Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

A Different Kind Of Weapon

A story about the recent Santa Fe school shooting highlighted what worries me most of all about America’s future–not to mention humanity’s–and our ability to engage in fact-based, rational discussion and debate.

In the first hours after the Texas school shooting that left at least 10 dead Friday, online hoaxers moved quickly to spread a viral lie, creating fake Facebook accounts with the suspected shooter’s name and a doctored photo showing him wearing a “Hillary 2016” hat.

Several were swiftly flagged by users and deleted by the social network. But others rose rapidly in their place: Chris Sampson, a disinformation analyst for a counterterrorism think tank, saidhe could see new fakes as they were being created and filled out with false information, including images linking the suspect to the anti-fascist group Antifa.

The immediacy and reach of the disinformation about gun violence are nothing new, nor is this tactic limited to the gun debate–and that’s the problem.

Thanks to technology, we are marinating in propaganda and falsehood–weapons that are ultimately far more powerful than assault rifles.

There have always been efforts to mislead the gullible, to confirm the suspicions of cynics and the certainties of ideologues. No matter how diligently we try not to indulge in confirmation bias, most of us are susceptible to the “facts” that have been slanted in a direction we’re predisposed to accept. But we have never seen anything like the onslaught of utter fabrication that has been made possible by our new communication mediums, and the result is beginning to emerge: Americans are increasingly distrustful of all information.

We don’t know who or what to believe, so we suspend belief altogether.

When people occupy incommensurate realities, they can’t communicate with each other. The one thing Donald Trump does understand–and unfortunately, it is the only thing he appears to understand–is that lies and “alternate” facts undermine citizens’ ability to make decisions based in reality. Thus his attacks on the “fake” news media and his assertions of “achievements” that exist only in the precincts of his grandiose imagining.

The effectiveness of this technique of cultivating uncertainty was prominently displayed during the so-called “tobacco wars,” when flacks for the tobacco industry realized that a frontal attack on medical reports linking smoking to cancer were doomed, but that efforts to muddy the waters–to suggest that the “jury was still out”–could be very effective. If the attack was on the reliability of science, the public would discount it, but if the message was “scientists still aren’t sure,” people who wanted to be fair–and those who wanted to keep smoking– would withhold judgment.

That same tactic has been used–very effectively–by fossil fuel interests to undermine settled science on the reality and causes of climate change.

The problem is that people of good will–and, of course, those who are not so well-intentioned–no longer know what to believe. What is factual, and what is self-serving bullshit? And how do we tell the difference?

 Unless we can address this issue–unless we can reclaim the ability to determine what is fact and what is fiction, what is credible evidence and what is “disinformation”– humanity is in a world of hurt.

It Depends And It’s More Complicated Than That

As I like to tell my students, I consider my Law and Policy class effective if, after taking it, they use two phrases more frequently than they did before they enrolled: “it depends” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

That measure of effectiveness would undoubtedly be incomprehensible to the voters who  installed as President of the United States a man who had neither experience with nor even a rudimentary understanding of government. Evidently, people who would agree that doctors need to attend medical school and serve a residency in order to treat the complexities of the human body think managing an organizational behemoth responsible for the common lives of over 350 million people can be handled by anyone able to fog a mirror and regurgitate talking points.

Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles disabuse readers of that idiocy in the book they recently co-authored: “The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality.” In it, they deconstruct the mindless mantra of “deregulation.”

When Republicans look at what they’ve gotten out of their current moment of unified government, they can point to cutting corporate taxes, some judicial appointments and … not much else. Beyond that, they claim that they’ve teed up the economy for explosive growth through the magic of “deregulation.” But deregulation is a term that should be banned from the nation’s policy lexicon, mixing as it does equal parts wholesome and foul — in this administration, almost exclusively foul.

As they proceed to explain, whether rolling back a given regulation will be helpful or damaging depends on the nature  and purpose of the regulation. It’s more complicated–much more complicated– than the one-size-fits-all “get government out of the way” zealotry that has increasingly characterized the GOP.

The wholesome justification for deregulation arises when government uses its power in ways that gum up the dynamic power of markets. In the long run, our nation’s wealth and the opportunity it provides for improving quality of life depend on the forces of creative destruction. In competitive, open markets, incumbent actors cannot prevent challenges from more nimble competitors, armed with new products or more efficient ways of organizing the production process.

The authors identify a number of regulations that do “gum up” markets, and agree that eliminating or relaxing them would be healthy for the economy and likely to reduce the growing gap between the rich and the rest.

They also note that those aren’t the regulations being eviscerated.

Unfortunately, this is not the kind of regulation that the Trump administration has been attacking. Instead, it has been sharpening its knives for precisely the kinds of regulation that, far from distorting markets, help to improve them. In particular, regulation is often necessary to a properly functioning market when, in its absence, businesses can make a profit by pushing costs onto others, in effect forcing others to subsidize their bottom line. In two areas, the environment and finance, these are exactly the sorts of market-improving regulation that the administration has put in its cross hairs, with the effect of increasing profits via freeloading.

In an article in the New York Times, Lindsey and Teles make the point that there is a critical difference between regulations that operate to protect dominant business interests and regulations that legitimately, if often imperfectly, address real problems of market failure.

Effective deregulation requires knowing the difference.

For that matter, effective government requires public managers who respect evidence, are committed to the common good, and understand how our complicated government works. The looters who are currently in control of all the levers of the state don’t come close to meeting those criteria.

The Favoritism Regime

As I often try to explain to students, there is an important difference between rights and privileges. The essential element of the rule of law–the characteristic that distinguishes it from the exercise of power–is that the same rules apply to everyone. If everyone doesn’t have rights, no one does. Some people may have privileges, but that isn’t the same thing.

The deal is, the person engaging in free speech who is saying something with which you disagree has the same right to voice his opinion as the person with whom you agree. If we don’t all play by the same rules, if some people have more “rights” than others, no one really has rights. They have privileges that can be withdrawn if they offend or oppose those in power.

The rule of law is fundamental to a constitutional government. It is glaringly obvious that Donald Trump does not understand either its definition or its importance. It is equally obvious that he wouldn’t respect it if he did. Like most autocrats and would-be autocrats, he is all about self-aggrandizement, the exercise of power and the ability to reward his friends and punish his enemies.

Trump’s lack of comprehension of, or respect for, the rule of law is one of the many reasons he is so unfit to hold public office.

What triggered this rant was an article about Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum–a decision he has evidently been reconsidering in recent days. (When your policy pronouncements emerge from impetuous impulses rather than considered analyses, they do tend to change on a day-to-day basis…) The article described the proposed tariffs and their potential consequences, and reported on the number of  U.S. companies that were scrambling to win exemptions to them.

As of the time of the article, the Commerce Department had evidently received 8,200 exemption requests.

Let’s deconstruct this.

Assume you owned a company that relied upon imported metal to manufacture your widgets. The government moved to impose tariffs, which would increase your costs and make your widgets less competitive with the widgets manufactured in other countries. Assume further that you applied for an exemption from the new rule, based upon some tenuous argument or plea of hardship. Wouldn’t you be likely to do whatever you could to curry favor with the administration dispensing those exemptions? You’d almost certainly dig deep to make a political contribution.

“Pay to play” is, unfortunately, nothing new in American politics. Engineers and others who bid on government projects know that a history of political donations may not be enough to get them the contract, but is necessary to ensure that their bid is one that will at least be considered.

That said, unsuccessful bidders who believe that a contract has been awarded to a company that didn’t meet the statutory criteria–a donor whose bid was not “lowest and best”–can sue. And win. It happens more often than you might think.

Of course, the ability to sue and have your complaint judged fairly requires that the country’s judicial system be both impartial and competent. That’s one reason this administration’s rush to fill judicial vacancies with political cronies is so pernicious.

In places where government agencies can confer benefits at their discretion–routinely the case in autocratic regimes–and there is no legal recourse, corruption is widespread and inevitable. (See: Putin’s Russia) Quid pro quo replaces rule of law.

That’s the path America is on right now. If the GOP enablers in Congress survive the midterm elections, the prospects for turning things around will be very, very dim.

 

Meanwhile, Behind The Scenes….

Every day, a “Presidential” tweet or administrative outrage occupies the attention of the media and citizens who follow current affairs.

We are mesmerized by the slow train-wreck that Trump and his Keystone Kops are engineering, and for good reason. We rarely have a chance to catch our breath, or to wonder–as my husband often darkly does–what the truly vile people we don’t hear about are doing while our attention is  diverted by the ongoing public clown show.

Recently, my cousin the cardiologist (to whom I sometimes refer) sent me an example.

I have just been made aware that WomensHealth.gov has deleted much of its breast cancer web pages. But why?

It seems there has been a great reduction of breast cancer content on the website of the Office on Women’s Health (OWH) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), leaving just a single page with rudimentary information on mammograms and breast cancer. Most of the previous, seven-page content is gone.

The removal appears to reflect what my cousin calls “a broader agenda from the current administration.”

For example, under the auspices of the Affordable Care Act, breast cancer screening is offered free of charge for women meeting certain financial criteria, but that information has been deleted from WomensHealth.gov. Now, the information must be accessed on the site via a link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, which, in turn, requires a click through to yet another link.

Also, the “Government in Action” section of WomensHealth.gov previously contained information on federal programs that provide free or low-cost cancer screening, including clinical breast exams and mammograms. Known as the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, the entity offers screening to all “low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women.” That entire section of the site is now removed.​This information cannot be found elsewhere on the OWH website, or anywhere on the HHS site, despite the agency’s contention that it has been integrated into other parts of the HHS website.

Apparently, most of the breast cancer content on WomensHealth.gov has been deleted.

“Because breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in the US, affecting 250,000 annually resulting in 40,000 deaths a year, it is astonishing that important information about risks, prevention and treatment of breast cancer has been eliminated from the Office on Women’s Health site,” said Joyce Bichler, deputy director of Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco, California.

According to a report from the Sunlight Foundation, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog, the government’s justification for this removal was  “lack of use.” This is transparent bullshit; WomensHealth.gov was visited nearly three quarters of a million times in one recent month. An HHS spokesperson told ThinkProgress that the “pages were removed… because content was not mobile-friendly and very rarely used. Before we update any of the information…we engage in a comprehensive audit and use analysis process that includes reviewing other federal consumer health websites to ensure we are not duplicating efforts or presenting redundant information.”

More bullshit.

The spokesperson directed users to WomensHealth.gov/cancer, which presumably contained the “duplicated” material, but doesn’t even have a dedicated section for breast cancer. The same spokesperson said “sister HHS agencies…have the same information in a much more user-friendly format on their websites.”

This isn’t the first time that important health information has vanished without notice or explanation. The removal of breast cancer information is part of what the Sunlight Foundation calls “wider changes to the OWH website that include the removal of resources related to lesbian and bisexual health, minority women’s health, and other topics.”

“The specificity of these removals adds more evidence to a growing concern: that public information for vulnerable populations is being targeted for removal or simply hidden,” says Sunlight.

Bottom line: Important information intended to assist low-income individuals and people of color access healthcare has been removed from the website–even though the most common cancer in women is breast cancer–and at the same time, the administration is ramping up its assault on Planned Parenthood, an important provider of breast cancer screenings.

Don’t tell me that “war on women” is hyperbole.

Automation, Anxiety And Anger

The devil, as the saying goes, is always in the details.

It’s easy to point to social change as a reason for the increased anxiety and tribalism of American voters, just as it is easy to insist that we must “resist”/”do something.” It’s a lot harder to specify the nature and consequences of those social changes, or the form that resistance should take.

A lawyer with whom I used to work was fond of saying that there is only one legal question: what should we do? That adage also works pretty well for political action.

One of the drivers of social change is technology–not just the rapid evolution of communication devices and the like, but the truly incredible advances in automation. Robots are assembling cars and refrigerators; three-dimensional printers are beginning to look a lot like Star Trek replicators.

While labor advocates are still fighting the last war–international trade–automation poses a far greater threat to manufacturing jobs. Thomas Edsall recently compared our current dislocations to the Industrial Revolution, and that sounds about right.

We may never stop arguing about which historic currents swept President Trump into the White House.

Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum, is unlikely to have had Trump in mind when he described the fourth industrial revolutionin Davos in January 2016:

We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.

Compared with previous industrial revolutions, Schwab continued,

the fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.

Edsall connects the dots between seemingly unrelated phenomena and this fourth industrial revolution. For example, he points out the ways in which technology has facilitated immigration, both legal and illegal. Immigrants fly into the U.S. and overstay their visas, rather than trudging across borders. Innovations in transportation, communication, together with the globalization of politics and culture, have made the international movement of people “cheaper, quicker, and easier.”“

The IT revolution that has occurred in my adult lifetime has improved living standards and consumer convenience; but at substantial social cost. The substitution of machines for human labor is accelerating, and that reality has significant political and social consequences.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, “By regions, the average robot density per 10,000 employees in Europe is 99 units, in the Americas 84 and in Asia 63 units.”

In a March 2018 paper, “We Were The Robots: Automation in Manufacturing and Voting Behavior in Western Europe,” Massimo Anelli, Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig, of Bocconi University in Milan, found that “robot shock increases support for nationalist and radical right parties.”

The authors note that “both technology and trade seem to drive structural changes which are consequential for voting behavior.”

Some scholars even attribute Trump’s victory in the Electoral College to automation.

In their October 2017 paper, “Political Machinery: Did Robots Swing the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election?” the authors demonstrate that

Support for Donald Trump was significantly higher in local labor markets more exposed to the adoption of robots. Other things equal, a counterfactual analysis shows that Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania would have swung in favor of the Hillary Clinton if robot adoption had been two percent lower over the investigated period, leaving the Democrats with a majority in the Electoral College.

An economist at Brookings has estimated that full adoption of driverless vehicles would put two-and-a-half million drivers out of work. Others estimate that the anticipated addition of 105,000 robots to American factories will result in 210,000 fewer assembler and fabricator jobs in 2024 than otherwise would have been the case.

Edsall quotes a number of economists who explain how IT has increased inequality and reduced labor force participation, and will continue to do so. The dislocations of this fourth industrial revolution are a breeding ground for what social scientists call populism–and what most of us call White Nationalism.

The question “What should we do” is getting pretty urgent.