Category Archives: Governance

Swill Me Some Bumbo James Madison

James Madison was a bit of a wuss. He topped out at 5-foot 4-inches and needed the weight of the republic on his shoulders to tip the scales past a hundred pounds. He spoke in a high pitched whisper, had scads of (often imagined) health problems, and could at times be a goody-goody priss.  He once lost an election to the Virginia House of Delegates because he refused to “swill the planters with bumbo,” which in the modern vernacular roughly translates as declining to pick up the tab so the voters can get shitfaced.

Today these sorts of traits probably would preclude a political career. An altitude-challenged cream puff sniffling sotto voce sussurations on democratic theory? That’s not exactly a combination calculated to get the hearts of contemporary voters thumping. And more fool us, because whatever else he lacked Madison incontrovertibly had brains in copious abundance. Buckets of the stuff, great stonking piles of fizzing synapses that through some astonishing act of mental electrolysis kept precipitating republican gold from the feculent solution of politics.

And thank goodness he did, because right now pretty much the only thing standing between us and some of the more dire consequences of unchecked populism are the products of Madison’s fertile IQ factory. Let’s hope the institutional dike that brainiac put up can still hold its water because there’s some serious waves starting to hit the levee. Just this week the president of the United States bashed Congress and/or the Constitution–his splintered syntax left the precise target open to interpretation–as “an archaic system” that is “really bad for the country.” He also declared the government needed “a good shut down.” Gulp.

He also took time out from deprecating the institutions of government to launch another salvo of smoochies at his positional role model, President Andrew Jackson. This isn’t that surprising as, at least in some ways, Jackson was a man after the current president’s own heart. He ran for president as a champion of the average Joe and promising to deal with the “corrupt aristocracy” in Washington, D.C. He mistrusted pretty much all federal agencies and put the lot of them under investigation. He also is remembered for instituting the spoils system, a management method notable for staffing the executive branch with fanboys, toadies and suck-ups rather than people who actually know what the hell they are doing. Anything there sound familiar?

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America author and not a bad sort for a Frenchman, summed up Jackson by saying he craved popularity, leveraged popularity into power, having got power wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it, and ended up doing stuff no one else would dare, including pursuing sulfurous relations with most of the grownups in government and seeking to trample “on his personal enemies, whenever they cross his path, with a facility without example.” Anything there sound familiar?

That brand of politics, the sort practiced by Jackson and Trump, is exactly what Madison was trying to constrain as he labored to blueprint a system of government that, with due revisions and compromises, emerged from a 1787 mega-committee meeting as the Constitution of the United States of America. Believe it or not, the Constitution was specifically designed to create an institutional shield against populism and populist movements. Yep, the idea was to create a government that could take an incoming wave of populism and prevent it from drowning the republic.

Ever wondered why we have no direct election for president? Every wondered why the Senate has such long terms of office? Why such a massive population is represented by only 435 tribunes in the “people’s” House of Representatives? Ever wondered why the Constitution had to be amended to allow direct election of the Senate? Okay, probably not. Luckily for you, though, somebody was thinking about all this stuff before any of those parts of government existed. That dude was (mostly) James Madison.

He knew all too well that populism was a bad idea because in the late eighteenth-century state governments were giving it an enthusiastic try. The result was an economy in the crapper, an armed uprising (Shay’s rebellion) in Massachusetts, and an erosion of competence and comity in the public sphere so severe it threatened to bloom into an existential threat to the nation. Madison knew the likes of Jackson and Trump would come along because voters being voters–read the motto at the top of the page—it was inevitable that mountebanks long on we-the-people canards and short on competence were going to get elected. If you can’t rely on people–and let’s face it, you can’t–government institutions and processes needed to be sound enough to make sure things periodically don’t go smash.

The basic system he came up with was kinda complicated. It has no main spring, and to actually get the ship of state moving requires different people in different parts of the government to be cranking numerous institutional gears in synchronized harmony. That makes it damnably hard for the government to do anything. The upside is that it also makes it hard for one person or party to do anything damnably stupid with government. Madison considered that a fair trade if it gave the populist peacocks plenty of room to flash their tail feathers while preventing them from doing anything too featherbrained.

And for the most part Madison’s system has worked. Yes, all those complicated institutions and processes, and especially the people capable of mastering them, really get the goat of the Jackumps (Trumpsons?) who think running a government is sort of like getting the star turn in The Godfather. Lucky for us, though, those institutions have held. At least, they have so far. The waves coming in these days, though, look kinda scary.

I’m pretty sure the product of Jimmy boy’s nuclear noggin will continue to keep us reasonably safe from both Jackumps and ourselves. Just in case the levee falls, though, I want to go on record now as supporting a revival of swilling the planters with bumbo. I pay attention to government and voters for a living and, goddam, I could really use a drink.


It Ain’t That Simple

After chasing all those tea-swilling Red Coats out of America’s beeswax, the Founding Fathers took a good look at the country they’d just created and immediately got a serious case of the fantods. The economy was in the toilet, the states were at each other’s throats, and three European powers (the Spanish, French and Brits) were industriously conniving to swindle the Yanks out of their inheritance if not their independence. Trail bossing the new nation through these shoals was Congress, a dog’s breakfast of parochialism and pusillanimity held together by silk breeches, bad wigs, and dodgy IOUs. To put it mildly, things were complicated.

One of things driving the deep thinkers batty was the insistence by a large number of their fellow Americans that, all evidence to the contrary, democracy had simple answers to these complex problems. In some quarters, the universal salve proposed for any vexation of state was a populist poultice moistened with gallons of rhetorical incontinence. Just do what the majority wanted and, yada, yada, yada, problem solved. Some saw this faith in democracy as touchingly guileless. Big time Founding Parental Units like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton viewed it as base political quackery that needed to be squashed before it led to a serious migraine. They understood that politics is complex and convoluted, that democratic politics is tougher than acing the SAT, and that majorities frequently not only have no superior claim on wisdom but are often dumber than dirt. Making sure the grownups got to handle the complex problems with due diligence and rational thought while making good on the guarantee of popular sovereignty clearly required some delicate institutional finessing.

That sort of deft touch wasn’t much in evidence from state governments, who at the time were busy duking it out for the hotly contested title of Best Populist Suck Up of 1786 (Rhode Island won). After the Brits skulked off to Canada and took the royal prerogative with them, states had enthusiastically begun drafting constitutions. In practice this meant a lot of power-to-the-people fan boys putting quill to parchment and designing governments that made pretty much any serious thinking republican feel like soiling their breeches. Charles Carroll—best remembered as the last signatory of the Declaration of Independence to pop his clogs—examined a good deal of this fluff and flummery and concluded some lawmakers clearly were wearing their wigs too tight. In his judgement states were building “simple democracies,” governments set up more to function as the bowels of a republic rather than its heart or its brain. In other words, governments dominated by legislatures that would do little more than noisily masticate and pass through whatever crap the populace had just swallowed. Carroll concluded the only logical end to that sort of process was a big stink. Simple democracies, he declared, are, “of all governments the worst, and will end as other democracies have, in despotism.”

Luckily for us, in 1787 a group of know-it-all bluestockings managed to do something about all this at the national level, pulling off a remarkable feat of political engineering called the United States Constitution. This has served as a pretty reliable institutional prophylactic against the virulence of “simple democracy.”  It does this by making it infuriatingly complicated for the government to actually do anything. It is so complicated that even if populist piffle pushers manage to get elected they’ll find themselves unable translate their vacuous brain farts into legislation without first going through a serious learning curve. Chances are that while going through that process they’ll wise up and realize they should back off of following through on the moonshine they promised voters before it does any lasting harm. These institutional training wheels are far from infallible, though. And there still exists in the American populace a deeply held conviction that if government could just get out of the way, we could fix problems sans muss and sans fuss. This is at least partly how we ended up with Donald Trump in office, who ran on a promise that most problems had simple fixes. Build a wall, drop a bomb, cut a deal, and yada, yada, yada, America is great again.

Of late, though, he seems to be revising upward the estimated difficulty of, you know, actually governing. Just to mention a few examples, in the last few weeks the president has said “nobody knew health care could be this complicated,” admitted he just “learned about some very arcane rules in … both the Senate and the House,” shifted gears on North Korea because after a 10-minute chat with the Chinese president “I realized it’s not so easy,” decided that staying out of Syria really wasn’t an option, that NATO wasn’t all mooching excess baggage, and that forcing China to stop manipulating its currency wasn’t going to work because he just found out they stopped doing that years ago. Oh yeah, and the sweeping tax reform plan set to be unveiled months ago is nowhere to be seen because apparently writing a sweeping tax reform plan is harder than saying you have a sweeping tax reform plan.

The Trump game plan is flipping quicker than pancakes at a waffle house and flopping faster than an Italian soccer team. There’s a couple of ways to look at this. A lot of Trump supporters are not happy. And no wonder. The reality of governing makes all presidents deviate from the path promised on the campaign trail, but Trump is off-roading so far from his plotted course it’s starting to look like he lost his GPS (if had one to begin with). He was elected to end Obamacare, drain the swamp, cock the snoot at irksome furriners – from North Korean tin-pot tyrants to European NATO deadbeats to Mexican bad hombres— and put America first. His bellyaching that this is all harder than he thought isn’t cutting the mustard with his base. And that’s understandable. Trumpinistas haven’t got much choice but to double down on the bet that these problems still have simple fixes that do not require political experience, political knowledge, or, heck, even basic political sentience.  If stuff really is that complicated, then they just elected someone gobsmackingly unqualified to deal with the issues besetting the republic and have put the national interest at serious risk. Madison, Hamilton and Carroll spoke to exactly this sort of situation in their famous “No shit, Sherlock” joint declaration on pinhead populism. Okay, I can’t back that up, but I’m pretty sure I got the sentiment right.

The president seems to be going through a dawning realization that his easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy promises are just piffle and prattle of the lowest order. The learning curve has begun. At least, let’s hope that’s what’s happening. I say let the Trumpkins mutter of establishment illuminati plotting to remove their beautiful comb-over Rapunzel from his alt-right tower of alternative-facts and re-accommodate him in the real world. The rest of us should welcome these developments. Things are complicated—very complicated—and the farther we can get from the simple democracy thinking that put Trump in office the more distance we put between us and despotism.

 

The False Options of School Choice

 

School choice is basically the idea that Walmart shoppers know more about public education than teachers do. Put parents in a big box of buyer options, the argument goes, and they’ll follow the fluorescent light of consumer desire right to the Tickle-Me Elmo score of educational excellence. Or something like that. It’s hard to keep track because the justifications for ditching traditional public schools flit around a bit. There’s the untie-the-market’s-invisible-hand idea, the parents-know-best idea, and, of course, the giving-teachers-unions-the-middle-finger-would-feel-so-good idea.

Regardless of the digits and dabs manipulating the choice argument, it’s all premised on the dubious notion of systemic public school failure. To listen to some people, public schools stink on ice. Period. If that’s the premise then there’s nothing to be lost by blowing up these failure factories. If all public schools do is suck up property taxes and turn out illiterates who get owned by the Latvians on international test comparisons, let’s just tear ‘em down and start over. Among the most vociferous of these sort of critics is Betsey Devos, secretary of the Department of Education, who thinks public schools are a “dead end.”

Not to worry, though. Public schools may be spinning ever faster around the scholarly sink hole, but the Fed-Ed poo-bah has the solution: School choice. Now, school choice can actually mean a lot of things. The mild version is public charters. These are boutique public schools within public schools, distinguishable from the standard article primarily by greater regulatory freedom and a lot of Teach for America, Thousand-Points-of-Light, let’s-really-teach-these-kids-something earnestness.

On the other end of the spectrum, the full Monty version of choice is a voucher system. This really does mean blowing up public education as we know it and it’s the option that Devos seems likely to champion as the nation’s top education official. In a pure voucher system there is no such thing as a public school. Parents get a coupon—a voucher—that they can cash in at any vendor doing business in the big mall of educational service provision. Competition for the cash those coupons represent will be fierce, and as everybody knows the only way to win in the Darwinian world of an unregulated market is by providing a better product with superior customer service. I mean, just look at what it did for air travel.

There’s really only two problems with Devos’ diagnosis of public education’s ills and her favored policy fix. First, she appears to know shockingly little about public schools and how they are run and evaluated. If you think that’s harsh, take a gander at her ignominious Senate hearing performance for yourself.  Second, she seems to know even less about the iffy results from the clinical trials of schools that have swallowed the magic market medicine she’s prescribing.

Here’s a news flash: the nation’s public education system isn’t failing, at least not any more than usual. Chicken Littles have been yipping and yowling about the deficiencies of schools at least since the Rooskies launched Sputnik. Way back in the fifties the Reds put an aluminum beach ball in orbit that could say “bing,”  a big technological accomplishment for the time. More to the point, public schools were faulted for not producing boffins with enough of the right stuff to make American satellites that said “bing.” Rather than buckling down and putting Ivan in his place, the coddled capitalist teens populating sub-par junior highs were apparently using their slide rules to flick boogers at each other. Don’t try to follow the logic here, it was a weird time.

Public schools have been routinely bashed pretty much ever since. They got flogged for the ills of the hippy-dippy sixties and the druggy seventies, with everything from forced busing and desegregation to whole language learning and the new math denounced for undermining the Republic. In the eighties the Reagan administration got the fantods and issued a scary tome called A Nation At Risk, whose basic precis was that 7th graders had cashed in their slide rules for calculators but only to employ them as technologically superior booger flickers. The cry of public school failure went on into the nineties and the aughties as school choice became a real thing and places like Milwaukee started implementing honest-to-god voucher systems.

Now, there’s no doubt that bad public schools exist—as a journalist and as an academic I’ve witnessed some firsthand. But there is also a ton of pretty decent to truly outstanding public schools, and by my accounting these make up the strong majority of the public education system. Somehow that gets lost. Someone sees pictures of a struggling inner-city school or reads that Finnish high schoolers kicked Yankee ass in the latest International Nerd Olympiad and all the good stuff falls out of view. We’ve got to upend the system to save our future.

People of Devos’ ilk have spent decades saying public schools are so bad we need to institute a system of choice to make things better. Yet in doing so they not only are conveniently ignoring the fact that the big majority of public schools are doing just fine, they are even more conveniently blind-eyeing a very long list of studies showing that school choice variants at best are no better than public schools, and not uncommonly are actually worse.

I know a little about the mountain of research done on the efficacy of school choice because I spent the better part of a decade hanging off its north face trying to belay down to the base camp of rational policymaking. I wrote a dissertation, two books, and a bunch of scholarly and popular articles, talked to teachers, students, parents, administrators, policy wonks and policymakers, I testified before state legislatures, talked to teachers unions and parents groups, crunched numbers and dissected data. If you’re really bored you can find the Cliff’s Notes summary of my years of work analyzing school choice here. It’s all pretty dated by now, but here’s a New York Times article on the three most recent big studies on school choice. They all conclude choice programs are pretty much a flop as a general policy tool to improve academic performance.

I predict the latest studies will have about as much impact on the choice debate as my humble contributions did, which is to say not much at all. School choice advocacy is remarkably resistant to empirical evidence of its shortcomings and to the many successes of public education. I’m pretty convinced that’s because this debate is not about the performance of schools at all. That’s just cover and justification. All the hoo-hah and debate is really about what schools are for. Many (not all) advocates of choice are anti-public schools not because of their supposed failure to get the literacy and numeracy of the nation’s youth up to snuff, but because of their inclusive e pluribus unum social mission. They want schools that exclusively transmit their particular religious, social and political values, and not just the values that are broadly agreed on by the collective. If they can get that and epic SAT scores, great. Educational performance, though, is just the gravy. The real meat of the choice argument is really about ideology, and that can be consumed raw and satisfy with or without the condiments.

I also predict that public schools will not be severely wounded by the choice brigade, even though one of their own now occupies the nation’s top educational office. The biggest problem advocates of choice have is that the vast majority of Americans went to a public school, live near a public school, know a public school teacher, and interact with public school students. And while some of them, or more accurately us, are indeed in trouble—sometimes big trouble—most of us and our public schools are doing at least fair to middling. And we’re probably not going to give that up for the dubious promise of getting the option to pick out our very own Tickle-Me Elmo education miracle. When push comes to shove, I’m betting that’s a choice we’re just not going to make.

 

Can Anyone Govern?

The Republican Party has spent much of the last two months demonstrating its Second Amendment cred by using its own feet for target practice. President Trump piddled away political capital on misdemeanor mendacities and twitter fritter. The fireworks planned for Obamacare repeal damp squibbed into embarrassing flunk and failure. Mounting evidence of Russian electoral meddling has done little to stem the GOP smoochie-grams to Putin. No wonder the polls are down and the electorate’s blood is up.

Given the mortifying early returns on GOP jefe-dom it’s not surprising that an increasing number of people are asking: Can the Republicans govern? And to be clear, this isn’t just me, or the Democrats, or the media, or that guy whispering secret sweet-nothings into Devin Nunes’ ear after midnight in the White House shadows. Nope, Republicans themselves are raising the issue. As Florida Congressman Tom Rooney put it this week, “I’ve been in this job eight years, and I’m wracking my brain to think of one thing our party has done that’s positive.” Yowza. If the cast admits they’re not ready for prime time, just imagine what the critics make of the show.

Given that their playbook so far seems to consist of the four Fs–flub, fluff, fib and fumble—questioning the GOP’s governing capabilities is reasonable enough. Reasonable, yes, but it also distracts from a deeper and more fundamental question: can anyone can govern the republic, given the hot mess in Washington, DC?

I fear there’s a reasonable chance that the answer is a negative. This is due in no small part to the current mismatch between the political system’s ground rules and the ground realities of how contemporary politics is conducted.  A lot of people in American politics, like certain presidents and Freedom Caucuses I could mention, act like they’re in a Westminster system. In other words in a classic parliamentary set up similar to the UK. That is government based on the philosophy that if anything is going to get done you have to give the windbags in the majority the unquestioned juice to do it. So you might have a legislative chamber with plenty of hurly and bags of burly, but it’s a domicile of democracy very different from the US House and Senate. Power is strongly concentrated, the executive leads the legislature, members of the majority party tend to be unified, and backbenchers toe the party line.

That’s a very different way of doing things compared to the system of divided government we have in the United States. The operating philosophy here is that no agglomeration of ballot box carpetbaggers should get their hands on enough power to do any serious damage, at least not without a lot of help. Rather than stuffing power into one big confection and letting the majority party gorge on it, the US system parcels out power in calorie-controlled portions. The US system scatters power across its elected institutions like sprinkles on a cupcake.

So getting anything done typically requires more than just a majority, but a peck of wheeling and a parcel of dealing. Old school legislators—the Tip O’Neills, the Bob Michels—made their political careers on helping to stitch together differing interests within an institutional context they thoroughly understood. This often meant not just managing a fractious party caucus, but a sensitivity to inter-chamber dynamics, and a working relationship with whatever ingrate was in the White House. More often than not this meant you had to work with the opposite party in some fashion to get anything worthwhile done. These guys understood that the system worked best, and maybe only worked at all, with some level of good-faith compromise. Don’t get too misty-eyed about bygone eras of party comity, there were still a lot of sharp partisan elbows being thrown about. The difference was that the grown-ups running the joint knew if they couldn’t scrape together enough of those sprinkles, the system simply wouldn’t chew the legislative pastry.

Current GOP poo-bahs don’t seem to get this. They seem to think, or at least did before their healthcare plans went pear shaped, that their majority gave them the power to unilaterally call the tune, Westminster-style.  That seems a dangerous assumption given that roughly half the Republican Party suspects the other half of collusion and apostasy, and what’s left over is being driven to Xanax and Zoloft by cack-handed muddle bums machine-gunning tootsies down at the White House. Seriously, the booed dude at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue seems to have only a dim idea of how the system works at all. Who knew about all those incredibly arcane legislative rules the president complained of? Well, if Team Trump ever wants to get anything done, somebody should find out (we have seats available in POL SCI 101, just sayin’). On the other end of the executive-legislative axis, the few dozen uber-conservatives in the Freedom Caucus seem to view any type of compromise as anathema, so within the context of the United States political system they are simply not serious about governing.  What they are deadly serious about, and extremely good at, is preventing anyone else from governing. Paul Ryan can’t fix this as Speaker of the House. He is not a mini-prime minister. He’s more like a hall monitor.

It might be easier to ignore all the bats flitting about the Republican belfry and actually get something done if GOP moderates could find a way to work across the aisle. Fat chance of that. For one thing, these days GOP moderates are rarer than truth in a Trump tweet. And even if they were available in plentiful numbers, willing Democratic partners are probably not. The Democrats were clearly paying close attention as Mitch McConnell, the Republican Party’s Senate equivalent of Emperor Palpatine, spent the Obama years turning the Republican Party into the Greatest No on Earth. The eight-year partisan blockade obviously paid big political dividends—bagged the Republicans a unified majority, successful shoplifting of a Supreme Court seat, and look at all the sprinkles we got! Thus shown the power of the dark side of the Force, the newly constituted Darth Dems seem committed to exploiting it for themselves. Which is why I wouldn’t expect the federal government to get much done at all, at least in the short term. The Republicans strategy of not playing ball until they controlled the whole game paid off. But now they are finding they can’t make the big score because the rules make it really, really hard to do that if no one else wants to play with you. And right now, no one does. Not even a lot of Republicans.

 

Facts Bite Back

 

After being hunted to near extinction over the past year, facts are making a modest comeback. There have been confirmed sightings of modest-sized pods of veracity in the nation’s capital, and in resurfacing they’ve been quick to demonstrate why they were once considered the apex predators of politics. This week the fangs of verity sank deep into the posteriors of various members of DC’s piffle and perjury squad. You could hear the squeals all the way out here in flyover country.

The sorest fact-bitten keister clearly belonged to the president. And no wonder. Early in the week the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the head of the National Security Agency toddled up to Capitol Hill and, in so many words, publically announced, “The President of the United States is, (a), a big fat fibber, and (b), if we open up this here bag of facts we’ve been collecting we’re genuinely worried that they will not just jump out and bite him in the ass, but literally masticate his buttocks off.”

While the FBI and NSA poo-bahs were testifying, the Donald was trying to keep it all under the tweets with his patented 140-character diversionary ditties. Look, he said, the head of the FBI and the NSA are telling Congress that Russia did not influence the election. Forced into fact checking the president in real time while still testifying before a Congressional committee, the heads of said agencies replied, um, no, that’s absolutely not what we’re saying. And so was added another a five-Pinocchio, pants-on-fire assessment to a presidential statement. By the chiefs of his own government’s security and intelligence agencies, no less. And thus a newly hatched historical fact jumped out of that bag, gnashed its chompers and headed straight for the front page and Donald’s derriere.

It wasn’t just the president, though, dealing with the unchained hounds of verisimilitude. Fox News was having similar problems. One of its wind generators, Andrew Napolitano, had claimed on air that Barack Obama had sought the help of British intelligence to spy on Trump. There is not a scintilla of evidence to support this explosive assertion, but to no one’s surprise that fact-free moonbeam was soon shining out of the White House portico. Such delusional fudge-o-grams are a staple offerings of the alt-right aluminum-hat conspiracy brigade, and these morsels typically get swallowed by the news cycle without causing heartburn to those who issue or promote them. But not this time.

Agog and in high dudgeon, the Brits demanded an apology. Nuh-uh, won’t do it, said the Trumpsters, and stuck their tongues out.  Through gritted teeth and stiff upper lips the nations’ closest ally more or less said, “Christ, have you Yanks have gone completely potty? You realize this sort of stuff can have serious consequences, right?” As it all tipped into international incident territory, Sean Spicer had to tap dance even faster than usual and Fox was compelled to yank Napolitano off the air. They also issued a public statement that said, “Jeez, you don’t actually believe any of the shinola put out by the wingnut tattle trust we employ, do you?”, or at least words to that effect. This was followed by thuds resembling the sound of distant artillery bursts as Shep Smith and Chris Wallace hit the ceiling.

Most people have been chalking all this up as tallies in their political win-loss columns. The Bernie Bros and Never Trumpers are chortling and enjoying a “W.” The Trumpinistas, well, they never admit a loss, but seem to concede this is looking like a tie. There’s a more hopeful lesson here, though, than who won this week’s round of shout and pout. It’s not just the appearance of facts, but their resurgent bite, that seems noteworthy. At least for a news cycle, the facts sent their alternative doppelgangers mewling back to the twaddle vendors and bunkum wholesalers from whence they came. We’re in a political world where that is not a particularly common occurrence.

The demonstrable fact that it can happen, though, gives us some modest leeway to imagine that we’re not yet in the post-truth political and social system that recent experience has suggested. Can you imagine a world where elected leaders and cable news personalities who make a habit of spritzing unsubstantiated and inflammatory cow flop across the civic discourse get held accountable for doing so? Perchance even suffered the odd consequence or two? That sounds pretty good to me.

It would be nice, of course, if this state of affairs didn’t require having the heads of security and intelligence agencies in Congress and under oath, and/or having to impugn the British government and its double-oh machinery. The best path to this happy state is for those who play a prominent role in our national discourse to simply pause and think about consequences before ejecting yet more risible rhubarb out of their pie holes. Could that actually happen?

Possibly. After the embarrassing disaster of the James Bondian whoppers from Napalitano, maybe Fox News windbags will be a little more inclined to sober analysis and a little less to bombast and fishy allegation. Smith and Wallace have been trying to nudge them this way, and once those two get excavated from the ceiling tiles, hopefully they’ll continue doing so. Maybe the president, or at least some grown up in the vicinity of his phone, will cotton to the notion that sophistry rationed out in two-sentence social media dollops is not a rational basis for governance.

I’m not holding out too much hope, mind you. Facts are still pretty much on the political endangered lists. But wouldn’t it be great if we actually could grow and harvest our facts sustainably, and keep the polluting fertilizer that feeds the crops of division and divisiveness to a minimum.  There are certainly going to be consequences if we cannot. After all, it’s not like facts actually can go extinct. No one can really kill a fact, recent experience just shows they can be chased out of the political arena for extended periods of time. They can’t be kept out forever though. And the longer people collude to keep them out, the higher the probability that when they do stampede back in they will bite all of us in the butt.

Sleep State Government

Arthur Laffer is a reality-optional economist best known for convincing people who should know better that supply side fairy tales can come true. His most influential feat of magic bean counting is the have-cake-will-eat theory that cutting taxes increases government revenues. Governments attempting to harvest fiscal windfalls from enchanted Laffer legumes, as a general rule, have not fared well. Look at Kansas. It gulped down the Laffer Tax Cut Kool-Aid in 2012 and has been piddling red ink ever since.

While Laffer is best known for peddling economic moonbeams, his notoriety among political scientists—at least those who study bureaucracy and public policy—is tied to his somewhat tenuous grasp of the reality of government bureaucracy and the programs it runs. He is notorious in my crowd for a particular contribution to the bellicose breast beating that surrounded the Obamacare debate back in 2009. At the time, Laffer went onto a CNN wind fest to argue against Obamacare and did so by warning viewers that if they thought the Post Office was run poorly, “just wait ‘til you see Medicaid, Medicare … run by the government.”

Intended as a cutting dismissal of the Obamacare proposal, a pitch slap if you will, his remark sent coffee shooting out the noses of political scientists everywhere. Why? Well, Obamacare was never going to cause a government takeover of Medicaid and Medicare because—prepare for a shocker–the government already ran Medicaid and Medicare. Government always ran Medicaid and Medicare. They are, after all, government programs run by government bureaucracies. You’d think a Stanford Ph.D. would know this. Heck, we polisci types thought everyone knew this. How wrong we were. Protests against the Obamacare legislation were soon speckled with protesters carrying Laffer-approved slogans like “Keep Government Out of My Medicare” and “Don’t Steal from My Medicare to Support Socialized Medicine.” It wasn’t any use pointing out that Medicare already was a government-run form of socialized healthcare. Believe me we tried, and spreading such facts around was not an activity for the faint of heart. People acted as if we’d strolled into Starbucks and started flicking boogers into their lattes.

Laffer’s dire warnings of the government taking over, um, the government was way more effective than many in my professional parish thought possible. Turns out that he was simply channeling a common belief that government bureaucracy and programs are bad. Period. And if something is popular and well-liked or at least useful it cannot, by definition, be a government program or come from a government bureaucracy. This, of course, is logically both flap and doodle and for the most part it doesn’t matter. The mumble and moonshine that partisan piffle mongers blow up the masses of the electorate rarely threaten the agencies and programs making important contributions to the common weal. Well, at least as long as the grownups actually running those things don’t buy in. If the grownups get told to take a powder and leave the get-the-government-out-of-government fact fiddlers in charge, though, it might be a problem. So, Houston, we definitely got us a problem.

We currently have a government that is, in effect, Laffer-like committed to governing against government. Of late this has been most prominently displayed by the alt-right hooey hurlers getting the vapors about a “deep state” thwarting Trumpian policy aims. This is the idea is that the Obama administration somehow stuffed loyal sleeper agents into the federal bureaucracy like blueberries into a muffin. These spawn of Machiavelli somehow still manage to run everything even though they are not actually in charge of anything. Apparently they take their marching orders from coded emojis beamed from Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server right into Kellyanne Conway’s microwave. Or something like that. Like everyone else, I’m kind of fuzzy on the details.

It doesn’t matter because it’s not the deep state that is going to do any serious damage to the ability of the federal government to carry out its policy and programmatic responsibilities. It’s the sleep state. Right now the Trump administration is anesthetizing a broad swath of the federal government’s capabilities. This is partially being accomplished by simply failing to staff federal bureaucracies with the political appointees that normally provide the policy and programmatic direction desired by the guy in the Oval Office. Right now there are literally hundreds of unfilled appointments in federal agencies. It’s bad enough when the top positions are manned by empty suits (a not uncommon occurrence), but we’re talking empty chairs.

Wikipedia keeps a running tally of Trump appointments. If you click on over there and drop down to the lists of federal agencies that do big important stuff what you’ll see is a lot of nuthin’. Forget appointments, right now there are no nominees for secretaries of the Army or  Navy, Chief of the National Guard, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Commandant of the Coast Guard, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, no ambassador to a whole slew of big-ass important countries (Germany, France, India). Nobody is in charge of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, there’s no Director of the U.S. Mint, there’s no commissioner of the Social Security Administration. I’m just hitting a few highlights. The deputies, assistants, and associate secretaries, directors and administrators—the political middle-management that actually does the work of carrying water for a president’s policy agenda—are mostly blanks. Right now the federal government is largely incapable of systematically and coherently implementing anybody’s political or policy agenda because there’s nobody there to do it.

Even more alarming than the narcosis induced by enforced absenteeism are the bold plans for outright euthanasia. We haven’t got full details on Trump’s budget, but from what we do know the White House is hoping to stuff the military with cash and tell everyone else to get stuffed. The Coast Guard, the EPA, and federal support for everything from rural airports to meals on wheels is on the chopping block. The pattern of anti-government government is made even clearer by some of the appointments Trump has made. An anti-public school billionaire (Betsy DeVos) is running the nation’s Department of Education, and the Environmental Protection Agency is headed by a guy who thinks the fossil fuel industry knows what’s best for the environment (Scott Pruitt). The Department of Energy is in the capable hands of Rick Perry, someone who, (a) openly declared while running for president that he was committed to getting rid of the DOE, (b) kind of forgot point (a) even though he was still committed to doing it (don’t ask), and (c) when tapped to run the agency he wanted to eliminate but forgot he wanted to get rid of, it became painfully obvious that he was only vaguely aware of what that agency actually did. Somebody should have told him it was in charge of regulating Red Bull consumption.

Now a lot of people are in full-throated support of this open assault on federal agencies. Trump says a lot of the appointments aren’t needed because it’s just a heap of useless, redundant bureaucrats. And lots of Americans think there’s too much federal bureaucracy and want to see less of it. And I’m here to tell ya that a lot of those attitudes are backed by not much more than Laffer-logic fairy dust. Sure, government agencies do some dumb things, and yeah, we probably can organize things to be a little leaner and meaner.

But don’t kid yourself. Those agencies also do a lot of stuff we like and it’s going to sting if that’s taken away. It’s great to get a good rant on about wasteful government, but when a hurricane hits it sure as hell ain’t Goldman Sachs flying into the storm to rescue sailors in peril. If rural farmers want better foreign markets for their crops it helps to have savvy appointees in the Department of Commerce fighting in their corner at international trade conferences. If foreign governments seeking alliances see how dark it is over at the State Department, you can bet your bippy China and Russia still have the lights on.  What’s going on right now is not a rational attempt to run a tighter federal ship, it’s just pointing the boat at an iceberg and setting the engines to all ahead full. While some might smile at the thought of the feds going smash, denuding the government of the United States of America of its basic functional competence is, make no mistake, going to hurt. Everybody.

So if you agree with Laffer and think the prospect of government taking over government programs is scary, just wait until you see what happens when they don’t.

Politics Needs More Grown-Ups

Government has never lacked for callow windbags with straight teeth and crooked morals, but the junior varsity junta currently running things must be setting some sort of record for puerility. The maturity level of the flummery flingers holding federal office currently hovers somewhere between the terrible twos and that awkward stage of adolescence where everything is a spastic response to a hormone surge. There’s no doubt about it, we need more grown-ups in government.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. The most common grown-up response to the elementary school food fight that increasingly constitutes modern politics is not resistance but a migraine. The thought of taking on the chore of pulling Donald Trump off his mama’s tweet and telling Paul Ryan to stop squirting ideological milk out of his booger hole is enough to give anyone a headache. It’d be better if there was help from other partisan quarters. Mostly what’s over there, though, is the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They seem to be concentrating on showing the world they can expectorate moo juice further out their snoot shooters than Ryan can. Kids!

Believe it or not, we actually used to have people in government who had long outgrown the sort of playground slap fests that currently substitute for reasoned lawmaking. I was reminded of this the other week while reading the obituary of Robert Michel, who recently passed away at the ripe old age of 93. He spent nearly 40 years as a member of the House of Representatives, serving the last 14 as party leader. He was a conservative, he was a Republican, and he was a genuinely decent guy. Above all, though, he was a grown-up and his exit from politics offers some insight into the juvenilia his successors seem to be so enamored with. It also offers some sobering insights into why we’re not likely to see grown-ups come back to politics for some time.

Michel spent his entire congressional career in the minority—four stinking decades of second banana billing in the big house. These days being in opposition gives elected officials the fantods, prompting a good deal of foot stamping, thumb sucking, and a general lack of temper modulation. Actually, that also pretty much describes the majority party. While Michel certainly can’t have enjoyed being permanently outnumbered, temper tantrums weren’t his style. He fought his party’s corner hard, but he generally put good governance above scoring ideological points. He practiced politics as the art of the possible, angling to secure a gettable half-loaf rather than screaming for the entire bakery and having a conniption when he didn’t get it. He was GOP to his core, but this didn’t stop him from working with or respecting Democrats like Tip O’Neill, Tom Foley (both House speakers), and Dan Rostenkowski (long-time chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee). He even got on with Bill Clinton.

It was just these sorts of grown-up traits that cost him his political career. I spent an afternoon with him in his congressional office back in ’91 or ’92, and by then it was clear Republican back benchers were out for his blood, and he knew it. He told me in so many words that he was deeply worried about that crowd not because they were after his job—that was just business—but because they didn’t want to be grown-ups. What they wanted was power, they wanted it now, and they intended to use it to ram through a policy agenda with no lame-o Bob Michel compromises. That new generation was led by a rhetorical bomb thrower by the name of Newt Gingrich. Michel retired just before his own caucus could get their knives into him. Shortly after he left Democratic fortunes waned and the GOP finally got its majority.

And what did they do with that newfound power? Well they impeached Clinton for shagging interns, shut down the entire daggum gumint because if-we-can’t-have-it-no-one-can, pinkie-swore fealty to a mashup of moonbeams and hornswoggle called the Contract With America, and generally acted like teenagers who just found the keys to dad’s liquor cabinet. They didn’t want to work with Democrats and they didn’t respect them. Gingrich called them “traitors,” the party of “total bizarreness, total weirdness,” and, most famously, the “enemy of normal Americans.” Plus Dems had cooties, everyone knows that.

Newt didn’t last that long because his unwavering conservative principles coexisted with a set of moral standards that wavered like jelly on a jackhammer. While he was moralizing about Clinton’s horny-goat antics he was cheating on his wife. He got caught working dodgy financial side-deals that traded on his day job. He had the dubious distinction of being the first-ever Speaker to be reprimanded by the House for ethics violations. You might think that seeing Newt and his merry band of hucksters and hypocrites in action for a few years would leave people thinking, “is Bob Michel is still around? Think we could get him to run again?” If so, you’d be wrong. The main lesson learned was, “Hey, Newt won. Think if we called the Democrats booger heads we could win more elections?” The answer to that was, pretty much, yes. And that’s set the tone ever since. While primarily a phenomenon originating on the right, the left has enthusiastically joined in. The Democrats’ statesman-like response to being called booger heads was, in so many words, “oh yeah?  WELL YOU’RE ALL FART FACES.” Plus, they said it in all caps so you know they were serious.

With adult supervision somebody could have told both sides to stop poking each other with sticks before they put someone’s eye out. Increasingly, though, adults became thin on the ground in both political parties (especially in the House Republican caucus), and when they did show up the children ran them off or made their lives so miserable they were glad to get the hell out (see how happy Obama looks these days).

As you might imagine, putting the kids in charge doesn’t lend itself to rational decision making, or any decision making at all. House Republicans currently have what The New York Times politely calls a “wonk gap,” which is a nice way of saying that they have a caucus stuffed with way too many Newt Gingriches and not enough Bob Michels. They’ve got a lot of bumper sticker barnstormers who can get the base frothing at the mouth, but pitifully few of the compromise-oriented swotters and detail geeks that have the temperament and maturity to get things done. This makes it hard to enact policy even in the majority. Governing is hard. Who knew?

Well, we should have. Parents often get blamed for the behavior of naughty children, the general thinking being that kids who are irresponsible, obnoxious and generally incapable of playing nice with others must not be getting the right values and discipline at home. And in this case there’s a good deal of truth to that. The rascals in DC are not going change their behavior unless they get a good old fashioned ear bending—maybe even a butt spanking—from dear old mom and dad. And that’s us. As voters we collectively birthed that brat house and until they start acting like adults—which doesn’t seem likely any time soon—they’re our responsibility.  We used to be able to rely on the Bob Michels to herd the rotunda romper room toward governing responsibly. No more. There’s none of those guys left because as an electorate we pretty much abandoned them.

I say it’s high time we found some more Bob Michels. That first requires all of us to grow the heck up.

 

Ya Gotta Have Faith: Why We Should Trust Government (at least a little bit)

 

In his inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father smarty pants and winner of the 1796 International Navel Gazing Contest, famously pondered the nature of trust and government.  The underlying philosophical conundrum he articulated succinctly:  “I wouldn’t trust half the wingnuts in this burg to govern a third-grade spelling bee, so why the heck should anybody trust you suckers to run a government?” Okay, I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the basic point stands: Why should we trust government?

The short answer from much of the contemporary citizenry is that we shouldn’t. And, given the current crop of chiselers and poppycock peddlers running things, you can hardly blame them. And that’s fine. Generally speaking, a chary and skeptical electorate is more likely to keep a government honest, or at least keep its knavery to a tolerable minimum.

At some point, though, levels of distrust and suspicion becomes so high they undermine legitimacy, becoming corrosive not just to competent governance but to social cohesion. That tipping point is getting uncomfortably close. Right now we don’t trust much at all. Not government, not the media, not schools or scientists and experts, and, increasingly, not each other. We only seem to trust that which confirms what we want to believe, and if that’s contradicted by fact, truth and the incontrovertible ocular evidence of our own observation, screw it, we’ll place our faith in alternative facts. How did things get so bad that even reality can’t be trusted?

Some of it was premeditated political strategy, mostly (though far from exclusively) pursued by right-leaning types who spent decades being ticked off about never getting the chance to fully run things. Ronald Reagan led the charge, though being Reagan, he did it with a cheery good spiritedness. He dissed the government with a twinkle in his eye: “The most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Newt Gingrich’s bomb throwers picked up and amplified these general themes, as did the neo-cons and Tea Party pique posse. For sure, there’s a principled argument for limited government (I’m partial to it myself), but somewhere along the line a bunch of this crowd got their angry levels jacked up to eleven, stampeded off of Bill Buckley’s ranch of reasonableness and thundered up the trail to kooky town. The Gipper’s one line gigglers morphed into a sustained assault on the credibility not just of government, but on a broad swath of social institutions. A good deal of this involved liberally sprinkling splenetic bunkum over pretty trivial or even wholly imagined misdemeanors in hopes it would transmute them into some sort of Nazi-league villainy. The basic idea seemed to be if we can convince everyone that the government, the media, and anyone who knows anything who disagrees with us is either venal and/or deceitful, maybe they’ll put us in charge.

The end result is these days if the government does something you disagree with it’s not because that’s just the half-a-loaf nature of representative democracy. Nope, it means there’s some dark conspiracy at work. It’s because judges are partisan hacks, because Congress is in the pocket of special interests, because the media is biased, because scientists are using their Bunsen burners to cook numbers, because the poll numbers are faked, because illegal immigrants are swanning around voting in their millions while a shadowy transgender mafia plots invasions of public restrooms. And we know this because Rush told us on the noon-time rant, because we read it on aluminumfoilhats.com and, the clincher, we caught that irrefutable internet meme Uncle Fruitcake posted on our Facebook wall.

Okay, so most people would agree as a nation we’re coming down with a bad case of melodrama. But does any of it really amount to even the teensiest existential threat to the republic? Well, some of this wack-a-loonery probably would not have surprised or alarmed folks like James Madison or Alexander Hamilton. For the most part, they assumed the average citizen was a sucker for the flim-flammery of political opportunists. The basically saw the entire electorate as rabble on a hair-trigger rouse. This is why they put their faith not in people, but in institutions. Which is exactly why the current state of politics would give pretty much the entire delegation of the Constitutional convention a severe case of the fantods.

The institutions that sustain our civic life—those that make up the government, electoral systems, the media, our repositories of science and expertise—are not pre-ordained and come with no guarantee of permanence. Indeed, they are largely artificial creations, they exist because of broadly accepted rules and norms. If those rules and norms lack trust and credibility, the institutions start to wobble and sooner or later we’re a Stephen Miller fib-fogged smug-storm away from a pretty serious crash.

This is especially the case when those placing the demolition rhetoric come from personages such as certain current presidents and Congressional caucuses I could mention. If it’s the ill-tempered crackbrains and the alt-right drivel swimmers who are hallucinating about black helicopters hauling off ballot boxes and trilling about the Secret Protocols of the Elders of Obama, that’s one thing. That adds a bit of spice to the republic. It’s another thing entirely when this sort of dystopian flapdoodle is being fire hosed out of the White House, both chambers of Congress, state houses, governor’s mansions, cable news operations, and sundry think tanks which are considerably more tank than think. That sort of stuff doesn’t bounce of the institutional walls, it starts to scour away at the foundations.

Can those institutions take it? Dunno, but I dang sure hope so. Given a modicum of space to operate as intended, those institutions constitute a pretty amazing self-correcting system. The big danger is we won’t let them work as designed. If we ignore all evidence and abandon faith in the idea that we have free and fair elections, that elected officials serve at the pleasure of their constituents, that the mainstream media does a reasonable job of keeping us informed, that eggheads who devote their adult lives to scientific investigation might actually know more about their subject of study than anyone else, if we give up on the rules and norms and processes that have evolved with and piloted the system from the get go, well, we’re sunk.

Ultimately, whether these institutions are allowed to work is up to us. Jefferson saw that. After raising the issue of trust in government, he said the following: “let us then, with courage and confidence, pursue our own federal and republican principles; our attachment to union and representative government.” I’m pretty sure what the windy old fart meant was don’t confuse the meal you ordered with the chef who prepared it. If you are fed up with your pedestrian diet, its small portions and absence of satisfying zest, and you decide to shake things up by ordering a croissant au merde because it sounds like an exciting burst of flavor, you shouldn’t be too shocked if you end up with a crap sandwich on your plate. That’s no reason to drag the chef into the alley and debone him—he’s just giving you what you asked for. Maybe next time you could just order old fashioned meat and veg. Sometimes sticking with the norm simply works best. Trust me.