I Wonder Why We Have These Agencies and Programs?

Or, more accurately, why we had them.

A few days ago, The Hill came out with a list of 66 agencies that the tax “reform” bill simply eliminates. They include everything from Agriculture’s Economic Development agencies to the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Grants and Education to the Education Department’s Grants for Comprehensive Literacy Development  and Effective Instruction.

At a time when our infrastructure is crumbling around us, the bill eliminates the Transportation Department’s National Infrastructure Investments (TIGER).

The list includes many other programs that would seem important, as well as a number of initiatives with puzzling names and obscure purposes.

I would be the last person to argue against pruning the mystifying thicket of federal programs and agencies. I’m sure many of them have outlived whatever usefulness they may have once had–and it wouldn’t shock me to discover that some of them didn’t ever have much justification for their existence. That said, the process through which they are being terminated is simply indefensible.

There has not been a single hearing held to determine the continued utility of any of these agencies. To the best of my knowledge, no notices were sent out to affected constituencies, no publication in the Federal Register invited public comment. Like the rest of this monstrous bill, these decisions were made hastily, in back rooms to which neither Democrats nor more moderate Republicans were invited.

This is not the way a democratic system works. In a representative government that honors due process and the rule of law, how decisions are made is ultimately more important than the substance of the decisions themselves.

The decision to terminate a program or agency should be made in daylight, with people familiar with the purposes and operation; those making the determination should hear from critics and defenders of the program, and from proponents and opponents of its termination. There should be some version of a cost/benefit analysis upon which a final decision is made.

These 66 programs were created for a reason. There should be a principled reason for their discontinuance.

Right now, America is being ruled–not governed, but ruled–by an illegitimate cabal empowered by vote suppression and gerrymandering and answerable not to the citizens who (theoretically) elected them, but to their donors and to a much lesser extent, their rabid and uneducated base.

 

Net Neutrality

Well, they did it. Trump’s Verizon  puppet at the FCC–after a campaign of disinformation and downright dishonesty–got his (and Verizon’s) fondest wish: they voted yesterday to dispense with Obama-era rules protecting Net Neutrality.

If you are one of the many Americans who is unfamiliar with this policy, or unsure why it matters, Vox has a comprehensive explanation; if you have less time, Paul Krugman recently offered a concise analogy. Asked for his thoughts on the impending vote, and on the policy, he responded that

… for a democratic society, and also just for a society that is open to new ideas, level playing fields are really important. One of the great unifying things that we did very early on in our country’s history was to establish a postal service, where the cost of sending a letter was the same no matter who was sending it, no matter how far you were sending it…

We’ve done very, very well with providers not allowed to discriminate among different users. This is something that’s very much not broken. Why try to fix it?

This assault on Internet equality is just one of the myriad Trump Administration efforts to remake our country into a plutocracy–to make America “great” for the powerful and wealthy.

It gets harder and harder to keep track of the wholesale de-regulation that Trump insists will unleash the productivity of the market–the rollbacks of environmental regulations that keep our air breathable and our water drinkable, the withdrawal of measures to protect students from fraudulent private colleges and sexual assaults, reversal of regulations preventing fossil fuel companies from despoiling protected lands….I teach public policy, so following all of these efforts to eviscerate the rules of fair play (and not-so-incidentally, anything Obama did or favored) is part of my job–and I can’t begin to keep up.

Before the election of this monumentally ignorant man, I was not a huge fan of robust federalism, or the argument that state “laboratories of democracy” would, or at least could, constrain unwise federal policies. As I’ve watched sensible state governments respond to Trumpism by protecting immigrants, decriminalizing marijuana, enacting stringent environmental protections and demonstrating that raising taxes actually promotes economic growth, I’ve warmed to the wisdom of that argument.

And now…

Washington State has followed the shameful vote against Net Neutrality with an announcement that it will fill the void and protect Internet users: 

On the eve of an expected vote by the Federal Communications Commission to roll back crucial net neutrality rules, Gov. Jay Inslee joined Attorney General Bob Ferguson, legislators, and business leaders to announce state plans to preserve an open internet and protect Washington consumers from internet companies that are not transparent about costs or services.

Inslee wrote a letter to the FCC earlier this month, in which he made a strong case for the retention of current policy.

All Americans, as a matter of principle, should enjoy equal access to the educational, social and economic power of the internet. Ensuring this important technology remains free and unfettered is critical both to our personal freedoms and to our country’s economy,”

Making Washington State’s announcement, Inslee conceded that the FCC’s vote will preempt states from ensuring full net neutrality. But he said states can take a number of steps to promote an open internet and strengthen protections for consumers–and Washington intends to take them:

Hold companies to their commitments not to block websites, throttle speeds, or impose prioritization pricing

  • Direct the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) to establish a process for ISPs to certify that they will not engage in practices inconsistent with net neutrality principles.
  • Limit state-conferred benefits to ISPs that have made such certifications.
  • Limit applicability of UTC pole attachment rules to ISPs that are net neutral.
  • Review other state-conferred benefits such as easements and taxes.

Leverage the state’s power as a large purchaser of ISP and telecommunications services

  • Use the state government’s role as a big customer, and our ability to establish state master contracts used by localities, to incentivize Washington companies to adhere to net neutrality principles.
  • Pursue regulatory and legislative action to award contracts to vendors that meet net neutral business requirements.
  • Lead the exploration of a multi-state purchasing cooperative to procure internet service from providers that adhere to net neutrality principles.

Hold companies accountable for warranties made to consumers

  • Create a state-wide internet speed test. This will allow Washingtonians to test their own broadband speed at home, and submit the test to help appropriate state agencies determine what internet speeds consumers are receiving and where companies may be blocking or throttling.
  • Collaborate with legislators to strengthen our consumer protection laws to include the principles of net neutrality.

Encourage new entrants into the currently concentrated ISP market

  • Pursue legislation authorizing public utility districts and rural and urban port districts to provide retail ISP and telecommunications services.
  • Prohibit government-owned ISP services, such as municipal broadband networks, from engaging in blocking, throttling, or priority pricing for Internet services.

As one Washington state legislator asserted, state governments have the right to prevent a “reckless and power-intoxicated federal government from handing over access to the free flow of information to the largest corporations on this planet.”

If other states follow in Washington’s path, they will do more than protect an essential platform for American democratic discourse.

They’ll make a federalism fan out of this skeptic.

Senator Jones

The next Senator from Alabama is Democrat Doug Jones. Who’d have thunk it?

There are a number of ways to “slice and dice” Jones’ victory in the Alabama special election. Gratifying as that win was–and it really, really was!–Roy Moore was a uniquely flawed candidate, and Alabama still came uncomfortably close to preferring a bigoted child molester and scofflaw to a principled and attractive Democrat.

On the other hand, a Democrat won a statewide race in Alabama–by several metrics, the Reddest state in the country.

There were dozens of excellent columns and opinion pieces yesterday morning parsing the implications of Jones’ victory. One of those, a column by David Von Drehle in the Washington Post, included a couple of important observations. Von Drehle noted that Jones had run a  campaign that honored the old adage “When your opponent is digging his own grave, don’t grab the shovel.”

What really caught my eye, however, was this:

The Jones victory is about a rising tide of Americans who won’t swallow the bilge President Trump is pushing. Make no mistake: If Trump and his would-be Pygmalion, Stephen K. Bannon, can’t sell their mix of cultural resentment and paranoia in Alabama, they will be hard-pressed to sell it anywhere.

In my opinion, that is one of two important “take aways” from Tuesday’s election.

Yes, Moore was an unusually revolting candidate, even for today’s GOP. Yes, a majority of white voters–primarily but not exclusively rural–stuck with him anyway. (Had it not been for the African-American voters who turned out despite the numerous voter suppression tactics aimed at keeping them home, Roy Moore would be a United States Senator.)

But this is Alabama, and context is important. Although Donald Trump won Alabama by 28 points, exit polling showed his favorable rating at 47%–and his unfavorable rating at 48%. Radio ads for Moore in the final days of the campaign were unabashedly racist and anti-Semitic (Jones and George Soros are trying to start a race war…)–were appeals to what Von Drehle politely calls “cultural resentment.” Yet even in dark-red Alabama, where the urban/rural divide is deep and racism institutionalized, Trump, Bannon and the politics of white nationalism weren’t enough to drag Moore across the finish line.

So, “take away” number one: hatred as a political strategy has a limited shelf life.

However, in my opinion, take away number two is the most important. This election reaffirmed a reality to which all politicians give lip service, but too few make the focus of their campaign efforts: turnout is critical. 

Republicans haven’t won elections by winning the hearts and minds of voters; they’ve won by suppressing Democratic turnout–by gerrymandering, passing ridiculous Voter ID laws, limiting polling places and hours, and similar tactics. (In Alabama, after passing a stringent Voter ID law necessitating trips to the state’s BMV branches, they closed the branches in black neighborhoods.) Those tactics lead voters to believe the results of elections are foreordained–a conclusion that further suppresses the vote.

What I read over and over as I followed the Jones-Moore contest was that Democrats were excited–if astonished– because they saw that winning was possible. My vote could actually count!! That excitement prompted previously apathetic Democrats to turn out; it also prompted efforts by the NAACP and other organizations to overcome the structural barriers erected to discourage African-American participation.

Unusually high Democratic turnout can overcome gerrymandering in districts drawn to be safe for Republicans, because those district lines are based on turnout estimates and those turnout estimates are based upon prior voting patterns.

Of course, it helps a lot when non-crazy reliable Republican voters are faced with a choice between a whack-job child molester and a good guy…Even in Alabama.

 

 

When He’s Right, He’s Right

David Brooks can be a maddening columnist. He is often thoughtful and perceptive; obviously highly intelligent and unfailingly civil, he rarely comes across as doctrinaire. On the other hand, he often produces analyses that are surprisingly naive and occasionally even uninformed.

I read his columns regularly, because when he’s right, he’s really right. (And to be fair, even with his more off-base musings, there are usually nuggets worth considering.)

In his December 7th New York Times column, Brooks didn’t just hit it out of the park, he hit it out of the county.

Brooks is an old-fashioned Republican, conservative in the principled, Burkean sense of that term. I will readily admit that even in my most conservative days, I’ve never fallen into that particular category. Unlike the white nationalists and other morally repugnant political figures who have hijacked conservatism, however, Burkean conservatism was an entirely respectable approach. I’ve watched Brooks wrestle with that hijacking, and watched his efforts to give positions with which he clearly differed an (unearned) benefit of the doubt.

His lede describes that attitude, which he attributes to a generalized category of “good Republicans.”

A lot of good, honorable Republicans used to believe there was a safe middle ground. You didn’t have to tie yourself hip to hip with Donald Trump, but you didn’t have to go all the way to the other extreme and commit political suicide like the dissident Jeff Flake, either. You could sort of float along in the middle, and keep your head down until this whole Trump thing passed.

The column makes it pretty clear that Brooks has (finally!) turned a corner.

That’s the way these corrupt bargains always work. You think you’re only giving your tormentor a little piece of yourself, but he keeps asking and asking, and before long he owns your entire soul.

The Republican Party is doing harm to every cause it purports to serve. If Republicans accept Roy Moore as a United States senator, they may, for a couple years, have one more vote for a justice or a tax cut, but they will have made their party loathsome for an entire generation. The pro-life cause will be forever associated with moral hypocrisy on an epic scale. The word “evangelical” is already being discredited for an entire generation. Young people and people of color look at the Trump-Moore G.O.P. and they are repulsed, maybe forever.

In this week’s Times, Peter Wehner–once on the staff of the Reagan White House, and a proud conservative Evangelical–comes to much the same conclusion in a column titled “Why I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican.”

Brooks recognizes that the rot that now infects the entire GOP didn’t start with Trump.  With Sarah Palin and Fox News, the party traded a previous “ethos of excellence” for an “ethos of hucksterism.”

The Republican Party I grew up with admired excellence. It admired intellectual excellence (Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley), moral excellence (John Paul II, Natan Sharansky) and excellent leaders (James Baker, Jeane Kirkpatrick). Populism abandoned all that — and had to by its very nature. Excellence is hierarchical. Excellence requires work, time, experience and talent. Populism doesn’t believe in hierarchy. Populism doesn’t demand the effort required to understand the best that has been thought and said. Populism celebrates the quick slogan, the impulsive slash, the easy ignorant assertion. Populism is blind to mastery and embraces mediocrity.

Compare the tax cuts of the supply-side era with the tax cuts of today. There were three big cuts in the earlier era: the 1978 capital gains tax cut, the Kemp-Roth tax cut of 1981, and the 1986 tax reform. They were passed with bipartisan support, after a lengthy legislative process. All of them responded to the dominant problem of the moment, which was the stagflation and economic sclerosis. All rested on a body of serious intellectual work…

Today’s tax cuts have no bipartisan support. They have no intellectual grounding, no body of supporting evidence. They do not respond to the central crisis of our time. They have no vision of the common good, except that Republican donors should get more money and Democratic donors should have less.

The rot afflicting the G.O.P. is comprehensive — moral, intellectual, political and reputational. More and more former Republicans wake up every day and realize: “I’m homeless. I’m politically homeless.”

As readers of this blog know, I was a Republican for 35 years. In 2000, I left. I realized that the party  for which I’d worked so long no longer existed; I said then (and continue to maintain) that I hadn’t left the party, the party had left me.

Brooks is not engaging in hyperbole in that last line. Every day, I run into good, thoughtful people I used to work with–in party politics, in municipal government–who echo his lament. They no longer see the GOP as a traditional political party with a political philosophy based on a distinctive moral vision. They certainly don’t see anyone pursuing excellence.

They see what David Brooks finally sees: an immoral cult pursing its tribal interests to the detriment of the country.

Shamelessness And The Tax Bill

Jennifer Rubin is a conservative columnist. Like many of the pundits on the political Right–and unlike most GOP members of Congress– she is intellectually honest. (Here in Indiana, Paul Ogden falls into that category; I often disagree with his conclusions, but I have a high degree of respect for his intellectual integrity.)

Rubin doesn’t mince words about the GOP’s single legislative “accomplishment.”

Republicans will knock a giant hole in the budget with a tax cut of $1.5 trillion, most of which goes to the rich and corporations. Rather than acknowledge their hypocrisy on the debt, they choose to misrepresent the facts.

She then provides a couple of examples, one an exchange between George Stephanopolous and  Mitch McConnell, and one between Senator Susan Collins–ostensibly the Senate’s only GOP moderate–and Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. Forgive the length of this quote, but I think it is important not to summarize or characterize.

CHUCK TODD: Alright, if the debt is unsustainable at $14 trillion, how do you, how did you make yourself comfortable voting for something that’s going to increase the deficit? This tax bill we’re at 20.6 trillion now and the best estimates saying it’s going to even the best estimates of dynamic scoring that we could still find still add half a trillion dollars to the deficit.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Economic growth produces more revenue and that will help to offset this tax cut and actually lower the debt.

CHUCK TODD: Where’s the evidence? Where, explain to me. Find a, find a study that actually says what you’re claiming.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Let me–

CHUCK TODD: It doesn’t exist.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Let me do that. First of all if you take the C.B.O.’s formula and apply it four to four tenths of one percent increase in the GDP generates revenues of a trillion dollars, a trillion dollars. Even the joint committee on taxation has projected that the tax bill would stimulate the economy to produce hundreds of billions of additional revenue. I’ve talked four economists, including the Dean of the Columbia School of Business and former chairs of the councils of economic advisors and they believe that it will have this impact. So I think if we can stimulate the economy, create more jobs that that does generate more revenue.

CHUCK TODD: But why isn’t there a single study? I’m going to show you three studies that we have, sort of a liberal one, a centrist one, and a conservative one right up there. The most conservative one, the most pro-economic growth argument, still adds $516 billion to the deficit over ten years.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Well, talk to economists like Glenn Hubbard and Larry Lindsey and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who used to be head of the C.B.O. And they will tell you otherwise. So I think you will find that economists just don’t agree on this.

Jennifer Rubin then did what credible reporters do; she contacted the quoted economists, who told her that they had not made the statements Collins attributed to them. Both Hubbard and Holtz-Eakin said they’d told Collins that the measures would “offset but not eliminate the static budget loss.”

After confirming that even conservative Republican economists deny that the tax cuts will come close to paying for themselves, Rubin writes

This raises the question as to whether Collins and McConnell misunderstand the advice they get, choose to cherry-pick what they are given or simply don’t want to fess up that they’ve abandoned fiscal sanity in search of a political win and to soothe donors. The most generous interpretation is that they are operating with unsupportable optimism that these cuts will do something no other tax cuts have ever done– pay for themselves.

They didn’t “misunderstand.” They’re shameless and they’re lying. As Talking Points Memo reports, economists and former government officials all predict the bill will drive up the federal deficit, shrink and destabilize the health care market, make our already historic income inequality worse, and–worst of all–give Congress cover to do what Paul Ryan and his ilk have long wanted to do:  make deep cuts to the social safety net and government programs.

I’ve said it before: I don’t know how these people sleep at night.