Ignorance is a Lousy Public Policy Strategy

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Yes, this is (part of) America.  

Some public policy trends jump out at you (the opioid crisis, for instance, or the impact of social media on the country’s coarsening public conversation). Others are too subtle for easy detection, which means that major shifts go unnoticed until it’s too late to do anything about them.

And, sometimes they are right in front of you. Like one of those optical illusions of a duck-rabbit mutant, it just takes squinting your eyes a bit to see.

Such is the case with two seemingly unrelated stories in Wednesday’s Washington Post that have far more in common than you might think. The first is a report about Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ previously undisclosed efforts to push a citizenship question into the 2020 Census; the second is an opinion piece by three leading philanthropists decrying the lack of charitable support for Puerto Rico in the wake of last year’s devastating Hurricane Maria.

As the op-ed notes, last fall’s storm took more than a thousand lives and caused “the longest blackout on our country’s history.” The piece highlights the shameful reality that, in addition to the inadequate government response to the disaster, the philanthropic community has not stepped up:

Yet corporate and foundation support of Puerto Rico in 2017 stood at only $62 million, according to data collected from the Foundation Center and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Compare that with the $341 million in support after Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Texas, and the $128 million after Hurricane Irma, which badly damaged Florida. Thanks to these investments, as well as a much more robust government response, Texas and Florida were back on their feet in a matter of weeks. Puerto Rico, however, continues to struggle to meet basic needs 10 months after the storm.

Why the lack of support for the U.S. citizens who call Puerto Rico home? The op-ed argues that “[f] or many mainland U.S. foundations, Puerto Rico somehow isn’t “American” enough for regional or local funding.”

But it’s not just foundations – and it’s not just a matter of not considering Puerto Rico “American” enough. Many Americans don’t even think Puerto Rico is American at all.

A 2017 survey by Morning Consult found that nearly half of Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.. It’s no wonder that support for aid to Puerto Rico is not as high as that for U.S. states affected by natural disasters: Americans are notoriously skeptical of foreign aid. If you think that Puerto Rico is no different than, say, Haiti, or Sri Lanka, or Rwanda, well….

Surely, part of the issue is old-fashioned prejudice: to some Americans, Puerto Ricans don’t look like what an American should look like. But it’s far more than that: the Morning Consult survey found that the  percentage of young people who don’t think  Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. is higher than the rate among older Americans. Since younger Americans typically have a more expansive view of what it means to be an American, than their ignorance about Puerto Rico’s Americanness is likely a function of ignorance more than racism.

And it’s a function of the fact that civics is increasingly left out of the grade school curriculum. As the National Education Association notes:

Until the 1960s, it was common for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government. But civics offerings were slashed as the curriculum narrowed over the ensuing decades, and lost further ground to “core subjects” under the NCLB-era standardized testing regime.

Consequently, the NEA points out, only 25 percent of U.S. students reach the “proficient” standard on the NAEP Civics Assessment.

When Americans view Puerto Ricans as not their fellow countryfolk but as foreigners, and donate less (and place less pressure on their elected representatives to help), it’s clear that ignorance of basic civic facts has real-world consequences.

Which brings us to that other article, about the Commerce Department’s efforts to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. The big news in the story is the revelation that Secretary Ross apparently misled Congress about his involvement in pushing for the question. The issue is highly controversial because opponents view the question as an attempt by the Trump administration to reduce the Census count in places with large immigrant populations, as immigrants would be less likely to participate for fear a visit from ICE. This, in turn, could reduce population numbers in blue states, affecting everything from reapportionment of Congressional seats to federal funding formulas.

Whatever the arguments for or against a citizenship question, there can be little doubt that such a question will depress participation in the Census. Which means that the 2020 Census would not provide a complete and accurate accounting of the nation’s population and demographics.

If you think it’s bad that millions of Americans don’t know who their fellow citizens are, it’s many times worse if the government doesn’t understand. Actively pushing to make the Census less accurate is the bureaucratic equivalent of sleeping through civics class – but much, much worse. It’s ignorance on an epic scale.  And it would make effective policymaking extremely difficult.

Unfortunately, it’s part of a larger trend towards making ignorance great again. Whether it’s labeling all media “fake news,” shooting up a restaurant due to demonstrably false assertions (such as notion that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex ring from the basement of a pizzeria) or sabotaging the Census to achieve political ends, there is a move afoot to make the U.S. a fact-free society.

Ironically, those who proclaim their patriotism the loudest are the very ones who are pushing this agenda and supporting moves like the Census citizenship question. But loving your country requires knowing it, too. You can be a patriot. Or you can be willfully ignorant. You can’t be both.

How Low Will We Go?


A short stroll from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue takes you through the Ellipse, across Constitution Avenue and to the newest jewel in the Smithsonian’s crown, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It’s a safe bet that the White House’s current occupant has never been there, nor is planning to go. Not that it matters: it’s unlikely he would get anything out of the experience, since closed minds don’t open for new ideas.

Perhaps his Cabinet and staff should make the trek, however, or maybe some of the 535 members of Congress down the block who haven’t already done so. If they do, they will learn a great deal about our nation’s imperfect path towards a more perfect union.

Your faithful blogger visited the museum for the first time last week. Of all the many exhibits, artifacts and testimonies it offers, one stood out like a sore thumb: a quote from abolitionist and escaped slave Henry Bibb describing a slave auction. Slave auctions are, of course, among the most exquisite representations of evil in the history of mankind. But this description included a notable detail:

They ordered the first woman to lay down her child and mount the auction block; she refused to give up her little one and clung to it as long as she could, while the cruel lash was applied to her back for disobedience. She pleaded for mercy in the name of God. But the child was torn from the arms of its mother amid the most heart rending shrieks from the mother and child on the one hand, and the bitter oaths and cruel lashes from the tyrants on the other.

Next to the quote was a contemporaneous drawing showing a distraught black woman begging for her child as the auctioneer dangles the baby by its wrist as if it was a piece of meat. The white men surrounding the mother seem oblivious to her plight and those of the other slaves in the room.

It’s possible that when the curators placed this quote and drawing on the museum’s wall, they considered it to be a scene relegated to the dark archives of history. A stark reminder of an evil, cruel past – but just that: the past. Something that would never again happen in America.

It turns out that Karl Marx was wrong: sometimes history repeats itself not as farce but as tragedy.

There’s a lot of rationalizing about the current administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of forcibly separating children from their parents at the border and warehousing them in a reconstituted Walmart, among other places, including the use of what could only be described as cages.

In this photo provided to the AP by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the U.S. sit in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas, June 17, 2018. https://www.apnews.com/#imageCarousel

We’ve heard the “whataboutism” argument: where was the outrage when the Obama administration placed unaccompanied minors in pens when they came across the border? (Answer: 1. They weren’t ripped from their parents’ arms since they were, by definition, unaccompanied; 2. The holding pens were temporary as the administration grappled with the sudden influx of unaccompanied minors; and 3. There was a lot of outrage: see here, here, and here.)

We’ve been told that the policy is a deterrent to keep families from entering the country. If so, the deterrent doesn’t seem to be deterring. Maybe we need tougher deterrents, like placing artillery guns along the border to mow down any families that try to cross.

We are informed that the administration’s hands are tied: that the law requires them to jail adults and therefore must separate the kids. Except that crossing the border illegally is a misdemeanor, crossing the border to seek asylum is not a crime at all, and, besides, following the rules is not really this administration’s strong suit (see, “Clause, Emoluments,” and “Pruitt, Scott,” to name two).

It’s also been explained to use that it’s really the fault of the parents, who chose to bring their kids over the border illegally. We know, of course, that such parents did not have much of a choice, since the only other option was keeping their kids in violent, impoverished communities. And in any event, one man’s choice does not excuse another’s. Ripping families apart is a choice, too.

Likewise, it’s been pointed out to us that the government separates families all the time, when adults with kids are sentenced to prison. Put aside for a moment the risible reality of our nation’s addiction to building and filling prisons that must be the envy of the non-free world; the children of prisoners aren’t being yanked from their parents’ arms far from home without any support system. Most still live in the homes they know, in many cases with another parent or other family members.

Last but not least, we’ve been alerted to the Eternal Truth that the administration’s policy has a Biblical seal of approval. In the same part of the Bible, we suppose, as the commandment giving a free pass for sleeping with porn stars and the psalm about how some white supremacists are actually fine people.

Tellingly, the Bible passage used to defend this policy is the same one that was used to justify slavery. Which brings us back to that quote from the Museum.

No, today’s immigrants were not forced onto slave ships and transported to America against their will. And no, ICE is not selling them or their children into bondage.

But at the core of the zero-tolerance policy lies this inescapable fact: to countenance the forced separation of parents and children denies their fundamental humanity. Look at the auctioneer in that image and try to pretend that he thinks of the young child in his grip as a fellow human being.

To accept the zero-tolerance policy requires you to view the people coming through the border as something less than human. Because no person in his or her right mind would want to see their child stripped from them by strangers in a strange land.

All the rationalizations and false equivalences used to justify this policy ignore the reality that at the heart of any system of laws – from the Ten Commandments to the U.S. Constitution – exists a set of beliefs in how we treat one another, especially those who are the most vulnerable.

As citizens of a democracy, Americans may disagree on the morality of a bevy of issues, from the death penalty to gun control to trade wars. But no society that acquiesces to, much less embraces, the forcible separation of parents from children can claim the moral high ground on anything. Just as a parent would do anything to protect his or her child, so too must a society do all in its power to keep children safe.

That’s why this controversy matters, more than any of the other imbroglios that’ve cropped up since the 2016 election. More than the Russia investigation, more than the withdrawal from international treaties, more than North Korea, more than Obamacare. Because on this question – is it acceptable to rip children from the arms of their parents? – no nation can waver and continue to call itself a civilized society.

We’ve come a long way as a nation from the days when slave auctions were part of the daily commerce. But there’s no guarantee that our society won’t stumble backward unless people stand up and fight. Plenty of “good” societies have drifted into evil, often slowly, imperceptibly.

The policy on separating families does not, in of itself, make us the moral equivalent of history’s most evil cultures. But once a society starts to disregard the fundamental humanity we share, there’s no bottom to the level of inhumanity it will allow.

Photo: CapitalZoo

Our Three-Party Government


Paul Ryan’s announcement today that he is not running for re-election is a sudden – though not entirely shocking – capstone to an eventful political career: vice presidential candidate, Budget Committee and Ways and Means Committee chair, Speaker of the House.

The word is that Ryan is leaving out of a desire to spend more time with his family – he has three school age children – and out of a sense of accomplishment, particularly last fall’s massive tax cut. But it’s no secret that Ryan was never in love with being Speaker. He had to be coaxed into the role when his predecessor John Boehner stepped down in 2015 and Republicans couldn’t agree on anyone else to replace him.

Ryan’s tenure as Speaker will be remembered for his ability to garner respect (albeit grudging at times) from all wings of his fractious party. But his speakership, and that of Boehner, reveal another important truth: there are really three parties in Washington. And none of them have a working majority.

There are the Democrats, of course, who are unified by a loathing of Donald Trump and essentially nothing else.

There are the Republicans, the establishment party of Wall Street and Big Business, supporters of robust international engagement and free trade.

And then there is that third party: nationalist, nativist, pro-gun, anti-trade. And very, very angry.

Born from the ashes of the Republicans’ 2008 electoral collapse, it first took shape as the Tea Party, riding a wave of fury over Obamacare and the financial bailout. The Republican Party co-opted this group long enough to secure a House majority in 2010 and a Senate majority in 2014. But like a parasite that subsumes its host, the Angry Party has all but conquered the GOP.

Despite a membership that is estimated at around just 30 or 40 members, the House Freedom Caucus – the institutional home of the Angry Party – has wielded undue influence over the House Republican Caucus. On issue after issue they have stymied efforts by Boehner and then Ryan to strike deals with Democrats and even Senate Republicans. They are credited (or blamed) for driving Boehner from the Speaker’s chair, and have made Paul Ryan’s life miserable ever since.

Of course, the Angry Party’s greatest triumph came in 2016, when Donald Trump, who channels the anger of the Angry Party better than anyone, not only won the Republican nomination, but saw the GOP coalesce around him. Other than a manic desire to slash taxes, Donald Trump and Paul Ryan are as different in temperament and style as two people could possibly be,. Yet it was Ryan’s ally and fellow Badger Stater, Reince Priebus who as Chair of the Republican National Committee gave Trump legitimacy by getting the party behind him once the nomination was locked up. Ever since Trump’s election, Ryan has chosen a path of gently rebuking Trump when it was absolutely necessary, but otherwise working hand-in-hand with him on major issues.

For Ryan, as with Boehner, the political calculus has been clear: pass legislation backed by the Freedom Caucus and watch it die in the Senate, or secure Democratic support and risk being overthrown.

In that sense, both Ryan and Boehner were less leaders of a majority party, and more akin to prime ministers, cobbling together a coalition government of two separate parties who don’t particularly trust each other, but need each other to succeed. As most nations with parliamentary systems can attest, coalition governments are very hard to maintain over a long period of time.

Paul Ryan tried to keep the coalition together. But it’s hard when all the passion is with one side. And as Ryan joins the ever-growing list of establishment House Republicans not seeking re-election, the uncivil civil war between the Reductions and the Angries will enter a new phase. Undoubtedly, the next Republican leader will need to have the support of the Freedom Caucus. It is not out of the question that the next House Republican leader will actually be a member of the Freedom Caucus, giving the Angry Party control over two of the three policy-making centers of the federal government.

Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping they can keep their warring factions cohesive long enough to win back the House in November.

Either way, Paul Ryan’s greatest legacy might be being the last Republican Speaker of the House for a long time.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

With or Without Pruitt, Don’t Expect Environmental Protection from the EPA

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By the time you read this sentence, Scott Pruitt might be gone as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (or he might be Attorney General; stay tuned!).

The man who the New York Times’ Gail Collins anointed the Worst Member of the Trump Administration is now more famous for his ethically-challenged management of the Agency – from his sweetheart condo deal to his legally suspect staff pay raises to his lavish office furnishings to his abuse of his security detail in the service of grantinee a l’oignon  – than for the policies he’s tried to implement.

Should Pruitt get the axe, there’s no doubt the environmental community will rejoice. Pruitt made a name for himself as Oklahoma attorney general by suing the very agency he now leads. His fervent opposition to EPA’s core mission of protecting the environment was clear from the start. And in his time at the helm, he’s overseen the gutting of numerous rules designed to keep the air and water clean (not to mention his successful campaign to get President Trump to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accords).

The reality is that Scott Pruitt has been a remarkably effective political appointee – perhaps the most successful high-level Trump pick, measured by the extent to which he has fulfilled Trump’s campaign promises. Even as scandal has swirled around him, Pruitt is hard at work pulling back fuel mileage standards for cars and trucks, threatening Clean Water Act regulations, and rescinding Obama’s climate change-fighting Clean Power Plan.

No wonder that a lot of folks who oppose his policies would likely breathe a sigh of relief at his departure. But make no mistake: Scott Pruitt is not the reason the Trump administration has been a boon to polluters. It all starts at the top.

Remember that Donald Trump himself made antagonism towards the environment one of his core campaign features, from his longstanding belief that climate change is a Chinese hoax to his vow to revive the coal industry. Scott Pruitt may be a particularly effective foot soldier in Trump’s war on environmental protections, but he’s far from the only one.

Even if Pruitt goes, the others remain, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who is determined to bail out the coal industry at any cost; and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is a one-man natural resources wrecking crew. And let’s be honest: it’s not likely that Donald Trump would select a committed environmentalist as his next EPA head should Pruitt go. There are plenty of mini-Scotts ready to take the battle to the planet.

True, a less skilled politico than Scott Pruitt may have a harder time in getting his or her way on rolling back environmental policies. But those skills simply aren’t as necessary anymore, as the President purges his inner circle of anyone who tries to moderate his policy whims. Consider that when Scott Pruitt was lobbying Trump to exit the Paris accords, he was going up against, among others, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.

Both are now gone, and it’s a safe bet to say that their respective successors, Mike Pompeo and Larry Kudlow, would be more likely to agree with Pruitt. In fact, most of the policy guardrails are gone, leaving an administration of appointees who’ve learned that catering to Trump’s extreme whims is the fastest ticket to job security. Should Pruitt leave, the next EPA Administrator will likely find that accelerating Pruitt’s work is the best way to stay on Donald Trump’s good side.

In fact, the newt EPA administrator will face a pretty low bar on a host of fronts. So long as he or she doesn’t turn on the sirens every time they get a craving for escargot and opts for slightly less expensive office decor, they will come off as an improvement over Pruitt, giving them more leeway to pursue Trump’s agenda out of the spotlight.

Ultimately, that is the biggest reason why Pruitt’s possible departure won’t mean a brighter future for environmental protection: so long as the chaos emanating from the administration on everything from Russia to Stormy Daniels to the border wall sucks up attention, the real work of dismantling the environmental safety net that took half a century to build can move ahead in the dark.

Scott Pruitt may soon be gone, but his legacy will live on.

Photo: Gage Skidmore


The Incredibly Racist Reason You’ll Be Hearing a Lot More About the Caravan

border wall protoDonald Trump’s Easter weekend Tweetfest introduced many Americans to the “caravan.”

As he exclaimed on Sunday morning (immediately after offering a “HAPPY EASTER!”):

Border Patrol Agents are not allowed to properly do their job at the Border because of ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release. Getting more dangerous. “Caravans” coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!

He subsequently tweeted that “Mexico has the absolute power not to let these large ‘Caravans’ of people enter their country” and that “These big flows of people are all trying to take advantage of DACA. They want in on the act!”

The “caravan” to which he is referring is an annual event in which aid groups help migrants heading north travel as a group to protect them from drug cartels, pirates and other dangers. This year, a group of about 1000 people, mostly Honduran, are travelling together towards the United States, where many will attempt to seek political asylum.

Put aside for a moment that the caravan has nothing to do with DACA, as the migrants are not eligible for the Dreamers program, or that very few migrants who apply for asylum actually achieve it. Expect to hear a lot more about the caravan in the coming days. Why? Because it is the perfect symbol of Donald Trump’s white nationalist world view: an armada of dark-skinned foreigners marching inexorably towards the civilized (i.e., Western) world to take it over. In fact, to many of Trump’s supporters it is life imitating art.

The “art” in question is The Camp of the Saints, a 1973 novel by Jean Raspail that envisions an armada of refugees from the Indian subcontinent overwhelming France, causing Western civilization to collapse.

The book is profoundly racist, presenting the Indian refugees as subhumans who literally eat their own feces and engage in the most disgusting forms of depravity on their ships: “Everywhere, rivers of sperm… streaming over bodies, oozing between breasts, and buttocks, and thighs, and lips, and fingers.”

The book is not some sick escapist fantasy: it was intended as a warning. In Raspail’s story, France is split between leftists who want to welcome the refugees with open arms – and are ultimately massacred by the invading barbarians – and those who believe in “scorn of people for other races, the knowledge that one’s own is best, the triumphant joy at feeling oneself to be part of humanity’s finest.”  In the end, the West’s division and weakness allows the rampaging horde to take over, leading to such atrocities as the Queen of England being forced to marry her daughter to a Pakistani.

The book has become a cult favorite of white nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic. It includes among its adherents the Intellectual Godfather of Trumpism, Steve Bannon, who during the 2016 campaign frequently compared the Syrian refugee crisis to the book. “It’s been almost a Camp of the Saints-type invasion into Central and then Western and Northern Europe,” he said during a Breitbart interview with then-Senator Jeff Sessions in 2015.

Those who adhere to this world view  no doubt believe that the flow of people from Central and South America towards the U.S. is exactly the same as what France experiences in the book – and that America faces the same existentialist threat if it fails to stop the invading horde. That’s why Trump’s border wall has such resonance: it is, in the mind of some of his supporters a last-ditch effort to stop the destruction of a country that once was (and soon will be) great.

At a time when Trump’s efforts to build his “big, beautiful wall” have hit roadblocks from a recalcitrant Congress (not to mention that Mexico seems less than willing to pay for it), expect the President to ratchet up the urgency factor by citing the caravan as proof that America’s days are numbered.

None of this is to say that the immigration issue is not complex, and that those who advocate for stronger border protections are automatically racist. Remember that the Obama administration took steps to stem the flow of refugees from Latin America in 2014.

But when Donald Trump tweets about the “caravan” of people heading towards our shores, it is a not-too-subtle dog whistle for those who truly believe that America faces the same fate as the France of Raspail’s book.

In other words, the racist rantings of the white nationalist movement have, for all intents and purposes, found a welcome home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Perhaps the Protocols of the Elders of Zion will soon get a Twitter shout-out.


Rick Perry’s Holy War


Rick Perry’s War on the War on Coal continues.

The Energy Secretary, who last fall declared that among fossil fuels’ many noble attributes is the power to stop sexual assault, recently told a Texas audience this week that the worldwide shift away from fossil fuels is “immoral.” Said Perry: “Look those people in the eyes that are starving and tell them you can’t have electricity. Because as a society we decided fossil fuels were bad. I think that is immoral.”

Perry has emerged as a fairly evangelical holy warrior for fossil fuels: in addition to testifying to their morality, he also has said that the U.S. is “blessed” to be able to provide fossil fuels to the poor peoples of the planet. In discussing the rape-preventing power of fossil fuels, Perry cited the “light that shines, the righteousness, if you will” that coal-powered illumination provides.

Apparently, in Perry’s Bible, when one is anointed with oil, it’s light sweet crude.

Perry’s rhapsodizing about the piety of coal and oil would be little more than a distraction – and another testament to the quality of Donald “I Will Hire the Best People” Trump’s cabinet choices – were it not accompanied by troubling policy choices that are designed to prop up the fossil fuel industry at the expense of renewables.

As noted previously in this space, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission unanimously rejected Perry’s plan earlier this year to subsidize struggling coal and nuclear plants, rejecting DOE’s argument that safeguarding the nation’s electric guard necessitated letting coal and nuclear plants charge more for power.

But Bloomberg is now reporting that Perry is not letting go. Now the Energy Department is contemplating letting Perry “use his authority as U.S. energy secretary to spur emergency compensation for coal plants run by FirstEnergy Solutions that may be at risk of shutting.” According to Bloomberg, Perry has the authority under the Federal Power Act to order a power company to keep a plant online and provide compensation, if doing so would “serve the public interest.”

And Perry has allies in his battle: a number of lawmakers from Ohio and surrounding states – from both parties – are now pushing the administration to trigger the FPA’s provisions to save FirstEnergy. As the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reports, their argument rests on national security: “[O]ne argument links the nation’s current competitive edge in nuclear weapons to the health of its commercial atomic energy industry.”

To sum up: fossil fuel is not only a moral imperative that protects young girls from sexual assault, but bailing out struggling coal plants also protects us from our nuclear annihilation.

That’s a pretty powerful argument. It is also ridiculous and, worse, dangerous.

To suggest that keeping coal plants open serves the public interest ignores the reality that coal severely harms the public’s health. Coal production releases toxins into the air and water – poisons that are widely known to cause cancer, delayed childhood development and other health issues. And burning coal adds tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, making the effects of a changing climate even worse. As for national security, the Pentagon itself maintains that “climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security.”

The only thing worse than Perry’s effort to save coal is the fact it’s happening at the very same time the Trump administration wants to slash DOE’s energy efficiency and renewable energy programs by a whopping 65 percent, while increasing spending on fossil fuel programs. At a time when the rest of the world is investing in the energy technologies of the future, the White House’s budget looks like something from the 18th century.

If Rick Perry is truly concerned about the well-being of all those “starving” people lacking electricity, he would direct his Department to double down on supporting energy technologies that don’t worsen climate change and poison the environment – particularly at a time when the cost of renewables continues to drop.

Policymakers can identify ways to help the developing world with the costs of transitioning to a low-carbon economy. What the U.S. government should not do, however, is go to battle on behalf of polluting sources of energy. That’s a war we ultimately will lose.

On Guns, Corporate America Can Do More



Whether the spark of activism lit by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School turns into a bonfire of legislative change on guns remains to be seen. But there’s no denying that the students have gotten everyone’s attention.

In short order over the weekend, several major companies – from airlines to car rental companies and banks – announced they were dropping the NRA as a corporate partner. This never would’ve would not have happened were it not for the Parkland students, who also can claim justifiable credit for last week’s well-received CNN town hall and the attention devoted to guns at the National Governors Association meeting with President Trump this week.

One thing the students have not been able to effect – at least so far – is significant policy change at the federal or state levels on guns. The scene of the Florida state House blocking a bill to ban assault weapons as Parkland students sat powerless  in the gallery was stark reminder that breaking the NRA’s  stranglehold on elected officials is an uphill battle.

And while the companies’ decisions to sever ties is an important step towards further isolating the NRA and its extreme stances, it alone will not change much. After all, most NRA members don’t join the group for the discounts on mid-sized sedans. No member of Congress is going to vote for an assault weapons ban – or even a ban on bump stocks – because United Airlines shunned the NRA. Even without its corporate partners, the NRA remains as potent in fundraising and securing votes as before.

But imagine the sea change that could happen if Corporate America took a more activist stance on the country’s gun culture – if they used their considerable clout to advance reasonable steps to reduce the carnage.

And they have good reasons – business reasons – to do so.

Consider tourism. Nearly 80 million foreigners visit the U.S. each year, pumping more than $200 billion to the country’s economy.  But fewer tourists are visiting the U.S. than in the past, even as global tourism is on the rise. According to the Commerce Department, foreign travelers spent 3.3 percent less in the States through the first 11 months of 2017 as compared to the previous year. According to U.S. Travel, a business lobbying group, this drop equates to a $4.6 billion drop in spending in the U.S. and a loss of 40,000 jobs.

There are a number of reasons for the drop, including a strong dollar and less-than-welcoming rhetoric from the White House. But gun violence also is having an impact. In recent years, several countries have issued travel warnings to their citizens about visiting the United States due to the prevalence of guns.

France, for example, warns citizens Americans can carry firearms legally in many parts of the country, while Germany has told its people: “It is relatively easy to obtain a firearm in the U.S. If you find yourself the victim of a gun attack, do not try to resist!” Ireland, Canada and New Zealand have also gotten into the act, with New Zealand’s government telling its citizens that “active-shooter incidents occur from time to time in the United States.”

If America’s image continues to morph from Mickey Mouse to Dirty Harry, international travelers will choose other destinations for their vacations. That means less fliers on U.S. airlines, and fewer guests for hotels, amusement parks, car rental companies, tour groups and others. Corporate America is not shy about lobbying Congress and the White House for laws that make them money (see the recent tax bill, for example). Perhaps they should demand Washington make sure America remains a safe place to visit.


At the state level, the business community can play a big role in pushing for saner gun policies. State governments and municipalities constantly try to one-up each other to lure companies to their business-friendly shores.  In turn companies look for the kinds of places that will attract the kind of employees they want.

For example, you may have heard of this small company called Amazon, which is choosing between 20 cities for its second headquarters. What if Amazon made gun laws a criterion for its search? Some of the finalists, like Los Angeles, Newark and Boston, are in states that the Gifford Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence rates as having the strongest gun laws, while others (like Austin and Dallas) are closer to the bottom. Of course, the finalist with the strongest state laws is not even in a “state”: Toronto. Imagine the message Amazon would send by moving to Canada, eh?

Winning the Amazon competition will bring major economic benefits to the victor, as does nearly every corporate relocation and expansion. If more companies used gun safety as a criterion for where to set up shop, state legislatures would be forced to choose between jobs and guns.

This tactic is not without precedent. Remember Indiana’s anti-LGBTQ Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed by then-Gov. Mike Pence and quickly amended after the business community revolted? Or Georgia, where pressure from business spurred Gov. Nathan Deal to veto a similar bill? Whether the business community opposed these bills out of genuine concern for the LGBTQ community or out of fear of losing revenue is beside the point: the pressure worked.

Which brings us to another way in which Corporate America – and in fact, all major institutions – can push for sensible gun laws: Just don’t go there.

After North Carolina passed its “bathroom bill,” everyone from the NCAA to Bruce Springsteen canceled events in the Tar Heel state, costing it by some accounts nearly half a billion dollars. Ultimately the state amended the bill. Companies holding corporate retreats, associations holding conventions, major sporting events, T.V. shows and movies filming on location: there are plenty of groups that can sway a state’s policy debates simply through staying away.

There are other ways that the business community can use the power of the purse to effect change: in this post-Citizens United world, where corporations are people, too, imagine if the business community stopped giving PAC donations to candidates who vote with the NRA.

Unlikely? Perhaps.  But ultimately, money does talk.

If Corporate America speaks out on the enormous toll that our country’s woefully inadequate gun laws are taking, policymakers will listen, no matter what the NRA says. The question is, are they willing to open their mouths – and their pocketbooks?

Photo: Laurie Shaull

Meanwhile, China is Arming Its Teachers with Skills

teacher.pngWith nearly 260 million students in more than half a million primary and secondary schools, China has in recenty years undertaken several reforms and financial investments to support teachers and improve their training.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), China is investing 6.4 billion yuan (roughly $1 billion) to support training for more than 6.5 million teachers in rural areas in central and western China. Under the program, new teachers take at least 120 class hours of training prior to entering the classroom.

OECD also reports that China has instituted a requirement that each teacher in public primary and secondary schools must take at least 360 class hours of training every five years: “Trainings are designed according to teachers’ professional responsibilities, and aim to improve their professional ethics and skills.” Their strategy also includes a new program that enables outstanding teachers and headmasters to take half-year sabbatical leave every five years, during which they are able to join study programs abroad.

China also is providing new training resources for school principals and other administrators: “New school principals or aspiring principals are required to take over 300 class hours of training that focus on the skills needed for their positions. Principals are required to take no less than 360 class hours of training every five years. This programme is designed to help school principals learn new knowledge and skills, improve managerial skills and exchange experiences with other school principals.” Overall, China has increased spending on education an average of 19 percent per year over the last decade, a higher rate than virtually any other nation.

Meanwhile, the United States is currently debating proposals to arm teachers with guns.


Missing from the Infrastructure Plan: Resilience

1280px-Road_damage_from_Hurricane_Nate_in_Jackson_CountyAs you might have heard, President Trump released a “$1.5 trillion” infrastructure plan on Monday, a topic the President himself finds “sexy.”

Sexy or not, the plan doesn’t deliver what it promises. The $1.5 trillion in funding is really $200 billion, with the hope that it spurs an additional $1.3 trillion from cash-starved states, localities and the private sector. It’s not unlike handing your betrothed a lump of coal and telling her there’s a diamond ring in there somewhere.

In fact, it’s not even $200 billion, since the budget proposal the White House also released this week envisions cutting almost that exact same amount from transportation and other infrastructure programs. So the plan to devote an additional $1.5 trillion to fix our roads, bridges, rails and more is really a plan to add . . . zero.

Nonetheless, it is a plan, and since Congress these days is in a deficit-be-damned mood, we very well may see a real plan to spend more on infrastructure. Taken at face value, the Trump plan has some good elements, notably strengthening existing loan and bond programs that have a track record of working, and some not-so-good ones, such as allowing the Interior Department to approve natural gas pipelines that cut through national parks.

But the one thing that’s missing from the plan is nearly any recognition that the nation’s infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change. In fact, the words “resilience” and “disaster” are not mentioned once in the document.

This is the case despite the fact that weather-related events in 2017 alone cost the country a record $306 billion, a good chunk of it in damaged or destroyed infrastructure.

And despite the fact that the threats to infrastructure due to a changing climate are already well-known, as the 2014 National Climate Assessment points out:

Sea level rise, storm surge, and heavy downpours, in combination with the pattern of continued development in coastal areas, are increasing damage to U.S. infrastructure including roads, buildings, and industrial facilities, and are also increasing risks to ports and coastal military installations. Flooding along rivers, lakes, and in cities following heavy downpours, prolonged rains, and rapid melting of snowpack is exceeding the limits of flood protection infrastructure designed for historical conditions. Extreme heat is damaging transportation infrastructure such as roads, rail lines, and airport runways.

And despite the fact that research shows that investing in resilient infrastructure can save money; a 2018 study from the National Institute of Building Sciences found that “mitigation funding can save the nation $6 in future disaster costs, for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation.”

True, the White House plan is just that: a plan, and not fleshed-out legislation. It is by design a starting point in the discussions, and not every little detail was included.

But it’s long past time to think of resilience as a “little detail.” It makes absolutely no sense to spend trillions of dollars to fix roads, bridges, water systems, schools and more without making sure that they can withstand whatever nature throws at them.

Hopefully Congress can see its way to weaving resilience into the plan, by requiring federal dollars be spent on projects that take climate adaptation into account and prioritizing projects that address threats from rising sea levels, drought, forest fires and other hazards.

If not, the plan really will be nothing more than a lump of coal.

Image: Damage from 2017’s Hurricane Nate in Mississippi. Source: Wikipedia

On Infrastructure, There’s No Such Thing as Free Money

Miami_traffic_jam,_I-95_North_rush_hourSince the 2016 election, the one issue on which most everyone has pinned their hopes for bipartisanship has been infrastructure. Rebuilding “our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals” was one of the only policy items then-President-elect Trump mentioned in his victory speech, and it’s an area where even Democrats think they can find common ground with the White House.

Everyone loves infrastructure. But paying for it is another matter. The debate over how to pay for fixing all those highways, bridges and so on is as old as . . .  well, as many of those highways and bridges themselves. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that we need some $3.7 trillion through 2025 to maintain and update our infrastructure, but planned investments total just $1.8 trillion.

That’s a large funding gap to fill.

Providing $1.9 trillion in extra funding over the next seven years is a hard sell, particularly with a GOP-led Congress. (Let’s put aside for a second that said Congress just passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut package, and of course the U.S. has spent $5 trillion in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.) As a result, Washington think tanks and policy wonks have spent countless hours in devising all sorts of innovative ways to finance infrastructure, with the goal of making the multi-trillion-dollar price tag more palatable.

So in his State of the Union address, Trump announced a new infrastructure scheme plan to be unveiled next week. It’s believed the plan will propose $200 billion in new federal funding that will leverage an additional $1.3 trillion in state, local and private sector spending.

The response so far, has been less than ecstatic. As the New York Times reported:

The increased infrastructure spending would be offset by unspecified budget cuts. Officials would not detail where those cuts would come from, or how the proposal would effectively leverage at least $6.50 in additional infrastructure spending for every dollar spent by the federal government, a ratio many infrastructure experts consider far-fetched … Administration officials say an increase in federal funds would unleash a wave of spending from cities, states and the private sector, the result of unspecified incentives in the plan. But many local and state officials have expressed concern in recent days that the administration’s faith in that potential effect is misplaced.

Ultimately, this “infrastructure alchemy” – spinning fiscal gold out of thin air – ignores several immutable facts: if fixing our infrastructure costs trillions, someone (read: the public) will have to pay for it, whether through increased fees, higher taxes, or the fiscal consequences of deficit spending.

And second, the public is less opposed to shelling out for infrastructure than some might think: polls show the public supports more spending on infrastructure, and while public opinion is split on raising taxes for infrastructure, it’s hardly a third rail.

Most importantly, we know how to pay for infrastructure, because we’ve done it, and have been doing it, for years, with programs and funding mechanisms that have a track record of working. Yet policymakers have neglected, or in some cases, worked to undermine many of these provisions, even as they exclaim the need to invest more in infrastructure. Consider:

  • The federal gas tax, which has served as a reliable financing tool for highways since the dawn of the Interstate Highway System (with a slice for mass transit since 1982). But the tax has not been raised since 1993 (although some states have raised theirs). The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that raising the tax by 25 cents per gallon would being in an extra $394 billion over the next 10 years.
  • The tax treatment of bonds, both public and private. Municipal bonds help state and local governments issue debt for building and repairing infrastructure at a more favorable rate; The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget notes they “comprise a substantial municipal bond market, with over $3.7 trillion in outstanding bonds and $11.3 billion traded daily in 2012.”  Meanwhile, private activity bonds primarily benefit a private entity but with some public benefit, like hospitals and airports. Both bond types survived elimination attempts in the year-end tax bill but could not avoid changes that have investors worried about their future attractiveness.
  • Other bond programs, like Build America Bonds, that were created as part of the 2009 stimulus package. Over the next two years, $181 billion in BABs were issued. However, BABs were authorized for only two years, and direct payments to issuers were cut as part of the 2013 budget sequester.
  • Federal loan programs, which leverage an average of $40 for every dollar of federal spending, but often are funded at levels far below the need. One example is Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) which provides financial assistance in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees, and standby lines of credit. A successful program, but it’s authorized to allocate just $285 million in 2018 and $300 million in each of 2019 and 2020.

Certainly, each of these programs has their drawbacks: the gas tax is regressive, disproportionately hurting lower-income Americans, and also loses its purchasing power as cars get more fuel-efficient. Other financing tools like bonds may seem like “free money,” but their reach is only as far as demand on the bond markets will take them. And some of the programs are tainted by partisanship, such as Build Americas Bonds which, despite their success, are inexorably tied to President Obama’s stimulus package.

But instead of coming up with shiny new ideas that are unproven, overly complex and could lead to a host of unknown unintended consequences, policymakers would be wise to look at what already works and build on them.

Ultimately, there’s no free money. But if we can drain $1.5 trillion from the Treasury to pay for “job-creating” tax cuts and $5 million in Middle East wars to protect our way of life, expending money to fix the roads, transit and other infrastructure on which both our economy and quality of life depends should be common sense.

If we fail to do so, there should be no mistake about the reason: It’s not that we don’t know how to pay for infrastructure. It’s that we don’t want to.