A Politician Speaks: Commentary on Wagner’s Visit from Washington

Andrew Hyman Headshot - Warner Commentary.png

By Andrew Hyman, Class of 2019

I grew up in a household where politicians weren’t exactly revered. My parents would reminisce about when people who ran for public office were respected and admired as public servants. By the time I was old enough to pay attention, acceptable public discourse was in a downward spiral that has continued, mostly unabated, to this day.

So, when I went to the talk Senator Mark Warner gave last week, my expectations were low. Elected in 2008, Sen. Warner quickly moved to leadership positions on the Senate Intelligence Committee while also working on several finance-related committees. The little I knew about him wasn’t particularly positive. I remembered his involvement with the “Gang of Six”, focused on entitlement reform that never made it anywhere. He also helped write Dodd-Frank, a labyrinthine bill that, in my opinion, failed to address the core causes of the financial crisis and set up significant barriers to protect incumbent banks (not particularly surprising, given Chris Dodd’s all-too-cozy relationship with some of the worst offenders in the crisis[1]).

Yet hearing Senator Warner talk, I was pleasantly surprised. He sounded poised, reasonable, and collected while discussing a wide range of highly charged topics - in particular the Russia investigation, which often leads people to wild speculation. He had clearly thought deeply about the challenges facing the American worker and could speak at both a high level and in detail with a facility I’m not used to seeing from public figures. And he was far humbler than expected. Most politicians seem to take credit for everything good that happens and shift blame for anything bad. Yet Sen. Warner spread the credit for the economic recovery around, and gave himself a “D-“ for his efforts on deficit reduction. I was reassured and reminded not to be so critical; our political system is a complicated mess full of checks and balances. Bills don’t come out perfectly, and good ideas sometimes can’t make it through at all.

Still, I disagreed with Senator Warner on a number of key issues. He nodded toward the idea of a carbon tax but dodged, saying we haven’t seen it implemented successfully yet. We are a world leader, and we should take the lead with a solution that will help build international credibility while minimizing distortions and opportunity for cronyism. He also completely dismissed the idea of a Universal Basic Income. In its most raw and extreme form, it may not be a great idea - but if laid out like a negative income tax, as proposed by Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom, it could help ensure a baseline level of financial security, improve the bargaining power for low-income individuals, and reduce the benefits cliff which can complicate employment for the poorest Americans.

And so I came away with confirmation that while reasonable people can disagree on policy specifics, there is no need for every disagreement to devolve into petty name-calling. I left the event glad that there were still individuals like Senator Warner on Capitol Hill, people who care about the problems we face, and who are willing to work - and think - hard about how to solve them.

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/14/washington/14loans.html