Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

It Isn’t That Simple

We Americans tend to be “either/or” people. A policy is right or wrong; a system is good or bad, “those people” are all sterling characters or (more frequently) worthless bums.

Things aren’t going well, and need to change? We throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Speaking of throwing, the election of Donald Trump has thrown a number of the problems with American governance into stark relief;  it’s hard to deny the influence of money, or the venality of certain lawmakers. But rather than resolutions to correct the laws and political processes that have led to the current mess, I am increasingly reading diatribes from people who have decided that it is all capitalism’s fault, and want to replace the country’s system of market economics with socialism.

As the kids might say, let’s get real.

First of all, the worst aspects of our current, deeply dysfunctional economy aren’t capitalism. A genuinely capitalist system is regulated by an impartial “umpire” (the government) to ensure that enterprises compete on that all-important level playing field. What we have today is corporatism: Corporatism has been described as what you have when you lose the laws and regulations that have kept businesses from being able to buy politicians– a system where government is effectively “owned” by special interests.

Market capitalism encourages transactions between willing buyers and sellers, both of whom are in possession of all information relevant to those transactions. Socialism is a system for the collective provision of goods and services that don’t meet that criterion–goods and services that the market cannot supply efficiently or fairly.  We “socialize” things like infrastructure, police and fire protection, and protection of clean air and water.

A healthy, growing economy requires both. Virtually all western industrialized countries have mixed economies, meaning that the government socializes certain areas of the economy and leaves other areas to the market. The challenge is to get the mix right.

Both capitalism and socialism can be manipulated by greedy or unethical offiicials–that’s why electing people who demonstrate respect for ethics and the rule of law is so critical. Unregulated capitalism becomes corporatism, allowing the “big guys” to prey on smaller businesses and consumers. Socializing too much of the economy depresses innovation,  invites stagnation and encourages petty bureaucrats to abuse their authority.

If we want to fix our broken economic system–and not so incidentally, our broken government–there is no substitute for doing the hard work of re-regulating markets in those sectors where markets work well, and carefully socializing areas (like health care) where the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that markets do not and cannot work.

We can and should argue about the level of regulation we impose on market enterprises–what is too much, what is not enough?–and we can and should require hard evidence before moving to socialize additional areas of the economy. What we shouldn’t do is apply  bumper-sticker solutions to problems requiring careful analysis and measured policymaking.

We don’t need to throw the baby out–just the dirty bathwater.

When Ignorance Met Lunacy

Every day, life in America gets more surreal. (Not “When Harry Met Sally” surreal–more “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” surreal.)

Almost every day, there is a departure from the White House. Although no one currently serving there is particularly knowledgable or professional (or, from all appearances, literate) some are reasonably sane–and they’re the ones who have been leaving. Yesterday, it was McMasters–one of the two normal military figures who were supposed to be protecting the nation from Trump’s nuclear fantasies.

If McMasters’ ouster wasn’t worrisome enough, we have learned that he will be replaced by John Bolton, a belligerent chickenhawk who is certifiably loony-tunes.

So here we are. We have a Congress dominated by a Republican Party that is a cross between a cult and a criminal enterprise; a President who hasn’t the foggiest notion what government is, or is supposed to do, and who is uninterested in learning; a looming trade war we can’t win that is likely to devastate the nation’s farmers, among others–and now, a not-insignificant threat that the U.S. will precipitate a nuclear war.

In a column for the Washington Post, Joe Scarborough (formerly a Republican congressman) called Bolton’s appointment a “fitting coda” to the failure of conservatism.

One hundred years ago this week, the founder of modern American conservatism was born into poverty in Plymouth, Mich. Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind,” published in 1953, laid the foundations of a modern conservative movement that dominated the second half of the American Century. But 65 years later, Kirk’s classic work reads instead as a damning indictment against the very movement he helped launch.

The central thesis of Kirk’s philosophy was that “the conservative abhors all forms of ideology” and subscribes to principles “arrived at by convention and compromise” instead of “fanatic ideological dogmata.” Six decades of Republican overreach and corrosive causes have instead led to the rise of Donald Trump and a foreign policy run by John Bolton, an economy guided by Larry Kudlow and a legal team led by conspiracy theorist Joseph DiGenova.

Bolton will be Trump’s third national security adviser in 14 months, but unlike his predecessors, he may last; his history suggests he has a lot in common with our intemperate, reckless and profoundly ignorant President. As Scarborough reminds us, Bolton has called for the preemptive bombing of North Korea and Iran. He has defended his role in taking the U.S. into the Iraq war–a war that was the worst U.S. foreign policy disaster since Vietnam–and had the chutzpah to call Obama’s 2011 decision to bring U.S. troops home “the worst decision” made in that debacle.

This was the predictable outcome of my Republican Party aligning its interests with the most cynical political operators of our time. The Atwaters, Manaforts, Gingriches and Roves leveraged a weaponized media culture that reduced politics to a secularized religion and consolidated political power and material wealth in the hands of its richest donors.

Meanwhile, no matter how bad it gets, no matter how much damage is being done every day by Trump and the most inept and corrupt Cabinet in my lifetime, Congressional Republicans continue to obediently enable this farce of an Administration. According to 538. com, all of Indiana’s GOP Representatives enthusiastically support Trump’s “agenda.” Two of them–Susan Brooks and Larry Bucshon–have voted with the President 98.6% of the time.

There are seven months until the midterm elections. Assuming we make it to November without experiencing a nuclear winter, we absolutely must give control of the House and Senate to the Democrats. Are they perfect? Hell no. But at least they’re mostly sane.

 

 

 

 

Those State “Laboratories”

Ah, federalism.

Life in the 21st Century challenges our federalist system in a number of ways; it gets more and more difficult to decide–at least at the margins–what sorts of rules should be applied to the country as a whole, and what left to the individual states.

However those issues get resolved, however, our federalist system pretty much guarantees that state governments will continue to be the “laboratories of democracy” celebrated by Justice Brandeis, who coined the phrase in the case of New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann.  Brandeis explained that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

Most recently, state governments have been “laboratories” for the GOP’s belief that low taxes are all that is needed to stimulate economic growth.

As David Leonhardt of the New York Times recently noted,

Until recently, Kansas offered the clearest cautionary tale about deep tax cuts. The state’s then-governor, Sam Brownback, promised that the tax cuts he signed in 2012 and 2013 would lead to an economic boom. They didn’t, and Kansas instead had to cut popular programs like education.

Now Kansas seems to have a rival for the title of the state that’s caused the most self-inflicted damage through tax cuts: Louisiana.

Those who follow economic news have been aware of the painful results of the  Kansas experiment for some time. Evidently, however, the news of its dire results and the subsequent, ignominious retreat by the Kansas legislature failed to reach Louisiana–and that state’s legislators appear unable to deal with the reality of their own failed experiment.

“No two ways about it: Louisiana is a failed state,” Robert Mann, a Louisiana State University professor and New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist, wrote recently.

A special session of the State Legislature, called specifically to deal with a budget crisis caused by a lack of tax revenue, failed to do so, and legislators adjourned on Monday. No one is sure what will happen next. If legislators can’t agree on tax increases, cuts to education and medical care will likely follow.

Leonhardt places the blame for this state of affairs on Bobby Jindal, who came to the Governor’s office having drunk deeply of his party’s ideological Kool-Aid:

Louisiana’s former governor, Bobby Jindal, deserves much of the blame. A Republican wunderkind when elected at age 36 in 2008, he cut income taxes and roughly doubled the size of corporate tax breaks. By the end of his two terms, businesses were able to use those breaks to avoid paying about 80 percent of the taxes they would have owed under the official corporate rate.

At first, Jindal spun a tale about how the tax cuts would lead to an economic boom — but they didn’t, just as they didn’t in Kansas. Instead, Louisiana’s state revenue plunged. The tax cuts helped the rich become richer and left the state’s middle class and poor residents with struggling schools, hospitals and other services.

Unfortunately, these “laboratories” aren’t working the way Justice Brandeis envisioned, because Republican representatives elected by the rest of the country refuse to learn from their failures. Ideology has once again trumped evidence– the tax bill passed by Congress and signed by Trump is patterned after those in Kansas and Louisiana.

The rich will get richer, and the poor and middle-class will pay the price. And those who refused to learn from the experiences of our “laboratories of democracy” will profess astonishment.

Playing Fair Is So Last Century…

What we have been learning  the last few days about Cambridge Analytica’s use of purloined Facebook data to assist the Trump campaign reminds me of that famous scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”–the scene where Harrison Ford is engaged in a ferocious sword fight, and Ford suddenly pulls out a gun and shoots the other guy.

It’s unexpected–and effective–because it breaks a norm of “fair fighting” that that has shaped our expectations. In a movie, that norm-breaking is entertaining; in our communal life, it is considerably less so.

Cambridge Analytics acquired extensive data on the habits, personal characteristics and preferences of fifty million Facebook users. It used that data to assist the Trump campaign. Sophisticated algorithms targeted users with messages tailored to their particular opinions and biases–messages that, by their nature, went unseen by users who had different perspectives or who might have information with which to rebut “facts” being conveyed.

The New York Times and the London Observer mounted the joint investigation through which the covert operation was  uncovered, and Britain’s Channel 4 obtained footage of executives boasting to a reporter posing as a potential client about additional “dirty tricks” the company employed on behalf of its customers: sending “very beautiful” Ukranian sex workers to the homes of opposition figures; offering bribes to candidates while secretly filming them; and a variety of other tactics employing fake IDs and bogus websites.

Who or what is Cambridge Analytica?

The Mercer family owns a majority of the stock in Cambridge Analytics.Before joining Trump’s campaign, Steve Bannon was the company’s vice president. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn served as an adviser to the company.

As Michelle Goldberg wrote in a New York Times op-ed,

After days of revelations, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Cambridge Analytica. But we’ve learned that an operation at the heart of Trump’s campaign was ethically nihilistic and quite possibly criminal in ways that even its harshest critics hadn’t suspected. That’s useful information. In weighing the credibility of various accusations made against the president, it’s good to know the depths to which the people around him are willing to sink.

Her concluding paragraph is particularly pointed.

There’s a lesson here for our understanding of the Trump presidency. Trump and his lackeys have been waging their own sort of psychological warfare on the American majority that abhors them. On the one hand, they act like idiots. On the other, they won, which makes it seem as if they must possess some sort of occult genius. With each day, however, it’s clearer that the secret of Trump’s success is cheating. He, and those around him, don’t have to be better than their opponents because they’re willing to be so much worse.

We now know why Trump insisted that Hillary was “crooked” and the election would be “rigged.” It’s called projection.

My friends who are sports fans become outraged when they believe one team or another has cheated and benefitted from that behavior. (“Deflate-gate anyone?) After all, games have rules, and when rules are broken in order to achieve a win, the game is tarnished. We don’t know who the better player really is.

The “game” of electoral politics has a long history of so-called “dirty tricks,” but nothing of this magnitude–and when those tactics have been detected, they’ve led to widespread condemnation. Americans have a right to expect political combatants to “play fair.” When they don’t, cynicism grows. Trust in government is diminished. Citizens’ compliance with the law declines–after all, if government officials can cheat, people reason they can too.

Trump and his consiglieres in the cabinet and Congress have demonstrated their willingness to bring guns to sword fights–to breach the rules of the game and to sneer at those who”fight fair.”

They pose an existential threat to American government and the rule of law.

Trump’s Confederacy Of Dunces

It’s something new–and depressing–every day.

Just last week, Trump fired both Andrew McCabe and Secretary of State Tillerson in the most humiliating manner possible; one of his close aides was escorted out of the White House without even being given time to gather his belongings (he was under investigation for “financial crimes” of an unspecified nature); and multiple rumors surfaced about the imminent replacement of National Security Advisor McMasters with crazy-as-a-loon chickenhawk John Bolton.

Now, we learn that an advisor to Ben Carson–he of the $31,000 dining room set and the repeated admonitions to America’s poor about “personal responsibility”–has quit among questions of fraud and the inflation of his biography.

He said he was a multimillionaire – an international property developer with a plan to fix America’s cities through radical privatization. He felt that Donald Trump’s administration was where he was meant to work.

“It was a natural fit,” Naved Jafry said in an interview. Citing connections across the military, business and academia, he said: “I bring, and draw on, experiences from different areas of knowledge, like a polymath.”

Jafry was contracted to work for Trump’s housing and urban development department (Hud). His government email signature said his title was senior adviser. Jafry said he used his role to advocate for “microcities”, where managers privately set their own laws and taxes away from central government control.

Among other things, Jafry had claimed control over a multimillion-dollar trust fund; a claim inconsistent with court records showing that he struggled to pay rent and bills.

Wasn’t a major part of Trump’s “attraction” that he was rich? Trump voters drew two (unwarranted) conclusions from that wealth– that rich people must be smart and that they would be less incentivized to (mis)use tax dollars for personal gratification. Those same claims were made about the cabinet of wealthy white guys he’s assembled.

Um…not so much….

It turns out that HUD had agreed to spend $165,000 on “lounge furniture” in addition to the $31,000 dining set that–it also turns out–had been personally selected by Carson and his wife for his office. The news followed an administration proposal to cut $6.8 billion, or 14%, of HUD’s annual budget.

Then there’s treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, a former Wall Street executive purportedly worth as much as $35 million, who managed to run up bills in excess of $800,000 in his first six months in office for travel on military jets, (and whose wife made news by bragging about her pricey designer clothes on social media).

Scott Pruitt may not believe in science (or, apparently, the importance of clean air and water), but he evidently believes in using tax dollars to avoid those pesky citizen types who do. The environment secretary has said he has to travel first-class because of threats from members of the public who object to his climate-change-denying, regulation-slashing approach to government.

He also spent as much as $43,000 on a soundproof “privacy booth” inside his office to prevent eavesdropping on his phone calls and $9,000 for biometric locks and to have his office swept for listening devices. Earlier this month it was reported that he used $6,500 in public money to hire a private media firm with strong Republican ties to help produce a report promoting his accomplishments.

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, was the subject of a blistering report detailing ethical violations in a trip to Denmark and Britain that mixed business with pleasure, including a trip to Wimbledon and a cruise down the Thames.

When Interior secretary Ryan Zinke wanted to go horseback riding with Mike Pence, he took a government-funded helicopter – one of three such journeys in 2017 that cost a total of $53,000 of public money. In addition, Zinke, who favors oil, gas, coal and uranium mining on public lands out west, has been rebuked by the department watchdog for failing to keep proper records of his travel expenses and to disclose who paid for his wife to accompany him on work trips.

Health and human services secretary Tom Price was forced to resign last September after it was revealed that he used at least $400,000 and probably more than $1m in taxpayer funds on private and military flights for himself and his staff.

This Administration has clearly demonstrated that wealth doesn’t guarantee competence. As these examples show, neither does it promote ethical behavior.

But it sure seems to translate into a sense of entitlement.