There’s Damage And Then There’s Damage

The damage being done every day by the Trump Administration falls into two categories: that which can be reversed relatively quickly if a Democrat wins the Presidency in 2020, and that which will take much, much longer–if it can be reversed at all.

For example, Betsy DeVos is the gift that keeps on giving to for-profit “colleges” and religious voucher schools, but once she has gone–and it can’t happen soon enough–her efforts to reverse the student-centered policies of the Obama years can themselves be wiped clean.

On the other hand, there’s climate policy. We can’t recover the years we’ve lost in the increasingly critical, time-sensitive effort to keep the planet habitable. A Democratic administration will have to spend time and political capital just reversing the reversals of previous efforts to keep air breathable and water drinkable, let alone measures to halt climate change.

Most long-lasting of all–at least domestically– will be the damage done by dozens of unqualified ideologues who will sit on our federal courts for many years.

It’s hard to know the extent of the damage to America’s global relationships and reputation. Optimists believe Trump will be seen as a temporary aberration; I’m not so sure. (It sure doesn’t help when other countries see him getting away with caging children and green-lighting war crimes.)

And then, of course, there’s the damage his insane tariffs have done to the economy–especially but not exclusively to farmers. CNBC is not a “liberal” news organ; quite the contrary. So it was sobering to read the following from the CNBC website:

President Trump announced a month ago that his administration had clinched a trade deal with China. Well, actually, the first in a series of deals, which the White House now refers to as “phase one.”

Since then, countless declarations of “winning,” but agreeing to a deal only “if the terms are right,” have added to the year and half long conflicting cacophony of rhetoric about the content of any trade agreement with China.

 Bottom line? The constant bluster has blurred the reality of what a deal would even accomplish, if anything at all. The only way to shovel away the pile of broken promises and contradictory comments is to analyze the flow of maritime trade.

Why? With 90% of all items in a house transported over water, it is the purest form of showing supply and demand. The flow of trade is agnostic. It moves regardless of who is “winning” or “losing.”

And what does that “agnostic” flow show? That a deal, no matter how good, will never make up for the losses sustained during this trade war.

For a perspective on the losses, look no further than the Port of Los Angeles, the largest port in the country. U.S. exports to China from the bustling harbor decreased for 12 consecutive months. It suffered a 19.1% drop in export volume when comparing October 2019 with the same month in 2018.

 China’s retaliatory tariffs hit 96.6% of the purchases of U.S. exports that traveled through the L.A. port complex, with a price tag of $19.9 billion.

Add on the additional retaliatory tariffs from the other countries the U.S. is sparring with on trade, and that brings the total of impacted export cargo to $20.2 billion, or 28.8% of all export value through the L.A. port system. Considering 95% of the world’s consumers are outside of the U.S., the tariffs imposed on American goods have priced them out of the global marketplace.

Add to this analysis other reports strongly suggesting that America’s farmers will never recover the soybean markets they’ve lost during this trade war (other countries, after all, can grow and supply soybeans), and the picture is grim. And agriculture isn’t the only sector hurting;  CNBC says China is expanding natural gas trade with Qatar and Australia “while essentially shutting off the United States.” The retail and technology sectors have announced losses in the billions.

So as the bluster blows and promises of winning mount, the actual flow of trade paints a very different picture.

A picture that looks increasingly long-term.

 

The Crux Of The Problem

Governing Magazine recently ran a report on the emergence of several politically-tied websites in Michigan. Designed to look like “real” news organizations, the sites– linked to a variety of partisan political groups– are expanding across the state in preparation for the 2020 election.

At about the same time, The Intellectualist reported on yet another study of Fox News; to the surprise of no one other than the network’s devoted audience (who will dismiss it as “fake news”), the study found that nearly 60% of statements made on Fox were either partially or entirely false–and that as a result, Fox News viewers are more likely to believe repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories.

I could add dozens of other examples of our current media environment–an environment characterized by the loss of what we once called “mass media” and its replacement by a digital universe of “news” sites spanning the spectrum from objective reporting to partisan spin to  propaganda.

Regular readers of this blog–not to mention my students–are well aware of my near-obsession with the effects of this current media environment on governance. I’ve become increasingly convinced that America’s tribalism and dysfunction are directly linked to the fragmentation of our information landscape, but I have struggled to come up with a clear explanation of that link.

Tom Wheeler could explain it.  And in an article for the Brookings Institution, he did.

Wheeler was the head of the FCC in the Obama Administration, and is a knowledgable and thoughtful observer of today’s media environment. I really, really encourage you to click through and read the article in its entirety.

The most incisive observation Wheeler makes is that the American media has gone from broadcasting to targetcasting.

Since the time of the early advertising-supported newspapers, economic incentive has worked to bring people together around a common set of shared information. Maximizing ad revenue meant offending as few readers as possible by at least attempting a balanced presentation of the facts. The search for balance began to retreat with the arrival of cable television, but the economic model of maximizing revenue by maximizing reach still governed. The targeting capability of social media algorithms, however, has extinguished the traditional economic model. Now profit comes not through the broad delivery of common information, but the targeted delivery of selected information. The result is an attack on the model of shared information that is necessary for a democracy to function.

Radio and television are “broadcasting”: from a single source they deliver to the widest possible audience. Broadcasting changed the nature of communications from after-the-fact newspapers to the wide distribution of real time information. The image of a family huddling around the radio to hear one of FDR’s fireside chats comes to mind; a common set of inputs available to all upon which to base collective decisions.

Cable television is “narrowcasting.” Cable is like a video newsstand with many titles from which to choose. To differentiate themselves on this newsstand cable news channels developed “an attitude” espousing different political viewpoints. While narrowcasting was driven by conflict and disagreement, the revenue-maximizing goal was still the same as broadcasters’: reach the largest audience possible.

Social media is “targetcasting.” Software algorithms owned by the social media platforms watch how users behave online and use that data to categorize them into specific groups. They then sell advertisers the ability to reach those groups. Targetcasting companies make money the opposite way from broadcasters and narrowcasters. Instead of selling reach to a wide audience, they charge a premium to target a small but specifically defined group.

An even greater differentiator between traditional media and social media is how targetcasting is available only to a specific audience. Such secret targeting tears at the fabric of democracy. The Founding Fathers made E Pluribus Unum (out of many one) the national motto. They began the Constitution with the collective “We the people.” Such a coming together, the Founders realized, was essential for their experiment in democracy to function.

To become “We” requires a suspension of human nature’s tribal instincts in favor of a shared future. Such a belief is predicated in part on shared information.

I have taken the liberty of quoting Wheeler at length, because I think this description is at the very heart of what ails our politics. It is the crux of the problem. We really don’t occupy the same reality, because we don’t have a “common set of inputs upon which to base collective action.”

As Wheeler writes,

Coming together in an environment of shared information—an information commons—is a key component of moving from tribes to the larger Unum. When the algorithms of social media follow the money, they discourage the search for Unum and undermine the communal “We.” By delivering different information to each tribe—in secret—the algorithms keep users online for as long as possible, maximizing ad sales. In doing so, they gnaw away at the heart of “We the people.”

And as always, we are left with the question: what can we do about this? How do we re-establish an information commons? Because if we don’t, the future looks very, very grim.

 

Who Do You Resent?

Political polarization has created newly rigid political identities, complete with required enemies. Not only do partisans detest each other, devout Republicans and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Democrats also coalesce around those common enemies.

Democrats disparage the “un-woke,” distrust billionaires and powerful corporations, and rail against climate-change-deniers.

Republicans sneer at higher education, fear immigrants, use “socialism” as a dirty word (despite considerable evidence that most of them have no idea what it is), and really, really hate “elitists” –i.e., experts who actually know what they’re talking about.

“Elitists” populate the equally despised and mischaracterized “deep state.”

Frank Bruni recently had a column in the New York Times in which he explored the GOP’s resentment of professionalism–especially the patriotic public servants that Trump’s current, despicable press secretary labels“radical unelected bureaucrats.”

The impeachment inquiry and the events that led to it tell many stories. One, obviously, is about the abuse of power. Another illuminates the foul mash of mendacity and paranoia at the core of Donald Trump.

But this week, as several longtime civil servants testify at the inquiry’s first public hearings, a third narrative demands notice, because it explains the entire tragedy of the Trump administration: the larger scandals, the lesser disgraces and the current moment of reckoning.

That story is the collision of a president who has absolutely no regard for professionalism and those who try to embody it, the battle between an arrogant, unscrupulous yahoo and his humble, principled opposites.

Bruni notes that Trump’s contempt for professionalism is part and parcel of his aversion to norms of all sorts, including tradition and simple courtesy, and that such contempt has been a “distinct theme” in his business career, which has been “rife with cheating, and his political life, which is greased with lies.”

Go back to his initial staffing of senior posts and recall how shoddy the vetting process was. Also notice two prominent classes of recruits: people who had profoundly questionable preparation for the jobs that he nonetheless gave them (Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Stephen Miller, Javanka) and genuine professionals who wagered that their skills would be critically necessary — and thus highly valued — and that Trump would surely rise to the established codes and expected conduct of his office.

Now look at how many of those professionals (James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn, Dan Coats) are gone. And tell me whether Trump has ever had the epiphany that the presidency is, in fact, a profession.

Interestingly, the Trump Administration’s sorry excuse for vetting came to public notice again just this week, when multiple media outlets reported that a senior official had embellished her résumé with highly misleading claims about her professional background, and had gone so far as to create a fake Time magazine cover with her face on it. She had invented a role on a U.N. panel, claimed she had addressed both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and implied she had testified before Congress, none of which was true. Lying at this level should have been easy to uncover, but she was appointed–and continues to serve–as a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department.

As Bruni says

A crisis of professionalism defines his administration, in which backstabbing is the new glad-handing, firings are cruel, exits are ugly, the turnover is jaw-dropping, the number of unfilled positions is mind-boggling, and many officials have titles that are prefaced with “acting” — a modifier with multiple meanings in this case.

Trump slyly markets his anti-professionalism as anti-elitism and a rejection of staid, cautious thinking. But it’s really his way of excusing his ignorance, costuming his incompetence and greenlighting his hooliganism.

Two of the professionals who have come forward to testify about Trump’s effort to blackmail the President of Ukraine were described by Michael McFaul, a former United States ambassador to Russia, in a recent essay for The New York Review of Books titled “The Deeply Dedicated State.”

Both always have struck me as first-rate government servants, singularly focused on advancing American national interests. Both have served Republican and Democratic presidents, and even after decades of interacting with them both, I could not guess how either of them votes.”

He characterized them as “accidental heroes” who aren’t “likely to seek the limelight.” “They are extremely well trained, competent, and highly regarded professionals,” he summarized.

That’s why they bucked Trump. And that’s why he can’t bear them.

When people resent competence, when they sneer at honorable public servants as “elitists” or label them members of a nefarious “deep state,” it tells you a great deal about their own deficits.

Such resentment permeates today’s Republican Party, and that explains a lot.

 

We Don’t Need None Of Yer Dumb Facts…

The current version of the GOP seems intent upon retreating to its roots in the the Know-Nothing Party.

In September, a Republican lawmaker from Tennessee made an impassioned plea to get rid of higher education. 

It seems that evil professors and other “elitists” are brainwashing students, presumably by introducing them to “facts” and “science” and other matter likely to wean them from the verities preferred by the lawmaker.

A Tennessee state GOP lawmaker has called for getting rid of the entire higher education system, asserting that such a move would “save America” and cut out “the liberal breeding ground.”

State Sen. Kerry Roberts made the remarks while speaking on his conservative talk radio show last week. He addressed his problems with the higher education system while discussing a recent legislative hearing focused on abortion legislation.

“If there’s one thing that we can do to save America today, it’s to get rid of our institutions of higher education right now and cut the liberal breeding ground off,” he said, before questioning why public colleges were funded by tax dollars.

If you saw this, and dismissed it as a bit of buffoonery representative of a fringe belief, allow me to enlighten you. Anti-intellectualism is the default policy preference of the Trump administration. Science, especially, is perceived as an enemy to be overcome, rather than a source of valuable information.

According to the New York Times,

The Trump administration is preparing to significantly limit the scientific and medical research that the government can use to determine public health regulations, overriding protests from scientists and physicians who say the new rule would undermine the scientific underpinnings of government policymaking.

A new draft of the Environmental Protection Agency proposal, titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions. E.P.A. officials called the plan a step toward transparency and said the disclosure of raw data would allow conclusions to be verified independently.

Andrew Wheeler, the former fossil fuel lobbyist who is currently dismantling the EPA, has a soothing explanation: he says that good science that which can be replicated and independently validated, science that can hold up to scrutiny. Therefore, the new approach is simply an effort to ensure that the agency is using “good science.”

For people who don’t understand scientific research, that sounds eminently reasonable.For people who do understand research, not so much.

The measure would make it more difficult to enact new clean air and water rules because many studies detailing the links between pollution and disease rely on personal health information gathered under confidentiality agreements. And, unlike a version of the proposal that surfaced in early 2018, this one could apply retroactively to public health regulations already in place.

“This means the E.P.A. can justify rolling back rules or failing to update rules based on the best information to protect public health and the environment, which means more dirty air and more premature deaths,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association.

Public health experts warned that studies that have been used for decades — to show, for example, that mercury from power plants impairs brain development, or that lead in paint dust is tied to behavioral disorders in children — might be inadmissible when existing regulations come up for renewal.

For instance, a groundbreaking 1993 Harvard University project that definitively linked polluted air to premature deaths, currently the foundation of the nation’s air-quality laws, could become inadmissible. When gathering data for their research, known as the Six Cities study, scientists signed confidentiality agreements to track the private medical and occupational histories of more than 22,000 people in six cities.

As the Times reports, this is simply the latest in a stream of efforts to deny the negative effects of fossil fuels.

The change is part of a broader administration effort to weaken the scientific underpinnings of policymaking. Senior administration officials have tried to water down the testimony of government scientists, publicly chastised scientists who have dissented from President Trump’s positions and blocked government researchers from traveling to conferences to present their work.

The proposed rule is opposed by virtually every medical and scientific organization. Michael Halpern, deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists describes it as a wholesale politicization of the process.

That politicization requires rejecting “elitism”–defined as reliance on facts, evidence, science, and belief in the value of knowledge.

Welcome to what has become of the Republican Party.

 

I Just Don’t Get It

It’s really getting to me.

A week or so ago, a federal court ordered Donald Trump to pay two million dollars to charities he had defrauded by using his ostensibly charitable foundation as a personal and political slush fund. Veterans were among the causes from which he stole.

Veterans.

A Facebook meme I’ve seen several times since that court order says something to the effect that “what if you lived in a country whose leader stole from charity—and no one cared? You live in that country.”

Of course, that isn’t accurate. A lot of us care. But then, there are Americans who clearly don’t–Americans who continue to support Donald Trump no matter what despicable things he does– and for the life of me, I can’t understand why.

I realize that most people who support Trump neither follow nor understand public policy, and are basically unaware of the dreadful policies pursued by his administration. They also aren’t watching the Impeachment hearings–they’re just hearing about them from Fox.

Given all the data about civic ignorance, I can also believe that most of his “fans” don’t have the faintest idea how government works, what the Constitution requires, or how much of an assault on critical democratic norms his administration represents.

But here’s the thing.

According to polls, some 40% of voters still support Donald Trump. That’s despite an unending stream of disclosures that have been so widely reported that even people who watch Fox News could hardly have escaped hearing about them. It is virtually impossible to live in the U.S. and not know about the infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape, or his payoffs to porn stars, or the numerous women who’ve accused him of sexual assault. They could not have avoided witnessing his crude, rude and ignorant behaviors, or reading at least some of the unending series of tweets in which he brags, lies and insults using ungrammatical English and misspelled words.

People who voted for him because they thought he was a businessman must now know about his multiple bankruptcies. Even if they dismiss those as “smart” strategies to avoid paying what he owed, surely his increasingly frantic efforts to hide his tax returns would have raised a question about what it is that he’s so determined to hide.

Voters and elected Republicans who still support him have rejected the Mueller Report. They’ve ignored pictures of refugee children in cages. They have refused to believe the testimony of war heroes and longtime diplomats. I could go on and on…but everyone reading this blog can supply additional examples.

Andrew Sullivan recently described the phenomenon:

“The GOP as a whole has consistently backed Trump rather than the Constitution. Sixty-two percent of Republican supporters have said that there is nothing Trump could do, no crime or war crime, no high crime or misdemeanor, that would lead them to vote against him in 2020. There is only one way to describe this, and that is a cult, completely resistant to reason or debate. The tribalism is so deep that Trump seems incapable of dropping below 40 percent in the national polls, and is competitive in many swing states. The cult is so strong that Trump feels invulnerable.”

The question is: why?

I understand partisanship, and the reluctance of people who have voted for someone to admit to themselves and others that they made a mistake. I understand the loyalty of the White Nationalists who see Trump as the Great White (Christian, male) hope. I’m even prepared to recognize that there are people who simply don’t read or listen to any news other than Fox.

But surely that isn’t forty percent of American voters.

I understood the people who wanted to have a beer with George W. Bush. He was personally pleasant, at least. Donald Trump, however, is personally repulsive—someone with no apparent redeeming characteristics. He’s a walking, bloviating example of everything American schools and churches and nonprofit organizations purport to reject. I can’t believe there are people who would want their children or grandchildren to model their behaviors on his.

So—why? Surely, 40% of our neighbors aren’t all bigots.  Could 40% of Americans actually believe Trump’s transparent lies?

My (formerly conservative Republican) brother-in-law thinks they do. He quotes Abraham Lincoln’s famous line  “you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time…”  and says that the 2020 vote for Trump will provide an exact count of the number of Americans who can be fooled all of the time.

Other theories are welcome, because I just don’t get it. I’m at a loss.