Dark Waters

By Mike Koetting               January 16, 2020

Just before Christmas, we saw Dark Waters, Todd Haynes’ movie about a lawyer whose career (and much of his firm’s) had centered on work for the chemical industry. The movie opens with him in a corporate board room joking with chemical company defendants about how to deal with the EPA over some SuperFund sites.

Only because of a haphazard connection—his grandmother was good friends with the neighbor of the farmer who shows up in the law firm’s reception area—does he even pay any attention to the fuzzy videos of dying cows the farmer brought. His immediate assumption was that the farmer didn’t really understand what was going on, an attitude that comes through loud and clear to the farmer. Before it’s over, the lawyer winds up taking on DuPont Chemical Company as it becomes unmistakably clear that DuPont had not only been maliciously careless in disposing of very toxic waste, but that it had deliberately and systematically been involved in a 15 year cover-up of the toxic impacts of one particular chemical, PFOA.  

The movie, based on a very real case as reported by the New York Times, is a typical David v Goliath story, the lone hero against the corporate villain—although in this case, David is supported, even if occasionally reluctantly, by a well-resourced law firm. It’s a good movie and a stinging critique of what can happen when corporations run amok.

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The Deep State

By Mike Koetting December 17, 2019

The Deep State has been getting pretty good press for the last several weeks. A passel of career foreign service officers has taken the opportunity to speak up on what they see as violations of the norms of governmental conduct. We also learned that at least two officials in OMB quit in protest over the Ukraine shenanigans. In general, the ongoing guerilla warfare in some agencies since Trump arrived reflect an ongoing commitment to the stated goals of their agencies, as opposed to Trump’s desire to roll back the clock.

Now may be a good time to take a deeper look at the Deep State.

The right wing idea of “The Deep State” posits some overt, coordinated effort by career employees to thwart Donald Trump and anyone else who would make radical change towards its version of reality, or, in the more paranoid version, to bring an end to American democracy. I agree there is a Deep State of career employees that has a momentum of its own. But there is no clandestine conspiracy here. What happens is that career employees who, exercising their own judgement and carrying out their job as defined over time by the history of legislation and the agency in which they serve, become a counterweight to the swings of presidential powers. This is not an active conspiracy, it is simply the friction that accrues from a massive bureaucracy which has, in part, recruited talented people who are motivated by ideas of social welfare and the goals of their agency and who are committed to the rule of law.

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What Is Democracy?

Mike Koetting December 3, 2019

Today’s post is largely a rip-off of a 1992 essay that Alain Touraine wrote for UNESCO. In theory, I could simply refer you to the article. But, while ostensibly written in English, Touraine is French, which affects habits of mind as much as language. It took me multiple readings to translate his English into mine. Moreover, the essay is written in particular response to the collapse of the Communist state, and parts of it seem less relevant now. So I am offering today’s post as an easier way to think about some powerful issues.

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Unfortunately, It Isn’t Just Trump

By Mike Koetting October 31, 2019

After two and three-quarter years of Donald Trump, I have finally found an issue on which we agree: California should not be allowed to set its own emission standards. The idea of each state setting its on emission standards is, frankly, nuts. Car manufacturers could not sensibly conform to a whole menu of requirements.

Of course, my agreement with Trump is limited in scope. The solution is not to forbid California from making its own standards, but to adopt the California standards for the nation. Instantly. These have already been negotiated with several large auto manufacturers.

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Watergate, Impeachment and the Bigger Issue

By Mike Koetting October 17, 2019

In the fall of 1973, I lived in a house with five other young people. One of our few house rituals was Saturday night TV—Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart. On October 20, our television shows were interrupted by the announcement that Richard Nixon wanted to fire the Special Prosecutor and that Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, had resigned rather than carry out the order, which Robert Bork eventually did.

We were overcome with a mixture of white rage and frustrated helplessness to the point that we started to talk about where we could get guns. On the one hand, we knew the conversation was absurd. On the other hand, that was the only way we could give voice to the outrage we felt over the violence being done to our notion of how America should work.

I think it unlikely that people younger than us can understand how wrenching that experience was. It was such a significant violation of the rules of the game that we assumed for our country that we were at a loss for a more reasonable response. This sort of stuff happened in Russia, in third world banana republics, but not America. Since then, I believe, Americans have really lost the sense of the exceptionalism that our generation was raised on. Cynicism about the means and methods of government is today more easily accepted in America, probably assumed by a material part of the population.

Nevertheless, all the feeling of anger and frustration came flooding back—absent the gun-foolishness—when I saw this headline in the Chicago Tribune.

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Politics, Expediency and Values

By Mike Koetting October 3, 2019

A month ago, Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist, had an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune outlining several gun reform measures Republicans should support. The gist of the argument was that public support for these measures was high, particularly among suburban voters Republicans need. Opposing them would be seen among voters as an unwillingness to address a clear and present problem. On the other hand, Jennings noted, supporting these measures, in addition to improving the commonweal, would provide comfort to voters who were disposed to vote Republican but were being put-off by Trump’s antics. They would be reassured there was some leadership around a broader set of values.

The argument was very compelling. So compelling that I found myself hoping that Trump would fail to support these obvious and modest measures. That, in turn, made me uncomfortable. How does it come to pass that I find myself rooting against measures I am actively supporting in other venues because their passage would also strengthen Republican electability. If we can’t come to terms on specific issues, how do we make democracy work? Yes, there are the extenuating circumstances of the Trump presidency. But I just didn’t feel good about hoping Republicans fail to endorse measures I know to be good things.

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The Tectonic Computer Shift

By Mike Koetting September 19, 2019

The idea for this post started with what I thought was a clever title about the way the way computers intrude on our lives. But, as sometimes happens with apparent cleverness, the more I thought about it, the less the title had to do with what I really think is important—that computers are accelerating changes in our lives even more profoundly than we readily recognize.

Immediate impacts are obvious. From the infestation of robo-calls to many privacy threats to the habit-forming, zombie inducing effects of many computer past-times, there is no shortage of people commenting on these issues. I actually think these are serious—well, maybe not robo-calls, although they sure are annoying. But I am not sure I have anything to add the discussion of the specific issues beyond singing “Amen!”

But what I do find interesting is the accumulated impact, which may lead to a qualitative change in the way humans live.

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History Wars & the Future

Mike Koetting September 5, 2019

During purges by various Russian Communist leaders, there was an aphorism to the effect that while the glorious future of Communism was clear, the past was much harder to discern.

From the Civil War on, America was generally marked by clarity about both its past and its future. Both were great!

In the last several decades, however, both have become less certain and more contested. Many pundits have suggested the struggles are related and our squabbles over the interpretation of history are in fact arguments about what we hope—or fear—for the future.

While I am not generally given to naïve optimism, maybe it would be easier to come to some common understandings about the future if we could come to some common understandings about the past. The past, after all, consists of facts that are known and, at some level, not debatable. Yes, some people prefer to dwell on certain facts, while others choose to emphasize different facts. But since they are all real, maybe it is possible to create a framework that accommodates all.

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Texas vs. Us

By Mike Koetting August 22, 2019

Okay. Technically the name of this litigation is Texas v U.S., but it sure seems like Texas v Us.

Texas v U.S., as some of you probably know, is the most recent Republican-inspired attempt to scuttle the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The plaintiffs are asking the court to strike down the entire ACA. The brief version of their argument is that when Congress, as part of the tax law in 2017, removed any penalty for failing to comply with the “universal mandate”, they effectively nullified the mandate. Plaintiffs then argue that the “universal mandate” was so essential to the law’s working, that the entire law should be struck down. (A somewhat more detailed, but still readable, summary of the entire situation can be found on the Health Affairs blog.)

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