Spin Cycle

Tom Wheeler was Chair of the Federal Communications Commission from 2013 to 2017. In the wake of Sinclair Broadcasting’s application to acquire Tribune Media, he wrote a very troubling article for the Guardian. 

It is a major decision, since the resulting broadcast behemoth would hold as many as 233 local television stations reaching into more than 70 percent of American homes. Allegations about the Trump administration’s closeness to Sinclair – including Jared Kushner’s campaign deal with them – have been made. All I know is what I read, but the lead up to the actual decision has been significant and seems to presage approval.

Wheeler has previously warned that Trump’s FCC has been strategically knocking down all the regulatory barriers that have kept Sinclair Broadcasting from becoming a national Goliath.

First, the FCC changed the rules so that some stations are counted at only half their reach – using funny math to comply with Congress’ mandate that no single broadcaster should control access to more than 39 percent of American households. Then, the FCC proposed eliminating the requirement that each licensee maintain a local studio, doing away with the concept that broadcasters perform an important public service by delivering local news and information over the people’s airwaves. Finally, the commission eliminated the prohibition on a favorite trick of slick lawyers: that total management control and appropriation of profits of a television station doesn’t constitute effective ownership, and thus avoids Congress’ cap.

The rules that the current FCC Chair has changed or evaded were intended to protect a broadcasting marketplace of ideas–to prevent any one voice from effectively drowning out other voices, other perspectives, in a community.

Proponents of these sorts of rule changes and mega-mergers argue that the internet, social media and things like satellite radio provide adequate diversity of opinion. Perhaps, when those constantly morphing mediums have “settled in” and become routine touchstones in the cultural landscape (if that ever happens), that argument might carry some weight. At this point in our constantly-morphing media landscape, however, allowing Sinclair–or any one outlet–to dominate the airwaves would be like giving Fox or MSNBC control of all but a few cable news channels.

The current chair of the FCC has already signaled his agenda by trying to reverse the rules protecting Net Neutrality. 

This rule-changing at the FCC illustrates one of the most dangerous aspects of the Trump Administration. We all worry about having a mentally-ill President’s finger on the nuclear button, but very few of us know about–or pay attention to–obscure and technocratic rule changes, the sorts of sabotage that Scott Pruitt is engaging in at the EPA. While decent citizens react negatively to Trump’s embrace of the KKK, et al, most of us don’t even see what is happening in more boring regulatory precincts.

For that matter, most of us were unaware of Sinclair’s determinedly rightwing political agenda until John Oliver’s recent, scathing take-down.

As the French philosopher Jacques Ellul once warned,  the emergence of mass media made possible the use of propaganda techniques on a societal scale. Monopolies in the markets for goods are bad enough; allowing any perspective to monopolize the marketplace of ideas is infinitely worse.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat–And Raise That Airport…

I try to read pretty broadly–both to inform myself and to come up with fodder for this blog. But I’ll admit that my reading materials of choice ordinarily would be unlikely to include Engineering News Record, which bills itself as “The Construction Resource.”

However, my husband, a retired architect, subscribes and reads it religiously, and I have to admit the publication quite often has fascinating information that you just don’t see elsewhere. Case in point: the August 7/14 issue’s special report on rising sea levels and what a sampling of threatened communities are doing about them.

I learned a lot.

  • Tangier Island, Virginia, has lost more than 66% of its land mass since 1850, and is eroding by some 25 additional feet each year.  Its Mayor wants to build a seawall, but the Army Corp of Engineers says the island will have to be abandoned sometime within the next 50 years.
  • In Cape Cod, the shrinking of the salt marsh is being met with construction of $4.8 million dollar bridge intended to restore natural tidal flow and–hopefully–sustain the wetlands. The article says the bridge is an example of a number of small, but high-impact projects that are their “best hope for fighting climate change.”
  • Boston is projected to experience between 2 and 6 feet of sea-level rise by 2200, and among other projects is building and reinforcing seawalls.
  • In New York City, Superstorm Sandy lent urgency to a “Big U” planned flood-protection system and an East Side Coastal Resiliency Project.
  • Atlantic City is building a 1,740 foot long seawall.
  • The Hampton Roads region of Norfolk, Virginia–facing one of the “worst combinations of erosion, subsidence and sea level rise in the nation”–explored the building of seawalls and sea gates, and concluded such measures would be too costly; according to the article, they are “looking for ways to live with increasing flooding.”

The article also reports on measures being studied or taken in Charleston,  Hattaras Island, Dare County, N.C., Houston, Miami Beach (which faces a sea level rise of 1.4 feet by 2040), Sacramento, Seattle and Louisiana (where measures to keep the state’s coastlines from falling apart have thus far been inadequate.)

Perhaps the most challenging situations are found at twelve of the nation’s airports. San Francisco is raising levees, and Miami International (facing 2 feet of sea level rise by 2060) is currently elevating its baggage handling area. But as one engineer notes, “You can’t just raise one runway–you have to raise the entire airport.”

I know you will be shocked–shocked–to learn that Trump’s proposed budget eliminates several of the climate-resilience programs that are helping these and other coastal communities with the enormous costs involved in these efforts.

Trump and Scott Pruitt–who is systematically dismantling the EPA–are both proponents of continued and even increased use of the fossil fuels that accelerate the pace of climate change. They dismiss–or choose to ignore– the scientific consensus. Trump reportedly told the mayor of a town located on an island that is sinking into the ocean “not to worry.” See, if we don’t worry about it, everything will be hunky-dory…

Just last week, Trump dissolved the science panel advising the EPA on climate change and rising sea levels. 

Too bad we can’t send Trump, Pruitt and other “alternate facts” assholes to an alternate universe where reality doesn’t bite.

The Three “I”s

Let’s deconstruct the issue of economic growth.

If there is one thing all politicians support, at every level of government, it is growing the economy. Unfortunately, few of those political figures recognize the economic effects of their other policy preoccupations. Here in Indiana, that disconnect was on vivid display during then-Governor Mike Pence’s effort to privilege religious discrimination against LGBTQ citizens; it was equally obvious in North Carolina in the wake of the so-called “bathroom bill.”

It’s somewhat less obvious–but no less consequential–in Trump’s efforts to slash the budget and to drastically reduce immigration. A recent report from the Brookings Institution considered what it would take to achieve 3% growth in GDP, if that level of expansion is even possible: “There are three I’s that can do this: immigration, infrastructure, and investment.”

Infrastructure is the most obvious: not only does America desperately need to improve our deteriorating roads and bridges, not only do we need massive improvements to rail and public transportation, but cities and states across the country need the jobs a comprehensive infrastructure program would generate. As the Brookings Report notes,

Infrastructure jobs are disproportionately middle-class (defined as wages between the 25% and 75% percentiles, so this is the real middle-class and not the upper-middle class; there is no Dream Hoarding going on here).

Investment is harder to discuss, because far too many lawmakers fail to distinguish between investment and  routine expense. Conceptually, however, most of us understand that we must invest in order to grow–it’s the difference between payments on your home mortgage and the amount you spent at that fancy restaurant. Trump’s budget may not reflect that understanding, but many lawmakers do recognize the difference. Unfortunately, many self-identified “fiscal hawks” do not.

We need to increase our nation’s investment in research, development, and people. The federal government’s investment as a share of total research and development has fallen to multi-generational lows. Increasing the federal government’s investment will not bust the budget. Currently, the federal government’s entire investment in R&D (as measured by the OECD) is equal to only about one-tenth of our nation’s defense budget. Investments like these have proven track records of increasing economic growth.

When it comes to the importance of immigration to economic growth, however, American xenophobia is far more influential than economic reality.

Comprehensive immigration reform, such as the bipartisan legislation which passed the Senate in 2013 (Schumer-Rubio), would increase our nation’s work force, bring economic activity out of the shadows and into the mainstream, increase our nation’s economic and physical security, and boost our GDP. One estimate sees an increase in $1.5 trillion in GDP cumulatively over the next decade, as compared to the status quo. That same study contrasts with the deportation-only policy that appears to be favored by some in the Trump Administration, which would reduce economic output by over $2 trillion.  Even scholars from the CATO Institute argue that immigration reform could be used to boost GDP, with an earlier estimate of an increase of over 1.25% of GDP.

As another Brookings report notes,

President Trump claims that legal immigration levels should be cut in half and that greater priority should be placed on those with high skills. Both of these claims fly in the face of census statistics that show that current immigration levels are increasingly vital to the growth of much of America, and that recent arrivals are more highly skilled than ever before. Current immigration is especially important for areas that are losing domestic migrants to other parts of the country including nearly half of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

Well, that’s what happens when you elect a man who has no idea how the economy works, and for whom facts are meaningless…

 

 

Free Speech Conundrums

A friend of mine–a very thoughtful observer of American life and culture–asked for my opinion of the ACLU’s reported decision not to represent Charlottesville protestors alleging violation of their free speech rights if the “speakers” were armed at the time.

I haven’t seen a detailed statement to that effect, but based upon what I know, I agree with it.

When I teach the free speech clause, I tell students it requires distinguishing between speech—defined as the transmission of an idea—and action. The government cannot prohibit or punish the articulation of a message; it can, however, justifiably prohibit or punish harmful actions.

It isn’t always easy to draw the line, to identify when a message or idea becomes something else.

I illustrate the dilemma by giving students a number of “scenarios” requiring that they  decide whether something was speech or intimidation, speech or fraud, speech or harassment, speech or the first step in commission of a crime ( the RICO arguments).

Assume that a 6’4″ muscular body builder tells a hundred pound 5’1″ woman “If you don’t let me [fill in the blank], I’ll beat you so badly you’ll be unrecognizable.” Assume, also, that he does nothing more–doesn’t lunge toward her, or otherwise make menacing moves–has he simply exercised his constitutionally-protected freedom of speech? Or is he guilty of threat and intimidation?

What’s the difference between a labor union picketing a store by marching on the sidewalk with placards, and anti-choice activists coming into a residential neighborhood with bullhorns and screaming from 2:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m night after night in front of the home of the Director of Planned Parenthood? (True story.)

Can we draw a distinction between the speaker who says “I think we need to overthrow the government, and this is why,” and the one who tells a group of angry citizens “I’ve got the rifles outside in my truck! Everyone who’s with me come and get one and we’ll march on City Hall right now!”

As they used to say on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other. And by and large, the courts have understood the differences.

So I agree with the ACLU’s decision. (I am surprised; it seemingly breaks a long tradition of ACLU First Amendment absolutism.) In the real world, racist speech by an armed and confrontational White Supremacist crosses the line from protected expression to  criminal intimidation.

Permit me to offer an (admittedly imperfect) analogy: the ACLU supported the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. I tend to be a free speech purist, and in the abstract, I agreed with the reasoning. But in the real world, that decision gives the rich and powerful permission to corrupt the political process and drown out the speech of others. I agree with former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm, who once told me that the original legal error, in his opinion, was Buckley v. Valeo’s equation of money with speech. I also agree with former Representative Lee Hamilton, who has said that the Supreme Court doesn’t need more Justices who graduated from Harvard Law; it needs more Justices who’ve run for County Sheriff.

The First Amendment protects the exchange of ideas, no matter how pernicious or hurtful or offensive. However, it does not protect actions that government can properly forbid, merely because those actions are accompanied by–or accomplished through–the spoken word.

It isn’t always easy to tell the difference, and we may not all agree on where the line should be drawn, but we have to draw it.

GOP R.I.P.

There is more than one way for a political party to die.

If you ask people of my vintage–the party volunteers, candidates, office holders and party functionaries who populated the Indiana Statehouse and the Hudnut Administration’s sixteen years in City Hall–the GOP we worked for and supported is long gone. We don’t recognize the party that bears the name.

The death of a political party via this sort of transformation into something much darker and different is less visible than the sort of death experienced by the Whigs, but it is no less real.

For the last two decades, at least, I’ve been predicting a split between the GOP’s “business wing”–those we used to call Country Club Republicans–and its far-Right fringe. (Helpful hint: don’t ever bet money on predictions I make; I’m notoriously wrong about nearly all of them.) It seemed inevitable that members of the sober business community, fixated on fiscal prudence and economic issues, would be increasingly unwilling to partner with and vote for the religious fanatics, flat-earthers and white nationalists who had become the party’s base.

If the divorce I saw as likely back in 2000 (the year I “came out” as a Democrat) is ever going to occur, it will be precipitated by Donald Trump–an unstable and self-engrossed con man no rational businessperson would hire for any responsible position.

I may still be proven wrong, but I’m no longer prophesying in the wilderness. Others have begun predicting the fracturing of what’s left of the GOP.

On August 8th–before Trump’s horrifying reaction to Charlottesville–the Guardian devoted an article to the defection of GOP conservatives from the party that had embraced (or at least tolerated) Trump. The article began with the highly visible unhappiness of Senator Jeff Flake.

Jeff Flake of Arizona, among 17 conservative politicians, activists, officials and pundits interviewed over two months, revealed that while the president has given rightwing fringe groups a seat at the table, his alliance with his own party remains highly precarious.

The article proceeds to quote a number of prominent Republicans who shared their disdain for Trump and his enablers. Eliot Cohen, a former state department counsellor to Condoleezza Rice, said:

“This fundamentally boils down to character, and his character is rotten. He’s a narcissist who happens to have taken control of the Republican party. Trump has taken conservatives back to a different era, before William F Buckley drove out the Birchers, the bigots and the antisemites. We’re now back in a different world.

British conservative historian Niall Ferguson agreed:

The Republicans have surprised me in one respect and that was the poor discipline of the party. If you think of this in British terms, essentially we are now in a quasi-monarchy, kind of what Alexander Hamilton vaguely had in mind. But it’s a monarchy in the sense that the White House is a court and Trump is like one of those people who becomes king who’s not terribly well-suited to the role. And so there’s rampant factionalism and infighting and erratic decisions by the king, and Paul Ryan’s the prime minister who’s trying to manage affairs in the estates general. But the problem is that from a British vantage point, the party discipline’s very weak.

The article goes on to quote a significant number of prominent conservatives, some still supportive and others noting that Trump’s erratic and uninformed behavior is inflicting substantial damage on the party, and widening, not healing, the rifts that have been growing for some time. Two of the most critical were Charlie Sykes, a talk-radio conservative, and Michael Steele, former Chair of the national GOP.

Sykes pointed to the obvious danger of “going along”: you end up accepting  “someone who mocks the disabled and insults women because he gets you a social policy win.”

For his part, Steele says out loud what so many long-time Republicans say quietly:

This is my 40th year as a Republican and it is the first time I can honestly say I don’t recognise this party and some of the people who are leading it.

And this was before Charlottesville.

The GOP I once belonged to is already dead. The question for conservatives now is: what will become of its distasteful, immoral, unAmerican remains?