Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Listen: the Trump cabinet is a parade of misdeeds.

One of the most peculiar aspects of the Trump administration is that it's just too obvious.  It wouldn't be believable if it was fiction, since all of the main players seem like caricatures.  We focus a lot on the president because he's an irrational and bombastic sexual predator, but all of the secondary characters are just as offensively broad.  They each seem to be dominated by a single vice -- as though we were living in a modern-day political Piers Plowman. Witness:

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems to represent the political vice of Fanaticism, shunning the cold lessons of reality in favor of the warm embrace of unreasoning ideology.  For years, she and her husband spent millions and millions of dollars to lobby the Michigan legislator to permit more and more charter schools, and to eliminate as much regulation as possible.  The theory was that the free market would force public schools and charter schools to compete to improve as much as possible, driving standards up while lowering costs.  But this hasn't happened, as this New York Times article details.  The Education Trust Midwest reported last year:
Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and getting worse. In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state in elementary reading and math achievement to the bottom 10 states.
Now, it's good that Michigan was willing to try something new, and it's even good that private advocates were able to affect the trajectory of a cause that's important to them.  But when an experiment fails, it's important to recognize that and move on.  If you try to ignore reality, and try to use the weight of your money to force everyone else to ignore reality, too, then you are no longer an advocate.  You're a fanatic.

Betsy DeVos has used her money like a club, and she has left Michigan's children badly bloodied in the process.  But she will never recognize that, for she prefers her ignorance to the uncomfortable real world.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson is an odd person to represent the political vice of Pride, I'll admit.  He has been a pioneering surgeon and he is a brilliant man -- he has every right to be proud of his accomplishments.  But it is folly to conclude that, because you're great at one thing, you must be great at everything.  Just like his boss, Carson has fallen victim to hubris.

It's interesting to see how it played out.  See, Carson reportedly didn't feel he would have been qualified to run Health and Human Services, the position for which others might think he was naturally suited.  It turns out that although he had been a neurosurgeon for many years and manager of the department at his hospital, he didn't think he'd do a good job at HHS.  He knew enough to know that he didn't know enough, according to Jim Kemp (a Trump appointee to HUD): "Being surgeon general or secretary of [Health and Human Services], I don’t think he was fully equipped to do that, having been a neurosurgeon."

But public housing and urban development?  Well, he didn't know much about that, but he thought he saw some obvious problems that he could fix.  You couldn't ask for a better example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon by which someone's ignorance of a topic obscures their ability to recognize that ignorance.  Carson knew enough about medicine to realize he'd be a bad steward of American healthcare, but he knew so little about public housing that he couldn't see why any experience might even be necessary.  It was utter hubris, and the country is paying the price.

It is far easier to see how Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is the very soul of Graft, on the other hand.  He's not even being subtle about it.

For example, six days after Hurricane Maria brutalized Puerto Rico, the tiny mainland utility company Whitefish got the contract to rebuild their electrical grid.  This is unusual, because Whitefish had only two employees at the time they got the contract, because Whitefish had never handled a contract bigger than $1.3 million, because Whitefish had no connection with Puerto Rico, and because PREPA could have much more cheaply turned to other public utility firms under a pre-existing arrangement.  On the face of it, it doesn't make much sense.

It might make more sense once you know that Whitefish is based out of Zinke's tiny hometown in Montana, that one of Zinke's sons used to work for Whitefish's chief executive, and that there was no bidding process.

Similarly, today it was revealed that Zinke has been funneling millions of dollars to "scam PACs" that raise tons of money from small-dollar donors and then just plow it back into more fundraising and consulting.  In one instance, Zinke's associates raised huge sums to support Virginia Attorney-General Ken Cuccinelli, but only 0.5% of the money actually went to help him.  99.5% was spent on more fundraising, consultants, and salaries, instead.

Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin is also an easy example of political Elitism. It's not even his background at Goldman Sachs, the huge finance firm that the country had to bail out during a Great Recession that Goldman helped cause, or even his specific role in profiting from the housing crisis by foreclosing on thousands of people.

No, it's his tendency to use the people's money as his own that's really frustrating, for at its heart elitism is an assumption that everyone else shares your own rarefied taste and habits.  When Mnuchin took a government plane to go on a trip to watch the total eclipse with his wife from Fort Knox (at the center of the eclipse) with only the flimsiest fig leaf of an excuse, it was because he couldn't imagine anyone being bothered by the practice.  Similarly, he seems to have requested a government plane for his honeymoon trip to Europe for the same reason: using public money was one of the perks, and everyone should agree with it, right?

We could speak of former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price as an example of the political vice of Waste, but he was already fired for his absurd expenditures.  The judgment of history will be interesting.  It might be a black mark to serve in the Trump Cabinet, but to be fired from it for being too corrupt -- where does that put you?

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a more curious personification of Fecklessness.  He was once the CEO of Exxon, one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world.  But by accepting the position of Secretary of State for Donald Trump, he has found himself -- for the first time -- utterly inadequate for the task.  Tillerson seems ill-suited for government work, since he's having a hard time adjusting to the differences from the private sector, and he has found himself continuously and embarrassingly undercut by his ignorant and impulsive boss.  He's already been the subject of three long analyses on how he's letting the State Department fail, although these analyses have variously described that failure as a "destruction," "breaking point," and "unraveling."

It's apparently an open secret in Washington that Tillerson's days are numbered, and a shadow campaign is happening as candidates compete to replace him.  It's hard to blame him for wanting to leave the job, since he thinks the president is a "moron" who is undermining every constructive effort.  In the meantime, though, he's left as the most powerful powerless man in the world.

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney might be one of the most passion-play-like examples of Hypocrisy around.  As a Congressman, Mulvaney was a prophet of doom.  He warned loudly and continuously that the budget deficit would destroy the country, saying in 2012, "It’s hard to explain how detached from reality this is, to think that the country can spend another $1.6 trillion when it doesn’t have the means."  He threatened to vote against raising the debt ceiling, potentially defaulting on American debts.  He even tried to hold up relief for Hurricane Sandy unless every dollar in disaster recovery was offset by a dollar of spending cuts elsewhere.

Now, needless to say, Mulvaney is fine with deficits.  He thinks it would be irresponsible not to raise the debt ceiling.  He doesn't want to offset disaster recovery after hurricanes hit.  He has dramatically flipped his position on several key issues that he once championed.  Whether this is because his new job has made his values inconvenient, or because he never actually believed in them... well, who's to say?

I could go on -- goodness knows that there's material enough in such figures as Attorney-General Jeff Sessions (who might play Cruelty in our little drama) or Secretary of Energy Rick Perry (Ignorance, to be sure).  But I think the point is made.  The whole thing is just too broad and obvious to be believed, and someday our children will say we are making it all up.  But we're not.  It's really happening, and we have to keep paying attention.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Listen: A path forward for gun control activism (and request for assistance).

This post presents my proposal for gun control activism.  At the end, I ask for help in furthering it.  Please comment here, on Facebook, or directly to me if you have suggestions.

Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals was raised to fame by Glenn Beck -- it was neither the best nor the most famous manual for activism before then, but a foam-mouthed Beck inadvertently made it a household name on the right during Obama's first term. All of that being said, it's still useful for its concision and the way in which it addresses asymmetric conflict.  And there is no more asymmetric conflict in the country today than the gun control debate.  A small percentage of the American public has decided that gun ownership is deeply symbolic of numerous tribal beliefs, and their passion and their smart strategic decisions have dominated the discussion and decided the outcome, every time.

For many people, the conversation ended with the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.  As Dan Hodges puts it in an oft-quoted tweet, "In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over."  In this view, the fight is over and the victors were the gun lobby and that invincible and vicious bogeyman of the American left, the NRA.  They turned a debate about appropriate regulations for a popular American hobby into a culture war, deployed their troops with passable tactics and expert strategy, and won.  And now nothing remains but for us to endure regular mass shootings, a higher suicide rate, and an astronomical accident rate.  We have lain these sacrifices at the feet of our Moloch and he will punish any defiance.

I do not accept that.

My goal is to enact reasonable and common-sense gun regulations, starting with universal background checks which prohibit anyone with a recorded felony, a history of domestic abuse, or a place on the no-fly list from getting a gun.  Past that, I also want to impose federal minimum standards for gun ownership (including a safety course, already required in many states) and to prohibit the sale of semi-automatic weapons.

How to do it?

Alinsky: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.  In a complex, interrelated, urban society, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out who is to blame for any particular evil. ... One big problem is a constant shifting of responsibility from one jurisdiction to another — individuals and bureaus one after another disclaim responsibility for particular conditions, attributing the authority for any change to some other force.

One longstanding problem with the debate is that the target is amorphous.  There's no single regulation that would have prevented all of the big-profile mass shootings, and even if there's a law that might have helped, it becomes a faceless question of degree.  The gun rights proponent can reasonably argue that banning high-capacity magazines might have saved a few victims at Sandy Hook, but it's impossible to stop someone who's willing to throw away their own life in a spree killing.  We need good guys with guns to stop these attacks, they argue... then the argument becomes a debate over statistics and studies.  And when you try to match faceless statistics against someone's very immediate personal desires, you will always lose (c.f. climate change).

We need to pick a target and make it the face of the gun rights movement.  Personalize it in a way that can be easily understood, and polarize the issue so that companies, politicians, and voters need to decide whether or not to take the side of the target.

Alinsky: Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy. .. Once a specific tactic is used, it ceases to be outside the experience of the enemy. Before long he devises countermeasures that void the previous effective tactic. Recently the head of a corporation showed me the blueprint of a new plant and pointed to a large ground-floor area: "Boy, have we got an architect who is with it!" he chuckled. "See that big hall? That's our sit-in room! When the sit-inners come they'll be shown in and
there will be coffee, T.V., and good toilet facilities — they can sit here until hell freezes over."

The NRA seems like the obvious target, but that's their whole purpose.  It's why they've abandoned any pretense of a gun rights advocacy group.  Now they're all about the culture war.  Just check out their latest ads, which barely even mention guns.  They've gotten really good at this stuff, too, and are constantly innovating to find new ways to fight the culture war and maintain the intensity of their following.

Instead, we pick a gun company -- a company interested in maintaining its value for shareholders and which just wants to manufacture and market their firearms or accessories.  They will not be inclined to resist action, nor will they be able to handle it as expertly as an organization like the NRA.  Moreover, it should be a company which has sold a specific product which was used to kill a specific victim.  The product should be absurd.  The victim should be sympathetic.

Alinsky: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.  You cannot risk being trapped by the enemy in his sudden agreement with your demand and saying "You're right — we don't know what to do about this issue. Now you tell us."

In addition to those constraints, we also want to ensure that our preferred policy outcome -- universal background checks -- would have stopped the specific crime if it had been in place.  Our constructive alternative should ideally be the obvious solution in fact.

So there we have it: we need a sympathetic victim of a crime that could have been prevented if universal background checks existed, and which can be laid at the feet of a specific company.  And if all of this appears a little cold-blooded, please remember that the Scopes trial that brought evolution into the classroom began with the ACLU arranging out the perfect test case, and that the NAACP took the Rosa Parks case and turned it into a movement because she was seen as "responsible, mature woman with a good reputation" who was married and employed.  Progress doesn't happen by accident.

Once we have chosen our own case, then we'll devise tactics.  Alinsky advises that ridicule is usually the most "potent weapon," for "[t]here is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions."  And he also says that "[a] good tactic is one your people enjoy. ... They'll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They're doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones."

We have many things on our side as we start this fight.  We have many allies all over the country.  And I don't even mean high-profile ones like Michael Bloomberg and his Everytown initiative; the American public overwhelmingly supports numerous gun control initiatives.  This New York Times' Upshot column (hat tip: Ali Benjamin) illustrates the extent of this support.

We can do this... if we work together.

And that now brings me to the request for help that I mentioned earlier.  Here it is: I haven't yet found our target.  I am not sure any of the high-profile killings fit, or any of the many mass shootings in recent years.  What would be the perfect case for us?

Wrack your brains and hearts, and comment here, on Facebook, or in person if you have suggestions.  Then we can move forward.