Trump And The Republicans Seem Poised To Wreck The FDA

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The Trump Administration has been devolving into chaos with surprising rapidity in the last week, with it’s travel ban suspended, it’s labor nominee going down in flames, Michael Flynn resigning in a scandal that may yet snowball to Watergate proportions, and Trump giving a press conference while apparently in a fugue state.

But it’s equally important to note all the ways the Trump Administration is screwing things up that don’t make their way into the news cycle. And one story which hasn’t gotten too much attention, but which potentially has significant and long term ramifications, is the Trump Administration’s desire to shake up the FDA by slashing the agencies regulations by 75%-80%, presumably with the end goal of ending speeding up the drug approval process.

More than that, though, he wants to fundamentally change the nature of the FDA. Currently, the FDA’s drug approval process essentially has two functions: first ensuring drugs are not safe, and second ensuring that drugs actually work. By contrast, Trump, the Republicans, and various silicon valley moguls that Trump has reportedly been considering to head the FDA, want to eliminate that second function by junking the FDA’s efficacy requirements and instead having the FDA focus strictly on safety while having markets, or some type of rating system from doctors and patients, sort out whether a drug works or not. Putting a veneer of Silicon Valley libertarianism on the idea, one of Trump’s prospective (though later withdrawn) nominees, Balaji Srinivasan, had said that he wanted to turn the FDA into “the Yelp for drugs”, and repeatedly said he would like to make the agency more like tech companies like Uber and Airbnb.

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Now, I spent several years recently in China, studying the numerous problems afflicting it’s drug approval process under the CFDA, so suffice it to say that I take a personal interest in the ins and outs of effectively the entry of drugs into the market. And yes, all else equal, speedy approval time is a good metric of a successful drug approval process. Conversely, backlogs and long approval times betray ineffective government, stifles domestic innovation, and can potentially kill thousands by denying them access to life saving drugs.

That said, though, Trump’s proposed shake up of the agency is not only wrongheaded, it’s downright alarming.

 

First off, they’re trying to “fix” something that isn’t broken

It’s important to note that they’re addressing a non-existent problem. By international standards The United States already has a drug approval process which is already a model of efficiency. Drugs can get more than a month faster in the US than in other industrialized countries, with a full review by the FDA taking on average 322 days compared with 366 days in Europe. Compare and contrast that with the genuinely defective drug approval process in China, where it usually takes between 3-5 years for a drug to gain approval. And generally speaking, backlogs and long approval times have less to do with bureaucratic hurdles and more to do with staffing shortages.

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Some even put the FDA’s advantage in time to market at as much as 6 months

 

Second, user rating systems are a horribly inappropriate template for drug review

Now, you may be tempted to write the idea of turning the FDA into “Yelp for drugs” as vacuous Silicon Valley technophilia, but it’s actually much worse.

It’s important to note that tech companies are a really bad template for producing quality standards for anything. More often than not, their ratings systems are highly defective. The ones that do work relatively well, like Yelp, deal mainly with consumer facing industries where customers are working off straight forward subjective personal tastes, like restaurants. In that context, a sort of crowd sourced rating system kind of makes sense. But it’s horribly unsuitable for the pharmaceutical industry, which is more or less the exact opposite of that.

The main difference is that there’s nothing subjective about whether or not a drug works. Doctor are able to empirically prove that a drug works through clinical trials, and generally patients are willing to volunteer that information by not dying. All you need, then, is an extensive knowledge of medicine and enough test cases to gain sufficient empirical evidence.

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On the other hand, individual patients don’t actually know whether or not a given drug is effective or not because, for the most part, they don’t have the in-depth medical knowledge required to understand the mechanisms of a drug or monitor their own health to that degree. Likewise, individual doctors aren’t in a position to say either. Their only insights into the matter are based on limited numbers of patients who they’re treating in an uncontrolled environment. They don’t have the perspective necessary to make that call. You need long term research based on hundreds or thousands of patients to do that, and you need sometime like the FDA to organize such long term studies.

 

Third, the proposed system would create all kinds of perverse incentives

The pharmaceutical market place doesn’t operate in a typical market, where you have one firm developing a product and then selling it directly to customers. On the contrary, it’s a multilayered process. On the supply side, you typically start with basic research conducted by one or more public institutions, which then gets taken up by a biotech startup and developed into an product, which is then bought by a larger pharmaceutical company which has the resources to see it through the final stages of testing and then distribute it broadly enough to make a profit. On the consumer side, you have patients who rely heavily on the opinions of doctors when deciding which drugs to take, and insurance companies who reimburse them for the majority of the costs. In this system of six or more players, nobody is in a position to see the complete consequences of their actions, and there are a lot of opportunities for dysfunction.

On the front end, you have biotech startups who are expected to invest hundreds of millions, and potentially even billions, into research and development knowing there’s something like a 97% chance any given project will fail, and even in the best case scenario they won’t be seeing a profit for years. As Harvard Business School professor Gary Pisano pointed out, this is only tenable because, first, biotech startups can rely heavily on public research and resources provided by larger pharmaceuticals, and second because they can raise large amounts of money in IPOs and sales of equity. Now, individual investors don’t actually expect to hold their stake in a biotech startup for the several years it will take for the firm to become profit, nor do they necessarily expect it to succeed. But that’s okay, from their perspective, because as long as they can resell their shares in the biotech startup, they can still turn a profit. Future potential buyers largely work on the same logic, and people can keep buying and reselling that stake in the biotech company until they either bring their product to market (or, more likely, get bought by a large pharmaceutical) or goes bust.

Now, this may sound familiar to anyone who’s studied the subprime mortgage crisis, because it’s essentially the greater fool theory. This isn’t to malign the biotech industry, it’s just a quark of the system that happily tends to work out. However, it does make the system prone to all kinds of fraud it you’re not careful. Founders of biotech companies are under heavy pressure to sell every product they develop as some phenomenal breakthrough, and they have a strong incentive to keep doing so even after they realize they’re ineffective. On the other hand, potential investors aren’t particularly inclined to analyze their investments critically, in fact they have a vested interest in keeping the delusion alive. That’s how the Theranos was able to carry on for years despite having a product they knew didn’t work, at a cost of billions of dollars to all involved. It would have carried on a lot longer had the FDA not been there to point out that the emperor had no clothes.

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Meanwhile, on the consumer side, doctors still largely get paid basis of services rendered, and thus have an incentive to prescribe drugs. Even if they’re not acting out of self-interest, they’re not liable for the cost of drugs, literal or physical, so they’ll tend to be very liberal with prescriptions. This is a major defect in the healthcare system which is driving up costs, contributing to the opioid epidemic, and leading to antibiotic strains of bacteria. Beyond this, though, the drug market such that doctors and hospitals do need to maintain a relationship with pharmaceutical companies and wholesalers to maintain access to treatments Hence, they may be loathe to give products bad reviews, lest they be blacklisted in the future. This is to say, there are a lot of reasons individual doctors might not be particularly critical when it comes to drug efficacy.

On the other hand, insurers would have a vested interest in labeling drugs ineffective, but their interest isn’t so much improving treatment as it is finding an excuse to limit coverage. And, if there’s no commonly accepted standard for drug efficacy, there’s no reason insurers couldn’t do this. This is why even major pharmaceutical companies are against the idea of removing efficacy requirements. Whatever inconveniences drug companies face due to the approval process, having a universally accepted for efficacy means they don’t need to argue with insurance companies all the time as to whether or not they’ll reimburse patients who use their products.

Again, this is why you need an impartial actor, like the FDA, to lend a critical eye. Removing efficacy standards would likely just lead to the worst of both worlds, with dubious products flooding the market and insurers limiting coverage.

 

Fourth, however much you cut down regulations, you can’t reduce approval times if the FDA is a mess

Of course, it’s not just the deliberate ways that Trump and the Republicans are liable to screw up the FDA that are relevant. Whatever your end age may be, you can speed up approval times is you’ve turned the FDA into a mess, and as Vox pointed out last week, that’s exactly what the Trump administration is doing. As I mentioned before, the main reason for backlogs and holdups in the approval process more often than not comes down to staffing shortages. And the Trump administration, with it’s Federal hiring freeze, is already threatening to preempt new hiring that was supposed to take place under the 21st century cures act.

Likewise, the second biggest contributor to a dysfunctional approval process is administrative confusion owing to unclear policies. Again, the Trump Administration seems set to sow all sorts of confusion with broad, impractical policy directives, like his call to eliminate 75-80% of FDA regulations and his mandate to eliminate 2 regulations for every new one created. And of course, the administration’s antagonism towards the civil service, and it’s haphazard attempts to impinge upon their autonomy, is sure to have a demoralizing effect on the professionals who work at the FDA.

 

Finally, taking the hatchet to the FDA may have broader implications for the world at large

The impact of stripping down the FDA may even go beyond screwing up the American drug market. FDA approval doesn’t just mean access to US markets, it’s also one of the few ways drugs can gain expedited approval in countries with less effective drug regimes. What does it mean for companies who have been able to gain access to Chinese markets largely by virtue of gaining FDA approval when suddenly they find that approval has become meaningless?

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This man is making the ingredients to drugs you use. He should probably be regulated, shouldn’t he?

More than that, the FDA is also taking an increasingly active role in quality control of drugs coming from abroad. Since 2010, the number of FDA inspections conducted in China and India, the source of the vast majority of active ingredients for pharmaceuticals, has roughly tripled. And for good reason, there’s a counterfeit drug epidemic. Will these functions be cut as a frivolous expenditure under Trump.

 

Conclusion

Some may imagine that Trump and the Republicans are intentionally trying to break the FDA out of free market dogma. The FDA may not be perfect, and maybe it can be improved upon. But it’s prevented quackery effectively for more than 100 years while not only allowing, but enabling the US to become a leader in the field of pharmaceutical R&D. It really is a key stone in the drug market, and in an era of counterfeit drugs and bacteria which are resistant to anything we can throw at them, it’s more important than ever. Even pharmaceuticals companies agree that removing the reshaping the system in the way Trump is proposing would almost certainly be a disaster.

FDA efficacy requirements may not be the sexiest issue, but it is a vitally important one, and we should be ready to hold the line.

The Easily Resistible Populism Of Donald Trump

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Here’s an issue I’ve been working on for a while, but always kept getting pushed back.

As Democrats respond to the first actions of the Trump Administration, there’s been a pretty strong call to act in lock step opposition to Trump and the Republicans, and deny them any substantial victories. However, as is often the case, there’s been a lot of anxiety that a number of Democratic politicians and organizations are failing to hold the line.

Naturally, a lot of this is directed at centrist Democrats whose reliability on certain issue has always been in doubt. But with Trump mixing up the political battleground, there’s been a strange new phenomenon where some fear betrayals from the left wing of the party. Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Tulsi Gabbard, and even Bernie Sanders have made statements saying they could work with Trump on certain issues. Leaving aside whether or not Schumer or Gabbard are actually all that left wing to begin with, the issues they were alluding, fair trade, reining in wall street, infrastructure spending, etc., are generally the talking points of the populist left. Likewise, there’s some fear that much of organized labor may be falling into Trump’s orbit, with builders unions, in particular, praising Trump.

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On a surface level, this makes sense. Trump spent much of his campaign criticizing the incestuous relationship between Wall Street and the political elite. He made a lot of fair trade rhetoric and denounced the harmful impact of unfettered globalization on low income workers. He promised an infrastructure bill that would provide jobs to working class Americans. These are things that Progressives have pushed for change on, for a long time, a point Trump was quick to emphasize. Surely they might jump at the opportunity to achieve these goals, even if it meant making a metaphorical deal with the devil.

I myself am not so worried about this prospect. Truth be told, I always sort of figured this was more political rhetoric, at least as far as Schumer and other Democratic politicians are concerned. Whether or not they actually expect to be able to work with the other party, it’s standard practice to make overtures towards cooperation in order to avoid looking to partisan.

More important, though, it’s completely reading the situation. First off, because left wing populists basically see Trump as little more than a con man who was always just trying to capitalize on popular outrage for political gain. Second, when you look past the superficial similarities, the goals of left wing populists and Trumpism are simply too different. Hence, as the full dimensions of Trump’s policies become apparent any potential cooperation will fall apart. Meanwhile his blue collar support will largely dry up as it becomes apparent his policies are actually rigging the system against them and/or a recession shatters the idea that he can deliver them good paying jobs.

For the most part, I’ve been proven mostly correct, as Sanders and the Democratic Party in general have found the actual policies enacted by Trump, even in trade or infrastructure spending, to be awful. Still, it’s worth getting into why this

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First off…

 

Left Wing Populists won’t compromise because they see Trump as disingenuous

Whatever hopes there might have been for Trump to deliver even moderately good policies on trade, wall street, or blue collar jobs have been more or less dashed every time they’ve tried to translate their promises into action. To go down the list:

Trade and Globalization

Even before office, it was pretty clear that the administration was going to start reneging on any sort of effort to enact fair trade in the interest of working class people. He shut workers out of negotiations on the Carrier deal, then he went out of his way to antagonize their union representatives. The end deal in which the company agreed to keep jobs in the US in exchange for millions of dollars worth of tax breaks and giveaways set a precedence for either private companies to black mail the government for preferential treatment, or crony capitalism.

And this has largely been how the administration has treated issues of trade since coming into office, alternately threatening companies and promising rewards of tax breaks and lax regulations for businesses that play along, crony capitalism that leaves workers more exposed overall. Trade talks, which have so far largely consisted of threats of trade talks and accusations of currency manipulation, seem more gears towards antagonizing foreign governments than advancing the interests of American workers. At the same time, the suspension of the “Extraction Payment Disclosure” rule, which required oil, gas, and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments, says plenty about just how clean this new system of international trade is going to be.

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Reining in Wall Street

Despite campaigning extensively against Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street connections, and pledges to drain the swamp, by now Trump has made it clear that he’s about as serious about draining the swamp as malaria. His cabinet is largely packed with Wall Street alumni, his “lobbyist ban” is far weaker than the Obama administration’s, and his gestures to deal with his own conflicts of interest have either been paper thin or counterproductive. Almost as soon as he entered into office, Trump and his team started dismantling financial regulations.

Job Creation and supporting the Working Class

It’s been extensively pointed out by this point that Trump’s proposed infrastructure bill largely amounts to billions of dollars in tax giveaways that are largely going to be ineffective in terms of job creation and repairing America’s decaying infrastructure. Even if this does promise some jobs to blue collar workers, Trump and Republicans in Congress have gone out of their way to ensure those jobs are lousy. He froze the overtime pay rule while the Republican congress has already repealed the Obama administration’s “blacklisting rule” which required firms receiving federal contracts from revealing labor abuses. The Trump administration seems poised to try to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act which mandates federal contracts pay prevailing wages. And beyond all that, there’s still the prospect of national right to work laws and other neutering of labor protections.

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And none of this gets into the all the ways Trump and the Republicans were always transparently awful. They immediately froze a reduction in mortgage rates, blocked a move to provide the poor with affordable internet, are poised to strip millions of health insurance, are threatening to shred the social safety net and gut public education, have already eradicated environmental regulations, are outright encouraging police abuses, and so on and so forth.

But it’s not just that Trump is going back on what otherwise might have been encouraging pledges. On the contrary, a lot of what those pledges were genuine, but they were based on an ideology which always ensured they were going to be awful.

 

Left Wing Populists won’t compromise because Trumpism is ideologically incompatible with their goals

It’s easy to imagine that much of this stems from Trump and his crew simply being disingenuous populists. This is probably largely true, they are largely opportunist who were always more interested in rigging the system to their advantage and playing voters for electoral advantages. But there’s no reason to think that, as cynical as they are, Trump et. al. are on some level motivated by ideology. It’s important to elaborate on why they are anathema to the goals of progressives, and why even the superficially appealing aspects of Trump’s politics are almost inevitably awful when you get under the surface. It’s also important to understanding the appeal of Trump’s politics, and how to counteract it.

The most obvious answer to this is that Trump subscribes to the same sort of right wing populism of Libertarians and free market Republicans. This view allows for criticizing the incestuous relationship between business and political elites, but unlike Progressives this view tends to believe that the government is the source, or at least enabler, of corruption. From this vantage point, there’s no contradiction in pledging to “drain the swamp” while simultaneously packing the government with corrupt Wall Street financiers and business magnates. It’s hard to tell where the free market dogma ends and cynical self-interest begins, but since the two go hand in hand under the framework that’s somewhat irrelevant.

That goes a long way towards explaining why any apparent common ground left wing populists might have with the Trump Administration is sure to be false. But Trumpism also prescribes to be less lasseiz faire, and more economic nationalism.

Now, this is a harder issue to deal with, because there’s a lot more overlap between economic populism and economic nationalism. As many including Andrew Weber Cohen have noted, in the 19th century it was widely accepted that the American System needed to be protected if it was to survive. This was, in large part, motivated by the self-interest of domestic industries and a desire for mercantile policies. But the appeal of protectionism was actually much broader than that. The industrial working class saw it as one of the main ways to improve their economic well being, especially to native workers when paired with measures restricting immigration. But the issue was also broadly cultural. American Republicanism needed barriers to protect itself from European aristocracy and pauperism. Free trade wasn’t just bad in economic terms, it was vaguely treasonous, with many associating the idea with smugglers and indolent oligarchs cum pseudo-aristocrats surrounding themselves with European luxuries.

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This meant that for much of the 19th century the industrial working class largely sided with the Republicans. By contrast, the Democratic Party, whose base was farmers and immigrants, was more inclined towards free trade and immigration.

Eventually, though, the Democratic party managed to win over the industrial working class during the Wilson administration. As Cohen described it, they did so through a tacit compromise: labor unions would accept free trade and, in exchange, this free trade legislation would be paired with labor regulations, social insurance, and other progressive measures that would ensure that the economic system would profit the working class. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Underwood Act paired dramatic tariff reductions with a progressive income tax, as well as a raft of other progressive legislation. This also had the effect of pairing the interests of the industrial working class with the other Wilsonian goal of active government carried out by a clean/professional civil service.

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Horrible racism notwithstanding, Wilson was incredibly important in shaping the modern Democratic Party

This was a pragmatic alliance, but it was also one that gelled with the broader progressive vision of expanding economic and political enfranchisement and perfecting institutions. It also had the effect of defusing protectionism as an economic issue for the working class, as trade was no longer seen as a problem so long as it was paired with social democracy. In the process, working class populism was separated from crass nationalism and selfish nativism, like gasoline from crude oil, and used to fuel the construction of the New Deal and postwar economic order. It also enabled broader social change. It could be argued that the white working class didn’t need to worry about competition from African Americans or immigrants so long as the underlying system of labor protections, regulations and social programs remained intact. Indeed, the line from labor organizations increasingly came to be that barriers undermined solidarity, and the only sustainable solution was an egalitarian system that could be extended to everybody.

If anything, populist overtures from the left essentially come down to the idea that Democrats, and the government in general, is reneging on its side of the bargain. Trade deals like the TPP to are mainly criticized because they backdoor bad policies. The problem isn’t with the concept of trade itself, and even less so with the idea of multilateral globalization, but rather that the way it’s being conducted is corrosive to social democratic institutions. The end goal, then, isn’t to stop trade, but conduct it in a way that preserves America’s egalitarian system, or even spreads good practices internationally.

Trumpism, by contrast, is not concerned with this. If Progressive populism is a sort of gasoline aimed at empowering people and perfecting institutions, Trumpism is the sludgy waste product of crass nationalism and tribal nativism. Trade deals are bad because they don’t sufficiently strong arm America into an advantage. Importers and outsourcers aren’t just selfishly hurting the working class, they’re borderline traitors. Immigrants are invaders and spies, undermining American values. Any benefits to the working class are incidental. Indeed, under this framework, the working class is partly to blame, as their demands for better pay and working conditions are blamed for undermining national industry.

From this perspective, the idea of preserving a system of fair play and social equity doesn’t enter into the equation. On the contrary, it explicitly advocates playing favorites, whether that means crony capitalism to selectively reward and punish those who fall in line, or barring entire swathes of humanity from immigrating. Ultimately, this vision makes Trump the center of a sort of patronage network akin to that surrounding Vladamir Putin or third world despots. And if all this isn’t enough to turn off would be left wing populists, then Trump’s total hostility towards other progressive goals like environmentalism would be enough to seal the deal.

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Conclusions

With all this in mind, it’s pretty clear that Trump is probably going to end up poisoning any potential common ground he might share with left wing populists long before it becomes an issue. Still, all this needs to come with a hefty dose of caveats.

First, it’s important to point out that motives are often a little more diverse than I’m letting on, especially when it comes to the broad category blue collar voters that these different types of populism are being directed at. Some working class voters are likely to be willing to look the other way on the abuses of the Trump administration in exchange for the promise of preferential treatment. To workers in places like the south who have been told to credit their jobs to efforts poach industries through lower wages and labor regulations, Trump’s race to the bottom will seem like the natural order of things. Some unions were always a bit more inclined to Republicans to begin with. It’s actually not that surprising Trump was able to get a good word out of the Builders Unions, for example. Construction unions are typically more populated by family centered contractors, and thus have always prioritized broad solidarity less than industrial unions. Republicans can turn working class people against social programs on the basis of racial animus, though to some extent I think people overstate this.

Second, even if the Progressive vision is incompatible with Trumpism, and it’s not sustainable for blue collar workers to act in a coalition with people who serially abuse them, this still requires that Democrats clearly state why they’re a better option for the working class. Unless Democrats recommit themselves to championing their progressive goals, working class voters are likely to revert towards the sort of crass nationalism and tribalism Trump preys on.

Finally, It’s also important to note that Trump’s appeals to nationalism can be potent in and of itself. Progressives would do well to find a counter argument. This is entirely doable. As much as Trump talks about protecting America, he almost never talks about American values. It would be a good time time remind the voting public that the drive to make America a shining beacon on a hill is, at its core, a progressive one. Indeed, what makes America exceptional if not our commitment to empowering the little guy, continuously perfecting our institutions, and ensuring fair play? From that perspective, Trumpism is a bigger threat to America than any foreign invader.

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The First Few Days Of The Trump Administration Has Been A Master’s Class In How Not To Run The Civil Service

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Since taking office, there’s been a flurry of many (many many) awful policies coming out of the Trump administration. But it’s not just what the Trump Administration is doing, it’s how incompetently they’re doing it. By trying to ram through a number of arbitrary and poorly thought out directives and running roughshod over the civil service, the Trump administration has sown all kinds of dysfunction and alienated large swathes of its own government

In a few short days, the Trump Administration has already managed to wrack up an impressive number of snafus. Whether it was caused by a conscious effort to impose control or a simply an unintended consequence of the broadly written and ambiguous regulator freeze, the gag order on the EPA and other agencies was a mess that caused a substantial backlash and damaged public access to government science. The roll out of the Muslim ban was chaotic, and may have caused a constitutional crisis. And this is likely only the beginning. The administration’s mandate that for every one regulation, two must be eliminated has been called arbitrary and unworkable. And if history is any guide, the federal hiring freeze will probably end up costing more money than it saves, and seriously compromise government functionality in the process. And so on, and so forth.

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Senior State Department officials removed since Trump took over

 

For its part, the civil service is­­ bristling under the new administration. Senior officials in the State Department have either been either purged or resigned en masse, and while its not unusual for new administrations to replace senior administrators, the speed with which it’s happened under Trump has caused a severe lack of human capital. More than 900 employees in the State Department have protested the Muslim ban, and the acting Attorney General was fired after she refused to defend it. Twitter accounts started by civil servants sprung up after the EPA gag. And so on, and so forth.

In short, by trying to ram through a number of arbitrary and poorly though out directives and running roughshod over the civil service, the Trump administration has sown all kinds of dysfunction and alienated large swathes of its own government. It’s been a Master’s class in how not to run the civil service.

As a person who has taken a number of Master’s classes in public administration, I’d like to take the opportunity to try to explain just what Trump is doing wrong in somewhat more academic terms. Hopefully this can provide the sort of cool, rationale arguments and “back of the cocktail napkin” illustrations that can be useful in winning over people who wouldn’t be opposed to Trump on ideological grounds, but who may still be mortified by how badly he’s mismanaging everything.

 

What happens when you try to smash a square peg into a round hole

So there’s a lot of precedence for bold reform agendas devolving into chaos and mismanagement, on every end of the ideological spectrum. Whether you’re talking about the Great Leap Forward in China causing famine or the Shock Therapy in Russia exacerbating the collapse of the Russian economy and enabling deep corruption, there are numerous examples to choose from.

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Economist Simeon Djankov offers a good framework for understanding this sort of mismanagement. Djankov treats the issue using the sort of multi-objective optimization function one tends to see a lot in public welfare economics and operations research. Using the two ideals of total lasseiz faire against total government administration, he reasons that there are costs associated with both set ups, and the objective of policy makers is to minimize the cost subject to the constraint of what’s possible given institutions. This is illustrated by the graph below, with the blue line representing what is possible given institutions and the red line representing the objective of lowest total costs.

Generally speaking, you could probably apply this framework to pretty much any sort of reform. When you shift from one institutional framework to the next, there are bound to be tradeoffs involved.

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Anyways, Djankov tends to attribute failures of reform agendas to over correcting. Leaders tried to push the dial too far in one direction, and they suffered accordingly. This is certainly something that one could say about Trump’s agenda, particularly in terms of its long term costs. But I think it only tells half the story. Mainly, you also need to think about the disorder you get when you try to rush things through.

Shifting from one institutional arrangement to another inevitably entails certain costs. Institutions and the people who work in them have spent years adapting themselves to work according to certain rules and trouble shooting all the little practical problems one tends to run into when trying to implement anything. When you suddenly change the rules you make all that previous experience irrelevant, and you force them to work out all sorts of other practical problems in order to figure out how things are supposed to work at the ground level. Over time people will work those issues out, but in the meantime a lot of ineffectiveness and mismanagement is to be expected. This is especially true given that some reforms must be implemented in a specific order.

How much depends on the how large the changes being made are, and how quickly they’re implemented. A more gradual change would allow people to work things out with relatively little confusion, but a more dramatic change is inevitably going to result in a fair amount of chaos. And again, this is all especially true if these changes are implemented simultaneously, with no regard for sequencing.

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To explain this, imagine you have a government that wants to shift from one institutional arrangement at point P0 to one at point P3. If they shift gradually over 3 years, they go through P1 to P2 to P3. If they try to rush everything through in one year, the trade offs become harsher, and you go from P0 to PB. The minor reductions in on type of costs, dB, are offset by a large increase in other types, dA

The Great Leap Forward and Shock Therapy implemented in Russia failed for largely the same reason despite being almost diametrically opposed. It wasn’t just that Mao or the IMF were introducing a vision that was itself naïve and impractical, it was that they were implementing it so in such a rushed and confused manner that nobody had time to work out how that vision was supposed to work.

This isn’t mean to mean that gradualism is always the best approach. On the contrary, you can use this same analytical framework can be used to argue that dramatic changes can justify the costs. But it does illustrate that how you administrate is often just as important as what you’re trying to administrate, and you can end up with the worst of both worlds.

So, think about that in the context of the Trump Administration, which in its first days in office has implemented a hiring freeze, reshaped the national security council, is replacing almost the entire leadership of the state department, has mandated that for every 1 new regulation 2 must be eliminated, and so on. Also think about this in the context of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, with no practical plan for replacement. Trump’s style of making broad, sweeping dictates first and then figuring it out later seems doomed to be an administrative nightmare.

 

“A policy without professionals is by definition an amateur policy”

A few days ago, after he was purged from the Department of State, Tom Countryman took a veiled swipe at the Trump Administration’s habit of ignoring its own staff. As he put it, “A policy without professionals is by definition an amateur policy”.

Managing an organization will always go better if you have the willing support of those working for you. People at the grassroots have all sorts of specialized knowledge and practical experience that’s crucial for carrying out an organization’s mission. It would be impossible for any manager, no matter how diligent, to possess even a fraction of this knowledge and experience, hence they rely on their staff to voluntarily make their best effort. If that staff feels that management is antagonizing them, or that they’re not being adequately rewarded for their effort, they won’t do that, and the organization will suffer. To this end, it makes sense to delegate a lot of decision making power to those people working at the ground level, reward them adequately, and treat them with some level of respect.

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Of course, there are tradeoffs. Management can be in a better position to formulate strategies that are in the long term interest of the organization, and sometimes workers on the ground need to acquiesce to those strategies. Of course differences in perspective and raw self-interest mean that management and staff will always disagree about just how much decision making authority should be delegated to people working at the ground level, and a deal of compromise is necessary, often with the a number of legal protections empowering people at the grassroots level.

Economists Freeman and Lazaer outlined all this in a 1995 paper. They also offered a handy graphic illustrating the concept, which I’ve placed below. The graph illustrates the relationship between decision making authority delegated to staff at the grass roots and the payoffs of the arrangement. The area under the red curve, F(x), represents the benefit realized by management, while the area under the blue curve, G(x) represents the total benefits to society, with the shaded blue area representing the benefit to society and staff.

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As you can see, the best outcome for management is far below what’s ideal. If they had their way, they’d maintain tight control at the expense of everyone else. To that end, it’s important that management has to compromise for the greater good. It may be necessary to force them to do so.

Freeman and Lazaer were originally making an argument for industrial democracy, and they were explaining one of the reasons why works councils give German manufacturers a number of competitive advantages. But the principle that bottom up management and some degree of deference to staff is practical applies to all organizations, public as well as private. It can also be applied to broader concepts of democratic participation, and can provide a rationale for why democratic systems are not only desirable, but also functionally superior.

So again, let’s apply all this to the Trump administration, which has already made clear its intent to remove work place protections from the civil service, purging leadership staff, while subjecting them to stifling gag orders and stifling administrative policies. He’s also demonstrated a preference for crafting policy with his inner circle while avoiding consultation with the professional civil service where he can. His Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is hostile to the idea of deferring to government agency’s interpretation of laws. His actions have already antagonized the civil service to a point where many of its employees are in open revolt.

 

Conclusion

It’s interesting to ponder why exactly the Trump Administration is mismanaging the civil service so profoundly.

One obvious answer is that it’s just the Republican’s own rhetoric over taking them. For years, Republicans have been running on a crass cynicism directed at government regulations and employees. Complaints about the page length of the tax code, or the raw number of regulations on pillows, or the nominal value of the national debt, were presented as self-evident demonstrations that the government was out of control. The idea that government required specialized experience was dismissed in the interest of popular, but dubious, policies like term limits, which treated government as though it’s something that should be a part time job. The civil service was something that should be tamed, or bullied if necessary. And while Republicans probably were true believers in small government by and large, the leadership at least had a more nuanced understanding of how that was best achieved. They recognized that it was the content of regulations, rather than the sheer length, that was the important thing, and that it paid to be effective operators. But people like Trump and the Tea Party still took the rhetoric at face value. They measure success in terms of arbitrary limits on government and how much they harass the civil service, and if this throws sands in the gears of government all the better.

Presidential Candidate Rand Paul Campaigns In Las Vegas

It’s also interesting to think about what Trump’s own personal background may have had a role in this as well. Construction is a capital intensive industry that largely whose skill requirements are relatively generic. That is to say, it’s a field where workers are by and large seen as expendable. It’s also an industry where, historically, strong arming and intimidation gets you a lot farther in disputes than long term relationship building. And, as far as government’s role in the industry is concerned, developers are going to see it primarily as a source of zoning laws and environmental regulations which appear to serve no other purpose than to hold up a predetermined goal for years on end.

Maybe it’s one, maybe it’s the other, maybe it’s both, who knows. Either way, he’s running face first into the realities of government and doing long term damage to our institutions. And there’s no sign that he’s going to slow down. It’s going to.

Whether “Conspiracy” or “Cockup”, We Can’t Take The EPA Gag Order Lightly, Public Access To Government Science Is Essential

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Crossposted on Dailykos
In last few days, the news began to report that the Trump Administration has put a gag order on the EPA, and restricted communications across numerous other federal agencies, including the USDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other agencies. Under the order, press releases and other releases of materials to the public have been put on hold and media releases are screened for approval by administration officials. This includes a halt on the publication of scientific research papers conducted by government scientists (at least through the government). Additionally, various materials on climate change have been removed from the EPA website, and various tweets on climate change issued by the National Parks Service have been retroactively deleted. This gag follows a freeze implemented on EPA grants, halting new business activity conducted by the agency.
The move, which fits in with a larger pattern of hostility to climate science and prickly attempts at message control on the Trump Administration’s part, was roundly criticized. Environmentalists, progressives, and the scientific community reacted strongly to the news. The American Association for the Advancement of Sciences warned against “censorship and intimidation”. Similarly, websites and Facebook groups calling for a “Scientists March On Washington” have garnered significant attention.

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Some of this may have been an overreaction. Many of these are gags are likely to be temporary, and not a far reaching as many suspect. While the moves against the EPA seem to have been largely intentional, many of the gags were internal measures responding to a broader regulator freeze. This begets the question of why such occurrences did not occur in previous administrations, but it still takes the onus off the Trump administration and implies much of this may be more “cockup” than “conspiracy”.

Still, the reaction to the whole issue is justified. Whether the whole thing was a deliberate attempt at controlling government science or simply an unintended consequence of clumsily implemented policy, it represents a bad precedence. And while the issue may seem abstract, with little impact outside narrow issues like climate change, it is in fact a very serious issue. In the US, public access to government science has been built into a vitally important part of our economic system, both in terms of practical day to day uses and the strategic long term well-being of the country. We do need to jealously guard the openness and transparency of government science, because if it were undermined, the damage would be both long lasting and potentially irreversible.

 

How The American Research System Works

Before we go further, it’s worth stepping back to talk about how national research is conducted, and how research in the US has historically worked.

A good rubric for assessing the nature of the national research system is one developed by Koen Jonkers, which uses 7 dimensions on which to judge the orientation of a research system: being locus of control on the direction of research, local diffusion of knowledge, diffusion of knowledge to other research systems, international orientation, mode funding, organizational structure, and mechanisms for evaluation. There are two extreme types. On the one hand, you have a centrally planned ideal type, which is hierarchical, had research direction set by high ranking officials, has little interaction between agencies and the broader public, and works through direct funding. On the other hand, market ideal types devolve more decision making power to agencies, it’s more open to the public, allows for greater diffusion and cooperation across agency and sector, and conducts funding largely through competitive grants to the broader public. The “Market” label implies a certain focus on private industry, which is a large part of it, but it’s also largely based on autonomous public agencies and institutions, and voluntary action. For that reason, I’d actually argue that it’s better thought of as a “civil society ideal type”.

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Not surprisingly, the US tends to be more on the “Market” end of the spectrum, though this has varied over. When the structures of government science were constructed in the 40s-60s largely as a response to WWII, The Cold War, and the Space Race the system was generally more centralized. Since the 1970s, there’s been more of a shift towards making the system more civil society oriented system. Intramural research has fallen as a share of federally funded R&D projects from about 35% in the mid-70s to around 18% today. As more emphasis was put on outside research, Federal funded R&D has also fallen from 1.25% of GDP in 1976 to 0.75% today. Meanwhile, the Bayh-Dole Act clarifying the rules for using for government research to become more accessible to the public and a general shift away from government owned and operated programs.

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To be sure, this has been a good and bad thing. On the plus side, we’ve managed to create a fairly a community a broader community for scientific research that’s notable for its flexibility and transparency. The fact that we can conduct as much research in such an organic way is a credit to the fact that our country is exceptionally well off and well educated. Furthermore, the fact that we’ve spent decades creating an environment in which cooperative research projects can form organically means that there are now countless channels for knowledge to be shared across various institutions and breakthroughs can be broadly disseminated quickly and at little cost.

On the other hand, the centrally planned ideal type has strengths that people, including Jonkers, tend to overlook. Ideally they can direct research and provide access to technology in a way that benefits society at large, rather than the narrow interests of specific industries. They also do a better job coordinating resources, which is crucial in the sort of large scale, long term projects that tend to typify much of modern science. That’s why the US research system still relies heavily on a core of government science, particularly for the hard sciences and especially at the level of basic research. The neglect of that core government research often suffers as a consequence of the drive to outsource research can be counterproductive. The declining rateof start-up formation and major breakthroughs indicate we may have been better off back in the days when NASA when getting more than 4% of the national budget and DARPA was creating the internet than we are in our current model of relying on silicon valley tech moguls to deliver spaceflight technology through their personal hobbies, or viral social media campaigns to determine which diseases get research funding.

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In any event, we get a picture of American R&D as a system in which a core of government science and autonomous research institution in the broader public has established extensive links over the course of decades, and now rely one another in a symbiotic relationship that has proven to be highly productive.

 

The Worst of Both Worlds

So let’es get back to the gag order, and what it may portend.

Trump was never promising a massive reinvestment into core government science institutions. By most indications, he intends to cut funding for many of the core government science institutions. He also, decidedly, seems to want to direct government science’s efforts towards servicing favored industries. This isn’t necessarily new, either for him, Republicans, or political discourse in general, and this can be seen as continuing a long term trend. But the recent gags on the EPA, USDA, and others indicates that he’s also he’s threatening to move government research towards a more closed model, creating barriers between them and the broader public while at the same time subjecting them to arbitrary dictates from above.

And this is pretty unambiguously deleterious, since the US has become so invested in a system that makes government and public mutually dependent on one another. Broad public access to government science provides the public with access to basic research findings crucial to future innovations. It allows government agencies and public research institutions to act as a focal point around which clusters of innovative industries can form. Government science determines which strain of flu gets used for vaccinations, and helps to increase crop yields. Government science isn’t just important at the macro level either, it also provides a number of daily conveniences to the public, like access to up to the minute weather reports and air quality readings. While weather alerts may not sound like a big deal, in fact they can have a significant economic impact.

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To my friends still in China, remember that this is the US Embassy that puts these out…

And the benefits go both ways. Voluntary involvement in large public projects, so called Citizen Science, can generate millions, if not billions, of dollars worth of economic benefits per year. To cite one example, Planet Hunters, a project that allows people to use NASA’s Kepler Space Mission, has analyzed more than 12 million observations and has identified numerous planets

The advantages of this sort of government-public interaction on science is even more obvious when you look at places where its absent. The Soviet Union, for example, spent a much greater share of its resources on research and development, but 3/4ths of the R&D budget went to the military and was thus inaccessible to the public. But even in civilian research, there was little room for dissemination. The large research facilities far removed from major population centers, preventing natural diffusion of technology. Arbitrary shifts in policy by high ranking officials who neither knew of nor understood new technologies could suddenly shut down otherwise fruitful projects, while also shifting resources to worthless but ideologically more convenient research. All in all, countless discoveries went to waste because they could not be disseminated to the broader public and adapted.

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Similarly, the insularity of Chinese research institutions, which is something I’ve had a bit of personal experience with, is one of the biggest hurdles to China’s continued development

The point is that shutting off public access to government research and subjecting it to the arbitrary changes in policy can have a serious impact, whether they’re implemented by octogenarians holding to an ideological line or thin skinned pseudo-populists who just don’t like what their scientists are saying. In the past, American government science wasn’t always invested in as it should have been, but at the very least it was relatively free of this kind of interference. Now that’s no longer certain.

 

Conclusion

What the Trump Administration seems to be moving government science in a direction that’s the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, he’s ready to gut core scientific research institutions, which have already been neglected as is, and subject them to a higher degree of favoritism towards certain industries. On the other hand, he’s also threatening to make the system more closed, erecting barriers between government science and the broader public and limiting support for research in the civil society. In the US, where we’ve spent so much time and effort building an ecosystem based on mutual cooperation between government and grassroots research, it would be especially unfortunate, and potentially a serious threat to our long term well being. We can hope that the moves are temporary and limited, but they still set a bad precedence, and if they continue the consequences are sure to be severe.

The “Everything Terrible The Trump Administration Has Done So Far” Omnibus

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Here’s a list of all the awful things done by the Trump Administration has done so far. It can be to used as a quick reference source in arguments against anyone who tries to dismiss all criticism of the Trump Administration as frivolous, partisan whining. It’s also a reminder that policies enacted by the Trump Administration can be long lasting and cumulative, which is easy to forget in a political culture which jumps around from controversy to controversy, forgetting them as it goes.

  1. Halted Obamacare implementation, began process of repeal which is expected to cause 18 million to lose their health insurance immediately, and 32 million to lose their health insurance in 10 years
  2. Prevented foreign NGOs which receive US funding from providing abortion counseling
  3. Hiked mortgage premiums on homebuyers borrowing money from government
  4. Implemented Federal hiring freeze, which is largely recognized as a counterproductive policy that will compromise government functionality and probably end up increasing costs and corruption by increasing reliance on opaque contractors
  5. His PR team has demanded he be able to just outright lie to the press
  6. His CIA pick, Mike Pompeo, has said  he’d consider loosening limits on torture techniques like waterboarding
  7. Had the Department of Justice halt a case on Texas’s voter ID law
  8. Started discussions to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, which serves no purpose other than to antagonize
  9. Lamented the fact that we didn’t plunder Iraq’s oil, said we still might
  10. Has taken a weirdly Nixonian line on executive privilege, using loopholes in the law to circumvent laws on conflicts of interest and nepotism
  11. Issued executive order pushing forward the Keystone/Dakota Access Pipeline
  12. Froze new grants and contracts at the EPA
  13. Gagged press releases and other releases of material to the public from the EPA, USDA, Department of Interior and other agencies.
  14. Removed all Spanish content from the White House website. Allegedly this was because the site was doing maintenance and Spanish language content was given a low priority, begetting the question of why it was given low priority.
  15. The administration has apparently made it a practice to bring plants to their own events at government offices
  16. Ordered the building of a wall on the border with Mexico, a significant expenditure of about $20 billion, as well as increases in border patrols at a cost of about $13 billion, all unfunded and of questionable social use.
  17. Floated the idea of funding the project with a 20% tariff on imports from Mexico. (later backed off, whether this or other extreme tariffs are enacted is yet to be seen)
  18. Stripped sanctuary cities of federal grants, which is expected to cost them more than $2.27 billion which would otherwise have gone to support everything from schools, infrastructure projects, and HIV prevention.
  19. Called for major investigation into unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, which can only be only be described as frivolous (pending)
  20. Considered reintroducing CIA blacksites (pending)
  21. Introduced “extreme vetting”, aka the “Muslim ban”, on immigrants from 7 Muslim countries. The system is explicitly discriminatory and violates international law, though it also exempts countries where Trump has business dealings.
  22. Halved the total number of refugees allowed into the country from 110,000 to 50,000, blocked refugees from Syria indefinitely, suspended refugees from all countries for 120 days, and suspended new visas to individuals coming from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen for 30 days170129030215-protest-travel-ban-jfk-large-169
  23. Implemented a weekly “shame” list of all crimes committed by immigrants. While, yes, the irony of me faulting Trump for maintaining a list of people’s misbehavior is not lost on me, there are some obvious differences. It’s not inappropriate to see Trump and his political team as culpable for their actions, and see those actions as fitting within an agenda. Trump’s list would assign collective guilt on all immigrants, and imply a systemic problem which is not there.
  24. Halted pre-paid $5 million meant for ads and outreach for Healthcare.gov during the crucial signup period for health insurance, sabotaging efforts to inform people of their health insurance options and potentially raising insurance premiums.
  25. Numerous reports have indicated the Trump Administration has been very lax in its email security. Notable breaches include Trump himself using an unsecure android phone, and numerous staff members continuing to use personal emails for their correspondences. This is especially egregious, considering these are the same practices Trump criticized Clinton for during the campaign.
  26. Possibly violated the constitution by allowing his hotels to accepting payment from foreign governments, then merging his personal and government finances by passing the money on to the treasury department.
  27. The Justice Department will be defending the Trump Administration on conflict of interest cases at tax payer’s expense. It, along with the significant federal expenditures required to track Trump’s business interest, represent a dubious public expense that could have been avoided had Trump more clearly divested himself of his private holdings.
  28. Omitted all references to Jews, Judaism and antisemitism from statement on Holocaust Remembrance  Day, stoking anxieties about antisemitism among Trump’s supporters and staff
  29. Removed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence from the National Security Council and added his top political adviser, Steve Bannon
  30. Ignored orders by Federal Courts to temporarily halt the deportation of people with valid visas as a consequence of the Muslim Ban. Customs and Border Patrol agents working under the Department of Homeland Security continued to attempt to deport people, possibly creating a constitutional crisis.
  31. Filed for reelection on the day of his inauguration. This action, which is highly unusual, allows Trump to immediately begin accepting campaign contributions, prompting further fears of conflicts of interest and corruption.
  32. Possibly purged, or prompted the resignation of, a large portion of senior State Department officials. Motives aside, the broad and abrupt nature of this has left the agency seriously lacking in human capital.
  33. Authorized a military strike in Yemen which killed at least 15 women and children, including the 8-year-old daughter of US citizen and terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki. This incident, which at the very least displays a callous disregard for those killed as collateral damage, is particularly disturbing given Trump’s previous claim that he’d “take out” the families of terrorists.
  34. Signed an executive order demanding that, for every new regulation enacted, 2 must be revoked, and mandated that net spending on regulations must be zero for. The order has been called “arbitrary” and “impossible to implement” and will undermine effective government.
  35. Used congressional staffers to create the Muslim Ban Executive Order. Had staffers sign non-disclosure agreements so that their employers (congress) would not know about it, thus circumventing the division between the executive branch and the congressional branch.
  36. Weakened the Obama Administration’s lobbying ban
  37. Iced out” CNN in attempt to punish it for unfavorable coverage
  38. Reneged on his campaign promise to negotiate drug prices
  39. Maintained much of his private security after assuming office, which has previously been accused of using excessive, racial profiling, and trampling free speech
  40. Froze implementation of new overtime pay rules
  41. Reportedly harangued the Prime Minister of Australia over a preexisting plan to relocate 1,250 refugees to the US, possibly nixed the deal
  42. Accused Germany of trade manipulation, possibly blundering the US into a trade war with the EU and Japan
  43. Threatened to send troops into Mexico to the Mexican President
  44. Reported to have ordered the covert military operation in #33 without sufficient intelligence, leading the Navy SEAL team into an ambushed and possibly causing the above cited civilian casualties.
  45. Loosened sanctions on Russia, even as Russian backed separatists ramped up attacks in Ukraine
  46. Vowed to “destroy the Johnson Amendment” which prohibits churches from engaging in politics at the risk of losing their tax exempt status, blurring the line between church and state.
  47. Threatened to cut federal funding to UC Berkley after student protests
  48. Rolled back financial regulations implemented under the Dodd-Frank Act which prevent financial institutions from investing retirement savings into risky products for their own benefit, without disclosing the information to the investors. This move is expected to cost retirees $17 billion a year
  49. Repealed the “blacklisting rule”, which requires companies bidding for federal contracts to disclose labor law violations.
  50. Repealed the Extraction Payment Disclosure rule, which requires oil, gas, mining, and other extraction companies to disclose their payments to foreign governments
  51. Repealed the Stream Protection Rule, which prevents coal companies from dumping their waste products into rivers and other effluenceprestea-mine
  52. Repealed a rule which limits the ability of people with mental illnesses to purchase guns
  53. Proposed new rules to make special enrollments under Obamacare more difficult
  54. Considered scrapping the Countering Violent Extremism program in favoring of one focusing exclusively on radical Islam, turning a blind eye to right wing extremism and further antagonizing American Muslims
  55. Wiped pages on Civil Rights, Climate Change, and LGBT Rights from the White House website after taking office
  56. Attempted to justify the Muslim Ban by alluding to a fictitious “Bowling Green Massacre”
  57. Blocked 9 companies from providing affordable internet to the poor
  58. Tacitly endorsed Israel’s recent drive to expand settlements in the West Bank
  59. Encouraged more aggressive civil assets forfeiture
  60. Questioned legitimacy of judges who blocked his travel ban, an attack on judicial independence which even Trump’s own supreme court nominee found demoralizing
  61. Possibly broke ethics rules by going out of their way to criticize Nordstrom for dropping Ivanka Trump’s product line, then publicly endorsing them
  62. Delayed listing bumblebees as endangered
  63. Issued tough on crime executive orders that reverse course on police reform with the excuse of confronting a non-existent crime wave
  64. Wiped references to the Affordable Care Act from government websites
  65. Has apparently nixed extending the New START Treaty on nuclear arm’s control
  66. Ordered the USDA to remove inspection reports and other  animal welfare safeguards, enabling animal abuse
  67. Apparently deleted a Department of Labor website that allowed Wells Fargo employees to report abusive labor and employment practices carried out by the bank
  68. Launched a mass deportation drive that has put countless immigrants who have built their lives in the US in the crosshairs. It’s estimated that 700 were arrested in the first week of the drive.
  69. As President-Elect undermined Obama’s foreign policy and possibly broke the Logan Law when Michael Flynn called Russian Ambassador and suggesting that the Trump Administration would roll back sanctions. Flynn was eventually forced to resign as questions emerged as to whether or not he had misled the White House and received money from the Russian government
  70. Withdrew a challenge to an injunction blocking guidelines that would prevent discrimination against transgender people in restrooms, then later withdrew the guidelines altogether
  71. Issued a list of “under reported” terrorists attacks which omitted domestic terrorist attacks committed by white nationalists/right wing terrorists. It also misspelled “San Bernardino”
  72. Reportedly has generally created turmoil at the National Security Council
  73. Attempted to block Salam Fayyad from acting as UN envoy to Libya, complicating attempts to mediate a peaceful resolution to the country’s ongoing civil war, essentially just to spite Palestine
  74. Acted irresponsibly by reviewing sensitive intelligence on open patios and allowing members of his private club at Mar-A-Lago to take pictures with the “nuclear football”c4hf_afwmaaeex_
  75. After learning of Michael Flynn’s potentially illegal activities in #69, did nothing for 18 days.
  76. He and the Republican Congress have also rejected investigating potentially serious misconduct by administration officials related to #69, and instead have indicated their desire to go in the opposite direction by cracking down on whistle blowers
  77. Caught lying about communicating with Russian intelligence officials during the 2016 campaign. In fact, the Trump campaign maintained regular contact with Russian intelligence officials
  78. Broke from decades of US foreign policy by abandoning a 2 state solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict
  79. Shortened the enrollment period for the ACA by one and a half months, making it increasingly difficult for people to gain access to affordable healthcare
  80. Lowered the quality standards for healthcare plans listed on the ACA marketplace
  81. When asked whether he would include the Congressional Black Caucus, appeared to be vaguely unaware of what the Congressional Black Caucus was and asked the reporter asking him the question to arrange a meeting with them, apparently thinking that because she was black she must have known their members personally
  82. Began to arrest “dreamers” (i.e. people who had been brought to the US as children) who were living in the US legally under DACA.
  83. Considered mobilizing the national guard to use as a deportation force
  84. Ordered government economists to cook up rosy economic forecasts. Also appears poised to tamper with the way economic statistics are calculated to advance his policy goals
  85. Said Republican congressmen only represent Republican voters in their districts, indicating an intent to govern in an overtly hard line partisan that does not represent the population at large
  86. Nixed $674 million in spending to electrify California’s rail system, effectively killing hopes for a high speed rail in the state
  87. Revived the “Secure Communities” program which had been previously shut down for endemic racial profiling
  88. Began firing staff who criticized Trump before his election. Also firing staff who complained about him in private
  89. Declared the media to be the “enemy of the American people”
  90. Instructed ICE agents to deport migrants who have been charged, but not convicted, of crimes while also stating immigrants will not be afforded rights under U.S. privacy laws
  91. Laid the groundwork for a humanitarian crisis in YemenYEMEN-CONFLICT-AID-MALNUTRITION
  92. Proposed using background checks on Chinese immigrant’s social media profiles in a move civil rights advocates fear will be used to discriminate against Chinese immigrants
  93. Prioritized” the deportation of nearly all undocumented immigrants everywhere,  potentially for offenses as minor as traffic violations, setting the stage for mass deportations
  94. Decided to treat transgender rights as a “states rights issue”, presumably knowing full well what “states rights” tends to mean for civil rights issues
  95. Implemented a policy to deport immigrants who had entered the US through Mexico back to Mexico regardless of whether or not they are Mexican citizens, which is likely to create security problems and legal challenges as authorities in each country pass immigrants back and forth
  96. Scuttled a CEO pay regulation
  97. Reversed an Obama era policy curtailing private prison use
  98. Meddled in the FBI by trying to direct the agency to dispute reports of Trump’s ties with Russia

NOTE: I will try to update the Omnibus regularly, hopefully for the 4 year duration of the Trump Administration. It only covers things that are done when Trump, or someone in his administration, is wearing the “President hat”, so to speak, so anything they’ve done before entering office is not included, nor are horrible things they’ve done on their own time. Ideally the list would mainly concern formal actions and their consequences, however informal practices (like how the administration deals with the media) or particularly brash proposals are still included, as they still reflect on the administration and can have consequences.

I don’t expect to be able to keep on top of everything, so if there are any other items you feel should be listed, just tell me and I’ll add it.

The National Enquirer’s Fawning Coverage of Trump is Both Baffling and a Bit Intriguing

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One of the more amusing things to me since the election has been the fawning, bordering on sycophantic, coverage of that Trump has been getting from The National Enquirer. I know they were generally friendly to him during the election, but they’ve been running at full Pravada mode for about 2 months now…

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The National Enquirer’s enthusiasm for Trump was a bit baffling to me. I mean, in my mind, The National Enquirer is many things, but they’re not ideologues. They’re not representing any particular set of political views, as an outlet like Fox News might. Nor do they peddling insane conspiracy theories out of some heart felt paranoia directed at the powers that be, like Alex Jones or Lyndon LaRouche. They peddle insane conspiracy theories because that’s they’re business model, and as such they tend to go after everyone.

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Case in point…

Now, you’d think that Trump would seem like an endless source of content for them. I mean, the man has literally been accused by a CIA of having prostitutes piss on each other and then blackmailed by the Russians over it. But even the open conspiracy theories are weirdly positive.

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Russian shenanigans haven’t been dismissed, so much as reinterpreted into the first phase in a halcyon golden age of never ending American ascendancy

You can imagine a lot of reasons for this, I guess. Trump has praised The National Enquirer on multiple occasions, so the support of the magazine makes some sense as just a matter of typical political quid pro quo. But I’d argue that it’s more than that. I think The National Enquirer loves Trump because they have a certain affinity for one another and appeal to basically the same audience. Trump’s media profile has always been closer to trashy media outlets like the National Enquirer than the more nakedly ideological conventional conservative media. He’s more daytime Fox Network than prime time Fox News, more Entertainment Tonight than Tucker Carlson Tonight.

And I think this is actually sort of relevant. I mean, a lot of people have noted Trump’s status as a reality star, but usually they’re just doing it to dismiss him. Few seem to consider it to be an essential part to his success. But I would argue that it’s important to understanding how Trump has been able to achieve a sort of mass appeal despite his absence of any compelling/coherent vision, the open hostility from most Republican organizations, poor organizational skills, lousy oratory skills, and a highly skeptical mainstream media. It seems to have been a way for him to reach a mass audience under the radar.

 

Cults of Personality are often built on mountains of trash

Typically when we think about people who are able to achieve a mass appeal, we tend to focus on a few things: their oratorical skill, whether or not they possess a compelling vision, their keen political mind, their ability to organize, their ability to gain institutional support, or their achievements. All these things are certainly one way that someone can achieve icon status, but they’re not the only way. You can also do by being very marketable in trashy popular culture.

And this can be highly effective. Low culture ephemera can get to just about anybody, no matter how disconnected they are from the national political culture. It saturates people with blaring images that give people an impression of who people are or how the world works. People may not take these impressions at face value, but that also means that people can see them as being below scrutiny.

Indeed, people have often rocketed into power based on little else. A particularly illustrative example can be seen in the brief career of Georges Boulanger.

 

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Yes, that’s right, this is one of those things where I use something topical to launch into a digression about my esoteric historical curiosities

To give a brief summary of the whole affair, Georges Boulanger was a French general, Minister of War and politician who, during the later half of the 1880s, launched a series of high profile stunts and political campaign took advantage in of nationalist sentiment and public dissatisfaction with the dysfunctional republican government. By 1889, he had developed an extensive cult of personality, and many expected he’d soon topple the government and establish himself as a strongman. Boulanger is often pointed to as a precursor to 20th century Right Wing populism and proto-Fascist.

More interesting, and relevant to this discussion, is how Boulanger became so popular in the first place. He had a talent for showmanship, and there was a national mood of resentment and cynicism for him to take advantage of, and a hodge podge of conservative allies, but not much else, but none of this is sufficient to explain the mass support he was able to garner at the grassroots. He wasn’t a brilliant political mind, by any measure. He was a lousy orator. He didn’t have a compelling vision. He didn’t have much institutional support, or a well organized political to campaign for him. His record wasn’t particularly distinguished. The conventional press loved to cover his publicity stunts, but they didn’t have the sort of reach to broadcast them to the millions of mostly illiterate peasants who made up the bulk of his supporters. So how did he develop this image as a national hero people were champing at the bit to install as a dictator?

The answer is that Boulanger was able to take advantage of a thriving network of colporteurs (rural peddlars) who went from town to town selling images d’Epinal (colorful information), nic-nacks, song sheets, etc. These things were essentially garbage, but they were still one only ways that people in small isolated towns were able to learn about the outside world, or national politics. So when people went to town and saw images of Boulanger on everything from cards to soap heroically standing up to the Germans or telling off shiftless politicians, it captured their imagination and they were ready to assume that that was in fact the truth. And there wasn’t much to contradict the image.

 

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Well, this is more like an urban based newspaper, but you get the idea…

Even the more traditional cults of personalities were far more reliant than people often realize. Most of the images Italians saw of Mussolini weren’t on official propaganda, they were on post cards and kitschy nic-nacks made by people trying to make a quick buck. The modern Chinese Communist Party still churns out dozens of stilted soap operas featuring Mao. And so on and so forth.

 

So brining this back to Trump and National Enquirer…

So let’s get back to the question of why Trump was able to upend the Republican Party and win the Presidency. The fact that Trump attracted a following of online fringe conservatives and spoke to widespread public dissatisfaction was part of it, but it wouldn’t have gotten him anywhere if he wasn’t able to get a broad subset of people to believe he could deliver on his promises. That’s where He’d spent the better part of the 80s, 90s and 2000s building a made for TV image of an aggressive and competent, if somewhat shady businessman, and most people were willing to accept it because he looked the part and there’s no point in questioning the business acumen of a TV celebrity. So when he ran for office and people started pointing out that he was woefully ignorant of economic policy, and not even all that good of a business man either, they were fighting an uphill battle against a well established public image. The fact that Trump had spent most of that time in the public eye, alternately marrying and divorcing supermodels, going on cocaine fueled romps etc. inoculated him from most sorts of had created a certain sense of familiarity.

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I mean, really…

Just as important, it helps us understand how Trump managed to come into the limelight. The fact that his image was tailored to tabloids meant that he always had a platform for reaching a mass audience any time “called out” Obama or pushed birther conspiracy theories, and one where the editors and readers were least inclined to think about it critically. Through a steady stream of taunts, accusations, and stunts he flourished on this type of media, then he started to bleed into the more conventional media, and gradually his candidacy went from being a morbid curiosity to a distinct possibility to an inevitability. No matter how critical the mainstream media got, he was always able to bypass them.

By all appearances, Trump seems set to continue to operate as though his main job is to gin up headlines tabloids, even as he transitions into the Presidency. We can probably expect to see more things like the Carrier Deal throughout his Presidency, as well as other spectacles of Trump publicly denouncing this or that person, or making some demand, or what have you. He’s even touched on the idea of having military parades. It may not be the most relevant impact of a Trump Administration, but it’s going to be the Trump Administrations public face.

For Democrats (and for that matter, Republicans) this is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s probably going to be counterproductive in terms of implementing policy, which requires a coordinated messaging and occasionally flying things under the radar. It’s also probably also a bad thing in terms of actual policy, since arbitrarily intervening in the economy, slashing government programs, picking international fights, or bombing countries in the sole interest of generating publicity is awful policy and deleterious to institutions.

But from a political standpoint, I’m not so sure. I think on some level it does work. No matter how much ill will Trump generates among policy experts, various interest groups, or the mainstream press, people waiting at the checkout lines of their supermarkets are still going see headlines about Trump putting China in their place, or crippling terrorism and drug cartels, or denouncing this or that political hack. For people who aren’t very politically engaged, who only tune in every election cycle, that may be all they bother with.

What The Debate Over “Identity Politics” Does, And Does Not Mean For The Democratic Party

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I may be a little late to this topic, since the whole controversy came out a month and a half ago, but the issue is still simmering, and the direction of the Democratic Party is still in flux. How the Democratic party deals with the issue has serious implications for the future of the country. It’s an issue that still warrants talking about to say the least.

So of course, in the aftermath of the election there’s been a debate raging about the role of “identity politics”, the tendency to focus on narrow issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., in the modern Democratic politics. Conservative and Centrist commentators have taken the opportunity to crow about how over-reliance on this sort of politics caused them to turn into an exclusivist party, over reliant on demographics and unwilling to appeal to the “mainstream”. Much of this was just the same old tired diatribes about “PC Culture” that we hear every time Democrats do poorly in an election. But then Sanders and, and many other progressives, began criticizing the party from the left, faulting it for failing to push common, primarily economic, vision for the party, and instead cynically adopting a veneer of social progressivism to deflect criticism and delegitimize their opponents.

This generated a lot of controversy. Many were quick to dismiss Sanders and his allies. Many have equated their argument to trivializing issues that are important to women, minorities, immigrants, and the LGBT community. Others have claimed that politics is little more than “identity politics”, and trying to do what Sanders and others are suggesting is either untenable, or amounts to ignoring their constituents.

On the whole, I think these attempts to dismiss the issue are wrong headed. First off, as many have pointed out, they mischaracterize the argument being made, trying to portray it as complaining that a lot of voters vote on issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. In fact, what he’s criticizing is lousy messaging and cynical attempts to coopt issues of identity politics, which is basically a cogent point. Second, they’re quick to dismiss that there is an issue that needs to be addressed. On the contrary, there are tons of examples of the Democratic leadership, and others, doing exactly what Sanders was accusing them of and getting away with it. This does have serious consequences for the effectiveness of Progressive politics.

 

First, Some Basic Points

There isn’t actually a contradiction

It’s worth noting that, strictly speaking, there isn’t actually any cause for conflict over “identity politics”. If the Democratic Party is based on one principal, it’s that true social progress can be measured in how society empowers and engages all its members. The goals of economic and racial justice and gender/sexual empowerment are all basically compatible with this goal. Indeed, in a lot of ways, they’re self-reinforcing, and meaningless without one another. Equality before the law is a vapid right if people don’t have the economic means to realize it. Conversely, meaningful working class solidarity can’t be achieved in a context of racial animosity and sexism.

Today, there is a basic understanding of this among the various branches of the Democratic coalition. To be sure, this wasn’t always the case, and there are numerous instances when the reforms of economic progressives failed to enfranchise racial minorities, women, immigrants and so forth as they should have. But, whatever their failings a century ago (and it’s easy to exaggerate them), they’re far outstripped by instances of successful cooperation. The labor movement was a pretty important conduit through which feminists and the civil rights movement were able to organize, and the support of organized labor, which was decades ahead of the mainstream, was pivotal to the success of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. Similarly, labor abandoned any of its anti-immigration stances decades ago, and now recognizes that the best way to preserve labor protections is to make sure everyone, including non-citizens, are entitled to them.

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But more than this, a large part of the reason the working class and identity politics are the same is because they serve the same voters. This is, of course, because racial minorities and women are disproportionately likely to belong to the working class, or otherwise be economically vulnerable. They’re also like a key component of laboring organizations. Today, African Americans are the most likely ethnic group to belong to a labor union.

The point is that, the trade-off between economic and racial/social justice is a false one. Economic enfranchisement and racial/social enfranchisement are complimentary goals. Indeed, recognizing this, and extending it to a more broad based argument that can appeal to everyone, should be important in establishing a more cohesive and vigorous Democratic party directed from the grassroots.

Still, It’s Probably Inevitable That Large Swathes Of The Electorate Prioritize Racial/Gender Issues, And That’s Not Fundamentally A Problem

Of course, you can emphasize how economic and racial/gender justice are complimentary ends and how a broad progressive vision of society benefits everyone, but at the end of the day, you can’t tell people what to prioritize. People are going to chafe at the notion that they should treat issues they should as of paramount importance.

This isn’t an irrational thing for people to do. Racial/Gender injustices are certainly severe enough to warrant a person’s full attention, and while it’s tempting to think that we can kill two birds with one stone by focusing on economic injustice, there are a lot of situations where that isn’t the case. Besides that, it’s worthwhile to recognize that cultural ties are often stronger than economic ones, and stark divides in race, gender, and sexual orientation are often more apparent than abstract systemic problems.

All this is to say that identity politics is just people voting their interests as they see them, which is what the democratic process is all about. There’s nothing wrong with it, and just as importantly it’s unavoidable. Anyone who legitimately is trying to tell voters that their priorities are wrong is just pushing on a string.

All this reinforces the importance of being able to localize a message to appeal to an audience. For progressive liberals who want gain the lockstep support of African Americans, Immigrants, Women, or LGBT voters on various common causes, this means their job isn’t just about getting those voters to appreciate the commonalities in their shared vision, it also means adapting the message to the audience is something you’re probably going to have to do at some point. Likewise, this goes in reverse. If minority voters, immigrants, women, or LGBT want to achieve their policy goals, they need to be able to explain why those policy goals aren’t simply a niche issue for them, but something which has broader implications for people who fall outside their narrow group. It’s just good politics.

 

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For example, Black Lives Matter would probably do well to emphasize that police militarization and the runaway prison industrial complex is harmful to everyone…

That Said, Sanders Is Right To Complain

In the greater scheme of things. There isn’t really a conflict between economic progressivism and identity politics, nor is there anything wrong with people voting primarily on issues of race, gender, or sexual identity. But that’s besides the point. Sanders, and the vast majority of people on the left, were never saying otherwise. What they were complaining about are the cooptation of socially progressive causes and the broader failure of the party to make a convincing argument that it stands for anything beyond niche issues. These are both highly prevalent and highly problematic.

Socially Progressive causes are coopted all the time, and it has serious consequences

The thing is that, none of that has any bearing on what Sanders was actually saying. His main complaint wasn’t about people voting on issues of race, gender, or sexual identity, and I haven’t seen many on the left legitimately try to make that argument. What they’re criticizing is cooptation, people attempting to deflect criticism of economic exploitation or bad politics by wrapping them up in a shallow veneer of social progress. The point is basically cogent, It’s a lot easier to get companies to enact superficial changes to conform to modern taboos of racial/gender discrimination than it is to enacted meaningful systemic changes. As Sanders said, while it’d be nice if more top executives were non-white or women, but in another sense, all that would do is shift around people in a system that’s still just as unequal, on net. To put it another way, slavery wouldn’t have been fixed if there had been more African American slaveholders. The fundamental problem with slavery wasn’t that it was racist, the main problem with slavery was that it was slavery.

And while there’s a weird tendency to brush this sort of cooptation, it’s pretty easy to find. After all, we’re just coming off a primary where Centrist Hillary Clinton and her supporters pointed to her alleged appeal among African Americans and status as the first major female candidate for President as a pretext to ignore her campaign’s obvious defects, while simultaneously dismissing Sanders and his progressive supporters as a bunch of retrograde white misogynists. And this is hardly an isolated incident. Attempts to break teachers unions and push charter schools have been advertised for years under the false pretense that doing so would help inner city minority students. Cory Booker repeatedly tries to model himself as some kind civil rights icon, even as he spent his political career cozying up to the Wall Street and Big Pharma, while antagonizing the public education system. Silicon Valley executives frequently dress up their rampant abuses of the H-1B visa system as immigrant advocacy. And so on and so forth.

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For the love of God, do NOT nominate this man…

Not only that, there are also plenty of instances of people abuse identity politics as a wedge against. Conservative operatives have been attempting to weaken minority opposition to Right to Work Laws by accusing labor unions of being predominantly racist and exclusionary institutions since at least 1958. There’s virtually an entire cottage industry built around dismiss any push for fair trade, or even any attempt to curb the worst excesses of globalization, as merely selfish attempts to thwart the aspirations of the global poor.

Of course, you can argue that people who vote on issues of race, gender, or sexual orientation aren’t that easily taken in by this kind of shallow tokenism or cynical divide and conquer. You’d be mostly right in this, as Hillary Clinton learned on election night when she underperformed, badly, among women, African Americans,Latino voters, etc. But that’s kind of the point, it’s lousy politics.

But while this type of cooptation isn’t actually all that effective, it can still suck all the air out the room and undermine cohesion in the Democratic coalition cohesion by creating false controversies. It can still commit the party to a series of strategic blunders by nominating Cory Booker in 2020, or equating “appealing to working class Midwesterners” with “pandering to racists”. So it’s basically true that we should be wary of this sort of thing taking hold in Democratic politics.

The Future of the Democratic Party

Beyond this, there is a broader question of what the Democratic party should be. During the Democratic primary, a number of commentators pointed to an article by Grossman and Hopkins which posited that the Democratic Party is not be viewed as a cohesive party united by a shared ideology, but rather as a coalition of social groups that who trade their support in exchange for policies that serve the narrow goals of their constituents. While at the time the implication was often that Sanders and his campaign based on pressing core Progressive beliefs was doomed in the face of political reality, in hind sight it seems to vindicate it.

Without a common cause, the democrats didn’t have anything around which to mobilize support. Without a clear vision for the future beyond a patchwork of policies meant to serve specific interests, they couldn’t convince voters that they represented a viable path of achieving change. On the contrary, working through trasactional politics allowed the leadership to become insulated, keeping their voters at arms length, and playing insider games to lock up support. This made it easy for someone like Trump to paint them as little more than a continuation of politics as usual.

The problem isn’t the voters, it’s leadership who some decades ago abandoned all but the most vague liberal principals in the interest of winning for its own sake. They never made an effort to impress on voters that they all shared the same basic ideal, accessible to everyone. Indeed, at times they seems to actively suppress it. This sort of politics cannot continue.