Tag Archives: government

Trust Tells Us A Lot

As our social distancing drags on, researchers have been investigating the effects on social solidarity–how Americans view each other, and especially, any changes in the level of “social trust.” In this context, social trust is an indicator of what sociologists and political scientists call social capital.

The bad news is that, thanks to the ineptitude and constant and pathetically obvious lies from the Trump administration, trust in the federal government is very low. (Recent example: Israeli news reports revealed that U.S. Intelligence told Israel and NATO in November  about the threat posed by the coronavirus– contradicting Pentagon claims that no such report existed.)

The good news is that a couple of recent surveys have found improvement in the way Americans view each other. In that sense, it’s reminiscent of the change in attitudes triggered by the Great Depression. Suddenly, the very American (and arguably Calvinist) view that people are poor because they are morally defective–lazy or unmotivated–was replaced by recognition that poverty is largely a social phenomenon. (If there are no jobs, its harder to blame people for not having them.)

Social capital is the label we give to our memberships in social networks–the human relationships within which we are embedded. Trust is an important component of social capital–but so is reciprocity. Scholars define social capital as the institutionalized expectation that other people will reciprocate co-operative behaviors–the recognition that If we fail to work together when collective efforts are needed, we all become poorer.

There are two kinds of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital is possible only with shared identity (however identity is defined). It’s at the heart of tribalism: “I belong to this group, and I look with suspicion/disdain at those who don’t.” Bridging social capital, which has been in short supply recently, links people across cleavages that typically divide us (race, class, or religion). Its associations create ‘bridges’ between communities.

The surveys that suggest a growth in “generalized social trust” are encouraging because they hold out the hope that America may be restoring some of its lost bridging social capital.

I was reminded of the importance of trust and bridging social capital when I was cleaning out cabinets in my home office. (I don’t know how other people cope, but stress tends to turn me into a maniacal cleaning machine.) I came across a reprint of “SPEA Insights” –a PR publication we used to put out, highlighting faculty research. This one was from July of 2010; titled “Trust Me, Said the Spider,” it was focused on the then-recent publication of my book Distrust, American Style.

In it, I pointed out that trust in social institutions–especially but not exclusively government–is absolutely essential to contemporary life.

Think about it. We deposit our paychecks and take for granted that the funds will be there when we need to draw them out; we pay the electric bill and expect the lights to turn on when we throw the switch; we order a gizmo from Amazon or other Internet merchant and are confident the gizmo will be delivered. We go to our local grocery and buy a chicken, confident that we won’t have to individually test it for e coli when we get home.

On and on….

And–as I argued in that paper– Americans rely on government to ensure that our water is drinkable, our air breathable, our aircraft flyable, and so much more.

I was particularly struck by my own words from 2010:

“And when we go through a period when government is inept or corrupt, that confidence is shaken–but our skepticism and distrust affect more than just the political system. Trust in government sets the tone for confidence in all social institutions….From time to time, America goes through periods where the failures of our civic and governing institutions are so manifest that awareness of them is simply inescapable. In the era of the Internet, the amount of information received by even the most “low information” voters has been enormously amplified. When I wrote Distrrust, the American public was positively marinating in news of corruption and incompetence.”

That was 2010. Ten years ago. I’d say we’re pretty thoroughly marinated now.

The last sentence of that essay is truer today than ever, in the wake of this pandemic: “our first order of business must be the restoration of transparency, accountability and trustworthiness of our government.”

No kidding.

Apres Le Deluge…What?

Thanks to the pandemic, millions of jobs have been disappearing–many of them, hopefully, just on hiatus, but many probably for good.

What will America and the world look like when this pandemic has played out? What lessons will we have learned, and how will those lessons change us?

The New York Times has introduced an entire series devoted to the question. Daily Kos recently predicted eleven ways America will change in the wake of the coronavirus. Like many of you, I’ve been discussing with my children and grandchildren the likely reasons for the deadly incompetence of America’s federal governance and the likely consequences for the future.

We have a son who lives  in Amsterdam and a granddaughter who lives in England, so we have an international context within which to evaluate successes and failures; of the two, the Netherlands has clearly (in my view, at least) exhibited the better approach: in addition to the country’s already-robust social safety net, the government has imposed a moratorium on firing people and is subsidizing payrolls for the duration. The Netherlands is predicting an unemployment rate just under ten percent when the pandemic is gone; here, of course, joblessness predictions are far, far higher.

The real question for Americans, of course, is: what cultural attitudes will the pandemic experience change? And how?

Every news show, every advertisement, currently ends with “We are all in this together.” True. Will that recognition outlast the crisis? We are all on this planet together, too, but the threat of climate catastrophe hasn’t notably affected the fossil fuel predators and others more concerned with their bottom lines than with global survival.

Will the pandemic–and its incredible mismanagement–finally awaken Americans to the importance of competent government? To an appreciation of the people conspiracy nuts call “the deep state,” and rational people recognize as committed civil servants?

What about the escalating reports of corruption–reports about  how this despicable administration’s “best people” are enabling looting and polluting while the pandemic provides a distraction? Will American voters and the American media finally understand that character–defined as honesty and “servant leadership”–matter?

Will we finally join the rest of the world, and provide access to health care to all of our citizens, or will America’s “original sin” and continued tribalism prevent us from supporting universal programs that help all people, including black and brown people?  For that matter, will we respond the way we did after the Great Depression, with a new “New Deal” that recognizes that we really are all in this together—and that the pursuit of rational self-interest requires that we build a society that works for everyone?

Will we at least recognize that government’s obligation to protect its citizens extends far–far–beyond maintaining “law and order,” anti-terrorrism efforts and foreign wars (justified and unjustified)? One of the most unforgivable acts by this unforgivable administration was dismantling the efforts put in place by the Obama administration to plan for pandemics–can’t you just see Trump thinking, who will notice, right? That task force is just sucking up resources that we can use to reward donors with subsidies and tax cuts.

When I look at this very incomplete list, and think about other lessons we should learn, they all require a renewed appreciation of the importance of an appropriately structured and constrained government.  Once this election is over, and voters have (hopefully!!) ejected this utterly unfit administration, Americans need to engage in a national conversation about what government is for–what government should and should not do.

That conversation will be critical–and we absolutely cannot allow it to be hijacked by the ideologues and conspiracy theorists and looters.

 

 

 

 

Those Pesky Facts…

Not long after Trump’s childish government shutdown ended, The Washington Post ran an article debunking five “myths” about the federal workforce.

The first myth on the list may be the most pernicious: that government workers earn more than their private-sector counterparts. As the article pointed out, this isn’t true if you are comparing apples to apples. Although workers with only a high-school diploma make slightly more if they work for the government, workers with professional degrees make somewhat less. But overall salary comparisons aren’t useful,

because “federal workers tend to be older, more educated, and more concentrated in professional occupations than private-sector workers,” according to the Congressional Budget Office. There are also comparatively few part-time workers in the government.

Other misconceptions included the belief that most people who work for the federal government are located in Washington, D.C. and don’t “rub elbows” with “real Americans”(actually, only about 1 in 6 federal employees work in D.C.), the belief that government is shrinking (actually, thanks to privatization, it has grown), the belief that private enterprises can deliver services at a lower cost than government (The Project on Government Oversight says that “the government pays billions more annually in taxpayer dollars to hire contractors than it would to hire federal employees to perform comparable services.”), and that it is virtually impossible to fire non-performing government employees (federal employees are fired all the time, although they do have more rights than private-sector employees, who basically don’t have any.)

The linked article includes data supporting each of its corrections, and it’s worth clicking through and reading it in its entirety, but I think the more interesting question involves the reason for these widely-held misconceptions.

I think it comes down to Americans’ ambivalence about government.

A persistent anti-government bias is a long-standing feature of American culture. Reagan’s famous quip that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” is met with fear resonated with so many voters because skepticism about government is “baked in” to the American worldview.

Ironically, however, when most Americans are concerned about a problem, whether local or national, their first impulse is to insist that government solve it.

In a rational world (and yes, I know we don’t inhabit such a world), we would launch a national discussion about what it is we believe government should–and shouldn’t–do.

(Unfortunately, thanks to our deficit of civic literacy, most Americans don’t understand  that the answer to the the question “what shouldn’t government do?” is found in the Bill of Rights. As I tell my students, the Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to do.)

If we could hold such a national conversation, we might come to some agreement about what we expect government in the 21st Century to do–inspect the food supply, keep airplanes from crashing into each other, protect us from criminals and so forth. We might also reinforce understanding of things government has no business deciding–what we read, who we love, whether and how we procreate or pray.

The lesson we should have learned from the government shutdown is that Trump and his abysmal Cabinet are–thankfully– a very small part of the federal government. Despite their incompetence, thousands of people in government’s much-maligned workforce go to their jobs every day to ensure that government functions as expected. They aren’t perfect, and the incompetence at the top does do considerable damage, but without them, we’d be up that proverbial creek without a paddle. And the creek would be polluted.

Perhaps if Americans had a common understanding of the pesky facts about what government employees do every day, we would be less likely to sneer at “government work.”

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….