Martin Feldstein vs./ Fed Chairman Powell and Irving Fisher

In a November 27 Wall Street Journal article, “Raise Rates Today to Fight a Recession Tomorrow,” Martin Feldstein reminded us he has been repeatedly cheerleading since 2013 for the Fed to raise interest rates faster and higher “to prevent the overvaluation of assets” whose prices “will collapse when long-term interest rates rise.” I critiqued one of Feldstein’s similar articles in 2017.

November 27 was an odd time to be fretting about overvaluation. The day before Mr. Feldstein’s article appeared, a headline in the same newspaper – “Stocks, Bonds Face Year in Red” – observed that “stocks, bonds and commodities are staging a rare simultaneous retreat” 

Yet Feldstein urged the Fed to keep pushing short-term rates higher (3.4% “will not be high enough”) to somehow ease the pain of a supposedly inevitable increase in long-term interest rates (even if inflation stays near 2%), and to also make it easier to lower short-term rates in response to some future recession, a recession probably caused by the Fed raising rates too much (see graph).

Mr. Feldstein defined “overvalued assets” in terms of historical averages. “The price-earnings ratio is nearly 40% above its long-term average,” he warned. But that is because long-term interest rates are more than 50% below their long-term average. The yield on 10-year Treasury bonds averaged 6.5% since 1970, ranging from 1.8% in 2012 to 13.9% in 1981.  The p/e ratio almost always moves higher when long-term interest rates move lower.  

Why are long-term interest rates so low? Because inflation has remained persistently low, and because the Fed can’t push short-term rates much above inflation for long without provoking asset liquidation and recession.  The graph uses the GNP deflator (blue line) to gauge inflation because it covers the whole economy and is available over many decades. The fed funds rate clearly rises with higher inflation and falls with lower inflation, so the notion of raising the funds rate to reduce inflation is self-contradictory. Even before Irving Fisher (1896) economists such as Thornton and Mill understood that nominal interest rates rise and fall with inflation, with real interest rates being cyclical but relatively stable.   

Fed funds rate tracks inflation

When Feldstein predicted a stock market crash “when long-term interest rates rise” he explicitly did not predict a rise in inflation. His prediction relied instead on a key conceptual ambiguity: What does a “normal” interest rate mean, and why should we presume that global bond markets gravitate toward such a historical norm?

Former Senator Phil Gramm and Michael Solon, writing in the December 11 Wall Street Journal, redefine “normal” to mean arbitrarily excluding the high interest rates of 1977-82 and also the low interest rates of 2009-2018. After further subtracting inflation, this leaves them with a postwar trimmed average rate of 1.2% for real Treasury “borrowing costs” (presumably a weighted blend of short-term and long-term rates). “This suggests,” they conclude, “that if the Fed could meet its 2% inflation target during this recovery, Treasury borrowing costs might stay close to the 3.2% range.” 

The authors nevertheless raise concerns that if borrowing costs rose to 4.8% – which implies 3.6% inflation – it could become difficult to roll over the accumulated Obama-era debt without the Fed monetizing too many Treasury bills and bonds (paying for them by crediting bank reserves that currently pay interest). They conclude, convincingly, that firm spending caps and making peace on trade would make the future economy far more predictable and secure.

The day after Feldstein’s article, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell questioned the wisdom of continually raising short-term interest rates regardless of economic reality.  His comments greatly increased prices of stocks and bonds until “Tariff Man Tuesday” terrified world investors. Yet Chairman Powell’s changing conjectures about the fed funds rate being either near or far from to some unknowable “neutral rate” seem nearly as arbitrary and unsettling as Mr. Feldstein’s divinations about U.S. long-term rates reverting to an ancient average.

To sum this all up: 1. Stock prices have been high relative to earnings because bond yields have been low; 2. Bond yields have been low because the fed funds rate has been low; 3. The fed funds rate has been low because inflation has been low. 

Anyone predicting a sizable increase in long-term interest rates must also be predicting a sizable increase in inflation. Because inflation is largely a global phenomenon, however, it would be extremely challenging to persuasively predict higher inflation (and therefore higher bond yields) while much of the world economy is struggling to expand, the dollar has been rising and commodity prices falling.

Democrats Only Chance to Help Dreamers under Trump Is Now—So Why Aren’t They Doing Anything?

President Trump told Democratic leaders Tuesday that he would be “proud” to shut the government down if Congress refuses him $5 billion for a border wall. A shutdown is virtually the only situation where Trump could back himself into such a corner that he would accept the wall-for-Dreamers trade that Democrats offered, but he rejected, earlier this year. Yet Democrats aren’t even bringing immigrants up. This is a tragedy for the immigrants who are counting on them.

After Democrats listened to Trump rant about “terrorists” coming across the border—who a Trump wall would supposedly keep out—all they could say is that they wanted more security and that they didn’t want to shut the government down. That’s not good enough. Democrats need a pro-immigrant exchange for wall funding—a deal where both sides can walk away with a win. If they don’t, Trump could win this fight, leaving immigrants with nothing to show for the wall.

Democrats have entirely dropped their demand from earlier this year that any wall funding be tied to the Dream Act—which would provide status to unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children. Indeed, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told the media that those are “two different subjects,” and she wouldn’t reup the offer. Democrats have even already given Trump a way to claim victory by agreeing to $1.6 billion border “fence” funding for this year.

So as it stands right now, Democrats are going into a shutdown fight over immigration where the worst case scenario for Trump is $1.6 billion in fences, and the best case scenario for Democrats is nothing. That’s a terrible negotiating stance. They should at least say, “We’re happy to give you more money if you give us one of our immigration priorities.” That gives Trump a landing spot where he can get his $5 billion, but Democrats and immigrants get something in return.

Perhaps the political calculation is that Trump will harm himself long term with a lengthy shutdown, but when Republicans shut down the government in 2013—while they took a short-term hit in the polls—it made no difference to their 2014 outcomes. Indeed, the GOP kept the House and took over the Senate that year. Trump remembers this, and even thinks that the shutdown could have worked for Republicans, so he may just hold for what he wants.

Democrats may think they won the House this year by ignoring immigration. But Trump won’t allow them to do that, so as a strategic manner, they should put up a pro-immigrant counteroffer, and leave it out there just in case Trump will take their life preserver during his shutdown. It’s still a very long shot, but without the offer, the shutdown brings them no upside and plenty of downside.

Farm Bill: 800 Pages from an 800-Pound Lobby

Congress and the White House are Republican. The latter proposed modest reforms to food stamps and farm subsidies in its budget. The House passed modest reforms to food stamps. Liberal and conservative analysts favor reforms to farm subsidies, which are actually subsidies to wealthy landowners.

Yet Congress is set to pass an $867 billion farm/food stamp bill with virtually no smaller-government reforms, and the president will probably sign it. The 800-page bill is backed by an 800-pound lobbying gorilla with two muscular arms—the farm lobby and the anti-poverty lobby.

Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit? Wherever it wants to, including on American taxpayers.

I said the bill is “appalling.” Heritage says it is a “nightmare.” NTU says it will “expand welfare to the wealthy.” R Street and AFP say it is “a huge jumble of subsidies.”

Politico says the farm bill is a “win for Democrats,” noting:  

Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees rejected sweeping changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [i.e. food stamps] that House Republicans and President Donald Trump had sought, clearing a path for bipartisan support in both chambers. The final bill also sidesteps a Senate attempt to tighten limits on subsidies for wealthier farmers.

The bill, which has an estimated price tag of $867 billion over a decade, could have a floor vote in the House as soon as Wednesday. Quick passage in the House would allow the Senate to vote on the bill later this week.

… The deal is a win for Democrats, who unanimously opposed the House plan to impose stricter work requirements on millions of participants in SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. SNAP helps nearly 40 million low-income Americans buy groceries and accounts for more than 75 percent of the farm bill’s total price tag.

… Trump has repeatedly said he wanted the farm bill to include stricter SNAP work rules, but lawmakers told reporters the president is expected to sign the final deal even though it lacks those provisions.

… The final compromise doesn’t cut SNAP benefits or change eligibility criteria in any significant way.

… A controversial proposal from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to curb how many farm managers can qualify for commodity subsidies also didn’t make the cut.

… Commodity subsidies, which can cost around $5 billion to $8 billion a year and are sent out when farmers’ average revenue or crop prices fall below certain levels, are expected to increase under the bill.

Dairy producers will get added protection, as well, because lawmakers decided to make it less expensive for them to enroll in support programs. House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who is expected to take over the panel next year, has said the changes will make it nearly impossible for smaller dairy operations to lose money.

Federal crop insurance, which subsidizes about 60 percent of farmers’ premiums and shields producers from weather-related disasters or profit losses during any one year, will continue. The program is not means-tested.

Poll: 74% of Americans Support Federal Paid Leave Program When Costs Not Mentioned—60% Oppose if They Got Smaller Pay Raises in the Future

The Cato 2018 Paid Leave Survey, a new national poll of 1,700 U.S. adults, finds that nearly three-fourths (74%) of Americans support a new federal government program to provide 12 weeks of paid leave to new parents or to people to deal with their own or a family member’s serious illness. A quarter (25%) oppose establishing a federal paid leave program. However, support slips and consensus fractures when costs are considered.

Read about the full survey results here.

The survey found 54% of Americans would be willing to pay $200 a year in higher taxes, a low-end estimate, in exchange for a 12-week federal paid leave program. If the program were to cost them $450 in taxes a year—the mid-range estimate—52% of Americans would oppose it, while 56% would oppose if it cost them the high range estimate of $1,200 in taxes. (Low, mid, and high range cost estimates are based off of potential costs of the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act). See here for further explanation of cost estimates).

What Trade-Offs Would Americans Make for Federal Paid Leave?

The survey also investigated Americans’ willingness to deal with other potential or likely trade-offs that research finds could result from establishing a federal paid leave program. Americans would oppose establishing a federal paid leave program if it had the following effects:

  • If it required the government to cut funding for other programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and education: 76% oppose and 21% favor
  • If it reduced employer-provided benefits such as health care benefits and vacation days: 68% oppose and 29% favor
  • If people who don’t use the program still had to pay higher taxes to fund it: 62% oppose and 36% favor
  • If people would receive smaller pay raises in the future: 60% oppose and 38% support
  • If it caused the national deficit to rise: 57% oppose and 40% favor

Research from OECD countries suggests federal paid leave programs may slow the pace of women’s career advancement. Thus, the survey investigated if Americans feel this would be an acceptable trade-off for establishing a federal program. The survey finds 69% would oppose and 29% would favor a federal paid leave program if women became less likely to get promoted and become managers as a result.

Partisan Consensus on Paid Leave Breaks Down When Costs Considered

At first, majorities of Democrats (88%), Republicans (60%), and independents (71%) all support establishing a new government program to provide 12 weeks of paid family or parental leave. However, consensus breaks down once the costs and trade-offs of the program are considered. 

Democrats turn against a federal paid leave program for the following reasons: if it meant they’d receive smaller pay raises in the future with 49% in favor and 49% opposed; if the program caused fewer women to get promoted and become managers (63% opposed); if it meant employers would reduce benefits workers receive like health care benefits and vacation days (63% opposed); or if government spending on Social Security, Medicare, or other programs had to be cut (74% opposed). However, Democrats say they’d be willing to pay higher taxes, as high as $1,200 per year to establish the program, with 60% in favor. In contrast, Republicans turn against federal paid leave if it costs them $200 a year or more, with 63% opposed. Independents are split on raising their taxes $200 a year but turn against the program if it cost them $450 or more a year, with 56% opposed.

Americans Are Cautious of 6-Month Federal Paid Leave Program

Americans are more cautious of establishing a 6-month federal paid leave program. Even before considering costs, 48% of Americans support and 50% oppose creating a 6-month federal paid leave program. Support drops to about a third if a 6-month program cost the average employee $525 a year (66% oppose, 32% in favor), or $750 a year (68% oppose, 31% in favor), or $2,100 a year (69% opposed, 28% in favor) in higher taxes.

New Parents: Childcare Costs and Flexible Work Arrangements More Important than Paid Leave 

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of new mothers say that more affordable daycare (24%), more flexible work schedules (22%), and the ability to work remotely (17%) are more important than more paid parental leave (12%) to help them balance work and family. New mothers also report that the ability to work part-time hours (10%) and have extended afterhours childcare (10%) would best help them balance work and family obligations. The survey included an oversample of mothers of children under the age of 3 to enhance precision of these results. Parents of children under 18 also prioritize more flexible work schedules (26%), ability to work remotely (23%), and more affordable childcare (20%) ahead of more paid parental leave (10%). 

Americans Support Parental Leave Savings Accounts

More than three-fourths (78%) of Americans support cultivating a culture of saving for parental and family leave through establishing a new tax-advantaged saving account for family and medical leave. Twenty percent (20%) oppose this proposal. Establishing family and medical leave savings accounts enjoys rare bipartisan support with majorities of Democrats (82%), Republicans (80%), and independents (69%) in support of offering tax advantages to people who set aside money for this purpose.

Estimating Costs of a Federal Paid Leave Program

The survey also measured how many Americans might use a federal paid leave program and how many weeks they might use, if it were available to them. The survey found that 24.8% of current workers said they wanted or needed to take leave in the past 1 year, after the birth or adoption of a child, to care for an ill family member, or to deal with their own serious medical condition. If Americans were offered 66% of their current pay, but not more than $1000 per week, they say they would have taken the following:

  • Those taking parental leave would have taken an average of 9 (median) or 13 (mean) weeks
  • Those taking leave to care for a family member would have taken an average of 9 (median) or 12 (mean) weeks
  • Those taking leave to deal with their own serious medical condition would have taken an average of 9 (median) or 14 (mean) weeks of leave

These data show that while people overwhelmingly support the general idea of more paid leave, they aren’t willing to accept most of the costs necessary with establishing a new federal government program for this purpose. You can learn more about how women and men think differently about federal paid leave and its costs along with other findings from the survey here.

Read about the full survey results and analysis here.

For public opinion analysis sign up here to receive Cato’s upcoming digest of Public Opinion Insights and public opinion studies.

Methodology

The Cato Institute 2018 Paid Leave survey was designed and conducted by the Cato Institute in collaboration with YouGov. YouGov collected responses online during October 1-4, 2018 from a national sample of 1,700 Americans 18 years of age and older. Restrictions are put in place to ensure that only the people selected and contacted by YouGov are allowed to participate. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 2.4 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence. 

Being Green by Ending Subsidies

Government subsidies cause much avoidable damage. Politicians say they just want to “help” people. But giving people hand-outs invariably changes their behavior and often induces them to make harmful decisions. The negative side effects of subsidies ripple outwards in every direction leading to calls for more help, more regulations, and more government. The politicians never accept any blame, and their impulse is to layer more subsidy Band-Aids on top.

In environmental policy, I’ve written about how subsidies, including federal flood insurance and infrastructure spending, have induced people to live in dangerous flood zones along rivers and seacoasts. Since 1970, the number of Americans living in Special Flood Hazard Areas has increased from 10 million to more than 16 million. Government policies drew them in.

Stanford’s Jeffrey Ball writes in the Wall Street Journal that a parallel set of insurance and infrastructure subsidies has induced Californians to live in dangerous fire zones, greatly exacerbating the damage caused by recent wildfires:

The historically deadly wildfires that have roared through California this fall, and a string of similarly destructive ones over the past two years, are boosting calls to do more to slow climate change. But another underlying problem has contributed to the fires’ tragic damage: For decades, California, supposedly the greenest of states, has artificially lowered the cost of encroaching on nature by living in the woods.

Permissive building codes, low insurance rates and soaring taxpayer spending on firefighting and other services have provided an economic framework that has encouraged people to flee the state’s increasingly expensive cities for their leafy fringes. 

… For years, Cal Fire, the state wildfire-fighting agency, has been spending increasing sums to put out wildfires, as has the U.S. Forest Service. Already by 2006, according to an audit, most of the money the forest service was spending to put out large fires was “directly linked to protecting private property” in the wildland-urban interface. Meanwhile, at public cost, government has been encouraging more development by pushing infrastructure—roads, utilities, rescue services—ever farther into the forest.

… Once a house is built in California’s [wildland-urban interface areas], the state’s unusually low insurance rates have the effect of shifting much of the real cost. The average California homeowner pays about $1,000 a year in homeowner’s insurance—about half the level in Florida or Texas, two other states with markedly rising incidences of natural disasters believed linked to climate change.

That is a result of state policy, not an accident. California has an elected state insurance commissioner, one of 11 in the country who are elected, who caps the rates private insurance companies may charge.

… Other government payments further tilt the economics. Taxpayer-funded state grants commonly pay for brush-removal and other fire-prevention efforts in high-risk areas. When fires happen, taxpayers foot the bill to put them out. In 2011, the state began charging a fee to WUI homeowners to fund firefighting and prevention, causing an outcry; in 2017, it was rescinded as part of a larger piece of environmental legislation.

For more on government failure, see here.

 

 

 

The 1990 Bush “Tax Increase” Reduced Taxes

The late President G.H.W. Bush famously reneged on his “no new taxes” pledge and signed the “Bush tax increase” on November 5, 1990, to take effect the following January.   The new law was intended to raise more revenue from high-income households and unincorporated businesses.  It was supposed to raise revenue partly by raising the top tax rate from 28% to 31% but more importantly by phasing-out deductions and personal exemptions as income on a joint return climbed above $150,00  (the phase-outs were called the PEP and Pease provisions).  

Treasury estimates expected revenues after the 1990 budget deal to be higher by a half-percent of GDP.  What happened instead is that revenues fell from 17.8% of GDP in 1989 to 17.3% in 1991, and then to 17% in 1992 and 1993.  Instead of rising from 17.8% of GDP to 18.3% as initial estimates assumed, revenues fell to 17%.  In fact, revenues did not climb back to the 1989 level of 17.8% of GDP until 1995, despite much higher excise taxes since 1991.

Another way to gauge the 1990 and 1993 tax increase is to measure the revenue gains in real 2009 dollars, adjusted for inflation.  According to Table 1.3 of the Historical Statistics in the U.S. Budget, real revenues (in 2009 dollars) soared from $1,308.8 billion in 1980 to $1,654.6 billion in 1990 (26.4%), as the top tax rate fell from 70% to 28%.  After the Bush tax increases in 1991 and retroactive Clinton tax increases in 1993, by contrast, revenues were virtually no higher in 1993 than they had been before – $1,655.7 billion.  GDP in 1993 was a bit larger than in 1990 but revenues fell as a percent of GDP despite higher excise taxes.

A recession began in October 1990, just as the intended tax increase was being enacted.  To blame the weak revenues of 1991-93 entirely on that brief recession begs the obvious question: To what extent was a recession that began with a tax increase caused or at least worsened by that tax increase?   

Some describe the Bush tax increase of 1990 act of great political courage and bipartisan cooperation which supposedly helped shrink the budget deficit “by $492 billion … over just five years.”   But that figure too was (1) just an estimate, (2) only 30% of it was ostensibly to come from higher taxes, and (3) most of the hoped-for added revenue was not from higher income tax on couples earning over $150,000 but from higher excise taxes on gasoline, alcohol, tobacco, telephones, etc.  The gas tax went up a nickel; the beer tax was doubled.  Nearly 10% of the revenue windfall was expected from a new luxury tax on cars, yachts, airplanes, furs, and jewelry which devastated those businesses (contributing to the recession) before being repealed in less than a year.

Journalists who look back at what happened to tax revenues after tax rates were raised or lowered, such as Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler, commonly rely on an updated version of a 1998 working paper by Treasury economist Jerry Tempalski.  However, Tempalski only presented estimated effects on revenues, not actual effects.   “Treasury estimates a bill when it is enacted… and sometimes reestimates a bill for several subsequent January budgets,” Tempalski explained, but some of “the first post-enactment estimates proved not very accurate.”  Tax changes were often phased-in or phased-out, yet “the estimates… include no adjustment to capture the long-run, fully-phased-in effect of the tax bills.”  Early estimates looked ahead only two years, later ones covered four.

These antiquated revenue estimates tell us nothing about what actually happened after tax laws were changed.  They only tell us what notoriously erroneous revenue estimators expected.  Yet the Tempalski estimates have been repeatedly cited as evidence that lower tax rates never even come close to “paying for themselves”  by such leading journalists as Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler and Lori Robertson of FactCheck.org, and even by the chief economist for Tax AnalystsMartin A. Sullivan

In the same vein, estimated revenue effects of the 1990 “tax increase” are still being cited as if they are facts rather than discredited old estimates.   When discussing tax increases (or tax cuts), journalists and economists must take care to distinguish between intended effects on revenue and actual effects.  Fact checkers can’t fact check the old estimates because they’re not facts. Estimates are just estimates.  

 

The Politics of Protecting Hate Speech

Let’s start with some counterfactual history. 

You may find it a waste of time, I think, however, it’s relevant to ask how broad and robust the protection of free speech would be in the US if it hadn’t been for civil rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, and later Jewish organizations and the NAACP? 

Would a First Amendment doctrine based on viewpoint neutrality and the emergency principle have developed in the US? Or would the country have seen a development similar to Europe where hate speech – however it is defined - is criminalized and evil words to a far higher degree are seen as evil actions and therefore, cannot count on constitutional protection?   

Without holding Samuel Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, responsible for my interpretation, I think it’s fair to conclude after having read his prolific and still extremely topical book Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy (1994) that the American courts’ libertarian interpretation of the First Amendment and the widespread support for an uninhibited, robust and wide-open public space in the US would not have materialized without advocacy groups committed to free speech. 

At a time when the support for free speech is sliding and people on the left and on the right are more than willing to shut down their opponents it’s worth revisiting professor Walker’s story of why hate speech is protected in the US and why the current First Amendment doctrine has played a crucial and positive role in creating the necessary environment for tolerance and inclusion of groups that for decades if not centuries were not seen as belonging to American society. There was nothing inevitable about this development. American law and policy could have gone in a very different direction. 

A banal though fundamental point is that good ideas do not defeat bad ideas in and by themselves. They only prevail if there are groups and individuals willing to explain and defend them. That’s basically the reason why the US free speech tradition is different from the European one in spite of the commitment to democracy on both sides of the Atlantic. Ideas have no force in the world without advocates. In twentieth-century Europe there were no civil rights organizations with a position similar to the ACLU’s on free speech. 

It’s a common fallacy to think that the US from the very beginning was exceptional when it comes to the protection of free speech; that the First Amendment from the foundation of the republic meant that Americans enjoyed more or less the same legal right to freedom of expression as they do today. 

As a matter of fact, for the first 150 years the US wasn’t that different from the rest of the world. A few years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights (1791) Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts that among other things criminalized making false statements that were critical of the government. President Adams used the law to imprison his political adversaries. In general, the US federal and local governments introduced the same arguments and the same kind of legal instruments as other states around the world to silence challenges to the status quo, i.e. national security, blasphemy, obscenity, offensiveness, protection of the public order and morals and safeguarding the social peace. 

As late as 1928, a man was convicted for blasphemy in Little Rock, Arkansas. He put up a poster in a shop window with the words: ”Evolution is true”, ”the Bible is a lie”, ”God is a ghost”. During World War I Socialists received long prison terms for protesting the draft. Attacks from the right on the ACLU in the 1920s denounced free speech as ”un-American” because of the organization’s defense of unions and left-wing groups. In fact, anything that might have the tendency to cause social harm could be restricted including criticism of the government during times of war, discussion of birth control, and any literature with a sexual content. Government officials were allowed to ban speakers and groups they did not like. They issued injunctions against picket lines, Communists, Socialists, union meetings, and shut down debates about strikes and unions.     

The reality of American history is that meaningful protection of free speech and other individual rights has emerged only since the 1940s. The legal climate only began to change in 1931 when the Supreme Court upheld First Amendment rights of a Communist and of the publisher of an anti-Semitic newspaper – the first cases when speech deemed dangerous and offensive by the majority received constitutional protection and a vindication of the ACLU’s line. Until the 1960s free speech was considered a radical and dangerous idea. As Walker puts it: ”What millions of Americans think of as ancients and hallowed rights are of very recent origin.” 

The hate speech issue first arose in the 1920s with political and legal debates over whether to restrict offensive racial and religious speech. The same two arguments for restricting speech were repeated over and over again: First, that a particular group like the KKK or the Nazis represent a special case and a limited exception to free speech protection should be made for it, and second, that a free and democratic society has an obligation to restrict the activities of anti-democratic groups. In most European countries these arguments carried the day. Laws restricting hate speech and anti-democratic groups were adopted. 

The ACLU refuted both arguments, and their line of defense for hate speech as free speech was adopted by the courts and today serves as the foundation of American public policy and the First Amendment doctrine. The Supreme Court’s decisions were shaped by the advocacy groups that brought cases before it. The ACLU filed briefs in all the major cases through which the Supreme Court created the body of the current First Amendment law.   

The ACLU’s arguments against hate speech provisions were summed up in the 1934 statement Shall We Defend the Nazis in America? It began by challenging the argument that the Nazis with a reference to the suppression of civil liberties in Germany after Hitler’s power grab in 1933 represented a special case and should be exempted from First Amendment protection. The ACLU insisted that the rights of everybody have to be protected and defended independent of the content of their beliefs. Once you accept exemptions to free speech you cannot be sure when they will be used against yourself. In fact, the public order act that was adopted in the UK in 1936 to target Fascists was used to imprison more anti-Fascists than Fascists. Therefore, according to the ACLU, the right of Communists and Socialists are inextricably bound up with the rights of Nazis. 

This is in essence of viewpoint neutrality, the first principle on which the modern First Amendment doctrine is built. The other, the emergency principle, implies that speech has to entail a clear and present danger if it is to be exempted from First Amendment protection. The ACLU made the case for the clear and present danger test by making the point, that nobody can say for sure what speech will lead to violence. 

The ACLU and its allies knew from experience that one has to be very careful calling for banning offensive speech. First, if you are in the business of fighting for social change then most defenders of the status quo will perceive your speech as offensive. Second, terms like offensive speech are very elastic and can easily be used to target yourself the moment your opponents will have the power to move against you. 

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the libertarian idea of individual rights has been driving the modern First Amendment doctrine. The ACLU early on came to the conclusion that the advancement of the rights of a minority or any other group were best achieved through the expansion of individual rights. That’s the reason why civil rights groups in the US abandoned group libel litigation to defend minorities against racism. They saw it as a threat to their larger goal of achieving equal rights. 

This libertarian idea lies at the heart of the conceptual difference on free speech between the US and Europe. The same can be said of the concept of tolerance. In America, tolerance is of the individual rather than the group, and it is more radical than what is practiced in the European nation states. In the immigrant American society, as Michael Walzer notes, the state is not committed to one group over another; it’s neutral. Government is not an arbiter of taste, and citizens must learn to tolerate one another as individuals, even within the group. This concept of tolerance is the consequence of the First Amendment doctrine’s focus on individual rights. 

Professor Walker concludes that “protection of free speech has helped to ensure the participation of different groups in American society, particularly the powerless.” He insists that free speech has promoted inclusion in contemporary society. Today, this point of view is not shared by those on college campuses who argue that hate speech must be prohibited in order to achieve the inclusion of the historical victims of discrimination. But the history of the hate speech issue, as presented in Walker’s book, supports just the opposite argument. “The inclusion of the powerless and the historical victims of discrimination has been aided (not fully achieved, of course) by the broadest content-neutral protection of offensive speech.”  

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