10 Things we learned at Brookings in May

The number 10 on the back of Washington Capitals right wing Brett Connolly's jersey.

At the end of each month we like to reflect on the op-eds, podcasts, and reports Brookings experts published on the world’s most pressing public policy issues. From the Venezuelan refugee crises to complexities in the tax code, here are 10 things we learned from their work in May.

1. The political consequences of automation will be severe

Robotic arms spot welds on the chassis of a Ford Transit Van under assembly at the Ford Claycomo Assembly Plant in Claycomo

In his new book “The Future of Work,” Governance Studies Vice President Darrell West describes the social, economic, and political disruptions we should expect from the dispersion of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics. In a post for Tech Tank earlier this month, West warned that “as innovation accelerates and public anxiety intensifies, right-wing and left-wing populists will jockey for voter support. Government control could gyrate between very conservative and very liberal leaders as each side blames a different set of scapegoats for economic outcomes voters don’t like. The calm and predictable politics of the post-World War II era likely will become a distant memory as the American system moves toward Trumpism on steroids.”

2. What does withdrawal from the Iran Deal mean for American interests in the region?

U.S. President Donald Trump displays a presidential memorandum after announcing his intent to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - HP1EE581FULTV

On May 8, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—also known as the Iran nuclear deal—and re-impose sanctions on Iran. To help us better understand the implications of that decision, experts from across Brookings weighed in on how withdrawal will affect nuclear deterrence, regional security, energy markets, and more.

3. There is no universal definition of the middle class

Olivia Caceras holds one of her children as she and other marchers prepare to start a 140-mile walk to the Mexican border, in solidarity with hundreds of hopeful asylum seekers who are currently traveling northbound in a caravan through Mexico, from central Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 22, 2018.  REUTERS/David McNew - RC1E7A36A840

In a new paper and series of infographics, experts from the Economic Studies program describe the various ways academics define the middle class. Definitions tend to vary based on scholars’ backgrounds and what questions their studies try to address, but are typically based on one of three factors: cash (or, economic resources), credentials, or culture. The authors—Richard Reeves, Katherine Guyot, and Eleanor Krause—invite readers to submit comments and their own definitions by emailing [email protected].

4. Venezuela is currently experiencing the Western Hemisphere’s worst humanitarian crises in modern history

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, flanked by his wife Cilia Flores and National Constituent Assembly President Delcy Rodriguez, arrives for a special session of the National Constituent Assembly to take oath as re-elected President at the Palacio Federal Legislativo in Caracas, Venezuela May 24, 2018.

Dany Bahar, a David M. Rubenstein fellow in the Global Economy and Development program, describes the recent fraudulent elections in Venezuela and the ongoing economic crises under President Nicolás Maduro in a recent podcast episode. Citing data from the U.N. Migration Agency, Bahar notes that the number of Venezuelans in South America outside their home country rose from 90,000 to 900,000 between 2015 and 2017.

Bahar also travelled to the border of Colombia and Venezuela earlier this year and published photos of his trip along with stories from Venezuelan refugees.

5. American infrastructure is relatively expensive and not accessible to everyone

2018.05.09_metro_Tomer_infrastructure affordability

In a new study, Adie Tomer, an expert in the Metropolitan Policy Program, describes why infrastructure prices have become a barrier to economic opportunity for many low-income Americans. Using data from the Consumer Price Index and Consumer Expenditure Surveys, Tomer finds that “between 1990 and 2016, infrastructure represented between 22 and 26 percent of the average household’s total expenses.” He also writes that households with reported annual incomes of $11,832 “typically spent $6,040 across gas, electricity, telephones, water and sewer, and transportation services,” leaving them with little money left to save.

6. Black Lives Matter protests are more likely to occur in localities where more black people have been killed by police

A Black Lives Matter protester stands in front of St. Louis Police Department officers equipped with riot gear after the not guilty verdict in the murder trial of Jason Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer, charged with the 2011 shooting of  Anthony Lamar Smith, who was black, in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., September 15, 2017.  Photo taken September 15, 2017.  REUTERS/Lawrence Bryant     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC162B2292E0

Governance Studies Fellow Vanessa Williamson and her coauthors document how Black Lives Matter (BLM) has responded to police violence and discuss how the BLM movement fits in the context of targeted state repression in black communities. Their study examines information on 780 BLM protests across the United States and finds evidence of mobilization in the communities that have experienced the more frequent police killings. Williams and her coauthors plan to continue this work and look more closely at how BLM activism has changed political views and public policy.

7. Growth rates of big cities continue to fall

2018.05.25_metro_Bill Frey population shift_cleveland

A new study from William Frey, demographer and senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program, found that suburban growth has outpaced city growth in America’s largest metropolitan areas for the second year in a row. According to Frey, several factors may contribute to cities’ waning growth rates including high costs of living and industrial decline in some regions.

8. Complexity in the current tax code presents challenges for taxpayers trying to comply with the law

U.S. 1040 Individual Income Tax forms are seen in New York

Benjamin Harris and Adam Looney examine six ways to improve the tax code and either amend or repeal the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in their new paper “The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act: A Missed Opportunity to Establish a Sustainable Tax Code.” Among their suggestions is a framework for increasing compliance with the law that could create substantial reductions to the deficit.

9. Libya is not an appropriate analogy for denuclearization in North Korea

U.S. Department of State Ambassador Donald Mahley (C), an expert on weapons of mass destruction, talks to reporters about Libya's nuclear weapons program during a press briefing at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, March 15, 2004. On display are a portion of the 55,000-pounds of weapons-making components that were airlifted from Libya by a joint U.S.-British team on January 27, 2004. MANDATORY CREDIT REUTERS/Paul Efird/Knoxville News Sentinel  PE/HK - RP4DRIHEDIAA

In reaction to the Trump administration’s invocation of Libya when discussing denuclearization of North Korea, Richard Nephew explained why the process of disarmament in Libya serves as a poor analogy for describing the current situation in North Korea. Nephew describes a Libya program that had very few scientists working on it and asserts the “scope, scale, and physical status of the North Korean program very much outstrips what the Libyans ever achieved.”

10. How should the United States react to Iraq’s parliamentary elections?

Employees of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission check electronic counting device at a warehouse in Dohuk, Iraq May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal - RC1B40CD3970

According to Brookings Doha Center scholar Ranj Alaaldin, Iraq’s parliamentary elections were an opportunity to herald a new chapter for a country looking to turn the page on corruption, instability, and polarization. However, Muqtada al-Sadr, an anti-Iran and anti-American cleric, won at the polls and “turned America’s Iraq policy upside down.” Alaaldin describes how the United States invested its interests in Prime Minister al-Abadi and what policies it should pursue—such as adopting more interventionist approaches—to improve its political strategy in the country.