Much of science and engineering involves trial and error: You try something and it doesn’t work, or doesn’t work perfectly, so you modify it or try something else. You learn from experience and apply what you learn to future activities. Trial and error is a necessary part of the scientific method.
Perhaps it’s because learning from experience is part of the scientific method, and thus part of science, that the Republicans refuse to do it.
It’s clear that the GOP didn’t look at real-world experience in the passage of the tax overhaul which over time will transfer more than a trillion dollars of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the very wealthiest Americans. They say the new tax system will supercharge the economy, which will result in more tax revenues than before the cuts. But past efforts to cut taxes on the wealthy have never led to increased prosperity, nor to increased tax revenues, whereas raising taxes on the wealthy always does. The Reagan tax cuts didn’t lead to prosperity, which came only when taxes were raised again under Bush I and Bill Clinton. The Bush II tax cut led to the 2008 recession by giving rich folk additional money to create a real estate bubble which, upon bursting, sent the economy into a tailspin. Only after the tax increases under Obama did the economy start to purr again.
And what about Kansas? The Sam Brownback-led experiment in cutting-and-gutting has led to an economic disaster. The Kansas example is particularly on point: Under Brownback, the legislature entirely eliminated taxes on what are known as pass-through businesses, which account for about half of all business profits. Brownback made the same glowing predictions that Trumpty-Dumpty and Paul Ryan are now making for lowering the income tax on pass-throughs and the other benefits of the tax bill that only the rich will enjoy. But instead of an economic boom, Kansas has seen seven years of little if any economic growth and massive budget deficits. The tax base shriveled, forcing lawmakers to cut spending on public schools, colleges, Medicaid and other programs. Courts had to order the state to spend more on public schools. This year, after years of suffering, the Kansas legislature finally reversed the tax cuts, overriding Brownback’s veto in a refreshing if desperate bipartisan effort.
Anyone who follows the scientific method would conclude from the wealth of experience that cutting taxes on the wealthy is a bad idea. But Trump and the GOP live in a weird faith-based universe in which wishful thinking can somehow defeat reality.
Unfortunately, tax policy is not the only area in which the GOP—and sometimes many Democrats—ignore experience:
War on drugs
The premise of the war on drugs was to limit supply by punishing everyone involved in the illegal drug trade—suppliers, dealers and possessors, especially those whose skin was not white. Launched by the Nixon administration and pursued for decades by Nixon’s successors, but especially under Republican presidents, the war on drugs proved to be an abject failure that ended up filling our prisons with people who committed low level, victimless crimes. So what does the Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis propose? Program after program to limit supply and little to work on reducing demand. While not as Draconian in its proposals to punish users as the original war on drugs was—after all, opioid addicts are primarily white and heavily centered in white rural areas—the commission proposes only two programs to limit demand out of a total of 56 recommendations. Most of the rest of the commission’s report details various ways to limit supply. Trump and Sessions would add more criminalization and jail time to the mix.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and it was a quagmire that drained the Soviet treasury and sowed discontent on the home front. Ten years later, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, tail between their legs, unable to achieve any of their objectives, but leaving behind a wide and bloody trail of death and destruction. Many believe that the experience in Afghanistan contributed to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Did the Soviet disaster—and those of the Russians and British in the 19th century—stop the Bush II Administration from invading in 2001 after Afghanistan refused to relinquish Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks? Not a chance. After more than 10 years of futile fighting that cost the lives of more than 2,000 American soldiers and about 100,000 Afghanis, drained the U.S. and accomplished nothing, Obama began to draw down the American troop totals in Afghanistan. Lesson learned—that is until the Republicans took control of the White House again and the Trump Administration announced its intention to ratchet up the U.S. military presence in the war-torn country—more drone attacks and more troops.
Private prisons have led to widespread abuse of prisoners and greater violence behind bars and they often cost more than public prisons. President Obama’s response to the pile of evidence against private prisons was to announce that the federal government would gradually end their use. Yet there is so much experience that shows that private prisons don’t work that of course the GOP under Trump are supporting them. One of the first things Attorney General Jeff Sessions did was to scrap the Obama order to phase out the federal government’s use of private prisons.
Encouraged by big business and electric power generators, those Republicans who admit that we have to address climate change propose cap-and-trade as the way to lower carbon emissions. In this case, they’re joined by many Democrats. With cap-and-trade, a market is created for trading what are called “pollution credits,” which essentially means that companies that pollute buy the right to do so from companies that don’t pollute or pollute less. The original cap-and-trade scheme to address acid rain lowered emissions of SO2 by 42% in the United States. Europe, by contrast, used regulations to fight acid rain and was able to remove 71% of all emissions. Yet the U.S. (under Clinton but Republican support) insisted that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol focus on cap-and-trade as the main way to reduce carbon emissions. I really shouldn’t blame the GOP for their preoccupation with this failed concept, since the rest of the world, including Democrats, have also been enamored of cap-and-trade. For example, despite the fact that every single cap-and-trade program in the U.S. and Europe has failed to lower emissions, China recently announced it is establishing what it says will be the largest cap-and-trade market in the world.
In all of these cases, the reason the GOP prefers to follow failed policies instead of learning from experience is that big contributors benefit from continuing to pursue the fallacies, even if most people suffer. Sometimes it’s defense contractors. Sometimes it’s slick GOP cronies who want to make a quick buck through privatization. Sometimes it’s large industry and electric power generators who seek to exploit a badly formed and loophole-filled policy to avoid their responsibility to clean up their industrial processes. But whenever the GOP ignores the lessons of experience, someone makes a lot of money.
When contemplating the inability for the GOP to apply the lessons of the past to solve today’s challenges, I can’t help but think of the refrain of the old Pete Seeger song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” It keeps playing in my mind: “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”
The answer for the GOP and Trump seems to be “Never.”