Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Ideology And Climate Change

Most of Australia appears to be on fire. The extent of the devastation is hard to comprehend–as this is written, 24 people have been killed, 15.6 million acres burned (so far), hundreds if not thousands of homes destroyed, and an estimated billion animals killed.

Yet, as Vox reports, government officials in Australia continue to downplay the link between climate change and the wildfires– Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists that the country doesn’t need to do more to limit its greenhouse gas emissions. The government is apparently willing to shirk its duty to protect the population and the environment in order to protect the country’s powerful mining sector.

There’s a strong scientific consensus that links climate change to the number and severity of the wildfires.In its 2018 “State of the Climate” report,  the Australian Bureau of Meteorology warned that climate change had already ushered in a long-term warming trend and was also responsible for changes in rainfall that increase the risks of wildfires.

It isn’t only Australia. The effects of climate change are appearing everywhere. In Indonesia, the capital city of Jakarta is sinking so quickly that officials are working to move it to another island. Pictures of Venice are heartbreaking. Other examples abound.

Here in the United States, the Trump administration is responding by rolling back numerous environmental measures that had been put in place both to combat pollution and address climate change. It sometimes seems as if the administration is trying to poison the air and water and actually accelerate climate change.

Sane people faced with an existential threat don’t behave this way. What explains it?

The Roosevelt Institute attributes this inexplicably destructive behavior to neoliberal ideology.

In Transcending Neoliberalism: How the Free-Market Myth Has Prevented Climate Action, Roosevelt Fellow Mark Paul and Anders Fremstad of Colorado State University present a coherent account of how neoliberalism has contributed to inaction. To do so, they explore three tenets of neoliberal ideology that have stymied action to address the climate crisis:

Decentralize democracy: A feature of the neoliberal order in the US has been the systematic decentralization of government. Neoliberals have promoted federalism to address “government failure” and subject the state to market forces, exacerbating the race to the bottom in climate policy.

Defund public investment: Neoliberals dismantled the Keynesian consensus that the state has a major role to play in providing public goods, stabilizing the macroeconomy, and solving coordination problems. In the neoliberal order, government investments are rejected as expensive and wasteful, crowding out productive private investments.

Deregulate the economy: Neoliberalism has launched a concentrated attack on government’s ability to regulate the economy. Ignoring the ability of regulations to positively shape markets, neoliberals dismiss government intervention as “red tape” that merely increases the cost of doing business.

Those tenets of neoliberalism have been mainstays of Republican policy at least since Reagan. To them, however, you have to add the rabid anti-intellectualism of the Trump administration–an anti-intellectualism married to an obsessive determination to undo anything Barack Obama accomplished. Trump has persistently worked to drive scientists out of government agencies, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that those agencies’ effectiveness depend upon sound scientific evidence.

As the New York Times, among others, has reported,

In just three years, the Trump administration has diminished the role of science in federal policymaking while halting or disrupting research projects nationwide, marking a transformation of the federal government whose effects, experts say, could reverberate for years.

Political appointees have shut down government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases pressured researchers not to speak publicly. The administration has particularly challenged scientific findings related to the environment and public health opposed by industries such as oil drilling and coal mining. It has also impeded research around human-caused climate change, which President Trump has dismissed despite a global scientific consensus.

What is it that Neil DeGrasse Tyson always says? Reality doesn’t care whether you believe it or not.

If climate change makes the Earth uninhabitable–a result that is looking more and more likely– the cause will be stubborn ignorance and the willful elevation of ideology over evidence.

It Isn’t Just Hanging Chads…

Americans are slowly becoming aware of the ways in which partisan redistricting and vote suppression are torpedoing the democratic ideal of “one person, one vote.” In the absence of something egregious like Florida’s “hanging chads,” however, we are still less likely to recognize the partisan effects of ballot design.

A recent article from the Washington Post focused on that issue.

It’s a political truism: The candidate whose name appears first on the ballot has an advantage over the competitors listed below. That’s not just folklore — numerous studies around the country have shown that candidates who are listed first receive more votes. The advantage is so marked that in Illinois, one of several states where ballot position is based on the order of filing, candidates wait in line overnight to gain the top spot.

I can attest to the accuracy of those studies. When I first became politically active (back in the Ice Age), Indiana awarded ballot positions alphabetically. A gentleman who had changed his name to Aaocker was a perennial candidate for a number of offices. He always ran in Republican primaries (back then, Marion County was solidly Republican), where turnout was lower, and he could be counted on to skim some 2000 votes from the others on the ballot.

I’ve lost track of Indiana’s current approach to ballot placement–I leave it to a reader to enlighten us–but ballot order is a state decision, and it varies widely from state to state. In November, a federal court blocked a ballot order law in Florida; that law automatically gave the top position in every race to the candidate of the last-elected governor’s party.

As a result of that law, Republican candidates have been listed first in every race on every ballot in the state for the last two decades. In 2016, Donald Trump’s name appeared before Hillary Clinton’s. In 2018, Ron DeSantis was listed above Andrew Gillum in the gubernatorial race, and Rick Scott was listed above Bill Nelson in the election for U.S. Senate.

The court found that first place on the ballot was worth five percentage points, and noted that Trump had defeated Clinton by just over one percentage point, that DeSantis won by four-tenths of a point, and Scott beat Nelson by just one-tenth of a point.

Florida Republicans are appealing the decision.

As the article points out, if the appeal is successful, we will face a situation not unlike redistricting; just as states manipulate district lines to advance partisan interests, states will approach ballot design from a similarly partisan perspective.

Without any judicial check, changing election rules for partisan advantage will become a tool for both parties. For example, the newly elected Democratic majority in Virginia could provide that Democratic candidates are listed first and Republican candidates are listed third. New Jersey could pass a law allowing Democratic candidates to be listed first with their party affiliation but limiting all other candidates to an alphabetical order without any party identification. New York could retain straight-ticket voting for Democrats but not for Republicans. Massachusetts could allow longer voting hours for registered Democrats than Republicans.

The fact that voters go to the polls so unprepared that they vote for the first name on a ballot’s list is depressing. When good government organizations urge people to vote, they are really encouraging them to cast an informed vote. But–as in so many areas of contemporary life–there’s a wide gap between the real and the ideal.

Allowing partisans to use that gap to undermine the choices of voters who are informed is cheating. But good sportsmanship is so last century….

 

Rats And Sinking Ships

Well, there’s good news and bad news, and it’s the same news.

Daily Kos quotes Politico for the following:

The exodus of top Defense officials under Team Trump continues. In the weeks before Christmas, five senior Pentagon officials resigned their posts for unclear reasons. Now Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s chief of staff, former Army intelligence officer Eric Chewning, has delivered his own resignation.

As the article notes, these multiple departures–especially the most recent one, coming after the Iranian assassination–don’t usually occur during periods in which the nation appears to be gearing up for a military crisis.

Behind the scenes, though, Esper’s office appears to be in turmoil. A Foreign Policy report on Sunday revealed that Trump Defense Secretary Esper had cut senior Pentagon leaders out of the loop on the Suleimani assassination, and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not consulted or briefed on the operation ahead of time. “The usual approval process, the decision-making process, did not occur,” an anonymous defense official told FP.

The motivations for these departures are unclear: people may be leaving for reasons ranging from simple frustration with the chaos in Trump’s Defense Department to unwillingness to be part of  an administration that is morally and functionally defective–the latter motive suggesting the old phrase “rats leaving a sinking ship.”

According to Merriam-Webster, that idiom is used in reference to people abandoning an enterprise once it seems likely to fail. The phrase has shown what the reference book calls “great linguistic tenacity,” having been in regular use for over four hundred years. Its persistence is probably attributable to the consistency of the human impulse to “bail out” when a ship–or enterprise–is going down.

In this case, the likelihood that career public servants are departing an administration with which they don’t want to be associated is a sign that a number of career people in the so-called “deep state” have scruples.  The resignations send a message (not that the Trump cabal is capable of receiving or interpreting such messages) that they disagree with the decisions–and the decision-making process– of the current regime. (And what we are discovering about that process is terrifying. An Iran expert formerly with the State Department tweeted out what he is being told by those who remain in the agencies.)

These principled departures are the good news.

The bad news is that the consistent stream of resignations by sane, moral and experienced officials during Trump’s tenure–resignations that have not been limited to the Department of Defense– means that there are even fewer adults left to moderate an unhinged President and counter the assortment of religious zealots and criminals that make up his administration.

According to the Brookings Institution, as of January of 2020, turnover in the administration’s so-called “A Team”–senior positions  just under cabinet secretaries–has been 80%. The Brookings article includes several charts describing the positions and identifying the individuals who left; interestingly, they count each position on the “A Team” only once. So “if multiple people hold and depart from the same position (e.g., communications director), only the initial departure is tracked/affects the turnover rate.”

In other words, turnover has actually exceeded that 80%. (The report also includes a chart showing the serial departures.)

And that turnover is calculated, obviously, for positions that have been filled. As of January 6th, Trump hadn’t even bothered to nominate candidates for 168 of the 741 key administrative positions that require Senate confirmation,

Ask anyone who runs an organization–for-profit, nonprofit or governmental–how constant staff turnover and the attendant loss of institutional memory not only hobbles the organization’s ability to perform, but hinders its ability to recruit competent replacements.

When the people who are left to run the government are ill-equipped to do so–when they are inexperienced, ignorant, delusional or beholden to special interests–all bets are off.

We are in uncharted–and very dangerous–territory.

This Is What Rational People Feared

Yesterday, we awoke to find that Trump had ordered an airstrike that killed an Iranian general. The general’s position was equivalent to that of our Joint Chiefs of Staff, or even Vice-President, and he was evidently revered in Iran.

Critics don’t dispute the administration’s contention that General Suleimani posed a threat to Americans (although absolutely no evidence supports claims that an attack was “imminent”). Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama had decided against efforts to target Suleimani, because they were convinced that such an action had a high probability of triggering a war.

They were correct. The assassination is being reported in both the U.S. and Iran as an Act of War.

Of course, both Bush and Obama listened to their diplomatic and military experts, and consulted with Congressional leaders–none of which Trump did. The strike violated a longstanding executive order forbidding U.S. involvement in the assassination of foreign officials, as well as the requirement that a President seek Congressional approval under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Act. Of course, this is an administration that routinely ignores compliance with laws it dislikes.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that a military strike that allows Trump to brag about a “show of strength” comes at a time when his bungled and inept forays into foreign policy are being widely criticized.

Despite his much-hyped meetings with Kim Jon Un (meetings which gifted Un with an unearned but long-desired legitimacy), North Korea has announced its intent to resume nuclear tests. Trump’s approach to Iran–actually, his approach to the entire Middle East–has been wildly contradictory, as spurts of belligerence have alternated with troop pullouts and inexplicable  decisions have been “justified” by Trump’s usual word-salad tweets and statements.

North Korea’s announcement, coming as the 2020 election campaign begins heating up, and the Iranian-backed attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, increased public attention to those failures, and triggered renewed allegations that Trump doesn’t understand foreign policy and is incapable of developing a coherent strategy. Those criticisms have been leveled throughout his term in office, but they have become louder and more frequent in the wake of recent events.

So, like the child he is, Trump blindly struck out.

Since 2016, it has become abundantly clear that the Oval Office is occupied by a profoundly ignorant, mentally-unstable man-child who is utterly incapable of understanding the likely consequences of his actions. The damage he has done domestically is enormous; the threat he poses to world peace and hundreds of thousands of American lives is terrifying.

Yesterday’s media was full of analyses by Middle East and foreign policy experts; most of the people who read this blog have undoubtedly seen many of them. I don’t have any additional insights to offer.

I’ll just conclude by quoting from an article in Vox.

A deadly opening attack. Nearly untraceable, ruthless proxies spreading chaos on multiple continents. Costly miscalculations. And thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — killed in a conflict that would dwarf the war in Iraq.

Welcome to the US-Iran war, which has the potential to be one of the worst conflicts in history.

The Thursday night killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who led Iranian covert operations and intelligence and was one of the country’s most senior leaders, brought Washington and Tehran closer to fighting that war. Iran has every incentive to retaliate, experts says, using its proxies to target US commercial interests in the Middle East, American allies, or even American troops and diplomats hunkered down in regional bases and embassies.

It’s partly why the Eurasia Group, a prominent international consulting firm, now puts the chance of “a limited or major military confrontation” at 40 percent.

This is what happens when self-described “patriots” cast their votes for an unhinged buffoon with limited intellect and a monumental ignorance of the ways of the world. Those voters weren’t a majority, but there were enough of them to elect the candidate whose only “qualification” was a pathetic eagerness to validate their bigotries.

 

 

Path Dependency And Political Naiviete

One of the lessons we should–but don’t–learn from history is that revolutions almost never succeed in replacing the systems being rejected with those that are more to the liking of the revolutionaries.

Revolutions can and do change the identity of the people in charge. The American Revolution got rid of King George and English authority, for example–but it didn’t change fundamental attitudes about individual rights, or a legal system based on common law, or  accepted ways of doing business.

Short of revolution, efforts to effect big changes in the way a society functions inevitably come up against social inertia and stubborn resistance to changes in habitual ways of seeing and doing. Paul Krugman–no apologist for neoliberalism–was recently interviewed by Ezra Klein, and explained why he supports the more incremental, less radical proposals on health care.

A lot of things we think of as being very left-wing are actually extremely popular — like higher taxes on rich people. But other things requiring ordinary middle class people to change aren’t ever easy to do.

Systems that are very different from our own on health care all have deep historical roots. There is enormous path dependence in policy. The systems that countries have on health care, retirement, and most other stuff has a lot to do with decisions that were made generations ago. And it’s very hard to shift to a radically different path. So incrementalism tends to rule everywhere.

Krugman points to polling that says that a public buy-in to Medicare is very popular, but a replacement of private insurance that is not voluntary is not.

The international evidence is that it’s just very hard for to make radical changes in social programs. The shape of them tends to be fixed for a really long time. US Social Security is widely held up as a role model of doing it right because we got it right at a time when things were still pretty amorphous and uninformed. On the other hand, our health care system is a mess because of decisions we made around the same time that left us with bad stuff entrenched in the system.

The operative word is “entrenched.”

Wikipedia begins its discussion of “path dependency” thusly:  “Path dependence explains how the set of decisions people face for any given circumstance is limited by the decisions they have made in the past or by the events that they experienced, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant.”

Multiple studies of path dependence confirm that previous policy decisions that have since become “the way we do things” generate enormous inertia. Studies of welfare policies, especially, have concluded that significant changes can be made only in exceptional situations. (It isn’t only politics. Studies of how technologies become path-dependent demonstrate that so-called “externalities”–habits, really– resulting from established supplier and customer preferences can lead to the dominance of one technology over another, even if the technology that “loses” is clearly superior.)

It is one thing to compare the mess that is America’s health system with the far better systems elsewhere and acknowledge that we got it wrong. In an ideal world, we would start from scratch and devise something very different. But we don’t live in an ideal world; we live in a world and country where most people fear and resist change– even change to something that is clearly superior.

No president can wave a magic wand and effect overnight transformation. FDR and Truman both pushed for forms of national health insurance and failed. Nixon also favored it. President Kennedy supported Medicare and Johnson finally got that done in 1965–after the trauma of an assassination. All other efforts failed until 2010, when Obama and Pelosi (barely) managed to get the Affordable Care Act passed.  Even that compromised legislation triggered ferocious opposition, including bills that weaken it and litigation that aims to overturn it.

People who think we just have to elect a candidate who recognizes what a better system would look like, and empower that person to wave his or her magic wand and give us a “do-over,” aren’t simply naive. They’re delusional.

The question–as always–isn’t just what. It’s how. 

All of the Democrats running for President know we need single-payer. Not all of them are willing to acknowledge that we face enormous barriers to getting it done. And only one, to my knowledge, has outlined a plan to overcome path-dependency and get us from here to there.

That isn’t being “moderate.” It’s being realistic.