Faith-Based Politics

Among former Republicans of a certain age, “what the hell happened” is a popular topic of conversation. What turned a major political party composed of people with a reasonable range of respectable views into a cult imposing extremist litmus tests? What accounts for the rejection of evidence, disdain for science and rigid refusal to compromise even the most extreme positions?

When did the Grand Old Party go nuts?

In a new book, The Party’s Over: How Republicans Went Crazy ,Democrats Became Useless and the Middle Class Got Shafted former GOP strategist Mike Lofgrin blames religion.

Having observed politics up close and personal for most of my adult lifetime, I have come to the conclusion that the rise of politicized religious fundamentalism may have been the key ingredient in the transformation of the Republican Party. Politicized religion provides a substrate of beliefs that rationalizes—at least in the minds of its followers—all three of the GOP’s main tenets: wealth worship, war worship, and the permanent culture war.

In retrospect, Lofgren sees Pat Robertson’s strong showing as a Presidential candidate in 1988 as the warning sign for what was already underway: the capture of one of the country’s major political parties by religious fundamentalists and fanatics.

The results of this takeover are all around us: If the American people poll more like Iranians or Nigerians than Europeans or Canadians on questions of evolution, scriptural inerrancy, the presence of angels and demons, and so forth, it is due to the rise of the religious right, its insertion into the public sphere by the Republican Party, and the consequent normalizing of formerly reactionary beliefs. All around us now is a prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science. Politicized religion is the sheet anchor of the dreary forty-year-old culture wars.

Lofgren takes aim at a theory that I have held for some time–the theory that the differences between what we used to call the “country club” wing of the GOP and the religious zealot wing would eventually cause a split. It seemed reasonable to assume that the socioeconomic and philosophical gulf separating the party’s business wing from the religious right would make for instability.

I’ve been predicting this split for at least twenty years, and I’m still waiting, so he may be right when he suggests that there really isn’t a basic disagreement between these factions on the direction  the country should go– just a quibble about how far.

The plutocrats would drag us back to the Gilded Age; the theocrats to the Salem witch trials. If anything, the two groups are increasingly beginning to resemble each other. Many televangelists have espoused what has come to be known as the prosperity gospel—the health-and- wealth/name-it-and-claim-it gospel of economic entitlement. If you are wealthy, it is a sign of God’s favor. If not, too bad! This rationale may explain why some poor voters will defend the prerogatives of billionaires. In any case, at the beginning of the 2012 presidential cycle, those consummate plutocrats the Koch brothers pumped money into Bachmann’s campaign, so one should probably not make too much of a potential plutocrat-theocrat split.

As for the supposedly libertarian Tea Partiers, Lofgren cites academic studies that identify them as authoritarian rather than libertarian. Over half of Tea Party members self-identified as members of the religious right and 55 percent insisted that “America has always been and is currently a Christian nation”—a higher percentage than non-Tea Party  Christian conservatives.

If Lofgren is right, it explains how we got here, and why government is broken. You can reason with someone who holds a political or policy position. You can negotiate a compromise– a “win-win” with someone whose ultimate goal is different from your own.

When a political position is held with religious fervor, however, it becomes immune to logic and evidence.

Did you all hear about the Republican Representative who attributed the ocean’s rise to the fact that rocks fell into it?

I rest my case.

Show Up–It’s Important!

Apologies to readers outside central Indiana, but this is important.

Local readers may have missed an announcement that there will be an “open house” to provide information on the System-Level Analysis of the entire downtown interstate system (aka the North Split) on Wednesday May 23, from 3:00 to 7:00, at the Biltwell Event Center, located at 950 S. White River Parkway S. Drive.

Presentations by INDOT–the Indiana Department of Transportation– will be given at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.  There will be an opportunity for attendees to weigh in–and given INDOT’S disinclination to listen to urban planners, local residents and Indianapolis leadership, a big turnout is really important.

A bit of background:

Indianapolis’ downtown Interstates are at the end of their useful life and are becoming unsafe. INDOT bureaucrats have made it clear that they see absolutely no reason to deviate from the approach they’ve used for 50 years: prioritize concrete over livability and treat in-city infrastructure no differently than interstates crossing rural cornfields. Build huge “buttress walls” and add lanes to the existing overpasses, increasing the length of the street-level “tunnels” that already make street-level walking and biking unpleasant and historic residential neighborhoods less livable.

Thus far, they’ve treated the civic leaders and downtown residents who want to use this opportunity to correct a fifty-year-old mistake as annoying interlopers.

Indianapolis certainly wasn’t the only city through which misguided bureaucrats rammed downtown highways–disrupting street grids, depressing commercial activity and destroying once-vibrant neighborhoods. There is now a half-century of research documenting the resulting damage to health, air quality and public safety in cities throughout the country. In addition to their very high maintenance costs, these structures play havoc with nearby property values and remove acres of prime real estate from the tax base.

Other cities have removed their downtown freeways, and the results have been uniformly positive.

Portland, OR, San Francisco, CA, and Milwaukee, WI replaced their downtown Interstates with boulevards, saving billions of dollars, increasing property values on adjacent land and restoring urban neighborhoods, and another ten cities are in the process of decommissioning theirs. Concerns about congestion and traffic delays have proved unfounded—exits from Interstates are limited, while boulevards allow access to the grid, so traffic moves more evenly.

The problem is that–although Indianapolis will bear the brunt of bad decisions– we don’t get to choose among available alternatives. The state controls the process, and resistance from INDOT has been intense–and disingenuous.

When local residents first objected to INDOT’s proposal to add lanes and erect towering walls as its “solution,” the agency insisted that illustrations produced by the Rethink committee (available at https://rethink65-70.org) didn’t reflect the agency’s as-yet unfinished plans. Yet when INDOT finally unveiled its version, it was identical to those illustrations.

INDOT spokespersons dismissed tunneling as an alternative, citing enormous costs incurred in Syracuse, but neglecting to mention that Syracuse is tunneling through bedrock. (Indianapolis would dig a ditch through dirt.) INDOT has been equally dismissive of the boulevard alternative, which would be far less expensive to build and maintain than INDOT’s proposed repairs and additions to the existing Interstates.

When urban planners and residents of historic neighborhoods raised concerns about the impact on the urban fabric, INDOT responded that such matters aren’t their concern. Their reviews are limited to traffic movement and safety.

We need to make those negative impacts their concern.

INDOT is speeding this project through the required hearings in a transparent effort to forestall any changes to its standard, cookie-cutter approach by getting the project too far along to be changed.

We local citizens may not be able to change the direction of the nation–but we can make INDOT slow its rush to double down on a fifty-year-old mistake. We can show up Wednesday, we can petition the Governor (INDOT does have to listen to him), and we can insist that they genuinely consider the practical and cost-effective alternatives employed elsewhere.

If you live in the Indianapolis area, please make time on Wednesday to demonstrate that doing it right this time is important to a large number of residents–that we aren’t going away just because we are annoying bureaucrats who want to stay in their cookie-cutter comfort zone.

It’s really important.

 

 

Collusion, Not Statecraft

I don’t usually cite to Daily Kos, because I am aware that its articles are reported through a liberal lens and I’m not interested in simply becoming part of an echo chamber.

Despite its clear–and acknowledged–editorial perspective, however, I have found the site to be factually accurate–and often, very persuasive. I was especially convinced by a post analyzing the effects of Trump’s decision to renege on U.S. commitments made in the Iran Agreement (an agreement our inarticulate President likes to call a “deal.”)

A number of foreign policy experts have expressed frustration with the withdrawal because it reduces America’s ability to exert influence in the region and rather dramatically increases the prospects of destabilization, if not war. The recurring critique is that no one  (not even Israel, Bibi notwithstanding) benefits from this decision.

As the post reminds us, however, there is a beneficiary. Putin’s Russia.

Crude oil futures have leapt from $26 at the time of Trump’s election to $77 today. Back in January, Trump actually certified that Iran was in compliance with the nuclear agreement. However, Trump threatened to end the agreement if it wasn’t expanded to include items unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program and “strengthened” in unspecified ways.

Trump increased his warnings that he would end the deal in February, and by March was engaged in talks with European allies—talks at which allies consistently urged Trump to remain in the deal and Trump consistently announced his intention to walk away. As the talks wore on, and Trump’s intransigence became clear, fears of a destabilized Middle East began to shore up oil prices.

Russian oil production hovers around 10 million barrels a day. That means the increase that has already happened in oil prices is providing Putin with an extra $520 million a day. …

Everything else that Trump has or hasn’t done about Russia, any sanctions, any tariffs, any expelled diplomats, absolutely pales in comparison to the huge boost he provided to the Russian economy by backing away from the Iran nuclear deal. In fact, short of actually starting a shooting war in the region, it’s difficult to find anything else that Trump might have done of more benefit to Putin. It’s certainly difficult to think of anything Trump might have done to generate a more certain boost for Russia.

As any political pundit worth her salt will confirm, poor economic performance is a threat to even an autocratic politician, and Russia–which is very dependent on oil prices–has been running up steep deficits and cutting vital programs.

As the post notes, Russia’s economic problems have also hobbled its ability to deploy its military.

In 2014, as oil prices declined again, the value of the ruble tumbled, making it more difficult for Russia to borrow or import goods. At the start of 2015, the purchasing power index for Russia—the actual value of the country’s money when it comes to buying a standard “basket of goods”—was the lowest in the world.

The falling ruble triggered waves of inflation across Russia, putting prices up by double digits across the board, raising the interest rates to near 20 percent, and leading to widespread calls for wage and price controls. In 2016, Russia faced growing debt and declining GDP. Retail sales and personal wealth were both sharply down. Predictions were for a sustained period of oil prices below $20.

Anti-Putin demonstrations during the past few years have addressed a number of grievances, but this economic reality was clearly a major source of popular dissatisfaction. But as long as Iran continued to participate in the world’s oil markets, the oil prices that are so important to Russia’s economy would remain low.

Oil prices could be driven up only if the U.S. re-imposed the sanctions that had prevented Iran–the third largest player in OPEC–from selling its oil on the world market.  Those sanctions had been lifted under the agreement Trump just trashed. Immediately after he reimposed them, Americans faced  additional sticker shock at the gas pump.

Rising pump prices are blunting the positive effects of sweeping tax cuts on Americans’ spending, potentially undercutting a pillar of economic growth this year.

Withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran agreement may have infuriated our European allies, imposed costs on American consumers and made the world less safe. But it was a huge gift to Putin.

For a communist, Putin sure understands return on investment.

Automation, Anxiety And Anger

The devil, as the saying goes, is always in the details.

It’s easy to point to social change as a reason for the increased anxiety and tribalism of American voters, just as it is easy to insist that we must “resist”/”do something.” It’s a lot harder to specify the nature and consequences of those social changes, or the form that resistance should take.

A lawyer with whom I used to work was fond of saying that there is only one legal question: what should we do? That adage also works pretty well for political action.

One of the drivers of social change is technology–not just the rapid evolution of communication devices and the like, but the truly incredible advances in automation. Robots are assembling cars and refrigerators; three-dimensional printers are beginning to look a lot like Star Trek replicators.

While labor advocates are still fighting the last war–international trade–automation poses a far greater threat to manufacturing jobs. Thomas Edsall recently compared our current dislocations to the Industrial Revolution, and that sounds about right.

We may never stop arguing about which historic currents swept President Trump into the White House.

Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum, is unlikely to have had Trump in mind when he described the fourth industrial revolutionin Davos in January 2016:

We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.

Compared with previous industrial revolutions, Schwab continued,

the fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.

Edsall connects the dots between seemingly unrelated phenomena and this fourth industrial revolution. For example, he points out the ways in which technology has facilitated immigration, both legal and illegal. Immigrants fly into the U.S. and overstay their visas, rather than trudging across borders. Innovations in transportation, communication, together with the globalization of politics and culture, have made the international movement of people “cheaper, quicker, and easier.”“

The IT revolution that has occurred in my adult lifetime has improved living standards and consumer convenience; but at substantial social cost. The substitution of machines for human labor is accelerating, and that reality has significant political and social consequences.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, “By regions, the average robot density per 10,000 employees in Europe is 99 units, in the Americas 84 and in Asia 63 units.”

In a March 2018 paper, “We Were The Robots: Automation in Manufacturing and Voting Behavior in Western Europe,” Massimo Anelli, Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig, of Bocconi University in Milan, found that “robot shock increases support for nationalist and radical right parties.”

The authors note that “both technology and trade seem to drive structural changes which are consequential for voting behavior.”

Some scholars even attribute Trump’s victory in the Electoral College to automation.

In their October 2017 paper, “Political Machinery: Did Robots Swing the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election?” the authors demonstrate that

Support for Donald Trump was significantly higher in local labor markets more exposed to the adoption of robots. Other things equal, a counterfactual analysis shows that Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania would have swung in favor of the Hillary Clinton if robot adoption had been two percent lower over the investigated period, leaving the Democrats with a majority in the Electoral College.

An economist at Brookings has estimated that full adoption of driverless vehicles would put two-and-a-half million drivers out of work. Others estimate that the anticipated addition of 105,000 robots to American factories will result in 210,000 fewer assembler and fabricator jobs in 2024 than otherwise would have been the case.

Edsall quotes a number of economists who explain how IT has increased inequality and reduced labor force participation, and will continue to do so. The dislocations of this fourth industrial revolution are a breeding ground for what social scientists call populism–and what most of us call White Nationalism.

The question “What should we do” is getting pretty urgent.

 

Cory Booker’s Big Idea

The thing about gloom and doom–a venue in which I increasingly reside–is that it makes you question some basic assumptions. Privileged people who wake up each day to depressing news about our country’s governance and prospects for social progress have a choice: we can take an “I’ve got mine” approach, ignoring the effects of social disintegration on those less fortunate, or we can try to figure out what went wrong and why, and what it might take to fix it. Obviously, I believe the latter option to be the moral one.

I have concluded that the major, underlying problem we face–in America and the world– is tribalism. Us versus Them. Suspicion of the “Other.” Tribal identities and interests–racial, religious, political–make it infinitely harder to solve other pressing problems.

Rapid social change operates to harden those tribal affiliations.

If my conclusion is correct, we need to determine how a different approach to U.S. social policies might ameliorate tribal antagonisms, rather than exacerbating them.

Look, for example, at America’s (inadequate and patchwork) social safety net. Critics of “welfare” are everywhere. How many times have you heard someone accuse “those people” of abusing the system, how often do you hear someone complain about paying taxes to support “those people” who don’t work? (Yes, I know the data contradicts these assertions, but data rarely convinces those who don’t want to be convinced.)

Now try to think of the last time you heard similar criticisms of Social Security recipients. Crickets, right?

Social Security is a universal program. We all pay taxes into it; we all are entitled to benefit from it. It undercuts those “us versus them” scenarios. Social welfare programs that are universal are less likely to stoke tribal resentments and feed stereotypes; that is one of the appeals of proposals for a Universal Basic Income. But the UBI goes against the ingrained American belief that people should work for what they get.

And that brings me to Cory Booker’s big idea. As Vox reports,

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has a big idea: give 15 local areas federal money so they can guarantee all their residents a job.

The Federal Jobs Guarantee Development Act, announced by Booker on Friday, would establish a three-year pilot program in which the Department of Labor would select up to 15 local areas (defined in the bill as any political subdivision of a state, like a city or a county, or a group of cities and counties) and offer that area funding so that every adult living there is guaranteed a job paying at least $15 an hour (or the prevailing wage for the job in question, whichever’s higher) and offering paid family/sick leave and health benefits.

Booker’s bill is a pilot project to test the policy outcomes and political practicality of a jobs guarantee. The Vox article has a lengthy discussion of the merits and risks of such a proposal, and notes that, ideally, such a program would both improve the lives of lower-income Americans and support Americans’ belief “that people should work to earn their crust.”

“The job guarantee asserts that, if individuals bear a moral duty to work, then society and employers bear a reciprocal moral duty to provide good, dignified work for all,” Jeff Spross added in the influential center-left journal Democracy.

As Amanda Marcotte wrote in Salon,

While universal basic income has become a hip talking point, it would be a lot easier to implement if it was attached to a job guarantee program. The reality is that most Americans value work, for themselves as well as others.

Right now, the United States is experiencing massive conflicts of values and interests and world-views. These conflicts are especially dangerous due to the widening gap between the rich and the rest, the predatory behaviors of the political class, and the disintegration of democratic norms.

We comfortable folks can shrug our shoulders, note that Rome fell too, and go about our individual lives–or we can begin the very arduous process of reimagining and reinvigorating American social and governing institutions.