Tag Archives: Puerto Rico

Talking About What We Understand

One of the bloggers I follow is Doug Masson, a thoughtful and impressively erudite observer of the circus that is current American politics. I was especially struck by his recent post on the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, and mainland American preoccupations.

Puerto Rico is suffering. Like a lot. 3.4 million Americans have been without power for 5 days and the prospect of getting the electric grid up and running seems to be distant. 90% of the distribution system may have been destroyed. 91% of cellphone sites are also out of service, according to the FCC.

Despite this crisis, I’ve been hearing more about whether football players will stand or kneel during a game. Judging from the emotional energy spent online during the past couple of days, the manner in which sports professionals choose to observe the national anthem and conduct their protest is more alarming than the prospect of 3.4 million Americans facing a humanitarian crisis. Hell, I’m guilty of knowing and talking more about Kaepernick than what’s going on in San Juan which is, by the way, the only Puerto Rican city I can name without looking at a map.

Masson is certainly not alone in pointing out the difference in what I might call the “emotional investment” in these two issues. He is, however, the only one to point out a disquieting reason for that difference: something he identifies as the “bike shedding effect.” That is a term I had not previously encountered (and I’m not entirely clear on its derivation even after reading his post). Masson shares an illustration:

He provides the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.

This example really hit home, because it was reminiscent of an experience my husband shared with me some twenty years ago. He was the architect for a new school building, and he was presenting the preliminary plans at a school board meeting. He anticipated a number of significant questions about the design–everything from room sizes to emergency exits to features affecting pedagogy–but the only discussion the board engaged in centered on the size of the elevator for handicapped individuals, and whether it should be large enough to accommodate one wheel chair or two.

The Board spent over an hour on that issue. No other was raised.

My husband was dumbfounded. On his way out of the meeting, he ran into a friend and shared his befuddlement; the friend–who was pretty savvy–just smiled and said, “You know, people talk about what they can understand.”

As Masson goes on to explain in his post, it’s relatively simple to form an opinion about what respect for the flag entails (and whether and how people of color should complain when the country doesn’t live up to its ideals). Whether those attitudes are knee-jerk or considered, they’re relatively straightforward.

Puerto Rico is another matter. Significant numbers of mainland Americans aren’t even aware that Puerto Ricans are American citizens (I have my doubts whether Trump knew that before the hurricane–after all, they’re brown people). Relatively few of us have traveled there, have relatives there, know much about it, or know what FEMA is or should be doing in the face of massive devastation.

So we talk about what we (think we) understand. That’s rather obviously what Trump is doing with his diatribes against the NFL.

The problem is, as America’s problems mount, it becomes very clear that there are so many pressing, important issues that most of us don’t understand. (Guess what! Obamacare and the ACA are the same thing…) But rather than informing ourselves about them–we focus on  recent TV shows, or an outrageous celebrity, or “those people” who disagree with us.

And then we wonder why democracy doesn’t work.

Amateur Government

Voters seem to love it when candidates for public office proclaim “I’m not a politician.”

I always wonder if those voters take their car repairs to businesses proclaiming “We’re not mechanics!” or get their cavities filled by “dentists” who never went to dental school. Probably not; evidently, however, there is a widespread belief that anyone can “do” governing.

Hey, America! How’s that working out?

Michelle Goldberg, the new New York Times columnist, considers the consequences  of electing a profoundly and proudly incompetent President.

A little more than eight months ago, the United States inaugurated one of its worst people as president, a nasty showbiz huckster whose own staffers speak of him as if he were a malevolent toddler. Yet the country has held up pretty well, considering.

Yes, there were emboldened Nazis marching in the streets, and crucial intelligence on the Islamic State casually passed to the Russians. Striving young immigrants who’d been protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program have seen their lives upended and trans people have been barred from enlisting in the military. Yet most of the institutions of American governance continued to function.

Then came hurricane season, and the stunning devastation of Maria. After detailing multiple administration failures in the wake of that disaster, Goldberg makes the obvious point:

For months now, observers have been noting that all the crises in the Trump White House have been self-generated, but that eventually the president would be tested by external events. Now a test has come, and he has performed about as badly as his worst critics could have feared. Hurricane season isn’t even over, and more catastrophes are surely on the way.

Maria should be a lesson: We need a working executive branch.

Our need for competent governance–or at the very least, elected officials with some idea of what government is and how it is supposed to operate–was also highlighted in a recent post by Robert Reich, in which he asserts that America really doesn’t have a President. Sure, Trump has the title,

But he’s not actively governing the United States. That work is happening elsewhere – in Congress, the courts, the Fed, the career civil service, lobbyists, and in the states. Or it’s not happening at all.

It’s not just that Trump lost the epic battle to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Trump never understood the Affordable Care Act to begin with, and played no part in developing Republican alternatives….

Meanwhile, Trump has run out of Obama executive orders he can declare void. Major regulations, such as the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, can’t just be repealed. They have to go through a legal process that could take years.

Trump doesn’t seem to be aware of this. He told a cheering crowd in Alabama recently that he had ended the Clean Power Plan by executive order. “Did you see what I did to that? Boom, gone.”…

Trump’s Cabinet secretaries don’t seem to have a clue. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos still wants to spend taxpayer money on for-profit schools and colleges that cheat their students. Won’t happen. The EPA’s Scott Pruitt is trying to strip the agency of scientists. Another brainless scheme.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin still has no idea how to deal with Congress. He tried to persuade Republican House members to support Trump’s budget deal with the Democrats by asking them to do it “for me.”…

By the start of September, more than a third of the leadership positions at the Federal Emergency Management Agency were still vacant. Not a good way to begin hurricane season. Puerto Rico, anyone?

As of mid-September, out of 599 key government positions that require Senate confirmation, Trump had made only 159 nominations, according to The Washington Post. Trump had yet to submit nominations for 320 positions.

Both Goldberg and Reich include much more detail on the cluster**** that is today’s Executive Branch.

It is really past time for Americans to grow up and accept that we live in a complex modern society that requires a functioning government, staffed with people who understand their jobs and have the specialized skills and technical knowledge that today’s public sector administration requires.

America isn’t amateur hour, and it definitely isn’t Reality TV.