Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

What Really Matters?

Assuming the accuracy of recent polling, even people who don’t follow politics or the news with the sort of intensity characteristic of people who comment on this blog have come to recognize that President Trump is insane.

The crazy tweets, the babbling, “word salad” responses to even soft-ball questions from Faux News, the cringe-worthy, extended defense of his wobbly descent down the ramp at West Point, and most astonishing (at least to me) his apparent belief that if we just don’t test people, the Coronavirus will magically go away–are finally taking their toll.

My own response to what I see right now might properly be labeled bipolar: on the one hand, I am terrified of Democratic complacency. This pathetic ignoramus won once–it could happen again. There is still a hard core of voters who respond to his racism and share his overwhelming sense of grievance. On the other hand, polling–both state and national–reflects widespread disapproval; credible media outlets have taken to calling lies, lies (not just “assertions for which there is no evidence”) and previously reliable Republican constituencies are forming pro-Biden PACs. (The Lincoln Group–the first such effort–is producing and airing some of the most devastating–and accurate–political ads.)

So… my thoughts have turned to the massive clean-up job that will await the Democrats if–as I devoutly hope–November delivers both the White House and the Senate.

That cleanup is by no means assured. Universal detestation of Trump has unified a party that is famous for its lack of unity. (Who was it who said “I don’t belong to any organized political party; I’m a Democrat”?) With victory will come the inevitable fractures between the moderates, progressives and leftwing factions of the party.

In the House, I have some confidence that Nancy Pelosi can avoid truly dangerous schisms; the Senate will be dicier, and if Moscow Mitch is re-elected, he can still do enormous damage as Minority Leader.

It’s all very uncertain, and that uncertainty is made worse by the fact that there is considerable ambiguity about what optimum “repairs”–both structural and policy– should look like. Some examples:

  • The federal courts. It’s not just the Supreme Court.  McConnell has managed to put 200 rightwing ideologues on the federal bench, a number of whom have been rated “unqualified” by the ABA. There are a number of proposed “fixes”–from expanding the number of judges to pursuing impeachment against those who engage in the most egregious misconduct. Whatever course of action is taken, returning the courts to the status of impartial arbiters should be a priority.
  • Other structural issues that cry out for attention sooner than later include gerrymandering, the filibuster, money in politics and the Electoral College. (Whether the Electoral College can ever be fixed–either by the Popular Vote Compact or Constitutional Amendment is a “known unknown.”)
  • Repairing the incredible amount of damage done by Trump’s Mafiosa-like cabinet–especially the savage assault on environmental protections by the procession of fossil fuel lobbyists who’ve run the EPA, and Betsy DeVos’ fundamentalist attacks on the very concept of public education–also requires immediate attention.
  • Repairing America’s reputation abroad–restoring our relationships with allies, signaling that yes, America had a psychotic break, but we’re recovering–is critical. We need to rejoin the alliances Trump discarded, reaffirm our commitment to NATO, etc.,etc. Fortunately, foreign policy has been Biden’s strong suit.
  • Attacking our appalling economic inequality by raising both taxes on the rich and the minimum wage.
  • On the policy front, it is long past time for comprehensive immigration reform–not just the immediate cessation of horrendous ICE practices under Trump, but a sweeping revision of immigration policy that discards the racism that has characterized it.
  • It is equally past time to ensure that all Americans have access to healthcare, whether that is via a public option or single payer. (And maybe we should reconstitute that pandemic task force.)
  • Then there’s our crumbling infrastructure. And the elimination of billions of dollars in subsidies for fossil fuel interests. And a long, hard look at farm subsidies (and who’s getting them.) And in the (highly unlikely) world of my dreams, beginning to dismantle and “defund” the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about.

I bet you all can add to this daunting list…..

Unlike culture-war quarrels about who’s using what restroom, or whether women should be able to control their own reproduction, these are the issues that really matter.

These are the issues that define–or defy–assertions of American “greatness.”

 

 

It Can’t Just Be The “PeePee” Tape…

The evidence just keeps coming: Donald Trump is a Russian asset.

Time Magazine is one of the many media outlets reporting what can only be labeled a bombshell: that Trump’s buddy Vladimir Putin had put bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan–paying Taliban fighters for each American killed– and that the U.S. has taken no action in response.

In his first comment on the matter, President Donald Trump tweeted Sunday that “nobody briefed or told me” about the “so-called attacks,” a comment that his former national security adviser termed “remarkable.”

The New York Times reported Friday on the alleged actions by Russian military intelligence — paying Taliban-linked militias to kill American and British troops — and that Trump and other top White House officials had been briefed on the matter months ago. Major elements were also reported by the Washington Post.

The New York Times reported that the bounties likely resulted in the deaths of several U.S. service members. The Times also reported that the President had been briefed about the intelligence in late March, and had chosen to do nothing. (The Times may have been the first to report on the alleged Russian operation–they got the “scoop”– but the story has since been confirmed by several other media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and ABC News.

VoteVets clearly believes the reports; the veteran’s organization has issued a scathing video in response.

Trump’s continued insistence that neither he nor Pence had been briefed on the matter is simply not credible, according to former Intelligence officials–and if it did prove to be true, it would expose huge failings in the Trump administration.

David Priess was a CIA agent during Bill Clinton and George W Bush’s presidencies; he took to Twitter to explore the various possibilities.  He found it significant that the White House was not disputing the truth of the intelligence, and concluded that if the president really wasn’t told, the failure to brief him would constitute a massive failing by the national intelligence community.

Susan Rice, who served as President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, also has been quoted as saying that if the denial were true, and the intelligence never made its way to the president, it would signal dangerous incompetence by the Trump administration.

“I don’t believe this for a minute, but if it were true, it means that Trump is not even pretending to serve as commander in chief. And no one around him has the guts to ask him to. More evidence of their deadly incompetence,” she wrote, following the White House denial. 

Her deputy at the time, Ben Rhodes, wrote: “In addition to being almost certainly a lie, the idea that Trump wouldn’t be briefed on Russia putting a bounty on US troops is even crazier than him being briefed and doing nothing.”

This is an evolving crisis: A report late yesterday from the New York Times quotes two officials insisting that the President had been briefed on the matter on February 27th. An even later report, from the AP,  asserted that top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans, a full year earlier than previously reported.
 
 So–as most commentators assumed–Trump is  lying.  The obvious question is: why did he fail to take any action? (Or as several people in my FaceBook feed put it, what does Putin have on him?)

Just last month, Trump was calling for Russia to be reinstated into the G7. 

As the blowback has grown, and as both Democrats and Republicans have demanded answers, Trump’s protestations have morphed somewhat. According to Huffpost, Trump now claims that the Intelligence officials had determined that the story was “not credible.”

What is “not credible” is this massively incompetent, thoroughly corrupt and probably traitorous administration.

Twenty-four Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan between early 2019 and early 2020. A competent administration would want to know what part, if any, the Russian bounty operation played in those deaths. A President not beholden to Russia and Vladimir Putin would act–if not in late February or early March, when the President rather obviously knew about this– at least now, when the whole world knows.

November can’t come soon enough.

 

 

 

 

Denial Isn’t Just A River In Egypt

Sorry about that bad pun, but these day, even pathetic humor is a respite from the daily news…                                                                          
                                                                    
And speaking of the daily news–according to one recent report on the pandemic, new cases have increased by 84% in states that don’t require the wearing of masks, and fallen by 25% in states that do.
 
You might consider that a clue-just a small hint that we should trust science.

After all, those numbers would seem to confirm what all those doctors and epidemiologists have been saying: mask-wearing protects us (or more accurately, protects other people from being infected by those of us who are asymptomatic). Evidently, however, America’s tribal polarization has overwhelmed sanity.
 
The polls tell us that a sizable majority of Americans strongly favor measures to control the spread of the pandemic over efforts to “reopen” the economy. When those numbers are broken down, however, Republican voters disagree—prioritizing the economy.
 
Self-identified Democrats are significantly more likely to wear a mask and engage in social distancing than self-identified Republicans.
 
The polling reminds me of a survey I saw a couple of years ago—well before the pandemic—in which significant numbers of Americans who would not object to their children marrying across racial or religious lines strongly disapproved of the prospect of that child marrying someone of the opposite political party.
 
Talk about “identity politics”!
 
In today’s highly polarized America, an individual’s self-identification as Republican or Democrat has come to signify a wide range of attitudes and beliefs not necessarily limited to support for a political party. Political scientist Lilliana Mason has argued that “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.”

Democrat and Republican have become our new mega-identities.
 
The fact of extreme partisan polarization doesn’t, however, explain why identifying as Republican means being substantially less likely to believe the science that tells us Covid-19 poses a genuine threat. Of course, there’s President Trump’s determination to ignore the threat—to insist it is an artifact of testing (!), or a Democratic “hoax,” but in a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman offered a different theory, arguing that the G.O.P.’s coronavirus denial is rooted in a worldview that goes well beyond Trump and his electoral prospects. Krugman argued that Covid-19 is like climate change: It isn’t the kind of menace the party wants to acknowledge.
 
“It’s not that the right is averse to fearmongering. But it doesn’t want you to fear impersonal threats that require an effective policy response, not to mention inconveniences like wearing face masks; it wants you to be afraid of people you can hate — people of a different race or supercilious liberals.”
 
As Adrian Bardon of Wake Forest University recently wrote in The Conversation, Americans increasingly exist in highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying their own information universes, and engage in what political scientists call “motivated reasoning” to dismiss inconvenient or unwelcome facts.

In all fairness, this phenomenon isn’t limited to today’s GOP; the “anti-vaxxers” and “anti-GMO” activists tend to come from the left side of the political spectrum and are equally dismissive of science that doesn’t fit with their ideological preferences.
 
In his book, The Truth About Denial, Bardon reminds us that our human “sense of self” is intimately tied to our tribal membership and our identity group’s beliefs. We are all prone to engage in confirmation bias (what we used to call “cherry picking”), accepting expert testimony that confirms our prejudices and rejecting facts and data that contradict them.
 
Unfortunately, in some situations, ignoring facts can kill you. Or grandma.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

How a cognitive failing explains why so many people reject the facts about the pandemic

Bolton’s Revelations And The Pandemic

Leaks from John Bolton’s book, The Room Where It Happened” have given the media lots of material. It’s hard to escape headlines trumpeting the “eight most stunning” revelations (or whatever number of “stunning revelations” has been chosen by the person writing that particular book review). 

Most of the commentary has accompanied the disclosures with the (obligatory and undeniable)  observation that Bolton’s refusal to share what he knew with the House impeachment managers was despicable–undoubtedly motivated by choosing anticipated profit from book sales over an opportunity to rid the country of a clear and present danger.

But it took Heather Cox Richardson to point out the single most horrifying disclosure, worse even than Trump’s encouragement of Chinese concentration camps.

Richardson points out that Trump’s desperate desire to protect the trade deal with China–a deal that he thought would  would “smooth the way” for his reelection–  delayed the administration’s response to the coronavirus and the pandemic that has now claimed the lives of more Americans than died in WWI.

She reminds us of the timeline: on January 15, Trump and Xi inked a trade deal that required China to increase purchases of U.S. products by at least $200 billion over 2017 levels. January, as we now know, was when the first signs of the pandemic arose.

At the same time, news of the coronavirus was spreading. Trump praised Xi’s handling of the virus and claimed it had been contained. On January 22, he tweeted: “One of the many great things about our just signed giant Trade Deal with China is that it will bring both the USA & China closer together in so many other ways. Terrific working with President Xi, a man who truly loves his country. Much more to come!” And on January 24, as the devastation of the novel coronavirus came clearer, he wrote: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

When the pandemic tanked the U.S. economy, the trade deal made less of a difference, and Trump’s close engagement with China just as the pandemic was breaking out suddenly became a liability that Biden was quick to hit. Trump turned on China, blaming it for the virus, and then took the US out of the World Health Organization, saying the WHO was responsible for the pandemic because it had been too willing to trust the Chinese.

Bottom line: Trump’s responsibility for the pandemic goes well beyond his (and, remember, Bolton’s) knee-jerk decision to eliminate the pandemic task force that had been established by Obama. It goes beyond Trump’s lies about the federal “cupboard” being “bare,” beyond the administration’s incredible mismanagement of the resources that remained at the federal government’s disposal, and even beyond the lies about phony “cures” and the likely, warm-weather disappearance of the virus.

Think about this: In order to protect his chances of re-election, Donald Trump was perfectly willing to ignore a deadly threat to the lives of American citizens. 

If people had to die in order to ensure his re-election, well, so be it. The other revelations pale in comparison.

This shouldn’t come as a shock, of course. Trump’s insistence on holding a rally in Tulsa–without masks and social distancing–confirms everything we suspected about Trump’s concern for the life and health of American citizens–even those who support him.

It’s non-existent.

Predicting The Future

It’s impossible to pick up a magazine or log into a blog or website without coming across an article predicting how dramatically the Coronavirus pandemic will change the world.

As Steven Pearlstein recently wrote in the Washington Post,  self-appointed soothsayers are predicting the demise of globalization, the triumph of large enterprises over small business, and dramatic lifestyle changes brought about by fear of dangerous microbes:
everything from diminished travel, as people “think twice about boarding an airplane, checking into a hotel, attending a concert or taking their kids to Disney World” to the emptying out of expensive cities, since so many of us–and our employers– have discovered that we can work just as well from home.

Time to take a deep breath.

I certainly don’t have a crystal ball–nor do I claim any particular expertise in “futurism,” but these predictions strike me as fanciful at best and absurd at worst. Just look at how desperately people are returning to their previous behaviors, even in the face of warnings that it is dangerously early for such return. Humans are creatures of habit.

We are dependent upon those international supply chains. Our families are scattered around the globe, and we still want to visit them. Often, on airplanes. Etc.  Although there is likely to be movement toward remote work, that movement has been underway for quite some time, and it is necessarily limited–not just because many jobs require our physical presence, but because so many of us see real value in face-to-face interactions with our coworkers.

All of this is not to say that change is not underway. It is–and much of the social unrest we are seeing is attributable to it. The pandemic may accelerate some part of the broader social changes that were occurring when it hit–or it may retard some–but the real shifts have been underway for years, fostered by improved transportation and communication technologies and demographics.

I suspect that changes in the wake of the video of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer will turn out to be far more consequential than those triggered by the pandemic.

Last year, Gallup documented major social changes that have occurred “since Woodstock”: religious attachment has waned, support for marijuana legalization has grown, interracial marriage–and its acceptance– has increased, a majority of Americans now support reproductive rights, voters are far more willing to elect women or people of color, family sizes have shrunk, and given the option, most women now prefer to enter the workforce to staying home. And of course– to belabor the obvious–attitudes about premarital sex and LGBTQ citizens have dramatically changed.

There is a (hotly disputed) academic theory that posits cultural “swings” every forty or fifty years. Whatever the accuracy of that theory, anyone even slightly conversant with social history can recognize how the disruptions of one era lay a foundation for those of the next, and how technological innovations affect those changes (usually, in unanticipated ways).

My absolutely non-crystal-ball conclusion is that humans are approaching one of our inevitable turning points. (This one is made far more dangerous by climate change, and by the sheer number of humans on our planet.) One aspect of our new reality is already visible: thanks to demographic change and significantly increased urbanization, it has become far more difficult for people to live in geographic–as opposed to ideological–bubbles, far more difficult for most folks to ignore the reality of human diversity and the complexities of our daily social interactions.

At times like these, when social transformation seems overwhelming, people everywhere fall into two broad (very broad) categories–those who accept the new realities and those who reject them. Those who adapt–or try to– and those who panic.

In the United States, the MAGA folks, the alt-right provocateurs, the fundamentalist preachers, the Fox-News audience members and their ilk are clinging to a world that no longer exists, insisting that we can bring back a time when everyone knew their place– and the straight white Christian guy’s place was on top.

The pandemic will impel some changes around the edges, but the real transformation will be produced by people who recognize the necessity of building a different, fairer world. I’m betting that there are enough of those people, that they outnumber and certainly out-think the reactionaries, and that the disorientation and unrest we are now experiencing will ultimately lead to a vastly improved social contract.

I sure hope I win that bet….