All posts by Sheila

Russia Abroad, Theocrats at Home

Welcome to the Trump/Pence Administration.

Per Right Wing Watch

Last month, it was reported that President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team was giving Religious Right activists, especially the members of his presidential campaign’s evangelical advisory board, unprecedented input in shaping his administration,

Earlier this week, one of the members of that board, Richard Land of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, appeared on the “Point of View” radio program, where he told host Kerby Anderson that he has been shocked by how much influence he and other Religious Right activists have had over the make-up of Trump’s administration.

“Some of my conservative friends and I, we have been pinching ourselves, are we hallucinating or is this actually happening?” Land said. “I know a good number of people on the transition team and I can tell you right now, about half of them, Kerby, think I’m liberal. I mean, these are very conservative people.”

Land went on to say that he had personally been solicited several times for names of potential appointees, something that had never happened with prior administrations. He predicted that the Trump/Pence administration would have more conservative Christians in it than any administration he’d had contact with, including the Reagan Administration.

Hoosiers who suffered through four years of his administration can see Mike Pence’s fingerprints all over these appointments.

Americans now have a President who has neither experience with nor interest in government. He still hasn’t filled most staff positions, he hasn’t educated himself about the challenges he’ll face, and he’s given no evidence that he understands what the job of President entails. Instead, he has engaged in the same petty, self-aggrandizing behaviors we’ve come to expect: arguing about the size of inaugural crowds, lashing out at the women and men who marched in opposition to him, threatening the press, and generally acting like a five-year-old spoiled brat.

Meanwhile, reports of his campaign’s Russian connections continue to grow.

It shouldn’t surprise us that, in the absence of any interest in actually governing, Trump would hand off pesky details like staffing to his Vice-President. After all, when Trump Junior approached John Kasich about the Vice-Presidency, he reportedly promised Kasich he could run the country while Trump spent his time “making America great.”

If it were Kasich making the decisions, I would actually feel a lot better. Giving Mike Pence that authority is another matter. Pence is equally uninterested in the boring details of policy (ask anyone who observed his performance as Governor of Indiana), but unlike Trump, who is concerned only with himself, Pence does have an agenda–a theocratic one.

Pence is a Christian culture warrior. His priorities are outlawing abortion, defunding Planned Parenthood, taking money from public education and directing it to Christian schools (Betsy DeVos was deeply involved in Indiana’s voucher program), insuring that Christians can discriminate against LGBTQ citizens and a variety of other measures that would legally privilege fundamentalist Christianity. (He seems to have skipped over those passages in the Christian bible that counsel caring for the poor, refraining from judgment and abstaining from public prayer…like most culture warriors, his is a highly selective reading of the bible.)

So this is what voters in white, rural America have given us: an unstable child-President with mysterious ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the various oligarchs who funded his projects after American banks declined to do so, and an equally vacuous Vice President who is a True Believer intent upon imposing his crabbed version of God’s Will on the rest of us.

Worse, if we somehow got rid of both of them, we’d get Paul Ryan, whose deepest desire is to throw grandma off Medicare…..The next few years are going to be very trying….

Do Facts Matter Any More?

Fake news. “Alternative” facts. Welcome to the age of Trump.

There is no generally accepted definition of “fake news,” and no bright line separating it from the increasing proliferation of propaganda, but the essential characteristic is that it is not factual. (Fake news is not, as Trump asserts, any news that disparages him.)

Concern about fake news has risen, and Facebook and Google have recently announced steps to combat it. Journalist’s Resource has compiled the still-scanty academic research on the phenomenon.

While much has been written about fake news, scholars have published a limited amount of peer-reviewed research on the topic. Below, Journalist’s Resource has compiled studies that examine fake news and the spread of misinformation more broadly to help journalists better understand the problem and its impacts. Other resources that may be helpful are Poynter Institute’s tips on debunking fake news stories and a well-circulated list of fake, unreliable and questionable news websites compiled by Melissa Zimdars, a communication professor at Merrimack College. The First Draft Partner Network, a global collaboration of newsrooms, social media platforms and fact-checking organizations, was launched in September 2016 to battle fake news.

Starting in January 2017, Stony Brook University, home to the Center for News Literacy, will offer a free online course in news literacy.

The research papers described at the link are worth reading; they confirm what most of us suspect–namely, that misinformation, propaganda and fake news have a pernicious effect. Especially when you consider that most of us engage in confirmation bias–looking for information that validates our preferred versions of reality–it can be difficult or impossible to disabuse people of “facts” they want to believe.

As I tell my students, if you truly believe that aliens landed at Roswell, I can find you several websites confirming that belief. (Some even have pictures of the aliens’ bodies!)

As troubling as this aspect of our current information environment is, what makes it far more troubling is the election of a President with a very tenuous connection to reality, and a staff willing to double down on his consistent lies and misstatements. Never before, to my knowledge, have we had an administration for which facts are at best irrelevant and at worst enemies to be contradicted.

The latest evidence of this Administration’s allergy to facts was a surreal “press conference” on Saturday, in which Sean Spicer berated the media for reporting “falsehoods” about the size of the inauguration crowds. (Trump had asserted that it “looked like a million and a half people.”)

The New York Times reported,

An expert hired by The Times found that Mr. Trump’s crowd on the National Mall was about a third of the size of Mr. Obama’s in 2009….

Speaking later on Saturday in the White House briefing room, Mr. Spicer amplified Mr. Trump’s false claims. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,” he said.

There is no evidence to support this claim. Not only was Mr. Trump’s inauguration crowd far smaller than Mr. Obama’s in 2009, but he also drew fewer television viewers in the United States (30.6 million) than Mr. Obama did in 2009 (38 million) and Ronald Reagan did in 1981 (42 million), Nielsen reported.

For that matter, most estimates showed that the Women’s March the next day drew three times more people — about 500,000 — than Trump’s swearing-in ceremony, but the White House flatout refused to accept those numbers.

Nor was Spicer the only Administration figure to make bizarre claims. On Sunday morning, Kellyanne Conway said the Trump team is offering “alternative facts” to media reports about President Trump’s inauguration. (This led to immense amusement on social media, with people posting things like “I’m thin and rich” and “Best game the Green Bay Packers ever played” #alternative facts.)

In the wake of the election, many of us worried–and continue to worry–that our unstable new President would take America into a misconceived war. We didn’t realize that the first war he would declare would be a war on reality and those pesky and inconvenient facts.

So You Want Your Country Back?

Yesterday, I attended Indianapolis’ March on Washington–one of the “sister” marches held all over the world. As anyone who listens to the news or has seen the photographs already knows, turnout was massive everywhere. At the Statehouse in deep-red Indiana, the crowd was huge; I’m told it was easily the largest demonstration in Indiana in the past twenty years.

There were lots of clever and poignant signs, but the one that summed up America’s situation for me read “Left or Right, We Know He’s Wrong.”

This was not a normal partisan election. It wasn’t a contest between candidates with different policy preferences, a contest between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. It was a battle between White Supremacists led by a dangerously unstable demagogue and time-honored, inclusive American values.

Trump has no political philosophy–he  isn’t remotely like the Republicans I served with “back in the day.” But then, most of those who call themselves Republicans today have nothing in common with the Grand Old Party I grew up with.

These rabid ideologues aren’t conservatives; they are a collection of reactionaries, oligarchs and bigots. Whenever I hear one of them piously intoning “I want my country back,” I want to respond “Well, I want the real Republican Party back!”

This New Yorker article made me nostalgic for the party I used to know….

The article was about Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the EPA, but it began by harking back to Bill Ruckelshaus, the first EPA Director. He was from Indianapolis, he was admirable, and he was typical of the GOP of which I was then a part.

In the early nineteen-sixties, a young lawyer named William Ruckelshaus was assigned to Indiana’s state board of health to prosecute cases of toxic dumping. At the time, it was commonplace for manufacturers to discard untreated industrial swill—ammonia, cyanide, pesticides, petroleum waste, slag from steel plants, “pickle liquor” (sulfuric acid)—into the nearest sewer, river, or lake. Sometimes, it formed piles of noxious froth nearly as tall as a house. “Those rivers were cesspools,” Ruckelshaus told me recently. He and his colleague Gerald Hansler, an environmental engineer, began touring the state in a white panel truck. They collected water samples and snapped photographs of fish corpses—bluegills, sunfish, and perch, poisoned by the effluent that gushed from industrial outfalls. Then they wrote up the evidence and brought charges against those responsible. Yet, however diligently they worked, their efforts were often regarded with suspicion by Indiana’s governor, who wanted to keep businesses from moving to states with even laxer environmental standards. “I just saw how powerless the states were to act,” Ruckelshaus recalled.

Ruckelshaus brought this lesson with him to Washington, D.C., in 1970, when President Richard Nixon appointed him to set up and run the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. From a modest cluster of rooms on L Street, Ruckelshaus led the agency in its first swift actions. After less than two weeks, he announced that the E.P.A. planned to sue the cities of Atlanta, Cleveland, and Detroit unless they made a serious effort to stop polluting their rivers with sewage. Later, he refused to give automakers an extension on their mandate to install catalytic converters in all new vehicles—a requirement that eventually resulted in large cuts to toxic, smog-forming emissions. And, in 1972, Ruckelshaus’s E.P.A. banned most uses of the pesticide DDT, a move that helped save a national icon, the American bald eagle, from extinction. More than four decades on, the E.P.A.’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act has averted millions of cases of respiratory disease and continues to save hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, according to a series of agency analyses. For the most part, urban rivers are no longer cesspools, and beaches once fouled with sewage are swimmable. Lake Erie is troubled but no longer deemed dead, as it was in the sixties. Lead levels in the coastal waters off Southern California have dropped a hundredfold.

Ruckelshaus, who is now eighty-four, has watched the ascent of Donald Trump with some trepidation. In August, he and William Reilly, the E.P.A. administrator under President George H. W. Bush, endorsed Hillary Clinton, lambasting Trump as ignorant of the G.O.P.’s “historic contributions to science-driven environmental policy.”

Science-driven policy. How quaint!

When I consider the Republicans I knew, like Ruckelshaus and Dick Lugar, and those I worked with, like Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut and Indiana Governor Robert Orr, I can’t help thinking that it isn’t just Trump. Appalling as he is, he’s the consequence of a party that has been transformed by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and the pathetic group of bigots and know-nothings who comprise what has been called the “lunatic caucus.”

We aren’t going to get our real country back–the America of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the America that welcomed “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”–unless we get a reasonable, respectable Republican party back.

The sign said it all: it isn’t left versus right. It’s right versus wrong. It’s the America I thought I inhabited versus a bleak and unfamiliar dystopia–and I want my America back.

 

 

The Costs of Regulating–and Not Regulating

A few days ago, I wrote about the REINS Act, a Congressional effort to block administrative regulatory activity. A commenter asked for a discussion of what we know about the costs of regulation, so I did a bit of research.

What I discovered reinforced my belief that the answer to most questions is: “it depends,” and/or “it’s more complicated than that.”

It turns out that there is not a lot of research calculating the costs of regulatory activity, and what does exist comes to very inconsistent results. Scholars argue about how such costs should be measured, and how best to conduct accurate analyses.

Despite these uncertainties, it is standard procedure to subject proposed rules to a cost/benefit analysis before they are promulgated. Since those analyses are being conducted prior to the implementation of proposed regulations, they are based upon estimates of both the costs and the benefits, and no matter how good-faith those estimates, they are essentially guesswork.

Anti-regulation politicians who throw around huge numbers that “demonstrate” how burdensome regulations are rarely admit that there is very little agreement on those numbers, nor do they address the benefit side of the equation, so a concrete example, assessing the actual costs of regulations that have been in effect for a long enough period of time to permit more accurate assessment, is instructive.

Vanderbilt University recently studied the compliance costs the university incurred, and came up with a big number. 

So let’s see which of those nasty, costly regulations we could dispense with.

The great majority of the university’s compliance costs were connected to research. There are a number of stringent rules governing academic research: some require respecting the privacy of human subjects, others ensure that volunteers in medical studies have information they need in order to make informed decisions about their participation. Still others ensure that the research will not pose unnecessary risks to individuals or communities.

Which of those “costly” rules should we dispense with?

Universities also bear the costs of obtaining accreditation. Accrediting agencies require lots of information in order to ascertain whether a given institution of higher education is providing…what’s that called?…education. Without accreditation, students would have to make expensive decisions about attendance without knowing whether the “product” had been adequately vetted, and whether a degree from that institution would be valued or discounted by potential employers.  (Actually, I’d favor a far more rigorous examination, since some “accredited” schools hardly seem to merit that credential. But that is a post for another day.)

Universities must also comply with regulations that are generally applicable. They must, for example, abide by rules governing immigration. Would the Congressional critics of regulatory costs prefer that University personnel turn a blind eye to the immigration status of their students? What about Human Resources regulations requiring compliance with civil rights laws?

Whole industries must comply with costly regulations governing food and drugs. Even if we could measure those costs with reasonable accuracy, how should we count the benefits? How do we determine–let alone value– the number of lives saved? How do we calculate, let alone value, reductions in illnesses from impure drugs or spoiled foods?

It seems likely that the REINS Act is aimed at environmental regulations. How do we value the benefits of clean air and water?

None of this is to say that all regulatory activity is wonderful or necessary. The “take away” is that both purported costs and anticipated benefits should be viewed with healthy skepticism, and all regulations should be evaluated individually and on their own merits.

Bottom line: it is perfectly justifiable to argue that the benefits of a specific regulation are not worth the costs involved in complying with that particular regulation. But ideological arguments against an activity called “regulation” are–excuse the expression–bullshit.

 

Telling It Like It Is

Today, unfathomable as it is, Donald Trump will become President of the United States. How could this happen?

Granted, Trump lost the popular vote overwhelmingly, but despite being manifestly unfit for the office, he mustered enough support from millions of Americans to win the Electoral College. The Chattering Classes have offered a number of explanations, almost all of them centering on Democratic failures: the “liberal elites” were unable to “connect” with middle America; Clinton paid too little attention to Michigan, or to the economic distress of rural voters; Democrats didn’t show enough respect for the values of small-town America. Etc.

Trump’s voters often said that what attracted them was that “he tells it like it is.” At risk of being very politically incorrect, let me tell you what I think they heard. Let me tell it like I think it is.

Post-election analyses showed that most Trump voters were not poor. As Myriam  Renaud recently reminded us, however, there’s a difference between “psychic” and fiscal poverty, and she shared a trenchant Eric Hoffer observation.

[Hoffer] found that the intensity of the discontent found among the new poor is not necessarily tied to economic hardship. Indeed, individuals born into misery do not usually revolt against the status quo—their lot is bearable because it is familiar and predictable. Discontent, the emotion Trump tapped into so adeptly, is more likely to afflict people who have experienced prosperity. When their comfortable life is diminished in some way, the result is intolerable. According to Hoffer, it is usually “those whose poverty is relatively recent, the ‘new poor,’ who throb with the ferment of frustration. The memory of better things is as fire in their veins.”

Economic uncertainty, not deprivation, and the loss of white male privilege explain a lot more than fiscal distress. Trump won because he gave people who were experiencing a perceived loss of status or privilege someone to blame for that loss.

It is impossible to argue that a vote for Trump was a vote for his “policy agenda.” He didn’t have one, unless, of course, you think that building a wall to keep Mexicans out, ejecting Muslims (or in the alternative, creating a registry), demeaning women, threatening (brown) immigrants, cozying up to the KKK and the neo-Nazis, and insisting that our first black President was illegitimate are “policies.”

In the wake of the election, Trump has backed off other campaign promises, but his overt racism and misogyny have continued. As an article in the American Prospect put it,

President-elect Donald Trump wasted no time in establishing a hideous double standard of racist privilege in the White House. His appointment of Stephen Bannon as chief strategist and his picks of Jeff Sessions for attorney general and retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security adviser have been praised without qualification by Klansmen, neo-Nazis, the alt-right, and other white supremacist groups.

While “nice” liberals offer economic explanations of the election and counsel “kinder, gentler” attitudes toward Trump voters (who were predominantly, albeit certainly not exclusively, less-educated white rural males), scholars who have analyzed the data have reached different conclusions. There is an emerging consensus among those political scientists that although economic dissatisfaction was part of the story, racism and sexism were much more important.

As an article in the Washington Post explained,

Donald Trump repeatedly went where prior Republican presidential candidates were unwilling to go: making explicit appeals to racial resentment, religious intolerance, and white identity. ..racial attitudes were stronger predictors of whites’ preferences for Trump or Clinton than they were in hypothetical matchups between Clinton and Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio..

Other research confirms, as FiveThirtyEight reported, that prejudice was one of the “distinguishing attitudes” of Trump voters in the 2016 primaries.

The Economist tested Clinton’s “deplorables” percentage:

At first glance, Mrs Clinton’s 50% estimate looks impressively accurate: 58% of respondents who said they backed Mr Trump resided in the poll’s highest quartile for combined racial-resentment scores. And at a lower threshold of offensiveness—merely distasteful rather than outright deplorable, say—91% of Mr Trump’s voters scored above the national average.

What about the argument that Trump voters “overlooked” Trump’s narcissism, sexism and racism because they thought he would be more effective at job creation? Salon reported on the results of an American National Election (NES) study probing that possibility.

Eighty-four percent of whites who believe it is “extremely likely” that whites can’t find a job because employers are hiring people of color instead support Trump, compared with 23 percent of those who think it is “not at all” likely. Among white Democrats, 58 percent who believe people of color are taking jobs support Trump over Clinton, compared with less than 1 percent of those who believe it is not at all likely. Eighty-one percent of white women who think it is “extremely likely” people of color are taking jobs supported Trump, compared with 26 percent who don’t think that.

I have colleagues who privately admit that the evidence points to the importance of racial resentment and the appeal of White Nationalism in motivating Trump voters, but who shrink from making that claim publicly.

The problem is, if we refuse to face facts–if we refuse to acknowledge the deep wells of tribalism, racism and sexism that persist despite America’s constitutional and legal commitments to equality–we will never eradicate it. We will never have honest conversations about the fears and resentments to which people like Trump so skillfully appeaI. (That actually may be the only real skill Trump has.)

When Trump promised to “make America great again,” his voters heard “I’ll make America White again.”

I understand that it isn’t pretty. I understand that confronting it is uncomfortable. But ignoring the elephant in the room is no longer an option.

There are numerous “resistance” movements springing up in the wake of the election. They are all important, some critically so. But nothing is more important than resisting Trump’s efforts to take politics back to an “us versus them” power struggle, where “us” means white Protestant straight males and “them” is everyone else.