Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Sometimes You Just Want To Cry…

I drafted this post before I heard yesterday’s news that Ryan Zinke is “retiring.” I’m sure that whomever Trump chooses to replace him will be equally awful, equally corrupt–but at least we may be lucky enough to have a breather before that person ramps up.

Why was I devoting today’s post to Zinke? Let me count the ways….Actually, I don’t have to, because Scientific American has done it for me.

When you think of sensationalism or bias in the media, Scientific American isn’t the publication that first comes to mind. The fact that the magazine’s articles are usually pretty sober and deliberate is why this recent article was especially troubling.

It was titled “Monumental Disaster at the Department of the Interior,” and the sub-head was even more pointed: “A new report documents suppression of science, denial of climate change, the silencing and intimidation of staff.”

Here’s the lede:

This is a tough time to be a federal scientist—or any civil servant in the federal government. The Trump administration is clamping down on science, denying dangerous climate change and hollowing out the workforces of the agencies charged with protecting American health, safety and natural resources.

According to the author, a former employee of the Department, Zinke and the political staff  he has hired have consistently sidelined scientists and experts, “while handing the agency’s keys over to oil, gas and mining interests.”

The only saving grace is that Zinke and his colleagues are not very good at it, and in many cases the courts are stopping them in their tracks. The effects on science, scientists and the federal workforce, however, will be long-lasting.

I never thought I’d be grateful for incompetence, but really, the only thing that is saving American institutions from Trump and the looters he has installed as agency heads is their monumental ignorance of government and policy, and total lack of any managerial ability.

The report, Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior, was issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists; it documents a number of Secretary Zinke’s more egregious and anti-science policies and practices. It describes “suppression of science, denial of climate change, the silencing and intimidation of agency staff, and attacks on science-based laws that help protect our nation’s world-class wildlife and habitats.”

It would be impossible to cover everything this clumsy political wrecking crew is up to, but the report provides details on the most prominent actions that deserve greater scrutiny, such as: the largest reduction in public lands protection in our nation’s history; a systematic failure to acknowledge or act on climate change; unprecedented constraints on the funding and communication of science; and a blatant disregard for public health and safety.

The author follows a damning list of actions taken by Zinke with a rhetorical question: why? Why would any government official choose to be anti-science, anti-evidence? Why–even if he really doesn’t accept the science of climate change– does Zinke pursue policies that he has to know will foul the air we all breathe and the water we all drink?

He then answers his own question (you knew this already, though, didn’t you?):

Ryan Zinke has been very clear that he is in office to serve the oil, gas and mining industries, not the general public.

One of the ways I’ve been clinging to what remains of my equanimity during the nightmare of this administration is to remind myself that nothing is forever, that although a lot of people are getting hurt in the meantime, most of the horrific policies being pursued by this gang of thugs and looters can be reversed.

But every day we fail to protect the environment, every day we double down on practices that accelerate climate change, is a day we can’t get back.

Trump’s criminal syndicate is willing to destroy the planet our grandchildren will rely upon– presumably the planet their own grandchildren will inhabit–in order to please the fat cats whose campaign dollars are their source of political power.

I really can’t think of anything more vile.

Something There Is That Doesn’t Love A Wall

Robert Frost said it best.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.

Good fences might make good neighbors, but walls signify more impenetrable barriers–barriers to understanding, to friendship, to growth.

Which brings me, of course, to Trump’s threat Tuesday to shut down parts of the government if he doesn’t get the money he’s demanding to build his “big, beautiful wall.”

Forget, for the moment, that Trump repeatedly promised he would make Mexico pay for his wall. (I don’t know who was dumber–Trump for promising something that any sentient being would know wasn’t going to happen, or the presumably non-sentient voters who believed him.)

Forget, too, the inescapable consequences of Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and the urgent need to wall the dark-skinned ones out–the damage to America’s standing in the world community, and the even graver damage to the stories we tell ourselves about the promise of America and the American Dream.

And be sure to ignore the extent of environmental damage that would be caused if a wall were actually  to be constructed along America’s southern border.

Instead, put yourself in the shoes of those who agree with our delusional President. Tell yourself that you accept the importance of a wall to the achievement of what he calls “border security.”

Then ask yourself how a twenty- five-billion-dollar wall would contribute to “border security.”

It isn’t just that tall ladders are widely available, or that enterprising refugees might dig tunnels. It’s that a majority of the people who are in the United States illegally flew in and overstayed an initially proper visa. That method of entry is unlikely to be affected by a wall, to put it mildly.

(There is, to be fair, the possibility that construction of Trump’s wall  would dampen enthusiasm for migrating here, by acting as a signal that this is no longer a country worth coming to. But the number that would be so deterred is highly speculative…)

That’s not to say that construction of a border wall wouldn’t have an effect. It might not keep determined immigrants out, but it would be a powerful symbol of America’s retreat–not just from much of the rest of the world, but from who we are. It would symbolize rejection of values we may not always have lived up to, but have persistently worked toward. It would be a lasting symbol of small-mindedness, of fearfulness.

It would send the world a signal that the high-minded experiment that was the United States had ignominiously failed.

 

File Under: From Your Mouth To God’s Ears

When someone made a positive prediction in her presence, my grandmother would employ a favorite  “go to” phrase: “from your mouth to God’s ears!” It was her way of saying she certainly hoped that whatever was being predicted would turn out to be true.

Grandma has been gone for quite some time, but that phrase was the first thing that popped into my head when I read this report from Politico.

As many as five Democratic-led House committees next year could take on DeVos over a range of issues such as her rollback of regulations aimed at predatory for-profit colleges, the stalled processing of student loan forgiveness and a rewrite of campus sexual assault policies.

“Betsy DeVos has brought a special mix of incompetence and malevolence to Washington — and that’s rocket fuel for every committee in a new Congress that will finally provide oversight,” said Seth Frotman, who resigned as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s top student loan official earlier in protest of Trump administration policies likely to be examined by Democrats.

In any other administration, DeVos’ “special mix of incompetence and malevolence” would have garnered far more media attention. Trumpworld, however, has such a monumental amount of both that she has had to share that attention with others in the abysmal cohort comprising our nation’s current administration.

Among the incoming committee chairs antagonistic to DeVos is Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). She’s in line to lead the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing education funding, and–like the other incoming chairs identified in the article–she’s coming to the job with her sights firmly set on DeVos.

The panel’s oversight work, DeLauro said, will focus on ways to “hold Secretary DeVos accountable for her agency’s failure to uphold federal protections for our students.”

DeLauro called DeVos’ record on student debt issues “appalling,” citing the administration’s moves to eliminate Obama-era rules meant to cut off funding to low-performing colleges and make it easier for defrauded borrowers to obtain loan forgiveness.

“I will make sure Secretary DeVos knows Americans want her to protect students and veterans, not the for-profit school industry,” she said.

Maxine Waters will head the Financial Services Committee; earlier this month she accused DeVos of a “full-on attack on civil rights protections for students—particularly students of color, students with disabilities, transgender students, and survivors of sexual assault.”

A number of watchdog groups have brought lawsuits that can serve as agendas for these committees:

Groups like American Oversight, National Student Legal Defense Network and Democracy Forward have all filed multiple lawsuits against the department — many focusing on its ties to the for-profit education industry.

“We are certainly hopeful that the Department of Education will cooperate with the incoming Democratic chairs’ oversight requests,” said Aaron Ament, president of the National Student Legal Defense Network, which published a list of oversight topics for Democrats to take on after the election. “However, given this administration’s track record when it comes to following the law, it would not be surprising if Congress has to use subpoenas to get any useful information.”

Trump’s cabinet–with a combined net worth estimated at $14 Billion–is filled with appointees chosen mainly for their deep antagonism to the missions of the agencies they head. (Total ignorance of the matters under the agencies’ jurisdiction is a plus.) But even in that pathetic assembly, DeVos stands out.

Hostility to public education? Check. Lack of even the slightest understanding of education policy debates? Check. Devotion to her fellow plutocrats who are making fortunes by ripping off students and taxpayers? Check. Total lack of respect, regard or concern for the students DOE supposedly serves? Check.

When Politico’s mouth gets to God’s ears, bring popcorn.

 

The Danger Zone

Democratic systems vary, but they share certain foundational assumptions. The most important of those is the starting point: We The People are the “deciders.”  Ultimate authority rests with the voters.

In democratic theory, candidates contend for support during election campaigns, voters cast their ballots, and the candidate who garners the most votes wins. (At least if there’s no Electoral College involved).

In order for this process to work, both winners and losers must respect the will of the people.

Losers may disagree with positions endorsed by the winning candidates, and as the “loyal opposition,” they may work in accordance with the rules to defeat the winners’ agenda, but democratic norms require that they acquiesce to the people’s choice.

When that doesn’t happen–when the losers disregard the rules and norms in order to frustrate the choices made by the electorate–governance can no longer be considered either legitimate or democratic.  Political actors who accept authority when they win, but defy the settled norms of democratic behavior when they lose , undermine the public trust and make a mockery of the rule of law.

The visceral reaction to Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented theft of a Supreme Court seat reflected a widespread recognition that this was no ordinary political maneuver–it was the arrogant demonstration of a cheat that he would abide by the rules only when they favored him.

When Republicans in the North Carolina legislature stripped the incoming Democratic governor of powers the office had previously exercised–because they could–it was their middle-finger-to-democracy gesture.

That “in your face” rejection of democratic norms is spreading.

In a newsletter for the Boston Globe, Michael Cohen recently pointed out, “in a normal representative democracy, if you run for office and then lose you let the other party run things for a while. That doesn’t mean a political party can’t oppose those efforts, but it does mean that you have to respect the voters’ decisions.”

That isn’t what is happening in Wisconsin or Michigan.

In these two states, Republican gubernatorial candidates were defeated in this year’s midterm elections. Democrats also won both attorney general races. And now Republicans are refusing to accept the results.

Instead they are trying to use lame-duck sessions – before the Democrats are sworn into office – to weaken the power of the incoming Democrats and put in place policy changes that will benefit Republicans.

Let’s start with Wisconsin, where soon-to-be former governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the state legislature have spent the past eight years making a mockery of democracy in the state.  Upon taking office they rammed through a highly controversial measure that stripped collective bargaining rights from the state’s public sector unions. Then they re-wrote legislative maps to give themselves out-sized control of the state government. In the 2018 election, Democrats won 53 percent of the vote, compared to 45 percent for Republicans. Yet, because of gerrymandering, that translates into a 64-36 advantage for Republicans in the state assembly.

But apparently that’s not enough for Republicans. Now they are enacting legislation that would kneecap Democrats once they take office….

For Governor-elect Evers, Republicans would not only force him to enact work requirements for Medicaid, but would also require him to get the legislature’s permission before submitting any request to the federal government to change how federal programs are administered. In effect, Republicans would give themselves a veto over much of what Evers would try to accomplish as governor. Walker has stated publicly that he will sign the bills.

….

Republicans aren’t even being shy about their agenda. In Wisconsin, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scot Fitzgerald defended his party’s actions by saying, “I’m concerned. I think that Governor-elect Evers is going to bring a liberal agenda to Wisconsin.”

He’s right. But of course Evers’s agenda is what Wisconsin voters chose.  To put roadblocks in front of it is to, in effect, say to voters that their choices don’t matter. It’s hard to imagine a statement more contemptible in a democracy than a political leader telling a state’s voters, “only the views of the people who voted for me matter.” But that’s precisely what Fitzgerald and his Republican colleagues are doing.

Changing the rules after they’ve lost the game. Undoing the results of a democratic election because they lost.

This behavior is nothing less than an attack on America and its values.

What We Don’t Know Is Hurting Us

There’s an old saying to the effect that it isn’t what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know that isn’t so.

Misinformation, in other words, is more damaging than ignorance.

I agree–with a crucial caveat. The adage is only true when we are aware of our ignorance–when we recognize what information or skill we lack. As research continues to demonstrate, however, there’s a high correlation between ignorance of a particular subject-matter and ignorance of our own ignorance. (It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

That’s why lawmakers’ allergy to data and preference for evidence-free policy pronouncements are so maddening.

A while back, I read a column making the point that data is inevitably political. The government collects data in order to inform policy decisions, because in order to address issues, it is essential to understand the facts involved, to have a handle on what we academic types like to call “reality.”

The column that I read (and no longer remember where, or I’d link to it) considered the consequences of the Reagan Administration’s decision to stop collecting data on corporate market share. Without that information, policymakers have no idea how large the largest corporations have become. They lack evidence on the degree to which companies like Amazon, Walmart, et al can dominate a segment of the economy and effectively set the rules for that segment. It’s likely that this lack of data is a significant factor accounting for diminished anti-trust enforcement.

The problem goes well beyond economic data. For a considerable length of time, the United States has been mired in one of the nation’s periodic and damaging anti-intellectual periods, characterized by scorn for expertise and empirical evidence.  (Another troubling manifestation of that scorn is the reported evisceration of Congressional staff–the panels of employees with specialized knowledge that advise Congressional committees and individual Representatives on complicated and technical issues.)

Instead of evidence-based policy, we get faith-based lawmaking. Ideology trumps reality. (And yes, I meant that double entendre…)

Last year’s tax “reform” is a perfect example. It was patterned after Sam Brownback’s experiment in Kansas–an experiment that spectacularly crashed and burned. As NPR reported

In 2012, the Republican governor pushed reforms through the state Legislature that dramatically cut income taxes across the board. Brownback boasted the plan would deliver a “shot of adrenaline” to the Kansas economy.

But the opposite happened.

Revenues shrank, and the economy grew more slowly than in neighboring states and the country as a whole. Kansas’ bond rating plummeted, and the state cut funding to education and infrastructure.

You might think that Kansas’ experience would inform a similar effort at the federal level, that it would at least be taken into account even if it wasn’t considered dispositive, but clearly that didn’t happen.

It’s that same dismissive attitude about “facts” and “evidence” and “data”–not to mention science–that is the largest single impediment to serious efforts to slow the rate of climate change.

Some lawmakers who deny climate change ground their beliefs in religious literalism (making them ‘literally” faith-based), but most do so on the basis of the same free-market ideology that led them to dismiss results in Kansas, and oppose even the most reasonable regulations. (There’s a highly convenient aspect to that ideology, since it keeps campaign contributions flowing…but it would be a mistake to think everyone who subscribes to it does so only as a quid pro quo.)

If the country doesn’t emerge from this “Don’t bother me with the facts” era, we’re in for a world of hurt.

And speaking of literalism, the whole world will hurt.