When teaching an introductory American Government course to freshmen who enter college with a wide range of skills and prior courses in the subject I have found it safest to start things with the basics. Real basic. We spend a week at the beginning covering "What is government and why does it exist" stuff before we even begin the Constitution and specifics.

One of the first tasks is to explain conceptually (again, without specifics) what government does. Almost any example you can conjure up fits into one of a small number of boxes: maintaining order, providing a forum for decision-making, providing public goods, organizing for collective defense, and so on. One of the most underappreciated of these basic tasks is enforcing predictability. No economic transactions, for example, are possible without predictability – X and Y must know that if they make a contract, either party violating the agreement can be taken to a court that will enforce it. Society functions very poorly without this; if you can't plan for the future in some very basic ways and rely on a few unexceptional assumptions (i.e., you don't need to spend 24 hours per day defending your home. You can leave it and feel reasonably confident that no one will break into it because they know the likely consequences) then your society breaks down. Government, then, is a bit like the weather forecast – it's more useful when telling you about the future than the present.

Trump supporters cite the president's rashness, lack of forethought, and unpredictability as an asset; he will "shake things up" or whatever. Who knows what he'll do from minute to minute. Wild card!

In reality, we will be lucky if that approach doesn't get us all killed. International actors are wringing their hands with the sudden inability to rely upon American intentions as a known quantity. The domestic policy process has ground to a halt in a way I never thought possible with the House, Senate, and Executive branch unified under one party. And increasingly citizens don't know if they can trust interacting with their own government. We have a reasonable idea of what the law is now, but what presidential mood swing will reshape it in six months?

Three recent examples stick out. First, he threw transgendered people under the bus after making explicit promises during the campaign to be "hands off" on those issues. Second, he told Congressional Republican leaders that he would make a deal with them on the debt ceiling and then, unprompted, cut a different deal four hours later without telling them. Never mind that legislating and inter-branch relationships depend almost entirely on trust, norms, and informal institutions. Third, he retroactively turned DACA into a trap to lure immigrants to their own deportation.

The DACA example is particularly insane. Think about what just happened. The federal government told people "Look, it's better to know that you're here than to have you here lurking around in the shadows. And it's not your fault mom and dad brought you here when you were four. So, come forward and we'll suspend deportation." Something like 800,000 people, with every intention of doing the Right Thing and following the rules, took advantage of it. Now, a few years later the same federal government (albeit under different leadership) says "lol jk, we're going to use the information you gave us to find and deport you."

This incentivizes the worst possible behavior, of course. It encourages immigrants to live in hiding and to go to extremes to avoid interactions with the state. Because in all honesty, those people have zero reason to trust the government at this point. None. Frankly, immigrants and transgendered soldiers aren't the only people with cause for skepticism. We all do. With no meaningful sense whatsoever of what is constitutional or legal, who the hell knows what this guy is going to change next? Hell, they're already talking about taxing 401(k) type contributions retroactively. Hey remember that money we said for 30 years that you could put away tax free? Ha ha jk give us a third of it! That'll really encourage people to save and plan for the financial future, right?

There's no value in going slippery slope here and pointing out what it looks like when this thinking is taken to its conclusion. Suffice it to say that "unpredictable" is just about the last adjective we want to be using in reference to the government and the law. No matter how much mouthbreathers with no understanding of – well, anything really – think it will be So Awesome to shake things up and show them politicians what's what, predictability is actually one of the fundamental objectives of any government. Without it life won't necessarily revert to nasty, brutish, and short but it will be a lot less pleasant than it needs to be.


  • During the campaign I said that if by some hideous catastrophe Donald Trump should become president, his various aides, underlings, Cabinet officers, etc., would spend much of their time trying to figure out what the hell he just said, what it means, what he wants and what he'll do next.

    Well, it turns out it isn't just his underlings. It's the entire country.

  • I disagree. Unpredictability is fine, because it's what will always be the case. Since when has "people have zero reason to trust the government at this point" ever not been the case? So often an assessment of predictability is an ex post judgment. We should have seen it coming. The whole notion of ordinary risk assessment measures admits that predictability is fragile. If politics is the art of the possible, then it's a matter of fact that its consequences are unknown.

    That we have a POTUS who is a bonkers looney-tunes unpredictable liar is, mostly, an embarrassment. Most decent POTUSs are sensible liars, hence not embarrassments. But society has never had the luxury of operating with predictability.

  • Because in all honesty, those people have zero reason to trust the government at this point.

    This has been the singular goal of the conservative movement since the passage of the New Deal, accelerated enormously since the advent of Reagan.

    The demolition of trust in central authority keeps people frightened, afraid to leave their houses and willing to follow anyone promising a 'firm hand' on the chaos.

    It's textbook Fascism 101.

  • Dean – I agree there's always going to be unpredictability. Having a stable government run by rational people does help minimize unpredictability, though. And that's generally a good thing.

  • Something that Wall $treet needs to think about, "Herr Drumph!" is likely to bring that level of unpredictability to everything he touches, even things dear to enormous money.

  • Dean seems to have missed the point or at least focused on one sense of the meaning of predictability. Remember when not only federal currency, but state currency, and even bank currency, all existed, and your bank could go belly up and your bank-issued notes were now valueless? That kind of predictability, the predictability of financial transactions created by a financial system, is what Ed's talking about. The predictability of natural disasters, or financial crises, or aggressor nations, that's not the point (although NOAA establishes that those kinds of unpredictable events can still be made less unpredictable with useful government action). Nobody, least of all Fela Kuti, is asking for government magic, just coherence and enough orderliness of process to be more predictable than random.


  • When I was at UGA (Hi, Ed!) in the Public Health Program they literally had this written on the wall. There were three points of stable societies, they referred to it as property rights, same meaning as Ed, I forget what the other two were because I suck at learning.

    To Bill Clinton's credit a few years back he voiced the obvious that the country was ill served by creating a permanent underclass of immigrants unable to seek the aid of police/fire/ems/anything.

    Anyone else remember the jackass politician out west who stalked a bus full of children because he thought they were illegals? He's probably on the cabinet short list by now.

  • I understand what Greg @9:12 am is urging with an emphasis on the reliability of financial systems, just as Ed referred to contracting. Those are concrete mechanisms that do indeed rely on a modicum of predictability, grounded in efficiencies, norms, and legal force. But presidential "mood swings" won't undermine that grounding.

    Are they really talking about retroactive taxation of 401(k) plans?! That is hella scary, for sure, just as GWBush's talk of privatizing Social Security was scary. Still, talk about radical rejiggering of the law is one thing, but radically rejiggering it is another. But is such talk really unpredictable? Isn't it more like par for the course?

  • Mostly lurking says:

    Dean, Ed's point can be rephrased so: Under Trump, the predictability has decreased substantially, and therefore many actions that used to be rational have ceased to be. A state in which these very action are taken is better than a state in which they are not taken, and thus Trump's increasing of unpredictability is bad. That politicians could never be trusted in every respect (i.e., that there was never total predictability) is besides the point, and that politicians could not be trusted in any respect (i.e., that there was never any predictability) is false.

  • But once you conceive of politics as theater, as Reality TV, you have to admit that Trump's chaos is a hell of a lot more entertaining than whatever Hillary would have produced, no? A different scandal every day! If not more!

    Even the "fake" media love it! Look at Colbert's ratings!

    The American people get the show they deserve.

    I swan, the abysmal retail market in NYC was a result of Trump's election. Store upon store, unoccupied. We, who voted 90% against him, are at sea. What is real, which way is up? Nobody shops right now except for necessities.

  • It's almost as though Obama's decision to create a huge database of people that could then be deported had predictable consequences.

  • Michael said it. Why get upset at all the privacy rights abuses under Obama—we can always trust Obama to do the right thing! Who would have ever thought that another President might come along and use that same information in nefarious ways?

  • Dammit, Ed, now I've got the theme to that crappy tv show Full House running through my brain because of your post title.

    P.S. How odd that my brain remembers theme songs from dumb sit-coms from 30 years ago but not where I put my car keys this morning…

  • (The unrelenting SHITSHOW)…"incentivizes the worst possible behavior, of course. It encourages immigrants to live in hiding and to go to extremes to avoid interactions with the state. Because in all honesty, those people have zero reason to trust the government at this point. None. Frankly, immigrants and transgendered soldiers aren't the only people with cause for skepticism. We all do. With no meaningful sense whatsoever of what is constitutional or legal, who the hell knows what this guy is going to change next?"

    @Dean – the above excerpt answers your questions. Uncertainty is corrosive to the basic fabric of society because it breeds massive amounts of paranoia (delusional and otherwise). Trump is a flamethrower of uncertainty spewing madness everywhere.

    After reading Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic I am afraid that Trump being elected may have already killed the country and society that I thought I lived in.

    I used to imagine US political life as a see-sawing contest between the relative might of Vampire-Oligarchs (I got mine F.U.) and regular people where everything would be much better if ordinary folks would wake up and see the common ground between them and pull together for the greater good (if only those darned conservatives weren't so good at dividing everyone with their appeals to bigotry – gee-whiz).

    Now I am uncertain we can do anything besides watch a fascist tyranny be born before our unbelieving eyes while voices in the media howl about the threat of 'anti-fa' (because BOTH SIDES!).

  • Americans have been brainwashed for so long it is amazing to think Americans can think at all. 40 years of anti Government propaganda has done its' wonders so well. all the rabid Right wingers who only think of Wars and Defense and the Military as the only "Good" Government has allowed all kinds of abuses by Government and Private Entities.

    like we use to have public transportation and public utilities that worked "for" the public. Now we have Private Entities that screw the "public" with rising costs and less "service".

    A basic function of Government is the "General Welfare and Common Defense against enemies, Domestic and Foreign.

    We certainly have enough Domestic enemies in Corporations that have stripped Americans of jobs, polluted the air, water and land, and continually higher prices of living by "lobbying Government/aka Bought and Sold Congressmen.

    St. Reagan did away with the Fairness Doctrine, if anyone can remember what that was. so, it became easy to screw Americans once there was no "Truth" to defend. Fair and Balanced is all we get. Fair and Balanced in Corporations beliefs on how to continually screw Americans. and the Corporations know the cost of success. just look at Congress.

    Watching Trump appoint all the Republican Nazis to "finish off" EPA, and all non Business friendly "laws" is what concerns me most. Most people ar upset at Trump and barely notice how well Trump's Republican appointees are cleaning out the country and doing Business's biding.

    also notice how not one Vichy Democrat stands up to the Republican Con on America.

    Trump, proving how corrupt America is without much blowback. just snark and horror


  • Bruce Scheier has written some insightful pieces about trust. It's the precondition for practically everything we recognize as human. Cooking, for instance. Cooking is useless unless you can trust the chefs not to eat the food. Without cooking, and the added accessible calories it gives us, we wouldn't have human cultures or civilizations.

    And trust, in that sense, is closely related to the way Ed is using "predictability."

    Trust, predictability, are the red blood cells that make it possible for the body to function. Destroying that, which is the Orange Dump's MO, destroys the body politic on a fundamental level that goes right back to when we decided we were different from chimpanzees.

  • Trust clarifies things! Trust is an intersubjective experience: we each trust the chef, the pilot, the ATM [or those who design, build, and deploy it]… Predictability is objective, a clear-eyed measure of future outcomes based on a calculus of reasonable factors. (We don't credit a coin toss as a reasonable prediction.) Our gut-level sense of trust might inform our predictions; conversely our predictions might inform the trust we afford another person. The way we participate is through vigilance, eternal or whatever, Jefferson or not. I know Ed isn't throwing up his arms, gaping in fear and awe at the current national embarrassment. This post is one of a series of musings and observations. I get that. But if we aren't always poised to address the unpredictability of government, we are not being vigilant.

  • I think about trust every time I approach a stop sign. Of course, I live in a place where you basically have to pause at every intersection because some motherfucker out there in my city doesn't think traffic signals apply to him or her, so I am experiencing an erosion in trust and it ain't nice. Also, Bruce J hits the nail on the head.

  • Suffice it to say that "unpredictable" is just about the last adjective we want to be using in reference to the government and the law.

    Lets add to the list blatant white supremacist ideology ie KKK, white nationalism, Nazi, Voter supression etc. Every Citizen that is not "white" is endangered. Not to mention any human being who maybe considering entering our Nation and/or interacting with our government.

  • Remember when both GOPers and Dems expected wisdom, honesty, honor, stability, and judgement from a POTUS? Now that Don "The Con" has shown the entire world he has none of those characteristics the GOP says that no longer matters. They will never admit we had all that less than a year ago.

    And of course we had all that with Obama, and would have had with Hillary, but the GOPers are too childish and stupid to admit that as well. Instead we have an ignorant, lazy, egomaniacal, thieving, authoritarian thug. Sad.

  • @ Dean:

    I haven't trusted anybody since I was about five years old. I live in a constant state of distust. Somehow I manage to get life done, not as optimally as I'd like but as optimally as I'm able.

    I've never trusted any government official to do his job properly and I see no reason to view that as aberrant.

    We have perhaps the best means of communication that man has ever utlizied and it appears that we're using them to our detriment.

  • I'd be interested in seeing a link to where there's talk of taxing 401(k)/403(b) accounts at any time in the future or retroactively.

  • The 401k is just a big scam anyway; you put in your money, hopefully your employer puts in their money, and maybe if you're lucky you have some money to retire off 40 years later.

    I stopped contributing to my 401k years ago; I put the equivalent amount in a bank account. So far the bank account is outperforming the 401k, and when I can eventually retire, at least I don't have to *hope* the money is still there.

  • Katydid: I'd love to know how your bank account has outperformed your 401k over the last several years. The stock market basically has gone straight up, and the interest you are getting on a savings account is 0.5% max.

    The real problem with investing in the mutual funds available in a 401k are the fees. A 401k structure isn't fundamentally a "scam" anymore than dollar-cost averaging into stocks/bonds over a long-term time horizon. But I do agree that really thinking about how the fees compound as a sort of negative interest will be a drag over time (i.e., paying 1-2% of your account balance each and every year as fees).

    Conclusion: do the same thing as your would in a 401k, just on your own. Open a TD Ameritrade account, put in a fixed amount each month into a super-cheap index fund that only charges 0.07% per year in fees. The greatest trick that Wall St has ever pulled is convincing people that they can't do this themselves. This is probably one of the top 3 reasons for our society heading down the drain and it doesn't get the commensurate outrage, so long as there are a few dozen Nazis that we have to pretend like we're going to physically assault.

  • @ Ryan:

    Assuming that you aren't trying to sell TD Ameritrade (which IS a scam, for most people):

    The average american has as much understanding of how financial markets and trends in geo-politics and economics work as they have in anything else that is a blend of science, art, bullshit and snakeoil.

    If you're smart enough to make money by investing on your own, good for you; most people I know, including some REALLY smart people are NOT that smart when it comes to macroeconomics or the financial markets.

    As is obvious from the last 40 years of ups and downs in the stock/bond markets, amateurs and pros both get fucked, bigly, when things outside their control make the trajectory of their investments turn around overnight. People, for better or worse tend to continue down the path that seemed good when it was going up–even after it starts to go down.

    Social Security was INVENTED for people who had been wiped out by specualation and managing their own investments.

  • I found this (and have to type the whole fucking thing as it's not available to cut'n'paste without crossing a paywall):

    Willard Van Orman Quine, defining "redundancy":

    "It is the judicious excess over minimum requisite support.It is why a good bridge does not crumble when subjected to stress beyond what reasonably could have been foreseen. It is fallback and failsafe. It is why we address our mail to city and state in so many words, despite the zip code. One indistinct digit in the zip code would spoil everything…a kingdom, legend tells us, was lost for want of a horseshoe nail. Redundancy is our safeguard against such instability."

    This sentiment encapsulates why we need at least SOME predictability in governance of all sorts.

    When you have crazy, ill-educated, venal, bigoted and otherwise ill-suited leaders at any level of any organization it is somewhat difficult to achieve any sort of progress.

    At the moment we have reactionary batshitcrazzeepantzmofoz at EVERY level of government, reinforcing and amplifying the indignorance, racism, xenophobia, misogynism, projectile puritanism* and just plain malice of people whose major organizing principle seems to be dismantling society.

    If that notion of polity prevails, you will wind up with a nation that is a casualty–prostate and defenseless.

    * They NEVER practice what they preach in that regard.

  • @democommie: There's skepticism and there's distrust. It's possible to exercise the former prudently, the latter not so much. I know people who are genuinely distrustful a good percentage of their lives, and it isn't healthy. I suppose I fall toward the other end of the spectrum, i.e., naively trust until a good, solid reason to be skeptical arises. Obviously, that's a dangerous default, too. But I'm with you re: government officials (as distinct from government workers, a species of which I've been most of my working life). Don't trust them. In fact, my distrust targets the post more so than the person. I don't trust any POTUS, Senator, mayor, what have you, by virtue of the position itself atop a hierarchy. That Donald Trump is a nitwit two-bit con artist doesn't improve matters, but even if he had a modicum of competence I'd worry.

  • Dean – If he had a modicum of competence I'd worry even more. It's what scares the bleedin' hay-sus out of me about Pence.

  • @ Dean:

    We agree in some things, disagree in others but I'm good with that. People that agree/disagree with me on everything are either looking for something from me or need to be avoided, period.

    My universal distrust of humans makes life quite difficult at times. I had surgery a couple of weeks back and I'm going to have more. If I had to trust the people that are doing it, I wouldn't be getting it done. I should point out that I tell people who wonder about my lack of trust that it is not THEM, it's me and that they should not worry about me acting against whatever it is I've agreed to with them, implicitly or explicitly. I sometimes wish I could let them experience what I feel in that regard but it wouldn't be pleasurable for them and I'm used to it.

  • @ Major Kong:

    When I had a 401k I told the young feller I talked to at Fidelity to put it into the safest vehicle they had. He said, "Well, it's not going to make much more than bank interest rates (not precisely true, as things turned out) but it will be as safe as any investment can be.". I didn't make much over the 5 years or so that i was putting in 16% of my pretax earnings.

    When the market shit the bed in 2008, while I still had about $65K in it, I lost nothing. Some of my friends at Verizon, especially the ones who were under 50 and, thus, unable to convert VZ share to cash took a beating. One guy I knew (not at Verizon) made about $250K between 2000 and 2008. He lost about $275K in 2008–very smart guy, but just as emotional as most gamblers.

  • @Demo, MK, and others; one thing nobody tells you is that your employer does 401k business with certain companies, which offer a subset of investment vehicles. Say WonderInvestment Company is offering vehicles that are paying off like a slot machine; doesn't do the employees stuck in SuckyInvestment Company, which has much worse ones. Did you know that investment companies also skim off a portion of your contributions off the top to pay themselves?

    Anecdata; I also knew a bunch of people whose stocks plummeted in 2008 (including myself, which is why I switched to the bank method).

    My bank offers a predictable, steady rate of appreciation and the money doesn't go down unless I take some out. In other words, I'm not gambling there won't be another stock market crash whenever I can finally retire.

  • Part of the investment issue is that most people are busy keeping their skills up to date for the job they actually have. It takes years of study and lots of time to learn all the ins and outs and scams and secrets of the investment game, and even the experts who devote their lives to this don't get it right. Someone at work has The Hulk investment plan as a joke on their cubicle wall. When chickens and small children fare better than the experts, it's easy to see this isn't a secure way to manage retirement for those of us who can't count on a pension (and Social Security is looking pretty iffy, too).

  • @ Katydid:

    I don't do a lot of research on the stock/bonf markets. I was content to let my money sit in the safest place it could be and take what I could get–it worked out better than it would have if I was managing the money myself.

    The first carpal tunnel release (the right) is done, unwrapped and seems better. I have enough arthritis and some osteophytes that "pain free" is a relative term.

    I will be getting some synthetic synovial fluids in my knees sometime soon–according to to my rheumatologist.

  • Sorry, I wasn't done yet.

    My hairy roommate is sick to his stomach today so I'm keeping a close eye on him. He never throws up and he did so twice this morning. He's alert and seems happy enough but the vomiting is a little worrying. He doesn't get an opportunity to eat a lot of weird shit I'm hoping that it was something that was not good but not that bad. I'll take him to the vet (which is a major league pain in the ass–since I don't drive) sometime tomorrow if he appears to require it.

  • Update on the Budster:

    Still not feeling well. Talked to vet. Have appointment for Thursday AM unless he takes a nose dive. In the meantime maybe a little immodium (.5 mg) 1 or 2x daily. Keeping fingers crossed it's not something bad. He seems alert anx oriented so far.

  • @Demo; sorry to hear about your dog. Could just be something benign like a bad batch of food (fingers crossed that's all it was).

    I'm keeping an eye on my furry friend, who damn near decapitated himself this afternoon–he goes out on a tie-out chain to do his business because he's an escape artist, even in a yard with a 6-foot fence. Well, today he saw a squirrel and forgot he was on a chain, and ran to the end. Did a backflip when he reached the end of the chain.

    Nonetheless, he still makes more sense than most people.

  • @Demo; I forgot the most important part–make sure your dog's hydrated!!! Especially if he's been throwing up, but even if he's just not eating much.

  • @ Katydid:

    Bud seems a bit better today. He ate some breakfast and is napping at the moment. He actually had something semi-solid come down the exit ramp last evening, so, progress, one hopes.

    Along with not eating for a day or so, he was not able to tolerate even water most of sunday and I suspect he missed at least three doses of his anti-seizure meds so that's the next hurdle.

    We see the vet on Thursay. Bud always like going there until it's time to have his temp taken and his blood drawn–that he's not nuts about but he is a trooper.

  • @ Katydid:

    He's enjoying the interplay of sunlight and shadow as the morning glories on my trellis of repurposed materials waft in the breeze as he lays in wait for an errant, (and we all hope) slow and toothless skwerl to come to take a nugget of kibble out of his snacktray.

    No seizures, as yet.

  • This actually explains quite a bit about the average Trumper. When your life is already Nasty Brutish, and Short, and there isn't really a way out of that condition without voting Democrat, you kind of want to impose those restrictions on everyone. So let's elect Trump, and then everyone can live with the same sort of existential dread the WWC lives with every day.

    I can see how that viewpoint gains traction. It's delusional, but I can see how it works.

  • Jado:

    I don't think that they get that philosophical about it.

    They are racists–that's reasonably clear.

    They are also xenophobes, misogynists and oppressors of the out groups.

    They had to endure EIGHT FUCKING YEARS of a nigger in the White House, a nigger who loaded his adminstration with his muslicoon friends and tried to make Sharia the law of the land*. And all of US who are NOT them ARE the enemy.

    It's just about that goddamned simple.

    Delusional, hate-filled assholes are running the country at the moment.

    * I have a visceral dislike for the racist terms I used here–I grew up with them and it took me a long time to stop using them in casual conversation. THEY, the people who are voting for assholes like Trumpligulamygdala never stopped using those terms or seething with hatred for the OTHER, they just had no permission to be public with it.

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