was overseen by the entirety of the National Security Council.
Trump, in contrast, reportedly made a snap decision to meet with Kim and didn’t so much as consult with his National Security Council. It was “a decision the president took himself,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said plainly on Friday, mere hours after telling journalists traveling with him in Africa that direct negotiations were far down the line. Tillerson — who is nominally leading efforts to engage the North diplomatically — seems to have found out about the summit around the same time as the rest of us.
Then there are the many ways that the North Korea situation is a tougher nuclear nut to crack than Iran’s missile program. That might be part of the reason that it was the top unfinished crisis item that Obama left on Trump’s desk, warning on his way out that it would be the new president’s greatest challenge.
North Korea has a stronger nuclear position than Iran
Iran did not already have nuclear weapons during those 2013-2015 negotiations. But North Korea does. Tehran was still in the process of producing highly enriched uranium usable for nuclear weapons and was only on the threshold of a nuclear weapons capacity when the interim deal froze the program.
Pyongyang already has up to 60 warheads, according to U.S. intelligence community assessments. At this point, the Koreans are simply perfecting their delivery vehicle, an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching any part of the U.S..
Put simply: The more advanced the program, the more embedded it is in a nation’s military and national security strategy, the more spread out its infrastructure is across the country, the more difficult it’s going to be to detect, monitor and dismantle. And on all of these scores, Pyongyang is far beyond where Tehran ever was.
North Korea has a better ability to hide its activities
One of the central pillars of the Iran deal is the requirement for constant monitoring of Tehran’s declared nuclear-related sites and expedited access for inspectors to other sites upon request. This is meant to cover Iran’s entire nuclear fuel cycle — or, in the words of skeptical Western diplomats, the “chain of evidence” of their nuclear activity — from start to finish, including its uranium mines and mills and enrichment and storage facilities. Meanwhile, the North Korean technology in contention — building ICBMs — is a matter of quiet and undetectable military research and development. Kim’s government could be working in laboratories the U.S. never knows about.
In addition, all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities are de facto military facilities — a significant barrier to inspections, as nations of all stripes argue it’s a violation of their sovereignty to grant U.N. monitors access to military sites. The IAEA would be dependent on Pyongyang providing an exhaustive list of nuclear facilities, even though it has consistently lied throughout the lives of past agreements.
Trump started out in a weak position on North Korea and now is poised to enter talks from an even poorer posture. His lack of specificity about the terms of denuclearization means that his negotiators must enter high-stakes talks without knowing his own parameters for success. And then there’s Pyongyang’swager that U.S. military options would be frozen so long as both parties remain at the negotiating table — raising the risk that North Korea is, once again, buying itself valuable time through talks to advance its nuclear arsenal.
Meanwhile, the president’s hardline position on the Iran deal could affect his negotiating posture with North Korea. At roughly the same time he plans on meeting with Kim, he is threatening to pull out of the Iran accord if the Europeans don’t provide assurances that they are willing to strengthen it — suggesting that the U.S. cannot be trusted to follow through on its promises across governments, among other messages.
Of course, whether Trump decides to go ahead with the summit under these conditions is far from certain. White House officials are already backpedaling on the president’s firm commitment to the South Koreans that he would sit down with Kim by May.
The announcement on Thursday night that President Trump planned to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, likely in May, was weird. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed blindsided by the move, it breaks with U.S. precedent (no sitting commander in chief has ever met with a North Korean leader), and it was announced at the White House in part by South Korean officials, rather than senior U.S. figures, like Tillerson or National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster or Trump.
Pair this announcement with what else happened on Thursday — Trump enacting new aluminum and steel tariffs over the objections of Republicans in Congress — and you have the president not only doing things that are surprising, but doing them on big, consequential issues. Until now, he has largely reserved his boldness for tweets and other rhetoric rather than actions.
Is Trump growing more willing to break political norms and traditions in deed as well as word? It’s too soon to say. But here are five things Trump’s North Korea and tariffs moves tell us about the presidents’ impulses.
1. Trump is leading — Trump often seems like a weak and disengaged president, with his ideas downplayed and/or ignored by Republicans on Capitol Hill (his infrastructure proposal) and even his own staffers (his Democrat-friendly positions on immigration and guns at recent bipartisan meetings). But on tariffs and North Korea, Trump appears to have taken control. He took advantage of the fact that Congress doesn’t have to sign off on either of these decisions, and that even if his staffers want to rein him in (as they sometimes do), that becomes a lot tougher when he publicly announces a policy.
2. But his ideas can still be slowed or sanded down — Last year, Trump, without really consulting the Pentagon, announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military. Though Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would probably dispute this characterization, it appears that he doesn’t agree with the ban and is basically doing everything he can not to implement it. Or, to take another example: The president wants an expensive military parade, à la France’s Bastille Day celebration. I’m not sure that will happen either.
Even Trump’s bold moves this week demonstrate the extent to which he is still operating within constraints. While Trump aides initially said his tariffs would have no exceptions, the final policy exempted Canada and Mexico as the president seemed to bow to complaints from congressional Republicans.
Do I think that Trump and Kim will appear in a room together this year? Most likely. It will be hard for his aides to stop this meeting from happening now. But what that meeting will look like is another story. I suspect his aides will try to shift the session away from what Trump probably has in mind (him bonding with Kim and making a deal) and toward a more formal diplomatic session (lots of senior officials from the U.S. in the room trying to keep Trump to the script that they have written for him).
3. The establishment hates tariffs more than meeting with North Korea, so the stakes are different for Trump — The tariffs created a rift between Trump and fellow Republicans, and also between the president and top White House economic adviser Gary Cohn, who seems to be quitting in protest. In other words, the GOP opposes the tariffs in ways that create political problems for Trump.
In contrast, while Tillerson may have wished for greater consultation between Trump and himself ahead of the announcement of the Kim meeting, the secretary of state has been calling for months for more diplomacy in dealing with North Korea — including direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington — so it’s unlikely he would follow Cohn in resigning.
And while congressional hawks might object to this meeting, I don’t think Republicans in Congress will mount serious opposition to it because — even if they see it as ill-advised — it does not violate core GOP orthodoxy the way tariffs do. In fact, Vice President Mike Pence, hardly considered a dove before joining the Trump administration, was reportedly going to meet with North Korean officials himself.
4. Trump’s moves are only opening bids, so a lot depends on how he follows up — Outside of a few Democrats running in red states, it’s hard to find many people in Washington who agree with Trump’s tariffs. Economic experts on the right and left strongly oppose them, arguing that they will start a trade war that hurts the American economy. Trump now owns the course that tariffs take, and whether that lurches the country toward economic warfare or not.
On North Korea, some experts are already saying the meeting is dumb: Trump is giving Kim something the Asian leader really wants (a sit-down with a U.S. president that puts the two nations on somewhat equal footing) for nothing in return (North Korea hasn’t agreed to give up its nuclear capabilities).
Consider these words from Georgetown professor and North Korea expert Victor Cha in a New York Times op-ed after the news of the proposed meeting emerged:
Everyone should be aware that this dramatic act of diplomacy by these two unusual leaders, who love flair and drama, may also take us closer to war. Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy. In which case, as Mr. Trump has said, we really will have ‘run out of road’ on North Korea.
But it’s not clear this meeting will make things much worse, since North Korea seems hell-bent on a nuclear weapons program anyway. And Trump’s move is also receiving some positive feedback, especially from Democrats who have advocated for a less confrontational approach toward Kim. Leon Panetta, who was Defense Secretary under President Obama, called it a “positive step.”
5. Trump will argue his aggressive rhetoric is working, but there’s no reason to think it is — I expect Trump and his aides to cast this meeting as sign that the president’s threats to attack North Korea — remember “fire and fury“ and a “much bigger and more powerful” nuclear button — brought Kim to the negotiating table. I would be skeptical of that claim. President Obama probably could have met with Kim Jong Un (or Presidents Clinton and Bush with his father Kim Jong-Il, the previous North Korean leader) if they had wanted. They didn’t deem such an encounter the best way to stop North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and they may have been correct.
We don’t know whether this meeting, even if it’s historic, will lead to the North Koreans pulling back from their nuclear program. We don’t know whether the imposition of tariffs, and the threats from Trump that made them sound extra menacing, will have the effect of cowing other countries’ trade posture into something more to America’s liking. Moreover, we don’t know if bad results will cow Trump himself, or whether he’ll continue to feel free to act on his personal positions regardless of what his policy advisors and Washington Republicans think.
Last spring, FiveThirtyEight commissioned a SurveyMonkey poll that aimed to glean the views of voters who cast their ballots for President Trump but did so unenthusiastically. We called them “reluctant” Trump voters; they were crucial in Trump’s victory, and we’ve been keeping tabs on this voter demographic over the year, including a new survey conducted Feb. 12-19.1
Who are reluctant Trump voters? They make up about a fifth of the president’s 2016 coalition, and they are predominantly white — as are most of his supporters. But compared with other Trump voters, this reluctant group is slightly more likely to have a college education, call themselves politically moderate and identify as independent.
More than one year in, reluctant Trump voters are generally still happy that they voted for Trump. In the most recent survey, 57 percent of reluctant Trump voters said they had no regrets about their vote, though 28 percent said the jury was still out. For a comparison, 83 percent of all Trump voters said they had no regrets, while 11 percent said the jury was still out.
Most importantly, our latest survey shows that the president is making some inroads with these reluctant Trump voters, however gradual, and that the economy is a big reason why.
In April of last year,2our survey found that only 14 percent of reluctant Trump voters strongly approved of the job the president was doing. In the latest iteration of the survey, that number had ticked up to 22 percent. This could be due in part to reluctant Trump voters’ views of the economy and their perceptions of Trump’s handling of it.
Last April, 87 percent of reluctant Trump voters approved of the way the president was handling the economy, with 29 percent “strongly” approving and 58 percent “somewhat” approving. Last month, two months after the passage of the Republican tax bill, 84 percent of reluctant Trump voters said they approved of the way the president was handling the economy, but there was a notable jump in the percentage who “strongly” approved — it was up to 40 percent from 29.
This is all obviously good news for Trump, but it also entails some risk. Our survey was conducted before Trump’s surprise announcement last week that he would impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, potentially setting off an international trade war. The move would fly in the face of Republican orthodoxy on free trade. It led Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, to announce his resignation, and it drew a rare public rebuke from House Speaker Paul Ryan. It’s unclear how imposing tariffs might affect reluctant Trump voters’ views on his handling of the economy, but if a trade war dampens economic growth, this is the part of the president’s coalition that could be most at risk of abandoning him.
For now, though, reluctant Trump voters are mostly with the president. You can see that in their view of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — reluctant Trump voters, like all other Trump voters, see coverage of the Mueller investigation as overblown. Seventy-eight percent of reluctant Trump voters said the media was paying too much attention to Trump’s relationship with Russia. More enthusiastic Trump supporters were more likely to feel that way (89 percent), but not that much more likely. (Only 18 percent of respondents who voted for Hillary Clinton felt the same.) Partisanship, it would seem, continues to rule the day on the country’s most contentious political matter.
And, looking forward a bit, reluctant Trump voters could be a pivotal group in determining the political fallout of whatever Mueller finds. We asked people how serious they would consider it if Mueller “determines President Trump obstructed justice by interfering with the investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russian government officials.” While 73 percent of Americans think it would be a “very” or “somewhat” serious matter if the investigation finds that Trump obstructed justice, only 44 percent of Trump’s enthusiastic backers fell into those categories. Reluctant Trump voters were in the middle: 64 percent said an obstruction finding would be at least somewhat serious.
On Valentine’s Day, a small group of art collectors pooled $1 million worth of cryptocurrency to buy a photograph of a rose. But the picture won’t be unwrapped over a candlelit dinner or hung on a bedroom wall. The photograph doesn’t exist physically; it’s a simple digital image. Its apparent value lies in its associated “token”: a one-of-a-kind digital asset that exists on an enduring, cryptographic digital ledger called the blockchain. The token, unlike the image, can’t be duplicated. But its success could be.
Earlier this week, I wrote about people trying to turn a cartoon frog called Pepe into the vanguard of art’s future on the blockchain. Reporting on that story immersed me in memes, but also in the ways that new technology might change the art world. A small triumvirate of artists, technologists and financiers are using the blockchain to render art rare and then selling it. In the process, they’ve figured out a way to make digital art valuable.
A lot of what makes physical art valuable is its scarcity — there are only so many paintings by Mark Rothko, after all. But digital art has always been different because it can be perfectly copied, ad infinitum. Crypto technology and the blockchain may be able to change all that. Just like Bitcoins are scarce, so too can original digital artwork now be scarce, even if duplicates remain common in the same way that prints or photographs of physical artwork are common. Proponents argue that this would democratize and decentralize art, helping artists get paid, helping resolve issues of authorship and ownership that the internet had rendered murky, and taking power out of the hands of auction houses and gallerists. But as I dove deeper into the promise of crypto-art, it seems to me more likely to democratize and decentralize not art itself, but art commerce. The appreciation of art and the fetishization of its prices have already become hopelessly intertwined. Crypto-art pulls this knot even tighter.
In November 2017, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” sold at Christie’s auction house for $450 million.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Specific works of art used to be scarce simply because there was no technology available that could precisely copy them. Painters could, and did, attempt to recreate others’ works, but for centuries the only really reliable image of, say, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” was the “Mona Lisa” itself. If only da Vinci’s rivals had had a camera.
This eventually changed, of course. John Berger, an English critic, was fascinated by what happened when humans developed the technology to reproduce art, especially oil paintings. “For the first time ever,” he wrote in 1972, “images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.” Even as I write this, I’m drinking tea from a mug decorated with a collage of images pulled from the works of artists from da Vinci to Edvard Munch to Jeff Koons. For Berger, this was the democratizing process, and one that undermined an art establishment that “makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.” As far as Berger was concerned, the cultural role that museums play should instead be filled by the images children choose to pin to their bulletin boards.
Computers and the internet accelerated art’s movement toward ubiquity and freeness — images, songs and films could be shared infinitely and quickly (often to the chagrin of their creators, who sometimes fought back). Those trying to bring the blockchain to art are, in a way, trying to reverse this process — to reintroduce scarcity, authenticity and an aura of exclusivity to a work of art. A piece of art on the blockchain can be one-of-a-kind in the way the “Mona Lisa” once was.
There are several outfits in search of a crypto da Vinci. The Rare Pepe project and its cartoon frogs may be the first blockchain art market where anyone can submit their original work. CryptoKitties, the Beanie Babies of the blockchain, offers blockchain-bound cats for users to collect and breed. CryptoPunks deals in algorithmically generated digital characters. DADA.nyc is an artistic social network, featuring visual conversations between artists, that’s now powered by the blockchain.
Cute and collectible CryptoKitties have sold for over $100,000, becoming the Beanie Babies of the blockchain.
Image from cryptokitties.co
Beatriz Helena Ramos founded DADA.nyc and knows that money is part of crypto-art’s allure. “When I saw the Rare Pepes example, I knew there was something there. Now it feels like a movement. It feels like the beginning of something big.”
Jason Bailey, who creates, collects and blogs about crypto-art, agreed with Ramos and added that crypto-art also redistributes power in the art market. “We have seen what happens to organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts when left in the hands of a centralized power,” Bailey said — if much of the money supporting the arts comes from a few big groups, then thousands of artists are at risk any time those groups face funding cuts. “Building a robust, decentralized network of patrons is an important step toward ensuring the arts flourish in the future.” (Power and money are never far from each other in art.)
But these claims of democratizing art are coming from the opposite direction of Berger’s. Berger argues that technology like the camera leads to free and widespread replication, which levels the playing field, which allows consumers from all walks of life to access art. But crypto-art’s boosters invert that dynamic. Technology like the blockchain, they say, democratizes art by creating scarcity, allowing more artists to profit from their work, thus leveling the playing field for creators rather than consumers. In their minds, that’s the gunshot that will spark the revolution.
Art as commodity
Art has existed since Neanderthals began making cave paintings, but its hypercommercialization is a much more recent phenomenon, reaching a crescendo in the last few decades. No one artist’s work was more responsible for melding art with cash than Andy Warhol’s, which generates great mass media appeal and exists in great quantities — Warhol mass-produced replicas of Brillo boxes that now sell for millions. The 2018 version of Warhol’s iconic Marilyn Monroe is a cartoon frog named Pepe.
Some prominent critics saw an existential danger in art’s gold rush. “The entanglement of big money with art has become a curse on how art is made, controlled and, above all, the way it is experienced,” the late critic Robert Hughes says in his 2008 documentary, “The Mona Lisa Curse.” He continues: “At the age of 70, I belong to the last generation that could spend time in a museum without ever once thinking about what the art might cost.”
As art reached new heights of commercialism, artists split into two schools. On one hand were the commercialists: savvy marketeers such as Koons and Damien Hirst making market- and hype-ready pieces and getting very rich. On the other hand were the non-commercialists, including the earthworks artists, such as Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, who ventured to the middle of a desert or a lake and turned rocks and dirt into unsellable work the size of towns that could, literally, crush an art gallery.1
But in the popular consciousness, the commercialists won. “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art,” Warhol once said.
True to its name, Andy Warhol’s Factory — an art studio and pop-art hotspot — churned out the artist’s work at a feverish pace for years.
Fred W. McDarrah / Getty Images
Crypto-art seems to embrace Warhol’s philosophy. Sure, Rare Pepes and CrytoKitties can’t fetch anywhere near the astronomical prices that traditional art can sometimes command. But in crypto-art, commerce is wrapped like a kudzu vine around the industry’s newly formed artistic infrastructure. In the case of Rare Pepes, the art, literally and technically, is the currency — Rare Pepes are bought with Pepe Cash, a cryptocurrency that’s just an incredibly plentiful piece of Pepe art. The value of an artwork fluctuates directly and wildly with swings in the exchange rate between U.S. dollars and Pepe Cash.
Jess Houlgrave, a cofounder of a company that tracks art ownership using the blockchain, regularly ponders these issues. She comes from a finance background, has worked at both Credit Suisse and the bids department at Sotheby’s auction house, and wrote a master’s thesis titled “Blockchain: A critical assessment of use within the art ecosystem.” I asked her what it meant that art was moving to the blockchain, and whether we should worry about the further intertwining of art and commerce.
“Artists have — for hundreds if not thousands of years — explored, explained and challenged current social and technological phenomena,” Houlgrave said. “The artists who are making work focused on the blockchain — it’s like any other movement [of people] who are looking at what’s happening on the cutting edge.” The cutting edge is now commerce.
Houlgrave said that disputing or fighting the innate connection between art and commerce, as Hughes did or as I am inclined to, is naive. “There’s a tendency for people to say that art is just art and we shouldn’t commodify it and should treat it as something that isn’t an asset. The truth is that, for thousands of years, art has been an asset. It’s been very tied up with our financial systems.” Crypto-art just takes those ties a step further: It lives on a financial system.
The new art factory
Every revolution has its unintended consequences. What will be crypto-art’s?
John Zettler runs Rare Art Labs, a company that has sprouted up to help speed along the adoption of crypto-art. The company plans to tokenize digital artworks, thereby giving them a home on the blockchain, and to advise artists on how — and for how much — to sell their work.
At Rare Art Labs’ Rare Digital Art Festival in January, a single digital Pepe the Frog image called “Homer Pepe” sold for over $30,000. The festival merited wide-eyed coverage in The New York Times, The Paris Review and Vice (though the Times didn’t mention Pepe). If you’ve heard of crypto-art before this week, odds are it was thanks to this event.
Rare Art Labs’ motto is #ArtistsDeserveMore, and by my count, Zettler said the phrase “value accretion” four times during our interview. (His pinned tweet is a quote from Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and billionaire venture capitalist.) “Our founding mission is to increase the aggregate artistic output of humankind,” Zettler told me as we sat in a gilded monument to late capitalism: an exclusive coworking space in Manhattan’s Flatiron District that’s sponsored by a huge multinational bank and designed for financial technology professionals. During the day he ponders artistic techno-abracadabra like: “How would you build an incentive structure for all network participants whereby you could actually create a self-fueling virtuous loop with an economics-based fuel, if you will, for bootstrapping the network and creating monetary incentives for early adoption?”
One of Zettler’s goals for the company is to establish, “in places like Brooklyn,” coworking spaces where artists can ply their trade at “very reduced prices.” The company would supply creation tools such as cameras and software; Zettler’s on-site tech experts would help the artists tokenize their work, placing it on the blockchain; and auction consultants would advise artists on when, where and in what quantities to sell their work.
Others in his company sounded well aware of the risks of this marriage between art and commerce. “If this turns out to be part of the crypto-bastardization of art, I will be ashamed for the rest of my life for being a part of it, but I think, as of now, it seems it is having and will have a very positive impact on creators,” Tommy Nicholas, Rare Art Labs’ founding adviser, told me.
A new order is emerging in the art world. But will it be any different than the old one? People like Zettler make me think not. He and Rare Art Labs may be handling a new type of art, but what they’re doing with it is nothing new; in fact, it’s exactly what the critic Hughes warned us against: the fetishization of art’s prices and the emptying of its higher virtues. As a result, the relationship between art and the blockchain, which seems symbiotic for the moment, could soon become parasitic. Artists can only avoid the art establishment’s capitalistic maw for so long.
Lots of people have left President Trump’s White House. Those departures never seemed likely to have a real impact on policy. Most of them didn’t appear to tell us something larger about what was going on within the administration, beyond it being chaotic. But the resignation on Tuesday of National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, the top White House economic policy adviser, appears to have direct policy implications — and it could portend other changes in the administration.
That Cohn resigned suggests that Trump is serious about implementing these tariffs, despite resistance from fellow Republicans and the business community. This is not like Trump talking about supporting gun control, only to backtrack soon after. Trump has long favored new tariffs, appears to be acting on that policy preference and didn’t stop pushing in that direction when his top economic adviser objected so strongly that he quit. Of course, this is Trump, so he could always reverse course, but so far he appears more serious about following through on tariffs than on Trump’s other more unconventional views.
Trump is breaking with GOP orthodoxy in a big way — Cohn isn’t the only person who objects to these tariffs. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who usually avoids direct criticism of the president, went public with his opposition to the tariffs. So has Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has largely aligned himself on policy with the president since Trump entered office.
If Trump is following through with these tariffs, as Cohn’s resignation suggests, this is one of the most significant instances of the president separating himself from the broader party. Despite all the hubbub, Trump has pursued a pretty typically Republican policy agenda; tariffs would be the first real break.
Trump has dumped one of the “adults in the room” — We don’t know exactly how decisions are made in the Trump administration. But people on the outside of the administration have likened Cohn’s role on economic policy to that of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s on national security — an administration official with more traditional, establishment views looking to push the president away from his more unorthodox instincts. That role helps explain why the presence of Cohn in the White House has been a key source of reassurance to Wall Street and other market-minded constituencies. If Trump is willing to part with Cohn, is the president more likely to take other controversial steps on economic policy that he has hinted at in the past, such as pulling the U.S. out of NAFTA? Also, what if Trump no longer wants advisers who are in conflict with his views? Would he let Mattis resign if the two strongly disagreed on something?
People with good jobs are leaving the White House, suggesting deep staff dissatisfaction — I assume that working with Trump is difficult. That said, there are some major perks. You might, as Hicks did, get to meet the Pope. Cohn played a key role in writing a major tax bill. Former President Barack Obama’s economic policy directors all remained for at least 23 months. Cohn is leaving this prestigious job after only about a year. That two fairly senior advisers are departing the Trump administration in a week’s time — whatever the circumstances — is telling. Both Cohh and Hicks appear to have decided that the upside of remaining in the White House is outweighed by the downside.
Does that tell us anything? Maybe not. Every departure has its own peculiarities. Maybe Trump really wanted one or both of them gone, even if these moves were cast as resignations, not dismissals. But, at the very least, Cohn and Hicks’ decisions suggests that Trump hasn’t become easier to manage or less erratic. Maybe Hicks and Cohn believe that the best days of working in the Trump White House have passed.
As I said before, this is Donald Trump, so he could decide next week to drop the tariffs idea and hire another person from Goldman Sachs to replace Cohn — or even ask Cohn himself to come back. But I doubt it. Instead, I will be curious — with Cohn ostensibly leaving over tariffs — whether Trump will take additional steps to implement his vision in his second year as president, even if he has to dump some well-respected aides along the way.
Editor’s note: This article includes depictions of a cartoon character that many deem offensive due to its association with white supremacist groups. Some links in this story lead to offensive material.
Pepe the Frog started as just a chilled-out amphibian with a chilled-out catchphrase: “Feels good man.” That was back in 2005, when he first appeared in a comic series called “Boy’s Club.” When the comic debuted, Pepe and his cartoon roommates dabbled in “laconic psychedelia, childlike enchantment, drug-fueled hedonism, and impish mischief,” according the publisher of a book compiling the strip.
But even cartoon amphibians can go through a metamorphosis. Pepe soon took on a life of his own, and his mischief became much less impish. The image board 4chan.org — a sort of twisted, anarchic incubator for memes ranging from wholesome to hateful — adopted Pepe and relentlessly remixed and repurposed him for far different purposes than the character’s creator, Matt Furie, had intended. Users depicted Pepe as a crudely drawn, bright-green frog with enormous eyes and a wide mouth, often shown looking vaguely sad or slightly sly. He became so broadly popular that he even started showing up in celebrities’ Twitter feeds.
But soon those remixes included hateful messages. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, the frog was co-opted by the so-called alt-right, a loose collection of conservative, populist, white supremacist, neo-fascist and neo-Nazi groups. Pepe became an unofficial mascot of a racist and anti-Semitic campaign in support of the candidacy of Donald Trump. The frog had long since lost its aura of childlike enchantment and had donned MAGA hats and SS insignia. Pepe is now listed as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Furie lawyered up, trying to wrench his creation back to its original status, but the alt-right fought back.1 When Richard Spencer, the white supremacist and alt-right figurehead, was famously punched in the face on a D.C. street on President Trump’s Inauguration Day, Spencer was explaining his frog lapel pin, saying, “It’s Pepe. He’s become kind of a symbol —” before being cut off as the punch landed.
Now one group of people wants to make Pepe symbolize something else: the future. Artists and speculators are building a new way to make and sell art, trying to repurpose a cartoon popularized by a message board so lawless that it scared away advertisers and turn it into a viable commercial enterprise.
Gathering in a digital bazaar for Pepe-related images, they’re trying to use the blockchain to create a new kind of art market, one that uses crypto technology and allows anyone to submit their work to be bought, sold and traded. The people involved hope to prove that crypto can be used to shift the art world’s balance of power, putting control into the hands of artists, rather than galleries or commercial third parties. The art that they’re selling, though, depicts that same frog that was featured in so many racist and anti-Semitic memes. But that hasn’t deterred the artists, many of whom believe they’re returning Pepe to his original, chilled-out roots. And they’ve sold over $1.2 million worth of his image in the process. That’s about 100 million in Pepe Cash. Yes, Pepe Cash.
DANK PEPENo. issued: 420
Most of this Pepe buying and selling happens through a website called Rare Pepe Wallet. The site features about 1,600 “Rare Pepes,” with more added regularly. They depict Pepe in all manner of memetic mashups and aesthetic forms. Many, but not all, look like trading cards. There’s smiling blonde Trump Pepe. There’s Pepe as Super Mario. Pepe as the Pope on the cover of Time. Warhol Pepe. Dalí Pepe. Kardashian Pepe. “Futurama” Pepe. Run-DMC Pepe. The Pepe Sistine Chapel. And on and on and on.
The absurdity of this project is not lost on its participants. “We’re using the most secure financial computer application ever known to man to swap cartoon frog pics,” Steffen Cope, a Web developer who creates and trades Rare Pepes, told me.
There’s such a thing as a Rare Pepe market only because of what the blockchain can do: It makes digital assets that are provably scarce. The blockchain’s decentralized record of transactions — a digital ledger — can’t be altered without leaving a public record. That allows for a more reliable accounting of who really owns digital art. Each Rare Pepe carries a finite number of digital tokens, and these tokens are what you really buy or sell when you buy a Rare Pepe. The blockchain guarantees, for example, that there are precisely 4202 tokens associated with the image “Dank Pepe” — never more, never less.
This is the same technology that drives cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, and, in fact, the Rare Pepe tokens live on the Bitcoin blockchain, making the frog meme tokens as provably rare and as secure as Bitcoin itself.
Rare Pepes are even purchased with a cryptocurrency named after the frog — Pepe Cash — a unit of which is, as of Monday afternoon, trading for about 5 cents. Pepe Cash, which has been around since 2016, is, itself, a Rare Pepe — though there are 701,884,009 units of Pepe Cash in circulation. The currency has a market cap of roughly $37 million.
That’s a lot of money that could potentially be spent on something that doesn’t tangibly exist. So why in the world would anyone buy a Rare Pepe? After all, the only thing you really own when you buy a Rare Pepe is a digital token; the images themselves are freely available and infinitely reproducible. You can copy them, paste them, email them or tweet them for nothing. So why part with your hard-earned Pepe Cash?
“I think the image isn’t the most important thing,” Joe Looney, the co-founder of the Rare Pepe Foundation and a developer of Rare Pepe Wallet, told me. “It’s not the image so much as it’s the whole legend of it.”
By “legend,” Looney meant not the frog’s fraught past but the origin story of the each card’s creation — its artist, its creation date, its ineffable memetic appeal. Sure, the image associated with the token you buy may float around the Web or find its way onto FiveThirtyEight, but you and provably few others are its owners, for whatever that’s worth. (Right now, it appears to be worth a lot — more than 75 individual Pepes have sold for over $1,000, and over 25,000 in all have changed hands.)3
RARE PEPENo. issued: 300
But, of course, that legend doesn’t necessarily undo Pepe’s legacy. While the Rare Pepe project is exploiting the blockchain for its digital immutability, it’s also attempting to overcome the nature of the internet itself, which can preserve posts for decades, serving as a kind of fossil record for what would once have been cultural ephemera. Regardless of what the cartoon comes to mean in the coming years, the internet is and likely always will be rife with references to the racist Pepe, the Nazi Pepe, and the Pepe lapel decorations of cold-cocked white supremacists.
The people who trade Rare Pepes are familiar with that tension, though they don’t see it as a reason they should stay away from the frog. I recently found them on Telegram, a messaging app and favorite hangout of the crypto set. I was lurking in a channel called Rare Pepe Blockchain Trading, which at the time had more than 1,500 participants, and I had private chats with about 20 members of the Rare Pepe community. I asked them about what they thought they were creating — and its politics.
One user I spoke with, Steve from Los Angeles, who goes by CryptoChainer, refused to share his full real name. He explained, “Having the first search result of my name come up with Rare Pepe isn’t entirely exciting, but I wish it was.” He added: “Most Americans still probably associate it with alt-right or some crap — 4chan, Nazis, what have you.” But for Steve and other Rare Pepe enthusiasts, Pepe’s appeal lies in part in his versatility — it’s a recognizable meme that allows endless artistic expression while also serving as a rallying point for their crypto community.
Like Steve, many in the Rare Pepe world — including a sizable percentage of the community who don’t live in the U.S. — aren’t very concerned about the frog’s popular connotations. They rejected its racist associations, or were barely aware of them, or were sick of being asked about them, viewing the troubling link as either passé or irrelevant — the artifact of a specific and fleeting moment in U.S. political history. But even when Pepe isn’t partisan, it can still have politics of a certain kind. “I think Pepe best represents the world’s pivot from P.C. and identity politics back to a more inclusive politics and open exchange of ideas,” someone with the username BuddhaNeedPepecash72 said.
JESUSPEPENo. issued: 10
Indeed, most in the Rare Pepe community see the frog as the future of art and art commerce. One Pepe enthusiast said he hoped to create “the first eternal digital open museum.” Jason Rosenstein told me that he’s able to pay his New York City rent with the money he’s made from Rare Pepes. Christine Lewis, who, at almost 60, jokingly called herself “crypto grandma,” came to the community because her friend told her that Pepe Cash was a good investment and that “it’s supposed to be a big deal … in five years, lol.” Another user, PimpingKek, claimed to be the world’s only Rare Pepe agent, identifying hot talent around the globe, getting them set up on the blockchain, and advising them on how to price their work and roll it out to the market. (Kek, of course, is the Egyptian god of darkness of whom Pepe is said to be a present-day avatar.)
Sometimes Pepe’s darkness creeps into the submissions to Rare Pepe Wallet. Anyone can create a Rare Pepe, which means that anything can be submitted as a Rare Pepe.4 Which is why the Rare Pepe Foundation — whose website tagline is “Blockchain Revolution” — says it takes pains to filter out offensive Rare Pepe submissions before they make it to the Rare Pepe Wallet gallery. (“Trying to be keep it light for now,” the site says in its submission guidelines. “Pepe has alot of bad press.”) Looney said that organizers have blocked the submission of offensive Pepes before, but that they hadn’t needed to recently. “That probably coincided with when it was more in the media as a Nazi frog,” he said.
Even among the Rare Pepes approved for display in the online gallery, it’s difficult to judge how many people might find them offensive, or even whether they’re intended to offend. One work, titled “Trump Wall,” depicts a crude Mexican frog caricature, but Looney said it was created by a Mexican artist, and it has a description that reads, “Pepe not impressed by Trump Wall.” Many others explicitly address politics. There is one titled “Killary Pepe” that features the caption “circumvent any law” under an image of a Hillary Clinton frog sending an email. There is an entire series of Putin-themed Pepes. There are a handful of Trump-themed ones. There is a Pepe take on Clinton’s “I’m With Her” campaign slogan. But many Rare Pepes are so tongue-in-cheek, so caked with alternating layers of irony and truth and absurdity that it’s hard to hear any definite political signal through the noise. “There isn’t a ‘no political Pepes’ rule, so you’ll certainly find them if you’re looking through the directory,” Looney said. “Some definitely toe the line.”
MODERN PEPENo. issued: 100
Art is often political, and good art nearly always provokes. But the specter of Pepe’s past remains. Can the project navigate the tightrope between the perfect memory of the blockchain and the long memory of the internet? The topic comes up in the Rare Pepe Blockchain Trading group from time to time. A representative exchange: “Pepe is a symbol for Nazis,” someone said. “Lol no,” came a response. “Did you know that since racists drive cars that cars are racist?” someone else added sarcastically.
Rare Pepes are now catching the eyes of the art world’s old guard, as well. In January, a digital art festival in New York City hosted an in-person auction of a one-of-a-kind Rare Pepe called “Homer Pepe.” It sold for $39,200. Vice reported that, during the auction, “staff from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and Sotheby’s Institute of Art sat silently.”
But for how long?
Coming this later week: How crypto-art and the blockchain could shape the future of art.
Supporters of the fees — including many Democrats, who receivefunding from the labor movement — warn that such a decision could decimate unions’ economic power and hurt workers as a result, while anti-union forces on the right say that these fears are overblown. But we don’t really know what would happen in the long term if those fees were struck down, because the research doesn’t paint a clear picture either way.
Economic theory does suggest an answer. For many economists, these fees — known as “agency” fees or “fair share” fees — are a necessary solution to a classic economic dilemma known as “free ridership.” The thinking goes that because unions are required to advocate on behalf of all workers, not just their members, there’s no reason for individual workers to pay for a benefit they could get for free. And if enough workers stopped paying dues, according to this reasoning, the unions would shrink, causing problems for the workers they support. But we can’t always tell if the theory matches up with what happens in the real world. In the case of union fees, that’s largely because there’s no straightforward method that will allow the direct effects of the change to be observed.
Unionization rates are generally lower across the board in states that have scrapped contribution requirements for public- and private-sector unions, known as “right-to-work” states. But critics of the fees say that doesn’t mean that ending the mandatory fees is directly responsible for the decline of unions — or that some loss of union membership can justify restrictions on workers’ free-speech rights. Theyargue that public-sector unions will survive in the absence of mandatory payments since they still exist in right-to-work states and that the unions can retain a significant percentage of the workforce as members even without requiring all workers to pay fees.
The issue of free ridership was also at play 40 years ago, when the Supreme Court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that the fees were constitutional for public-sector unions. Although it wasn’t the central issue in that case, the court said the fees “counteract” free riding. Today’s justices are divided on how heavily to weigh this concern: In previous cases involving public-sector dues, Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative, wrote that free-rider arguments are “generally insufficient to overcome First Amendment objections,” while Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal, argued that “endemic free-riding” continues to provide justification for requiring payments from non-members.
In this case, the justices are being asked to overturn the precedent set in Abood, and it seems likely that they will.1 Critics of the unions say the problem isn’t free riders — it’s “forced riders” like plaintiff Mark Janus.
“Are you really receiving a benefit when you’re being required to pay to support a view that you disagree with?” said Robert Alt, president of the Buckeye Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Ohio. He argued that even though unions may see an initial loss in revenue, they can attract membership and stay influential in ways that don’t involve a forced payment.
But Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University, said that if Janus prevails, he expects significant numbers of public-sector employees to “bail out” over time and leave the unions with less revenue and workers with less support. “The unions might not disappear, but their power will be really diminished,” he said. That’s worrying, he said, because without strong unions, workers could see a decline in benefits and wages.
It’s difficult to figure out which workers are forced riders and which are free riders — and it’s also challenging to determine what the impact of removing agency fees would actually be. To make their arguments, both sides in the case being heard Monday are drawing on a natural experiment that has been going on in the states for years — by comparing right-to-work and non-right-to-work states and by examining the results of states changing their policies on union fees. As with many natural experiments, though, disentangling the effects of a single policy difference from the myriad forces affecting something like wage growth can be nearly impossible.
Since 2012, six states have enacted “right-to-work” legislation that prohibits employment contracts from requiring union dues as a condition of employment. Twenty-two additional states have similar but less recent laws, while 22 states do not have right-to-work laws.
Individual studies have produced what seem like decisive answers to the question of what happens when the agency-fee requirement is removed — but taken together, they don’t present a coherent narrative. Part of the problem is that when economists design studies to address this question, controlling for all the right factors is difficult. Right-to-work policies, for starters, exist alongside other pro-business policies, and disentangling whether a loss in, say, manufacturing jobs is related to the decline of the unions or something like competition from abroad is tricky.
A 2011 study from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute examined differences between right-to-work states and states without right-to-work policies, controlling for the demographic and job characteristics of workers, as well as state-level economic conditions and differences in the cost of living. That study found that wages in right-to-work states are 3.2 percent lower than wages in non-right-to-work states. A 2007 study by a professor at Hofstra University found, similarly, that employment and wages were lower in right-to-work states.
But another study, which controlled for economic conditions at the time the states adopted right-to-work, found that right-to-work laws were associated with higher wages in most cases. And otherresearch has found that employment may be higher in right-to-work states, at least in some sectors. There may also be some variation by industry and worker demographics: For example, an examination of right-to-work laws in the Midwest found that they decreased wages for workers with two- or four-year college degrees, but had little to no impact for workers with graduate degrees or only high school degrees.
A review of the empirical evidence surrounding right-to-work laws conducted by the Congressional Research Service in 2014 concluded that “even the most sophisticated studies are unable to fully isolate the effects” of different agency-fee policies.
There is a general consensus among experts and advocates — including some opponents of the required payments — that if agency fees are struck down, public-sector unions will probably lose members and face diminished revenues in the short term. But some economists believe unions may be able to adapt and innovate in response, from changing how they negotiate agreements to the broader employment services they provide.
“It seems like the unions might have to morph into a new kind of organization,” Freeman said. “There’s no doubt they’ll be weakened in the short term. The question is whether they’ll be able to come back from that and continue offering substantial benefits to workers.”
Shuri (played by Letitia Wright2) is the sister of T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and the film’s titular character. She oversees the technological operations of the superscientific nation. If you’re comparing T’Challa to James Bond, she’s Q.
She’s also the funniest character in the movie, steals every scene she’s in and — for my money — the most important character.
This potential is essential to the character and factors into Wright’s performance; the actress told Vogue: “I hope it can spark someone to say, ‘I’m not a superhero, but I can be a scientist or build the next spaceship, like Shuri.’”
Movies can have an even longer lasting impact. A good movie changes the audience, and we have tons of evidence to back that up:
After the release of “The Hunger Games” and “Brave” in 2012 — both of which feature women protagonists who use a bow and arrow — girls’ participation in archery competitions doubled, according to a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, citing data from USA Archery. The study also found that 7 in 10 girls reported that the protagonists in those films had influenced their decision to take up the sport.
I could go on, but the point is this: On the one hand, sure, movies are a product engineered to optimize financial windfalls for a small group of corporations and intellectual property holders. But on the other hand, I personally got interested in math because of Ian Malcolm, rock-star chaos theory mathematician in “Jurassic Park,” and you would not be reading this if not for that.
So “Black Panther” is a big deal for a lot of reasons, but Shuri is chief among them.
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