Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Really Telling It Like It Is

A recent op-ed in the New York Times considered the passions of the gun lobby.

The column was written by Will Wilkinson, Vice-President for Research at the Niskanen Center. I first encountered Wilkinson’s writing when I was doing research for my most recent book;  I’ve been consistently impressed with his thoughtfulness and the quality of his various analyses.

The column was headlined “Why an Assault Weapons Ban Hits Such a Nerve With Many Conservatives,” and the sub-head was “The premise of Trumpist populism is that the political preferences of a shrinking minority of citizens matter more than democracy.”

Wilkinson began by describing the blowback encountered by Beto O’Roark over O’Roark’s proposed assault weapon buy-back program. One Texas lawmaker issued a not-very-veiled threat to use his own weapon on O’Roark, and there was predictable hysteria from the usual suspects.

“So, this is — what you are calling for is civil war,” Tucker Carlson of Fox News said of Mr. O’Rourke’s comments. “What you are calling for is an incitement to violence.” On ABC’s “The View,” Meghan McCain maintained that “the AR-15 is by far the most popular gun in America, by far. I was just in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. If you’re talking about taking people’s guns from them, there’s going to be a lot of violence.” On Twitter, the conservative writer Erick Erickson said: “I know people who keep AR-15’s buried because they’re afraid one day the government might come for them. I know others who are stockpiling them. It is not a stretch to say there’d be violence if the gov’t tried to confiscate them.”

Wilkinson notes the obvious: no such program is likely to go into effect, absent an overwhelming electoral outpouring of majoritarian sentiment.

In that light, all of these ominous “there will be violence” warnings clearly imply that it simply doesn’t matter whether or not mandatory buyback legislation is enacted by duly elected representatives of the American people with an extraordinary popular mandate, because the wildly outvoted minority would nevertheless be right to regard the law as an intolerable injustice that warrants retaliatory violence. Just ask them.

Wilkinson then considers what this reaction signifies. As he points out, democracy is what we do to prevent political disagreement from turning into violent conflict. Trumpism, however, considers government legitimate only when it agrees with  white Christian conservatives.

Who, you may sensibly ask, granted Tucker Carlson’s target demographic veto power over the legislative will of the American people? Nobody. They got high on their own supply and anointed themselves the “real American” sovereigns of the realm. But their relative numbers are dwindling, and they live in fear of a future in which the law of the land reliably tracks the will of the people. Therein lies the appeal of a personal cache of AR-15s.

Weapons of mass death, and the submissive fear they engender, put teeth on that shrinking minority’s entitled claim to indefinite power. Without the threat of violence, what have they really got? Votes? Sooner or later, they won’t have enough, and they know it.

Nearly every Republican policy priority lacks majority support. New restrictions on abortion are unpopular. Slashing legal immigration levels is unpopular. The president’s single major legislative achievement, tax cuts for corporations and high earners, is unpopular.

Public support for enhanced background checks stands at an astonishing 90 percent, and 60 percent(and more) support a ban on assault weapon sales. Yet Republican legislatures block modest, popular gun control measures at every turn. The security of the minority’s self-ascribed right to make the rules has become their platform’s major plank, because unpopular rules don’t stand a chance without it.

As Wilkinson notes–and as rational people know–this isn’t about self-defense. Nobody needs a gun that can shoot 26 people in 32 seconds to ward off burglars.

The Second Amendment doesn’t grant the right to own one any more than it grants the right to own a surface-to-air missile.

I particularly loved these two paragraphs:

They’ll tell you their foreboding “predictions” of lethal resistance are really about preserving the means to protect the republic against an overweening, rights-stomping state. Don’t believe that, either. It’s really about the imagined peril of a multicultural majority running the show. Many countries that do more to protect their citizens against gun violence are more, not less, free than we are. According to the libertarian Cato Institute, 16 countries enjoy a higher level of overall freedom than the United States, and most of them ban or severely restrict ownership of assault weapons. The freedom to have your head blown off in an Applebee’s, to flee in terror from the bang of a backfiring engine, might not be freedom at all.

I’m not too proud to admit that in my misspent libertarian youth, I embraced the idea that a well-armed populace is a bulwark against tyranny. I imagined us a vast Switzerland, hived with rifles to defend our inviolable rights against … Michael Dukakis? What I slowly came to see is that freedom is inseparable from political disagreement and that holding to a trove of weapons as your last line of defense in a losing debate makes normal ideological opposition look like nascent tyranny and readies you to suppress it.

Clarity. Sanity. Why do I despair about the likelihood that Wilkinson, et al will prevail?

The Whistleblower Conflict

Okay–I take back every qualm/criticism I’ve ever had about the U.S. Intelligence community. (I might resurrect them at some future date.) It may end up saving America.

A number of media outlets have reported on the Whistleblower complaint filed by an Intelligence officer who was evidently appointed by Trump. This story was originally from the Washington Monthly.

The whistleblower complaint that has triggered a tense showdown between the U.S. intelligence community and Congress involves President Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, according to two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Trump’s interaction with the foreign leader included a “promise” that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, said the former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

It was not immediately clear which foreign leader Trump was speaking with or what he pledged to deliver, but his direct involvement in the matter has not been previously disclosed.

The communication in question evidently came in the form of a phone call. Reporters tracked down the president’s phone conversations with foreign leaders around that time;  the three that occurred in the two months before the complaint was filed were Chinese President Xi Jinping, French President Macron, and Vladimir Putin.

Also around the same time, Dan Coates, Director of National Intelligence, resigned. And shortly after that, the U.S. pulled out of the INF treaty with Russia.

Inspector General Atkinson (the Trump appointee) identified the whistleblower complaint as a matter of “urgent concern.” That triggered a requirement that the complaint be reported to Congress. But according to the Washington Post, Maguire–the acting head of DNI (this whole bloody Administration is “acting”) asked Bill Barr’s Justice Department for legal guidance and–surprise!– was told to withhold the information.

At that point, Atkinson informed Congress that a complaint had been made, but Maguire continued his refusal to share the information with the House Intelligence Committee.

While it’s tempting to speculate based on the timeline of events, what we actually know is that someone in the intelligence community was so concerned about what transpired on that phone call that he or she filed a whistleblower complaint. The inspector general found the complaint to be not only credible, but of “urgent concern.” When the new acting DNI refused to inform Congress, he took the extraordinary step of telling them that the complaint existed. In other words, to use Joe Biden’s vernacular, this is a Big Fuckin’ Deal.

Since this article was written, Atkinson has testified behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee, and several media outlets have suggested that more than one “impropriety” is involved. This might finally be enough to move Democrats off their reluctance to impeach….

Stay tuned….

 

 

 

Let’s Talk About Infrastructure

What is government for?

That is the question at the root of all political philosophy, and by extension, all punditry. After all, the way we evaluate how well a government is functioning is by comparing its operation with its mission: is the state doing what it is supposed to be doing? If so, how well?

I began my most recent book by cataloging the areas of “broken-ness” in American governance–what I (and most commenters to this blog) believe to be areas where our government is failing to perform. And that, of course, raised the question: what should government do? Why do humans need the collective mechanism we call government (at least, beyond restraining Leviathan, per Hobbes)?

My conclusion–with which, obviously, you all may differ–is that government is needed to provide necessary infrastructure–both physical and social.

The dictionary defines infrastructure as the “basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.”

Most of us are familiar with this definition in the context of physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sewers, the electrical grid, public transportation, etc. Within the category of physical infrastructure I’d also include physical amenities like parks and bike lanes. Schools, libraries and museums probably fall somewhere between physical and social infrastructure. Purely social infrastructure includes laws that prevent the strong from preying on the weak, and the various programs that make up what we call the social safety net.

I have just returned from Europe where I attended a conference in Stockholm; on the way home, I stopped in Amsterdam to see my middle son, who now lives there. Sweden and the Netherlands vastly eclipse the U.S. when it comes to both kinds of infrastructure.

The academic conference I attended was on “Social Citizenship,” a concept commonplace in Europe and utterly foreign to Americans. (The conference was focused upon the effects of significantly increased migration on the social unity fostered by the European approach to social welfare–tribalism isn’t restricted to the U.S.and Europe is far more diverse than it was even a decade ago.)

Social citizenship and policies that support unity are topics that increasingly intrigue me; my most recent book focused on them and I routinely blog about them. But right now, I want to rant about physical infrastructure.

I took the subway in both Stockholm and Amsterdam (In Amsterdam, I rode their interconnected transit system, which includes trams, subway and buses). In both cities, the subway stations were immaculate, and there was lots of public art. Electronic signs informed passengers when the next train was due–usually, within 4-5 minutes. The cars themselves–and in Amsterdam, the trams–were shiny and clean, and looked new–although in Amsterdam, my son said they were several years old, and simply well-maintained.

Well-maintained. What a concept…

It wasn’t only public transportation. Streets and sidewalks looked equally well-tended; in Amsterdam, according to my son, sidewalks throughout the city are replaced every 30 years. Also in Amsterdam, where there are 1.3 bicycles for every resident and absolutely everyone bikes, protected bike lanes are everywhere–usually, they separate the sidewalks from the roadways.

Thanks to robust public transportation and the culture of biking, there were far fewer cars on the streets than there are here, and among those that were I saw numerous hybrids. Efforts to use clean energy were prominent. (Coincidentally, a friend just sent me an article about a European consortium that plans to deploy 1,000 fuel cell buses in European cities, and to provide the necessary hydrogen infrastructure.)

All in all, the clear impression was that we are a community, and we care. 

In these European cities, government’s approach to infrastructure provision appears to be a collective effort to ensure a workable, efficient and pleasant environment for all citizens–not a grudging and slapdash accommodation for those who cannot afford private vehicles.

I’m jealous.

 

 

The Word Of The Day Is Epigenetics

I just finished reading a fascinating–and provocative–book: Pleased to Meet Me, by Bill Sullivan. Sullivan is a professor of pharmacology and microbiology at IU’s Medical School, and unlike most research scientists I know–sorry, guys and gals– is a gifted (and witty) writer. The book is actually fun to read.

The chapter titles give a clue to the book’s approach: “Meet Your Maker,” “Meet Your Tastes,” “Meet Your…Moods, Addictions, Demons, Beliefs, Future…etc.”  Each of the chapters adds to the story of how we have come to be the person we are, thanks to the complicated role played by the genes we’ve inherited, and the mechanisms that support or depress the expression of those genes.

Whether and why a gene “expresses itself” or is “turned off” is what epigenetics is all about.

Epigenetics–I now understand–is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of genes expressions rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. As Sullivan puts it, epigenetics is the study of the “means by which the outside world interplays with our genes.”

After reading this book, I also understand why attributing any characteristic to a single gene, or even several genes, is likely to be inaccurate. It’s incomplete.

Not only can genes be switched on or off, or dimmed, their expression–i.e., the work that they do–interacts with environmental factors. Sullivan explains in great detail (and with funny analogies) why pregnant women shouldn’t drink, for example–and more surprisingly, why fathers who booze it up prior to baby-making can also have a negative effect on the fetus. (I had my children before the negative effects of drinking while pregnant were known–now I wonder whether their tendencies to be smart-asses is a result of my tippling….)

Sullivan doesn’t just want us to understand what science has discovered about our minds and bodies, he also wants us to appreciate the importance of the scientific method that led to those discoveries, and to base our personal and collective decisions on evidence. What science has to tell us should inform public policy. (Obviously, that won’t happen while Trump is in the White House–this is the most anti-science administration in American history.)

In fact, a Pew study confirms a significant partisan divide when it comes to science.

The partisan gap in Americans’ views of government spending for scientific research has grown over the long term. In 2001, there was no significant divide between the parties on this issue. This year, 62% of Democrats support increased spending for scientific research, compared with 40% of Republicans.

Sullivan has a chapter on genetic differences between conservatives and liberals that helps explain this…

If social policy were informed by what scientists now know about the effects of poverty on children, for example, America’s “safety net” (note quotation marks) would look very different. Studies have shown genetic methylation in adults who suffered economic challenges in childhood. (Methylation–another new word for me– changes the activity of a DNA sequence without changing the DNA itself. It’s all pretty complicated.) Underprivileged children don’t just suffer from unfortunate social conditions while they’re experiencing them–they also suffer observable, permanent biological damage.

The most important contribution of this very readable book isn’t the illumination it provides to non-scientists about the operation of our genetic inheritances, although that is certainly a plus. It is the recognition that scientific evidence should–must–inform government policies. Americans have always had an unfortunate habit of creating information silos, of failing to see the relevance of  information we have walled off into specialized domains to other areas of our lives.

Granted, it’s no longer possible to be Renaissance men or women. There is too much information for anyone to be an expert in everything. We can, however, reform our political system to ensure that it recognizes  the existence and importance of expertise. We can insist  that lawmakers base public policies on evidence offered by credible authorities who possess specialized understandings.

But first, we have to elect people who know what they don’t know, who aren’t threatened by people who do know, and who are willing to listen and learn.

 

 

 

Spitting On The Environment

The Trump Administration’s effort to reverse environmental rules–in effect, to accelerate climate change rather than working to retard it–continues to frustrate and astound rational observers.

The administration has rolled back regulations on light bulb efficiency–regulations that dramatically cut energy use and saved consumers money.

It has declared war on California’s automobile regulations–despite the fact that all major automakers have communicated their strong disapproval of Trump’s rollback of fuel standards passed under Obama. The New York Times reports that the Justice Department, which William Barr is turning into a lapdog for Trump, is threatening to sue the automakers who entered into an agreement with California to meet the state’s higher standards.

And now–Trump’s EPA is rolling back regulations on methane, a move that threatens to worsen climate change, and is opposed by many fossil fuel companies. Not by all fossil fuel companies, however, as an August 29th Time Magazine report explains.

The Trump Administration announced Thursday the rollbackof an important environmental regulation on methane emissions that even some of the world’s biggest oil-and-gas companies support. The fact that Big Oil backed a regulation designed to stem emissions of a potent greenhouse gas was immediately wielded by Trump’s critics as evidence of how backward the move must be.

But that reaction missed an important takeaway. The oil-and-gas industry was split on the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) methane rules, with some prominent companies supporting them and many smaller producers pushing for their elimination. The EPA’s decision to side with a group of smaller fossil-fuel firms shows the influence these obscure companies retain within the Trump Administration—and the power they have to slow climate legislation as addressing the issue grows more urgent.

The larger firms are almost all in the business of producing natural gas; they argue natural gas is a better option for the environment than coal.  Methane emissions, a byproduct of natural gas production, undercut that argument unless leaks are vigilantly policed. It is thus in the interests of those producers to comply with the stricter regulations.

Whatever the motive, methane is clearly bad for the environment.

Methane is more than 20 times as potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide on a pound-per-pound basis in the long term, and leaks of the gas could erase many of the gains the U.S. has made in reducing emissions.

But the EPA rollback wasn’t aimed at helping the big multi-national firms. Instead, the agency said it will help smaller oil-and-gas companies, many of which are drowning in debt and vulnerable to anything that increases their compliance costs. The EPA estimated that the rollback would save companies a total of up to $19 million annually—a small sum for oil majors, but a significant expense for some other firms.

This solicitude for the finances of small oil-and-gas companies comes at a substantial cost to the environment the agency is supposed to safeguard. The EPA was not established to coddle marginal businesses; it was established to ensure that Americans had clean air to breathe, potable water to drink, and–not so incidentally–a habitable planet to occupy.

This isn’t the first time Trump has irked big business with regulatory cuts that industry leaders did not want. Earlier this year, the Administration softened vehicle-efficiency standards even though auto companies said it would hurt their business. And the Administration has sought to intervene in energy markets to prop up coal, to the outrage of many energy companies.

The rollback of methane regulations now joins the 80+ environmental rules that Trump’s EPA has either voided or relaxed. There is no evidence that those regulations were ineffective or counterproductive; no data upon which this constant de-regulation is based–in most cases, quite the contrary. What evidence there is supports the efficacy and reasonableness of the prior regulatory approach.

There is, of course, one consistent thread that runs through every insane move made by this administration: if Obama did it, reverse it. If reversal is bad for the country, or the planet, so be it.

Our mentally-ill President’s obsession with his predecessor–his determination to erase Obama’s legacy–threatens the health and well-being of us all.