Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

YES!

Richard Cohen recently had an opinion piece in the Washington Post addressing the undeniable fact that Americans increasingly occupy information “bubbles”–and that we rarely, if ever, intersect with the very different bubbles occupied by others.

He began by describing his long-ago relationship with someone named Charlie. He and Charlie came from very different backgrounds and had very different beliefs; their close friendship was an artifact of the draft–they served together in the Army.

Cohen said he thought about that experience and that friendship when he watched people rescue others from the devastation in Houston.

The storm, the flooding — the utter disaster — gave people a common problem and a common goal. It also reduced them to common socioeconomic status. After a while, people in trouble all look the same — wet, dirty, tired, often dazed. The storm throws them together and reduces them to the essential: people needing help, people looking to help. People. That’s it. People.

The army had done much the same leveling of differences:

We all had the same goal, which was to get through training. We all dressed alike, ate the same food, showered together and, over time, became a single unit. I mostly hated the Army, but I mostly loved those guys.

Today’s volunteer army doesn’t provide the same experience, and Cohen is realist enough to concede that there is little likelihood of reinstating the draft. (As he puts it, a generation of gluten-avoiders is not going to happily share a latrine with strangers.) Draft or no draft, however, America needs a mechanism that requires dissimilar people to interact, to actually get to know each other.

 But maybe some sort of national service would work — something lasting a year or so. Other nations do that — and they’re not the goose-stepping ones, either. Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Norway have versions of compulsory service….

We need a national service that throws us all together, the urban with the rural, the Fox News types with the MSNBC crowd. That way, Americans can get to know Americans and learn — as previous generations did — that we are all Americans. A common plight and a common goal is how Houstonians got to know Houstonians. A different plight and a different goal is how I got to know Charlie.

A couple of years ago, I worked with one of my graduate students on just such a proposal–pie in the sky as it was–a new G.I. Bill focused upon producing engaged and informed citizens through civilian service. As we argued, there are many ways in which a national program might incentivize the acquisition of civic literacy and change the civic culture.

We proposed a voluntary National Public Service program for high school graduates who would be paid minimum wage during a one year tour of duty. At the end of that year, assuming satisfaction of the requirements, the students would receive stipends sufficient to pay tuition, room and board for two years at a public college or trade school. The public service requirement would be satisfied through employment with a government agency or not-for-profit organization (like public schools or Goodwill Industries); in addition, students would be required to attend and pass a civics course to be developed by the U.S. Department of Education in conjunction with the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools, thus linking service with civic knowledge.

We noted that the groundwork for such a program is already in place through existing programs like AmeriCorps that are in high demand, but limited by funding.

What sorts of outcomes might we expect? Since such a program is likely to be most attractive to those struggling to afford higher education, we could expect broader participation from those whose voices are largely missing from today’s civic conversation. A better-educated population should engage in better, more nuanced policy debates, leading (hopefully) to more thoughtful policy choices. Ultimately, we might even see more meaningful and issue-oriented political campaigns, with less of the intemperate rhetoric that characterizes messages crafted to appeal to uninformed voters.

As an added benefit, a program of this sort would also have an enormous and salutary impact on the level of student debt–currently a huge drag on economic growth.

At a minimum, national service should burst some very stubborn bubbles. At best, it would connect participants to the multi-colored, multi-ethnic, multi-everything fabric that is the strength and glory of the real America.

Sand In The Gears

The Census is among the multiple, pedestrian duties of the federal government. It is also among the multitude of duties that the Trump Administration is sabotaging, either through incompetence or malice.

Why should we care?

A recent report from the Brookings Institution spells out the uses to which an accurate census is key. As the article notes,

Congress and now the Trump administration have set the 2020 decennial on a course that threatens its basic accuracy. In so doing, they put at risk the integrity and effectiveness of some of the national government’s basic missions.

We rely on the accuracy of the census for both democratic and fiscal decisions: the census  determines how the 435 members of the House of Representatives are allocated among the states, and how members of state legislatures and many city councils are allocated in those jurisdictions.

Consider as well that every year, the federal government distributes about $600 billion in funds to state and local governments for education, Medicaid and other health programs, highways, housing, law enforcement and much more. To do so, the government uses formulas with terms for each area’s level of education, income or poverty rate, racial and family composition, and more. The decennial Census provides the baseline for those distributions by counting the people with each of those characteristics in each state and Census block.

It isn’t only government that relies on the data provided by the census. Businesses– retailers,  commercial real estate developers, banks and many others– use census data to determine  the demographics and locations of potential customers and to inform their planning and investments.

In some cases, the data actually make their projects possible, for example, when an investment qualifies for special tax treatment if it occurs in places with certain concentrations of low or moderate-income households.

Even worse, Trump has demanded that the 2020 Census add questions about the respondent’s citizenship and immigration status. Adding such questions would violate current laws protecting the privacy of the respondents, and would add immensely to the  fear that already prevents many members of immigrant groups from participating in the count. When such groups are undercounted, states, cities and towns with substantial populations of Hispanics and other immigrants are underfunded.

These and other significant, negative consequences of a mismanaged census evidently don’t worry our uninformed and clueless-about-government President. The Trump administration  cut Obama’s 2017 budget request for the Census Bureau by 10 percent and then, this past April, flat-lined the funding for 2018.

It is no coincidence that the Director of the Census Bureau, John Thompson, resigned in May, effective in June. It’s a serious loss, since Dr. Thompson directed the 2000 decennial count and is probably the most able person available to contain the coming damage to the 2020 count. For its part, the administration hasn’t even identified, much less nominated, his successor. It is no surprise that the Government Accountability Office recently designated the 2020 Census as one of a handful of federal programs at “High Risk” of failure.

The Trump Administration: throwing sand in the gears of effective government one agency at a time….

Pence’s Protege?

Yesterday’s New York Times highlighted an amicus brief filed by prominent Republicans in the  gerrymandering case that will be heard by the Supreme Court this session.

Current and former GOP luminaries– including John McCain of Arizona; Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio; Bob Dole, the former Republican Senate leader from Kansas and the party’s 1996 presidential nominee; the former senators John C. Danforth of Missouri, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming; and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former governor of California–urged the Court to end the partisan redistricting that “has become a tool for powerful interests to distort the democratic process.”

Then there’s Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, who joined a very different “friend of the Court” brief, arguing that some partisanship is inevitable when legislators draw districts, there’s nothing “invidious” or improper about that reality, and even if there is, there’s no way for the Court to prove it.

So there!

Other than Hill, I have been pleasantly surprised by Indiana’s current Republican administration. Governor Holcomb seems eminently sane, and has focused on issues of governance–the “nitty-gritty” that Mike Pence ignored in favor of his crusades against Planned Parenthood, reproductive choice and gay people. Our current Superintendent of Public Instruction has actually demonstrated knowledge of and support for public education–a welcome change from the last Republican to hold that position.

Attorney General Hill is the exception. I knew nothing about him before his election, and not much more now, but his more newsworthy activities have been troubling, to say the least. It isn’t just his enthusiastic defense of gerrymandering–a position not universally shared even among Indiana Republicans. (The reform bill that failed in Indiana’s last legislative session was co-sponsored by Republican Representative Jerry Torr and Republican Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, both of whom evidently recognize that the process is pernicious.)

Hill has also clashed with the Centers for Disease Control over needle exchange programs. According to Indiana Public Media, Hill is accusing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of manipulating facts in order to push a “pro-needle-exchange agenda.” Hill insists that needle exchange programs increase drug use, a claim that medical research has consistently debunked.

The new U.S. Surgeon General (and former Indiana Health Commissioner) Jerome Adams has been a vocal proponent of syringe exchanges.

“There’s been no evidence that [a syringe exchange program] increases drug use,” says Dennis Watson, a researcher at the Fairbanks School of Public Health. On the contrary, he says, exchange programs can actually decrease the amount of injection drug use…

A Seattle-based study found that syringe exchange participants were five times more likely to enter treatment than those who didn’t participate.

Perhaps Hill hasn’t had time to review evidence about gerrymandering or the results of needle exchange research, since–as the Indianapolis Star recently reported–he has been busy redecorating his offices.

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on office renovations and a new state vehicle, sparking criticism from some budget leaders.

The renovations underway at Hill’s Statehouse office are expected to cost about $279,000. That includes $78,000 for new furniture, $71,000 for historic replica painting and $2,500 for seven reclaimed chandeliers. The six-room office is home to Hill and 10 to 15 of his top staffers.

Of course, Hill has found time to appeal rulings that favored Planned Parenthood, that protected the rights of LGBTQ citizens and that allowed police to pat down people to determine whether they’re carrying guns.He’s a perfect partisan culture warrior.

Mike Pence must be so proud…..

A Confederacy of Dunces

We now know what an “anti-elitist” Administration looks like.

It isn’t simply Keystone Kop Cabinet-level appointees who know nothing about the agencies they lead: Betsy DeVos, who lacks any background or training in education, never attended public schools, and never sent her children to public schools; Rick Perry, who barely eked out an agriculture degree and cheerfully admits he had no idea what the Department of Energy did; Scott Pruitt, who scorns “elitist” scientists, denies climate change, and is methodically dismantling the EPA at a time when its expertise is most needed. Etc.

Trump’s roster of White House advisers and Cabinet officials has been called the least experienced in recent presidential history.

But Trump’s war on “elitists”–defined as people who know what they’re talking about–extends well into the bureaucracy. Some recent examples:

  • Sam Clovis, a former right-wing radio talk-show host and failed Senate candidate from Iowa, has been nominated to be the chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ProPublica reports that Clovis is a vocal climate change denier who has no formal training in science at all.
  • Appointments to the Department of Health and Human Services have been anti-evidence culture warriors. The Hill reports that “Trump has appointed some of the nation’s worst anti-women’s health extremists to top cabinet posts in the agency, including the designation of birth control skeptic Teresa Manning to lead the nation’s family planning program.” One of the newest HHS additions — Valerie Huber — is a vocal advocate for discredited and misleading abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.
  • Of the 28 appointments to the Department of Energy analyzed by Pro Publica, only 10 had any relevant experience, and most of those had worked as lawyers, advocates or spokespeople for coal, oil or gas companies. (Then there are those appointees that Pro Publica calls “wild cards,” like Kyle Yunaska, a tax analyst at Georgetown University whose primary connection to the administration appears to be his status as the brother-in-law of Eric Trump.)

Media has focused more upon Trump’s paucity of nominations than the appalling nature of the nominations he has made; hundreds of positions remain vacant seven months into his term. Given the “quality” of his nominees, that may actually be a blessing.

The one area in which he has sent numerous nominees to be confirmed is the Judiciary, and those nominees are terrifying. Two examples:

  • John Kenneth Bush, Trump’s nominee for the Sixth Circuit, contributed regularly to Elephants in the Bluegrass, a political blog run by his wife, posting far-fetched parallels between Barack Obama and Monica Lewinsky and calling slavery and abortion two of America’s greatest tragedies. He consistently cited WorldNetDaily, an extremist publication known for peddling conspiracy theories and white nationalism, including the lie that Obama was not born in the United States.
  • Damien Schiff is Trump’s nominee for the US Court of Federal Claims. He has called Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy a “judicial prostitute” in a post,  strongly disagreed with the Court’s decision ending punishment for sodomy in Lawrence v. Texas, and criticized a school district for teaching students that homosexual families and heterosexual families are equally moral.

When “elitism” is defined as expertise, and people who know what they are doing are for that reason disqualified, ideology and incompetence fill the void.

There’s a saying to the effect that the only foes that truly threaten America are the enemies at home: ignorance, superstition and incompetence.  Trump is the trifecta.

The Real “Deep State”

The conspiracy theorists who surround Trump (a/k/a the conspiracy theorist-in-chief) have issued dark warnings about the so-called “deep state.”

In this telling, there is a shadowy cabal of agency or military officials who secretly conspire to influence government policy and usurp the authority of democratically elected officials. Prior to Trump’s “democratic election,” the term was generally used to describe the politics of countries like Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, where authoritarian elements worked within to undercut elected leaders. Trump and his inner circle, particularly the now-departed  Bannon, have argued that the administration is being intentionally undermined by a network within the federal bureaucracy.

As the New Yorker has described it,

Some of Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters (and, in a different, cautionary spirit, a few people on the left) have taken to using “the Deep State” to describe a nexus of institutions—the intelligence agencies, the military, powerful financial interests, Silicon Valley, various federal bureaucracies—that, they believe, are conspiring to smear and stymie a President and bring him low.

In my City Hall days, a witty colleague opined that incompetence generally explains more than conspiracy–an observation that seems particularly appropriate here. Nevertheless, I think there is a deep state, although one that is rather different from the dark conspiracy conjured up by the Trumpsters. And we all should be deeply grateful to it.

Federal bureaucrats are routinely maligned; the word “bureaucrat” is semi-pejorative. There is an abundance of research, however, that confirms the public service motivations of people who work for government. The evidence is that public and private organizations attract different kinds of individuals, and those drawn to government have a desire to serve the public interest and are convinced of the social importance of their work.

I have a number of former students who work in federal agencies. In the wake of the election,  two of them shared with me that they were torn: should they simply leave government, knowing that Trump neither understood nor appreciated the importance of what their agencies did? Or should they remain, focusing on the fact that their obligation is to serve the American people and the Constitution, not any individual President? Should they try to keep the federal government–at least, their small part of it–operating properly despite the chaos and dysfunction in Washington?

The ones I spoke with are still there. They are doing their jobs as best they can in the absence of rational policies and Presidential leadership, soldiering on despite still-unfilled senior positions and conflicting policy signals. They are the real “deep state”–the reason FEMA has responded appropriately (so far) to Hurricane Harvey, the reason Social Security checks continue to arrive on time, the reason that day-to-day American government still functions.

If and when America emerges from “Trumpism,” we’ll have the public servants of the deep state to thank.