Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Accurate, Not Funny

A friend recently sent me the following “joke:”

The Republican Congress is preparing to pass a resolution adding an “S” to WASP.  The S will stand for STRAIGHT, and “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant will henceforth be “Straight White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.”

The Democrats in Congress will respond by creating  a new acronym of their own. MAGPIE will stand for “Minority Americans, Gays, Poor, Immigrants, Educated, Seculars.”

Clever word-play, but much too accurate to be amusing.

Count me among the many Americans who heard Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” as a very thinly-veiled promise to “make America White Again.” Trump’s appeal was grounded in a notion of “true” Americanism that equated being a real American with being a straight white Protestant male. He appealed to nostalgia for a time when those white Protestant males dominated– and women and minorities “knew their place.”

That nostalgia, needless to say, is not shared by those encompassed by the MAGPIE acronym.

There are, as readers of this blog know all too well, many kinds of inequality. We tend to concentrate on economic disparities, and there is good reason for that—if you are a member of the working poor, unable to make ends meet even though you may be working two jobs, unable to afford adequate food and transportation, let alone health insurance—that lack of self-sufficiency hobbles you in virtually every other way.

People struggling just to survive don’t go to public meetings, rarely vote, and usually are in no position to assert their legal or constitutional rights. They lack the time (and too often the self-confidence) to complain about inadequate city services or substandard schools.

Economic equity is thus incredibly important. But as we all understand, in a society that privileges certain identities over others, the people most likely to be poor, the people most likely to be economically marginalized, are the people consigned to the “Other” categories. The MAGPIES.

One of the most depressing realities about Trump’s America is the increasing division of the population into tribes contending for advantage in what most see as a zero-sum game.

Rather than a liberal democracy in which elected officials work for their vision of a common good, America is rapidly devolving into a corporatist system where elected officials decide who they will favor with tax cuts, subsidies and other governmental prizes. (Those decisions, needless to say, are not made on the basis of what is good for all Americans—they are made in exchange for campaign donations and/or partisan estimates of what is good for the official’s “tribe.”)

From time to time, someone will repeat the old story about the Chairman of General Motors who reportedly said “What’s good for General Motors is good for the United States.” What he actually said was “What’s good for the United States will be good for General Motors.”

That recognition—that we are all in this together, that prosperity must be shared to be sustainable, and that sound management of any business requires a concern for the national welfare—is all but gone, replaced by Trumpism’s far more constricted and un-self-aware concern with the immediate prospects of ones own tribe.

The SWASPs.

 

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….

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.

 

Why Ignorance is So Dangerous

There is evidently a widespread belief that–while your dentist should know what amalgam to use in filling a cavity, and your car mechanic should have at least a passing familiarity with automobile parts–anyone who can fog a mirror can run a government agency, or the country.

Surprise! Public officials actually need to know stuff.

Understanding complex global interrelationships, for example, matters. As Fareed Zakaria pointed out in a column for the Washington Post, Trump’s inability to “connect the dots” (or even see dots) could be the best thing that has happened to his nemesis China in a long time. China plans to

exploit the leadership vacuum being created by the United States’ retreat on trade. As Trump was promising protectionism and threatening literally to wall off the United States from its southern neighbor, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a trip through Latin America in November, his third in four years. He signed more than 40 deals, Bloomberg reported, and committed tens of billions of dollars of investments in the region, adding to a $250 billion commitment made in 2015.

The Huffington Post had another example, in an article focused on Trump’s intent to make significant changes in U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians.

President-elect Trump and his surrogates are dropping heavy hints about plans to break with longstanding U.S. positions vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the direction of changes that both Israelis and Palestinians would view as turning away from a negotiated peace agreement…few people today seem to grasp the consequences – entirely unrelated to Israel and the Palestinians – such changes are set to unleash, or the profoundly negative implications they would have for all Americans.

It’s hard to argue with the assertion that most Americans haven’t the foggiest notion that such policy changes would affect anyone outside the Middle East. Knowledgable people, however, know better.

it seems that in the early 1990s Congress passed laws requiring the U.S. to de-fund any United Nations (UN) agency that admits the Palestinians as a member. Unfortunately, de-funding requires giving up any U.S influence over the agency in question.

Back then, nobody gave the laws a second thought, since in those days it was considered beyond the pale to suggest that there might ever be a Palestinian state. Today, things are very different. Support for a two-state solution has been U.S. policy since 2002, and in 2012, the Palestinians were admitted to the UN as a non-member observer state. This status grants them the right to join specialized UN agencies – a right the U.S. cannot block, and admission in many cases is either automatic or requires only a simple majority vote.

Pursuant to the law, when Palestinians joined UNESCO, America withdrew.

The law is still in effect, so Trump’s proposed changes would trigger some very unpleasant consequences, totally unrelated to Israeli-Palestinian relations. As the writer explains,

Take, for example, the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA). Americans already feeling threatened by the nuclear programs of countries like Iran and North Korea will have even greater reason to worry when the Trump Administration has to de-fund the key watchdog monitoring civilian nuclear programs around the world (the U.S. is the IAEA’s largest donor, so de-funding would be devastating to its operations).

Or what about the World Health Organization (WHO)? After being forced by Zika and Ebola to accept that borders can’t stop the spread of deadly diseases, Americans will have greater reason to be fear for their own well-being when Trump is forced to cut off funding to the key international body charged with dealing with international epidemics and pandemics.

Then there are the immediate concerns to most Americans: jobs and the economy. Here let’s consider the impact of the U.S. de-funding the World Food Program (WFP) and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Rural America may not care about the Israelis or Palestinians, but American farmers and shippers will be shocked when agricultural export programs specifically designed to benefit U.S. farmers and shippers suddenly end.

And then there is the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). While threatening to pull out of trade agreements and organizations like these may seem like smart politics in an election season, America’s businesses may be less sanguine when, because of actions taken on Israel-Palestine, Trump literally has no choice but to give up all influence in organizations from which US businesses derive real benefits when it comes to defending their rights and equities around the world.

I would be willing to wager that Trump and his inexperienced advisors are entirely unaware that the law exists, let alone its likely consequences.

I wonder if the supporters who keep giving him a pass would be equally supportive of a dentist who used lead to fill their cavities…..

Birds of a Feather

Unfortunately, they’re cuckoo birds.

New York Magazine has a story titled: “The Scariest Thing About Trump: Michael Flynn’s Team of Nutters.” After reading it, I understand their characterization, although I find it very difficult to single out any one of Trump’s demented choices and activities as “scariest.” (I’ve been in a perpetually  terrified state since November 8.)

That said, the article makes a pretty persuasive argument that Flynn is certifiable. And when you consider that Presidents have far more authority over foreign policy than over domestic matters, it’s pretty chilling.

The opening paragraphs of the article by Jonathan Chait capture the threat posed by a President who lacks not only experience, but judgment, intellect and any interest in educating himself.

The most frightening aspect of the looming Donald Trump presidency is not so much the likely outcomes, many of which are horrifying, as the unlikely ones. Running the federal government of the world’s most powerful country is hard, and many things can go wrong. Full control of government is about to pass into the hands of a party that, when it last had it, left the economy and the world in a shambles. These disasters occurred because the party’s ideological extremism made it unequipped to make pragmatic choices, and because its chief executive was a mental lightweight. Sixteen years after it last came to power, the party has grown far more ideologically extreme, and its head of state is much less competent. Many of the risks of an extremist party led by an unqualified president are difficult to foresee in advance. But one is especially glaring: the appointment of Michael Flynn to be national security adviser.

National security adviser is a crucial position for any president. It is especially so for a uniquely inexperienced one. (Donald Trump being the only president in American history lacking any public experience in either a civilian or military role.) And it is all the more crucial given Trump’s flamboyant lack of interest in getting up to speed (he confounded his aides by eschewing briefing books throughout the campaign, and has turned down most of his intelligence briefings since the election.) Flynn’s appointment is the one that contains the sum of all fears of Trumpian government.

Chait says that Flynn exhibits the worst qualities of Dick Cheney, “but in exaggerated form.” Like Trump, Flynn is a sucker for conspiracy theories. He believes, for example, that Islamists have infiltrated the Mexican border, guided along the way by Arabic-language signs he says he’s seen. (The Mexicans–and even the Texans– might find that belief a bit…bizarre.) Flynn also believes that Democrats have imposed “Sharia law” in parts of Florida. He once suggested Hillary Clinton could have been involved in child sex trafficking.

Chait says that Flynn’s subordinates at the Defense Intelligence Agency gave these frequent theories a name. “Flynn facts,” are code for the opposite of factual.

As the article documents, Flynn has surrounded himself with equally delusional staff. Perhaps the scariest paragraph in the entire article is this one:

Compounding Flynn’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories is his professed hostility to any information that undercuts his preconceived notions. According to a former subordinate speaking to the New York Times, in a meeting with his staff “Mr. Flynn said that the first thing everyone needed to know was that he was always right. His staff would know they were right, he said, when their views melded to his.”

This is the man–and the philosophy–that will guide a President Trump in his dealings with the rest of the world–a man chosen largely because his delusions, self-regard and self-righteous certainty mirror the qualities of our incoming Commander-in-Chief. As the old saying goes, birds of a feather flock together.

If the fact that these two cuckoo birds will have control of American foreign policy (not to mention the nuclear codes) doesn’t keep you up at night, you must have nerves of steel.