Can A “Root Vegetable” Collude?

Granted, Bob Barr’s performance yesterday was PR, not a dispassionate description of the contents of the Mueller Report, but there are actually a number of reasons why I don’t believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia.

Although Russia obviously wanted Trump to win, and just as obviously interfered with the election in order to help him (as even Barr conceded), it is also abundantly clear that Trump is too stupid (and even more importantly, from Russia’s perspective, too unpredictable and unstable) to effectively collude with anyone.

My favorite recent evaluation of Trump’s intellectual deficit came from CNN’s Ana Navarro, in a tweet praising Mayor Pete:

Today, I saw a video clip of @PeteButtigieg playing classical piano. Another where he speaks in Spanish. And this one, where he tells Parisians he shares their pain -in French. Just imagine having a President whose intellect exceeds that of a root vegetable…for a change.

Not even Barr disputes that Trump was the intended beneficiary of Russia’s interference, in all likelihood because he is deeply indebted to the Russian oligarchs close to Putin who–according to both Donald Junior and Eric–stepped in to finance his projects after American banks no longer would do so. (Fleece me once, shame on you…) That indebtedness makes him oh so malleable, as we’ve seen.

There is another reason I never thought Trump actually colluded in Russia’s efforts: he neither wanted nor expected to win.

There is ample evidence that he undertook the campaign because he thought it would elevate his “brand,” and was shocked when the Electoral College handed him the victory. Since assuming office, he has clearly relished the Presidency’s ceremonial aspects and the added power to hurt people he dislikes, but that enjoyment came after the fact. (I have a sneaking suspicion that his campaign for a second term is an effort to run out the clock on  statutes of limitations for the various criminal matters being vigorously pursued by the Southern District of New York.)

What about obstruction of justice? There, I think Congress and the public need to understand exactly what Mueller had to say, and why.

As many observers have commented, Trump certainly acted like a man who was guilty and trying to derail the investigation that would prove it. How much of his improper behavior was simply the outgrowth of his raging insecurity, how much because he didn’t know what “collusion” entailed and was afraid he’d engaged in it, and how much because he was worried that the investigation would uncover his numerous other illegal activities, especially with Russia? We may never know.

The evidence for obstruction may fall short of the legal standard necessary for criminal prosecution, but Trump’s hysteria over the investigation played out publicly, allowing the whole country to see his behavior and draw conclusions from that behavior.

Bottom line, even if the unredacted Mueller report really exonerated him of a crime, even if the report’s documentation of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for Constitutional purposes won’t cause the GOP sycophants in the Senate to impeach him, every day brings ample evidence that Trump’s entire Presidency has been an unmitigated disaster.

A majority of Americans reacted to that disaster in the midterm elections, and voters need to send an even more emphatic message in 2020.

It is depressing that a significant percentage of America’s citizens will continue to support a root vegetable so long as he hates the same people they do. In 2020, we need to demonstrate convincingly that those people do not represent America.

 

Rejected, Then Recycled

Well, I see that Notre Dame (the University, not the Cathedral) has hired Paul Ryan, former Speaker of the House. Evidently, Ryan will teach economics–despite the fact that he consistently elevated ideology over evidence and was routinely criticized by actual economists for clinging to long-debunked theories.

Some people resemble that bad penny that inexplicably keeps coming back.

Closer to home, the Indianapolis Business Journal has announced it has added Gary Varvel to its roster.

Over the past years, the IBJ has eclipsed the Indianapolis Star in the amount of actual news published. The Star, which is (theoretically) our city’s general interest newspaper, has reported less and less information about local government, and less news in general; the IBJ has increasingly filled the gap. The IBJ has also “picked up” reporters, columnists and others who have been downsized or otherwise left the Star. (Disclosure: I’m one of them–I moved to the IBJ a few years ago.)

Most of these additions have added to the depth of Business Journal coverage. And virtually all of them–Left or Right–have displayed civility and respect for those who hold contrary opinions. The paper’s Forefront feature, especially, adds to readers’ understanding of contentious issues by including opposing perspectives by political figures and others with knowledge of the matters being considered.

Then there’s Varvel, long a cartoonist for the Star, and more recently given an occasional column that was not well-received, according to one editor with whom I spoke.

I don’t know Varvel personally, but I’ve seen his work and heard the stories.

I still recall a conversation I had years ago with a friend, a Star reporter who worked alongside Varvel. The reporter’s sister had given birth to a highly anticipated baby who died shortly thereafter, and the family was grief-stricken. Varvel took it upon himself to explain to my friend–evidently at some length– that the death was God’s will.

To say that this tone-deaf intrusion did not endear him to his coworker would be an understatement.

That said–whether it was Latinos coming through the window to invade the home of nice white folks, or the portrayal of Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford demanding M&Ms and roses (for which the Star issued an apology), or the columns defending Trump, attributing gun violence to moral decay and not the wide availability of guns, or objecting to a school’s policy requiring respect for transgender students–you certainly always knew where Varvel was coming from.

As a column in NUVO, Indianapolis’ alternative newspaper, put it after the Latino cartoon:

It’s no surprise that an editorial cartoon by The Indianapolis Star’s Gary Varvel was removed from the newspaper’s website over the weekend. The cartoon portrays an Hispanic family climbing in through the window of the home of a white family celebrating Thanksgiving. The white father, with a plate full of turkey in his hands, wears a glum expression as he says, “Thanks to the president’s immigration order, we’ll be having extra guests this Thanksgiving.”

Considering Varvel’s often bigoted opinions on politics and race, I’m surprised this kind of thing hasn’t happened before.

Since the IBJ has championed the importance of inclusiveness and diversity, the decision to add Varvel ranks right up there with Notre Dame’s decision to treat Ryan as an economist.

Mystifying.

 

If Evidence Mattered…

I post fairly frequently about my multiple problems with school voucher programs, and I apologize for the repetition, but really!

Vouchers tend to be a “work around” the First Amendment–a mechanism for transferring tax dollars to religious schools; they steal critical resources from public schools that need those resources; they are re-segregating the schools…I could go on.

Vouchers were marketed as a mechanism allowing poor kids to escape from failing public systems and enroll instead in private schools that would give them a much better education. Proponents also argued that having to compete for students would lead to the improvement of the public schools.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Vouchers are increasingly used by families that would have and could have sent their children to parochial schools with or without them (in Indiana, families making up to 100,000 a year); meanwhile, starving public schools of resources doesn’t exactly help them improve.

Most significantly, research consistently shows that those “superior” private/parochial schools have failed to improve the educational outcomes of the children who use vouchers to attend them.

Brookings recently added to the available evidence

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

The four different studies analyzed by Brookings used four different methodologies, but arrived at the same conclusion: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students who do not attend private schools. The four recent studies thus replicated the results of eight previous research projects, which Brookings also referenced.

The Trump Administration–and especially Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education–have been pushing voucher expansion. DeVos was largely responsible for the expansion of charter and voucher schools in Michigan, and does not appear to be deterred by the fact that student performance declined dramatically. An article in a Michigan newspaper, reproduced in the Washington Post, reported

In Detroit, parents of school-age children have plenty of choices, thanks to the nation’s largest urban network of charter schools.

What remains in short supply is quality.

In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.

On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed.

Or if you live downtown, you could try Woodward Academy, a charter that has limped along near the bottom of school achievement since 1998, while its operator has been allowed to expand into other communities.

This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.

And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.

There is much more, and I encourage anyone interested in DeVos’ success in destroying Michigan education to click through, or to Google the numerous other articles chronicling the decline.

As the Brookings article notes, it used to be rare for policy initiatives to be expanded in the face of evidence that those initiatives are having negative effects on key outcomes. But this is an anti-evidence administration. Zealotry, religious convictions and (in Trump’s case) gut instinct–seasoned with breathtaking ignorance– are what guide policy prescriptions in Trump’s Washington.

 

Those “Mexican” Countries

It’s no wonder Donald Trump loves Fox News. In the annals of stupidity, they are fellow over-achievers.

Paul Krugman’s recent newsletter referenced the most recent evidence (as if we needed any) that Fox is not a legitimate news outlet:

Social media had a field day after “Fox & Friends Weekend” opened its show with a banner reading “Trump cuts off aid to three Mexican countries.” It was a stupid error, but also revealing: Clearly, a lot of the staff at Fox think all them brown people are the same.

And meanwhile, Trump is trying to cut off aid to a fourth Mexican country — one that happens to be part of the United States, home to three million U.S. citizens.

What that Fox banner was about was Trump’s order to the State Department to cut off all aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, countries that have recently been the source of many would-be migrants to the U.S. Leaving aside the reality that the “border crisis” is a figment of Trump’s imagination, what, exactly, is this aid cutoff supposed to accomplish?

The cutoff will, after all, make the conditions that have led some central Americans to flee their homes even worse, increasing their incentive to try to move north. So what are the governments of these nations supposed to do? Erect barriers to keep their people in?

The insanity of Trump’s approach was highlighted by an email I received from a friend. Dick Patterson is a  retired academic who used to live in Indiana, and who wrote about his recent trip to those “Mexican” countries.

In January, 2018 I joined an Indiana Audubon Society birding trip to northern Honduras. We flew in to San Pedro Sula, a small city in the north. I had never before heard of San Pedro Sula, but it was an attractive small city. Little did I know that it was a hotbed for gang violence and was soon going be the starting point for columns of migration north.

The view from the airplane of the ground below was of square miles of banana plantations, followed by more square miles of what I learned were pineapple plantations…  I was told that the plantation hires local people as laborers, but don’t provide permanent jobs because the company does not want to pay benefits. The jobs are in the tropical sun and the workers are exposed to toxic chemicals.

Honduras has more than bananas and pineapple plantations. Palm oil, cacao, sugar cane and coffee are also grown. The plantations take up most of the good farmland, with Chiquita and Dole taking up 60%.

In 2018 president Hernandez ran for a second term. Despite the fact that the constitution allows only one term, he won. Our birding guide, an extremely intelligent civic-minded man, just shrugged his shoulders, and said he just had to get on with his life.

In summary, a corrupt banana republic.

Is it any wonder that the best job available is to join a gang that extorts money from local businesses? Or that hordes of people see no future there? And now Trump wants to cut off foreign aid because they can’t keep everybody home in these conditions.

We could help by pressuring the American fruit corporations to clean up their act. Cutting off foreign aid will only make a bad situation worse.

Making a bad situation worse might just be the mantra of American foreign policy. How many times, in how many situations, have we pursued what State Department naifs conceived of as our short-term advantage only to find that we had undermined our long-term interests?

With the “election” of a man who has zero understanding of geopolitics, who sees every interaction as a zero-sum game and every country other than Russia as either a competitor or an enemy, we have abandoned even the pretense of a rational foreign policy. We now have a “Christian warrior” as Secretary of State, a President who is incapable of understanding cause and effect, and a Republican propaganda machine that labels all countries south of the border as “Mexican.”

It’s an embarrassing time to be an American.

The Once-Grand Old Party

According to Nate Silvers’ 538.com,

Democrats have deep divides over policy. In contrast, Republicans, at both the state and federal levels, are largely unified around an agenda of cutting spending for programs such as Medicaid that are targeted at low-income people, defending Americans’ ability to own and purchase guns, limiting abortion, and reducing regulations and taxes on businesses.

If you analyze those GOP positions, they all come down to screwing over poor people–either by shrinking the social safety net, by refusing to respect their personal autonomy, or by allowing businesses to ride roughshod over laws that were originally passed to protect them (and the rest of us).

Oh, and of course, ensuring that “good Americans” have access to guns to protect themselves against the freeloaders.

If you do a deeper dive into these positions–especially if you consult research conducted in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election–you’ll notice that Republicans picture the poor people they disdain as overwhelmingly black and brown. Other. Them. Those people. Not like “us.” Not “real Americans.”

The GOP of my younger days has been replaced by a White Nationalist cult.

I can remember when the Republican Party–at least in Indianapolis–was the party of good government, when the party people with whom I worked genuinely cared about building a society that worked for everyone.

Were there always some venal people in the GOP? Was there a racist and anti-Semitic fringe? Sure. There were also plenty of unsavory characters among the Democrats. No political party, no movement, no government is free of all corrupt influences. No party supports policies that all turn out to be good ideas. Especially when a political party is in power, the climbers and hangers-on and self-interested will gravitate to it and if those in positions of authority aren’t careful, they’ll pollute the entire organization.

Purity, unfortunately, is inconsistent with humanity.

That said, in the GOP I knew, among the candidates I supported and the volunteers with whom I worked, most were genuinely good people, and they are almost all gone now from the party ranks. When I talk to them–party workers, former political appointees and officeholders–they are depressed and appalled at what the Republican party has become.

Nixon’s southern strategy has become the Republicans’ national identity.

The problem is, America desperately needs two adult, reasonable, non-racist parties. In the absence of Republicans of good will, intellectual honesty, and rational policy prescriptions, the Democrats will fracture into warring factions. (We’re already seeing that, as the quote from 538.com recognizes.) That’s because, in a two-party system, when people with respectable political philosophies can’t imagine affiliating with one of those parties (because it is no longer respectable), and thus join the other party, that other party loses coherence. Policymakers lose the benefit of competing, rational prescriptions for dealing with the nation’s issues.

The Whigs went the way of the buffalo. Today’s iteration of the GOP needs to go with them.

America needs a new center-right party that is genuinely conservative–as a philosophy, not as a cover for racism, theocracy and plutocracy.