It’s Never His Fault

If there is one area of consistency in the chaos of Trump World, it’s this: no matter what the problem is, it isn’t his fault.

The black guy did it.

Juanita Jean has one of the latest manifestations: As she writes, “I knew Fox News would find a way to blame Barack Obama for Epstein’s plea deal with Acosta.”

Apparently, a Fox commentator insisted that “Bob Mueller knew about this.” (The relevance of that assertion escapes me, but whatever…) He then went on to say that Acosta’s plea deal was “from 2008, under a Democratic administration.”

As Juanita Jean points out (and a television pundit–even one on Fox– should know) Obama wasn’t elected until six months AFTER the plea deal. “But, as we know, Obama has magical powers to make things happen even before he was born in Kenya.”

This is part of a pattern among Trump supporters–a pattern set by Trump himself. It isn’t enough to reverse every policy Obama’s administration put in place, irrespective of its merits. It’s necessary to respond to any problem, any challenge, by blaming Obama for it and insisting that he, faultless Trump, has improved the situation.

For example, Trump continues to insist that the horrific family separation policies put in place by his administration were really attributable to Obama, multiple fact checkers to the contrary:

According to FactCheck.org, “previous administrations did not have a blanket policy to prosecute parents and separate them from their children.” It was after the Trump administration announced its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy in April 2018, in which everyone who illegally entered the U.S. was referred for criminal prosecution, that thousands of migrant children were separated from their parents.

After he ordered and then aborted an air strike on Iran, Trump went on a Twitter rant blaming Obama for the tensions with Iran–tensions that escalated following Trump’s abrogation of the pact Obama had negotiated, a pact that had cooled those tensions.

He has behaved this way from the beginning: When millions of women took to the streets to protest him, shortly after he took office, Trump blamed Obama:

President Trump said Tuesday morning he believes former President Obama “is behind” nationwide protests against the new administration’s policies, taking an unusual swipe at his predecessor.

More recently, despite the fact that he has been President (okay, he’s occupied the Oval Office) for two and a half years, he blamed Obama for Turkey’s recent purchase of Russian weapons.

My favorite example of “the black guy did it” was an interview I saw (if someone has a link to the original, please post it) in which a relatively young MAGA hat wearer was talking about 9/11, and demanding to know where Obama was. “I’d really like to know why we didn’t see him responding when the planes hit.” Of course, few people had even heard of Barack Obama in 2001, when George W. Bush was in his first full year as President.

The only thing Trump and his base don’t blame on Obama is the one thing for which Obama is undeniably responsible: the economy Trump inherited.

These examples–and plenty of others (just google Trump blames Obama)–vividly demonstrate two things: Trump’s childish inability to take responsibility for his own actions and mistakes; and his racist obsession with his predecessor.

You can almost hear him brooding: How dare that black man be so much smarter, classier and (most egregious of all) more admired than I am?

Sane Americans are also brooding–about the incalculable damage this sorry excuse for a human is doing to our country and our planet, and especially about the racist reactions to the election of his predecessor that motivated his base and propelled him to the Oval Office.

Follow The Money

Want to know what America’s real priorities are? Easy; just follow the money.

Some of what we find when we examine federal spending isn’t a surprise. We’ve all watched as the Trump Administration has eviscerated the EPA, for example, so cuts and rollbacks there may infuriate but not surprise us. After all, Trump has dismissed climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” eliminated subsidies for clean energy, and slapped tariffs on solar panels.

Given this administration’s well-known bias against science, evidence and clean energy–not to mention Trump’s fondness for the dying coal industry–I shouldn’t have been surprised by the general thrust of a recent study of America’s federal subsidies for fossil fuels  by the International Monetary Fund.

But I was.

Because the amount of the subsidy was staggering.

The United States has spent more subsidizing fossil fuelsin recent years than it has on defense spending, according to a new report from the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF found that direct and indirect subsidies for coal, oil and gas in the U.S. reached $649 billion in 2015. Pentagon spending that same year was $599 billion.

The study defines “subsidy” very broadly, as many economists do. It accounts for the “differences between actual consumer fuel prices and how much consumers would pay if prices fully reflected supply costs plus the taxes needed to reflect environmental costs” and other damage, including premature deaths from air pollution.

Since most observers consider the U.S. defense budget to be hopelessly bloated, the fact that fossil fuel subsidies exceed that budget is absolutely mind-blowing.

The study concluded that if fossil fuels had been fairly priced in 2015–i.e., priced without those direct and indirect subsidies by the federal government– global carbon emissions would have been reduced by 28 percent, and deaths from fossil fuel-linked air pollution would have been cut in half.

People (like me) concerned about the environment may not have recognized the enormity of the fossil fuel subsidies, but most of us were pretty sure that a lot more federal dollars go to support fossil fuels than are directed to programs incentivizing the development of clean, alternative energy. The IMF study confirmed that suspicion.

And then there’s the extent to which our financial support of fossil fuels exceeds our investment in education. Seeing those numbers was another gut punch. After all, Americans give lots of lip service to education; we’ve had “education Presidents,” and it is the rare politician who doesn’t make education a prominent part of his or her platform.

Nevertheless, according to Forbes Magazine, that same IMF study determined that the U.S. spends ten times more money propping up the fossil fuels that drive climate change than we spend on education.

Globally, fossil fuels receive 85% of all government subsidies. What if we diverted just a portion of the U.S. subsidies and used that money to improve public education?

Virtually every candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination has expressed concern about climate change, and an intention to combat it. Voters can determine just how committed they are to the environment by asking whether the candidate plans to continue the obscene subsidies that waste our tax dollars, pad the bottom lines of immensely profitable oil and gas interests, and prevent us from effectively addressing an existential threat to the planet.

Just think what we could do if we redirected a substantial portion of the defense budget (as, interestingly, the Department of Defense itself has advocated) and entirely terminated the unnecessary, wasteful and arguably immoral subsidies for fossil fuels.

 

 

Adventures In Privatization

For a considerable period of time in the late 1900s, privatization of government functions was all the rage. (Not that it was true privatization; as I’ve noted before, actual privatization  requires that government completely withdraw from whatever activity was involved, leaving its provision entirely to the private sector.)

What public entities call privatization is almost always contracting-out or outsourcing–providing a service through a third-party surrogate rather than through government employees.

Enthusiasm for the practice has abated considerably, as research has steadily deflated the claims made by proponents. Contracting out doesn’t usually save money, for one thing, and the ability of government to monitor those with whom it contracts has proved to be less than ideal, to put it mildly.

Also, in far too many situations, contracting has become the new patronage.

There are certainly public functions that lend themselves to outsourcing, but thanks to the American penchant to go “all in” on the latest management fad, contracting has often proved disastrous. From poor outcomes, to cost overruns, to outright corruption, analyses have been increasingly negative.  A recent research project adds one: government outsourcing decreases employee diversity.

A new study by researchers at the University of Georgia revealed that when governments contract work out to private companies, fewer  African-American, Hispanic, and female employees are hired.

Over the past twenty years, private contracting has become a popular way to improve efficiency in the public sector.

“Increasingly, services that were once performed by public employees, are provided under contract by private firms,” explained study author J. Edward Kellough, a UGA professor of public administration and policy in the School of International and Public Affairs. “The question,” he added, “is whether this growth in contracting has been detrimental to minority and female employment.”

That’s not nearly the worst of it.

The Trump Administration has been contracting with private prison companies to house refugees at our southern border. Private prisons are arguably the most striking misuse of government outsourcing, and their operation of border facilities has raised understandable outrage.

I’ll let Paul Krugman take it from here.

Is it cruelty, or is it corruption? That’s a question that comes up whenever we learn about some new, extraordinary abuse by the Trump administration — something that seems to happen just about every week. And the answer, usually, is “both.”

What about the detention centers at the border?

And the same goes for the atrocities the U.S. is committing against migrants from Central America. Oh, and save the fake outrage. Yes, they are atrocities, and yes, the detention centers meet the historical definition of concentration camps.

One reason for these atrocities is that the Trump administration sees cruelty both as a policy tool and as a political strategy: Vicious treatment of refugees might deter future asylum-seekers, and in any case it helps rev up the racist base. But there’s also money to be made, because a majority of detained migrants are being held in camps run by corporations with close ties to the Republican Party.

Krugman then sums up the whole sorry experiment with “privatization.”

Privatization of public services — having them delivered by contractors rather than government employees — took off during the 1980s. It has often been justified using the rhetoric of free markets, the supposed superiority of private enterprise to government bureaucracy.

This was always, however, a case of bait-and-switch. Free markets, in which private businesses compete for customers, can accomplish great things, and are indeed the best way to organize most of the economy. But the case for free markets isn’t a case for private business where there is no market: There’s no reason to presume that private firms will do a better job when there isn’t any competition, because the government itself is the sole customer. In fact, studies of privatization often find that it ends up costing more than having government employees do the work.

Nor is that an accident. Between campaign contributions and the revolving door, plus more outright bribery than we’d like to think, private contractors can engineer overpayment on a scale beyond the wildest dreams of public-sector unions.

Krugman makes an even more important point about accountability.

As he says, if you outsource garbage collection, it’s pretty easy to determine whether the garbage has been collected (although I’d note it’s not so easy to tell where it’s been dumped…). But if you hire a private company to do something the public can’t see–like prisons or migrant camps– it’s easy to hide poor performance and generous overpayments to political cronies.

And running a prison, which is literally walled off from public view, is almost a perfect example of the kind of government function that should not be privatized. After all, if a private prison operator bulks up its bottom line by underpaying personnel and failing to train them adequately, if it stints on food and medical care, who in the outside world will notice?

And of course, the administration and its cronies profit from these facilities. It’s hard to disagree with Krugman’s final observation:

Every betrayal of American principles also seems, somehow, to produce financial benefits for Trump and his friends.

 

Shortsighted Self Interest

I’ve been struck by three observations I’ve come across in as many days.

The first was a comment by someone I don’t know, made in response to a post by a Facebook friend. The friend had (surprise!) criticized Trump; the comment challenged him to identify any way in which he, personally, had been harmed by Trump’s policies. The thrust of the comment was “you haven’t personally experienced a problem, so your criticism is unjustified.”

The very next day, I was watching “Morning Joe” while I was on the treadmill. The panel members were analyzing (okay, pontificating over) the Democratic Presidential field. During the discussion, Scarborough asserted that voters are ultimately motivated by their own interests, by what they believe the candidate will do for them, personally, not by “big ideas” or “abstract” policies or principles.

I wasn’t sure why, but both of these opinions nagged at me. Then my older granddaughter posted a meme that clarified the reason for my discomfort: it said I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people.

That post crystalized what bothered me.

There clearly are people–probably more than most of us want to admit–who base their actions and their votes solely on their perceived personal self-interest.  That self-interest may be financial, but in the age of Trump, as I’ve repeatedly noted, it is more often cultural.

Such people cast their ballots for candidates they believe will favor their tribe, however they define that tribe. It might be bankers or fossil-fuel investors–but it is more often white Evangelical Christians or white people generally.

Other people, not so much.

Are children being caged at America’s southern border? Well–as a Fox “personality” put it–they aren’t our children. Is the minimum wage far below the level of a living wage, with the result that working Americans need to hold down two or more jobs just to pay the rent? Well, I’m doing okay, so why should I care? Are millions of people unable to access even minimal healthcare? I have health insurance; if others don’t, it’s probably their own fault.

It isn’t just that these people are a lot like “it’s all about me” Donald Trump–less obvious or crude about it, perhaps, but similarly self-engrossed. It’s that there is a great irony in their perception of where genuine self-interest lies.

As Alexander Pope wrote, “no man is an island.” He was so right.

If my neighbors have the plague, and it goes untreated, I’m likely to catch it too. If they’re too impoverished to maintain their properties, the value of my property will suffer a decline. If those who live in my city are unable (or unwilling) to pay reasonable taxes, my car will be damaged by driving on streets filled with potholes, there won’t be enough police to keep my family safe, and numerous public amenities that I use and enjoy will be shuttered or limited. If significant numbers of children in my city are consigned to substandard schools, live in homes with un-remediated lead paint and/or contaminated water, my business will have problems finding both workers and customers.

The (very obvious) point is that my well-being depends upon an extensive physical and social infrastructure. Humans are inextricably interdependent– which is why enlightened self-interest requires attending to those “abstract policies” that affect the wellbeing of others.

Enlightened self-interest requires us to care for others.

The fatal flaw of plutocracy is not that some people have more than others. It is that some people, when they have a great deal, no longer see themselves as part of an interdependent social fabric, no longer realize that the problems of their fellow-citizens inevitably and adversely affect them.

They’re wrong–and their wake-up call is coming.

Moderation Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

I really loved the introduction to Eugene Robinson’s July 2d column.

Never-Trump Republicans and independents may be shocked to hear this, but the Democratic Party is likely to nominate a Democrat for president. That means they’re not going to nominate someone who thinks exactly like a Never-Trump Republican….

I, for one, have pretty much had it with the chorus of center-right voices braying that the Democrats are heading for certain doom — and the nation for four more years of President Donald Trump — if the party picks a nominee who actually embraces the party’s ideals. Elections are choices.

As Robinson notes, these Never Trumpers will have to decide whether to vote for the eventual nominee, “in the interest of ending our long national nightmare,” or “stick with a president who kowtows to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un.” (To which I would add: And is manifestly unfit for any public office.)

A recent, more academic version of Robinson’s argument was made by Jeffrey Isaacs in Public Seminar. Isaacs notes that a number of conservatives have strongly opposed Trump, “distancing or even divorcing themselves from the Trumpist Republican Party” and promoting a centrist politics of “moderation.”

He then goes on to make a very important point:

While they are “against Trump,” and indeed sincere in their basic commitment to constitutional democracy, they do not go very far in their critique of Trumpism, laying too much responsibility at the feet of Trump himself, and not enough at the feet of a political-economic system in need of substantial reform, and even less at the feet of the Republican Party, and its long-term rightward shift, which has brought us to our current crisis.

Isaacs points to the punditry decrying Democrats’ supposed lurch to the left, and its insistence that only “moderation” will defeat Trump.

progressives do not need to be “schooled” about this by conservatives who have been cast adrift by Trumpist barbarism and are now seeking a politically safe harbor….

There is something very self-righteous, and indeed immoderate, about the way that some “Never Trump” conservatives have been writing about these challenges.

Isaacs particularly takes David Brooks to task for one of his recent, self-important columns.

What Brooks fails to note is that this polarization has a very long history and that, as most serious political analysts have long observed, it is a history of asymmetrical polarization. The Republican Party, in short, has moved much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has moved to the left… Trump is an exceptional and exceptionally terrible and dangerous President. But Trump became President by bending the Republican Party to his will, rather easily bringing its own deeply racist, sexist, and inegalitarian tendencies out into the open, and then exulting in and intensifying them. There is a clear line linking Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, Palin, eight years of rather vicious anti-Obama obstructionism, and Trumpism. And conservative and neoconservative writers who often offered aid and comfort to these forces, working for Republican leaders and editing pro-Republican journals, thus played an important role in the rise of Trump, even as they quickly became horrified by the monster they had helped to create.

Isaacs emphasizes the reality that Republicans have moved much farther to the right than Democrats have moved left. (The reality is that–despite hysterical accusations from the GOP and Fox News– America doesn’t have an actual Left, at least not as Europeans define that term. We have at most a center-Left.)

Because the partisan polarization has been so markedly asymmetrical, and because the Republican move to the right has involved so many especially egregious assaults on democracy— from a deliberate political strategy of voting rights abridgment to immigration restriction to assaults on reproductive freedom to support for the militarization of policing to the gutting of environmental regulation and social citizenship — and because all of these things came together in a perfect storm to bring us Trumpism, a strong and passionate resistance has emerged on the left.

This resistance is an explicable reaction to the manifestly reactionary nature of Trumpism. It is a political mobilization that is necessary in order to defeat Trumpism, which will require not median-voter centrism but the energizing of activist campaigns across the country capable of contesting abridgements of voting rights and mobilizing millions of new voters. And it is an ethically exemplary form of democratic civic activism and political empowerment. This does not make it perfect or above criticism. Indeed, this resistance contains a multiplicity of tendencies and is characterized by sometimes serious divisions and debates. But it is a resistance nonetheless, and one fueled by broadly progressive impulses and commitments to greater political, social, and economic democracy.

You really need to read the whole thing.