Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

About All Those “Best People”…Again

Talk about pots and kettles…take a look at the resume of Trump’s new press secretary–you know, the person charged with repeating the Administration’s unending accusations of sleaze and improprieties by journalists.

As Juanita Jean reports in her inimitable style:

If you’re wondering why Trump’s new press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, is not talking to the press or holding press conferences it’s because she’s … well… probably drunk or stealing something.

She was arrested for driving under the influence, speeding, and driving with an invalid license in 2013, according to the report, and the charges were later reduced to reckless driving. Grisham was also arrested for driving under the influence in December 2015, ultimately pleading guilty. She paid a fine and was ordered by the court into a treatment program.

One of the DUIs took place while she was a press aid to Trump’s campaign.

There’s more. Juanita notes that Grisham’s performance at previous jobs was–well, let’s just say substandard. She reportedly left AAA under a cloud for filing false travel and expense claims. She lost a job at something called Mindspace for plagiarism. She worked for an Arizona Attorney General who was fined for campaign finance violations, and on his behalf, responded to reporters’ inquiries by accusing the press of “overreaching, an invasion of privacy and abusive use of your role in the media.”

I’ve seen her picture, though, and she is attractive. When it comes to women, Trump’s definition of “best people’ usually revolves around physical appearance. (Big boobs are a plus.)

With men, of course, “best people” means one thing only: loyalty. Which brings us to the despicable William Barr. As both Talking Points Memo and the Washington Post have reported,

Attorney General Bill Barr has booked a $30,000 Gaelic-themed holiday party at the Trump D.C. hotel, the Washington Post reports.

The event is slated to occur Dec. 8 and will feature a four-hour open bar.

Again, there’s much more. (If Barr’s only ethical violation was improper enrichment of his boss, that would be a real improvement.)

Barr has yet to respond to multiple calls to recuse himself from the Jeffrey Epstein case–a case that could easily ensnare Epstein’s former good friend, Donald Trump.

He joined Wilbur Ross in refusing to comply with subpoenas issued as part of the Congressional probe of the Administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census–a refusal that led to a symbolic House vote of criminal contempt. (Symbolic, because the Department of Justice, which Barr heads, would have to enforce it.)

His pandering to Trump included a highly controversial and obviously partisan decision to launch an inquiry into the origins of the FBI’s 2016 Russia investigation–a decision that  fueled understandable concerns about the politicization of the Justice department.

And of course, there was his utterly dishonest 4-page “summary” of the Mueller Report.–a summary so inaccurate it received a reprimand from the famously taciturn Mueller himself.

A quote from Adam Schiff in Newsweek was focused upon Barr and Rosenstein, but it really applies to any of the “best people” who work for Trump for any length of time.

Congressman Adam Schiff harshly criticized Attorney General William Barr as well as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, suggesting they acquiesced to pressure from President Donald Trump to act unethically.

“What we are seeing is anyone that gets close to Donald Trump becomes tainted by that experience,” the California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee said in an interview with CNN’s New Dayon Wednesday morning. “And the fundamental conundrum is, How do you ethically serve a deeply unethical president?” Schiff said. “And as we are seeing with Bill Barr, and as I think as we saw with Rod Rosenstein, you can’t.”

 In all fairness, it’s not a problem for most of the President’s “best people.” They can’t even spell ethics, let alone define the term.

 

 

Speaking Truth To Power–Very Softly

A number of Republicans who reluctantly voted for Donald Trump  in 2016 did so under the assumption that he would compensate for his lack of government knowledge and experience with solid appointments–people familiar with the ins and outs of governance, to whom he would listen and from whom he would learn.

To observe that that didn’t happen would be the understatement of the century.

Initially, Mr. My-gut-already-knows-everything-so-I-don’t-need-any-advice did include a few competent, ethical advisors among the crowd of sycophants, family members, know-nothings and outright gangsters he assembled, but those individuals are all long gone–frustrated by their inability to get through the grandiosity, bluster and mental issues in order to affect policy.

One of the frustrated individuals who departed was Jim Mattis, who has now written a book. Raw Story has a description.

Mattis shared an excerpt from his upcoming book “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead” with the Wall Street Journal, which published an essay based on those writings that explains his decision to accept Trump’s offer to lead the Pentagon — and touches on his decision to step down.

“Using every skill I had learned during my decades as a Marine, I did as well as I could for as long as I could,” Mattis wrote. “When my concrete solutions and strategic advice, especially keeping faith with our allies, no longer resonated, it was time to resign, despite the limitless joy I felt serving alongside our troops in defense of our Constitution.”

The retired U.S. Marine Corps general took several veiled shots at the president, his domestic leadership and his understanding of the United States’ role in the world.

“Nations with allies thrive, and those without them wither,” he wrote. “Alone, America cannot protect our people and our economy.”

The article refers to Mattis’ shots as “veiled,” and that’s accurate. Mattis is clearly reluctant to follow in the path of other ex-employees, several of whom have written tell-alls after departing through the White House’s ever-revolving door. That said, it isn’t necessary to read between the lines in order to locate Mattis’ significant concerns about Trumpian foreign policy (if Trump’s global interactions can be dignified by calling them ‘policies’).

“At this time, we can see storm clouds gathering,” Mattis added. “A polemicist’s role is not sufficient for a leader. A leader must display strategic acumen that incorporates respect for those nations that have stood with us when trouble loomed. Returning to a strategic stance that includes the interests of as many nations as we can make common cause with, we can better deal with this imperfect world we occupy together. Absent this, we will occupy an increasingly lonely position, one that puts us at increasing risk in the world.”

Mattis warned that Trump’s domestic leadership had ripped apart American unity, and he said that placed democracy itself in danger.

 “Unlike in the past, where we were unified and drew in allies, currently our own commons seems to be breaking apart,” he wrote. “What concerns me most as a military man is not our external adversaries; it is our internal divisiveness. We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future, instead of rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions.”

As I read these excerpts, I couldn’t help thinking how unlikely it is that the subjects of Mattis’ (entirely appropriate) concerns ever cross Trump’s mind.

If Mattis ever does write a tell-all, it will be well worth reading.

 

Monsanto

Note: post has been updated to correct spelling of Monsanto. Mea culpa.

A lot–probably a majority–of American companies are good corporate citizens. We don’t hear much about them, because they aren’t newsworthy.

Monsanto, on the other hand, is very newsworthy.

Most media about Monsanto is focused on its herbicide Roundup, which has been shown to cause cancer if people are repeatedly exposed to it. (There have been several recent jury verdicts awarding breathtaking sums to afflicted users.) But Monsanto’s sins go well beyond the manufacture and sale of a dangerous product.

The company is especially vicious in its efforts to silence reporters and food safety activists whose coverage is less than glowing.

A non-profit food safety watchdog on Thursday revealed the lengths the agrochemical company Monsanto has gone to in order to keep the dangers of its products secret—monitoring journalists and attempting to discredit them, identifying a progressive musician and activist as a threat, and crafting a plan to counter the watchdog’s public information requests about the company.

Monsanto’s so-called “fusion center” targeted U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), which investigates safety and transparency issues within the U.S. food system. When USRTK filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests beginning in 2015 regarding Monsanto’s relationship’s with publicly-funded universities, the multinational corporation assembled a plan to counter the group’s findings, according to newly-released documents.

Journalists and critics of the company applauded USRTK’s release of the documents and said they only bolstered the case, long made by environmental and public health advocates, that Monsanto must be stopped from profiting off dangerous chemicals and covering up their harms.

The nonprofit had made Freedom of Information requests to universities in an effort to confirm accusations that Montsanto had paid for favorable research results. The 30 plus pages of internal documents that were released detailed the company’s plans to counter and discredit the organization.

In another article, a journalist who was targeted by Monsanto explained how the company goes about discrediting those who publish unflattering reports.

As a journalist who has covered corporate America for more than 30 years, very little shocks me about the propaganda tactics companies often deploy. I know the pressure companies can and do bring to bear when trying to effect positive coverage and limit reporting they deem negative about their business practices and products.

But when I recently received close to 50 pages of internal Monsanto communications about the company’s plans to target me and my reputation, I was shocked.

I knew the company did not like the fact that in my 21 years of reporting on the agrochemical industry – mostly for Reuters – I wrote stories that quoted skeptics as well as fans of Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds. I knew the company didn’t like me reporting about growing unease in the scientific community regarding research that connected Monsanto herbicides to human and environmental health problems. And I knew the company did not welcome the 2017 release of my book, Whitewash – The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, which revealed the company’s actions to suppress and manipulate the science surrounding its herbicide business.

Monsanto’s efforts included engineering web placement of negative “information” about her–written by Monsanto– that would pop up at the top of internet searches, production of “third party talking points,” and payments to “readers” who would post negative reviews of her book.

The records were uncovered as part of court-ordered discovery in litigation brought by plaintiffs alleging their cancers were caused by exposure to Roundup. The documents  revealed years of company activities aimed at manipulating the scientific record about Roundup.

Companies like Monsanto not only pose a danger to thousands of people–they create a perception that no business enterprise can be trusted. That perception isn’t just bad for law-abiding enterprises–it’s bad for America’s economic health.

A functioning government  with a functioning Consumer Protection agency would shut Monsanto down.

Thoughts For Labor Day

Labor Day would seem to be an appropriate time to consider the massive changes that have transformed the American workplace and diminished the bargaining power of workers–one major reason for the enormous gap between the rich and the rest. (It may also be an appropriate time to worry about the continuing replacement of human workers by automation.)

The changing face of the workplace–and especially the enormous growth of the “gig” economy– are barriers to organizing; the reality is that it is increasingly unlikely that unions will ever be the guarantors of fair employment practices that they once were.

If it is the case that most labor unions cannot be revived, the question becomes: how do we bring back workers’ power? How do we arrange the economic landscape so that workers can tell their employers to go take a hike if they offer insultingly low wages or dangerous working conditions? How do we level the playing field between employee and employer–especially large employers?

There is one answer, and it is audacious. We could empower workers (and solve a lot of other problems) by enacting a universal basic income. (Alfred Yang won’t be President, but he isn’t wrong.)

As an article in Forbes, of all unlikely places, pointed out, a universal basic income creates bargaining power by increasing all workers’ capacity to refuse a raw deal. The article points out that a UBI acts to increase workers’ “reserve price” — the minimum each worker must be paid before she is willing to accept a given job with particular working conditions.

A UBI is a more flexible means of improving the bargaining power of labor than either unionization or a minimum wage, because it allows workers to drive a harder bargain. It would also have the same effect on the economy as a higher minimum wage–it would increase both workers’ disposable income and economic demand.

A UBI appeals to both liberals and conservatives. Liberals champion it as a better approach than America’s inadequate and demeaning safety net programs; libertarians embrace it because it avoids legally-imposed, one-size-fits-all measures, allowing firms and individuals the freedom to negotiate the terms of their employment.

A Universal Basic Income would allow employees to walk away from bad employers, unsafe work environments, or undesirable jobs. Most importantly, it would restore a balance of power in the workplace–and as one observer has written, employment would no longer be modeled after “a peasant and feudal lord dynamic.”

I did a good deal of research on the merits and problems of a UBI for my recent book, and although I’m not unrealistic enough to think America’s lawmakers are likely to pass anything remotely similar during my lifetime, I was persuaded by the data that the general approach is not only sound, but–thanks to automation– will be absolutely necessary sooner than most people think.

Labor Day isn’t just a good time for a cookout. It’s also a good time to consider how badly labor has been screwed by the GOP’s war on unions and by the changes to the nature of work itself –and a good time to consider how best to repair the damage.

The Hidden Hand

When I hear the term “hidden hand,”  I immediately think of Adam Smith. But a couple of weeks ago, I came across a very different definition of that term–one that resonated with me.

Published by a think-tank called “Support Democracy,”the article addressed the growing problem of pre-emption, which it dubbed “the hidden hand.” In Indiana, we’ve had that problem as long as I can remember; it’s what I fulminate about when I decry local government’s lack of home rule.

Many of America’s cities, towns, and counties have less power than they did at the start of the year to protect the health and safety of their communities or to respond to the unique needs and values of their residents. That’s because between January and June 2019, state legislatures across the nation continued a troubling trend of passing more laws forbidding or “preempting” local control over a large and growing set of public health, economic, environmental, and social justice policy solutions. This legislative session, state lawmakers made it illegal for locally-elected officials to enact a plastic bag ban in Tennessee, raise revenues in Oregon, regulate e-cigarettes in Arkansas, establish minimum wages in North Dakota, protect county residents from water and air pollution produced by animal feedlots in Missouri, or protect immigrants from unjust incarceration in Florida.

Some states this session went further, with bills aimed at abolishing core powers long held by cities, including their ability to negotiate and set employment terms with their own contractors, enact and implement local land use laws, and control their own budgets and finances.

Here in Indiana, local jurisdictions have long been under the thumb of state lawmakers. The same legislators who bitch and moan about “unfunded mandates” imposed on state governments by Washington blithely operate on the assumption that they know better than the folks running city and county jurisdictions how those officials should do their jobs.

Are there issues that require federal mandates? Sure. Are there issues that ought to be handled consistently statewide? Of course. But the policy debate should center on what those issues are–and it rarely if ever does. Instead, we have the Indiana General Assembly deciding what vehicles Indianapolis can include in our locally-funded mass transit plans (no light rail for us–why, no one can explain).

It’s bad enough that a former Governor whose political savvy outstripped his devotion to rational policymaking (yes, Mitch, I’m looking at you) shoehorned a tax cap into the state constitution. That certainly made him popular. It has also destroyed the ability of local governments to provide appropriate levels of basic services. (Not to mention that provisions of this sort don’t belong in constitutions, which are by definition frameworks prescribing how issues like taxation are to be dealt with.)

State and local governments desperately need to revisit the allocation of power between them. In states like Indiana, state-level lawmakers need to allow local governments to make the decisions that are properly local.

As the report at the link explains,

Preemption is a tool, like the filibuster, that can and has been used by both political parties. In the past, preemption was used to ensure uniform state regulation or protect against conflicts between local governments. Preemption has also been used to advance well-being and equity. State civil rights laws, for example, allow cities to increase protections, but prohibit them from falling below what was required under law. Traditional preemption emphasized balance between the state and local levels of government. While state policy still had primacy, according to Columbia Law School professor Richard Briffault, it was understood that “state policies could coexist with local additions or variations.”This is not what we are seeing now.

“New Preemption” laws, according to Briffault, “clearly, intentionally, extensively, and at times punitively, bar local efforts to address a host of local problems.” Some of this is propelled by a disdain for local lawmaking and urban lawmakers seen as too liberal, intent on “oppressing” the free market and “trampling” on individual liberty…. Another primary driver of new preemption is the opportunity conservatives now have to deliver on a long-promised anti-regulatory agenda – an agenda that disproportionately and negatively affects women, people of color and low income communities. These new preemption laws are being used to prohibit local regulations without adopting new state standards in their place, effectively preventing any regulation or policy remedy at all.The efforts to consolidate power at the state level and end local authority over a wide range of issues are part of a national long-term strategy often driven by trade associations and corporate interests. Much of this effort has been orchestrated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an industry-funded organization made up by lobbyists and a quarter of all state lawmakers that writes and distributes model bills.

In my most recent book (which I shamefully keep hyping) I make a case for revisiting federalism, and ensuring that control of issues is lodged with the appropriate level of government.

I doubt I’ll live long enough to see that happen…..