All posts by Sheila

Tyranny Of The Minority

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post revisited what has become an interminable discussion: why, when poll after poll shows a majority of Americans in favor of stricter gun laws, has Congress not responded? When it comes to guns, why are our Representatives so unrepresentative?

The authors–E.J. Dionne,— acknowledge the outsized influence of the NRA, but then they make a crucial point about American governance today.

But something else is at work here. As we argue in our book, “One Nation After Trump,” the United States is now a non-majoritarian democracy. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, that’s because it is. Claims that our republic is democratic are undermined by a system that vastly overrepresents the interests of rural areas and small states. This leaves the large share of Americans in metropolitan areas with limited influence over national policy. Nowhere is the imbalance more dramatic or destructive than on the issue of gun control.

Michelle Goldberg made much the same point in a recent column for the New York Times, titled “Tyranny of the Minority.”

The Republican Party has essentially become a majority party through minority rule. Accounts of the growing resistance to Trump often ignore the ways in which Republicans have shaped the rules of the game in their favor (you could almost called it “rigged,” to use one of the president’s favorite words). The authors write: “Our system is now biased against the American majority because of partisan redistricting (which distorts the outcome of legislative elections), the nature of representation in the United States Senate (which vastly underrepresents residents of larger states), the growing role of money in politics (which empowers a very small economic elite), the workings of the Electoral College (which is increasingly out of sync with the distribution of our population) and the ability of legislatures to use a variety of measures, from voter ID laws to the disenfranchisement of former felons, to obstruct the path of millions of Americans to the ballot box.”

The vast over-representation of rural areas and small states would be less troubling if there were not a substantial and growing divide between the political preferences and social attitudes of rural and urban Americans. That divide–illustrated by political maps showing blue cities in red states–means that the over-representation of rural Americans gives Republicans an unwarranted and unearned electoral advantage.

There’s a famous anecdote (probably apocryphal) in which a woman asks Benjamin Franklin what sort of government the founders had created, and Franklin responds “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

America’s founders were (rightly) concerned with the tyranny of the majority; they worried about the effect of “popular passions” on the exercise of individual rights. Those concerns were– and remain–valid. What they failed to foresee was the situation accurately described by these and other writers, a time when–thanks to urbanization, technology and rabid partisanship– the United States would be neither a democracy nor a republic.

American Exceptionalism

“American Exceptionalism” has meant different things at different times. Usually, however, the meanings ascribed to that phrase have been positive. Over at The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor, however, “El Jefe” has described a far less rosy aspect of our exceptionalism.

As a country, the US is 4.4% of the world’s population, yet we own 42% of the world’s guns.  Let that sink in.  Our homicide rate in the US is over 300% that of the average of the rest of the OECD.

As he also points out, there are many ways in which the population of the U.S. is not exceptional.

  1. Do we have mental health problems?  Of course, but so does every other country.
  2. Do we sell violent video games?  Yes, but so does every other country.
  3. Do we have violent television shows and movies?  Yes, but so does every other country.
  4. Do we have a breakdown in the family unit?  Yes, but so does every other country.
  5. How about churches?  Are our churches shrinking?  Yes, but they are doing the same in other countries.

What we have that other countries don’t have–or at least, don’t have as much of–is guns. Lots and lots of guns.

After the Las Vegas mass shooting, Americans engaged in what has now become a ritual of hand-wringing and mutual recriminations. Critics of our lax gun regulations pointed out that large majorities of Americans (including a majority of NRA members) want to tighten those restrictions; defenders of the armament status-quo insisted that widespread gun ownership equals “freedom.”

Although most of the commentary rehashed arguments we hear after every mass shooting–and we have a lot of mass shootings–I did learn something new, and it was both terrifying and encouraging. Half of the 265 million guns in the U.S. are owned by 3% of the population–and only 22% of us own any firearms.

It’s encouraging to know that my non-armed household is in the majority; the news–and the high number of gun deaths– sometimes make it seem as if every American old enough to lift a gun owns one.

What’s terrifying is the likelihood that  (with the possible exception of people who may be collecting historic muskets and powder-horns) the 3% who possess vast arsenals are scary dudes.

We don’t know nearly enough about gun owners or gun violence, because Congress refuses to allow the CDC or other agencies to fund research on the subject. But USA Today recently reported on a privately-financed survey of gun ownership.

Researchers found that the top reason people owned guns was for protection from other people, even though the rate of violent crime has dropped significantly the past two decades, said Deborah Azrael, director of research at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and one of the study’s authors.

Azrael said the study tried to update numbers and trends that hadn’t been reviewed in two decades. Separate reports on background checks and gun storage, based on the same survey, are scheduled to be released later this year.

“In a country where 35,000 people a year die by firearms, we haven’t been able to come out with a survey on gun violence for 20 years,” she said. “That’s a real failure of public health and public policy.”

The study also found that gun owners tend to be white, male, conservative, and residents of rural areas. Presumably–hopefully–that means that most of them are hunters, not crazed militia-men. On the other hand, a lot of America’s guns are handguns: the study found 111 million handguns nationwide, a 71% increase from the 65 million handguns in 1994.

So long as we have Trump in the White House and a Congress wholly-owned by the NRA and the gun manufacturers, we are unlikely to impose the sorts of reasonable restrictions that other countries have found effective, and we’re equally unlikely to get the kind of research we need.

I’d really like to know more about that 3%……

Under The Radar

The Trump administration’s daily assaults to American laws and norms have produced a sort of outrage fatigue in many of us. That can be dangerous.

As we hold our collective breath and cross our fingers–hoping that Muller’s investigation will provide enough evidence of criminality and/or treason to make impeachment imperative, or for the Democrats to regain control of Congress in 2018, or (even less likely) for Republicans in the Senate to put the national interest above partisanship– we have difficulty keeping up with the multiple ways this administration is undermining the rule of law and weakening democratic norms.

The Resistance needs a strategy that distinguishes between horrific decisions that can be reversed if and when sanity returns to the Oval Office (or Republicans in Congress grow a pair), and those that will have profound and long-lasting negative effects on our constitutional system. We can afford to bide our time on the first category–although a lot of people will be hurt in the meantime –but we have to be absolutely ferocious in resisting measures that will damage the country in the longer term.

The media has highlighted Trump’s failure to fill hundreds of second-and-third level positions in his administration. That failure is further evidence of the ineptitude of the current White House, but it is also a blessing in disguise. (Case in point: the current nominee for Chief Scientist at the Department of Agriculture is not a scientist; he’s a right-wing talk show host. Better vacancies than filling an administration with such people. ).  An administration that cannot function properly cannot do as much damage as one that efficiently pursues counterproductive policies.

At the same time, the media has been insufficiently alert to Trump’s alacrity in filling judicial vacancies. A recent report from Huffington Post began:

Thursday was a good day for Amy Coney Barrett. A Senate committee voted to advance her nomination to be a federal judge.

It wasn’t a pretty vote. Every Democrat on the Judiciary Committee opposed her nomination. They scrutinized her past writings on abortion, which include her questioning the precedent of Roe v. Wade and condemning the birth control benefit under the Affordable Care Act as “a grave infringement on religious liberty.” One Democrat, Al Franken (Minn.), called her out for taking a speaking fee from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit that’s defended forced sterilization for transgender people and has been dubbed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But Republicans don’t need Democrats’ votes, and now Barrett, a 45-year-old law professor at the University of Notre Dame, is all but certain to be confirmed to a lifetime post on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit — a court one level below the Supreme Court.

Barrett isn’t the only Trump nominee who is likely to upend settled Constitutional principles.

Consider John Bush. The Senate confirmed him in July, on a party-line vote, to a lifetime post on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. Bush, 52, has compared abortion to slavery and referred to them as “the two greatest tragedies in our country.” He has also said he strongly disagrees with same-sex marriage, mocked climate change and proclaimed “the witch is dead” when he thought the Affordable Care Act might not be enacted.

The Senate also confirmed Kevin Newsom, 44, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in August. He wrote a 2000 law review article equating the rationale of Roe v. Wade to Dred Scott v. Sandford, the 1857 decision upholding slavery. He also argued in a 2005 article for the Federalist Society, a right-wing legal organization, that Title IX does not protect people who face retaliation for reporting gender discrimination. The Supreme Court later rejected that position.

Ralph Erickson, 58, was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in September. As a district judge in 2016, he was one of two judges in the country who ordered the federal government not to enforce health care nondiscrimination protections for transgender people.

Judicial nominees yet to be confirmed have supported discrimination against LGBTQ people, the “personhood” of fetuses, and a state’s right to criminalize “consensual sodomy.”

If Trump has been dilatory in filling administrative posts, he’s been an Energizer Bunny when it comes to the courts.  He has already nominated 17 circuit court judges and 39 district court judges, far more than his predecessors.

He’s also got more court seats to fill, having inherited 108 court vacancies ― double the number of vacancies Obama inherited when he took office. (That’s largely thanks to Republicans’ despicable years-long strategy of denying votes to Obama’s court picks to keep those seats empty for a future GOP president to fill–a strategy that prioritized partisan advantage over justice by overburdening federal courts and causing lengthy delays for litigants.)

Federal judges have lifetime appointments. Usually, the country benefits from the fact that these jurists are insulated against the threat of arbitrary dismissal; federal courts are currently demonstrating the great value of an independent judiciary as checks on Trump’s most autocratic tendencies.

If the administration is able to fill the federal bench with Roy Moore clones, however, we can say goodby to checks and balances and the rule of law as we have understood it.

 

Another Last Straw

Every morning since January 20th, Americans have awakened with foreboding: what new attack on reason and sanity has our tweeter-in-chief launched today? And what excuses for inexcusable behavior will spineless GOP Senators and Representatives offer this time?

Optimists wil predict that this (insert latest outrage) will be the final straw. Realists respond that, given the invertebrates in Congress and the ship  of fools that is the cabinet, it won’t be.

Yesterday, we woke to discover that Trump unilaterally and abruptly ended the Obamacare subsidies that make health insurance affordable for millions of Americans. Every single health-care organization in America opposed this action, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Donald Trump, it’s that he’s a know-nothing unwilling to listen to people who actually know something.

Congress failed to “repeal and replace” the ACA, so Trump has evidently decided to simply destroy it. The fact that many people will die is obviously of no importance to Mr. Me Me Me. In his zeal to destroy the ACA (and all vestiges of Obama’s legacy), he had already cut the enrollment period for 2018 in half, cut 90% out of the advertising budget and eviscerated the so-called “navigator program” that helps people through the ACA enrollment process.

At the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell warns that Trump’s sabotage is likely to destroy the system.

President Trump has made a lot of promises on health care.

Somehow, though, I don’t remember him promising stadiums of cheering fans that he’d take away protections for preexisting conditions, increase deductibles, spike premiums, eliminate basic coverage requirements and, more generally, destabilize the individual health-insurance market.

After explaining what yesterday’s Executive Order will and will not do, Rampell concludes that this impulsive and destructive act was “pretty much on brand for this nihilistic president: When you can’t come up with a new system that works, just blow up the old one.”

One of the most maddening aspects of Trump’s Order is that withdrawing the subsidies will actually cost the federal government money. A lot of money. The Kaiser Family Foundation has estimated that “savings” of 10 billion dollars would be offset by a rise in premium tax credits to 12.3 billion. In other words, the federal government will be paying  2.3 billion dollars more by making health insurance unaffordable once again for untold numbers of Americans.

The CBO projects that cutting off the subsidies will cause premiums to rise 20 percent by 2018 and 25 percent by 2020, and will increase the budget deficit by nearly $200 billion by 2026.

It’s really expensive to screw over the American public, but don’t expect the man with the tacky gold toilet to worry about budgets.

A number of people have compared Donald Trump to Richard Nixon. Admittedly, there are parallels:  Nixon was also mentally ill, also a bigot, and also willing to sacrifice American lives for political advantage.  However, despite his paranoia and some truly unforgivable–even treasonous– decisions, Nixon was intelligent and informed. He knew how government worked and what it was for, and he made some good decisions, including creation of the EPA and opening relations with China.

Trump is profoundly ignorant of government and policy, is clearly uninterested in learning, and is the loosest of loose canons. In ten short months, the man Rex Tillerson has (accurately) described as a “fucking moron” has made America an international laughing-stock, and his irrational behaviors toward North Korea and Iran have brought us dangerously close to nuclear war.

With Trump, I worry that the final straw will be a mushroom cloud.

Economic Development Develops

Every so often, we need to take our eyes off the clown show in Washington, D.C., and consider what’s happening elsewhere. For example, the much-hyped competition for Amazon’s second headquarters.

I hate to be Debby Downer, but that competition is an excellent example of what’s wrong with current approaches to economic development. Economic development offices around the country participate in what is nationally a zero-sum game–attracting businesses from one locality to another, and spending lavishly to do so. (According to several sources, states and counties have awarded over $1.3 billion in incentives just to attract Amazon’s fulfillment centers.)

As a Brookings Institute report recently noted, this approach to job creation is problematic.

The most obvious is that in each of these cases, Amazon was going to come with or without incentives. It is a core tenet of Amazon’s strategy to be able to rapidly deliver products directly to people’s homes, increasingly with same day service, so they must have a major presence in every large region. Seemingly every metro area we’ve worked in over the past several years has highlighted the attraction of an Amazon facility as a major local economic development success story. (A quick web search confirmed the presence or recent announcement of one or more major Amazon fulfillment centers in or near each of the 40 largest US metro regions.) In these cases, state incentives make no sense. And county incentives are used only to influence selection of the actual site within a region, thus pitting local jurisdictions against each other to claim a political win, with no actual competitive benefit to the regional economy….

Another issue is spatial mismatch. In our work across the country, many employers such as Amazon express frustration in not being able to find enough workers—while at the same time, workers complain of not having access to good jobs. This problem is predictable. While traditional retail jobs are spread throughout metro areas to be near customers (and by default, the workforce), warehouse and logistics operations (such as Amazon’s) consolidate employees under one roof on the periphery of the metro…. The Amazon jobs that replaced these are less accessible to many of the lower-skilled employees that are best suited to fill them because workers do not live nearby. Lack of access to transit, zoning decisions that limit nearby affordable housing, and childcare responsibilities severely limit the number of workers in a given region for which this type of job commute makes sense.

The Amazon Headquarters frenzy highlights what economic development has become; a system that revolves around government giveaways to corporations.

There’s a better way. And the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce has recently partnered with Brookings to research that better way, culminating in a report titled “Rebuilding the Dream: Inclusive Growth in the Indianapolis Region.” It begins with a recognition that the economy is “misaligned between employer needs and workforce capability, and riddled with barriers to upward mobility,” and it urges policymakers to focus on removing those barriers and creating the conditions for inclusive and sustainable growth.

Rather than a competition to bring new employers to the region, the report advocates an emphasis on expanding companies that are already here, especially but not exclusively in so-called “advanced” industries (tech, very broadly defined). If those companies are to grow, however, they need access to a workforce capable of doing the jobs they are creating. The report enumerates the multiple barriers those potential employees face, and recommends a comprehensive and strategic approach to their removal: improved transportation, childcare,  health care innovations, language and training opportunities, etc.

This makes so much sense.

Rather than prospecting for companies willing to relocate and then bribing them with our tax dollars, the Chamber wants us to spend those dollars on measures that will reduce the mismatch between employer needs and the ability of unemployed or underemployed residents to meet those needs.

This is an investment that would pay real–rather than PR– dividends. Policymakers should endorse it.