New freelance writings: A new space treaty, space radiation risks, and collapsing coastal cliffs

Here’s a few stories I’ve recently written and published in Undark magazine, Scientific American, and Hakai magazine. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

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(Blue Origin flight test. Credit: Blue Origin)

It’s Time for a New International Space Treaty

With satellite traffic increasing and space tourism set to take off, the laws governing space are due for an overhaul.

Space is much busier than it used to be. Rockets are launching more and more satellites into orbit every year. SpaceX, the private company founded by Elon Musk, blasted more than 800 satellites into space in 2020 alone. Extraterrestrial tourism is about to take off, led by space barons Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, two of whom have already taken their first private space outings. The frenetic activity of space agencies and space companies around the world will extend beyond Earth’s atmosphere, too. Within a few years, the moon will see many more landers, rovers, and even boots on the lunar ground. So will Mars and eventually, perhaps even some asteroids…

Things have changed considerably in the more than half century since international space diplomats hammered out the Outer Space Treaty, the agreement that continues to serve as the world’s basic framework on international space law. Before space conflicts erupt or collisions in the atmosphere make space travel unsustainable — and before pollution irreversibly tarnishes our atmosphere or other worlds — we need a new international rulebook. It’s time for the Biden administration to work with other space powers and negotiate an ambitious new space treaty for the new century…

[Read the entire piece in Undark magazine, published on 22 July.]

Predicting When the Next Bluff Will Fall

Researchers in Southern California are using lidar to improve scientists’ understanding of the erosional forces that cause bluffs to collapse.

In August 2019, three women were relaxing on the beach of Encinitas, California, north of San Diego, when the oceanfront bluff unexpectedly crumbled, showering them with tonnes of sandstone. One of the women, who had been celebrating her recovery from breast cancer, was killed instantly, while her sister and niece later died in the hospital.

That tragic event was neither the first nor the last bluff collapse in a scenic and densely populated, yet precarious, coastal region. Just a few kilometers to the south in Del Mar, a bluff collapsed following a rainstorm in 2016, undermining a busy coastal roadway. Sections of beachside cliffs came crashing down in the area in 2018, too, though no injuries were reported. In February this year, another bluff collapsed—along with the aging sea wall intended to hold it back—about 10 meters from the rail line that links San Diego and Los Angeles and serves nearly eight million passengers and numerous freight trains annually.

Collapsing coastal bluffs are a threat wherever waves, earthquakes, and intense rainstorms can destabilize steep seaside terrain, and with sea levels rising, this risk is increasing. It is a pronounced risk throughout many areas along the Pacific coast of North America, especially in Southern California. Considering that many lives, homes, and vital infrastructure are at stake, scientists have been trying to figure out exactly what causes such cliffs to fall…

[Read the entire story in Hakai magazine, published on 9 July. It was also republished in The Atlantic and Smithsonian magazine.]

New Space Radiation Limits Needed for NASA Astronauts, Report Says

Although meant to minimize risks to human health, the proposed new limits would still be exceeded by any conceivable near-future crewed voyage to Mars.

Astronaut Scott Kelly famously spent an entire year residing onboard the International Space Station (ISS), about 400 kilometers above Earth,and his NASA colleague Christina Koch spent nearly that long “on station.” Each returned to Earth with slightly atrophied muscles and other deleterious physiological effects from their extended stay in near-zero gravity. But another, more insidious danger lurks for spacefarers, especially those who venture beyond low-Earth orbit.

Space is filled with invisible yet harmful radiation, most of it sourced from energetic particles ejected by the sun or from cosmic rays created in extreme astrophysical events across the universe. Such radiation can damage an organism’s DNA and other delicate cellular machinery. And the damage increases in proportion to exposure, which is drastically higher beyond the protective cocoon of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field (such as on notional voyages to the moon or Mars). Over time, the accrued cellular damage significantly raises the risk of developing cancer.

To address the situation, at NASA’s request, a team of top scientists organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a report in June recommending that the space agency adopt a maximum career-long limit of 600 millisieverts for the space radiation astronauts can receive…

[Read the entire story in Scientific American, published on 14 July.]

After Hiroshima, nuclear threats still have a long half-life

The massive explosion that rocked Beirut’s port likely killed hundreds, wounded thousands, and rendered 300,000 Lebanese people homeless. But in comparison, the atomic bomb dropped by the United States’s B-29 bombers on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago had 15 times that explosion’s destructive power, killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese people, and sickened many more.

After three quarters of a century, the threat of mutually assured destruction engulfing our planet continues to loom over us. President Trump’s nuclear policies — including tearing up international treaties, deploying so-called “low-yield” warheads on submarines, keeping nukes on “hair-trigger alert” to be launched at a moment’s notice, and refusing to rule out new nuclear testing — have only expanded those threats and encouraged proliferation. Trump’s successor will have a huge responsibility to pull us back from the brink and disperse the calamitous mushroom cloud from our horizon.

While the Hiroshima bomb erupted with the energy of 15,000 tons of TNT, many weapons available for launch in the US’s and other country’s arsenals have the explosive power of megatons of TNT. Even the low-yield nukes promoted by the Trump administration aren’t particularly small, and they arguably encourage an arms race and lower the bar toward somebody once again pressing the big red button and unleashing a weapon of mass destruction. Combined with the lack of US support for at least four nuclear treaties, it’s no wonder that leaders of North Korea, Iran, Saudia Arabia, and Turkey want such weapons for themselves.

As Lesley M. M. Blume writes in her new book, Fallout, if it weren’t for journalist John Hersey’s reporting on the horrific devastation and death toll in Hiroshima, Americans might not be aware of the damage the world’s worst weapons have wrought. Another new book, The Beginning or The End, by Greg Mitchell, also demonstrates the attempt by the federal government and Hollywood to cover up the massive death and destruction let loose by the atom bomb. After the war, such an indisputable attack on civilians and civilian infrastructure came to be viewed as a war crime and a crime against humanity.

With the pandemic and climate change, we already have plenty of threats to humanity. 75 years is already too much time to have such horrific weapons in our midst. Trump’s successor will have their work cut out for them to ensure that our era of toying with nuclear disaster soon comes to an end.

Could universal basic income become a presidential campaign issue?

[Backstory: This is a draft of a story that didn’t work out for the magazine I wrote it for, so I decided to share it here on my website.]

The Universal Basic Income is now a 2020 campaign issue. Longshot candidate Andrew Yang, a New York businessman, is getting increasing press for his platform centered around a universal basic income plan. Senator Bernie Sanders also supports the policy, and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has included a kind of UBI in her proposed Green New Deal.

But UBI isn’t just some abstract, pie-in-the-sky idea; it’s already being tested and implemented in a bunch of places around the country. Small pilot programs and versions of a universal basic income—though not always with that name—have gained steam in a variety of cities and states, from Stockton to Chicago to Hawaii. The policy usually means dishing out cash, no strings attached, to everyone, on a monthly or annual basis, an influx that can keep many families above the poverty line. And while the idea is certainly being pushed mainly by progressives, it’s a rare policy with support among many on the left and right and in financially strapped as well as more well-off places.

“There’s a great deal of momentum in the movement right now,” says Karl Widerquist, a political economist at Georgetown University in Qatar and co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network, which supports UBI. He attributes its increasing popularity over the past decade to factors including Occupy Wall Street, awareness of stagnating wages, growing inequality and increasing concerns about automation.

But even as the idea gains steam, these early programs are running into problems. Many are primarily funded by billionaires, which makes them unsustainable—and they face uncertain futures when only a few policy-makers are ready to put government money behind them.

The most robust cash-distribution program ever attempted in the U.S. comes out of Alaska. In the 1970s, Alaska opened the North Slope to oil drilling, and some of the oil revenue was invested in a fund the state called the Permanent Fund. Since 1982, the Permanent Fund has paid out a dividend between $1,000 and $2,000—depending on oil prices—to every resident every year, regardless of age. (More than 660,000 Alaskans received their 2018 check for $1,600 in October.) While that’s not an enormous sum, it means a lot to someone close to the poverty line, and it adds up in a household with kids.

“By creating a fund, they were able to keep that [oil revenue] money invested and keep it around for a long time,” says Damon Jones, a University of Chicago economist. “They’ve preserved it over time for future generations.”

The Alaska Permanent Fund has been around long enough to provide documented outcomes for those studying the policy. For example, a common political objection to such programs is that “free riders” will quit their jobs or work less once they get that extra paycheck. But a new study shows that the small number of free riders aren’t enough to drag the economy down. Jones and Ioana Marinescu, a University of Pennsylvania economist, find that the policy has had no significant effect on the Alaska job market, as employment levels there match that of other, similar states.

“We explain this by saying that there is a balancing out of people’s lesser desire to work and companies’ desire to hire in order to respond to added demand from Alaskans who are spending their cash,” Marinescu says. In other words, the economy remains pretty stable: If there are any people working less, any impact they might have is offset by people spending their extra money on goods and services, which means local businesses hire more.

Many economists, especially conservative ones like Milton Friedman and his followers, prefer UBI to other wealth redistribution programs because it gives people the freedom to spend their money however they want, and they see it as preferable to expensive social welfare programs, like food stamps and health care.

And the Alaskan experiment has shown that untethered cash grants can improve public health and safety. For one, babies in the state, especially those of less-educated mothers, have had higher birth weights since the policy was implemented in the 1970s.

Another UBI experiment saw a similar effect: About 20 years ago, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina started channeling casino money to all adult tribal members—about 16,000 people. They received two payments per year adding up to $4,000-$6,000 annually, and afterwards poverty and criminal activity went down while children’s health improved dramatically.

Though these experiments arguably accomplished what they were intended to do, whether the policy can be politically and economically sustainable in other places around the country still remains to be seen. Four out of five Alaskans say their program provides an important source of income for people in their community and improves their quality of life. But nationwide polls of eligible voters show that about 48 percent of them support a guaranteed basic income, with higher support from people under 50 and people of color.

And, of course, financing from oil and gas or from casinos isn’t a possibility in most other places, so the Alaskan and Cherokee systems can’t be replicated elsewhere.

Two of the newest pilot programs include Stockton and Oakland, California, whose populations add up to about Alaska’s. Starting later this year, about 100 Stockton volunteers selected by researchers will receive $500 a month for 18 months, and 1,000 Oakland participants will get $1,000 a month for a year. The experiments’ funders include Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and the startup company incubator Y Combinator led by Sam Altman. Other Silicon Valley heavyweights like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have voiced support for a basic income as well, at least in principle, partly because of the fear that artificial intelligence and robots will take over more people’s jobs.

Others look to an even wider scale. Democratic Representative Chris Lee passed legislation last year for Hawaii to form an economic security working group to study how UBI could work throughout the state. And Chicago’s City Council could soon implement a UBI pilot to provide $500 a month to 1,000 families, likely partly funded by philanthropists.

If either ultimately comes to fruition for all their residents, however, it would cost billions of dollars annually. And that likely means raising taxes.

“I think one of the promising avenues for financing basic income is to think about a carbon tax or more broadly a tax on pollution,” Marinescu argues.

But then it really becomes more of a political challenge rather than an economic one. The biggest carbon tax proposal on the 2018 midterm ballot, in Washington state, failed by a wide margin—56 percent to 44 percent. A bill in the House with bipartisan cosponsors (the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act) would create a small carbon tax and the money would be given to taxpayers in a dividend, but its support currently remains small. Until a federal carbon tax becomes a political reality, each city and state will have to come up with their own financing scheme for a basic income, and for many, that won’t be easy to solve.

But a guaranteed income isn’t the only big idea in town, and other similar measures have become part of the national debate. New Jersey Democratic Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, introduced legislation last September to make caregivers and students pursuing higher education eligible to receive the Earned Income Tax Credit. And in October, Senator Kamala Harris announced the LIFT (Livable Incomes for Families Today) the Middle Class Act, which would basically expand the EITC. On the other hand, Senators Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand have called for an even more ambitious universal job guarantee instead, which would mean employment as well as a livable income for everyone.

“I think this is a really interesting conversation because it pushes us to think really hard about our social contract,” says Rakeen Mabud, director of the nonprofit Roosevelt Institute’s 21st Century Economy and Economic Inclusion programs. “It forces us to think about those big ideas, push past assumptions we have about the poor and about what our government should be doing and get toward a vision of a good society.”

The Trump administration’s encouraging nuclear brinkmanship, not deterrence

[I was thinking of publishing an op-ed somewhere about these issues, but I decided to just post my thoughts in the form of a blog post here.]

President Trump recently signed a massive defense bill, and of the whopping $716 billion bill, $65 million goes to new submarine-launched “low-yield” nuclear weapons.

At a time when we’re supposed to be leading the way on cutting back on nuclear arms, this comes across as a “Do as we say, not as we do” policy. The low-yield warheads are likely to backfire by contributing to another arms race with Russia that lowers the bar to nuclear war.

The name’s misleading: such nukes are about half as devastating as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and killed some 100,000 people. They’re still weapons of mass destruction. They’re also redundant, considering that the military already has plenty of “dial-a-yield” weapons that can be adjusted to release the same degree of explosive power.

Philip Calbos of Trump’s National Nuclear Security Administration thinks the Obama administration was weak on nuclear deterrence, according to comments he made that I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. He believes that these new weapons will somehow deter nuclear rivals like Russia and aid nonproliferation efforts at the same time.

This new array of weapons is supposedly part of the nuclear “modernization” program, which began under Obama and actually replaces and upgrades the nuclear arsenal to the tune of more than $1 trillion dollars over the next 30 years. It also includes new bombers with new cruise missiles, new earth-shattering gravity bombs, new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and new nuclear submarines.

Are thousands of nukes in ever more varieties really necessary? Does they even accomplish what they’re ostensibly for — deter a nuclear first strike? It’s more realistic that Russia, China, and other nuclear powers will see these new weapons not as merely defensive but as something that themselves could even be used as a first-strike option. This growing supply of missiles, subs and bombers doesn’t benefit any of us, except perhaps the stockholders of Boeing, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman.

If we seems to have a military advantage, surely our nuclear adversaries will try to bridge that gap — and then just as surely nuclear advocates in the Pentagon and Congress will come back asking for even more weaponry, escalating the nuclear brinkmanship. The US, Russia and China are already developing hypersonic missiles that travel three times the speed of sound, as well as new missile-defense systems, and adding more kinds of nukes would just encourage others to follow suit.

“We are at our busiest since the Cold War,” Calbos said. We shouldn’t take comfort in that.

Furthermore, in a relic of the Cold War, the US military still keeps hundreds of nukes on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch from silos and subs on a moment’s notice. A false alarm or ambiguous signals from early warning sensors could lead to Dr. Strangelove-style irrational retaliation from President Trump.

More low-yield warheads will just obliterate the distinction nuclear weapons and conventional ones. The Pentagon even reserves the right to respond to non-nuclear attacks, like to the electric grid, with nukes, and low-yield weapons just makes it more conceivable for a small conflict — or a mistake or misread intelligence — to turn into a nuclear one.

This completely reverses efforts to gradually reduce nuclear stockpiles. If the Trump Administration and Congress are serious about nonproliferation in the Middle East and East Asia, they should resist adding to our own arsenal.

Many Congressional Democrats — though not California’s senators — voted for the huge military bill, despite including investments in these new low-yield nukes, which could find their way onto subs at sea within the next few years. But Democrats have the chance to redeem themselves if they retake Congress during November’s election and stop this dangerous weapon from being deployed.

New freelance writings: space policy debates, flawed flood maps, and harmful plastics

In case you missed them, check out my recent stories, from inadequate flood maps to contamination from plastics to space policy debates. Thanks to my editors for helping these pieces turn out so well.


Trump’s ‘America First’ Policies Won’t Work in Space

A communications satellite launched earlier this year. Some in the federal government consider space the next frontier for warfare. (Photo courtesy of United Launch Alliance.)

Space is a big place, but our upper atmosphere isn’t. Rapidly increasing numbers of satellites orbit there, in addition to innumerable bits of space debris, and rockets fly through it on missions to the moon, Mars, asteroids, and deep space. President Trump’s newly revived National Space Council will have to manage this busy region and beyond.

The council members—which include heads of dozens of agencies, including the state, defense, commerce, transportation, and homeland security departments—have their work cut out for them as they develop recommendations for national space policy. Regulating and enabling commercial space activities will likely be a top priority, and the group will likely need to address issues including space debris and potentially militarized satellites. Given the risks of weaponizing space if the US, China, and Russia take their disputes beyond earth, and considering the commercial space industry’s uncertain position with respect to national and international law, the council’s first and primary goal should be to pursue space diplomacy…

[Read the entire piece on Wired, published on 23 August.]

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New freelance writings: forensic science reform, planet impacts, earthquake forecasting

Check out my latest articles and writings this past month, for Undark, Nature, New Scientist, and Now.Space. As always, thanks go to my editors. If you read just one, I recommend the Undark piece, which I’m particularly proud of and took a lot of work to write and report on.


Bite Marks and Bullet Holes

The Attorney General ended the National Commission on Forensic Science, suppressing an opportunity for reducing convictions based on faulty evidence.

Forensic scientists working in the crime laboratory located in Ridgepoint House. (Source: West Midlands Police – Forensic Science Lab)

Keith Harward spent more than three decades in prison on the presumed strength of forensic dentistry. No fewer than six forensic dentists testified that his teeth matched a bite mark on a 1982 victim of rape and murder. But in April of last year, after serving more than 33 years in a Virginia penitentiary, new DNA evidence prompted the state Supreme Court to make official what Harward knew all along: He was innocent, and the teeth mark analysis was unequivocally, tragically wrong.

“Bite mark evidence is what the whole case hinged on and ultimately had me convicted,” Harward said. “But,” he added, “this stuff is just guesswork.”

Today, many forensic scientists would agree — and they’d say the same, or nearly so, about a menagerie of other techniques that are used to convict people of crimes, from handwriting analysis to tire track comparisons. And while some techniques fare better than others, everything short of DNA analysis has been shown to be widely variable in reliability, with much hinging on forensic practitioners with widely varying approaches and expertise.

[Read the entire story in Undark, published on 2 June.]

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Prison takes away what we need for a healthy life

As I was reporting on my Newsweek on the psychological and neurological effects of solitary confinement, I came to a realization. Prison in general, and solitary confinement in particular, take away the things we need to have a good chance of living a long and healthy life.

It should come as no surprise then that people who spend most of their lives in prison don’t live as long as the general population. With long prison sentences applied to a wide range of crimes, there’s more and more old people in federal and state prison in the US, and they lack the care and attention they need. Unfortunately, many people assume that anyone in prison is not worth any sympathy. That doesn’t make sense to me. (Plus, as I wrote in a new piece in Undark, some people in prison are innocent but were convicted based on flawed forensics or mistaken eyewitness testimony.)

Anyway, I learned quite a bit from my reporting, especially my conversations with Brie Williams, director of the University of California Criminal Justice and Health Project in San Francisco and an expert on geriatrics at UCSF. In order to maintain our health as we age, we need both physical and mental exercise on a regular basis, and we need meaningful social interactions. According to Williams, loneliness in older adults is associated with increased mortality, cognitive impairment, and dementia.

But people in prison are in extended isolation, with restricted movement and enhanced loneliness. Prisoners hardly get any exercise, and they have very few chances of keeping their minds limber. And their social interactions with people are extremely limited, the opposite of the way you might interact with a close friend or family member. In addition to people with decades-long sentences, nearly one in five prisoners is put in solitary confinement often for long stretches. Some people break down when they hear that metal door clang shut, while others find a way to adapt. But in the end, it’s a noxious environment that people are “exposed” to, as Williams puts it, and it takes a long time for people to recover, if given the chance.

So I feel like I’ve learned something, both for myself and for others. First, it’s important to try to keep up with regular exercise, activities that exercise my mind, and keep up with friends and my social life. Second, let’s remember that our elders need help to have those things too, and that’s what we’re here for. When we’re older, we’d appreciate that, too.

Election polling postmortem finds flaws in polls of Midwestern states that went for Trump

Remember the chaotic election last November? How could we forget! If you followed the polls and listened to pundits, you could be forgiven for expecting Hillary Clinton to win by a large margin. But that’s not what happened, and the outcome surprised even some established pollsters, prompting an investigation of the election polls, which six months later has now been completed.

The new report released today [I’ll include a link here] by the American Association for Public Opinion Research finds that, no, the polls aren’t “broken.” National polls fared pretty well, while Midwestern state polls missed a big segment of voters leaning toward Donald Trump. The letter from FBI director James Comey about the Clinton email probe appeared to cause a small temporary shift, and quite a few undecided voters broke for Trump at the last minute, but despite that Clinton won the national vote by 2.1%, almost as much as forecast (3%) and well within the uncertainties. But Trump’s victory in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where non-college educated suburban white people were politicized and turned out in large numbers, caught experts off guard. (Polls gave Clinton the edge in those three states, and had she won all of them, she would’ve won with 278 vs 260 electoral votes.)

The popular vote went for Clinton, but in the end, that doesn’t matter. Pollsters need to spend more time and effort on state polls, especially in “battleground” states, to improve those polls and more accurately get the voting preferences of all segments of the population of likely voters, including those who don’t respond as often to pollsters’ phone calls or online surveys. State polls throughout the upper Midwest seem to have missed non-college educated and working-class whites in suburban and rural areas, who turned out the vote more than expected and preferentially for Trump.

There’s a couple other findings worth noting, but I’d like to make a more important point about how polls are interpreted. Many people seem to have banked on Clinton’s narrow national lead, which did not translate into an Electoral College win. It wasn’t even close. “The horse race becomes interesting news fodder, but it’s misleading,” Michael Link, past president of AAPOR, tells me.

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Trump Transition News in Nature: Budget Situation, Scientists Respond

Here’s a pair of stories I’ve worked on recently on the transition to the Trump era and what that means for science. The second one was written by Heidi Ledford, Sara Reardon and me. Thanks as usual to Lauren Morello for help editing. Thanks also go to my very informative sources. At the end of this post, I’ve also included links to a couple related stories by my Nature colleagues, and I recommend checking them out, too.


Stopgap spending bill leaves US scientists in limbo

Proposal would keep funding flat for most research agencies, but cuts could come early next year.

In what has become a year-end tradition in Washington DC, the US Congress is getting ready to approve a stopgap spending measure before it adjourns for the holidays.

The legislation introduced yesterday in the House of Representatives would hold spending flat at most science agencies, with some limited increases. These include an extra US$872 million to implement provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill that would reform drug development and biomedical research. The money would be split between the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and state governments…

The stopgap funding bill, which would expire on 28 April, also allows for extra funding to keep a handful of major multiyear space programmes on track. These include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System, a series of probes designed to monitor Earth’s weather and climate, as well as NASA efforts to explore deep space and develop a replacement for the retired space shuttle.

But for most science programmes, funding would remain at roughly the same level as in the past fiscal year. And continuing to operate under a temporary funding measure means that agencies cannot start new programmes or end old ones without explicit permission from Congress.

“Every time you delay a [final] spending bill, it prevents the science agencies from doing the planning they need, and it keeps them in limbo,” says Lexi Shultz, director of public affairs for the American Geophysical Union in Washington DC…

Many researchers are more worried about what might come after this temporary funding extension, if it is approved. When president-elect Donald Trump takes office on 20 January 2017, Republicans will control the White House and both houses of Congress — and their science priorities are very different from those of outgoing President Barack Obama, a Democrat…

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 7 December 2016.]

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Is Trump betraying his base?

Many Trump voters hope their man in the White House will be a brave outsider who will shake things up in Washington and improve their economic and job situations. But his platform, landing team and appointments so far indicate that they’ll be sorely disappointed.

(Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)

(Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)

President-Elect Trump won 62 million votes, and the way I see it, many of those came from people who felt disillusioned and disenfranchised by a system in which the political establishment ignored their concerns and struggles. Many from Midwestern states also saw local industries erode and jobs remain hard to come by—the rate of unemployment plus underemployment is stuck at 10%, higher than when Obama took office in 2008—at odds with talk by commentators of an improving economy. (Racism, sexism, and xenophobia disturbingly factored into Trump’s campaign as well; these are very important issues, but I’ll write about them more later.)

However, it’s hard to see how Trump would change business-as-usual when lobbyists and Washington insiders make up so many of his appointees and transition team. These include Wilbur Ross, founder of a private equity firm, to lead the Commerce Department. He previously owned a coal company whose Sago mine in West Virginia had been cited for hundreds of safety and health violations and in which 12 miners lost their lives following an (avoidable) explosion. Betsy DeVos, a prominent donor to head Education, would likely push for more access to private schools which would lead to decreased funding to public ones, including those that many Trump voters’ families depend on. Trump also has numerous advisers and potential appointees from Washington think tanks and lobbying firms, including Myron Ebell, Michael McKenna and Michael Catanzaro.

None of these people have experience with or a record of supporting working-class people, whom Trump won more votes from than Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate, according to exit polls. He also won more men and more people with less than a university education, according to a Pew survey, and his supporters primarily came from rural areas and suburbs. (And yes, there was a big racial divide, but it looks similar to previous elections, in spite of the role racial issues and immigration played in Trump’s campaign.)

Furthermore, the tax code Trump has proposed would raise taxes on the poorest while cutting them for the richest people. Nearly 8 million families, most of them single-parent ones, would see higher taxes, too. The biggest tax changes would be to the richest 1 percent, who would benefit from windfalls of 13.5% on average, the Tax Policy Center finds. The richest of the top 1 percent (multi-millionaires) would also benefit from him repealing the estate tax (and possibly the gift and generation-skipping taxes). If all these tax cuts passed, the deficit would balloon over Trump’s term and it could be tough for his administration to continue the federal government’s support for the welfare system that some of his voters and many other people rely on, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Trump voters are concerned about what they perceive as inequality in job opportunities, according to a Pew survey conducted right before the election. (But they’re not worried about economic inequality, presumably hoping that the “American Dream” will one day come true for them.) It’s not clear where the needed jobs would come from during Trump’s term though. Infrastructure projects often create many jobs, but Trump’s proposal seems to depend on huge tax credits, which won’t necessarily have the intended results.

Nevertheless, if Italy’s experience with Berlusconi is any guide, I suspect that most Trump voters won’t simply turn against him just because he broke some campaign promises or because his economic policies don’t benefit them. People want to feel like they have someone, anyone, who listens to them and represents their interests. If no one else provides a clear and credible alternative, I think many people will stick with Trump through his term.

Finally, how will journalists grapple with the Trump era? Many have different thoughts on this (see this, this, and this), and I’m still trying to figure it out for myself as well. I don’t really have an answer yet, but stay tuned.