Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Only The Best People


No President can govern alone. George Washington picked a few of the most prominent revolutionary leaders for his Cabinet, including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Now the federal government directly employs over 2 million people, and pays millions of others, such as our soldiers.

Candidates tell us they will get the best people. For most of our history, it was assumed that the best meant white men. After Emancipation of the slaves in 1865, black men began to be hired in Washington, encouraged by the early Republican Party. President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, reimposed racist criteria on federal hiring early in the 20th century. Only since Lyndon Johnson’s efforts at desegregating American society in the 1960s have African Americans again held important offices in our government.

The first woman to serve in the Cabinet was Frances Perkins, appointed Secretary of Labor by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. President Dwight Eisenhower made the next female appointment in 1953, Oveta Culp Hobby as head of the new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. As the women’s movement intensified in the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter appointed four women to his Cabinet.

Although women have almost as many jobs in the government as men, they are concentrated at lower pay and responsibility. In all departments, the salary pyramid narrows strongly at the top in favor of men. So Milt Romney talked awkwardly about “binders full of women” in 2012, to show that his version of best included women.

Donald Trump constantly repeated that he would bring in “the best people” or “the best people in the world”. He said, “I know the best people.”  “You’ve got to pick the best people.” He boasted about how good he was at finding the best. Because he rarely mentioned anyone in particular, we never found out what he meant by “best”.

Now we know a lot more.

On August 21, one of his campaign managers was convicted of tax and bank fraud, and his personal attorney of many years pled guilty to similar financial crimes. In Trump’s first 18 months, 8 Cabinet secretaries had to resign, often for spending outrageous amounts of our tax dollars on themselves, a record turnover. The constant changes, including many firings, of Trump’s larger senior staff are “unprecedented”: 4 communications directors, 3 national security advisors, 2 chiefs of staff.

National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and campaign adviser George Papadopoulos both lied to the FBI.

Trump drew people near to him who excelled at defrauding others, private and public. Then he evaluated them with a single criteria: do they love him?

Trump explained his hiring policy in a nutshell, after he got mad at one of his best people. He hired one of his reality television co-stars, Omarosa Manigault, as director of African-American outreach for his campaign. She responded by saying in September 2016: “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump. It's everyone who's ever doubted Donald, whoever disagreed, whoever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.”

Now she’s gone. Trump says that she is a lowlife and a dog, but he hired her “because she only said GREAT things about me.”

Omarosa was one of the small number of women hired for senior positions in the Trump administration. Despite GOP boasts about how many women he has hired, in fact, his administration is “the most male-dominated federal government in nearly a quarter-century”.

Does he care about crime? After Manafort was convicted of stealing money from banks and from the government to support an outrageous lifestyle, Trump called him “a brave man ... a stand-up guy”. All that mattered was that Manafort had not yet cooperated with prosecutors. Not yet, but maybe soon.

Trump is outraged that the first two House members to endorse him both are under indictment for financial crimes. Not outraged at their apparent crimes, but at the fact that their indictments might hurt Republicans in the elections.

Trump does have some of the best people working in his administration. They have proven themselves by long years of accomplishment, doing the work of running our government in the most non-partisan manner they can, serving Presidents of both Parties, and bringing wisdom and ethical behavior to our federal government.

But there aren’t nearly as many as there were just two years ago. Trump and his appointed Cabinet, his version of the best people, have performed so badly, so incompetently, so corruptly, that thousands of career public servants have quit their jobs. More than half of the top-ranking diplomats in the State Department had left by January 2018, and applications to join the foreign service have fallen by half. More than 700 people left the EPA by the end of last year, including 200 scientists.

Trump’s best people are corrupting American government at all levels. It may take a long time for us to recover.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 11, 2018

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Science is Complicated, But True


The discoveries of scientists often provoke political controversy. Galileo Galilei, who was instrumental in the transition of European thought from philosophical speculation to scientific explanation in the 17th century, was persecuted by the Catholic Church for saying that the earth revolved around the sun. Church leaders had forbidden any teaching that the earth was not the center of all creation, based on their interpretation of certain Biblical passages. Galileo was condemned to life imprisonment, although he never went to prison.

Galileo wrote about the scientific method, a way of figuring out what our universe is like, in opposition to the idea of deriving all understanding from the words of the Bible. Despite overwhelming evidence over many centuries that Biblical interpretation about the nature of reality leads to false conclusions, that argument continues today.

Galileo discovered some simple truths about gravity, such as that light and heavy objects fall at the same speed. But his understanding of gravity, of the solar system, and of nearly everything else he studied was incorrect. Not wrong like the notion that the sun revolved around the earth, but wrong in details, which have been gradually discovered since then. For example, Galileo thought the earth retained a rigid orientation on its axis as it traveled around the sun. Nearly a century later, Isaac Newton predicted that the earth actually wobbles slightly. At the beginning of the 20th century, the wobble was first measured accurately. But not perfectly – it turns out that the amount of wobble itself fluctuates. The causes of this fluctuation are not known for certain, but computer models of the atmosphere and oceans have led scientists to hypothesize that changes in temperature and salinity of the oceans cause changes in ocean circulation, which in turn lead to shifts in the wobble.

This brief discussion of one corner of scientific research illustrates how our understanding grows and deepens over centuries from simpler to more complex explanations. Constantly improving instruments make better hypotheses possible, from Galileo’s refinements on the telescope to more powerful computers. At every point, something was not entirely correct in the scientific understanding of the earth’s motion. Scientists disagreed with each other, theories were advanced, rejected, and refined. The story continues.

New discoveries constantly show that what we think we understand about nature is not quite right. Among scientists, there is no argument about the fact that the living organisms on earth gradually evolve into different organisms. Exactly how evolution proceeds is known in quite specific terms, but new discoveries and new interpretations keep changing the details of that knowledge. Evolution had been thought to proceed very slowly, but studies of animal life in constantly changing urban environments show that spiders, lizards, mice and birds can biologically adapt very quickly.

The whole field of evolutionary biology is under reconstruction. Douglas Erwin, a senior scientist at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, described in 2007 flaws in the generally accepted version of evolution, a “tumult” among scientists, and the possibility of a new paradigm. Science changes every day.

It is not difficult for an educated person to understand Galileo’s ideas about how the earth revolves around the sun or Darwin’s ideas about how species evolve. But even a PhD in some form of science might not be sufficient to understand the most recent astronomical and biological theories. Scientific discussions of “dark matter”, of the interaction of gravity with the three other “fundamental forces”, or of particles without mass are beyond nearly all of us.

Science is increasingly complicated, and that provides an opening for political ideologues to question particular scientific conclusions and thus the whole scientific enterprise. Every time one scientist questions some element of evolutionary theory, creationists say “evolution is just a theory” and therefore not necessarily true. Our Vice President does not accept evolution. Our President and his entire administration deny climate change, which he has called a hoax.

The skepticism about science promoted by American conservative politicians continues to influence public opinion. More than one-third of Americans do not believe in evolution. More education helps, but still about one-fifth of those with postgraduate degrees are creationists. The most fervent believers in creationism are evangelical Protestants, who also greatly underestimate the complete consensus among scientists about evolution.

It may be encouraging that belief in good science is growing, although slightly. The latest survey shows that 73% of Americans believe there is "solid evidence" of climate change, the highest number yet. Belief in human evolution is also at its highest point, at 62%.

Less encouraging are the beliefs of those who do not accept the scientific unanimity about evolution and climate change. Conservative Republicans do not trust scientists. Only 11% believe that climate scientists understand very well the causes of climate change. Only 9% believe that climate scientists’ findings are influenced by the “best available scientific evidence” “most of the time”. These science deniers are not likely to be convinced: 71% of conservative Republicans think the media do a “bad job” of reporting about climate change by exaggerating the threat.

That’s ignorance backed by a determination to remain ignorant. Galileo would be disappointed that so little has changed.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 4, 2018

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Why Do Conservatives Hate Europe?

On August 12, Trish Regan of FOX News offered her version of the standard conservative critique of Europe, in the form of a brief “report” on economic life in Denmark, comparing “socialism” there to the disasters of socialist Venezuela. She began with “a federal tax rate of 56%. In other words, everyone in Denmark is working for the government:” Therefore, “Noone wants to work.” University education is free, therefore “Nobody graduates from school.” Barely taking a breath before contradicting herself, “Nowadays, all the kids graduating from school in Denmark, they want to start cupcake caf├ęs.” “Nobody is incentivized to do anything, because they’re not going to be rewarded.” “Denmark, like Venezuela, has stripped people of their opportunities.” Here’s the point, for Regan and FOX: “That’s the reality of socialism.”

Here’s the reality of Denmark. The proportion of the working-age population which is employed is 75%, one of the highest in the world, compared to 71% in the US. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative free-market think tank, gives the world’s nations an “index of economic freedom”: Denmark and the US are exactly tied. Denmark’s middle class is much bigger than in the US, because our low-income and high-income segments are twice as large. Denmark ranks second in the world on maternal health, well ahead of the US. Because higher education is free, Danes have more, not fewer, opportunities for advancement. Those facts might explain why Denmark ranks at the top in terms of its population’s happiness, along with Norway and Finland with similar social systems.

After an international outcry about her lies, Regan offered a “clarification”, in which she cited her “sources” and addressed none of her falsehoods.

The issue is truth.

Conservative propagandists use various media to tell stories about America and the world that they know are not true. Ann Coulter makes a fine living calling liberals traitors: in her 2003 book, Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, and since then. Jonah Goldberg, who has written for the National Review for 20 years, goes a bit further, calling liberals fascists: Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. The American Conservative lambasted Goldberg’s book in their review entitled “Goldberg’s Trivial Pursuit”, saying he “misunderstands liberalism” and calling his “most ambitious thesis” “without merit”. Dinesh D’Souza goes one step further, equating liberals and Nazis in his new film “Death of a Nation”.

Trish Regan’s made-up “Denmark” is just the latest version of right-wing nonsense, presented as fact, in order to promote hatred of their political opponents.

These purveyors of historical fiction all know that the stories they are telling are not true. They don’t want to tell the true, but more complicated stories that might lead their readers and listeners and viewers toward some liberal conclusions.

They make piles of money, because much of the conservative public apparently doesn’t care about truth either. Unpacking the nonsense of conservative ideologues into its untrue and contradictory elements takes effort. It has been clear since the beginning of political advertising in America, that eye-catching slogans turned into simple stories repeated over and over again are enough to move votes.

Usually those stories had to be plausible. McCarthyism was an exception: it was possible to enlist the government into repressive measures against liberal and radical activists with a bizarre story about Communists taking over the US. By the 1960s, the people who pushed outlandish conspiracy theories, like the John Birch Society, were back on the wacko margins.

But once again, some sizable minority of Americans is gobbling up the stories that they want to hear. It no longer matters that they are implausible. A wide fringe will believe nearly anything, hence the popularity of Alex Jones. A larger segment will listen to less apocalyptic visions, which merely cast half of the American public as willing dupes of murderous traitors. Hence the popularity of “Lock Her Up” for the crime of liberalism. Nearly all Republican voters take the watered down version that FOX presents. Regan just put her toe over the line and didn’t even have to yank it back.

In none of this is truth the goal. There may be bits of fact in conservative story-telling, but the object is falsehood. And the conservative public likes it. Fact-checkers are the enemies of these people.

In the past, a few thoughtful and courageous political voices have saved us. No modern President had been willing to give the wildest fringe credibility. A handful of politicians, like Margaret Chase Smith and the late John McCain, have spoken truth to lying power in their own Party. Now our President leads the fringe.

So expect much more of the same. As Variety wrote in a review of D’Souza’s film, “If your agenda is to stoke resentment and create cartoon enemies, then you don’t need to be accurate.”

Why do conservatives hate Europe? Because the truth about Denmark, like the truth about climate change and about liberalism, doesn’t fit their ideology. Instead of adapting their ideas to reality, they create their own alternative reality and feed it to people who would rather be ignorant than have to change their minds.

What a way to make a living.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 28, 2018

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

I Love Private Property

I would not be happy if I could not own private property. I am glad to possess my own wool shirts, my vehicles and especially my real estate.

I lived as a tenant in other people’s buildings for about 20 years after I graduated from high school. I liked most of my landlords and usually was able to improve their properties while I lived there. But inevitably there were restrictions on what I could do in my home. Disagreements arose from this sharing of responsibility between owner and renter.

When we finally were able to buy our own house, our responsibilities increased enormously, as every homeowner knows. But we could make every choice: where to plant trees; what color to paint; what to fix; how to remodel. Our home could become an expression of our values and tastes.

Homeowners cannot do anything they want. Local ordinances and zoning regulations, as well as the need to keep peace with neighbors, put limits on private property owners. Various state laws about sewage and waterfront limit our freedom to do whatever we want with our property on the outskirts of a tiny village in northern Wisconsin. I’m okay with that.

In fact, I help to enforce some restrictions in my own neighborhood, which is a historic district in Jacksonville, IL. Owners of historic homes need to get permission from the Historical Preservation Commission if they want to change the way their homes appear from the street. The purpose is to preserve the historic character of the neighborhood, so that future owners and future generations can enjoy the increasingly rare sight of streets filled with historic buildings. The job of the HPC is to prevent a current homeowner from making poor decisions which will never be undone.

Exactly where to draw the line between private and public is sometimes contentious. About one-fifth of Americans live in developments where homeowners’ associations can specify paint colors, parking spaces and even the size of pets.

I also love public property. Americans use public property every day. Every time we get into a car, stroll along the sidewalk, cross a bridge, or take public transportation, we benefit from public property. Our national park system, thousands of rivers and streams, picnic areas, bridges, airports, train stations, and roads are owned by us all and are run in our collective interest. One of those interests is affordability. A pass to all 2000 recreation sites owned by the federal government for a full year costs $80. That covers everyone in a car. Compare that to one day at Disney World, where even 3-year-olds pay over $100.

Public property is a political issue: Democrats want to maintain and expand public services and Republicans want to turn public resources and services into private property.

The Republican platform for the 2016 election proposed cutting federal support for transportation projects that were not about cars: bike-share programs, sidewalk improvements, recreational trails, landscaping, historical renovations, ferry boats. Republicans proposed privatizing rail service among northeastern cities. Just before the 2016 election, Trump proposed massive infrastructure projects, which would effectively privatize roads and bridges. Republicans tried to privatize Medicare in their 2018 budget proposals, and introduced a bill to privatize air traffic control.

The Trump administration, led by Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, is reducing the regulation of private, for-profit universities, despite their abysmal record of misleading students about the likelihood of getting jobs after “graduation”. DeVos has long supported using public funds to support private schools through voucher programs. Her family spent millions of dollars in a failed effort to convince Michigan voters to support a voucher program.

The vast resources of the Koch brothers are being used to oppose improvements to public transportation in communities across the country. Republican politicians have been trying for years to force the sale of federal land in Western states. They have been stymied by the organized public outcry of those who use the land for recreation, many of whom are Republican voters.

The economic arguments for privatization don’t stand up against historical experience. When Chicago sold the rights to its parking meters to a private company, the cost of parking jumped. When Vice President Pence was Indiana’s governor, he pushed the privatization of a stretch of Indiana highway I-69 in 2014. The project is years behind, the private company went bankrupt, and the state had to take over the road.

Private property is administered for the good of the owner. Public property is managed for public good, for all of us. I want to be in charge of my own home, where I can make decisions reflecting my personal interests. I want public ownership of facilities which serve the public, so that everyone can have a voice in their administration. Neither private nor public is automatically better than the other – they have different purposes.

The Republican drive against public property and public services would put our fates into the hands of rich companies and rich people who want to make money, not do the public good.

I love both private and public property. The proper mix insures the democratic equality that should be the basis of American society.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 21, 2018