Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

There’s Damage And Then There’s Damage

The damage being done every day by the Trump Administration falls into two categories: that which can be reversed relatively quickly if a Democrat wins the Presidency in 2020, and that which will take much, much longer–if it can be reversed at all.

For example, Betsy DeVos is the gift that keeps on giving to for-profit “colleges” and religious voucher schools, but once she has gone–and it can’t happen soon enough–her efforts to reverse the student-centered policies of the Obama years can themselves be wiped clean.

On the other hand, there’s climate policy. We can’t recover the years we’ve lost in the increasingly critical, time-sensitive effort to keep the planet habitable. A Democratic administration will have to spend time and political capital just reversing the reversals of previous efforts to keep air breathable and water drinkable, let alone measures to halt climate change.

Most long-lasting of all–at least domestically– will be the damage done by dozens of unqualified ideologues who will sit on our federal courts for many years.

It’s hard to know the extent of the damage to America’s global relationships and reputation. Optimists believe Trump will be seen as a temporary aberration; I’m not so sure. (It sure doesn’t help when other countries see him getting away with caging children and green-lighting war crimes.)

And then, of course, there’s the damage his insane tariffs have done to the economy–especially but not exclusively to farmers. CNBC is not a “liberal” news organ; quite the contrary. So it was sobering to read the following from the CNBC website:

President Trump announced a month ago that his administration had clinched a trade deal with China. Well, actually, the first in a series of deals, which the White House now refers to as “phase one.”

Since then, countless declarations of “winning,” but agreeing to a deal only “if the terms are right,” have added to the year and half long conflicting cacophony of rhetoric about the content of any trade agreement with China.

 Bottom line? The constant bluster has blurred the reality of what a deal would even accomplish, if anything at all. The only way to shovel away the pile of broken promises and contradictory comments is to analyze the flow of maritime trade.

Why? With 90% of all items in a house transported over water, it is the purest form of showing supply and demand. The flow of trade is agnostic. It moves regardless of who is “winning” or “losing.”

And what does that “agnostic” flow show? That a deal, no matter how good, will never make up for the losses sustained during this trade war.

For a perspective on the losses, look no further than the Port of Los Angeles, the largest port in the country. U.S. exports to China from the bustling harbor decreased for 12 consecutive months. It suffered a 19.1% drop in export volume when comparing October 2019 with the same month in 2018.

 China’s retaliatory tariffs hit 96.6% of the purchases of U.S. exports that traveled through the L.A. port complex, with a price tag of $19.9 billion.

Add on the additional retaliatory tariffs from the other countries the U.S. is sparring with on trade, and that brings the total of impacted export cargo to $20.2 billion, or 28.8% of all export value through the L.A. port system. Considering 95% of the world’s consumers are outside of the U.S., the tariffs imposed on American goods have priced them out of the global marketplace.

Add to this analysis other reports strongly suggesting that America’s farmers will never recover the soybean markets they’ve lost during this trade war (other countries, after all, can grow and supply soybeans), and the picture is grim. And agriculture isn’t the only sector hurting;  CNBC says China is expanding natural gas trade with Qatar and Australia “while essentially shutting off the United States.” The retail and technology sectors have announced losses in the billions.

So as the bluster blows and promises of winning mount, the actual flow of trade paints a very different picture.

A picture that looks increasingly long-term.

 

The Crux Of The Problem

Governing Magazine recently ran a report on the emergence of several politically-tied websites in Michigan. Designed to look like “real” news organizations, the sites– linked to a variety of partisan political groups– are expanding across the state in preparation for the 2020 election.

At about the same time, The Intellectualist reported on yet another study of Fox News; to the surprise of no one other than the network’s devoted audience (who will dismiss it as “fake news”), the study found that nearly 60% of statements made on Fox were either partially or entirely false–and that as a result, Fox News viewers are more likely to believe repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories.

I could add dozens of other examples of our current media environment–an environment characterized by the loss of what we once called “mass media” and its replacement by a digital universe of “news” sites spanning the spectrum from objective reporting to partisan spin to  propaganda.

Regular readers of this blog–not to mention my students–are well aware of my near-obsession with the effects of this current media environment on governance. I’ve become increasingly convinced that America’s tribalism and dysfunction are directly linked to the fragmentation of our information landscape, but I have struggled to come up with a clear explanation of that link.

Tom Wheeler could explain it.  And in an article for the Brookings Institution, he did.

Wheeler was the head of the FCC in the Obama Administration, and is a knowledgable and thoughtful observer of today’s media environment. I really, really encourage you to click through and read the article in its entirety.

The most incisive observation Wheeler makes is that the American media has gone from broadcasting to targetcasting.

Since the time of the early advertising-supported newspapers, economic incentive has worked to bring people together around a common set of shared information. Maximizing ad revenue meant offending as few readers as possible by at least attempting a balanced presentation of the facts. The search for balance began to retreat with the arrival of cable television, but the economic model of maximizing revenue by maximizing reach still governed. The targeting capability of social media algorithms, however, has extinguished the traditional economic model. Now profit comes not through the broad delivery of common information, but the targeted delivery of selected information. The result is an attack on the model of shared information that is necessary for a democracy to function.

Radio and television are “broadcasting”: from a single source they deliver to the widest possible audience. Broadcasting changed the nature of communications from after-the-fact newspapers to the wide distribution of real time information. The image of a family huddling around the radio to hear one of FDR’s fireside chats comes to mind; a common set of inputs available to all upon which to base collective decisions.

Cable television is “narrowcasting.” Cable is like a video newsstand with many titles from which to choose. To differentiate themselves on this newsstand cable news channels developed “an attitude” espousing different political viewpoints. While narrowcasting was driven by conflict and disagreement, the revenue-maximizing goal was still the same as broadcasters’: reach the largest audience possible.

Social media is “targetcasting.” Software algorithms owned by the social media platforms watch how users behave online and use that data to categorize them into specific groups. They then sell advertisers the ability to reach those groups. Targetcasting companies make money the opposite way from broadcasters and narrowcasters. Instead of selling reach to a wide audience, they charge a premium to target a small but specifically defined group.

An even greater differentiator between traditional media and social media is how targetcasting is available only to a specific audience. Such secret targeting tears at the fabric of democracy. The Founding Fathers made E Pluribus Unum (out of many one) the national motto. They began the Constitution with the collective “We the people.” Such a coming together, the Founders realized, was essential for their experiment in democracy to function.

To become “We” requires a suspension of human nature’s tribal instincts in favor of a shared future. Such a belief is predicated in part on shared information.

I have taken the liberty of quoting Wheeler at length, because I think this description is at the very heart of what ails our politics. It is the crux of the problem. We really don’t occupy the same reality, because we don’t have a “common set of inputs upon which to base collective action.”

As Wheeler writes,

Coming together in an environment of shared information—an information commons—is a key component of moving from tribes to the larger Unum. When the algorithms of social media follow the money, they discourage the search for Unum and undermine the communal “We.” By delivering different information to each tribe—in secret—the algorithms keep users online for as long as possible, maximizing ad sales. In doing so, they gnaw away at the heart of “We the people.”

And as always, we are left with the question: what can we do about this? How do we re-establish an information commons? Because if we don’t, the future looks very, very grim.

 

We Don’t Need None Of Yer Dumb Facts…

The current version of the GOP seems intent upon retreating to its roots in the the Know-Nothing Party.

In September, a Republican lawmaker from Tennessee made an impassioned plea to get rid of higher education. 

It seems that evil professors and other “elitists” are brainwashing students, presumably by introducing them to “facts” and “science” and other matter likely to wean them from the verities preferred by the lawmaker.

A Tennessee state GOP lawmaker has called for getting rid of the entire higher education system, asserting that such a move would “save America” and cut out “the liberal breeding ground.”

State Sen. Kerry Roberts made the remarks while speaking on his conservative talk radio show last week. He addressed his problems with the higher education system while discussing a recent legislative hearing focused on abortion legislation.

“If there’s one thing that we can do to save America today, it’s to get rid of our institutions of higher education right now and cut the liberal breeding ground off,” he said, before questioning why public colleges were funded by tax dollars.

If you saw this, and dismissed it as a bit of buffoonery representative of a fringe belief, allow me to enlighten you. Anti-intellectualism is the default policy preference of the Trump administration. Science, especially, is perceived as an enemy to be overcome, rather than a source of valuable information.

According to the New York Times,

The Trump administration is preparing to significantly limit the scientific and medical research that the government can use to determine public health regulations, overriding protests from scientists and physicians who say the new rule would undermine the scientific underpinnings of government policymaking.

A new draft of the Environmental Protection Agency proposal, titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions. E.P.A. officials called the plan a step toward transparency and said the disclosure of raw data would allow conclusions to be verified independently.

Andrew Wheeler, the former fossil fuel lobbyist who is currently dismantling the EPA, has a soothing explanation: he says that good science that which can be replicated and independently validated, science that can hold up to scrutiny. Therefore, the new approach is simply an effort to ensure that the agency is using “good science.”

For people who don’t understand scientific research, that sounds eminently reasonable.For people who do understand research, not so much.

The measure would make it more difficult to enact new clean air and water rules because many studies detailing the links between pollution and disease rely on personal health information gathered under confidentiality agreements. And, unlike a version of the proposal that surfaced in early 2018, this one could apply retroactively to public health regulations already in place.

“This means the E.P.A. can justify rolling back rules or failing to update rules based on the best information to protect public health and the environment, which means more dirty air and more premature deaths,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association.

Public health experts warned that studies that have been used for decades — to show, for example, that mercury from power plants impairs brain development, or that lead in paint dust is tied to behavioral disorders in children — might be inadmissible when existing regulations come up for renewal.

For instance, a groundbreaking 1993 Harvard University project that definitively linked polluted air to premature deaths, currently the foundation of the nation’s air-quality laws, could become inadmissible. When gathering data for their research, known as the Six Cities study, scientists signed confidentiality agreements to track the private medical and occupational histories of more than 22,000 people in six cities.

As the Times reports, this is simply the latest in a stream of efforts to deny the negative effects of fossil fuels.

The change is part of a broader administration effort to weaken the scientific underpinnings of policymaking. Senior administration officials have tried to water down the testimony of government scientists, publicly chastised scientists who have dissented from President Trump’s positions and blocked government researchers from traveling to conferences to present their work.

The proposed rule is opposed by virtually every medical and scientific organization. Michael Halpern, deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists describes it as a wholesale politicization of the process.

That politicization requires rejecting “elitism”–defined as reliance on facts, evidence, science, and belief in the value of knowledge.

Welcome to what has become of the Republican Party.

 

Winning A War Without Firing A Shot

The American public has heard so much about Russian activities–about interference with the 2016 election,  about Russian “bots” that continue to infest Facebook and Twitter, and about Donald Trump’s longtime dependence on Russian money to finance his developments–that significant segments of the population have simply tuned it out. It’s last week’s story–and as a nation, we have a very short attention span.

That’s unfortunate, because Russia is winning Putin’s war on our democracy without having to fire a shot.

Roll Call recently had a headline that caught my attention.“The Most Important Document You May Ever Read.”

On the day that special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on election interference came out, cable news anchors strained to race through its 448 pages and describe the findings, all in the same breath. Computer sleuths hacked the document’s setting to let users search for “Trump,” “president,” “collusion” and “Russia.” Talking-head lawyers feverishly opined that Volume I contained less incriminating information than Volume II.

But around the country, voters mostly gave an “Is that all there is?” shoulder shrug and went back to their corners. Many members of Congress admitted they didn’t even bother to read it.

Nearly six months later, and to almost no fanfare last week while Congress was in recess, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the second of two installments of its own bipartisan investigation into roughly the same topic. The slim, 85-page report reads like a Russian spy novel crossed with a sequel to Orwell’s most dystopian version of the future — right down to an interview with a paid Russian troll who said his experience in 2016, pitting American voters against each other with social media platforms of their own making, was like being “a character in the book ‘1984’ by George Orwell — a place where you have to write that white is black and black is white.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee is chaired by Republican Richard Burr; Mark Warner, a Democrat, is Vice-Chair, and the investigation that led to the report is as bipartisan as you are likely to get in today’s Senate.

The report–available here-– doesn’t mince words. First, it confirms that the Russians deliberately attacked the American electorate in 2016 with an active campaign intended to benefit Donald Trump and destroy Hillary Clinton. One of the former trolls told the committee that, on the morning following the election, exhausted hackers in St. Petersburg, Russia, uncorked champagne, looked at each other and uttered “almost in unison: ‘We made America great.’”

The tactics and strategies that the Kremlin directed included every major social media platform you can think of — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — and a few you’d never suspect, including Pinterest, LinkedIn and 4Chan. The hashtags alone tell the story— #MAGA #TrumpTrain #Hillary4Prison #ZombieHillary #SickHillary. Along with anti-Clinton stories, they also pushed out messages against Trump’s primary rivals like Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Once in the general election, they pumped up third-party candidates to siphon support away from Clinton with posts including, “A vote for Jill Stein is not a wasted vote.”

Online trolls were based in St. Petersburg and were given daily quotas for targeting Americans online, including 50 Facebook posts per day. They were even given a list of American holidays, to remind them of times to post less, so as to avoid detection from online providers.

Americans gobbled it up. The Senate Intelligence report details a troubling fact: in the three months leading up to Election Day, Russian-planted false information on Facebook outperformed real news.

Russian messages were crafted to erode Americans’ trust in investigative and political journalism, and to exploit racial divisions. The sheer volume was so enormous that it overwhelmed readers, who could no longer separate what was real from what wasn’t.

As the article in Roll Call concluded: “If you read nothing else now that Congress is back in session, take a moment to digest this report. It may be the most important document you ever read.”

A Chilling Question

I’ve been mulling over a question posed by Garrett Epps in a New York Times column awhile back.

There were actually a number of questions raised by his column–can we really return to the political/cultural environment we occupied before the election of Trump? Could a Democratic president ever trust Mitch McConnell, et al, sufficiently to negotiate with them in good faith? Can voters learn to trust their government again? Have Americans believed a lie all these years? Have we bought into the “we are exceptional” rhetoric and absorbed a highly selective history in which–despite some unfortunate mistakes we needn’t dwell on– we were the good guys?

Epps starts by referencing a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorn in which “Goodman Brown” is visited by Satan, who opens his eyes to the sinfulness of Brown’s pious neighbors:

how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows’ weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers’ wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant’s funeral …

Brown is never sure whether what he has seen was a dream, or whether “the placid and pious life of his neighbors is merely a pretense.”

Epps proceeds to draw a parallel, suggesting that the admirable democratic norms we thought Americans live by have really just been a “shell game for suckers.”

As Trumpism took hold in the nation in 2015, it was regarded as a kind of temporary madness. But time has revealed that this vulgar spirit is no aberration. It was there all along; the goodly veneer was the lie.

Consider the devolution of Bill Barr, from an “institutionalist” who would protect the Department of Justice to a servant of Donald Trump. Consider the two dozen House Republicans who used physical force to disrupt their own body rather than allow government officials to testify to what they know about President Trump—because to follow the rules of the House, and the strictures of national security, would threaten their party’s grasp on power. Consider the white evangelical leaders who prated to the nation for a generation about character and chastity and “Judeo-Christian morality,” but who now bless Trump as a leader. Consider, if more evidence is needed, the unforgettable moment at the Capitol on September 27, 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh dropped forever the mask of the “independent judge” to stand proudly forth as a partisan figure promising vengeance against his enemies….

These are not victims crazed by “polarization” or “partisanship” or “gridlock” but cool-headed political actors who see the chance to win long-sought goals—dictatorial power in the White House, partisan control of the federal bench, an end to legal abortion and the re-subordination of women, destruction of the government’s regulatory apparatus, an end to voting rights that might threaten minority-party control, a return to pre-civil-rights racial norms. The historical moment finds them on a mountaintop; all the kingdoms they have sought are laid out before them, and a voice says, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”

Epps accepts that Trump is more likely than not to be defeated in 2020, and that in any event, he’ll leave office at some point. But then comes the chilling question–a question to which I still don’t have anything near a satisfactory answer.

What then? Like young Goodman Brown, can Americans unsee the lawless bacchanal of the past three years? Can they pretend it did not happen, and that the fellow citizens who so readily discarded law and honesty never did so?…Can we go back to the world before Trump—and before Brett Kavanaugh and Mitch McConnell, before Bill Barr and Rudy Giuliani, before an invasion of a secure facility at the Capitol, before babies were torn from their mothers and caged, before racist rhetoric from the White House and massacres at a synagogue and an El Paso Walmart—to a world of political cooperation, respect for norms, and nonpolitical courts?

How?