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.

Fox And Its Friends

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have reported the acrimonious departure of Fox News commentator and author Ralph Peters from that cable channel. As the Post described the resignation,

Commentator and author Ralph Peters isn’t just closing the door on his career at Fox News Channel. He’s slamming it right off the hinges.

In a blistering goodbye email, Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who commented on military affairs, called Fox “a mere propaganda machine for a destructive and ethically ruinous administration.” He described President Trump as being “terrified” of Russian president Vladi­mir Putin.

Peters accused Fox of assaulting America’s constitutional order, undermining the rule of law, and “fostering corrosive and unjustified paranoia among viewers.”

Peters had been associated with Fox for ten years, and it’s hard not to wonder what took him so long to recognize the cable channel’s business plan, which has always depended upon pandering to the biases of conservative viewers, no matter how much that required doing violence to accurate reporting–but I suppose it’s better late than never.

Although Peters didn’t use the word “treason” in the blistering email he sent to the organization, the implication was hard to ignore.

When prime-time hosts — who have never served our country in any capacity — dismiss facts and empirical reality to launch profoundly dishonest attacks on the FBI, the Justice Department, the courts, the intelligence community (in which I served) and, not least, a model public servant and genuine war hero such as Robert Mueller — all the while scaremongering with lurid warnings of ‘deep-state’ machinations — I cannot be part of the same organization, even at a remove. To me, Fox News is now wittingly harming our system of government for profit.

Previously during his ten-year stint as a Fox commentator,  Peters said that his producers had never given him a script, or instructed him what to say. In the past year, however, as questions  about the possibility of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia continued to gain salience, Fox refused to let him comment on the topic, despite the fact that he has considerable relevant expertise. (He was a former intelligence officer.)

There has been a good deal of research by political scientists into the operation of “confirmation bias”–a very human trait we all share to some degree. Fox–along with talk radio demagogues and outlets like Breitbart and InfoWars–intentionally feeds conservatives’ desire to see their beliefs confirmed by “news.” (At the other end of the spectrum, “Addicting Info,” “Occupy” and others provide similar grist for liberal true believers, but research suggests that their influence pales in comparison with Fox.)

Here in a nutshell (no pun intended) is the dilemma of a liberal democracy committed to the principle of free speech. The marketplace of ideas must be open to all–ideologues and cranks as well as thoughtful commentators and accurate journalists. That means the consumers in that marketplace must be discriminating, in the best sense of that word. They must be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. And in a country where civic and news literacy are low, consumers are more likely to “buy” substandard or counterfeit  products.

I’m glad Peters finally figured out that Fox cares more about profit than patriotism, more about ratings than reality. Somehow, however, I doubt that his departure will prompt many loyal viewers to change the channel.  Confirmation bias may be more addictive than cocaine.


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.


Why Language Matters…

On the most basic level, language matters because the ability to use words accurately to convey one’s meaning is a critically important skill in modern society.

And let’s be honest: we assess the probable intelligence of the people we meet based largely on their use of language. That isn’t simply snobbery–fuzzy language more often than not signals fuzzy thinking.

An individual’s use of language is a reasonably reliable clue to that person’s conceptual agility.

Those of us who are unimpressed with Donald Trump’s repeated assertion that he is “like really, really smart” often point to his lack of language skills. Newsweek recently compared the vocabularies of the last 15 U.S. Presidents, and ranked Trump at the very bottom.

President Donald Trump—who boasted over the weekend that his success in life was a result of “being, like, really smart”—communicates at the lowest grade level of the last 15 presidents, according to a new analysis of the speech patterns of presidents going back to Herbert Hoover….

By every metric and methodology tested, Donald Trump’s vocabulary and grammatical structure is significantly more simple, and less diverse, than any President since Herbert Hoover, when measuring “off-script” words, that is, words far less likely to have been written in advance for the speaker,” CEO Bill Frischling wrote. “The gap between Trump and the next closest president … is larger than any other gap using Flesch-Kincaid. Statistically speaking, there is a significant gap.”

Of course, it’s also true that genuinely bright people rarely find it necessary to tell people how smart they are…

Effective propaganda requires the manipulation of language, and that’s another reason to be alert to its use. Trump’s former consiglieri, Steve Bannon, clearly understands that in order to change social attitudes, it is necessary to change reactions to certain words. As a recent, fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times recounts,

In a speech last weekend in France, Stephen Bannon, the former top adviser to President Trump, urged an audience of far-right National Front Party members to “let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes.” He went on: “Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”

The author notes that this is a departure from the usual “dog whistle” approach taken by racists and xenophobes–Trump’s constant references to immigrants as criminals, for example, or the traditional, negative euphemisms for Jews and blacks. Bannon wants to eliminate the pretense, and change our reaction to words that convey straightforward bigotry.

Bannon is urging the adoption of an irrational bias against racial minorities, immigrants and foreigners, one that does not require reasons, even bad ones, to support it. And he recommends presenting such irrationality as virtuous….

But taking Bannon’s advice also requires rejecting any recognizable practice of giving plausible reasons for holding a view or position. To proudly identify as a xenophobe is to identify as someone who is not interested in argument. It is to be irrationally fearful of foreigners, and proudly so. It means not masking one’s irrationality even from oneself.

Bannon’s rhetorical move of transforming vices based on irrational prejudice into virtues is not without historical precedent. Hitler devotes the second chapter of “Mein Kampf” to explaining how his time in Vienna as a young man transformed him into a “fanatical anti-Semite.” …. Such fanatical irrationality is, in Hitler’s rhetoric, virtuous.

Of course, comparing rhetoric and policies are two different things. No recent far-right movement in Europe or the United States has enacted the sort of genocidal policies that the Nazis did, and no such comparison is intended. But history has shown that the sort of subversion of language that Bannon has engaged in is often deeply intertwined with what a government will do, and what its people will allow. Bannon’s own cheer to the National Front members — “The tide of history is with us and it will compel us to victory after victory after victory” — shows clearly enough that he does not mean his efforts to end in mere speech.

Performing such inversions is an attempt to change the ideologies and behaviors of large groups of people. It is done to legitimate extreme, inhumane treatment of minority populations (or perhaps, to render such treatment no longer in need of legitimation). In this country, we are familiar with it from the criminal justice system’s treatment of black Americans, in some of the “get tough on crime” rhetoric that fed racialized mass incarceration in Northern cities, or the open racism sometimes connected to Southern white identity or “heritage.” Its aim is to create a population seeking leaders who are utterly ruthless and cruel, intolerant, irrational and unyielding in the face of challenges to the cultural and political dominance of the majority racial or religious group. It normalizes fascism.

Remember “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? It was wrong.

Language matters.