Tag Archives: government

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.

Reality Bites….

It’s really a shame that American policymakers are so allergic to evidence, because we have recently had a couple of natural experiments testing the GOP’s most fervent economic ideologies, and we could learn a lot from both of them.

Most people who follow the news are aware of Sam Brownback’s effort to make Kansas a shining example of economic growth to be achieved by drastic reductions in state taxes. To say it didn’t go well would be an understatement. Eventually–after brutal cuts to public education, infrastructure and public services and no sign of the promised offsetting economic growth–more rational Republicans in the state legislature forced him to accept tax increases.

Fewer people are aware of an even more dramatic experiment in Colorado.

The story began with the 2008 recession; like many other municipalities, Colorado Springs was experiencing fiscal distress.

To fill a $28 million budget hole, Colorado Springs’ political leaders—who until that point might have been described by most voters as fiscal conservatives—proposed tripling property taxes. Nearly two-thirds of voters said no. In response, city officials (some would say almost petulantly) turned off one out of every three street lights. That’s when people started paying attention to a city that seemed to be conducting a real-time experiment in fiscal self-starvation. But that was just the prelude. The city wasn’t content simply to reject a tax increase. Voters wanted something genuinely different, so a little more than a year later, they elected a real estate entrepreneur as mayor who promised a radical break from politics as usual.

For a city, like the country at large, that was hurting economically, Steve Bach seemed like a man with an answer. What he promised sounded radically simple: Wasteful government is the root of the pain, and if you just run government like the best businesses, the pain will go away. Easy. Because he had never held office and because he actually had been a successful entrepreneur, people were inclined to believe he really could reinvent the way a city was governed.

Bach promised to transform city government, making it work for everyone without tax increases. (Sound familiar?) He promised to do away with the personal property tax for businesses and to reduce the time needed for developers to get permits. He promised that these and his other “businesslike” measures would promote job growth–he promised 6,000 new jobs a year. He sold himself as an outsider fighting the city’s “regulatory agency mind-set.”

“Sixty Minutes” and “This American Life” covered the election and the town’s new “business friendly” governance. We haven’t heard much from the media since then, and it turns out that a lot has changed. As Politico noted, “seven years after the experiment began, the verdict is in—and it’s not at all what its architects planned.”

It turned out that putting people who don’t understand government in charge of government isn’t a formula for success. The new mayor fired people who had institutional memory and governing expertise; deferred critical infrastructure maintenance, and quarreled with the City Council when its members had the nerve to act like a co-equal branch of government rather than as his subordinates. The promised job growth didn’t come. Chaos did.

The next election, Colorado Springs elected as mayor a man who  had spent his entire professional life in government.

It’s still a conservative town. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than 22 points in Colorado Springs’ El Paso County. But even with that “small-government mind-set,”

[T]hree times in his first two years as mayor, Suthers has gone to voters either proposing a new tax or asking to keep extra tax revenue. By overwhelming margins, he has now persuaded the supposedly anti-tax zealots of Colorado Springs to commit $250 million to new roads, $2 million to new park trails and as much as $12 million for new stormwater projects.

What has all this “wasteful” government spending done to economic growth? Some 16,000 jobs have been created in the past 24 months, and unemployment is at 2.7%.

Amazing as it may seem, running a government requires different skills than running a business–and fiscal prudence is not a synonym for low or no taxes.

Who knew?