Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Get The Lead Out

Doug Masson recently shared a news article and a righteous rant.

The shared article was a report on lead contamination in northwest Indiana. It seems we Hoosiers have the nation’s largest source of such contamination–not a distinction to celebrate.

The nation’s largest source of industrial lead pollution is 20 miles down the Lake Michigan shore from Chicago in Indiana, churning more than twice as much of the brain-damaging metal into the air each year as all other factories in the region combined.

The company responsible is ArcerlorMittal (a company I’d never heard of); its Burns Harbor plant is the (ir)responsible emitter. According to the report, the plant has topped the list since 2013.

The continuing coverage of Flint, Michigan’s unsafe water generally includes a recitation of the effects of lead poisoning, and they aren’t pretty. They also aren’t reversible; if a child ingests lead through the water, as in Flint, or from flaking of old paint in run-down houses, or from areas of contaminated ground (we have a number in Indianapolis’ poorer precincts), the damage to that child’s intellectual functioning is life-long.

The referenced “rant” is how Masson describes his frustration–which I share–with conservatives’ constant attack on regulation. Pollution is the poster child for why regulatory activity is an essential function of government. As Doug points out, absent regulation, it will always be cheaper to pollute the air that others breathe or the water that others drink than to dispose of the waste from your manufacturing process in a manner that doesn’t harm others.

Meanwhile, pollution means that the market is getting incomplete information about the cost of (in this case) the steel being produced. They offload some of the costs of their production onto the people suffering brain damage from the lead pollution. Those people are, in effect, subsidizing the cost of production. Because the cost of the pollution is not reflected in the price of the steel, the market gets the signal that this form of production is more efficient than it really is. Polluters are rewarded and, consequently, environmentally sound production processes are put at a competitive disadvantage because they don’t force nearby residents to subsidize the process by breathing in the tainted air.

Economists call pollutants generated by manufacturing “externalities,” and note that failing to account for them in the cost of goods being produced distorts the market and–as Doug notes–puts manufacturers who are properly disposing of their pollutants at a pricing disadvantage.

Are some regulations onerous and unnecessarily broad? Sure. Are others inadequate? Absolutely. Regulatory activity by its very nature must be calibrated–ideally, rules governing commercial enterprises should be only as restrictive as necessary to the achievement of the desired result.

When we discuss government regulatory activity in my classes, I always emphasize the inadequacy of the usual political and ideological “either/or” formulations–as I tell my students, the need for and adequacy of any particular regulation will always be what lawyers like to call “fact-sensitive.” Issuing a wholesale assault on “regulation” writ large makes no more sense than advocating the elimination of “laws” because some laws are over-broad or unnecessary.

One of the most frustrating elements of our current impoverished and dishonest political discourse is the over-simplification of issues that are complex and/or nuanced. Too much of our public debate is conducted via bumper-sticker slogans and easy, inaccurate generalizations. When it comes to protecting the environment, those formulations are not only inaccurate, they are dangerously misleading.

Most Americans want the air they breathe to be clean, the water they drink to be safe, the playground soil to be free of harmful contaminants. It would be wonderful if we could rely upon the ethics of manufacturers to ensure the safety of our environment, but we can’t. We have no choice but to rely upon the government to promulgate and enforce rules against despoiling our air and water.

Of all the many obscenities being perpetrated by the Trump administration, watching the EPA play “footsie” with favored corporate polluters while refusing to discharge its most basic responsibility–to safeguard the environment– may be the worst.

 

 

Corruption And The Piety Party

Over the past few years, surveys have documented the growth of the so-called “nones”–Americans who have abandoned religion. Some are atheists or agnostics, others simply see religion as irrelevant to their lives. For many, that irrelevancy is the result of distaste for the hypocrisy and amoral behaviors of many self-described “pious” people.

I thought about the distance between ostentatious religiosity and ethical behavior when I read a Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post, titled “The Unimpeachable Integrity of the Republicans.”The GOP, as we all know, has become the piety party–Vice-President Mike Pence is its perfect, smarmy embodiment.

Milbank wasn’t addressing Republican faux religiosity–he was just marveling at the efforts of deeply dishonest Representatives to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. As he noted, tongue-in-cheek, the charges are serious: inappropriately redacting lines in documents turned over to Congress by the Justice Department, and explaining the legal basis upon which the department is declining to produce others. Horrific behavior! I may swoon…

Redacting the price of a conference table is clearly a far more serious offense than those committed by other members of the Trump Team: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been accused by former associates of stealing roughly $120 million; former EPA Chief Pruitt got a bargain condo rental from a lobbyist’s wife, used his job to find work for his wife and had taxpayers buy him everything from a soundproof phone booth to  moisturizing lotion.

Who else doesn’t merit impeachment?

Not the former national security adviser who admitted to lying to the FBI,not the former White House staff secretary accused of domestic violence, not the presidential son-in-law who had White House meetings with his family’s lenders, not the housing secretary accused of potentially helping his son’s business, not the many Cabinet secretaries who traveled for pleasure at taxpayer expense, not the former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director who bought tobacco stock while in office.

And certainly not the president, whose most recent emolument bath was poured by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince: Bookings by his highness’s entourage spurred a spike in the quarterly revenue at the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan.

None of these “public servants” generated the indignation being focused on Rosenstein the Redactor.

Milbank helpfully described the pious paragons so determined to expel this scofflaw from governance–the same Republicans “so above reproach” that one of their first votes was an attempt to kill the House ethics office. He began by identifying some who are regretfully  no longer available:

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), an obvious candidate, resignedover his use of public funds to settle a sexual-harassment lawsuit.

Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), another ideal choice, resigned after word got out of a sexual-harassment settlement with a staffer the married congressman called his “soul mate.”

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) also can’t be of use. He resignedover allegations that he urged his mistress to seek an abortion.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) likewise won’t be available. He quit when a former aide alleged that he offered her $5 millionto have his child as a surrogate.

But never fear–as Milbank demonstrates, the GOP has a truly impressive bench.

There’s Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who remains “tentatively available” despite his arrest this week for insider trading, along with the five other House Republicans who invested in the same company but haven’t been charged yet. There’s also Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), “assuming he has free time”–he’s battling allegations that he covered up sexual misconduct when coaching at Ohio State.

Others who could judge Rosenstein: Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), who pleaded guilty to assault after body-slamming a reporter; Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who is retiring after a naked photograph of him leaked online; and Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), who is under investigation by the FBI over the alleged use of campaign funds for his children’s tuition, shopping trips and airfare for a pet rabbit.

Nunes himself is battling allegations that he got favorable terms on a winery investment and used political contributions to pay for basketball tickets and Las Vegas trips.

Eighty-one percent of white Evangelicals voted for Trump, and research suggests their support for him and his band of thugs and thieves remains strong. No wonder people who actually care about ethics and morality are repelled by “faith.”

The Politics Of Resentment

It doesn’t take a genius–or even a person of above-average observational skill–to understand what motivates Donald Trump’s policy preferences. If Barack Obama was for it, he’s against it. His seething resentment of his predecessor is as painfully obvious as his disinterest in (and ignorance of) public policy, or his blatant cronyism.

Did Obama want to protect the environment? Well, then screw the environment.

This week, the Trump administration issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) which, if finalized, would cast aside the commitment made by President Bush and President Obama to increase fuel economy and reduce pollution. In doing so, the administration is on a path that could needlessly upend a settled regulatory framework that has brought together disparate interests, delivered predictability to automakers, improved cars, and reduced pollution. As such, the proposed new rules run counter to what Ford, General Motors, and others across the industry have consistently advocated. In fact, industry and the state of California appear largely aligned on how to proceed in resetting fuel-efficiency standards, and the only missing player is the Trump administration, despite the president’s prior direction to his team to negotiate.

Scholars with The Brookings Institution have called for a “dialogue” on the proposed rule making. They emphasize three “key points”: the proposed changes break with the bipartisan history of the program; the proposal will hurt the auto industry; and the administration has relied upon a range of very questionable assumptions that defy common sense (um..what else is new?), in order to justify its proposal.

They also point out that none of the stakeholders involved support the administration’s initiative.

The U.S. auto industry represents 3.5 percent of U.S. GDP and is responsible for 7 million direct and indirect American jobs. Freezing the standards will undermine investments by auto manufacturers and their suppliers, harming the competitiveness of the industry going forward. Research shows that when standards are set at aggressive but attainable levels, they immediately spur technological innovation, catalyze competitiveness, and support jobs. For example, a report published last year by Indiana University looking at the impact of fuel-efficiency standards estimated that investment in innovation could increase jobs by between 200,000 and 375,000 in the year 2025, and add between $138 billion to $240 billion in GDP between 2017 and 2025.

The Brookings scholars also point out that challenging California’s authority under the Clean Air Act would needlessly destabilize the consistency created by a streamlined national program.

Of course, none of this matters to an incompetent and needy President who is not only ignorant of policy (and science, and economics, and….) but who is motivated primarily by resentment of Obama, who once embarrassed him at a Correspondent’s dinner to devastating  effect.

What is undoubtedly even more galling to a man who wears his bigotry like a badge is that Obama has the effrontery to be an immensely popular black man whose personal, intellectual and cultural superiority to Donald Trump is glaringly obvious. The one and only consistent thread in Trump’s “policy agenda” is destruction of the hated black guy’s legacy.

If that destruction requires despoiling the planet, well, so be it.

 

 

Sinclair Media Encounters A Roadblock

In late July, the Washington Post ran a story that was tantalizing by virtue of what it omitted.

The paper reported that the FCC had raised substantial questions about Sinclair Broadcasting’s proposed merger with Tribune Media. In prior years, “substantial questions” by the FCC have been enough to derail proposals, and I was particularly surprised because up to this point, Ajit Pai, Trump’s appointee to head the FCC, has conducted himself precisely as one would expect a Trump appointee to behave, which is to say he has been a total tool of big telecom. For example, Pai engineered the repeal of Net Neutrality–despite the fact that his predecessor had strongly supported the policy (as do huge majorities of Americans) and despite the huge number of public comments protesting the move–an “accomplishment” that undoubtedly pleased Verizon, where he had been an executive before moving to the FCC.

Trump, of course, took to Twitter to express his disagreement, tweeting in his usual peevish and childish prose:

Trump said Tuesday that it was “So sad and unfair” that the FCC, an independent agency, did not approve the merger, a $3.9 billion transaction that would create a conservative television giant that originally hoped to reach roughly 70 percent of U.S. households.

In his tweet, the president stressed how the deal would provide a “conservative voice for and of the People,” though politics are not supposed to factor into merger considerations.

“Liberal Fake News NBC and Comcast gets approved, much bigger, but not Sinclair. Disgraceful!” the president tweeted.

Sinclair–dubbed the worst media company you never heard of by John Oliver--is a lesser known clone of Fox News; if it were allowed to become the country’s largest broadcaster, that would vastly increase the influence of its reactionary programming by adding millions of homes to its nationwide network. (Its original proposal had the company reaching 233 stations in 108 markets.)

So far, Pai has been a reliable Trump lackey, consistently siding with big business over the consumers whose interests his agency is charged with protecting.

Pai moved to allow more consolidation among TV stations last year by restoring an FCC accounting method known as the UHF discount. Under the discount, broadcast companies can own more stations before bumping up against a national audience cap limiting their reach to 39 percent of U.S. households. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court dismissed an effort by consumer advocacy groups challenging Pai’s decision.

That court ruling is a victory for Sinclair, even as its deal undergoes legal review. The company’s merger proposal depends on the UHF discount to stay compliant with the FCC’s national audience cap; after factoring in the discount, Sinclair has said, the combined company will reach 38.9 percent of U.S. households.

Some of Pai’s critics, including Democrats in Congress, have highlighted these and other policy moves in questioning the chairman’s relationship with the conservative broadcasting giant.

Sinclair has close ties to the Trump administration. During the campaign, according to Politico, the company made a deal with Trump in which it promised positive media coverage for preferred access. (Reputable journalists they are not.) Boris Epshteyn, who worked for Trump in the White House, is a company executive.

The FCC’s sudden concern about the merger raises two questions, one of which is: why? Has Pai suddenly discovered that the purpose of the FCC is not the empowerment of Big Telecom? Is he less of a pawn than he has heretofore seemed? Is there some history between him and Sinclair that might emerge to suggest a quid pro quo that would smear his reputation if he simply rubber-stamped the proposed merger?

Inquiring minds want to know!

When the “substantial concerns” were first announced, several media outlets asked: will the clear disapproval of the twit in chief cause Pai to back off? That question is now moot; yesterday, Tribune Media called off the merger and announced a lawsuit against Sinclair.

A good result, but a very, very curious chain of events….

Brett Kavanaugh–The More We See, The Worse It Gets

While critics of his nomination fixate on Kavanaugh’s distaste for Roe v. Wade, his vendetta against health care programs like the ACA, and his antagonism to government oversight (evidently, the king can do no wrong), Paul Krugman highlights an even more dangerous element of the nominee’s judicial philosophy, his anti-worker bias.

It isn’t as if working-class Americans haven’t been taking it on the chin for a long time. But in the era of stagnant wages and diminishing worker protections, Kavanaugh might just be the coup de grace. Krugman points out that Trump has governed as a pretty orthodox Republican, if you overlook the way he has replaced racial dog-whistles with raw, upfront racism; accordingly, he has consistently betrayed the populists who supported him.

Many people have made this point with respect to the Trump tax cut, which is so useless to ordinary workers that Republican candidates are trying to avoid talking about it. The same can be said about health care, where Democrats are making Trump’s assault on the Affordable Care Act a major issue while Republicans try to change the subject.

But I think we should be seeing more attention devoted to the way Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court fits into this picture. The Times had a good editorial on Kavanaugh’s anti-worker agenda, but by and large the news analyses I’ve seen focus on his apparently expansive views of presidential authority and privilege.

I agree that these are important in the face of a lawless president with authoritarian instincts. But the business and labor issues shouldn’t be neglected. Kavanaugh is, to put it bluntly, an anti-worker radical, opposed to every effort to protect working families from fraud and mistreatment.

Kavanaugh wrote the opinion absolving Sea World from  liability for the death of a worker attacked by a killer whale–hey, she should have known the risks. He says the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is unconstitutional–so caveat emptor, consumer. He’s also supported the rights of business to suppress union organizing.

Krugman reminds his readers that Trump’s betrayal of working class Americans goes far beyond his counterproductive trade policies.

There’s growing evidence that wage stagnation in America – the very stagnation that angers Trump voters — isn’t being driven by impersonal forces like technological change; to an important extent it’s the result of political changes that have weakened workers’ bargaining power. If Trump manages to install Kavanaugh, he’ll help institutionalize these anti-worker policies for decades to come.

I grew up in Anderson, Indiana. My father was a Democrat and my mother was a Republican. Despite their other political differences, they agreed about unions: they both hated them. Back then, Anderson’s economy was dependent upon then-thriving General Motors and Guide Lamp factories, and periodic labor unrest was characterized by thuggish (and sometimes violent) union behavior. It was the (brief) heyday of union power, and that power wasn’t always used in moderation.

Today, the situation is reversed. Decades of successful Republican efforts to enact anti-union policies, plus such things as automation and the so-called “gig economy,” have eviscerated the unions that used to bargain collectively on behalf of workers. Meanwhile, corporate America has used its superior weapons–political contributions and lobbyists–not to level the playing field, but to tilt it dramatically  in management’s favor.

Wildly unequal power is not a recipe for fairness to anyone. When clout is more or less evenly distributed between labor and management, productive bargaining can occur. When either side of the equation dominates, the outcomes unduly favor the powerful– and generate resentment from those who leave the bargaining table empty-handed (if there is a bargaining table at all).

That resentment–and the racial anxiety that feeds on it–is what elected Donald Trump and accelerated the deconstruction of America’s democratic norms. The last thing we need is a Justice Kavanaugh to make the current impotence of organized labor a permanent feature of American law.

If Democratic Senate candidates in red states need a persuasive reason to vote against Kavanaugh’s confirmation, his overwhelming animosity to the rights of American workers should fit the bill. (Senator Donnelly–are you listening?)