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OPINION | MICHAEL BARONE: What were they thinking?

by Michael Barone | June 13, 2022 at 4:14 a.m.

Whether you're contemplating San Francisco voters' recall of left-wing District Attorney Chesa Boudin or the plight of Democrats nationally as they face voters' dismay at out-of-control inflation, immigration and crime, the question is liable to come to mind: What were they thinking?

There are some initially plausible answers. We've recently been informed by Janet Yellen biographer Owen Ullmann that the treasury secretary argued in early 2021 for a smaller bill than the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

Yellen denied having opposed it outright. But she didn't deny sharing concerns that overspending would fuel inflation, as her Clinton administration predecessor Larry Summers argued in The Washington Post.

Whoever swept aside Yellen's concerns perhaps bought leftists' Modern Monetary Theory that the government can print as much money as it wants without risking inflation. Or that since the Obama administration ran deficits without spurring inflation after an economic shock, the Biden administration could do so after a quite different shock.

Which leaves you asking: What were they thinking?

Consider immigration. When Joe Biden became president, immigration was not out of control. Most immigrants were arriving legally, and the 2010-2019 decade saw a rising proportion of high-skill immigrants--something those with multiple views of the issue favored.

The Biden administration promptly disrupted this equilibrium. It stopped construction of the border wall. It treated border-crossers with accompanying children as asylum-seekers and allowed them into the United States.

The result was predictable. Border crossings have risen to record highs. The pro-restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies estimates that 1,350,000 illegal immigrants have entered the United States during the first 17 months of the Biden administration, about double the number of legal immigrants. That means the proportion of high-skill immigrants is lower.

Did the Biden administration think voters wanted more illegal and a lower proportion of high-skill immigration? What were they thinking?

As for crime, the disconnect between liberal officeholders and ordinary voters is most glaring in San Francisco. The city that voted for Biden 85 percent to 13 percent in 2020 voted last week 60 percent to 40 percent to recall, or remove from office, leftist DA Boudin.

Boudin backers blamed conservative Republicans, and probably both of them voted against him. But obviously the biggest change of mind came from San Franciscans who initially liked Boudin's ideas--eliminating cash bail, classifying under-$950 minor thefts as misdemeanors, sternly punishing alleged police misconduct--but didn't like the increased murders, brazen public thefts and feces-laden streets that resulted.

Political scientist Vladimir Kogan, while sympathetic to Boudin's policies, points out that academic studies suggesting they'd be harmless failed to take into account the effect they'd have in practice. When you let defendants pending trial out on the streets, you intimidate witnesses. When you defund and over-discipline the police, you no longer have proactive policing. All this leaves violence-prone young men free to commit crimes.

What were they all thinking?

Common threads in the thinking behind policies incentivizing out-of-control inflation, immigration and crime are the inclination to sympathize with those seen as victims and the assumption they'll respond with virtuous restraint.

But when you give people free money, they spend with little restraint. When you grant illegal immigrants free entry, they enter in vast numbers. When you let criminals go free, they maraud en masse. It's nice to be nice, but foolish to expect everyone to be nice in return.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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