Tag Archives: government

As If We Needed Another Looming Threat

If I didn’t have a platform bed, I’d just crawl under my bed and hide.

I’m frantic about the elections. I’m depressed about climate change and our government’s unwillingness to confront it. The last issue of The Atlantic had several lengthy stories about technologies that will disrupt our lives and could conceivably end them. (Did you know that the government is doing research on the “weaponizing” of our brains? That Alexa is becoming our best friend and confidant?)

And now there’s “Deepfakes.”

Senator Ben Sasse (you remember him–he talks a great game, but then folds like a Swiss Army knife and votes the GOP party line) has written a truly terrifying explanation of what’s on the horizon.

Flash forward two years and consider these hypotheticals. You’re seated at your desk, having taken your second sip of coffee and just beginning to contemplate the breakfast sandwich steaming in the bag in front of you. You click on your favorite news site, one you trust. “Unearthed Video Shows President Conspiring with Putin.” You can’t resist.

The video, in ultrahigh definition, shows then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin examining an electoral map of the United States. They are nodding and laughing as they appear to discuss efforts to swing the election to Trump. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump smile wanly in the background. The report notes that Trump’s movements on the day in question are difficult to pin down.

Alternate scenario: Same day, same coffee and sandwich. This time, the headline reports the discovery of an audio recording of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch brainstorming about how to derail the FBI investigation of Clinton’s use of a private server to handle classified emails. The recording’s date is unclear, but its quality is perfect; Clinton and Lynch can be heard discussing the attorney general’s airport tarmac meeting with former president Bill Clinton in Phoenix on June 27, 2016.

The recordings in these hypothetical scenarios are fake — but who are you going to believe? Who will your neighbors believe? The government? A news outlet you distrust?

Sasse writes that these Deepfakes — defined as seemingly authentic video or audio recordings — are likely to send American politics into an even deeper tailspin, and he warns that Washington isn’t paying nearly enough attention to them. (Well, of course not. The moral midgets who run our government have power to amass, and a public to fleece–that doesn’t leave them time or energy to address the actual issues facing us.)

Consider: In December 2017, an amateur coder named “DeepFakes” was altering porn videos by digitally substituting the faces of female celebrities for the porn stars’. Not much of a hobby, but it was effective enough to prompt news coverage. Since then, the technology has improved and is readily available. The word deepfake has become a generic noun for the use of machine-learning algorithms and facial-mapping technology to digitally manipulate people’s voices, bodies and faces. And the technology is increasingly so realistic that the deepfakes are almost impossible to detect.

Creepy, right? Now imagine what will happen when America’s enemies use this technology for less sleazy but more strategically sinister purposes.

I’m imagining. And you’ll forgive me if I find Sasse’s solution–Americans have to stop distrusting each other–pretty inadequate, if not downright fanciful. On the other hand, I certainly don’t have a better solution to offer.

Maybe if I lose weight I can squeeze under that platform bed…..

The Flim-Flam Party

David Leonhardt had an interesting column on fiscal responsibility recently in the  New York Times.

“Fiscal responsibility” is one of those terms the applicability of which depends upon its definition. (I define “fiscally responsible’ as paying as you go, so putting a new government program or a war on the national credit card in order to keep current tax rates low wouldn’t qualify.) Conventional wisdom is that Republican administrations have been more fiscally-responsible than Democratic ones. Leonhardt questions–and debunks–that belief.

By now, nobody should be surprised when the Republican Party violates its claims of fiscal rectitude. Increasing the deficit — through big tax cuts, mostly for the rich — has been the defining feature of the party’s economic policy for decades. When Paul Ryan and other Republicans call themselves fiscal conservatives, they’re basically doing a version of the old Marx Brothers bit: “Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

Ever so slowly, conventional wisdom has started to recognize this reality. After Ryan’s retirement announcement last week, only a few headlines called him a deficit hawk. People are catching on to the con.

But there is still a major way that the conventional wisdom is wrong: It doesn’t give the Democratic Party enough credit for its actual fiscal conservatism.

Aided by charts illustrating his thesis, Leonhardt points out that, at least for the last several decades, Democratic administrations have reduced the deficit, while Republican administrations have grown them. Democrats have done that by raising taxes, by cutting military spending and by reducing corporate welfare.

Some of them have even tried to hold down the cost of cherished social programs. Obamacare, for example, included enough cost controls and tax increases that it’s cut the deficit on net….Get this: Since 1977, the three presidential administrations that have overseen the deficit increases are the three Republican ones. President Trump’s tax cut is virtually assured to make him the fourth of four. And the three administrations that have overseen deficit reductions are the three Democratic ones, including a small decline under Barack Obama. If you want to know whether a post-1976 president increased or reduced the deficit, the only thing you need to know is his party.

So why is it that the “conventional wisdom” does not reflect this reality? Leonhardt faults  journalists’ devotion to the idea of “balance,” and their ingrained belief in (false) equivalence. There is a hard-to-dislodge conviction that–whatever the misbehavior–both parties must be equally guilty.

I’ve spent 25 years as a journalist and have repeatedly seen the discomfort that journalists feel about proclaiming one political party to be more successful than the other on virtually any substantive issue. We journalists are much more comfortable holding up the imperfections of each and casting ourselves as the sophisticated skeptic.

As he concludes,

The caveat, of course, is that presidents must work with Congress. Some of the most important deficit-reduction packages have been bipartisan. The elder George Bush, in particular, deserves credit for his courage to raise taxes. Some of the biggest deficit-ballooning laws, like George W. Bush’s Medicare expansion, have also been bipartisan. In fact, the Democrats’ biggest recent deficit sins have come when they are in the minority, and have enough power only to make an already expensive Republican bill more so. The budget Trump signed last month is the latest example.

So it would certainly be false to claim that Democrats are perfect fiscal stewards and that Republicans are all profligates. Yet it’s just as false to claim that the parties aren’t fundamentally different. One party has now spent almost 40 years cutting taxes and expanding government programs without paying for them. The other party has raised taxes and usually been careful to pay for its new programs.

It’s a fascinating story — all the more so because it does not fit preconceptions. I understand why the story makes many people uncomfortable. It makes me a little uncomfortable. But it’s the truth.

Truth, of course, hasn’t been faring so well in our post-fact, “fake news” world….

 

 

Institutional Arson

As I have noted previously, Michael Gerson is one of the very few principled conservative Republicans who have not traded in their ethics (to the extent they had them) for partisanship advantage in the Trump era.

I have become a semi-regular reader of Gerson’s columns, not because I necessarily agree with his policy preferences (in many, if not most cases, I don’t), but because he is intellectually  consistent and honest, and his opinions are for that reason worth considering.

In an otherwise unremarkable recent column for the Washington Post, Gerson used a phrase that struck me. The column itself addressed the all-too-obvious GOP effort to delegitimize Robert Muller and his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

This quote will convey Gerson’s general approach to that issue–an approach with which I agree wholeheartedly:

Some of Trump’s defenders are claiming, in effect, that the FBI is engaged in a “coup d’etat” (the words of Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz) — a politically motivated attempt to reverse the results of the 2016 election. Their evidence? That some senior investigators donated to Democrats, supported Hillary Clinton and called Trump an “idiot.”

If that last charge were considered a disqualification, we would have the political equivalent of the Rapture (including, apparently, some of the Cabinet).

It was the sentence immediately following this quote that struck me:

Trump Republicans are willing to smear a man of genuine integrity, and undermine confidence in federal law enforcement, for reasons they must know are thin to the point of transparency. This is beyond cynicism. It is institutional arson.

Institutional arson.

That is a perfect description of the current administration’s approach to governing– although, even as I was typing the words “approach to governing,” I realized how misleading that phrase is; it gives Trump and his merry band of vandals far too much credit. Trump is interested in exercising power–and clearly uninterested in governing.

Gerson is certainly  correct when he asserts that the strategy employed by Trump supporters against any institution (the courts, the media, law enforcement) that threatens to expose the administration’s deception and corruption is profoundly anti-conservative.

Genuine conservatives have a point when they claim that Trump voters were not conservatives as we have long understood that term. As data has emerged about the motives of those voters, it appears that racial resentment, coupled with disdain for the enterprise of government and general anger at the “way things are going” fueled a desire to elect someone who would “blow it all up.”

If voters wanted to “blow it all up,” they voted for the right candidate. The only consistent thread in this erratic and ignorant Presidency has been Trump’s obsession with overturning anything his predecessor did. If destroying Obama’s legacy requires damaging the institutions of government, or snatching healthcare away from millions of Americans, or trashing America’s image abroad –well, that’s okay with Trump. No wonder people have dubbed him Agent Orange.

As Gerson noted,

Other presidents would be restrained by the prospect of social division and political chaos. For Trump, these may be incentives. He seems to thrive in bedlam. But the anarchy that sustains him damages the institutions around him — a cost for which he cares nothing.

If history and sociology teach us anything, it’s that anarchy doesn’t work. Institutions–even flawed ones– are vitally important to social stability, and they are a lot easier to destroy than to rebuild.

Ironically, the people who voted for institutional arson are the most likely to get burned.

 

Women Are Always The Ones Cleaning Up….

The revelations about Harvey Weinstein–not to mention Bill Cosby, Donald Trump and a growing cast of other characters–have seemingly opened floodgates of pent-up female anger. The #metoo hashtag on social media, and the daily reports of confessions and accusations have been accompanied by a veritable tsunami of rage and recrimination.

Sex sells newspapers (or as we say these days, motivates clicks). But the attention paid to the problem isn’t just a way to sell media;  the revelations are clearly newsworthy, and the anger is justifiable. Most women–especially those of us who entered the workforce as so-called “pioneers”– can relate. We all have our stories, and I’m not exempt. On the other hand, we’ll be making a big mistake if our focus on sexual predators and harassment stories distracts from the emergence of another important wave of bipartisan feminine activism.

I think it is fair to say that a huge number of American women saw the 2016 election results as an existential threat to women’s equality and the well-being of our children and grandchildren.

The Women’s March was the first signal that–like Howard Beale in “Network”–we were “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” It was just the beginning.

Last weekend, I moderated a couple of panels in a day-and-a-half training event called “Ready to Run.” It was geared to women interested in running for public office at any level, and sessions explored the basics of a political campaign: research, fundraising, messaging. A couple hundred women from all over Indiana filled the ballroom at Hine Hall on the IUPUI campus: they were Republicans and Democrats and Independents, white and black and brown, Muslim, Christian and Jewish. Most had never run for or held political office–or thought they ever would.

But they were thinking about it now. Seriously.

What struck me about the attendees and their interactions and questions was a repeated emphasis on what they wanted to accomplish: a government characterized by civility and integrity–two words I heard over and over.

There’s an old saying in political circles to the effect that men run for office because they want to be someone, and women run because they want to do something. That’s obviously an unfair generalization, but the women I met at Ready to Run (like those working through Women4Change, one of the day’s sponsors) clearly want to make government work again. They understand government’s importance; they also understand that making government work properly will require research and knowledge–a familiarity with the operations of the agency or branch they propose to join, certainly, but also an understanding of the “big picture.” They are willing to study, to do the work necessary to acquire what I’ve sometimes called “constitutional competence”–a genuine understanding of our American approach to self-government.

Right now in Indiana, women have announced their candidacies for several Congressional seats and a number of legislative ones. Others are considering running for local school boards and city councils. If even a third of the attendees at “Ready to Run” follow through and win offices, we will see some pretty profound changes in Indiana. Even those who lose, however, will elevate the conversation and hold incumbents accountable.

Right now, a lot of women have just had it–both with the sexual predators who make it hard to do our jobs, and with the preening and power-hungry politicians who are more invested in their own importance than in making government work for its citizens. And when women have had it, things change.

It’s like that refrigerator magnet says: When momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

 

 

When Evidence Isn’t Reliable

How do we know what we know? Who can we trust?

It’s bad enough that an American President constantly attacks reputable sources of information; when Trump asserts that reports unflattering to him are “fake news,” those assertions join–and bolster– widely-held doubts about the reliability of contemporary media. Those doubts are understandable; it is increasingly difficult to separate out the conspiracy-theory websites from legitimate digital newcomers, to recognize and discount sources trafficking in spin and outright propaganda, and even to distinguish between objective reporting and satire.

The unremitting assault on fact, on objective reality, makes the reliability of the information we get from government agencies more important than ever. When Scott Pruitt scrubs accurate science from the EPA website, he does more than degrade our efforts to protect the environment–he adds to the Alice-In-Wonderland nature of our shared reality.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just Scott Pruitt. The problem isn’t even limited to the Trump cabinet.

According to the Guardian (a very reputable source)

Over half of all police killings in 2015 were wrongly classified as not having been the result of interactions with officers, a new Harvard study based on Guardian data has found.

The finding is just the latest to show government databases seriously undercounting the number of people killed by police.

“Right now the data quality is bad and unacceptable,” said lead researcher Justin Feldman. “To effectively address the problem of law enforcement-related deaths, the public needs better data about who is being killed, where, and under what circumstances.”

This article underscores the importance of good journalism–the Harvard study used data compiled in the Guardian’s investigative reporting. It also illustrates the consequences of relying upon bad data.

Feldman used data from the Guardian’s 2015 investigation into police killings, The Counted, and compared it with data from the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). That dataset, which is kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was found to have misclassified 55.2% of all police killings, with the errors occurring disproportionately in low-income jurisdictions.

“As with any public health outcome or exposure, the only way to understand the magnitude of the problem, and whether it is getting better or worse, requires that data be uniformly, validly, and reliably obtained throughout the US,” said Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health and senior author of the study. “Our results show our country is falling short of accurately monitoring deaths due to law enforcement and work is needed to remedy this problem.”

Interestingly, the researchers found that the accuracy of the data varied wildly by state, “with just 17.6% misclassification in Washington, but a startling 100% in Oklahoma.”

In 2015 the Guardian launched The Counted, an interactive, crowdsourced database attempting to track police killings throughout the US. The project was intended to help remedy the lack of reliable data on police killings, a lack that became especially visible after the 2014 unrest in Ferguson put policing in the national spotlight.

Other federal databases, including the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) arrest-related death count and the FBI’s supplementary homicide reports were similarly criticised for severely undercounting police-related deaths. Both programs have been dramatically reworked since The Counted and similar media/open source databases forced officials such as the former FBI director James Comey to admit that newspapers had more accurate data than the government on police violence.

To state the obvious, policymakers cannot craft good laws or regulations in the absence of sound data. Citizens confronted with experiences at odds with government’s descriptions lose confidence in that government. Discrepancies between reality and government reporting feed conspiracy theories.

When we don’t know what we know, we cannot act.

Other than patronizing news sites we know to be trustworthy, there’s not much we can do about the proliferating media wannabes spouting fantasies and disinformation. But we should be able to insist that government agencies charged with compiling and disseminating factual data do so accurately. We aren’t likely to get that done in the Age of Trumpian Fantasy, but when the time comes to clean up the incredible chaos he is creating, a commitment to accurate data collection by government should be high on our cleanup list.