There Is Only One Question

Several times on this blog I have quoted a partner in the law firm for which I first worked for his favorite statement: “ultimately, there is only one question, and that is what should we do?”

There’s a lot of wisdom in that formulation. Analysis is critically important, of course–but only if it allows us to determine the appropriate course of action, and then only if we actually pursue that action.

I thought again about that ultimate question when I read a Washington Post article arguing that Trump’s authoritarianism has begun remaking America. White House reporters have described the president as “simmering with rage, fixated on exacting revenge against those he feels betrayed him and insulated by a compliant Republican Party.”

He is willing to test the rule of law even further and is comfortable doing so, they reported, “to the point of feeling untouchable.”

“If a president can meddle in a criminal case to help a friend, then there’s nothing that keeps him from meddling to harm someone he thinks is his enemy,” Joyce White Vance, a former U.S. attorney, told my colleagues. “That means that a president is fully above the law in the most dangerous kind of way. This is how democracies die.”

Those Americans who have watched this administration with growing alarm and horror–among whom I count myself–increasingly are asking for concrete proposals, specific actions we can/should take, beyond the obvious ones of registering people and helping to get out the vote.

It’s not my intention to point a finger, but I get very frustrated by (frequently holier-than-thou/smarter-than-thou) commenters, both here and elsewhere, who are all critique and no prescription–or who are constantly arguing that we should insist upon the perfect and never settle for the merely good.

Is our current situation precarious, thanks to spineless and/or corrupt “party above country” Republicans? Well, they tell us, Democrats are only marginally better, so there’s no point in voting “blue no matter who.”

Are elections insufficient to fix what ails us? They insist they are–but fail to follow up that declaration by suggesting any concrete alternative.

A couple of years ago, a retired friend of mine shared a rule imposed by the firm for which he’d worked. Employees were encouraged to bring any and all complaints to firm meetings, subject to one simple rule: they had to accompany their criticism with suggestions for remedial action. In other words, the rule was “yes, you can bitch about that, but only if you have a suggestion for how we should fix it–how we should do whatever it is instead.”

A few days ago, I attended a meeting of a volunteer committee on which I serve. The members are all older–more “mature”–women. The anger and frustration in that room was palpable–and it was all based upon recognition of what Donald Trump and his collection of gangsters and buffoons have done and are continuing to do to the country. Most of these women were not previously politically active, and several of them had been Republicans. The question that came up repeatedly was: what can we/should we do between now and November?

What will it take to get Americans out into the streets? What can we do to send the cult that was once the GOP the message that we are mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore?

Save the lofty criticisms for a time when we can afford them, and suggest concrete, do-able actions!

And for heaven’s sake–and the sake of what’s left of our country– vote blue no matter who.

But What About The Children?

When I was growing up–admittedly, sometime during the Ice Age–children were admonished to tell the truth by being told the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree.

Granted, it turned out that the story was a fable, but it was widely believed because George Washington was considered an admirable man, an excellent President and an all-around role model for the nation’s children.

Donald John Trump, not so much.

And that’s a problem, because it turns out that Presidential behavior really does encourage imitation. It can normalize ugly behavior, and not just in the already flawed/racist adults that comprise Trump’s base.

A regular reader of this blog recently shared this article with me. After I stopped puking, I decided to share it.

Evidently, it isn’t just Trump’s constant lying, with the implication that “truth” is whatever you want it to be. The article referenced studies that find America’s children using Trumpian rhetoric to bully their classmates–mostly Latino, Muslim and Black classmates.

Children across the US are using Donald Trump’s rhetoric to bully their classmates, a report has found.

The Washington Post reviewed articles throughout Mr Trump’s presidency that reference elementary, middle, or high school bullying and found students using the president’s inflammatory statements, which are often described as racist or xenophobic, to bully.

The newspaper analysed 28,000 articles starting from the beginning of 2016 for its research relating to bullying in the classroom. It found Mr Trump’s words, chants at his campaign rallies, and even his last name were used by students and staff members to harass other people in more than 300 reported incidents.

Of those incidents, 75 per cent showed inflammatory language relating to Mr Trump directed at students who are Hispanic, Muslim or black.

The article recounts incidents in which Latino students were subjected to taunts of “build the wall” and “Make America Great Again.” In one particularly horrific account, last year in New Jersey a 13-year-old boy told his 12-year-old Mexican American classmate that “all Mexicans should go back behind the wall”.

The classmate’s mother approached the bully the next day about his comment and was beaten unconscious by the child.

Buzzfeed also analyzed the impact of Trump’s words and their use to bully other students, and found 50 incidents in 26 states where students who were intimidating or harassing other children used phrases frequently employed by the president.

One incident happened at a high school in Shakopee, Minnesota, where boys in Donald Trump shirts swarmed a black teenage girl and sang The Star-Spangled Banner. But instead of singing the correct lyrics, they replaced the closing line with “and home of the slaves”.

There are multiple reports of native-born white children telling Hispanic or Asian classmates that they will be deported, that they aren’t “real” Americans.

While on a school bus in San Antonio, Texas, a white eighth grader told a Filipino classmate, “You are going to be deported.” A black classmate in Brea, California, was told by a white eighth grader, “Now that Trump won, you’re going to have to go back to Africa, where you belong.”

As incredibly corrupt as he is, as horrible as his policy positions are, and as hurtful to the nation’s most vulnerable children, the emerging research about Trump’s effect on the lessons we want to teach the young about civility, morality and ethics–not to mention racism, sexism and other assorted bigotries– is arguably even more damaging.

Assuming we soundly defeat this crude, ignorant, semi-literate buffoon in November, we will have a lot of remedial work to do. If we don’t, it will be too late to save the children.

 

Too Much Democracy?

When I was working with a colleague in the Political Science department a couple of years ago, he convinced me that one of the problems with our electoral system was actually “too much democracy”–that too many of the votes we cast for state and local offices are not informed choices between, say, the candidates for county auditor, but simply opportunities to support our favored political party.

His position was that choices in these “downticket” elections are both uninformed (at least, about the merits of the candidates) and burdensome– time-consuming for voters and vote-counters alike–and for some voters, part of a ballot they see as intimidating.)

Whether we continue to vote for coroners and county surveyors, his observations raise some foundational questions about what sorts of electoral processes define actual democracy.

Along the same lines, an article from the Atlantic also challenged the assumption that “more” is better–where “more” is greater decision-making by the grass roots. The first Democratic debate of the 2020 election cycle had just been held, and the article criticized the decision to let small donors and opinion polls determine who deserved the national exposure of the debate stage.

Those were peculiar metrics by which to make such an important decision, especially given recent history. Had the Democrats seen something they liked in the 2016 Republican primary? The GOP’s nominating process was a 17-candidate circus in which the party stood by helplessly as it was hijacked by an unstable reality-TV star who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Republican. The Democrats in 2016 faced their own insurgency, by a candidate who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Democrat. And yet, after the election, the Democrats changed their rules to reduce the power of the party establishment by limiting the role of superdelegates, who had been free to support the candidate of their choosing at the party convention, and whose ranks had been filled by elected officials and party leaders. Then, as the 2020 race began, the party deferred to measures of popular sentiment to determine who should make the cut for the debates, all but ensuring runs by publicity-hungry outsiders.

The authors pointed out that no other major democracy uses primary elections to choose its political candidates. The Founders certainly didn’t provide for primaries. (As the authors noted, Abraham Lincoln didn’t win his party’s nomination because he ran a good ground game in New Hampshire. Party elders chose him.)

In fact, America didn’t have binding primaries until the 1970s.

The new system—consisting of primaries, plus a handful of caucuses—seemed to work: Most nominees were experienced politicians with impressive résumés and strong ties to their party. Starting in 1976, Democratic nominees included two vice presidents, three successful governors, and three prominent senators (albeit one with little national experience). Republican nominees included a vice president, three successful governors, and two prominent senators. All were acceptable to their party establishment and to their party’s base.

In 2016, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders exploited what the authors term the primary system’s “fragility.” The electorate had come to view the establishment’s seal of approval with hostility, and that encouraged outsider candidates to claim that their lack of party support showed “authenticity.” Meanwhile, the media provided lots of coverage to rogue candidates.

What to do?

Restoring the old era of smoke-filled rooms is neither possible nor desirable. Primaries bring important information to the nominating process. They test candidates’ ability to excite voters and campaign effectively; they provide points of entry for up-and-comers and neglected constituencies; they force candidates to refine their messages and prove their stamina. But as 2016 made clear, primaries are only half of a functional nominating system. The other half is input from political insiders and professionals who can vet candidates, steer them to appropriate races, and, as a last resort, block them if they are unacceptable to the party or unfit to govern.

This eminently reasonable observation is sure to infuriate ideologues in both parties, who insist that the electorate is all-knowing, and that party professionals are all part of some corrupt “establishment.” Yet survey after survey finds a significant majority of the electorate woefully ignorant of the most basic elements of the system of government for which they are choosing leadership.

When candidates are supported despite a lack of evidence that they know what the job entails and what the rules are, celebrity trumps competence.

As the authors conclude,

The current system is democratic only in form, not in substance. Without professional input, the nominating process is vulnerable to manipulation by plutocrats, celebrities, media figures, and activists. As entertainment, America’s current primary system works pretty well; as a way to vet candidates for the world’s most important and difficult job, it is at best unreliable—and at worst destabilizing, even dangerous.

Trump certainly proves their point.

 

Taxing The Rich, Helping The Poor

Political observers have consistently dismissed Andrew Yang’s chances of securing the Democratic nomination, and I’ve agreed with their assessment. Yang also agrees–he has terminated his campaign.

Policy folks and political pundits alike have also dismissed his signature proposal–a UBI, or Universal Basic Income. I don’t agree–and neither does the Brookings Institution.

Now, don’t get me wrong–no one who isn’t imbibing very strong drink thinks American lawmakers are likely to pass, or even consider, a UBI any time soon. But as I argued in my most recent book, Living Together, there is a high probability that  millions of jobs will be lost to automation within the next 15-20 years–presenting a challenge America’s current inadequate and bureaucratic social safety net is clearly unable to meet.

In my book, I laid out a number of reasons how–despite Americans’ deep cultural disdain for social welfare programs–a UBI would be both efficient and socially unifying. I also took a stab at explaining how we could pay for it. Nevertheless, some of the sources I identified would require ending fossil fuel and other subsidies and curtailing military expenditures–measures we should take in any event, but that would obviously be politically difficult.

So I was excited to come across an analysis by William Gale of the Brookings Institution that not only made a persuasive case for a UBI, but for his preferred mechanism to pay for it. Here’s the lede:

The Congressional Budget Office just projected a series of $1 trillion budget deficits—as far as the eye can see. Narrowing that deficit will require not only spending reductions and economic growth but also new taxes. One solution that I’ve laid out in a new Hamilton Project paper, “Raising Revenue with a Progressive Value-Added Tax,” is a 10 percent Value-Added Tax (VAT) combined with a universal basic income (UBI)—effectively a cash payment to every US household.

The plan would raise substantial net revenue, be very progressive, and be as conducive to economic growth as any other new tax. The VAT would complement, not replace, any new direct taxes on affluent households, such as a wealth tax or capital gains reforms.

A VAT is a national consumption tax—like a retail sales tax but collected in small bits at each stage of production. It raises a lot of revenue without distorting economic choices like saving, investment, or the organizational form of businesses. And it can be easier to administer than retail sales taxes.

Gale’s UBI proposal is similar to–but smaller than–Andrew Yang’s. The linked article gives the details of how the VAT that paid for it would be structured, and readers with a background in economics are encouraged to read and analyze those details.

The article also explains several of the virtues of the proposed combination of a VAT and a UBI.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that the VAT in conjunction with a UBI would be extremely progressive. It would increase after-tax income of the lowest-income 20 percent of households by 17 percent. The tax burden for middle-income people would be unchanged while incomes of the top 1 percent of households would fall by 5.5 percent.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the VAT functions as a 10 percent tax on existing wealth because future consumption can be financed only with existing wealth or future wages. Unlike a tax imposed on accumulated assets, the VAT’s implicit wealth tax is very difficult to avoid or evade and does not require the valuation of assets.

Liberals have typically viewed VATs as regressive, but Gale points out that they can be quite progressive when combined with the UBI. He also notes that conservatives should support a VAT because the evidence suggests that VATs almost never increase overall government spending.

Assuming that Gale’s numbers are sound, a VAT would generate more than enough money to pay for a UBI.

Granted, under a UBI, all those caseworkers and number crunchers hired by government to decide who is worthy of support and who is not would lose their jobs. But they would have a UBI, so they wouldn’t starve…

 

The Trolls Are Sophisticated–And Effective

A recent headline from Rolling Stone addressed an issue that is likely to keep thoughtful voters up at night. The headline? “That Uplifting Tweet You Just Shared? A Russian Troll Sent it.”

Rolling Stone is hardly the only publication warning about an unprecedented effort–and not just by Russian trolls–to use the Internet to sow disinformation and promote discord.

Who and what are these trolls?

Internet trolls don’t troll. Not the professionals at least. Professional trolls don’t go on social media to antagonize liberals or belittle conservatives. They are not narrow minded, drunk or angry. They don’t lack basic English language skills. They certainly aren’t “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” as the president once put it. Your stereotypical trolls do exist on social media, but the amateurs aren’t a threat to Western democracy.

Professional trolls, on the other hand, are the tip of the spear in the new digital, ideological battleground. To combat the threat they pose, we must first understand them — and take them seriously.

The Russian effort is incredibly sophisticated: the article explained that non-political, often heartwarming or inspiring tweets are used to grow an audience of followers. Once a troll with a manufactured name or identity has amassed sufficient followers, the troll will use that following to spread messages promoting division, distrust, and above all, doubt.

The authors of the article are two experts in the use of social media to spread propaganda, and they admit to being impressed by the Russian operation.

Professional trolls are good at their job. They have studied us. They understand how to harness our biases (and hashtags) for their own purposes. They know what pressure points to push and how best to drive us to distrust our neighbors. The professionals know you catch more flies with honey. They don’t go to social media looking for a fight; they go looking for new best friends. And they have found them.

Disinformation operations aren’t typically fake news or outright lies. Disinformation is most often simply spin. Spin is hard to spot and easy to believe, especially if you are already inclined to do so. While the rest of the world learned how to conduct a modern disinformation campaign from the Russians, it is from the world of public relations and advertising that the IRA learned their craft. To appreciate the influence and potential of Russian disinformation, we need to view them less as Boris and Natasha and more like Don Draper.

Lest you think it’s only the Russians employing these tactics, allow the Atlantic to disabuse you in an article headlined “The Billion Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Re-elect the President.”

The article began with a report on the approach the re-election campaign had taken to Impeachment–” a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup.”

That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country.

The author, who had followed the disinformation campaign, writes of his surprise at how “slick” and effective it was.

I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate.

This, then, is where we are: in an environment in which facts–let alone truths–are what we want them to be. An environment in which the pursuit of power by truly reprehensible people working to re-elect a dangerous and mentally-ill President can target those most likely to be susceptible to their manipulation of reality.

I have no idea how reality fights back. I do know that Democrats too “pure” to vote unless their favored candidate is the nominee are as dangerous as the trolls.

I think it was Edmund Burke who said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”