A Shared Understanding of Reality

For probably twenty years, I have written about the growing gulf between libertarian and “country club” Republicans, on the one hand, and the Evangelical/social conservative/white nationalists who make up an ever-growing percentage of the party, on the other.

I think it is safe to say that the “Never Trumpers” come disproportionately from the ranks of the (increasingly endangered) libertarians.

While I have significant differences with libertarians on economic policy, they tend to be educated and thoughtful proponents of a particular worldview, not– like so many on both the far Right and far Left–emotional and tribal “my way or the highway” extremists.

Trump’s assault on norms of democratic governance has deepened the rift between libertarian Republicans and the others– a rift underscored by a recent article from Reason Magazine,titled “Trump’s Congressional Defenders Deny Reality.” (Reason is a premier publication of libertarianism.)

During Monday’s impeachment hearing, Republican lawyer Stephen Castor denied that Donald Trump had asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading contender to oppose Trump in next year’s election. “I don’t think the record supports that,” Castor said.

That jaw-dropping moment starkly illustrated the lengths to which Republicans have gone in rebutting the charge that Trump abused his powers for personal gain. The president’s defenders have repeatedly contested well-established facts in a way that makes fair-minded nonpartisans despair of having an impeachment debate based on a shared understanding of reality.

According to the White House’s own transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Trump asked Zelenskiy to look into the claim that Biden pressed the Ukrainian government to replace Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin with the aim of thwarting an investigation of Burisma, an energy company that employed Biden’s son Hunter as a board member. “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution,” Trump said, adding that “it sounds horrible to me.”

Trump asked Zelenskiy to “look into it,” and Zelenskiy agreed, saying his new prosecutor general “will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned” (i.e., Burisma). Trump himself has said what he wanted from Zelenskiy was “very simple”—”a major investigation into the Bidens.”

You can argue, as Republicans have, that there was nothing improper about that request. But you cannot credibly deny that Trump made it.

This, in a nutshell, is America’s current dilemma: We do not have a shared understanding of reality. There are multiple reasons for this state of affairs: increasing tribalism, a media environment that encourages confirmation bias and discourages a shared recognition of fact, a widening divide between educated and uneducated Americans, and the cynical manipulation of persistent racial and religious resentment by people who profit from that manipulation.

Thoughtful individuals who disagree about politics and policy can nevertheless come to satisfactory resolutions–they can engage in the scorned but utterly necessary process of compromise. Ideologues and members of a cult–inhabitants of alternate realities–can neither participate in a legitimate conversation (defined as one in which the parties actually hear what the others are saying) nor reach an accommodation that requires them to relinquish even a small part of whatever it is they are demanding.

In the real world, it has been conclusively proven that Russia–and not Ukraine–meddled in our 2016 election. In the real world, Trump withheld desperately needed and congressionally approved military aid in order to get Ukraine’s President to announce an investigation into his (Trump’s) political rival.

But that’s in the real world, and elected Republicans don’t live there anymore.

 

Among The Many Things We Need To Rethink..

Political conventions and government structures that have been in place for many years–some since America’s founding–are proving increasingly dysfunctional. I’ve addressed a number of them in this blog: the Electoral College, partisan redistricting, the filibuster and many others are widely recognized to be counterproductive to 21st Century expectations about democratic fairness and effective governance.

We can add a number of other “resistant to change” elements to the list; as one of my sons recently reminded me, thanks to population shifts, the U.S. Senate is wildly unrepresentative. For example, of the  candidates who won election to the 114th Senate, the Democrats received 20 million more votes than the Republicans. For another, by 2040,  predictions are that nine states will be home to half of the country’s population: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. The populations of those states will be represented by eighteen Senators. The remaining fifty percent will be represented by eighty-two.

Short of revolution, it is unlikely that we are going to be able to change things like the Senate’s disproportionate representation or the Electoral College–at least, not any time soon. But there are other public policies and longtime practices that are amenable to evidence-based change. One example–recently the subject of analysis by the Brennan Center— is the use of cash bail, fees and fines in the criminal justice system

The past decade has seen a troubling and well-documented increase in fees and fines imposed on defendants by criminal courts. Today, many states and localities rely on these fees and fines to fund their court systems or even basic government operations.

A wealth of evidence has already shown that this system works against the goal of rehabilitation and creates a major barrier to people reentering society after a conviction. They are often unable to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in accumulated court debt. When debt leads to incarceration or license suspension, it becomes even harder to find a job or housing or to pay child support. There’s also little evidence that imposing onerous fees and fines improves public safety.

The study examined ten counties in the states of Texas, Florida, and New Mexico, and also looked at statewide data for those three states. The counties were chosen to ensure a variety of geographic, economic, political, and ethnic profiles, as well as in the way they collected and enforced their use of fees and fines.

Now, this first-of-its-kind analysis shows that in addition to thwarting rehabilitation and failing to improve public safety, criminal-court fees and fines also fail at efficiently raising revenue. The high costs of collection and enforcement are excluded from most assessments, meaning that actual revenues from fees and fines are far lower than what legislators expect. And because fees and fines are typically imposed without regard to a defendant’s ability to pay, jurisdictions have billions of dollars in unpaid court debt on the books that they are unlikely to ever collect. This debt hangs over the heads of defendants and grows every year.

States spend a lot of money chasing after fees that will never be paid, mostly because the people against whom they are levied don’t have the money to pay them. The researchers found that one New Mexico county spent at least $1.17 to collect every dollar of revenue it actually realized, losing money through the process.

Funds currently being expended to collect the uncollectible would be better used for efforts that can be shown to actually improve public safety.

While political scientists are trying to figure out how to rescue American democracy from permanent minority rule, we might start addressing issues like this one, which should be more manageable…

 

Worse Than James Buchanan

Sorry about the erroneous email yesterday–a glitch on the site.

I’m at a loss to understand people who vote for their own destruction.

In Great Britain–where voters have just opted to be considerably less Great–goofy Boris Johnson will “lead” the country to withdraw from modern reality and economic stability. Here in the good old U.S. of A., the elected representatives of the cult that used to be the GOP continue to support the continuing embarrassment that is Donald Trump (recent example: “I’m too intelligent to believe in climate change”) and the daily insanities being perpetrated by his corrupt administration.

They are so far in his pocket (or up an anatomical entry point) that when he was recently forced  to pony up two million dollars to repay charities (including a children’s cancer charity) from which his “foundation” stole in order to pay legal settlements rated no reproofs from Grand Old Party brownshirts.

How substandard is this “President”? Gail Collins recently explained why historians expect him to replace James Buchanan. She began with a summary of the ways Trump is profiting from the Presidency.

The Trump charity scandal is an old story, but the impeachment process puts it in a new light. Particularly if you combine it with the money he’s piling up from his Scottish golf resort (thank you Air Force visitors), the Washington hotel (welcome, Saudi officials) and from what the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington estimated were more than 2,300 conflicts of interest between his personal finances and his day job.

Collins noted–but dismissed– parallels with Andrew Johnson:

Andrew Johnson was another awful president and history’s impeachment star until now, but he was praised for his financial integrity. “After becoming president, when prominent New York merchants tried to give him a magnificent carriage and span of horses he refused the gift,” noted Brenda Wineapple, the author of a history of the Johnson impeachment. “‘Those occupying high official positions,’ he politely said, must ‘decline the offerings of kind and loyal friends.’”

Trump would find that sentiment inconceivable.

It’s Buchanan, however, who has historically been considered America’s worst President. Yet even Buchanan compares favorably to today’s deeply disturbed occupant of the Oval Office.

“Unlike Trump, Buchanan was a generous man,” said Robert Strauss, who happens to be the author of a biography of Buchanan titled “Worst. President. Ever.” Buchanan “took in college students who couldn’t afford their room and board,” Strauss added. He never reneged on a debt.

It was published in October 2016. Strauss is still sticking with Buchanan, whom he calls “a nice guy put in the wrong job.” Obviously, secession tops being laughed at by leaders of other democratic powers at a cocktail party. But Trump could qualify for the bottom of the barrel if you throw in personal behavior and presume it’s better to be a nice guy in the wrong job than an awful guy in the wrong job.

It’s also highly unlikely that Buchanan ever attacked a sixteen-year-old girl for being (much) more widely admired than he was.

 

 

The “But For” Test

When I was in City Hall, in the late 1970s, the use of tax abatements to lure employers to Indianapolis, or to blighted areas, was relatively new. Back then, applicants for those abatements were expected to demonstrate that “but for” the tax break, they wouldn’t make the move–that the incentive made the difference between an economically viable move and one that otherwise wouldn’t make economic sense.

I recall several quibbles about whether this or that business had actually met the “but for” test.

Over the years, of course, we’ve heard less and less about cities justifying the various incentives being doled out to entice employers, with the result that the whole country sometimes seems engaged in a zero-sum game (after all, when factory A moves from state B to state C, jobs may come to state C, but they’re lost to state B. Total economic activity rarely increases.) Incentives have come to look more and more like bribes; larger enterprises looking to move or expand pit “bidders” against each other to extract the largest concessions.

“Who will pay me the most to come?”

Those of us who have looked askance at the evolution of this competition have long believed that these enterprises would move to locations that made business sense without the incentives/bribes. And now we have evidence.

Remember when AOC and many others blocked the three billion dollars in subsidies that New York offered Amazon? Amazon is moving to New York anyway. Without the subsidies.

“The giant online retailer said it has signed a new lease for 335,000 square feet on the city’s west side in the new Hudson Yards neighborhood, where it will have more than 1,500 employees,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “Amazon is taking the space without any of the special tax credits and other inducements the company had been offered to build a new headquarters in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City, the company said.”

“The new lease represents Amazon’s largest expansion in New York since it stunned the city by abandoning those earlier plans. Amazon pulled back after facing a backlash from some politicians and activists over the roughly $3 billion in financial incentives the city and state had extended to woo the company and the 25,000 new jobs it had pledged to create,” The Journal explained.

Clearly, a New York location made business sense for the company. That being the case, the massive subsidies it extracted during the competitive process were gravy–and taxpayers were supplying that gravy.

The politicians and activists who had blocked the original offer had argued that it was unnecessary. They were clearly correct. There is no way that Amazon could have passed a “but for” test.

The money being spent on these high-profile efforts could be used instead to grow local businesses–why not, for example, create a fund that would finance promising mom-and-pop startups that can’t get conventional financing? Or use that money to make local retail districts more attractive and accessible?

Bribing employers to relocate is not “economic development”–and as Amazon has just demonstrated, it’s usually not necessary.

 

 

North Carolina’s Genuine Conservatives

I’m always hesitant to post observations requiring the use of terms like “liberal” “conservative” “progressive” or especially “socialist” and “fascist,” because over the past years, any conceptual clarity those labels may once have had has disappeared. These days they tend to be used as epithets, not efforts to communicate.

For example, I used to consider myself a conservative. I wanted to conserve the values of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I was (and remain) convinced that fiscal prudence means that–absent emergencies–programs should be paid for with current tax dollars remitted equitably by rich and poor, and not “borrow and spend.” I believe in limited government–and I believe that “limited government” means government limited to the performance of genuinely governmental tasks, like national defense or paving streets, and not the exercise of authority over my uterus or my soul.

Thanks to the GOP’s extreme move rightward, those are now generally considered to be liberal or progressive positions.

The dramatic change in the Republican Party, culminating in its current defense of a monumentally unfit, corrupt President, has created a deep disconnect between old-timers and the current cult. That disconnect recently prompted three North Carolina County Commissionerrs to leave the GOP, while laying claim to the term “conservative.”

To be conservative is to honor and preserve the fundamental institutions, processes, structures and rule of law, ….

To be conservative is to be financially prudent while also investing in common ground works that support individual success for all citizens. To be conservative is to be welcoming and inclusive, ….

To be conservative is to have a strong moral compass and the willingness to challenge wrong regardless of its source.

We believe all of these are not merely conservative principles but American principles.

They continue…

Next, we believe elected officials have a special duty to conduct themselves beyond reproach and make genuine efforts to represent all their constituents.

Elected officials must strive to conduct all public and private actions with honor and integrity.

Elected officials must value objective truth and, in turn, be truthful in their own statements and interactions.

And elected officials must continually work to hear the voices of all while making hard decisions on behalf of their fellow citizens

“Finally, and importantly, we believe local government should not be partisan in nature.

Good ideas come from across the spectrum of political thought.

Our focus is local, our objective is problem-solving for Transylvania County and our experience is thatpartisanship is an obstacle to effective local governance.

Governing is done best when done closest, and close governing is done best when removed from partisan encumbrances.”

These local officials–all of whom have lengthy histories in Republican politics– have put their emphasis on governing, not politicking. It’s an emphasis that has been absent from the national GOP for some time–a recognition that political activity is supposed to be directed toward winning an opportunity to serve.

When asked whether their dissatisfaction was local or national, one of the Commissioners responded

Leaders at every level should also operate with strict standards of honesty and integrity, both for themselves and others they work with. And leaders at every level should work to represent all citizens, regardless of the issue. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to suggest that Republican leadership at the highest levels are no longer consistently maintaining those principles.

Let’s hope these public servants–and I am happy to use that term–are harbingers of many defections from whatever it is the GOP has become. One thing for sure: today’s Republican Party isn’t conservative–at least, not as that term used to be understood.

It’s White Nationalist, and bent on dominance, not governance.