Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Loyalty Signaling

I’ve posted before about “virtue signaling”-a way of publicly expressing a moral viewpoint with the intent of communicating one’s connection to people of similar, virtuous sentiments. (When I first purchased a Prius, a colleague asked if the purchase was prompted by a desire to “signal” my concerns for the environment to those who would be sympathetic. I guiltily wondered if he was on to something..)

However, I had never heard of “loyalty signaling” until I read a recent column by Paul Krugman.Krugman was  referencing scholarship on the development of cults, and he was particularly impressed by a paper by a New Zealand-based researcher, Xavier Márquez.

“The Mechanisms of Cult Production” compares the behavior of political elites across a wide range of dictatorial regimes, from Caligula’s Rome to the Kim family’s North Korea, and finds striking similarities. Despite vast differences in culture and material circumstances, elites in all such regimes engage in pretty much the same behavior, especially what the paper dubs “loyalty signaling” and “flattery inflation.”

Krugman defines signaling as a concept originally drawn from economics; it describes costly, often pointless behaviors engaged in by people trying  to demonstrate that they have attributes that others value.

In the context of dictatorial regimes, signaling typically involves making absurd claims on behalf of the Leader and his agenda, often including “nauseating displays of loyalty.” If the claims are obvious nonsense and destructive in their effects, if making those claims humiliates the person who makes them, these are features, not bugs. I mean, how does the Leader know if you’re truly loyal unless you’re willing to demonstrate your loyalty by inflicting harm both on others and on your own reputation?

And once this kind of signaling becomes the norm, those trying to prove their loyalty have to go to ever greater extremes to differentiate themselves from the pack. Hence “flattery inflation”: The Leader isn’t just brave and wise, he’s a perfect physical specimen, a brilliant health expert, a Nobel-level economic analyst, and more. The fact that he’s obviously none of these things only enhances the effectiveness of the flattery as a demonstration of loyalty.

Does all of this sound familiar? Of course it does, at least to anyone who has been tracking Fox News or the utterances of political figures like Lindsey Graham or Kevin McCarthy.

Krugman repeats his often-communicated belief that the G.O.P. is no longer a normal political party. (As he says, it sure doesn’t look anything like the party of Dwight Eisenhower). But as he and a number of other observers have pointed out, it does bear a distinct and growing resemblance to the ruling parties of autocratic regimes.

In the U.S., of course, the Trump Party doesn’t (yet) exercise complete control– so Republican politicians suspected of insufficient loyalty to Donald Trump aren’t sent to the gulag. “At most, they stand to lose intraparty offices and, possibly, future primaries.” Yet–as Krugman says, these threats are seemingly sufficient to turn them into modern-day versions of Caligula’s courtiers.

Unfortunately, all this loyalty signaling is putting the whole nation at risk. In fact, it will almost surely kill large numbers of Americans in the next few months….

Republican politicians and Republican-oriented influencers have driven much of the opposition to Covid-19 vaccines, in some cases engaging in what amounts to outright sabotage. And there is a stunning negative correlation between Trump’s share of a county’s vote in 2020 and its current vaccination rate.

Krugman says that hostility to vaccines has become a form of loyalty signaling–which, if accurate, answers a question about vaccine refusal that has confounded most sane Americans. As he says, the G.O.P. has become something having no precedent in American history (although there have been many precedents abroad.)

Republicans have created for themselves a political realm in which costly demonstrations of loyalty transcend considerations of good policy or even basic logic. And all of us may pay the price.

When cult members “drink the Kool Aid,” they typically only kill themselves. Unfortunately, the cult that has replaced the once-Grand-Old-Party threatens to kill us all.

 

The Data Keeps Coming…

Emerging data goes a long way toward explaining the increasing visibility–and acting out–of America’s White Christian Nationalists.

 As commenters to this blog frequently point out, the racial animosity so vividly on display these days is itself not a new phenomenon–far from it. But the visibility–the shamelessness– is new. The willingness to “come out”–to publicly flaunt beliefs and attitudes that had previously been soft-pedaled or hidden–and the virtually complete capture of a major American political party by people who believe that they are the only “real” Americans is a recent (and unwelcome) phenomenon.

Fear often makes people discard the veneer of civility, of course, and these folks are currently terrified. 

It’s bad enough when fear is “ginned up” by propagandists warning of immigrant caravans or computer chips hidden in vaccines, but it turns out that the White Christian Evangelical fear of being “replaced”–of becoming just another thread in a colorful American tapestry–is actually well-founded. 

I’ve recently read several media reports about a study conducted by PRRI , the Public Religion Research Institute. One, by Michelle Goldberg for the New York Times, characterizes PRRI’s findings as “startling.” Goldberg began her column by noting the major role played by the Christian Right in the election and administration of George W. Bush, and she notes that many of the leaders of that movement assumed they were on the cusp of even greater control.

The PRRI results–and others–suggest otherwise.

The evangelicals who thought they were about to take over America were destined for disappointment. On Thursday, P.R.R.I. released startling new polling data showing just how much ground the religious right has lost. P.R.R.I.’s 2020 Census of American Religion, based on a survey of nearly half a million people, shows a precipitous decline in the share of the population identifying as white evangelical, from 23 percent in 2006 to 14.5 percent last year. (As a category, “white evangelicals” isn’t a perfect proxy for the religious right, but the overlap is substantial.) In 2020, as in every year since 2013, the largest religious group in the United States was the religiously unaffiliated.

It isn’t just the shrinking numbers. White evangelicals were also the oldest religious group in the country, with a median age of 56.

“It’s not just that they are dying off, but it is that they’re losing younger members,” Jones told me. As the group has become older and smaller, Jones said, “a real visceral sense of loss of cultural dominance” has set in.

White evangelicals once saw themselves “as the owners of mainstream American culture and morality and values,” said Jones. Now they are just another subculture.

In the Washington Post, Aaron Blake also reported on the “striking”  PRRI findings.

The Public Religion Research Institute released a detailed study Thursday on Americans’ religious affiliations. Perhaps the most striking finding is on White evangelical Christians.

While this group made up 23 percent of the population in 2006 — shortly after “values voters” were analyzed to have delivered George W. Bush his reelection — that number is now down to 14.5 percent, according to the data.

Blake also notes the age disparity and the lack of youth replentishment. While 22 percent of Americans 65 and over are White evangelicals, the number is just 7 percent for those between 18 and 29 years of age.

Goldberg quotes Robert Jones, the Director of PRRI, who connects some bizarre dots.

From this fact derives much of our country’s cultural conflict. It helps explain not just the rise of Donald Trump, but also the growth of QAnon and even the escalating conflagration over critical race theory. “It’s hard to overstate the strength of this feeling, among white evangelicals in particular, of America being a white Christian country,” said Jones. “This sense of ownership of America just runs so deep in white evangelical circles.” The feeling that it’s slipping away has created an atmosphere of rage, resentment and paranoia.

QAnon is essentially a millenarian movement, with Trump taking the place of Jesus. Adherents dream of the coming of what they call the storm, when the enemies of the MAGA movement will be rounded up and executed, and Trump restored to his rightful place of leadership.

These QAnon people are unwell. If I were Christian, I’d consider Trump taking the place of Jesus an unbelievable blasphemy…

Bottom line: the PRRI study, and several others with similar findings, is both good news and bad. The diminished power of a religious sect that has been dubbed (with some accuracy) the American Taliban is clearly very good news. The accompanying rage, resentment and paranoia–and the unrest those passions encourage– is not. 

But as I indicated earlier, it explains a lot.

 

Hollowing Out The Federal Government

A recent article by two notable scholars of government, Don Kettle and Paul Glastris, reminded me of my old preoccupation with what Americans erroneously call “privatization.” I began to research the issue after watching the very uneven results of then-Mayor Goldsmith’s love affair with the concept. (A search for the term “privatization” through the archives of this blog will return a number of detailed posts on the subject.)

My skepticism begins with the misuse of the term;  unlike actual privatization–which would involve selling off government operations and allowing them to sink or swim in the marketplace (a la Margaret Thatcher), Americans use the term to mean government “contracting out” for goods and services. There are obviously times and tasks where contracting makes sense. My concern is that government isn’t a very good judge of when and what those are. Contracts with units of government are qualitatively different from contracts between private actors, and those differences make it far more likely that the contracts ultimately negotiated will be unfavorable to taxpayers.

And of course there’s the predictable “crony capitalism,” contracts rewarding campaign donors with lucrative contracts at taxpayer expense.

A few years ago, I came across data suggesting that the federal government actually pays the salaries of some 17 million full-time contract workers who aren’t technically government employees.

A number of the problems created by extensive federal contracting are the subject of the linked essay, titled (tongue in cheek) “To AOC: Only you can fix the federal government.”

You and other progressive leaders have bold ideas for how government can help people and save the planet. The Green New Deal. Medicare for All. Free college. A massive investment in public housing. We aren’t in full agreement with that agenda, but that’s not our point. Our point is that to achieve your goals, you’re going to need a federal government as robust as your ideas. And right now, you don’t have it.

Instead, the government agencies you’ll need to carry out your policies are a disaster waiting to happen. Like the infrastructure you and others rightly say needs rebuilding, our federal bureaucracies are a patched-together mess that can barely handle the weight of the burdens already placed on them.

The essay pointed to specific examples, including the GOP’s assault on the Internal Revenue Service.

In 2004, George W. Bush’s administration turned the job of collecting the hundreds of billions of dollars that tax scofflaws owed Uncle Sam over to private collectors, with the idea that they could do a better job than federal workers. The private collectors brought in money—but just $86 million, and most of that was from easy-to-collect cases that began running out after just a few months. Then the IRS brought the work back in-house, and its agents collected almost two-thirds more money in just a few months, and it came from the harder cases the private companies had left behind. Relying on private tax collectors actually ended up costing the federal government money.

But the Republicans weren’t done. They slashed 20 percent of the IRS’s budget and 22 percent of its staff from 2010 to 2018. For people making more than $1 million, the number of tax audits dropped by 72 percent—and the money the IRS collects from audits fell by 40 percent.

Government operations stymied by a lack of skilled in-house personnel include–among other things– the government’s inept handling of refugees and the (mis)management of Medicare and Medicaid ($103.6 billion in improper payments in 2019 alone).

The list goes on. Click through and read the litany, if you want to set your hair on fire…

What the essay makes clear is something that far too few citizens recognize: it isn’t enough to have good policies. Passing a law to do X or Y is only the start; the unit of government charged with administering the law or program needs sufficient resources to do so. Those resources include adequate numbers of well-trained employees and skilled supervision– virtually impossible when contractors are providing the bulk of the services.

We’ve long relied on service contractors beyond the point of reason. We now have contractors who do more or less the same work as civil servants, sitting in the same offices, for years on end, typically at far higher cost, often using government email addresses so it’s impossible for anyone on the outside to know whether they’re dealing with a government official or a contractor. We have contractors who oversee contractors, contractors who write policy for government officials, and federal contract managers who are too few in number and too outgunned in skills to manage it all.

The hollowing out of government’s management capacity is the result of the GOP’s persistent attacks on the civil servants who work for it.

It has to change.

Describing Mike Pence

Every Monday, Gail Collins and Bret Stephens have a “conversation” on the op-ed page of the New York Times. As I have noted on several occasions, I am a huge fan of Gail Collins, who argues for the liberal side in those conversations, and although I disagree with Bret Stephens–representing the conservative side– on a number of issues (not all), he makes me nostalgic for the time when Republicans a/k/a conservatives could be engaged in actual discussions. Today,  they prefer to emulate monkeys throwing poo….

Unlike the inarticulate Trump Republicans hurling verbal poo, Stephens also has a real talent for witty invective, and that talent was on display in his conversation with Collins last Monday.

The column was titled “The Mike Pence Saga Tells Us More Than We Want to Know,” and after touching on a number of other issues, including New York’s mayoral primary and Trump’s Ohio rally, the conversation turned to Indiana’s ex-Governor and America’s ex-Vice-President, Mike Pence.

Here’s that portion of their back-and-forth:

Bret: You know, I probably spend more time thinking about Mike Pence than I ought to, given my high blood pressure. He reminds me of Mr. Collins, the unctuous clergyman in “Pride and Prejudice” who’s always bowing and scraping to the overbearing, tasteless, talentless Lady Catherine de Bourgh while he lords it over the Bennet family because he stands to inherit their estate. Alternatively, Pence could be a character out of Dickens, with some ridiculous name like Wackford Squeers or Mr. Pumblechook.

Gail: Wow, great analogies. Plus, it is indeed possible you spend more time thinking about Pence than you ought to.

Bret: Here’s a guy who makes his career on the Moral Majority wing of the Republican Party, until he hitches his wagon to the most immoral man ever to win a big-ticket presidential nomination. Phyllis Schlafly deciding to elope with Larry Flynt would have made more sense. Then Pence spends four years as the most servile, toadying, obsequious, fawning, head-nodding, yes-sirring, anything-you-say-boss vice president in history. He’ll do anything for Trump’s love — but not, as the singer Meat Loaf might have said, attempt to steal the presidential election in broad daylight.

For this, Trump rewards Pence by throwing him to a mob, which tried to hunt him down and hang him. But even now, Pence can’t get crosswise with his dark lord, so the idea of him ever taking the party in an anti-Trump direction seems like a fantasy.

Those of us who follow such things have watched as Pence tries to appeal both to Trumpers and to the majority of Americans who were appalled at efforts to withhold certification of the election results. He is continuing his adulation of his “dark lord” while insisting that his courageous fidelity to the Constitution kept him from refusing to perform his electoral duty. That balancing act is unlikely to mollify either the crazies who form the base of today’s GOP or anyone who spent four years observing Mike Pence. (It’s especially unlikely to endear him to Indiana voters, who found his preference for pontificating over governing during the prior four years very tiring).

Pence’s effort to cast himself as a defender of the Constitution is coming at the same time as Bill Barr’s equally tardy effort to distance himself from the Big Lie. (“It’s all bullshit.”)

Neither man is very persuasive, but the efforts are instructive. When two of his biggest sycophants attempt to distance themselves from the disaster that is Trump, it is a clear sign that his influence is waning–that those who were happy to carry his water when he was in office don’t expect him to regain power or influence–or be in any position to do them any good. (It’s too little, too late–Bill Barr is never going to regain the respect of the legal community, and Pence never had the respect of anyone other than a few naive fundamentalists.)

Wackford Squeers sounds about right…

Poverty Is A Policy Choice

Tumultuous times offer us an opportunity to revisit previous assumptions about the way the world works–and these are definitely tumultuous times. This blog has considered the discomfort most of us feel witnessing elements of our society that weren’t always so obvious: the increasing displays of racial animus, widespread visual evidence that the policeman may not always be our friend, the disregard for others displayed by the “in your face” mask and vaccine refusers… and of course, we’ve had to deal with the pandemic’s upending of so much of what we used to think of as our normal lives.

The economic realities as we emerge from that pandemic are also challenging some unthinking assumptions about wealth and poverty.

Once more, Ezra Klein gets to the crux of the issue.

The American economy runs on poverty, or at least the constant threat of it. Americans like their goods cheap and their services plentiful and the two of them, together, require a sprawling labor force willing to work tough jobs at crummy wages. On the right, the barest glimmer of worker power is treated as a policy emergency, and the whip of poverty, not the lure of higher wages, is the appropriate response.

Reports that low-wage employers were having trouble filling open jobs sent Republican policymakers into a tizzy and led at least 25 Republican governors — and one Democratic governor — to announce plans to cut off expanded unemployment benefits early. Chipotle said that it would increase prices by about 4 percent to cover the cost of higher wages, prompting the National Republican Congressional Committee to issue a blistering response: “Democrats’ socialist stimulus bill caused a labor shortage, and now burrito lovers everywhere are footing the bill.” The Trumpist outlet The Federalist complained, “Restaurants have had to bribe current and prospective workers with fatter paychecks to lure them off their backsides and back to work.”

Klein considers recent proposals to eliminate poverty via a “negative income tax”–very similar to the one proposed several years ago by none other than Milton Friedman. Unlike a guaranteed annual income, this subsidy would phase out as incomes rose, so it would be  less costly than a universal benefit. But as Klein observes, the problem isn’t really the cost.

The real political problem for a guaranteed income isn’t the costs, but the benefits. A policy like this would give workers the power to make real choices. They could say no to a job they didn’t want, or quit one that exploited them. They could, and would, demand better wages, or take time off to attend school or simply to rest. When we spoke, Hamilton tried to sell it to me as a truer form of capitalism. “People can’t reap the returns of their effort without some baseline level of resources,” he said. “If you lack basic necessities with regards to economic well-being, you have no agency. You’re dictated to by others or live in a miserable state.”

But those in the economy with the power to do the dictating profit from the desperation of low-wage workers. One man’s misery is another man’s quick and affordable at-home lunch delivery.

Klein reminds readers that America is full of hardworking people who are kept poor by very low wages and harsh circumstance–people who want a job but can’t find one, or who can only find jobs that are “cruel in ways that would appall anyone sitting comfortably behind a desk.”

We know the absence of child care and affordable housing and decent public transit makes work, to say nothing of advancement, impossible for many. We know people lose jobs they value because of mental illness or physical disability or other factors beyond their control. We are not so naïve as to believe near-poverty and joblessness to be a comfortable condition or an attractive choice.

Klein also reminds us that “following the money” tells us what our priorities really are–that we always find money to pay for the things we value.

What America spends its national wealth on doesn’t reflect well on those values. We’ve spent trillions of dollars on wars in the Middle East and on tax cuts for the wealthy, and billions subsidizing fossil fuel companies and factory farms.

As Klein says, it’s within our power to wipe out poverty. It simply isn’t among our priorities.