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.

The Parade of Horribles

Res Ipsa Loquitur is a legal term meaning “the thing speaks for itself.” Donald Trump’s personnel selections aren’t just speaking–they’re screaming.

Trump has chosen people for cabinet positions who are unalterably opposed to the mission of the agencies they would lead. It is difficult–okay, impossible–to imagine a more terrifying–or less competent– group of cabinet nominees.

Betsy DeVos wants to destroy public education, so Trump wants her to be Secretary of Education. Jeff Sessions is a (marginally) “kinder, gentler” white supremacist, so of course Trump wants him at the Justice Department. And my cardiologist cousin just sent me the following rundown on Tom Price, nominated to run Health and Human Services (HHS).

I’m not going to paraphrase it: I’m just going to share it. And then I think I’ll go throw up.

________________

This is a summary of an article appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine (Jan 12, 2017). With regard to the department of health and human services (HHS), only two previous secretaries have been physicians. For the most part, all of us physicians work to defend not only our own patients, but society at large against dangers to health, and in the process, usually eschew venal and self oriented goals. That is why most of us chose this respected profession of care-giving in the first place.

Let us begin by describing the good doctors: Otis Bowen, our former Indiana Governor, was Ronald Reagan’s second HHS secretary, and he engineered the first major expansion of Medicare, championed comparative effectiveness research and, together with Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, another exemplary physician, led the fight against HIV-AIDS. Louis Sullivan, HHS secretary under President George H.W. Bush, focused his attention on care for vulnerable populations, campaigned against tobacco use, led the development of federally sponsored clinical guidelines, and introduced President Bush’s health insurance plan, which incorporated income-related tax credits and a system of risk adjustment. All these aforementioned physicians, serving in GOP administrations, drew on a long tradition of physicians as advocates for the most vulnerable, were defenders of public health, and enthusiastic proponents of scientific approaches to clinical care.

Now comes the bad: In sharp contrast with these previous examples, Tom Price, Trump’s pick for secretary of HHS, shows a record that demonstrates less concern for the sick, the poor, and the health of the public, in favor of greater concern for the economic well-being of the rich and the care-givers themselves.

To exemplify this point, let’s enumerate his previous positions.

1. Price has sponsored legislation opposing regulations on cigars and has voted against regulating tobacco as a drug, in reality, this product is actually far worse than most drugs!

2. In 2007, during the presidency of George W. Bush, he was one of only 47 representatives to vote against the Domenici-Wellstone Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which improved coverage for mental health in private insurance plans.

3. He voted against funding for combating AIDS, malaria, and TB, and against expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and in favor of allowing hospitals to turn away Medicaid and Medicare patients seeking nonemergency care if they could not afford copayments.

4. He favors converting Medicare to a premium-support system.

5. He opposed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and has voted against legislation prohibiting job discrimination against LGBT people and against enforcement of laws against anti-LGBT hate crimes.

6. He favors amending the Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage.

7. He opposes stem-cell research and voted against expanding the NIH budget and against the recently enacted 21st Century Cures Act, showing particular animus toward the Cancer Moonshot. Would he continue this stance if he developed cancer himself?

8. He is a leader of the repeal of the ACA (“Obamacare”) in favor of a regressive “plan” which, without going into details, will offer much greater subsidies relative to income for purchasers with high incomes and more meager subsidies for those with low incomes. In effect, Price’s replacement proposal would make it much more difficult for low-income Americans to afford health insurance, diverting federal tax dollars to people who can already afford it, and also substantially reducing protections for those with preexisting conditions. The end result would be a shaky market dominated by health plans that offer limited coverage and high cost-sharing.

9. Strongly anti-abortion and advocating the defunding of Planned Parenthood, he has accepted the validity of the fraudulently modified videotapes used against this organization—despite their many pro-health programs for the poor.

The HHS Department oversees a broad set of health programs that touch about half of all Americans. Over five decades covering nine presidential tenures of both parties, HHS secretaries have used these programs to protect the most vulnerable Americans. The nomination of Tom Price highlights a sharp contrast between this tradition of compassionate leadership and the priorities of the incoming administration.

I am not at all proud of this “fellow” physician!

 

A Ferengi Approach to Public Safety

Elizabeth Kolbert is a measured, thoughtful observer of government who writes for the New Yorker. So when she characterizes a bill as a measure to “undermine public safety,” I listen.

A handy rule of thumb in Washington is that the more pernicious the act, the more high-minded the title. Thus, last week, the House of Representatives approved the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act of 2017, also known as the REINS Act. The bill would strip the executive branch of the power to issue significant new rules on topics ranging from air quality to food safety. In normal times, such a power grab by Congress would surely face a veto threat from the President, but, of course, these are not normal times.

Under the latest version of the REINS Act, a regulation with “an annual effect on the economy of $100,000,000 or more” could not take effect without congressional approval. In this way, either the House or the Senate could easily scuttle a major new regulation—one that requires food producers to sanitize their tools, for example—simply by doing nothing. “Given partisan gridlock in Congress, this could result in a de facto ban on new public interest safeguards,” Alison Cassady, the director of domestic energy policy at the Center for American Progress, noted in a recent post on the bill.

As Kolbert points out, agencies don’t impose regulations having “an annual effect on the economy of $100,000,000 or more” overnight; such measures require considerable research and go through lengthy and multiple levels of review and public comment. Of course, these are also precisely the regulations likely to be opposed by large corporations, in areas such as energy, workers’ safety, and lending practices, who often don’t like them.

According to the climate-change-focussed Web site DeSmogBlog, among the REINS Act’s most vigorous supporters are the various lobbying organizations sponsored by the Koch brothers. (During the 2016 election cycle, contributions from Koch Industries and its affiliates, to individual candidates and to PACs, came to more than ten million dollars, according to figures compiled by the Web site Open Secrets.)

“Tellingly,” Steve Horn, of DeSmogBlog, noted recently, “the only person President-elect Donald Trump has spoken to on the record about REINS” is a conservative political activist named Phil Kerpen, who, for several years, served as a vice-president of the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity. In an op-ed published in USA Today last month, Kerpen said that, in 2015, Trump’s campaign provided him with a statement in which Trump vowed to “sign the REINS Act should it reach my desk as President.”

In the wake of the election, I have been binge-watching old Star Trek series. (It’s healthier than drinking myself into a stupor every night…) When I first read about the REINS ACT, I couldn’t help thinking that it was something one would expect from the Ferengi, an alien species that elevated pursuit of profit over every other value, and lived according to “rules of acquisition.”

There is a substantial likelihood that the REINS Act would violate the Constitutional Separation of Powers, but even if it fails to win Senate approval, or passes and is subsequently struck down by the courts,  it is only one element of what is sure to be a wholesale assault on regulatory activity during the Trump Administration.

Trump’s cabinet choices have all evidenced a contempt for regulation entirely unconnected to the specific merits or demerits of any particular rule, and the aptly-named “lunatic caucus” of the House of Representatives is enthusiastic about allowing businesses to decide for themselves how to operate–insisting that market forces are sufficient to rein in any harmful behaviors.

Even the Ferengi know better. Like the GOP these days, they just don’t care…..

What Now?

I’ve been asked to make a speech addressing a question that several  commenters to this blog have asked: what now? How do we rescue our democracy? Here’s an abbreviated version (still long–sorry) of what I plan to say.

____________________

Let me begin by admitting that I was stunned and dismayed by the election’s result. Anyone who isn’t concerned about handing nuclear codes over to someone both thin-skinned and unstable hasn’t been paying attention.

That said, a Hillary Clinton Presidency would have simply been a continuation of the Obama years: irrational Republican opposition to anything and everything the President proposes, even when those proposals originated with Republicans. It would simply have delayed the day of reckoning, and the realization of the extent to which we have lost important American democratic norms.

That loss has been increasingly obvious for some time. Pundits and political scientists have their pet theories for how this has happened: In American Amnesia, for example, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson focused upon what they call a “war on government” that has accelerated since the Reagan Administration; in Democracy for Realists, Christopher H. Achen & Larry M. Bartels argued that the generally accepted theory of democratic citizenship is inconsistent with actual human nature. Much of that analysis has been intriguing. None of it that I’m aware of, however, has attempted to answer the question you have asked me: what should we do and why should we do it?

We don’t always appreciate the extent to which cultural or legal institutions—what we call folkways or norms—shape our understanding of the world around us.  In some cases, institutions that have worked well, or at least adequately, for a number of years simply outlive whatever original utility they may have had, made obsolete by modern communications and transportation technologies, corrupt usages, or cultural change. Such obsolescence is a particularly acute element of American political life today.

Eight examples:

The Electoral College. In November, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by approximately 2.85 million votes. Donald Trump won the Electoral College because fewer than 80,000 votes translated into paper-thin victories in three states. Thanks to “winner take all” election laws, Trump received all of the electoral votes of those three states. “Winner take all” systems, in place in most states, award all of a state’s electoral votes to the winner of that state’s popular vote, no matter how close the result; if a candidate wins a state 50.1% to 49.9% or 70% to 30%, the result is the same; votes cast for the losing candidate don’t count.

The Electoral College gives  outsized influence to swing states, is a disincentive to vote if you favor the minority party in a winner-take-all state, and over-represents rural and less populated states. (Wyoming, our least populous state, has one-sixty-sixth of California’s population, but it has one-eighteenth of California’s electoral votes.) It advantages rural voters over urban ones, and white voters over voters of color. In 2016, Hillary Clinton drew her votes largely from women, minorities, and educated whites, and those voters were disproportionately urban; Trump supporters were primarily (albeit not exclusively) less-educated white Christian males, and they were overwhelmingly rural.

Akil Reed Amar teaches Constitutional Law at Yale Law School; he says the Electoral College was a concession to the demands of Southern slave states. In a direct-election system, the South would have lost every time because a huge proportion of its population — slaves — couldn’t vote. The electoral college allowed slave states to count their slaves (albeit at a discount, under the Constitution’s three-fifths clause) in the electoral college apportionment. Amar notes that Americans pick mayors and governors by direct election, and there is no obvious reason that a system that works for those chief executives can’t also work for President. He also points out that no other country employs a similar mechanism.

Jamin Raskin, a Professor of Constitutional Law at American University, and a Congressman representing the state of Maryland, favors the National Popular Vote Project, a nationwide interstate agreement to guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes. Under the NPV, all of a participating state’s electoral votes would go to the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes overall. It would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states holding a majority of  electoral votes. To date, states possessing 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 electoral votes needed to activate it – have signed on. As Raskin says:

Every citizen’s vote should count equally in presidential elections, as in elections for governor or mayor. But the current regime makes votes in swing states hugely valuable while rendering votes in non-competitive states virtually meaningless. This weird lottery, as we have seen, dramatically increases incentives for strategic partisan mischief and electoral corruption in states like Florida and Ohio. You can swing a whole election by suppressing, deterring, rejecting and disqualifying just a few thousand votes.

Partisan gerrymandering. After each census, states redraw state and federal district lines to reflect population changes. The party that controls the state legislature at the time controls the redistricting process, and draws districts to maximize its own electoral prospects and minimize those of the opposing party. The process became far more sophisticated and precise with the advent of computers, leading to a situation which has been aptly described as legislators choosing their voters, rather than the other way around.

A 2008 book co-authored by Norman Orenstein and Thomas Mann argued that the decline in competition fostered by gerrymandering has entrenched partisan behavior and diminished incentives for compromise and bipartisanship.

Mann and Orenstein are political scientists who have written extensively about redistricting, and about “packing” (creating districts with supermajorities of the opposing party) “cracking” (distributing members of the opposing party among several districts to ensure that they don’t have a majority in any of them) and “tacking” (expanding the boundaries of a district to include a desirable group from a neighboring district). They have shown how redistricting advantages incumbents, and shown that the reliance by House candidates upon maps drawn by state-level politicians reinforces “partisan rigidity,” the increasing nationalization of the political parties.

The most pernicious effect of gerrymandering is the proliferation of safe seats. Safe districts breed voter apathy and reduce political participation. What is the incentive to volunteer or vote when it obviously doesn’t matter? It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation, either; it is difficult for the “sure loser” party to recruit credible candidates. As a result, in many of these races, voters are left with no meaningful choice.  Ironically, the anemic voter turnout that gerrymandering produces leads to handwringing about citizen apathy, usually characterized as a civic or moral deficiency. Voter apathy may instead be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. People save their efforts for places where those efforts count, and thanks to the increasing lack of competitiveness, those places often do not include the voting booth.

In safe districts, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that means that challenges usually come from the “flank” or extreme. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. Republican incumbents will be challenged by the Right and Democratic incumbents from the Left. Even where those challenges fail, they create a powerful incentive for incumbents to “toe the line”— to placate the most rigid elements of their respective parties. This system produces nominees who represent the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide.

The consequence of ever-more-precise state-level and Congressional district gerrymandering is a growing philosophical gap between the parties and— especially but not exclusively in the Republican party— an empowered, rigidly ideological base intent on punishing any deviation from orthodoxy and/or any hint of compromise.

After the 2010 census, Republicans dominated state governments in a significant majority of states, and they proceeded to engage in one of the most thorough, strategic and competent gerrymanders in history. The 2011 gerrymander did two things: as intended, it gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives; the GOP held 247 seats to the Democrats’ 186, a 61 vote margin– despite the fact that nationally, Democratic House candidates had received over a million more votes than Republican House candidates. But that gerrymander also did something unintended; it destroyed Republican party discipline. It created and empowered the significant number of Republican Representatives who make up what has been called the “lunatic caucus” and made it virtually impossible for Republicans to govern.

The Electoral College and Gerrymandering are the “big two,” but there are other changes that would reinvigorate American democracy.

The way we administer elections is ridiculous. State-level control over elections made sense when difficulties in communication and transportation translated into significant isolation of populations; today, state-level control allows for all manner of mischief, including—as we’ve recently seen– significant and effective efforts at vote suppression. There are wide variations from state to state in the hours polls are open, in provisions for early and absentee voting, and for the placement and accessibility of polling places. In states that have instituted “Voter ID” laws, documentation that satisfies those laws varies widely. (Voter ID measures are popular with the public, despite the fact that in-person voter fraud is virtually non-existent, and despite clear evidence that the impetus for these laws is a desire to suppress turnout among poor and minority populations likely to vote Democratic.)

State-level control of voting makes it difficult to implement measures that would encourage more citizen participation, like the effort to make election day a national holiday. A uniform national system, overseen by a nonpartisan or bipartisan federal agency with the sole mission of administering fair, honest elections, would also facilitate consideration of other improvements proposed by good government organizations.

Campaign Finance/Money in Politics. Common Cause sums it up: “American political campaigns are now financed through a system of legalized bribery.”  But big contributions  aren’t the only ways wealthier citizens influence policy. The ability to hire lobbyists, many of whom are former legislators, gives corporate interests considerable clout. Money doesn’t just give big spenders the chance to express a view or support a candidate; it gives them leverage to reshape the American economy in their favor.

A system that privileges the speech of wealthy citizens by allowing them to use their greater resources to amplify their message in ways that average Americans cannot does great damage to notions of fundamental democratic fairness, ethical probity and civic equality.

The filibuster. Whatever the original purpose or former utility of the filibuster, when its use was infrequent and it required a Senator to actually make a lengthy speech on the Senate floor, today, the filibuster operates to require government by super-majority. It has become a weapon employed by extremists to hold the country hostage.

The original idea of a filibuster was that so long as a senator kept talking, the bill in question couldn’t move forward. Once those opposed to the measure felt they had made their case, or at least exhausted their argument, they would leave the floor and allow a vote. In 1917, when filibustering Senators threatened President Wilson’s ability to respond to a perceived military threat, the Senate adopted a mechanism called cloture, allowing a super-majority vote to end a filibuster.

In 1975, the Senate changed several of its rules and made it much easier to filibuster. The new rules allowed other business to be conducted during the time a filibuster is theoretically taking place. Senators no longer are required to take to the Senate floor and argue their case. This “virtual” use, which has increased dramatically as partisan polarization has worsened, has effectively abolished the principle of majority rule: it now takes sixty votes (the number needed for cloture) to pass any legislation. This anti-democratic result isn’t just in direct conflict with the intent of the Founders, it has brought normal government operation to a standstill, and allows senators to effortlessly place personal political agendas above the common good and suffer no consequence.

Excessive democracy isn’t as important as many of the others, but it’s not insignificant. When we go to the polls, we face choices that few of us are sufficiently informed to make. At the state level, voters choose not only governors, but Secretaries of State, State Auditors, Superintendents of Public Instruction and Attorneys General; at the local level, we vote for Recorder, Auditor, Treasurer, Clerk and Coroner. I find it hard to believe that the average voter investigates the medical credentials of the contending coroner candidates, or the administrative skills of those running for Auditor.

In the real world, most voters make these choices on the basis of party affiliation. That being the case, it would make more sense to elect Governors and Mayors, and allow them to appoint people to most of these offices. That would improve accountability, since the executive making the appointments would be responsible for the choice of the individuals involved. When the positions are elective, chief executives can reasonably distance themselves from scandals or incompetence by pointing out that the officeholder was the choice of the voters.

Making many of these positions appointive would make voting simpler and faster, without doing actual damage to democratic decision-making. Removing a layer of “excess” democracy is hardly as important as reforming redistricting or ensuring that the Electoral College votes for the winner of the popular vote, but it would reinforce an important element of governmental legitimacy: the belief that public officials hold office as a result of a process in which informed citizens make considered democratic choices.

Substandard civic education. I won’t belabor this, but when significant segments of the population do not know the history, philosophy or contents of the Constitution or the legal system under which they live, are ignorant of basic economic principles and don’t know the difference between science and religion, they cannot engage productively in political activities or accurately evaluate the behavior of their elected officials.

The final institution that has massively failed us also doesn’t need much editorial comment from me: the current Media—including talk radio, Fox News, and the wild west that is the Internet.

The Pew Research Center published an extensive investigation into political polarization and media habits in 2014; among their findings was that “consistent conservatives” clustered around a single news source: 47% cited Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics, with no other source even close. Consistent liberals listed a wider range of news outlets as main sources — no outlet was named by more than 15%.

People who routinely consume sharply partisan news coverage are less likely to accept uncongenial facts even when they are accompanied by overwhelming evidence. Fox News and talk radio were forerunners of the thousands of Internet sites offering spin, outright propaganda and fake news. Contemporary Americans can choose their preferred “realities” and simply insulate themselves from information that is inconsistent with their worldviews.

America is marinating in media, but we’re in danger of losing what used to be called the journalism of verification. The frantic competition for eyeballs and clicks has given us a 24/7 “news hole” that media outlets race to fill, far too often prioritizing speed over accuracy. That same competition has increased media attention to sports, celebrity gossip and opinion, and has greatly reduced coverage of government and policy. The scope and range of watchdog journalism that informs citizens about their government has dramatically declined, especially at the local level. We still have national coverage but with the exception of niche media, we have lost local news. The pathetic Indianapolis Star is an example. I should also point out that there is a rather obvious relationship between those low levels of civic literacy and the rise of propaganda and fake news.

The fundamental democratic idea is a fair fight, a contest between candidates with competing policy proposals, with the winner authorized to implement his or her agenda. Increasingly, however, those democratic norms have been replaced by bare-knuckled power plays. The refusal of the Republican-led Senate to “advise and consent” to a sitting President’s nominee for the Supreme Court was a stunning and unprecedented breach of duty that elevated political advantage over the national interest. Just after the election, North Carolina Republicans called a special session and voted to strip the incoming Democratic Governor of many of the powers of that office.

Such behaviors are shocking and damaging deviations from American norms.

These and other demonstrations of toxic partisanship have undermined trust in government and other social institutions. Without that trust—without a widespread public belief in an overarching political community to which all citizens belong and in which all citizens are valued—tribalism thrives. Especially in times of rapid social change, racial resentments grow. The divide between urban and rural Americans widens. Economic insecurity and social dysfunction grow in the absence of an adequate social safety net, adding to resentment of both government and “the Other.” It is a prescription for civic unrest and national decline.

If Americans do not engage civically in far greater numbers than we have previously—If we do not reform our institutions, improve civic education, and support legitimate journalism—that decline will be irreversible. The good news is that there is evidence that a revival of civic engagement is underway.

We the People can do this.

But we have a lot of work to do if we are going to save American democracy, and there really is no time to waste.

 

 

Rejecting Science

In my Law and Policy classes, I discuss the influence of Enlightenment philosophy, with its emphasis on empirical inquiry and scientific discovery, on those who drafted America’s founding documents.

If there is any doubt that Americans have left those Enlightenment precepts far behind, the Age of Trump should dispel them. As Dorothy said to Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Luddites occupy both ends of the political spectrum.

Does the scientific consensus about the existence and cause of climate change threaten the bottom line of the fossil fuel companies that make significant campaign contributions? Well, then, those on the Right “reinterpret” the evidence to show that settled science is wrong and must be dismissed.

Meanwhile, the Left’s suspicion of anything emanating from corporate America drives rejection of the scientific consensus that GMOs are simply a newer method of making the hybrids we’ve been eating for centuries and that widespread vaccination has saved millions of lives.

Our incoming President, of course, has never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t love, and he certainly doesn’t seem to have much interest in the numerous, genuine problems facing America’s Chief Executive. So I wasn’t really surprised by the Washington Post headline about a meeting between Trump and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a proponent of a widely discredited theory that vaccines cause autism, said Tuesday that President-elect Donald Trump asked him to chair a new commission on vaccines.

Hours later, however, a spokeswoman for Trump’s transition said that while Trump would like to create a commission on autism, no final decision had been made.

If Trump follows through, the stunning move would push up against established science, medicine and the government’s position on the issue. It comes after Trump — who has long been critical of vaccines — met at Trump Tower with Kennedy, who has spearheaded efforts to roll back child vaccination laws.

As the article points out, there is already a federal advisory committee on immunization composed of medical and public health experts — but as we have seen with his assertions that he knows more than “the Generals” and his contemptuous dismissal of uncongenial information from our national intelligence agencies, Trump believes he knows more than those “elitist” experts.

As an article in the New Yorker addressing Trump’s support for the “anti-vaxxer” movement  put it,

Asking Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to chair a commission on scientific integrity is like asking Ted Kaczynski to run the United States Postal Service.

In his Rolling Stone article, Kennedy wrote that vaccines exposed infants to a hundred and eighty-seven times the daily limit of ethyl mercury, as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency. If that were true, they would all have died immediately. Rolling Stone soon printed a correction—and then later corrected that correction. The actual figure was a hundred and eighty-seven micrograms, which is forty per cent higher than the levels recommended by the E.P.A. for methyl mercury (not ethyl mercury), and a tiny fraction of the figure cited in Kennedy’s paper.

I am no fan of Charles Krauthammer’s politics (to put it mildly), but he was trained as a doctor and is familiar with scientific evidence. He was appalled.

In a week packed with confirmation hearings and Russian hacking allegations, what was he doing meeting with Robert Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine activist pushing the thoroughly discredited idea that vaccines cause autism?…

Kennedy says that Trump asked him to chair a commission about vaccine safety. While denying that, the transition team does say that the commission idea remains open. Either way, the damage is done. The anti-vaccine fanatics seek any validation. This indirect endorsement from Trump is immensely harmful. Vaccination has prevented more childhood suffering and death than any other measure in history. With so many issues pressing, why even go there?

Conspiracy theories are embraced when people lack the information needed to evaluate their credibility. Civic literacy doesn’t require that citizens all be scientists–but it does require knowing the difference between a scientific theory and a wild-ass guess. It does require familiarity with the scientific method, and with the concept of falsification.

I think it was Neil DeGrasse Tyson who said “Science is true whether or not you believe in it.”  Rejecting reality is a prescription for disaster.