Friday, April 14, 2017

The Education of Donald Trump

Slowly but surely the presidency of Donald Trump is being normalized.  By normalized it is
meant that the Trump presidency is increasingly being captured and confined by the institutional powers and realities of American and world politics.  This is something that Steve Bannon feared, and which both Trump’s supporters and distractors should recognize.

There is an old political science and political adage that declares that presidents have more authority and freedom to act internationally than they do domestically.  This is because while the structures of the Constitution–such as checks and balances and separation of powers–limit the domestic power of presidents, they are more free to act internationally, especially with either congressional acquiescence or affirmative grants of power.  This recognition that presidents have more autonomy internationally is rooted in famous Justice Robert Jackson concurrence in the 1952 Supreme Court case Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer.  Yes, in many ways this dicta is correct constitutionally, but it misses something far more powerful when it comes to defining presidential authority; specifically the political and institutional constraints on presidents and how, as Stephen Skowronek argues in Presidential Leadership in Political Time, how history and context defines presidential power.

Back in 2008 during the US presidential elections when lecturing in Europe I was asked how the presidency of Barack Obama would differ from that of George Bush in the area of foreign policy.  I argued that the best predictor of a new president’s foreign policy was to look to his predecessor’s.  Presidents really have far less freedom to depart from the past than many think.  The foreign policy establishment is big and powerful in the US and it largely bipartisan.  Geo-political forces such as  the state of the world economy, the political interests of other nations, and the overall limits on US power and reach too further define what presidents can do.  Yes some may claim some presidents made major shifts–Nixon and China–but the changing geo-political role of China in the world made such a choice inevitable.

Obama proved that.  After making numerous promises, the Obama foreign policy was defined by choices made by Bush. The war on terror continued, troops remained in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gitmo was not closed, drone attacks persisted, and the US did not fundamentally change Middle East politics even after the Arab Spring opening because entrenched support for Israel did not change.  Even Obama’s effort to make an Asian pivot has had mixed results, and he was unsuccessful in making many changes in how to handle Syria and North Korea.  Yes Obama did make some marginal changes, but fundamentally more continuity with Bush than a break.

The same is now true with Trump.   Candidate Trump disagreed with almost all things Obama.  The Iran nuclear deal would be torn up.  Trump pledged a Mexican wall, declare China a currency manipulator and impose tariffs on their products.  NATO was obsolete, the Syrian policy wrong, Putin and Russia a friend,  and global engagement must be retracted to put America first.  Great rhetoric, but the reality is tht slowly the forces that constrained Obama are constraining Trump.  

One now sees a new Trump.  The bombing of Syria, while a departure perhaps from what Obama did, is something that Hillary Clinton and most Republicans and Democrats in Congress support.  It produced a rift with Russia that now leads Trump to muse that perhaps our relations with that country are the worst ever (they are not).    Moreover, despite tough talk, trump’s options with Syria are limited, as they are throughout the Middle East.  Expect no major change in politics toward Egypt and Israel, and do not expect any major break in addressing the Palestinian quest for a homeland.

NATO is good, and China will not be declared a currency manipulator, and, in fact, if they help Trump to contain North Korea’s nuclear program, he will give them a great trade deal.  This statement is recognition that despite the show of force the US is demonstrating in sending ships to North Korea, there is little he can do along to change the politics in that country.  Gitmo will not be closed, the policy toward Cuba not reversed, and even the dropping of MOAB–the mother of all bombs–on Afghanistan–it was a policy in the works under the Obama administration.    Trump’s enhanced deportation policy and extreme vetting looks more and more like a variation of what Obama did–partly courtesy of the federal courts–and there will be no shift in the drone war

Nearly 90 days into the Trump presidency one can already seen more continuity with Obama than breaks.  Yes there are still rough edges, yes there appears to be no Trump grand strategy, but that lives a void to be filled by the bureaucracy and foreign policy establishment.  All this is exacerbated by the fact that Trump has not filled many key State and foreign policy positions, but that only means that the weight of the status quois filling the void.

The real sign of Donald Trump’s education or normalizing was the removal of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council.  Bannon saw the power of the bureaucracy and wanted to smash it.  Instead it smashed him and may soon lead to his ouster from the Trump administration in total.  That was a Trump presidency turning point.

It seemed just a few weeks ago people were talking of a failed Trump presidency, impeachment, or a major international crisis.   Yet increasingly likely is that an incompetent Trump will create the space for the bureaucracy to take over in the realm of foreign policy, for good or bad, and to the fear of delight of his supporters and detractors.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Folly of Private Prisons



It’s deja vu all over again. Nearly a year ago to this date I did a blog and Minnpost column criticizing efforts to reopen the private prison in Appleton, Minnesota.  Guest what?  There again is a push to reopen it.  For all of the reasons a year ago I wrote to criticize the move, they all apply again today.

Private prisons are a major public policy mistake. This is true regardless of whether they are privately operated or, as is being proposed by the Minnesota Legislature, they are leased and run by the state.

Contrary to what their supporters say, private prisons are not less expensive and better than public facilities. Instead, their track record on cost, rehabilitation and safety is generally inferior to that of public facilities. And — especially pertinent to the current proposal — their use as a way to expand prison capacity has been to facilitate a war on drugs and petty crimes that has been racially discriminatory.

The debate to reopen the private prison in Appleton, Minnesota, is reminiscent of one that took place 19 years ago. In 1998 Minnesota was building a new correctional facility in Rush City. State Sen. Randy Kelly pushed hard for it to be privatized. I was part of a team of impartial national experts at the Institute of Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School hired by the state to research what we then knew about the performance of private prisons across the country. We looked at cost, recidivism, rehabilitation, safety and legal issues. We examined all of the studies that then had been done on private prisons, we did extensive interviews across the country, and we toured public and private prisons. The final 1999 report, "Privatization of Correctional Services: Evaluating the Role of Private Prison Management in Minnesota," was sharply critical of the claims made by its advocates.

Initially there is a significant ethical and moral question regarding whether the punishment of crimes should be done on a for-profit basis. This is human exploitation at its worst. One can also argue that the use of punishment and force by private individuals against another is inherently a governmental function and not something that should be privatized. Our report raised these questions, but it went beyond the normative considerations to the empirical: What was the actual track record of private prisons?

First, we found that many of the claims of cost savings were suspect. The standard measure of cost for prisons – per diem costs per inmate – did not always stand up. Yes in some cases private prisons were less expensive per diem, but not always. For example, in Oklahoma, where publicly operated prisons had to compete with private operators for contracts to run individual facilities, the public institutions came out less expensive about half the time. Cost was a wash. But even here the numbers failed to reveal hidden costs. In most of the contracts awarded to private prisons, the state was still on the hook for many medical expenses and it would be required to take back control of the prisons as a result of default or to deploy security in the event of riots. Public dollars subsidized private prisons to make them profitable and look as though they were cheaper than the public facilities. Additionally, by the time one added in the public dollars to oversee and regulate the private prisons the savings to the taxpayer disappeared.

We also found that there were costs associated with the savings. The areas where private prisons saved money was, first, in salary and skill level for corrections officers. Public facilities were generally well-paid union jobs that demanded a minimum skill level. Prison privatization across the country often was a union-busting activity that hired less skilled officers at much lower wages. Second, private prisons scrimped on educational and rehabilitation services. Third, they scrimped on everything else, leading, in the case of Oklahoma, to contracts than ran a hundred pages or more so as to require private operators to provide a range of services of sufficient quality that they tried to avoid in order to maximize profits.

What did all this mean? In general, private prisons have more safety problems than public facilities. There was more prisoner or innate-to-inmate violence and more civil-rights violations in private as opposed to public facilities. There was less emphasis on rehabilitation and higher recidivism rates in private prisons. Part of all this is a consequence of trying to save money by not providing services. But something else was also going on. No warden in a public prison wants repeat business. On the other hand, private prisons have a financial interest in recidivism. The interests of the state and private prison operators is contradictory.

Finally, there is also one other major problem we found then with private prisons: The employees are not public and therefore they can go on strike. Public prisons operated by the government employing public employees can prevent strikes by preventing the employees by state law from striking. Private prisons and their labor relations are governed by federal law, pre-empting any state laws that would bar strikes. The potential of a strike or other labor problems raises many questions about safety.

In the 18 years since the Minnesota report was issued I have continued to research and teach about private prisons. For six of those years I also taught criminal justice courses. Subsequent reports and studies largely reconfirmed the conclusions found in the 1999 report.

One might argue that the objections raised against private prisons do not apply to the current proposal in Minnesota, which is for the state to reopen the Appleton facility and staff it with state employees. Fair enough, but the last 18 years have revealed some lessons we could not have seen back in 1999 and which do clearly apply here. The rise of private prisons occurred alongside the war on drugs, the broken windows theory of crime (arrest for the petty stuff before it escalates), mandatory minimum sentences, and three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws.

Nationally the expansion of private prison space exacted a racially discriminatory war against people of color. In Minnesota, prison expansion led to an explosion in a prison population that has the worst racial disparities in the nation. Private prisons have become what Nina Moore argues in "The Political Roots of Racial Tracking in American Criminal Justice" — a linchpin in creating a separate criminal justice system for people of color that is separate and unequal. The private prison industrial complex is central to all the problems that Black Lives Matters rightly protests.

We have spent enormous sums of money since the 1980s incarcerating people instead of investing in them. Imagine had we invested in addressing racial disparities in schools, economic development in concentrated poverty neighborhoods, or civil rights enforcement to bar racial discrimination in employment and housing. We would not have needed to build more prisons.  The issue thus is not looking at how to jail more people but to figure out how to prevent people from being jailed.  It is by addressing the racial disparities in education, income, and voting in the state, and it is by looking at why we are jailing so many people to start.

If Minnesota truly wishes to address the concerns of Black Lives Matters it would not add more prison space that simply enables the currently discriminatory practices that extend beyond criminal justice to many other institutions in our society.

In sum, the lessons of prison privatization or expansion of any kind is that they are bad options for Minnesota. Gov. Mark Dayton is correct in vetoing any bill that would allow this to happen.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

It Sucks Being In Charge: The Lessons of Trumpcare

It’s hard to be in charge of the government.  It comes with responsibility, much like being an adult.
 Taking care of the government comes with a fiduciary responsibility to act with care for the public good, much like being a parent comes with it responsibility to look after children.
This is just one of the many lessons that will not be learned by Trump and the Republicans as a result of their failure to repeal Obamacare.  It was so easy to vote 50+ times repeal it when it did not matter, but once the reality of owning the issue and having to be accountable for it was here, the Republicans simply failed.  They failed in part because they had become the party with a negative narrative.  By that, Trump and Republicans ran successfully in their opposition to the status quo, except they had no alternative vision of how they wanted to govern.
Part of the problem is that many of the Republicans along with Steve Bannon  have a negative theory of the state.  Their’s is not the night watchman state of minimalism, it is even more profound in terms of see the state as the enemy.  It is kind of hard to govern and be in charge when you actually do not like the machinery of power that you are holding and your aim is to dismantle it.    Another problem with the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act with a Republican alternative is that the Affordable Care Act already was the Republican alternative.  How do you out-Republican the Republican alternative?
But the failure to repeal the ACA goes deeper than health care.  Political power and influence is not stagnant; it either increases or decreases but it never stays the same.  Richard Neustadt’s the power of the presidency is the power to persuade was on full display in the health care fiasco.  Any president, including Trump, should be at the strongest in the first 100 days.  Securing their first legislative victory is important for so many reasons, including showing the political capital one has.  Herr Trump and even Speaker Ryan expended enormous political capital and failed.  Next to immigration, repealing the ACA was the signature theme of Trump and the GOP.  If there was anything they should have been able to do it should have been this.  Yet the failure here was multifold.
For all who elected Trump because he was a total outsider to Washington, guest what?  It takes insiders to govern and to know how to move legislation.  Trump had none of the requisite skills to move legislation.  He also showed the limits of his ability to negotiate when in fact, he did not negotiate. He threatened Republicans legislators and failed.  He is weaker because of that because they are no longer afraid of him.  Presidents, as I have argued, cannot simply order people around and think they will obey.  This is especially true of Congress.  Moreover, as any good negotiator will tell you, real bargaining is a non-zero sum game, it is not about bullying people around.  Trump had nothing to offer anyone to vote for the bill except his wrath and that was not enough.  The art of a deal requires dealing and Trump did not do that.
Trump and the Republicans also seemed to think that a bill that originally took over one year to pass and which had six years of implementation history could easily be replaced in two weeks. This brief time frame was not enough to vet the bill, to build coalitions, to flesh out the unanticipated consequences.  In so many ways it failed to learn the lessons of why health care reform failed under Clinton and succeeded under Obama.
Moving forward Trump seems already bored with health care reform and plans to move on.  He has said the Obamacare will die of its own accord and will do nothing to fix it.  Guess who is most hurt but Obamacare’s failures?  The rural and working class who voted for Trump and the Republicans.  Doing nothing hurts his supporters the most, but had his reforms passed they too would have hurt his supporters the most.
It seems unlikely that Trump has learned anything from his failures here.  Back in 2016 when asked what would happen if Trump or Clinton were elected, I said no matter who would be elected it would produce gridlock and produce no major change from what was happening between Democrat Obama and the Republican Congress..  Here the gridlock is intra-party, because the Republicans really are not a party united by a common vision for government and society.  Instead, they are profoundly divided by their hatred of the status quo and lack a realistic vision of what it means to be in charge and responsible.  It really sucks being an adult.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Case for Impeaching Donald Trump

Donald Trump should be impeached.  At least this is the sentiment of the most partisan Democrats and across the social media chatter even though he has barely been in office two months.  But has President Trump done anything that is or likely would constitute an impeachable offense?  The answer is that it depends, but simply put, if he has committed offenses at least as serious as what Bill Clinton was impeached for then the answer is yes, but it is still too soon to tell.

What does it mean to impeach a president of the United States such as Donald Trump? There is a lot of popular confusion over the term.  Article II, section four outlines the process for impeaching and removing a president from office.  It declares that the president, vice-president, and other civil officers of the United States can be removed from office by “impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”  Removal of the president is a two-stage process.  First a major of the House of Representatives must agree on one or more articles of impeachment.  If that happens, the House then appoints a committee to lead the prosecution of the articles.  The Senate then must hear the articles of impeachment in a trial-like proceeding over which the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides.  It takes a two-thirds vote of the Senate to convict and if that happens, the president is removed from office.  Think of House impeachment as similar to indicting one for a crime of which then the Senate  is a trial to determine guilt.

What would Trump have to do to constitute an impeachable offense?   Article II, section four lists three possibilities.  Treason is the first, and the Constitution defines that to be engaging war against the United States or giving our enemies Aid and Comfort.  Treason is a high bar to meet, really historically requiring  something where it involves military action or issues that directly address national security.  So far there is no indication that this is what Trump has done and thus this is an unlikely impeachable offense.

The second possibility is bribery.  Bribery would be accepting payments in return for the performance or conveyance of government services or favors.  Given Trump’s extensive business holdings and refusal to divest himself of them, there is a possibility that the conflicts of interest that he personally has could rise to a constitutional level problem that would merit an impeachable offense.  For example, allegations of Russian business connections and how they might be impacting  Trump’s foreign policy decisions might be a form of bribery.

Finally, there is the phrase high crimes and misdemeanors?  What does that mean?  In adopting this phrase the constitutional framers employed language that had existed in England since  1386 when the Parliament used the term to refer to a variety of actions including the misappropriation of funds or dereliction in the performance of official duties.  Mal-administration comes to mind as a close meaning, although when that word was proposed at the Constitutional Convention by George Mason, James Madison objected to it and substituted high crimes and misdemeanors in its place.

An alternative meaning for the phrase was offered in 1970 when the House of Representatives tried to impeach Supreme Court Justice William Douglas.  The Congressman Gerald Ford said an impeachable offense was “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”  In truth, Ford is correct–impeachment is a matter of political judgment where Congress ultimately decides the fitness of a person to serve in office, such as president.

There have been three serious efforts to impeach presidents of the United States.  In 1868 the House voted on 11 articles of Impeachment against President Andrew Johnson.    The core of the charges were allegations that Johnson illegally removed Secretary of War Ed Stanton in violation of the Office of Tenure Act.  Lurking behind this impeachment were political fights over how Johnson–a southerner–was going to support the Reconstruction agenda of the Republicans in Congress.  Johnson survived removal from office when his conviction in the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds requirement.

Richard Nixon was the second president where there was a serous effort to impeach.  In 1974 the House Judiciary Committee recommended three articles of impeachment against the president-- obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress–arising out of Nixon’s refusal to cooperate with them and the special prosecutor in terms of the investigation surrounding the Watergate break-in.  Nixon opted to resign instead of facing an impeachment vote.  All these charges represented serious claims about a president breaking the law and refusing to cooperate with a criminal investigation.  They also spoke to clear abuses of presidential power.

Finally in 1998 the House voted two articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton–perjury and obstruction of justice–arising out of investigations into his sexual relationship with white House intern Monica Lewinsky and the sexual harassment law suit filed by Paula Jones against him.  The Senate acquitted him, mostly along a straight party-line vote.  For some, the charges were partisan and political and less having to do with Clinton’s real performance as president but for others there was real evidence of lying under oath that merited removal.

In the two cases where the House actually voted on Articles of Impeachment partisanship or political differences seem to be at the heart of the charges.  With Johnson arguably there were also questions about mal-administration, but it is hard to argue that with Clinton.  Perhaps the most serious charges of impeachment were against Nixon, and not surprisingly they garnered bipartisan support.

So how does all this apply to Trump?  So far his presidency has been marked by either non-or  mal-administration.  It has largely been ineffective in getting much done, and it is mired in a host of controversies that include allegations of Russian involvement in his campaign and perhaps administration.   An FBI investigation may clarify these allegations.  There are other concerns too about his competence and fitness to be president.  All of these are possible grounds that constitute high crimes and misdemeanors, yet it will take a lot to convince a Republican House and Senate of  that.   However, if history is a guide, the allegations against Trump are at least as bad as those against Clinton, and if the FBI investigation yields more proof, or if Trump remains the ineffective president  his is starting off to be, impeachment is a possible remedy.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Trump Presidency versus the Deep State

The Trump presidency is fraught with contradictions.  Among the most notable is the degree to which
the Steve Bannon war on the “deep administrative state” is at odds with a presidency aimed at making America great again.  To achieve that goal–whatever it means–it requires the Trump administration to take control of the political machinery of the state to secure policy goals, not seek to destroy it as Bannon and many Republicans aspire.
There is an old adage that the skills need to become president are different from those to be president. Presidential campaigns depend on media skills, crafting narratives and messages, and on fund raising among other things.  While some of these skills might also apply to being president, campaigning is different from governing.  Governance is more than words and rhetoric; it is formulating public policies and setting agendas.  It requires the coordination of multiple agencies and officials, working with Congress, proper use of discretion, implementation, and the oversight of programs.
Campaigning is easy, but governing is hard.  Fortunately there are careerists and a civil service in Washington that transcends presidents to maintain institutional knowledge about how to run things.  There are the 3,000 or so members of the Senior Executive Service–the most senior careerists who  run the major government agencies and programs.  There is the foreign policy establishment that generally directs the US national security and diplomatic functions of the country.   All of this is what makes the federal government work and gets things done.   It assures stability, consistency, competence.  This is the real  deep state–not the deep state of those conspiracists who still think there was a second shooter in Dallas in 1963 or who think there is a CIA coverup over area 51 in New Mexico.   Or the deep state of anti-Semites, racists, misogynists,  and homophobes who see CNN and the NY Times in a plot to oppress white Christian men.  Trump needs the real deep state–the administrative state– but he is at war with it.
Trump’s presidential campaign as an outsider was not atypical of many recent candidates.  He ran as the outsider, as someone who would “drain the swamp” of Washington.  Yet the Trump candidacy and now the Trump presidency went further.  It saw a virtue in no government knowledge or experience.  It naively believed that a bunch of real outsiders with no government experience could simply come in and get things done, such as building a Mexican wall, crushing Isis, imposing tariffs, forcing renegotiation of trade agreements, and demanding changes to health care.   To accomplish any of these tasks a president and his staff have to have a plane, and people who can execute it.  So far it does not appear Trump has either.  He is literally a man without a plan–except for one–to also destroy the current administrative state, if Steve Bannon is to be so understood.
The entire foundation of anything the Trump wants to do rests upon the deep or the administrative state.  Executive orders in part get their power from administrative law and regulations.  The ability to move on any of the issues that Trump says he cares about requires there to be a strong and viable administrative state.  Yet this is the very state Bannon wants to see wither away.  Take away the administrative state and Trump will be weak, ineffective president.  That appears where the Trump presidency is now.
The efforts to destabilize the government only weaken it.  The failure to get hi appointments named and confirmed weaken the state.   The failure to listen to those who know better or how to get things done weakens the state.  Trump may simply not realize that his tactics are at odds with policy views.  Or perhaps what Trump wants and what Bannon wants are two different things.  Trump may want to build, Bannon wants to destroy.
Back in the 1960s when people were still waiting for the revolution to occur political scientist Robert Dahl wrote a book called After the Revolution?  He pointed out that after the revolution someone would still have to pick up the garbage, make sure the streets are paved, that sewage goes down sewers, and that all the other functions that we cherish as part of civilization would go on.     Revolutions to improve the quality of life still require authority, structure, and organization, unless of course you are a complete anarchist and either don’t want that or think that a modern society can spontaneously govern and structure itself.  Maybe that is what Bannon thinks.  However the track record of complex systems simply self-ordering themselves in ways that are beneficial to all is not very good.  Free markets and capitalism are the most notable failures in that aspect.
The point here is that contrary to the simplistic view that the state is going to wither away and  allow Trump to be a strong and effective president, the two cannot stand together.  The Trump presidency is actually pursuing policies that will largely make it less effective and competent than many hoped or feared.  The contradictions of the Trump style of anti-governance doom his presidency, and perhaps setting it up to be crushed by the deep state that it resents but needs.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Democracy, Politics, and the War on Science

What is a fact and how do we know when something is true?  These are not just philosophical questions.  In this era of intense partisan polarization, especially in the United States, the very notion that both objective facts and truth exist is contested.  Contrary to the assertion of former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who once declared that Aeveryone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,@ it now seems that each person and political party does have their own facts and truth. Why? Simply putBscientific facts and truth are not the same as political facts and truth; democracy and science are often in conflict.
For 30 years, I have taught American politics, law, and public policy.  As someone with graduate degrees in astronomy, philosophy, law, and political science, my research and teaching  centers on how policy making can be more evidence-based. In most aspects of our lives and in business we are taught to draw upon the best available evidence before making decisions. The same should be true for politicians and government.  Decisions crafted on political myths and faulty or no evidence yield bad public policy, causing a waste of taxpayer dollars and failed or ineffective programs.  Yet too much policy is crafted without real evidence. 
There are many reasons for this.  One can clearly point to intense interest group politics and the corrosive impact of money on politics as possibilities.  There is also a deep-seated distrust in American culture that disdains intellectualism and intellectuals, as told by historians such as Richard Hofstadter. But perhaps most importantly, there is a profound difference residing in how scientists and politicians gather facts and think about the world.
Scientists (and most social scientists) ascribe to the scientific method. It is a rigorous approach ideally using controlled experiments where the inductive process of gathering discrete data is aggregated to test hypotheses. Statistical sampling is often employed as ways of estimating the probability that some samples are truly representative of the phenomena being studied.  One cannot examine every molecule in the universe to conclude about all of them.  Good samples allow for generalizations, but there is always a slight probability of error.
For scientists, facts are rigorously tested but cannot be proved with 100% certainty.  Science is about falsifying claims.  Scientific knowledge is also incremental, built upon what is previously known like with bricks upon one another to construct a wall.  Scientists have built a wall of knowledge, facts, and truth.  The laws of gravity, Einstein=s famous e=mc2, and 1+1=2 are examples.  Scientific facts and truth have made telephones, television, the Internet and the cure for polio possible.  If one denies scientific truth one might as well deny civilization.
But scientific knowledge is different from political knowledge.  What is political truth, especially in a democracy?  It is what 50% plus one of the population saysBmajority rule.  For elected officials, what counts as facts and truths is what they learn from their constituents.  A politician=s world is not of controlled experiments, hypotheses, and statistically valid samples; what counts as valid evidence in making policies are the stories and interests of constituents.  Hearing something from voters is powerful evidence to someone who many need their support in the next election.  What is true has less to do with rigorous method of investigation than it does with how some assertion plays well with the media or voters.
On occasion, scientific and political truths or knowledge converge, resulting in good public policy.  But historically they do not.  The tension between scientific or expert knowledge culled from rigorous testing versus political knowledge based on majority rule is deep and has existed since Plato discussed it nearly 2,500 years ago. This is the technocracy/democracy gap.  Some have more or specialized knowledge compared to others. Should the people defer to the experts or choose for themselves what they consider true?
 While science and democracy are in tension, how do we explain the partisan war on science between Democrats and Republicans in the US?  Battles over global warming and alternative facts are sourced in competing economic interests that support or sustain specific biases or factual world views.  The two parties represent divergent interests, creating financial interests in rival conceptions of truth. Right now, Republicans are representing interests generally hostile to science, including energy companies that wish to deny climate change, or workers who fear automation will un-employ them.  But this could change.
The gap between scientific and political knowledge might be bridged with more scientific education in schools.  It might also be good if we elected more scientists to office.  Together they might create conditions that make the political process more hospitable to science, yet there is no guarantee.  Differing economic interests drive scientific skepticism, as does simply fear and prejudice and something needs to be done to address both.  Yet even with all that, the challenge for scientists is convincing the public and politicians that science is not a threat but that its enables and enriches our society, not hurts it.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Tu Madre! Trump’s Crueler and Coarser America


President  George H. W. Bush was once mocked for envisioning a “kinder and gentler” America and then failing to do anything to realize it or produce the “thousand points of light” that he wanted for the United States.  If only we could have such rhetoric again from a president we would be much better off than we are.

Trump’s America is a mean and petty country.  We learned that during the election with his demeaning of almost everyone under the sun, ranging from immigrants and Muslims to military personnel who were prisoners of war.  He denigrated and vilified women by reducing them to their sexual organs, and he mocked the physically handicapped. It took him days to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is wrong. And now, with his reversal of a Obama legal interpretation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he displays insensitivity and cruelty to transgender children.  And his base cheers.

Why is Trump so cruel, why is his base so hateful?    Why do they think it is okay to be mean to those who are weak, to those with whom they disagree, to those who are the less fortunate.  The quality of mercy should not be strained; it should be the mark of real strength and leadership to reach out to those with whom we disagree and embrace them.  As Abraham Lincoln beautifully said in his Second Inaugural speech regarding the South:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Trump does nothing to appeal to the better angels in all of us.  His is not a JFK speech of asking “not what this country can do for us but what we can do for our country.”  It is even worse than asking if you are better off now than four years ago.  Instead, his “America first” is me first and the rest of you can “F–k off.”  I want to believe that the United States and most of its people are better than that.   But the real danger of Trump is the lack of leadership when it comes to respect for human dignity,  embolding instead hateful rhetoric and behavior.