Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Fear–The Demagogue’s Friend

When people are afraid, they do unfortunate things.

As recent paper from the Brookings Institution points out, fear is a demagogue’s best friend. That’s why so many of Donald Trump’s actions in just the first few weeks of his disastrous presidency have been so dangerous.

President Trump’s Executive Order severely restricting visa-holders and refugees’ freedom to enter the United States is not only immoral and un-American—it’s also likely to fail on its own terms and lead to an increase in terrorist attacks against Americans. Yet if terrorism does increase, support for Trump and for harsh and self-defeating policies are likely to grow.

Although I doubt Trump is capable of that level of strategic planning, Actual-President Bannon clearly is.

The paper was written before several courts interrupted enforcement of the Order. As a number of observers have noted, should there be a terrorist attack during that interruption–or after the Order is finally invalidated, as I expect it will be–Trump has already telegraphed his intention to blame the courts and “so-called” judges.

The article reiterates many of the well-known criticisms of the Executive Order–the fact that zero terrorists have come from the countries subject to the ban, and –coincidentally, I’m sure (cough)–the countries that have produced terrorists and whose citizens weren’t banned happen to be countries where Trump has business interests; and the fact that refugee screening is exceptionally thorough, even draconian.

Refugees get the most scrutiny and Syrian refugees get the most scrutiny of all. So the vetting procedures are working. Refugees from other countries affected by the ban—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen—have been involved in few plots since 9/11.

In different ways, all these countries have a terrorism problem, but that’s not the same as saying that the people visiting America are terrorists. Indeed, residents of these countries know first-hand the evils of terrorism and loath the groups accordingly. Some of the fiercest anti-Communists came from Cubans fleeing Castro or Russians fleeing Stalin: should we be surprised that Muslims who experience evil firsthand have a visceral loathing of it too? If you don’t believe me, go to an Iranian-American neighborhood in Los Angeles and praise the Iran’s ayatollahs and see what happens.

As the article also points out, saying a country has a terrorism problem is  not the same as saying that the people visiting America from that country are terrorists. Quite the contrary: people who have experienced the evils of terrorism are the people most likely to hate and oppose them.

Some of the fiercest anti-Communists came from Cubans fleeing Castro or Russians fleeing Stalin: should we be surprised that Muslims who experience evil firsthand have a visceral loathing of it too? If you don’t believe me, go to an Iranian-American neighborhood in Los Angeles and praise the Iran’s ayatollahs and see what happens.

And there’s those pesky little things…I think they call them “facts”–that suggest most terrorist attacks in the U.S. come from home-grown, white right-wing extremists.

So we have alienated the allies around the world on whom we depend for intelligence information, we have sent a message to moderate Muslims that we make no distinction between the millions of peace-loving adherents of that religion and the radical fringe, and we have dramatically increased the likelihood of a terrorist attack that can only help Donald Trump.

The horrible reality, however, is that a terrorist attack, especially one at home, is likely to “prove” that Trump is right. Terrorists’ successes are always a bit random, but at least some low-level attacks would be likely regardless of who was president. Trump, however, ran a campaign of fear and dishonesty about the terrorism threat and the attitudes of U.S. Muslims (for example, the false claim that thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheered the 9/11 attacks). Polls show fears of terrorism were at near-record levels before the election despite the small number of attacks and deaths in the U.S. since 9/11, and this fear increased support for Trump’s candidacy.

Once an attack happens, Trump will probably tweet that he called for vigilance and tough measures only to be opposed by bleeding heart liberals, the failing New York Times, and Muslim-lovers naïve to the true danger. The fact that his policies made the attacks more likely will be lost in the uproar.

Nothing will please President Bannon more.


Are We the Poisoned Darts?

Vox recently had a good analysis of an increasingly pertinent question: is the chaos emanating from Washington part of a diabolical plan to generate social unrest that can then be used to justify the imposition of martial law or its equivalent, or is it evidence (as if we needed any) of the incompetence and ignorance of the embarrassing buffoon sitting in the Oval Office?

That argument is already taking shape around Trump, as he ham-handedly issues executive orders poorly understood by his own bureaucracy and fires members of his administration. It is aptly captured in two recent essays.

The first is by Yonatan Zunger, a Google privacy engineer. It’s called “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” and it reviews the news of the past day or two through the lens of a unifying theory: By putting confidant Steve Bannon on the National Security Council, cutting agencies out of rule-making, and defying a court order, Trump is systematically attempting to reduce any checks on his power. He’s trying to concentrate power in a small counsel of trusted advisers (the “coup”) and avoid legal review.

The second essay is by political scientist Tom Pepinsky, in response. It’s called “Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders,” and it makes a simple point: The very same actions Zunger interprets as a devious, coordinated plan can also be interpreted as the bumbling, defensive moves of a weak leader who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.

As Pepinsky points out, all we have to go on is “observable” action. For example, perhaps Trump put Steve Bannon on the NSC to consolidate power, part of his intent to sideline the establishment figures who actually know something about American foreign policy. On the other hand, perhaps he brought Bannon into the NSC because he doesn’t understand the discussions occurring in that venue (or perhaps everyone in the foreign policy establishment is dragging their feet and otherwise trying to keep him from doing something that will trigger a diplomatic crisis or a war), and he brought in Bannon because he felt the need for a loyal “interpreter” he could trust.

The former is a sign of strength. The latter is a sign of weakness. Both have the same observable implication.

The author of the article, Dave Roberts, prefers the latter explanation; as he notes,

[N]arcissistic, paranoid tribalists are rarely geniuses, because genius requires a certain detached perspective, an ability to step outside oneself, which is precisely what narcissists lack.

In any event, Roberts says that the consequences of Trump’s behavior will be determined not by his intent, but by the strength of the institutions that have shaped our ability to resist.

If we’re looking to understand the course an authoritarian takes through a country and its history — what’s he’s accomplished, what’s likely to happen next — the place to look is not his intent, but the institutions and norms of the country he seeks to dominate. They, not his ultimate goals and desires, are what most determine the ultimate shape and consequences of a regime.

Think of a bull loose in a china shop. How much damage will it do? The relevant variable is not the bull’s intent. A bull’s gonna bull. The relevant variable is how equipped the china shop is to stop the bull. How many tranquilizer darts does it have, or, I don’t know, nets? (I didn’t think this analogy all the way through.)

The point is, how far an authoritarian can blunder forward, violating norms and degrading institutions, is determined by the strength of the norms and institutions he encounters. They determine when, or whether, he is constrained….

What will happen next depends not on Trump, but on America’s institutions and norms — the courts, the military, Congress, civil society, journalism. It is their strength, not his, that will determine how this story ends.

I like this analogy, muddled or not.

Trump is a raging bull. (As Jon Stewart memorably told Stephen Colbert a few nights ago on the Late Show, the “official language” of Trump’s America is bullshit.)

We the People must be the poisoned darts.

This Does Answer a Common Question

Each time Trump announces a new nominee for a position in his administration, the same question arises: where does he get these people? (The ones who aren’t family members, that is. Family may be equally unfit, but we do know where he gets them.)

Really, who knew there was a vast pool of corrupt, unqualified, mean-spirited people willing and eager to work with Donald Trump?

Juanita Jean points out that Texas is one good source of appalling folks.

You guys remember Yachting Randy Neugebauer – the west Texas congressman we love around here.  Randy bought a yacht with his campaign funds which is kinda strange since he lives in the desert, was the guy who chewed out the national park service ranger on tv for doing her job during the government shutdown that he voted for, yelled “baby killer” at a Democratic congressman during a debate, and called US border detention centers the lap of lovely, and a whole mess of other stuff including how the hell did his son, Toby, become a billionaire.

“Yachting Randy” had retired from Congress, but it appears he will be joining the Trump Administration. In a match most definitely not made in heaven, he is being considered for a job as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Donald Trump is considering Randy to head up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Elizabeth Warren’s old job.  Did you hear me? The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Why aren’t you hollering and stomping?

Hell, people, you could not trust that guy with a dime.  He will steal the gold out of your teeth.  Plus, he’s crazier than an internationally syndicated Donald Trump tweet.  He’s got loco camped out in his eyeballs.

So “Yachting Randy” joins the growing parade of “you’re kidding, right?” nominees….

Not long ago, I was having lunch with a friend; we were glumly assessing the various harms likely in a country governed (if you can call it that) by this collection of truly appalling choices, and we concluded that their very incompetence might be our salvation–that most of them were too inexperienced and uninformed to be effective. The Trump Administration seemed likely to resemble the Keystone Kops.

But people like “Yachting Randy” and “Oops Rick Perry” and (most terrifying of all) “Sheriff” Jeff Sessions do have government experience. Their prior performance wouldn’t exactly recommend them for positions in a competent administration, and they may not be the sharpest knives in the drawer, as the old saying goes, but they may actually be able to do a considerable amount of harm.

I keep telling myself I’m just having a nightmare…..Could someone please wake me?


The Privatizer-in-Chief

Between tweets, Donald Trump is a big proponent of privatization, and those he has named to cabinet positions share his passion for turning government over to the private (for-profit) sector.

A couple of examples: Betsy DeVos wants to privatize public schools; Jeff Sessions is a fan of private prisons. (Neither of these ideologues is likely to let mounting evidence of their favorites’ poor performance persuade them otherwise; evidence is so last century!) So it shouldn’t surprise us that of the (many) really bad ideas being championed by our erratic new President—a man who has never worked in government and quite obviously never considered the meaning of “public service”—is using private companies to repair America’s decaying infrastructure.

This proposal raises all sorts of practical questions, of course, but when you peel back all of the reasons to suspect that our genuine need to repair our roads, bridges and electrical grid is being used to leverage another giveaway to the rich and connected, there is a more profound issue that generally gets ignored: who should own and benefit from the country’s infrastructure?

I was prompted to focus on that question by an article in Engineering News-Record, (not, I confess, a periodical I regularly read. My husband, a retired architect, is a subscriber.) The article described a legal challenge to the Gordie Howe International Bridge being built by  the United States and Canada. The challenge to the authority of Michigan’s Governor to acquire land for the approach to the bridge was brought by the Moroun family, private owners of an existing bridge, the Ambassador, also connecting Detroit with Windsor.

The Morouns claim that their own bridge could lose 75% of its traffic, and they have threatened to close it.

What is really being lost here is the public interest. Infrastructure should serve public needs; instead, the current bridge is a profit-generating enterprise owned and controlled by a family whose interests are the bottom line, not the common good. That’s not to say that private interests can never build roads or bridges to augment those constructed with our tax dollars, but those efforts should be undertaken with a clear understanding of the primary purpose of the network they join and the risks they assume.

This is not an isolated case.

America’s prolonged anti-tax hysteria has meant that local governments—desperate for revenues to provide public services—have increasingly sold off public assets. In my home city of Indianapolis, the city entered into a fifty-year “lease” of its parking meters in 2011, trading control of its curbsides and parking rates for up-front cash. The results—which haven’t been pretty—are an object lesson in why such infrastructure should be civically owned and operated.

After Indianapolis leased its parking meter operations to a private company, rates skyrocketed, hours expanded and the number of metered spaces increased. But when I last looked, the city was receiving only about a quarter of the revenues the private vendor projected when it paid $20 million to the city for the right to operate the meters until 2061.

Aside from everything else, the length of the contract was unconscionable. Decisions about where to place meters, how to price them, what lengths of time to allow and so on have an enormous impact on local businesses and residential neighborhoods. They are decisions requiring flexibility in the face of changing circumstances; they are most definitely not decisions that should be held hostage for decades to contracting provisions aimed at protecting a vendor’s profits.

The contract profited the vendor at the expense of citizens. More often than not, new  construction interrupts adjacent parking. If the city is managing its own meters, it can choose to ignore that loss of parking revenue, or decide to charge the developer, based upon the City’s best interests. Street festivals and other civic celebrations also require  that meters be bagged, and usually there are good reasons not to charge the not-for-profit or civic organization running the event. The Indianapolis contract requires the City to pay the vendor whenever such interruptions disrupt its projected revenue from those meters.

There was never a satisfactory response to the obvious question “why can’t we do this ourselves, make parking decisions based upon the public interest, and keep all the revenues to provide badly-needed public services?” Why couldn’t Indianapolis retain control of its infrastructure, and issue revenue bonds to cover the costs of the necessary improvements? (Interest rates were at a historic low at the time, making it even more advantageous to do so.) If the administration at the time was too inept to manage parking, it could have created a Municipal Parking Authority and hired that competence. There really was no compelling reason to enrich private contractors and reduce future (desperately needed) City revenues. (That “up-front” payment was very enticing, of course. Let subsequent administrations worry about the long term.)

There are times when so-called “public-private partnerships” are useful and appropriate. There are other times when they amount to theft from the public till. It behooves us to distinguish between those situations, and to remember that constructing and maintaining an infrastructure owned by and operated for the use of all our citizens, rich and poor, is one of the most basic obligations of government.