Archive

December 23rd

Let civil servants do their jobs

    If President-elect Donald Trump wants to dramatically improve the functioning of government, here is one simple and straightforward thing he can do: refrain from flooding the Cabinet departments with politically appointed deputy assistant secretaries.

    For decades, administrations have extended the ranks of political appointees to lower levels. Eager and well-meaning but largely inexperienced individuals have been made deputy assistant secretaries to head offices within the departments. Often this is the first real job these individuals have ever held. I know the Defense Department well and have watched the phenomenon unfold there, but it has occurred across the government. There generally are two consequences.

    First, such appointees have little standing with the secretary, especially when they are handpicked by the White House and forced on the secretary to serve as an advance guard for the West Wing. And because they have little standing, they hunker down to protect their turf, amplifying whatever coordination problems exist within a department.

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How Russia overtook China as our biggest cyber-enemy

    In June 2015, the U.S. government discovered something horrifying: The Office of Personnel Management had been hacked by China. The attackers had stolen the Social Security numbers, performance ratings and job assignments of millions of current and former federal employees.

    It wasn't the first time the Chinese had been tied to security breaches in the government. They had gained access to the computers of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s top officials as well as sensitive data in government employees' security clearance files. The Chinese military was able to steal weapons designs, data on advanced technologies and insight into U.S. government policies. They had collected information about America's electrical power grid, gas lines and waterworks.

    Headlines about China's attacks bordered on the hysterical. "Successful hacker attack could cripple U.S. infrastructure," NBC blared. "China hacks the world," the Christian Science Monitor declared. The National Interest called China's data theft a "national security threat."

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Four ways to help the Midwest make a comeback

    When big Midwestern states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio voted for Donald Trump, they chose to roll the economic dice. It's not clear yet whether President-elect Trump will or can follow through on his promises to revamp U.S. trade policy. It's even more dubious whether that will have any kind of positive effect on the Midwest. But it's obvious that his promises resonated with a lot of people in that region.

    There are a number of economic and political lessons to take away from Trump's Midwestern conquests, but the first one should be that the Midwest needs help.

    There's no question that the region, once legendary for its manufacturing might, is struggling. A team of economists, including the distinguished Stanford economist Raj Chetty, recently found that "the largest declines [in economic mobility have been] concentrated in states in the industrial Midwest states such as Michigan and Illinois."

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Four ways to help the Midwest make a comeback

    When big Midwestern states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio voted for Donald Trump, they chose to roll the economic dice. It's not clear yet whether President-elect Trump will or can follow through on his promises to revamp U.S. trade policy. It's even more dubious whether that will have any kind of positive effect on the Midwest. But it's obvious that his promises resonated with a lot of people in that region.

    There are a number of economic and political lessons to take away from Trump's Midwestern conquests, but the first one should be that the Midwest needs help.

    There's no question that the region, once legendary for its manufacturing might, is struggling. A team of economists, including the distinguished Stanford economist Raj Chetty, recently found that "the largest declines [in economic mobility have been] concentrated in states in the industrial Midwest states such as Michigan and Illinois."

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Employment isn't the 40-hour week it used to be

    The unemployment rate is down to 4.6 percent, which sounds pretty good. But the unemployment rate doesn't count people who've given up looking for jobs, which is why the employment-to-population ratio, especially the "prime-age" ratio for those 25 through 54, may be a better measure of the health of the labor market.

    After I wrote about this metric on Monday, several readers wrote in to wonder if even it might be overstating the health of the labor market because more people are working part time, or working multiple jobs, or scrounging a living from freelance assignments.

    On part-time work, we have pretty good numbers; the percentage of people who are working part time (fewer than 35 hours a week) but say they'd work full time if they could is higher than it was at any point from 1995 until 2008. At this point in a now seven-year-old economic expansion it's not much higher, though, while the percentage of voluntary part-time workers is lower than it was in the late 1990s. So factoring in part-timers makes the employment situation look a little bleaker, but not a lot.

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Donald Trump's outrageous lies come straight from big businesses' playbook

    Donald Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes recently told WAMU's Diane Rehm that "there's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts."

    She's right. And that's the problem.

    We now disagree not just on our political philosophies but on whether proven facts are true. In this world, Hughes's observation is the last self-evident truth: Facts are a thing of the past. For the foreseeable future, Americans may find it impossible to debate politics clearly because of a lack of agreement on basic matters of fact; that was certainly the case during this year's election. And no one has taken more advantage of this than Trump and his big-business cronies.

    Trump and his talking heads didn't create this world. It is a result of a decades-long strategy devised by a number of "public affairs" practitioners who recognized that lies were the most potent weapon in the fight against progress. Trump emulated some of these disinformation techniques, gleaned from big business, during his campaign.

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Democrats' dilemma: Resist Trump or coopt him

    The instinct of many Democrats on Capitol Hill right now is to try to do to Donald Trump what Republicans did so effectively to Barack Obama - express outrage at his every utterance, oppose every nomination, filibuster every piece of legislation in the Senate, file lawsuits to stop every regulation and turn every misstep into a scandal. In short, undermine the legitimacy of the Trump presidency.

    The risk of that strategy is that, to accomplish anything, the new president will be forced into the arms of the most right-wing elements of the Republican caucuses on Capitol Hill, who have already (falsely) claimed Trump's victory as nothing less than a mandate to emasculate and privatize government, cut taxes, shred the social safety net, snuff out unions, withdraw from the world and impose their version of Christian values on all Americans.

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Democrats react with fury, and futility, to Russian hacking

    The public furor over U.S. intelligence reports that Russian hackers sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election has kicked off various efforts to reverse or cast doubts about the legitimacy of Donald Trump's claim on the Oval Office.

    They start with the demand by the losers that the Electoral College tally that gives him a clear majority should be set aside, and the popular vote he lost by 2.5 million ballots to Hillary Clinton should somehow prevail.

    Then there is the argument that electors chosen in the various states are not obliged by the Constitution to follow the wishes of their states' voters, and they should cast their ballots in the exercise of their consciences as their political inclinations dictate.

    Petitions have been signed by hundreds of thousands of disappointed and distressed citizens to push for one or both of these actions, with very little possibility that either one will get anywhere. It's locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen, as many of the downhearted would regretfully have to acknowledge.

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Useful Idiots Galore

    On Wednesday an editorial in The Times described Donald Trump as a “useful idiot” serving Russian interests. That may not be exactly right. After all, useful idiots are supposed to be unaware of how they’re being used, but Trump probably knows very well how much he owes to Vladimir Putin. Remember, he once openly appealed to the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.

    Still, the general picture of a president-elect who owes his position in part to intervention by a foreign power, and shows every sign of being prepared to use U.S. policy to reward that power, is accurate.

    But let’s be honest: Trump is by no means the only useful idiot in this story. As recent reporting by The Times makes clear, bad guys couldn’t have hacked the U.S. election without a lot of help, both from U.S. politicians and from the news media.

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Trump's failure to divest could weaken him

    Donald Trump is apparently not going to sell off his businesses and put his assets into a blind trust, as the Office of Government Ethics recommends and as every recent president has done. He isn't going to release his tax returns, breaking a custom that began with Richard Nixon.

    That almost certainly is going to put him in violation of the clause of the Constitution forbidding anyone holding federal office to receive emoluments -- the dictionary definition is "a salary, fee or profit from employment" -- from foreign governments. He might also potentially be at risk under a 2012 law barring presidents (and other elected officials) from profiting from information obtained through their office.

    And while many other conflict-of-interest laws that apply to the rest of the executive branch are not legally binding on presidents (something Trump has been pointing out), the Office of Government Ethics recommends that presidents act as if they do apply.

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