“The results of the experiment are now in”

July 1, 2017

From Jonathan Taplin, Director Emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, via Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic:

Since the Great Recession of 2008, the United States has been involved in a controlled experiment being played out at the state level pitting two theories of government against each other. The conservative Republican theory to revive growth (which Trump has embraced) was championed in Texas and Kansas by Rick Perry and Sam Brownback. It held that cutting taxes on the wealthy and cutting regulation on business would surely stimulate growth. The progressive Democratic theory of growth was championed in California and Oregon by Jerry Brown and Kate Brown (they are not related). There, taxes were raised on the wealthy to pay for more education and public infrastructure spending and regulations on pollution, privacy and assault weapons were strengthened.

The results of the experiment are now in.

California and Oregon grew 4.2% and 4.1% respectively in 2015. Texas and Kansas grew 1.8% and -0.8% respectively in the same year. Although the Kansas tax cuts have been a huge windfall for the Koch Brothers whose company is based in Wichita, it has been a bust for the working class. As the Washington Post noted, “On the whole, Brownback’s policies modestly increased taxes for the poor and working class, who pay more in sales taxes than income taxes, while reducing taxes drastically for the rich.” In Kansas both the K-12 system and the Universities have undergone drastic cutbacks in spending, the state’s credit rating has been lowered and the state has experienced a net out migration of citizens.

Despite this evidence, Trump and the Republican Congress are about to impose the Kansas model on the whole country, cutting taxes on the wealthy and regulations on business, promising just like Brownback and Perry to bring growth back to the nation. Those promises will prove to be equally hollow. Billionaires will prosper, the stock market may boom, but the working class jobs and the 4% growth of California will not emerge for the nation as a whole.

Taplin and Friedersdorf encourage those who are not committed to this disastrous Republican option to make the fullest use of federalism: doing what needs to be done/should be done at the state level.

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Worth Reading: Frum on Health Care

June 30, 2017

A repetitive theme here: we need to advance a positive, credible agenda for the future on a range of issues.  I’m not likely to come up with good ideas myself, so I’ll point to things I find worth reading.

David Frum was in the George W. Bush White House (as a speechwriter; he coined the phrase “axis of evil”) so I often disagree with him on policy matters.  Perhaps because he’s a Canadian he’s proving more sane in this era.  He was an early Never-Trump, and he’s been splendid on why Trump is simply the wrong person to be president.  And he is interesting on policy matters.  Worth Reading today is a piece he has in the The Atlantic (for whom he now writes) on How Republicans Can Fix Healthcare.  It will help you see what a sane conservative approach to health care reform would look like.

Me, I’m for a single-payer health care system.

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Our Progress in Resisting — Or Lack Thereof

June 30, 2017

I look forward to each Friday’s column from Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine.  I don’t always agree with Sullivan, but he consistently makes spot-on observations.  Here’s how this week’s column begins in its section on Trump/The Republicans:

The polls remain dreadful for this joke of a president; the contradictions of Republicanism are being savagely exposed; the legislative agenda of an all-Republican government is careening. And yet I have the sinking feeling that the strategy we’re seeing from the resistance is defeating itself.

Some of this has to do with the usual Democratic mediocrity. Pelosi has no ability to project a coherent message; Schumer seems entirely reactive; and the base has fixed its sights on a Russian-collusion fantasy that may eventually be revealed as a vegan nothing-burger. Can you imagine the victory tour Trump would have then? I just don’t know why we cannot simply let Mueller get on with his job, keep our mouths shut for a while, and wait for whatever results.

Most of the rest of this section of the column deals with the cultural politics of the left (its excesses).  But those two opening paragraphs are what especially draw my attention.  We aren’t getting leadership from the Democratic Party. Where would the Democrats take the country if they were the ascendant party?  What would they do about health care? trade? immigration? foreign policy? energy? Etc.  We need to be waging the 2018 election right now, framing a message that invites everyone to a progressive future. We’re not hearing that from the current putative leadership of the party.  (As Sullivan says toward the end: “Make an actual case on issues people care about, as the Labour Party did in Britain, surprising the world.”)

How about “Make America great again” as a slogan?

Coda: check out the plummeting regard that the world has for the United States under a Trump presidency in this graphic from the Economist.  Notice that the only two countries where confidence in the United States has increased are Israel and Russia.

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What Is the Crisis? The Possibility of Collusion

June 15, 2017

What would “collusion” look like? That’s the question that’s on my mind today.

In a previous post, I outlined four possibilities about how we might understand the crisis currently facing the United States. The first of those possibilities was this:

“that the person who is serving as President of the United States has, allegedly, done some things that disqualify him from further service. Among the allegations are that he colluded with the Russians to have them help him win the election.

That same post sketched three other understandings of the crisis, and I said I was more drawn to two of these others. But for the moment, let’s focus on this first alternative: Arguably, Donald Trump has done either or both of two disqualifying things: colluded with agents of a foreign power to affect the outcome of the presidential election, and/or committed obstruction of justice in trying halt any investigation of such possible collusion.

It is the obstruction of justice charge that has received the lion’s share of attention since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9. On May 17, Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as Special Prosecutor to continue the investigation that the FBI had started earlier about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Since Mueller’s appointment there has been a good deal of public discussion of the obstruction possibility, but very little public discussion of the collusion/interference matter. Some day we will hear from James Mueller about his investigation, but almost certainly no time soon.

So, again, what would collusion have looked like? What collusion might have happened between operatives of the Russian government and those acting on behalf of the Trump/Pence campaign?

Some things we do know.

  • We know that there have been many connections between Trump, his family members, business associates and political operatives, on the one hand, and Russian government, mob and business figures on the other.
  • We know that Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns, which might corroborate deep Trump family business connections with Russians, perhaps even Putin-linked Russians.
  • We know that Michael Flynn (Trump’s first national Security Adviser), Jeff Sessions (his Attorney General), and Jared Kushner (his son-in-law and adviser extraordinaire) all lied about contacts with Russians during the campaign and in the period before the inauguration.
  • Finally, we know agents of the Russian government interfered with 2016 election. As James Comey put it in recent testimony, “There’s no fuzz on that.”

So what don’t we know? We don’t know if there was any explicit collusion between Trump or his campaign officials with Russian government or quasi-government agents.

Or is that right? Back in July 2016, we heard Donald Trump, at a press conference call on Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. And he called on them to be publicly released if Russia did find those missing emails. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” he added.

Isn’t that collusion? Was that so out front and blatant that it doesn’t really count? Or do we take that as not really a serious request by Trump, so outrageous as to be theater not real collusion?

What would collusion have to look like for it to be considered serious – serious enough for the election of Donald Trump to be viewed as illegitimate, serious enough for him to be impeached and removed? That’s the question I’ve been wondering.

Here’s what etymology.com has to say about collusion:

collusion (n.)

late 14c., from Old French collusion, from Latin collusionem (nominative collusio) “act of colluding,” from colludere, from assimilated form of com “with, together” (see com-) + ludere “to play” (see ludicrous). “The notion of fraud or underhandedness is essential to collusion” [Fowler].

Playing together, but with an element of “fraud” or “underhandedness.”

I can think of two different forms that collusion might have taken: encouragement or coordination. Trump may, on the one hand, have encouraged the Russians to meddle in the American election by hacking into e-mails and releasing the embarrassing ones, or by messing around with voting software (we know the Russians did that too) or putting out and promoting false stories (ditto). Or, on the other hand, Trump or his political operatives, may have worked out a coordinated scheme of activities that included all three of these kinds of activities.

If it’s merely a question of encouragement, then the July 27 press conference remarks has to count as confirming. On the other hand, if it’s coordination that we need to see, then that’s probably some of what Robert Mueller is currently investigating.

But why would we need to see evidence of such coordination? Some kinds of collusion required considerable advance planning among those involved. To cheat at bridge you’d need to work out a system of signals between partners. On the other hand, not much coordination – if any really – would have been necessary for Trump to benefit illicitly from Russian meddling. Think of an alley-oop pass in basketball. It takes little more than eye contact for such a play to be put in motion. Trump and the Russians had already established a degree of recognized mutual interest in their earlier business dealings. Both sides would have realized, without any discussion, that efforts to embarrass Hillary Clinton would work to the benefit of Trump in the election. It wouldn’t even require much eye contact to put such collusion in motion.

In this regard it’s telling for me that Trump has done next to nothing (Sessions, too) to condemn the known Russian interference. So should we expect to learn of explicit coordination? I don’t think so. Perhaps it took place, but it needn’t have to render this election illegitimate.

For me, it’s also telling that Trump has been eager to hear reassurances that he isn’t under investigation. He received such assurances from Comey, but now the Washington Post reports Trump himself is indeed under investigation after firing Comey. Perhaps Trump is dissembling, but that strikes me as unlikely. More plausible is that some collusion (encouragement or coordination) took place between members of his staff and Russian agents. Trump himself may be unaware of what took place.

That possibility puts me back in mind of the famous Sen. Howard Baker question during the Watergate Hearings. (Baker, a Republican, was the ranking minority on the panel.) “What did the President know and when did he know it?” That question became a touchstone for Watergate, and made all the more explosive the revelation that the President did know of the cover-up and di help to orchestrate it. Likely Baker began posing that question to help insulate Nixon from damage. As the Christian Science Monitor explained it years later, “What’s forgotten today is that Baker thought he was protecting Nixon with that line. He was attempting to wall off the president from the actions of aides who might have done something wrong.” Baker had begun to suspect something bad had happened; perhaps all the blame could fall on Nixon aides and Nixon himself could be shielded from the fallout.

I remember thinking at the time that Nixon himself should be held responsible for the behavior of his close aides and advisers. So, too, with Donald Trump.

The question of collusion between the Russians and the Trump/Pence campaign is a live one. It’s made more vital by the lies and denials of Flynn, Sessions, Kushner and others. It’s made more vital by Trump’s refusal to release his taxes. It’s made more vital yet again by his firing of Comey. The more these things come to light, the more we have to wonder what more there is to learn.

The question of collusion is a critical one for U.S. democracy and self-government. It wouldn’t have taken much more than a wink or a nod between the Russians and the Trump team to change the outcome of this very close election, and to render the result illegitimate.

Who’s to say “illegitimate?” On the one hand, recognition of collusion on the part of the Congress could lead to impeachment and removal of Trump (Pence, too?) from office. But that judgment would be up to the Republican majorities in both Houses. Just now, they’re sticking close to Trump.

On the other hand, it’s really up to the American voting public. What will we conclude in the weeks and months to come about whether there was collusion? And if we see there was, what will we do about it?

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What Is the Crisis? the Budget, Health Care, Ethics and Civil Rights, Too

In a series of recent posts I’ve been trying to sketch the dimensions and major features of the crisis facing the United States.  The political/constitutional crisis, I’ve argued, is primarily a question of the legitimacy of the 2016 election: whether the Trump campaign cooperated with elements of the Russian government to influence voters, and whether since the election the Trump administration has tried to shut down legitimate inquiries (by the FBI, by Congressional committees) into the question of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election.

There’s more to say about these matters, but today I’m struck by four other jaw-dropping matters that, absent the Russia connection crisis, would lead me to suspect this administration had departed from fundamental, long-standing commitments of the American Republic.

Budget Proposal.  One is the budget proposal delivered to Congress by OMB Chief Mick Mulvaney.  It proposes draconian cuts in many safety net provisions (including Medicaid) as well as for diplomacy, science, the arts.  It proposes steep tax cuts for the wealthy.  And it makes fantasy projections of economic growth to make it appear at all prudent.  It has been attacked both liberals and conservatives.  It has been derided by professional economists.  I’m especially drawn to E. J. Dionne’s analysis (The Wider Trump Scandal) that calls attention to its lies and shattered campaign promises.

Health Care.  The Congressional Budget Office has now released its scoring of the wealthcare bill (AHCA) passed by House Republicans.  The CBO analysis shows 23 million more Americans without health insurance over the next decade, higher insurance rates for older Americans, and unaffordable premiums for those with pre-existing conditions (at least a third of us).  This is no healthcare bill: it is a give-away tax cut for the rich that would deprive millions of health care coverage and add millions to the deficit.

Discrimination.  In testimony before the Senate Education Committee yesterday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos aggressively pushed her initiatives for school choice: vouchers and charter schools.  But she refused to give assurance to Senators from both parties that schools receiving federal funds would not be allowed to discriminate against students.  This would return us to pre-1954, pre-Brown v. Topeka Board of Education civil rights standards.

Ethics.  In separate but twinned stories yesterday, the Trump administration thumbed its nose at governmental ethics.  Trump officials said they would not make any effort to track foreign revenues to Trump-owned businesses, this despite an earlier pledge — to comply with the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause — to donate any foreign-generated profits to the government.  At the same time, Trump administration officials are refusing to comply with requests from the Office of Government Ethics for copies of all waivers given to Trump-appointees to allow them to serve in the administration despite having previously as lobbyists or industry attorneys.  Early in his presidency, Trump issued an Executive Order that prohibited lobbyists and lawyers hired as political appointees from working for two years on particular government matters that involved their former clients.  The EO provided that exceptions could be made via signed waivers.  The Trump administration has signed many such waivers but now is refusing to show them to the Office of Government Ethics — or anyone else.  Drain the swamp, indeed.

All in one week, while the Russia connection revelations continue to mount.

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What Is the Crisis? Two Conflicting Narratives

With his usual panache, Andrew Sullivan frames the current crisis by calling attention to two opposed narratives about what is going on, one framing it as crisis, the other as triumph:

These are, it seems to me, the two unstoppable narratives grinding our politics to a halt. The status quo in Washington — an unhinged, unfit, mentally disturbed narcissist as POTUS fast losing any faint credibility with even his own staffers — is utterly unsustainable. In a serious crisis, more than half the country won’t believe a word the president says. The White House is barely functioning; legislation is completely stalled; next week’s trip abroad will have everyone watching from behind a couch; the FBI and CIA are reeling; there’s almost no one in the State Department; no presidential due diligence is applied to military actions; the president only reads memos when his name is mentioned in them; a not-too-smart and apparently mute 35-year-old son-in-law is supposed to solve every problem in the country and world; and the press secretary is hiding in the bushes. No one has any confidence that the president couldn’t throw us into a war or a constitutional crisis at a moment’s notice. Nothing this scary has happened in my lifetime.

And yet around 35 percent of the country still somehow views every single catastrophe Trump perpetrates on America and the world as either a roaring triumph or a huge middle finger to the elites, and therefore fine. For them, everything is sustainable. When Republicans can shrug off giving top-secret Israeli intelligence to the Russians, there is nothing they cannot shrug off. We are not talking about support for various policies here. We are talking about the kind of following a cult leader has. In poll after poll, around 80 percent of Republicans still approve of the job Trump is doing. Still. That’s why the GOP leadership, even as their agenda evaporates, are leery of taking Trump on. His hold on their own voters is tighter than theirs is. It’s tighter than Nixon’s because Trump has built a reactionary movement from the ground up and taken over an entire party. He can communicate with them in ways no other Republican can. And there is no way on earth he is ever going to go quietly, if he agrees to go at all.

That’s why I have a hard time figuring out how this ends, even though it must end.

Of course I subscribe to one of those two views and am dumbfounded by the other.  But he’s right there is the other take, however jawdropping.  How to penetrate and disassemble that other narrative: there’s the problem.

The whole piece is worth reading.

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Fear and Loathing in Manchester

This morning I’m taking in the news from Manchester, U.K.

A day after Trump speaking in Sunni Saudi Arabia laid the responsibility for terror largely on Iran and Shia Islam, a bomb attack kills 22 and injures 59 — or at least that’s the toll being reported now.  And the perpetrators? ISIS has claimed responsibility, and thus this terror likely has radical Sunni culpability.  For a useful corrective on the Trump speech, I recommend Juan Cole (University of Michigan),  Trump on Islam: Neo-Orientalism and anti-Shi’ism.

We need to hit the reset button on our approach to this cycle of violence whose hub is in the terrain we call the Middle East.  Donald Trump has made it plain that he would have us see that we can separate the world into evil people and therefore also good people: this Manichaean framing can be trusted only to make matters worse.  Trump would have us pass over terror by those who identify as Sunnis, terror by those who identify as Christians, terror by Israel.  Blaming one side in the conflict will only stoke the fires.

So what can we do in the meanwhile? For one thing, we can press for continuing normalization of relations with Iran, especially in the aftermath of Hassan Rouhani’s electoral victory.  For another we can oppose selling arms to Saudi Arabia.

We can also resist the temptation of fear.

I find myself thinking of the Bene Gesserit litany from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

The bombers in Manchester were looking to instill fear.  To the degree we react with fear, we give the bombers what they want.  Our media magnify this.  The coverage of events like the Manchester bombing can easily lead you to believe that terrorist acts are the most significant threat an ordinary person faces in the course of ordinary days.

‘Terrorism Is Aimed at the People Watching,’ writes Conor Friedersdorf today in The Atlantic.  As horrible as the harm to those killed and injured, we need to take care not to cause further damage by letting the violence spread through our own fear.  (“I will permit it to pass over me and through me.”)  Friedersdorf calls attention to the media exaggeration of terror deaths.  He particularly calls attention to analysis from Pricenomics about How Media Fuels Our Fear of Terrorism, which includes this striking graphic:  Screen Shot 2017-05-23 at 9.34.45 AM

 

Mourn for the dead, pray for the wounded, but do not be consumed by fear.

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