Sunday, March 24, 2019

Build the Wall: A distraction from debt

“Build the Wall!” A distraction from debt

Edward Renner

The biggest threat to our national security is borrowing against the future, not the southern border. The Federal debt and the future economic security of the country should be the context for the debate over building the wall.

The current Federal debt is $22 trillion, and over the term of President Trump, expenses will exceed revenue by $866 billion per year based on current projections (see Box). The recently proposed 2019 budget would increase this amount to over $1 trillion per year.
An individual has no reference point for such amounts of money. So, let’s turn those amounts into a personal example which parallels the current debate about funding the wall.

Suppose your uncle – let’s call him Sam – has an income of $50,000 a year with a no cash reserves. He is due for a $500 raise at the end of year. His current debt is $52,000 (104% of his income). This means he has been borrowing money every year to cover several thousand dollars of excess living expenses. Now, he wants to borrow a relative small amount of additional money to purchase something that has no commercial value – say a portrait of himself.

Suppose further that, instead of the $500 raise, an anticipated market correction (10%) occurs, and his actual earnings drop to $45,000. When that happens, he will have to borrow $7,000 to stay even, for just for the first year. His total debt will jump to 120% of his reduced income.

Under these conditions, why would Sam want to buy the portrait in the first place, and why would anyone lend him any more money? Sam may soon need to default on his house mortgage, as did many people in 2008, and move back home to live with his parents.

 Borrowing money to build the wall is the same as Sam borrowing money for his portrait. Like Sam, the current Federal debt is 104% of the national income which is measured by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This debt will increase to 108% under the current budget of the US Government (see Figure).


 When the Federal debt exceeds the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – which is now the case -- and interest rates are larger than economic growth – which is now possible – then the entire national debt becomes more expensive. This situation requires even greater borrowing and/or a reduction of government services. Both can restrict growth, widen the gap with the cost of borrowing, and trigger a downward spiral of accelerating debt and additional austerity measures. As a result the nation gets poorer each year.
But, the big catastrophe occurs when the next recession comes -- as many expect in near future. When the GDP drops, the nation is caught in the same trap as Sam when his income fell by 10 percent. That is what happened to Greece. No cash, big expenses and no way to borrow more, which would only have made the situation worse. The parallel, with Sam moving back home, is significant reductions in social programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, and other big budget areas, such as the Department of Defense. 

The economic stimulus required to reverse the recession of 2008, was possible only because the national debt had been reduced to manageable levels as a result of the “peace dividend” during the Clinton years. The stimulus spending over the Obama era produced a period of steady economic growth, but at the cost of a huge increase in the national debt (104% of GDP) to a level that is not sustainable.

The current projections are for economic growth to slow in the future. Without growth, similar to Sam’s anticipated $500 raise, the ratio of debt to GDP increases wildly, as it did over the G W Bush era as the result of annual budget deficits, the recession and reduced revenue from a tax cut. Any reoccurrence of these events, all of which are currently on the table, will crash the economy again. But, this time there is no capacity for additional borrowing by the Government to stimulate a recovery -- just as Sam has no capacity to come up with an extra $7,000 per year.

Building the wall doesn’t provide national security, it is not an immigration policy, and it does not serve the body politic. It only fulfills a campaign promise akin to Sam purchasing his portrait. Building the wall is a distraction, while a real storm, the growing national debt, is gathering on the political and economic horizon – a distraction that puts at risk everything that defines the American Way of Life.
The real Uncle Sam would never do this.

Data Sources: Congressional Budget Office, Office of Management and Budget, compiled at and See also

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Ransom for wall is bad government

An abridged version of this essay, “Ransom for wall is bad government,” was published in the Jan. 4, 2019 Tampa Bay Times, A08, in response to Trump’s 1/3/19 demand: “Wall money or else”

Let’s Just Be Reasonable

Edward Renner

President Trump is currently holding government workers hostage to get money for his wall. “I will not sign a temporary budget that does not include money for the wall.”

Maintaining a functioning civil service in time of political dysfunction is essential for national stability and international self-respect. Civil servants should not suffer because political leaders cannot find a way to set new spending priorities for the coming year.

For Congress to negotiate a payment for the wall as a condition for returning government workers to the payroll would undermine fundamental democratic principles of our country.

The two issues must be separated: First, by introducing a bill to extend the Federal Budget at existing levels of spending until an agreement can be reached on a final budget, and second, by introducing an independent bill for funding the wall. Each Bill should be decided on its own merits through established procedures: If passed by the Congress, either signed or vetoed by the President; and, if vetoed, either over-ridden by Congress or not. Those are the constitutional rules.

If the wall is to add $5 billion to the public debt the essential question is whether that amount of new spending is best spent on health and social security, or on boarder security. And, if the $5 billion is not to be added to the federal debit, then the then the question is what existing government functions are to be eliminated.

The budget is an important public debate to be resolved on its own terms.

The wall is an occasion for extensive civic give and take on at least the issue of whether a physical wall or legislative immigration reform is the proper solution. The wall is not something to be obtained by ransom.

The use of hostages as a demand for ransom has been rejected as public policy by the United States. In June of 2013, the US government signed an agreement with the other members of the G8 against paying ransom for hostages. The purpose was to take away the capacity for terrorists to use this mechanism. The logic was simple: If holding innocent people hostage was an effective way to get money, it would be used repeatedly.

The same logic applies to the current standoff. If the strategy works once, it will be used again. Holding anyone hostage to gain a financial concession is absolutely incompatible with democracy and has no place in the internal political process of the United States.

Let’s just be reasonable.

Edward Renner is a retired university professor. He blogs on current social issues at

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Is Free Tuition the Handwritting on the Wall?

The following article was published by EducationDive on why free tuition at public institutions may be the only way to achieving a nationally competitive workforce inclusive of the 99%.

By LaSonya Moore, assistant professor of special education in the College of Education at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and Edward Renner, courtesy professor, USF.

Is the announcement by the NYU School of Medicine of free tuition the beginning of an inevitable evolution toward free public higher education in the US?

Since the 1960s, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment has steadily increased until it peaked in 2011 at 20.6 million students. Over the next six years there has been a steady decrease in enrollment, down to 18.8 million in the Fall of 2017. Over this period there has been a series of institutional failures, and the creditworthiness of institutions of higher education has been downgraded by Moody’s.

Over the 56 years that the Higher Education Price Index has been computed by the CommonFund, it has outpaced the Consumer Price Index by 160% and has maintained that pace over the past six years with 2017 showing the largest one-year increase since the recession of 2008. One result has been a non-sustainable growth in the size of student loan debt

In partial response, curriculums have been adjusted to be more practical and job centered, increased focus has been given to student recruitment and retention, and colleges and universities are now competing for transfer students.

While strategic planning is certainly required, it alone will not be sufficient if the six-year graph is capturing an inflection point that is the beginning of a long-term trend. Such a divergence of enrollment and costs is related to two additional issues, for which there is growing awareness.

Disruptive innovation

The limiting case for the two trend lines is consistent with the prediction by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen that more than one-half of higher education institutions will be bankrupt over the next decade or so, following Circuit City, encyclopedias and others as the victims of “disruptive innovation.” Looming in the background is an economic crisis for educational institutions similar to that experienced in 2008 by financial institutions. With the continual expansion of Open Educational Resources (OER), the availability of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and independent certification of competence, there is reduced educational need for a traditional college experience. 

While the doubling rate of knowledge is difficult to measure, the suggestion that half of what one learns over a four-year degree will be outdated by graduation suggest an alternative role to be filled by nonresidential, remote digital continuing education.

Income, wealth and social disparities

In practical terms, if cost continues to rise, fewer students will be willing to assume increasing amounts of student debt. Over-recruiting of marginal students and diluted standards may provide temporary numerical relief, but in the longer-term deepen disillusionment and public confidence, setting the stage for a future larger crisis. Such a crash is increasingly likely with limited annual economic growth in a time of rapidly increasing national debt.

Projecting increased costs and reduced enrollment to their limit provides a graphic picture of the richest 1% bringing a ton of money to the Registrar of the remaining institutions to purchase the additional social, cultural and civic benefits of the four-year college experience — while the 99% are bystanders looking on.

Beyond tinkering

If disruptive innovation and even greater inequalities are the outcome of sticking with the status quo, then tinkering with enrollment strategies, student loan forgiveness, deferred maintenance, more adjuncts and practical job training will not be sufficient.

If the goal is to ensure the K-16 pipeline, a much bolder vision will be required.

Free tuition for all at public institutions may be a necessary current policy debate to have in the U.S. The pending economic crisis facing public institutions could offer the opportunity of following other Western democracies by restructuring financial support as a public cost, rather than bailing out the status quo as was done in 2008 for the financial system. This would create an education system where excessive wealth cannot provide, nor poverty deny, access to public higher education, creating a new system where only competitive ability and personal motivation are the currency of exchange for entry. Such a change may be the only way to achieving a nationally competitive world-class workforce that is inclusive of the 99%. 

Without radical thinking, the handwriting on the wall suggested by the NYU Medical School announcement of free tuition may signal the beginning of end of the dead idea that knowledge is a commodity to be purchased as a personal expense, rather than a national investment in the future of the nation itself.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Economic Side of Suicide

Published in the Tampa Bay Times, 06/22/2018, page A007

The Economic Side of Suicide

The US Government’s Center for Disease Control recently released data on suicide rates. For the three year period ending in 2001, to the three year period ending in 2016, the suicide rate in the US increased 25%.

The increase has been treated as a mental health epidemic. Individual are encouraged to learn the dangers signals and seek help for themselves or their family and friends.

Yet, in over half (54%) of all the instances the individuals did not have a known mental health condition.

One way to try to explain such trends is to ask what else was changing at the same time. While two similar trends do not prove the two are related, identifying those relationships often offers clues to how better understand what is causing the problem and how it might best be solved.

Of all of things that have happened since the turn of the century up to the present, what are the most remarkable? 

The financial crisis of 2008, economic globalization, the loss of well paying jobs to technology and the wealth and income disparities between the 1% and the 99% are prime candidates.

If we take 2001 as a reference point, when suicide started to increase, what do we know about changes in wealth during the same period:

·      The best-off of the poorest 20% of the population were  60% poorer in 2016 than in 2001
·      The middle class person with the median level of wealth was 17% poorer in 2016 than in 2001
·      The worst-off of the richest 10% of the population were 19% richer in 2016 than in 2001

The figure helps to explain why the richest nation in the world has:

·      40 million people live in poverty, 13.3 million of them children
·      The largest income and wealth disparities of any developed country in the world

The housing crisis of 2007 resulted in millions of foreclosures. Those owners then competed with existing low income people for affordable housing. As a result, the number of renters increased by nearly 10 million by 2016, driving up rental rates in the face of reduced financial resources. Families living in poverty have no place to go and cannot afford where they live. That is hard on the human spirit. 

As financial hardships continue to grow for the majority of the population, and in particular for the poorest among us, suicide rates have gone up. Is this relationship between the concentration of wealth at the top and suicide rate simply a coincidence? If not, what are the implications?

To define suicide as a mental health epidemic implies that we should help the poor and over-stressed to better accept their fate as an individual responsibility. The alternative is to define the rapid rise in economic inequality as a situational cause and as a social responsibility.

The alternative solution is not difficult. The economic hardships that cause despair, loss of personal identity and hope, can be reduced through free entitlements available to all, rich and poor alike; such as: universal health care, and quality public education through college based on personal motivation and academic ability, not family wealth and ability to pay. Such universal entitlements account for why all of the other western democracies have lower levels of income and wealth inequalities. 

Often it is more effective to have a level playing field by fixing the situation causing the problem, rather than constantly trying to repair those who have been damaged by the situation.

As a Professor of Psychology, I have been convinced for over 40 years that many of the problems we consider to be “mental health” or individually based, cannot be separated from the context in which the person lives.


Prof. Edward Renner is a retired university professor. He blogs on current social issues at He may be reached at

Friday, May 13, 2016

Information and National Security

Chapter 24.1 from Living in the Future Tense: Information, Knowledge and National Security. This material may be reproduced and the Exercise used with appropriated citation.

National Security vs. Privacy of Information
Edward Renner

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Amendment IV, U. S. Constitution, Dec. 15, 1791

Julliette Kayyem, a former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security wrote: “A nation free from threat wouldn’t be free.” Therein lies the dilemma.

Under what circumstances does the government’s need for access to private information trump a person's right to privacy? The issue is a dilemma because the problem is not simply a “never” or “always” issue, and because 21st century digital communication technology has created totally new situations that did not exist when the constitutional constraints were created in1791.

Two recent events have brought the extrapolation of the Fourth Amendment to 21st Century into contemporary focus. The first is the FBI’s legal challenge of Apple to gain access to the contents of a specific iPhone in order to obtain the contacts of a known terrorist. The second is the release of the Panama papers disclosing the extensive use of offshore shell corporations to hide large amounts of wealth by the rich and famous from taxation.

Both the fear of terrorism and the anger over America’s richest individuals having an estimated $1.2 trillion stashed in offshore tax havens are highly charged issues. Accessing private registers of stocks and bonds and transferring the information to a public record would allow tax collectors to find and tax this hidden wealth. However, the cases should not be the occasion for emotional either/or arguments between security and taxation versus privacy, all of which are statutory responsibilities of government. Rather, the debate should be about the general concepts that define the constraints between government’s need to know and an individual’s privacy, which can then be applied to any specific case.

Fortunately, social science research on human decision-making has provided knowledge about why making such decisions are often difficult, and how to resolve the resulting dilemmas. Under highly emotional conditions, such as fear or anger, people’s attention becomes narrowly focused and they often make choices that are objectively poor; likewise, strongly held ideological beliefs and values can bias judgements. One solution to this human weakness is to first establish a rational frame of reference before attempting to make the decision. This decision-making process requires participants who are not competing to win their point of view, but rather one’s who share the mutual goal of finding the best possible solution. The decision then becomes a matter for cooperative democratic civic participation.

An essential part of restoring respect to our democratic political process is to rise above our current practice of making such decisions based on fear, anger or ideological beliefs and values, rather than using social science knowledge and factual information to make rational decisions. In such cases, the rational context is a matrix which establishes the general principles as a legislative matter. The matrix itself does not provide the answer, but rather is a process for solving the problem.

The methodology

Step 1: There are a limited number of considerations for determining the issue of when government’s access to information should trump personal privacy. In this illustrative exercise I will limit the number to three obvious ones.
·         How essential is the access?
·         How intrusive is the access?
·         How adequate are the safeguards to prevent abuse?
In an actual application there can be as many considerations as can be rationally justified.

Step 2: Rate each of the issues on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 100 (always).  There are established psychometric procedures for creating such scales that can be used reliably.

Step 3: Weight the relative importance of each of the considerations by allocating a total of 100% between each of the three.

The Application

Of course, different people will assign different scores. But, that is exactly the point; it is to provide an objective basis for civic discussion about the reasons for any given score and its relative weight. For example: How reasonable is my assumption that access to the iPhone’s contact list is unlikely to identify anyone who has not already been identified or who could not be identified in other ways? Or, is there any good reason to treat accessing information from off-shore sources as more intrusive than requiring a W-2 form to be submitted by a recognized employer?

The matrix focuses attention on the assumptions on which the ratings are made, and on identifying the relevant facts and information. The methodology can be applied to any situation that requires establishing the appropriate balance between government intrusion and personal privacy. With the matrix, it is possible to compare qualitatively different situations, such as terrorism and tax evasion (i.e., apples and oranges).

The Results
The matrix yields a score between 1 (reflecting a situation where government access would be an unreasonable invasion of privacy) and 100, (where there would be absolutely no doubt that access was an absolutely reasonable intrusion into individual privacy).
 As a civics exercise, the process allows for widespread participation in four ways:

·         Individuals can engage in a face-to-face discussion about their own ratings in a structured way that promotes thoughtful reflection.
·         The exercise is actually a class from my university course. Newspapers, schools, social media and any other institution can use the method as a tool for promoting participatory civics.
·         The matrix is a research tool for scholarship on issues of public policy. Professional surveys can provide descriptive statistical distributions showing averages and the range and extent of deviations. This allows social comparisons for individuals to see where they stand with respect other groups of people (e.g., male vs. female, younger vs. older) and where there is consensus.
·         Substantial civic discussion can directly support a legislative process based on public participation and consensus rather than on legislation authored by lobbyists representing special interests.

The Conclusion

Such a process is a modern replication of the Commons Green where popular civic participation can take place. Once the general principles are identified, they can be given legislative status to enable the FBI or IRS to know the legal constrains for doing their job. Of course, such legislation is likely to find its way to the Supreme Court. But, such a process of functional democracy would rescue a court of elderly Justices from being the ones extrapolating “unreasonable” from 1791 to modern times in the narrow context of a terrorist’s iPhone or a cloud based data file. Rather, their task would be to decide if the process and resulting legislation had established what is or is not an unreasonable intrusion into privacy today.

Decision making as a rational process is an example of democracy at work in which popular participation can replace the fact-free ideological chatter that has been the defining characteristic of the current political process. We have the capacity to do this. The time is overdue for modern knowledge and technology to become the currency of politics as the means to meet the new challenges -- such as environmental collapse or an unstainable national debt -- of living in the 21st Century.

(Use the Exercise Box below to create your own matrix for defining the basis for the balance between security and privacy, and for discussing your perspective with that of others in the service of finding common consensus.)

 Edward Renner is a retired university professor who writes on the modern human challenge of how to live sustainably and peacefully on a crowded planet in the 21st Century. A prepublication draft copy of his most recent book is available at He may be reached at


The issues
(1)  Should the government be able to force Apple to help the FBI gain access to the content of a specific iPhone in order to learn the contact network of a known terrorist?
(2)  Should the government be able to access registers of stocks and bonds and transfer the information to a public record that would allow tax collectors to find and tax hidden wealth?

Assign a score of 1 to 100 for each of the three considerations for both the iPhone and Panama Papers. Give a relative percentage weight to each of the three considerations such that their sum is 100%. Multiple each score by the weight and record the calculated value of each consideration. Add the values to obtain the score for each issue. This final sum will be a score between 1 (government access is an unreasonable intrusion into protected privacy) and 100 (government access to private information is absolutely reasonable).

Score (1 to 100)
Weight (.01 to 1.0)
Value (Score x Weight)
Not Essential = 1,
Very Essential = 100

Very Intrusive = 1,
Not Intrusive = 100

Inadequate Safeguards = 1,
Adequate Safeguards = 100

Panama Papers
Score (1 to 100)
Weight (.01 to 1.0)
Value (Score x Weight)
Not Essential = 1,
Very Essential = 100

Very Intrusive = 1,
Not Intrusive = 100

Inadequate Safeguards = 1,
Adequate Safeguards = 100


After completing the exercise consider comparing your responses, and the reasons for them, with others by posting your scores and comments, and by reading and responding to the comments posted by others.