Thursday, December 22, 2011

I am Proud to be an Evangelical Voter

Now that grades are in, I've got some free moments to return to blogging. There's much I can reflect on over the four months since I last posted, but one idea grabbed me two weeks ago that I haven't been able to shake.

Last week I heard a story on NPR's Morning Edition about how various Iowas Evangelicals were sizing up the Republican presidential candidates in anticipation of the upcoming Iowa Caucus. There's not really anything particularly surprising about this story. Those interviewed worry about Romney's Mormonism, about Gingrich's past infidelities in light of his conversion (although there are still concerns that he's "Catholic"), and worries about whether we should have a woman in the White House (where Bachman's supporters confront their issues with women in leadership).

But what really got my attention in the story was the ABSENCE of talk I consider to be at the heart of evangelicalism. According to the folks at the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, scholars have some generally agreed upon characteristics to define an evangelical. Here's my take: a belief in the need to "born again" through the saving power of Christ's sacrifice, a view of the Bible as "authoritative" (which means to be taken seriously), and a belief that we are partners in improving the world in pursuit of the Kingdom of God.

None of the folks NPR interviewed talked about these key issues -- they talked about hot button political topics, they ethnocentrically denounced groups other than themselves, and expressed a surprising sense of cynicism. Some of that is likely the way the interviewer's questions were framed, which encourages those responses and not more nuanced theological positions. But I really wanted them to address the larger "meta-narrative" -- As someone saved by grace, I have to be careful casting blame, I want to see God's Kingdom come, and I want to "let this mind be in [me] that was also in Christ Jesus" (Phil 2:5). This would have a lot to say about how one thought about candidates, cast a vote, or engaged in public debate.

This gap in thinking is not new. Nearly 20 years ago, Mark Noll wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. More recently, Stephen Prothero wrote a book on Religion Illiteracy. Both of these books demonstrate that the state of our knowledge in terms of theology and biblicism suffers from malnourishment. I have been fortunate to regularly hear sermons from pastors who ran counter to that trend. Maybe it's been the influence of American Individualism and Consumerism that has led folks to adopt what Christian Smith calls "Moral Therapeutic Deism" that doesn't think about larger concerns like theology or eschatology (the study of the coming Kingdom).

The politicization of the Evangelical church has been going on for some time, although groups like The Family Leader seem to push things to new levels (why do all these religious interest groups have such innocuous names? - I'm naming my advocacy group "Jesus loves puppies").

There is a demonstrable impact of this politicization, however. Folks are leaving the evangelical fold so as not to been seen as "one of those people". Robert Putnam and David Campbell's American Grace documents the disaffection of the under 35 crown with Evangelicalism, a trend I see in smaller scale with the frustration of my own Christian university students. Gordon College graduate and Patrol editor Jonathan Fitzgerald, recently wrote of his own move to an Episcopal church (not that there's anything wrong with that). There's only so long one can push against the tide.

I've thought that myself for years. When I first got acquainted with the folks at the ISAE in the early-80s, I argued that evangelicalism had reached a point where it ceased to have any predictive meaning. People self-defined and we needed to accept that there would be a wide variety of viewpoints with little theological referent. So I've avoided the label wherever possible, preferring to talk about the importance of being Wesleyan (which at least connected to the theological views of John and Charles Wesley).

But I now realize that doing that is like what happens when Christian folks pull their kids out of public school because they worry about "secular values" -- they guarantee that the positions in the school will be more secular. As evangelical scholars avoid the label, it simply leaves behind those whose political positions look less and less like my theological commitments.

So I've decided that I'm OWNING the label. If folks like Bill McKibben and Richard Cizik can stay in the evangelical fold and demand to be heard, I need to do the same. I don't want the NPR folks in Iowa to be denied their views. I want to make clear that I can believe in Salvation, follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, read my Bible, work toward God's justice in society, and vote my conscience. I'm doing it as an Evangelical Voter and welcome political candidates or NPR reporters to come ask me why I have the policy positions I have.

Because I won't give the title away to somebody else. If we are called to be Christ's presence in the world, we must act differently than other political interest groups. Otherwise we will continue to drive my students away from the evangelical church and the message of the gospel becomes a tool for political propaganda. As Pasadena First Nazarene pastor Scott Daniels helped me see, we're building Kingdom in an age of Empire. And that calls for a radically different approach without ceding our evangelical heritage to others.

If you love Jesus and Puppies, join me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Zero Tolerance for Absolutism!

Last week, I shared on Facebook that I'd had this crazy idea of making congress and senate terms LONGER. As I continue to observe what passes for discourse in our society and read the comments on various news articles or opinion pieces, it drives me to other crazy ideas.
Today I was reading Robert Reich on what he hoped would be in the president's Jobs Agenda. He had ten ideas that he thought would boost the economy (which is the quickest and most effective way to get the budget under control). Reich has his own opinions, but as former Labor Secretary, Rhodes Scholar, and respected political economist they ought at least to be listened to. When I read the normal commenters pointing out how stupid Reich was and how hopeless his solutions were, I thought that maybe I needed to take them seriously for a minute.

Twenty years ago, Jeralynne and I got to hear Theda Skocpol talking about what she called "Targeting within Universalism" as a strategy for assisting the underclass. The idea is that while there are general benefits that extend to members of a society one can focus specifically within that on particular problem areas. Her view, and those of others like her, have been influential in the progressive approach to government. The argument is that there is a difference government can make to mitigate social situations which benefit the whole society in the long run.

But such a view requires a long-term view and a willingness to allow differential treatment. These are two views that today's rhetoric won't allow. Our current rhetoric has moved to all or nothing. 

  • Are we in favor of mitigating global warming or hampering business with needless regulations?
  • Will we have a social safety net for those in need or commit to supporting freeloaders
  • Should we supporting folks who abused the mortgage industry or provide foreclosure assistance for those upside down?
  • Should we privatizing social security and medicare or “don’t touch my benefits”
  • Are we committed to an unfettered free market or open to targeted Keynsian economic policy?
  • Are we committed to tax fairness or to cutting taxes?

In general, we've bounced around between these polar views. I don't know how to overcome the polarization (and many politicians and pundit have no interest in doing so).
So I’ve been thinking about pragmatism and the art of compromise. It’s important to win the long campaign even if one might lose the near-term battle. 

It strikes me that we have some sociological and theological realities that limit our reliance on absolutism. First, Weber made clear that the nature of the bureaucratic form is that it prizes rationality above all Rules are to be followed in all cases. Sometimes, the application of rules for good reason have bad effects. (examples abound – school religion decisions, local decisions about holiday celebrations, an arrow maker in Oregon who gets caught by federal law, environmental impact studies that favor the snail darter). Bureaucracies aren’t effective at dealing with scale. Because they're committed to rationality and equal treatment, we deal with every situation as a potential infraction (which feeds the outrage machine at Fox and other places).

Theologically, we acknowledge that people are sinful. They will act in ways that allow greed, selfishness, and callousness to need to bear fruit (even when hidden behind more benign-sounding rationales). Systems don’t work perfectly because of the limitations of the folks implementing the systems (examples again abound – oil industry regulators partying with industry folks, continuation of ethanol subsidies in spite of profits, over-aggressive rulemakers with personal axes to grind, mine owners who ignore safety citations because they know there aren’t enough investigators).

These sociological and theological challenges become particularly problematic when connected to a “zero-tolerance” approach to government. The zero tolerance approach had great popularity in public schools as it related to sexual harassment, bullying, and weapons. Once again, it doesn’t take long on Google to find examples where the zero tolerance approach yields really bad decisions. 

But this focus on zero tolerance adds to the burden of good government. And it really upsets the commenters I read.

So I've willing to think about things from their perspective (told you it was crazy). 

What if we focus on levels of severity? For example, we could lessen requirements for environmental impacts under normal circumstances but drastically raise the penalties for environmental damage. So BP has its problem in the Gulf and the penalties are so large as to make BP not competitive for years to come. 

We could do the same thing with medicare. We'll be less concerned about "waste, fraud, and abuse" at the outset and let the system do its own thing. But if you commit fraud, you're going to jail for a long time and reimbursing those harmed. 

We could provide mortgage assistance to folks who were impacted by the refinancing craze who found the house underwater (particularly those with ARMs) but incur stiff criminal penalties for owners and bankers who significantly gamed the  system. 

We could allow charter schools as an alternative to public education but if they don't perform investors sacrifice four times their investment (read about Zaccheus in the book of Matthew) that would be dedicated to the public schools.

In some ways, this approach could fit in nicely with the celebrity culture of the media. We could make Bernie Madoff stories over everyone listed in the last paragraph and let Nancy Grace interpret their trial every night.
This crazy idea is actually related to the psychology of reinforcement -- one can get good results by random reinforcement with HUGE rewards or punishments. (I once argued that I could take attendance only once a semester but if you were missing you'd drop two letter grades -- it would work but I've never had the guts to try it.)

So I'm willing to explore alternatives to my preferred solutions. Can the other side please do the same? Can we declare a moratorium on our talking points for two years to get the economy back on its feet?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Time to Blame the Messenger

It's been two months since my last post. Too much packing, moving, unpacking, and settling in for much writing on issues of civil discourse. I learned how much this little blog plays a cathartic role: when I can name something and write about it, I actually feel more optimistic about the future. Without the writing, I was mad, just below the surface, too much of the time. Of course, it didn't help that this period of (mostly) quiet stewing coincided with one of most ridiculous periods of dysfunctional government we've seen in decades. I'm truly worried that the strategies that played out over the past two months in Washington will be the new baseline for future strategic encounters. Here is a must-read article in today's Washington Post that makes clear that this debt ceiling fight was not the result of the accidental calculus of negotiating with varied interest groups in the government but was Intentional and Planned For since the 2008 election.

I am deeply troubled by the mendacity of our elected representatives. I had an exchange with the office of my new congressman where I encouraged a reasonable, balanced deal. He sent out a stock reply that 1) accused the president of wanting a clean bill (while not acknowledging weeks of negotiation on a compromise deal), 2) said that holding the line on the debt ceiling was important to control spending (while not acknowledging that the debt ceiling was related to past spending), and 3) said that "families cut budgets" (while not acknowledging that most families have deep struggles with credit card and home equity debt). I responded that we didn't agree but he that he owed it to his constituents (not just the Republicans) not to engage in misleading reports.

But in the week since the deal was reached (to say nothing of the 48 hours since S&P acted), I've been redirecting my quiet anger from politicians to the media figures that enable them. It's time to lay blame where it belongs -- politicians do what they do because the press not only allows it, but actively encourages it.

Friday night, NPR was doing their normal "week in politics" report. Melissa Block was speaking with Joy-Ann Reid, a "liberal commentator for the Miami Herald" and Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger for the Washington Post. Both commentators recrafted their answers to fit their pre-existing talking points. When asked to react to the polling data that showed most people preferred to see taxes raised on those making over $250,000, Rubin said that other polls showed that people didn't want to tax small businesses. The interviewer then asked Reid to respond. But Rubin had made a basic error of logic. A Venn Diagram of a) people making over $250K and b) small business owners would show some slice of an overlap but they're not at all the same thing. Rubin knows that. So does the interviewer. So why did she let it go unchallenged? She did let Reid respond and critique the point (and she did a good job) but it leaves the image of folks who simply disagree. Talking points occur on the democratic side as well.

In addition to these "two views on politics" stories, you get the mindless charade that is the Sunday morning talk shows. I've commented before that I'm a fan of Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post. I admire his attempt to introduce reality in the midst of talking points and I like his sense of humor. He performs the thankless task of recording the talk shows and blogging on what was said. What he really does is point out how empty this kabuki theater is every week. But the news on Monday will involve, at least in part, what so-and-so said on Sunday morning. The talk shows have become vehicles of message management (the public statements on Sundays made the actual negotiations on a debt deal that much harder). But we can't expect anything of substance to come from these shows because they follow the same format at the NPR story. Meet the Press asks John Kerry and John McCain to come on as guests. What are the odds that they will 1) say anything new, 2) take each other's points into consideration, and 3) reach some kind of common way forward? Each week Politico gives an update on who's supposed to be on the four talk shows. I don't know why we bother because the same people are disproportionately represented. How much expertise can John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Kerry, or Dick Durbin have on the relevant issues? Are these the only voices? What about other senators who have more pragmatic streaks? There are 100 to choose from. Maybe we should share the wealth. Even then, it would only work if David Gregory showed the strength to ask good questions and not make everything about Obama's re-election.

There are some small positive steps forward in the media world. A week ago, Don Lemon of CNN was interviewing Senator Rand Paul. Lemon attempted to get Paul to actually answer the question that was asked before moving to his stock speech. Paul was offended that Lemon interrupted him, but I admired with Lemon was up to. But there's so much further to go than that.

Why has the media become all about what politicians have to say? How did they become the talking point reflector? Fifteen years ago, James Fallows of The Atlantic (then of US News), wrote an insightful book titled Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. He anticipated the growth in punditry (reporters serving as TV "contributors"), the move of media from newsgathering to entertainment, the corporatization of media enterprises, and reporters wanting to "break a story" rather than engage in reporting. (An example of the switch: during the month of July, Headline News showed great gains in ratings among cable news programs because of the Casey Anthony trial -- a sad story that might have belonged in the local paper but was in no way national news!).

If the media were doing what I want them to do, all the reporters who contributed to the Post story (some of the finest names in national, political, and business reporting) would have been reporting on the strategic pursuit of ideology of the "Young Guns" in the House as it was happening. But they'd be accused of shaping the story if they did that. But that's why they got into the business. That's the downside of the access to power. You have to tell the truth as you see it (and not just after the fact).

If the media were doing what I want them to do, we wouldn't be interviewing politicians or pundits or even economists about what they thought about policy options. If we're interested in job creation, let's spend the time interviewing people who expanded their workforce in the face of the economic downturn -- how did they do it and what can be replicated? We'd talk to city officials about infrastructure needs and how deferred maintenance is rarely good policy. We'd talk to demographers about the impact of the baby boomers retiring, including how many are retiring early and well. (I've been trying to learn the impact on social security when the Baby Boom "bulge" is replaced by the smaller cohorts that follow -- we hear all the time about too many retirees for the workforce, but is that a temporary problem as I suspect or a permanent one? -- but we rely on "common wisdom" instead).

If the media were doing what I want them to do, we'd interview the very homeowners who are facing foreclosure. What percentage did, in fact, make poor choices and what percentage are victims of the housing bubble? And does a commitment to justice mean that poor choosers are thrown on the street when their corporate counterparts get assistance?

If the media were doing what I want them to do, we'd know more about the changing nature of modern society -- and not delivered in the "this will kill your children" mode. We know about differential birth patterns in various racial, ethnic, or class groups but not its implications. We know about declining manufacturing but not its impacts. We know about religious diversity but not about how to live beside those with a different faith (or none at all).

These are the stories we should be hearing. But we aren't. That's why I've laid blame in the media's lap. Politicians will do what politicians do. But the media has exacerbated the situation. If the media hadn't played that role so well, perhaps S&P wouldn't have focused so much on "political brinksmanship" that was the reason they gave for the rating downgrade. Maybe "political brinksmanship" isn't possible without an abetting media.

I know this was very long and has a different tone from my normal blogs. I'll get back to my regular voice in the near future. As I said at the beginning, there's this cathartic thing going on and I feel a little better. Thanks for letting me express my inner Howard Beale.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Very Geeky Look at Jobs

It would be great fun to comment about Anthony Weiner's Twitter account. Sarah Palin's claims about Paul Revere (followed by her claim that she didn't misspeak and her followers attempts to adjust Wikipedia to get those bells in there with Revere warning those British) are equally ripe for comment. Mitt Romney says he "Believes in America"and thinks that "the Obama experiment"didn't work, which could also benefit from some careful analysis.

I will leave the commentariat to blather about those things and try to focus on the one item Americans actually say they care about (hint: it's not Obamacare, the Deficit, Medicare, or Pensions). Consistently, polls have shown that people are concerned about jobs in America. Politicians are pointing fingers but nobody has any real proposals to make a difference.

Last Friday the media was buzzing about the employment report. After several months of significant private sector job creation, May was a relatively weak month. Jobs were created but not enough to offset the rise in population. Right away, stories showed up about how this would affect Obama's reelection chances. Someone came up with a statistic that no modern president has been reelected when the unemployment rate was over 7.2% which then got repeated as gospel. An introductory statistics class tells you that you can't predict from such a small number of cases. This is analogous to describing how Ichiro bats in late innings of games in June with a man on second.

The May report could have been affected by seasonal factors. Professor Karl Smith, filling in while Ezra Klein was on vacation, said that this was a result of gas prices being high (before their recent decline). A number of other sources claim that the auto slowdown by Japanese manufactures also played a role. Austan Goolsbee went on the Sunday morning talk shows and said that we "shouldn't make too much of one month's jobs reports". All of these economists are right, of course. We've got to move out of the instant evaluation of absolutely everything and get back to taking the long view.

Here's the geeky thing. Recently, the Washington Post ran an interactive graphic showing the changes in employment from January 2007 to the present. You can see it at

The first page presented here shows that most of the decline in cumulative non-farm employment occurred between July 2008 and July 2009. Since July 2009, employment has been relatively stable with a slight upward tick. But what's fascinating about this graphic is that it lets you break down employment by "supersectors" and "subsectors". It quickly demonstrates the intuitive notion that the jobs recovery is uneven.

There's a button on the upper right of the graph that lets you look at the supersectors. When you click on those, you learn that some sectors are doing better than employment as a whole. Government hiring is up slightly (the census), as is leisure services. Financial services runs a little behind. Mining and Logging run way ahead. So does Education and Health Services. Manufacturing lags behind, losing 15% of its 2007 level. Construction takes a huge hit, losing a whopping 25% of jobs.

When you have the graph of a "supersector", you can click on its curve and it will break out "subsectors' within that. Doing this shows that while Mining and Logging is up, Logging is way down. In the Professional and Business services category, management is up from 2007 while administrative assistants and sanitation workers took a big hit and are slowly recovering (still down 10%). The Financial Sector is off about 10% with real estate hit a little worse than financial services. People who build and finish those houses are significantly worse off than those who sold and financed them. In the area called Trade, Transportation, and Utilities, retail and other trade is down about 5% while utilities remained level. The information sector is down overall, with newspapers and media downsizing, but new web companies show a 25% gain over 2007.

I have had great fun taking apart these numbers and trying to make sense of them (told you it was geeky). Here is what I learned:

1. There are some areas that won't be recovering quickly. The loss of construction and logging is significant and it's hard to imagine what will take its place. The building boom masked a larger problem we had as semi-skilled jobs left manufacturing.

2. While it doesn't break out this way, it's pretty easy to separate upper-class jobs from working-class jobs. In the vast majority of cases, the lower the occupation on the social class hierarchy, the more jobs have been lost since 2007.

3. The areas that are down are NOT those areas most often impacted by upper class investment. These are structural issues and not simply cyclical issues. Lower taxes and decreased regulation may allow some of the flexible industries like finance to expand,  but don't affect jobs overall (just the jobs politicians are most familiar with)

4. But the free market strategies will not fix the structural problems. Those will require an infusion of funds to support the structural realignment -- the "auto bailout" for GM and Chrysler being an ideal example. Infrastructure investment would directly meet the skill sets of the manufacturing workers, construction trades, and even loggers. Such an action could provide support to folks who (as Bill Clinton liked to say) "work hard and play by the rules" while the structural changes work their way through the system.

You can dispute the value of "big government" investment and call it socialism if you want, but the numbers actually do speak for themselves.

That's all my geekiness for today. You can now go back to being outraged at Anthony Weiner or reading about Paul Revere's Midnight ride..

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A May 22nd Hope for the Church -- Seeing the Kingdom of God

So we’re apparently still here. In spite of billboard warnings, immense news coverage, countdown clocks, and lots of commentary, 6:00 PM came and went yesterday pretty much like any other Saturday evening. On the one hand, the prognostications of Harold Camping and his followers went the way of earlier predictions of the end of the world. Just like the group covered nearly 60 years ago by Leon Festinger and friends, the group feels successful in warning the nations even if the timing wasn’t what they expected. The response to these predictions seems to be ridicule, headshaking, and lots of “I told you so”s – and that’s just speaking of the Christians on my Facebook Friends list! The response from comedians, pundits, and “new atheists” will be much more vicious.

But this isn’t the only time a fringe individual has been raised to prominence by media and internet coverage. Way too much time has been spent on Terry Jones and his burning of the Quran and his visits to Dearborn, Michigan to protest Sharia Law among Dearborn’s Muslim population. The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas and the Phelps family are rightly portrayed as a negative and hateful force that have taken to protesting military funerals as a statement of God’s rejection of “the gay agenda”.

We can also list the politically connected religious voices – James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Tony Perkins, William O’Donnell. These folks can be counted on to speak to current events on behalf of the Christian Right and their views accepted by media figures with little counterargument.

Then there are the popular television evangelists – the happy talk of Joel Osteen, the moral uplift of T.D. Jakes, the fall and return of Ted Haggard, the impact of Ken Copeland. These are folks who receive intense media attention and symbiotically feed on media attention.

What does all this mean? I want to suggest that our national fascination with celebrity has long bled over into our understanding of religious life. But what are we to make of Christ’s instructions that those who desire greatness should serve others? What of James’ instruction not to look for the place of honor but to serve others? The Kingdom of God is hard to find in the midst of celebrity (think camels and needles). 

But it is nontheless true that “the Kingdom of God is at hand”. It exists in the local congregation that provides support to a family suffering due to extended unemployment. It occurs when Christians come alongside the developmentally disabled just to let them know they are loved. It occurs when prayers are lifted for those who lost loved ones, even if the loss were due to Aids. It occurs when a pastor sits down over coffee with someone and explains how Grace overcomes ones past and introduces that one to the Love of Christ.

My hope and prayer on this “Day after Rapture Day” is that we’d look for the Kingdom of God where it can regularly be found. That somehow, the attention of the media and the critics would turn from the celebrities to everyday folks. Folks who, in spite of our human limitations and occasional blindness, manage nonetheless to look out for “the least of these my brethren”.

That's where our focus should be. It doesn't make for great video or look good on a billboard, but it's always where you find the Kingdom at work.

Friday, May 13, 2011

I Think Newt May Be Right

Wednesday, Newt Gingerich announced his candidacy for the 2012 Republican Nomination for President. Not really a surprise -- he's been talking like a candidate for some time (which means making polarizing comments that break down immediately upon reflection -- think of the islamacist atheist conspiracy) and he's not getting any younger.

Now, Newt isn't Trump. He does have some background as a self-developed (and developing) intellectual. What he does share with The Donald is an annoying tendency to put himself as the lead character of any story. This causes him to play fast and loose with that thing we call The Truth. The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler wrote his FactChecker blog about claims Newt made in his announcement. It earned Newt "four Pinocchios" on Kessler's scale.

As an academic, I'm particularly upset by Newt's misstatements. After all, he taught history at the University of West Georgia for eight years. Academic Freedom or not, history professors should have a healthy respect for facts.

Yesterday's LA Times had a detailed story about Newt's claims in his Sean Hannity appearance. Of course, he framed it with Fox News blather about "unfair treatment" -- "Obama, the Republican candidate said, however, has the advantages of the presidency, support from the 'left-wing media,' and the backing of labor unions and billionaires like George Soros." Now, this is easy to rebut simply by naming the impact of the Citizens United decision, Andrew Breitbart, the Koch brothers, the Tea Party movement, The Club for Growth, and Karl Rove's American Crossroads group (that's off the top of my head). Truth -- special interests and balkanized media are on both sides of most political races. As a historian, Newt should be able to acknowledge this systemic reality of politics.

But there was one thing in the Time story that grabbed me. Newt made the following claim:

“I know how to get the whole country to resemble Texas,” he said. “President Obama knows how to get the whole country to resemble Detroit.”

Newt has very clearly stated the plain truth of modern national politics!

Since we're headed to Jackson, Michigan in about six weeks, I've been following much of what's going on there (and especially Detroit). I won't take the time to completely unpack the implications of Newt's comment but it's easy to sketch the broad outline.

Detroit has suffered for many years of high levels of income inequality, racial antagonism, white flight, and short-term policy. It was already weakened when it was struck by a major shift in our manufacturing economy as auto plants downsized and/or departed. There wasn't enough economic diversity to absorb that change. Yes, the population has declined (both in real numbers and in terms of suburbanization). Yes, there are large swaths of the city that are abandoned.

But a quick review of the local news shows that Mayor Bing has a plan for turning the budget deficit into a surplus within five years. And they'll do that without abandoning the needs of its citizens. They want to buy up abandoned properties to do major infrastructure improvement. Ford had a great year. GM and Chrysler are making money, working on repaying their government debts, and expanding their workforces (the problems in Japan has returned the big three to a position of strength). There's much more to do, but the mayor (and the Republican governor) are trying to address issues of infrastructure, appropriate regulation, and business development (it will take a few years to see if the governor's budget gambles will work).

Newt wants to make the country like Texas. Texas has suffered several lawsuits for the inequality of educational opportunities across the state. Governor Perry wants to eliminate all issues that inhibit business development. The State school board is exerting revisionist history in elementary textbooks. There are strong nativist sentiments and concerns over illegal immigration (in a state with some of the fastest growth in Hispanic populations). Recent reports of the Texas miracle find that the state's well-being is maintained by short-term gimmicks (the oft-ridiculed stimulus package has allowed the balanced budget). They execute more folks in their prisons than nearly any other state.

Detroit (a city Newt compares to a state, but I'll let that go) has real serious issues. They got them through a combination of events beyond its control and failure to deal with those issue that were clearly present. In other words, a lot like our national debates about jobs, infrastructure, and demographic demands. Texas, which recently threatened to secede from the US, is a state that holds ideology over pragmatics. That blindness is what made Molly Ivins so great to read for so many years.

The road in Detroit will be hard and will never be what we remember (although the right didn't like Detroit in its heyday). But the path in Texas is a dark one. Increased inequality, increasing demands by a minority who feel power slipping away, environmental concerns that go unaddressed, and a burgeoning prison population resulting in even more of a two tiered society.

So, I have to conclude that Newt let his guard slip and told the truth. It may be the only time his vaunted analytical abilities led him to such an obviously correct conclusion. I won't hold my breath waiting for the next one!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Andy Kohut Thinks I'm a Solid Liberal

I was planning on posting earlier this week, but like many folks I was busy processing the news of Sunday night. Finding the proper balance between joy and Christian love is pretty hard. I did reflect on some generational aspects of the event you can see in my other blog.

So now I'm back to politics and civil discourse. The Pew Center for the People and the Press (led by pollster Andrew Kohut who regularly appears on NPR and PBS) just released results of a new study that suggests eight types of voters: Staunch Conservatives, Main Street Republicans, Libertarians, Disaffecteds, Post-Moderns, New Coalition Democrats, Hard-Pressed Democrats, and Solid Liberals (they also have a group that doesn't vote at all). There's an online quiz that's supposed to tell you where you fall. Needless to say, I came out as Solid Liberal.

It seems to me that there are three driving forces in the survey (which, as Niki says, forces unreasonable options -- more later). One dynamic involves a belief in the ultimate fairness or unfairness of systems. If you believe they're fair, you wind up in one of the first three categories. If not, you wind up Solid Liberal. A second dynamic has to do with economic well-being. Saying you're struggling puts you in either the Disaffected or Hard-Pressed category. The third dynamic has to do with social issues (primarily homosexuality and tolerance of the non-religious). Those folks are Libertarians or Post-Modern.

I actually like the three forces even if I think the quiz needs work. But the notion that people are locked into these philosophical positions strikes too close to home when one sees what's happening in Washington. In the long term, we need a long-term approach to deficit reduction that will actually work instead of playing to political posturing. In the short-term, the debt ceiling needs to be raised.

So what do we do? Well, the House passed the Ryan budget that has no chance of passing the Senate or getting a presidential signature. Harry Reid suggested making a test vote in the Democratically controlled Senate. The House just passed HR3 to forbid abortion funding (on top of the current bans on abortion funding). It has no chance in the Senate and won't be signed.

Why do we do this? Because political campaigns have taken over the government. HR3 had a two-fold purpose -- let the base know that they were heard (to keep them interested and invested) and, more importantly, to create a public record that will show up in grainy black and white commercials in 2012 ("Rep. XXX voted to allow federal money to kill babies".) I don't mean to only focus on the Republicans. Reid was willing to call a vote on Ryan's Medicare proposal for the same reasons ("Senator XXX voted to take health care away from your grandma".)

This is not how people live. It's not how we solve problems on a daily basis (you know, "how families deal with household issues".) Tom Toles of the Washington Post made clear today exactly how outrageous this behavior is:

Back to the Pew report -- We should be able to have discussions about reasonable regulation that protects the environment. Does this mean that snail darters win out over farmers? Not if we can demonstrate that there aren't unintended effects of losing the snail darters (Star Trek IV remains the quintessential example of unintended consequences!). In an emergency, do we break a levee and put fertilizer and other pollutants in the Mississippi? Yes, if the costs of not doing that are too great.  Can't we acknowledge, as I wrote in my last post, that racism has limited choices for people that still matter without thinking that means that folks are sitting around waiting for government handouts? (The OK state senator did back down from that claim but my point is that it didn't need to be said in the first place!).

I could keep doing this with the various aspects of the Pew quiz or with current policy options. Isn't it clear that we need an appropriate level of tax revenue to provide the right level of government and that maybe we could look at changing tax incentives for large farms, energy companies, multinational corporations, and maybe even limit (or at least means test) the home mortgage interest exemption?

I'm currently reading Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith of Calvin College. I'm only about a third of the way through it, but Jamie' s point is that the Christian College focus on "worldview" becomes an overly intellectualized argument that doesn't deal with the formation of heart or character.

I really am coming to believe that our focus on political philosophies, even those suggested by Kohut, is not productive. Like Jamie argues, it allows us to give the "right answers" but doesn't accomplish change. Perhaps if we were less focused on whose political view was in ascendancy and focused on rethinking our pragmatic strategies, we'd be further along. What if we defined our intended outcomes first (e.g., affordable health care for senior citizens) and then consider all the possible means to get there?

This has been fun to write. In spite of my quiz answers, I'm no longer a Solid Liberal. I'm a Radical Pragmatist. I think I can live with that quite happily. Maybe I'll work on a survey.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Problem of "Common Sense" Solutions

It's been a busy few days for budgets, finance, and government. Just over a week ago, negotiations between the House, the Senate, and the White House resulted in a tentative deal to keep the government operating for the balance of the fiscal year (although it wouldn't have passed the House without Democratic support). President Obama gave a wonderful speech on Wednesday clarifying some of his fiscal priorities. Yesterday the House passed the Paul Ryan Budget blueprint for 2011 with all Republican votes except 4. And of course, this weekend is the tax deadline (it's Monday because of an obscure DC holiday).

I've complained before about the rhetorical frame, "What the American people want" and no doubt will again. It's a selective argument that doesn't consider the diversity of opinion and sometimes, as Ezra Klein of the Post points out, doesn't pay any attention to popular opinion at all. In the case he describes, the "American people" want Medicare left alone.

My new complaint is "common sense solutions". This is a regular offering, particularly on the right. (The left would do well to stop over-engineering policy, but I'll address that another time.) Examples abound: make medical insurance portable across state lines, reduce regulations that inhibit business, put more money in the hands of the job creators. But I have two problems (at least) with these arguments. First, I'm currently reading a wonderful book titled, Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer) by Duncan Watts. The subtitle is "How Common Sense Fails Us." Watts devotes the first half of the book to demonstrating why common sense does a terrible job of explaining, estimating, or predicting. It's all related to how well we can control variables. Without control, we wind up making ad hominem arguments. Since they are not testable, they wind up being statements of faith and not explanations.

For example, it's argued that regulations are inhibiting business innovation, stunting job creation, and forcing companies overseas. Why? Because companies that go overseas say so. But Watts wants us to consider the companies that thrive in regulatory environments as well. Perhaps the companies that go overseas simply had corporate cultures that looked for loopholes whereever they can find them (last time I wrote about GM not feeling obligated to Flint and about GE getting a tax refund). I could deconstruct insurance across state lines, malpractice reform, greenhouse gas control, and oil drilling in much the same way.

My second critique of the "common sense" argument stems from its "Colbert-like" sense of faith. The common sense critique of policy is strangely absent of any data or at the very least avoids a careful consideration of assumptions made or alternatives foregone. Watts has a great chapter describing Strategic Flexibility, a practice of discussing alternative scenarios to allow assumptions to be uncovered. But too much of the common sense proposals are simply assertions that sort-of work as talking points.  When you begin to explore those assumptions against real data, they don't wind up looking common nor do they make much sense.

Consider the claim: "We're broke!". By any indicator of national finance, we aren't broke. People get paid, services are provided, etc. What we face is a situation where our indebtedness takes an increasing proportion of our budget. What this claim really means is that if we continue in our current pattern and nothing changes, we won't be able to handle future debt payments. By the way, in business this is called "leverage" which is a practice of taking on short-term debt for long-term gain. As the movie Inside Job illustrates, in the decade before the housing bubble we allowed banks to increase their debt to asset ratios from 3 to 1 to 100 to 1. This is what the successful businesses do (you know, the ones so inhibited by regulations.) But there's a huge difference, even at the family level, between "we can't keep doing this" and "we're broke". For all those folks who've lost jobs and houses, it's an insult to use this rhetoric.

But isn't panic called for? Not if we look at the data. We're in this situation because of a number of factors. I'll name five: 1) the unbudgeted costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2) the Prescription Drug benefit that was passed with no offset, 3) the costs of the interventions in the financial sector to avoid a depression, 4) the increased impact on government services caused by the retirement of the front edge of the baby boom generation, and 5) the impact of the recession itself measured in suppressed tax revenue. Now, at some point #1 will end (or at least get budgeted), #4 will be a challenge for awhile but will get better if we control health costs as the baby boom is replaced by the generation following, and #5 will improve as the economy continues to grow. The Drug benefit gets absorbed in the Affordable Health Care Law and the misnamed "bail-outs" are not repeating expenditures.

Here's a very concrete illustration of where the common sense rhetoric fails upon examination. It is often claimed that the tax burden on the "job creators" prevents them from hiring new employees at a time when we need to boost the economy. The first challenge to this comes from looking at job creation prior to the Bush-era tax cuts. Job creation was robust because the economy was expanding in the late 90s (which is what created the surplus). But the second issue comes from breaking apart the logic of what is being claimed. The top-end tax cut was 3% (by the way, excuse a rant here while I point out that when these rates go back up, that was what the Republican administration passed in 2001 -- it's not a tax increase, it's a sunset clause as proposed.) Now, let's assume you are one of those folks worth $1,000,000 in taxable income (remember, that's after all your deductions). What's the impact of that 3% increase? It's easy math -- it comes to $30,000 per year. Like the bit that Amy Poehler used to do on SNL, REALLY? You aren't hiring new employees because you had to pay an additional $30K in taxes? Actually, it's puzzling to take that in the other direction. What are you, Mr. Millionaire, doing with your extra $2,500 per month? Another trip? At least the Republican budget cuts the top end rate down to 25% which would result in significant savings for those in the top brackets (with dramatic impacts on federal revenues).

Here's a related example: we often hear that we don't want to inhibit "small business, which is where the jobs get created." But when you look at actual data of who makes up a small business and whom is impacted by tax issues, they aren't the same people. Glen Kessler is the Fact Checker at the Post. Here's his take on the small business question. It's interesting that he manages to avoid calling people liars, only because they were so careful in how they constructed their sentences!

Here's a final example. It's "common sense" to hold federal outlays at some fixed percentage of the total revenue. Why? And who decides what number? Matt Miller wrote an interesting piece in the Post yesterday that shows how arbitrary both this position and the specific number used happen to be. In light of the wars and the baby boom, it makes sense to argue that we need a higher percentage of spending (by 2 or 3%) while we manage the transitions I described above.

As always, REALLY talking about these issues requires us to be more truthful about our assumptions about government and finance. If you believe that we have to get out of the entitlement business, the current (temporary) financial crisis provides cover to do that. (I'm still having a hard time figuring out what entity will pick up the slack after medicare funding is slashed but costs remain, but Ryan's is a philosophical position some find great value in). If I assume that our collective society is strengthened by looking out for "widows and orphans" and their contemporary equivalents as the Bible instructs, then we have to include that in our planning.

At the very least, we need to pay attention to the actual data, consider alternative scenarios (remember gas prices are high because of uncertainty and not lack of domestic drilling), and speak the truth.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The "Promise" of Choice

We face a possible government shutdown, with political parties unable to come to consensus on goals and strategies. There is much that could be discussed over the long run as we approach questions of the deficit, but our legislative maneuvering has forced a confrontation that was anything but urgent. There is absolutely no reason that this particular increase of the debt ceiling would mark our social demise. It's just an easy tool to use for political posturing.

In the midst of this posturing, Rep. Paul Ryan (R, WI) introduced some broad outlines of his proposed budget for 2012 that will be considered by the House. There are many sources of analysis one can read: some of his numbers are very unclear, the CBO disputes some assumptions, the Chairs of the Deficit Reduction Task Force think it puts too much burden on the poor, the young, and the elderly.

Yesterday on NPR, I heard the explanation that Ryan's approach to Medicare would be to give vouchers to future seniors (exempting those like me who are over 55) to allow them to shop for the plan right for them. Medicaid would be changed to a block grant program, giving a fixed amount to the states and letting them experiment with the best way to deliver services in their area. Both of these moves were described as valuable because they allowed people CHOICE.

Ever since hearing that comment, I've been thinking about the idea that choice isn't evenly distributed. One has to have a certain level of resources before choice can be properly exercised. As if to make that point for me, today's LA Times comics page included the following strip from Candorville (written by Darrin Bell):

There is a true temptation to think all the world is like my people. We generalize from our situation.

Yesterday I had another illustration of this same problem. I was watching Roger & Me, one of Michael Moore's earliest documentaries about the impact of GM plant closing on Flint, Michigan (where GM was founded) in preparation for relocating to Michigan and to spur some of my thinking on my Broken Stories project. Moore wanted CEO Roger Smith to go to Flint and meet with unemployed workers impacted by GM relocation, but GM was non-responsive. One executive explained how a business needs to be concerned for the bottom line and not in supporting a community's needs.

Folks were working at fast food places (WalMart greeters were not the rage in 1989). One woman was selling rabbits out of her home. When Moore approached her about her business, she asked if he was interested in rabbits "for pets or for meat".

The documentary shows President Reagan telling people to relocate to the Sun Belt because that's where the jobs were going (in what proved to be a stop-off point to overseas). At another time not in the documentary, he encouraged unemployed factory workers to get jobs as computer programmers. Celebrities Pat Boone and Anita Bryant, both of whom had be spokespeople for GM, encouraged people to "have a positive attitude" and things would work out.

Listening to Reagan, Boone, Bryant, and GM folks, I realized the limits to our naive belief in choice. There are significant segments of the American population who do not have geographic mobility. They lack resources, they have parents who need care, there are family members in institutions. Furthermore, they need to deal with complicated choices between programs, options, deductibles, eligibility, and the like.

I remember when the last administration passed the Prescription D drug benefit (which, by the way, was a bigger deficit challenge than even the tax cuts for the wealthy). When that first passed, senior citizens were inundated with materials informing them how to choose among the various providers. Many were simply not capable of working that out without help.

Of course, the middle class seniors had less to worry about. Companies showed up who would make the best decisions for you for a fee. You could maximize your choice just like those folks on the financial services television commercials (why are none of those folks concerned about how to keep grandma out of the home?).

The idea of choice lies behind some of the Tea Party fury. They argue, "it's my money" and not the government's (a ridiculous position articulated by GW Bush). They should have the say in what they do with that money. It's less clear what they'd propose for those whose money won't go far enough to allow choice. Of course, the more money one has, the better one can choose to keep it out of the government revenue stream. You do that by having tax lawyers who can help you avoid taxes. The most unbelievable example is General Electric, that got a $3 billion dollar TAX REFUND because of the excellent work of the nearly 1,000 tax attorneys in their employ.

But the lower part of the economy doesn't have these options. If you are not geographically mobile, don't have skills that translate to other industries, are unemployed, or elderly, or very young, you will choose between the options that you have. This most likely means lessened coverage, poorer health, inadequate nutrition, earlier mortality, and crime in the streets.

I'm not suggesting Rep. Ryan or the late Roger Smith are insensitive to workers and the unemployed. I am suggesting that they've made the mistake of building programs or corporate strategies based on what would work for them. They'd exercise rational choice to maximize outcomes.

But for the poor, the young, and the elderly, it's no choice at all.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Abraham Lincoln is the New President!

Three weeks ago tomorrow was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. When Jeralynne asked me what I was giving up for Lent, I quickly answered "political media". It is something I spend a lot of time with and obsess over so I figured that going without would be a good act of discipline. After three weeks, I have realized that it wasn't a big deal. In fact, I don't feel deprived at all. Maybe I'll have to think of something else.

But it's more than that -- it's just not that I'm not deprived. I"M BETTER OFF.

I'm still reading the morning paper, scanning headlines and digging deeper if the story grabs me. And the opinion writers for the NY Times and Washington Post are folks I admire, so I keep up with what they're saying.

I've been pondering that a longer view of the news helps create a better sense of perspective. The incessant updates, concerns, opinions, and propagandas of the 24 hour news cycle seem to destroy perspective. Yesterday the story was that the rebels in Libya were rapidly advancing Westward. Today the story is that Kadahfi's forces have repelled the rebels. Yesterday, there was radioactive water in Japan and reports of 10 million times the normal level. By late in the day, that had been corrected to 1,000 miliverts per hour -- still high but nowhere near the original claim. The US budget impasse is going to cause a government shutdown one day. The next another Continuing Resolution has passed.

Add to that the problem of pundits, who feel obliged to share their views on everything whether informed or previously disproven. Katrina vanden Huevel, liberal editor of The Nation, wrote today about conservative pundits who trot out old ideas to inform current events. I'm certain the same claim can be made about liberal punditry.

So this is what I've been missing (not so much).

My attempt to take a "longer view" got me thinking about how news traveled before the modern era. Sure, we had telegraph lines to major cities, but sometime news simply took a long time. In looking into this reality yesterday, I came across an interesting piece of history from Port Townsend, Washington. Port Townsend is located at the Northwest tip of the Olympic peninsula and is on the Western shore of Puget Sound.

A Google search on news of Lincoln's election in 1860 turned up this wonderful little story in Wikipedia about a steamship, the PS Eliza Anderson, that operated out of Port Townsend in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Here's the entry about Lincoln:

In the early 1860s, there was no telegraph in Puget Sound, and mail carried by steamboat was the fastest way of transmitting news. Thus, on November 27, 1860, the Anderson brought to Port Townsend news that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president of the United States on November 4, 1860, even though the news had reached Olympia on November 22.

So Lincoln had been president for over Three Weeks when the residents of Port Townsend learned of his election. What did this delay change? Lincoln was still president. PT residents could cheer or jeer, as would be their preference, when they got the news. And their news wouldn't be colored by all the opinion leaders who were telling them what Lincoln's election might or might not mean for folks living in the Northwest.

I'm not willing to go to a three week rule as of yet, but taking the long view of still-developing stories has made me calmer and more circumspect. That's a good thing in any season of the year.

Maybe next year for Lent, I'll find something that really costs me. I know it's supposed to be coffee but my discipline isn't that strong yet!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

2011 -- The End of American Nationo-centrism?

While I was distracted with trying to figure out what college classes might benefit our civil discourse and public policy, the world was experiencing tremendous figurative and literal shockwaves. Consistent with what I've been arguing here and elsewhere, we really haven't worked out the narrative for this new world.

Remember November of 2010? It was only four months ago according to the calendar but in other ways it feels like one of those alternative universe timelines they so enjoyed on Star Trek. No, the new year has been far more significant than simply hanging up a new calendar.

We've seen peaceful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. We've seen peaceful revolts met with governmental and mercenary force in Libya and Bahrain. We've seen storms, earthquakes and flooding in Queensland and New Zealand. And, shockingly this week we saw earthquakes, tsunamis, and radiation leaks in Japan.

Pundits have felt free to challenge the administration on how quickly they responded to Egypt and how we want a government that is pro-western. The challenge in Libya is that we 1) are faced with human rights abuses that 2) are disrupting the normal flow of oil. What should we do to protect our way of life? What should our response be to Japan? When the Japanese auto industry shuts down due to power outages, how will that impact employees here in the states? When Japanese tourism falls off in Hawaii, how can we aborb the loss of revenue?

There was a time in American history when the oceans truly separated us from the rest of the world. For periods of time prior to the World Wars, we thought it best to stay on the sidelines. But global economics, governmental interconnectedness, ease of travel, and rapid technology have changed all that. We can no longer manage isolationist sentiment (in spite of what Ron Paul says).

But it is also true that we can't make things happen. We can't make Kadafi behave appropriately toward his people. We can't stop nuclear development programs by fiat. We can't guarantee a stable supply of oil to fuel our cars.

Take oil as an example. With the disruptions in the middle east, gas prices started to rise. And right away, folks were arguing for more drilling in ANWAR, more fracking in the Midwest, or plans for dipping into the Strategic Oil Reserve. Why? Because gas prices were hitting $4.00 per gallon! Now, whatever you believe about a depleting oil supply (it really is) or oil company profits (they're too high), everyone has to agree that supply and demand is a key factor in the price of oil. So a disruption, or even a state of uncertainty, will raise the prices. But without a disruption, prices are still going up because demand is increasing exponentially. The rapidly developing economies of China, India, and South Africa want the increased standard of living we've been promoting to them for decades. As they buy cars, improve highway infrastructure, and then buy more cars, the demand for oil will increase. It's not simply that we buy oil from countries that don't like us, as conservatives like to say. It's that other people are buying their oil as well. No amount of domestic drilling or despoiling of natural lands will change that fundamental equation. We will have to move to other fuel sources. But we will do that to compete with other nations (like China) who are already moving forward on that front. We'll try to catch up, if we can generate the political will to make that happen. But it's not up to us. We can't make things happen to meet our preferences (maybe we never could, but I'm suggesting that this combination of events will make that reality clear).

Oh, there are still those living in that alternative universe that was November 2010. This week Glenn Beck suggested that bad things were happening around the world because we aren't paying attention to the Ten Commandments. His call was for us to reflect on what we've done wrong as a society. But why would the Japanese have to suffer death, destruction, and radiation poisoning because of social currents? Not only is it really, really bad theology, it makes no sense to argue that the world suffers because of America's ills.

It's not about us. And we can't really do much to change things. We'll always be invited to sit at the table, but we just don't get the big chair anymore. The sooner we get our heads around this, the better off we'll be.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wisconsin and Bureaucrats

One of the sites I have been following was begun by Wayne Baker, a professor at the University of Michigan. Called "Our Values", it is an attempt to model civil discourse by asking folks to reflect on what's important to us. Today's was about the situation in Wisconsin that has drawn our focus over the last several weeks. I put a comment on their website similar to what I wrote in the "civics" piece last week. I've copied their intro and my comment here:

Is Wisconsin's budget crisis just a 'Balloon Boy'?

Yesterday, Wisconsin Republicans figured out a way to end the collective bargaining rights of the state’s public unions. They stripped this element out of the budget bill—and voted to approve it even though all Democratic representatives still are out of the state. So, did ending collective bargaining rights really have to do with reining in a budget deficit?
No. It turns out that Wisconsin was never really in deep economic trouble, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, a nonpartisan service agency for the Wisconsin legislature. In a recent memo to the Badger State’s legislators, the Bureau projects a budget surplus by the end of the 2010–2011 budget biennium. An editorial in The Cap Times says:  “To the extent that there is an imbalance — Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit — it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January.”
Gov. Walker claims that Wisconsin will soon have a $3.6 billion deficit. But, Wisconsin state legislator Mark Pocan, a Democrat, says this is just like the Balloon Boy: the hoax where two parents in Colorado released a large balloon in the air and said their young son was on it. “We found out yesterday after our briefing with non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau,” says Pocan in his blog, “the $3.6 billion deficit in the next budget that Governor Walker and the media has been repeating is a MANUFACTURED CRISIS. The number is based on $3.9 billion in new spending requests by agencies, a 6.2% increase. I don’t think there is a member in the legislature that would vote for that. In fact, I asked Director Lang when was the last time we gave agencies exactly what they requested and was told he couldn’t think of one and he’s been here decades.”

What do you make of all this?

Is union busting the real goal of Wisconsin’s Republicans?

Tell us what you think about the Wisconsin crisis—or similar disputes in other states right now.
Please, take a moment and click to Comment below.

(Originally published at, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.)

Reader Comments (1)

I see the budget conversations in Wisconsin, most other states, and in Washington to be more symptomatic than causal. It's not the issue about specific spending or pensions or NPR. These are simply the places where the larger disease takes root (forgive the cancer imagery, but i think it's appropriate).

The underlying disease is a breakdown in our civic understanding of the common good. We are increasingly privileging short term political position over the long term interests of the society. Budgets are in "crisis" because of 1) an economy that went south, 2) conservatives who have taken revenue off the table, 3) a pernicious scapegoating of segments of the society (with a strange "hands off" counterpart on others), and 4) a refusal to look beyond the next election cycle.

E.J. Dionne has long argued that the real issue is that governmental units are given "temporary majorities" and believe that is a mandate to act.. Here's what he wrote last month about Wisconsin: "This is an effort by a temporary majority -- I use the term because in a democracy, all majorities are, in principle, temporary -- to rush a bill through the legislature designed to alter the balance of political power in the state."

We fail to realize that budgets are long-term operating plans that reflect priorities. Public employees have pensions that are high because previous administrations negotiated them (arguably in exchange for lower wages). It's clear that some abuses have taken place but the solution is to address those, not break collective bargaining. Governmental regulations were put in place to deal with REAL abuses, not to stifle business. Granted, these need regular review and modification (which we aren't good at) but the wholesale changes espoused by temporary majorities ignore reality.

These temporary majorities are accompanied by rhetorical flourishes of "elections have consequences" and "the American people have spoken". But governments are not sports cars -- they can't change direction every two or four years as the temporary majority flips other side. What a temporary majority can do is to make changes they've always wanted SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY CAN. This is what happened last night in Madison.

As I've reflected on this notion of temporary majority, I've begun to think that even the Affordable Care Act (which I fully support) moved too quickly. Politically I can understand why that was done, but in light of the long term efficacy of government it may have been too much.

So temporary majorities do create budget crises. Not because the state's fiscal situation changed since the last election, but because the time window for solving in the manner preferred by the incumbents is very short. It's a CRISIS because two years from now, Wisconsin's legislature could have a Democratic majority.

I've explored more of these thoughts on Civics in America in a recent post on my blog:
March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Hawthorne  
The only thing I'd add to these comments is something that Jeralynne and I were discussing this morning. A large part of the conservative critique of modern government involves "bureaucrats". We don't want bureaucrats between us and our doctor, we don't want bureaucrats telling us what kind of light bulbs we have to buy, we don't want bureaucrats telling us to eat healthy food and banning cookies to the third grade birthday party. (We never hear critiques about the bureaucracy of the military, except in reference to really expensive hammers, and it's the most effective large-scale government force we have.)
Here are two things that I find most striking about these criticisms. First, they aren't true. No federal bureaucrat will be telling you whether to have a particular medical procedure (to say nothing of the ridiculous notion that they'd decide you were too old to bother with -- death panels). The federal law called for better standards on light bulbs (and at the time incandescents didn't meet it; now they do). Notions of "food police" empowered by Michelle Obama knocking on Rush Limbaugh's door is just too silly for comment.
Here's the second thing. When I consider my interaction with real bureaucrats, I'm not talking to government officials! I'm talking to Kaiser Permanente (and I like them). I'm talking to a bank about a credit card charge. I'm exploring options with a loan manager at another bank. We rarely hear critics talking about those inconveniences. Just stupid stories about the DMV or wanting to know why the USPS lost your letter.

Bureaucracy is a fact of modern life. As much as our "small business" rhetoric makes us feel good, the reality is that "big box" stores continue to proliferate the countryside. Our banking is done with international conglomerates. Our insurance agent may be down the street, but the company is in Delaware and the service people are in Mumbai. Sociologist George Ritzer has been exploring this phenomenon for the past couple of decades as a process he calls McDonaldization. It's what happens when bureaucratic principles get applied to more and more sectors of life, just as Max Weber suggested. We can look back on some earlier small-town, small-business, society (which didn't exist then, either) but bureaucracy is here to stay.

What we want are competent and compassionate bureaucrats. And I'd argue that most of them fit that bill. We just love to focus on the rare case because it make a better story (which is why we all need statistics!).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Required Classes for Civil Discourse: Fourth Course -- Personal Finance

A central talking point of the recent dialogues about the size of government, the nature of our financial situation, and what it means to be conservative revolves around certain images of the budget. Much has been made of the analogy of "belt tightening" like "American households have to do." Now, there are real reasons to question this analogy, as the New York Times pointed out last week.

It's amazing how much our rhetoric runs away with us. Let's explore some ideas related to the budget debates.

First, the notion that American households manage their budgets has largely been a myth. For two decades we have been debt dependent. We're a nation addicted to instant gratification. The best evidence on household finance is that spending has been down because the recession caused folks to pay down their high levels of debt. Where did that debt come from? It came from buying big-screen HD Plasma TVs as we were encouraged through constant manipulation of the airwaves. It came because furniture stores gave us "no interest until 2013 deals". It came because we had to have the new Cadillac that leases for only $529 per month! (I've argued for 25 years that it would be a great paper to estimate the percentage of the viewing public that can actually afford the cars advertised during football games.)

Second, when and if families DO tighten their belts, they take a hard look at their options. The first question to consider is whether this is a short-term problem or a long-term situation that disrupts their entire financial situation. If it's a long-term thing like losing a job, then downsizing in some significant ways makes sense. In those situations, family members help out, you drop the cable, and you get help where you can. There are always stories of folks who fail to adjust their lifestyle, as an amazing financial assistance story in the LA Times demonstrated a few weeks ago. But if it's a short-term hit, it may make sense to simply draw down savings for a little while.

So what kind of financial situation do we have as a country? Many economists like Paul Krugman have argued that we our economic situation is directly related to the slowdown in revenues since the Great Recession. This argument suggests that we should do what is necessary, including deficit spending, until the economy recovers and the existing tax rates create the revenue streams they have in the past.

Third, it's important to keep the long-run in focus. It may be tempting to imagine that you should stop paying your auto insurance, but should something happen you're at great risk. It's one thing to stop going out to eat and another to decide to feed your children nothing but Top Ramen two meals a day. You may be willing to do without cable but giving up your phone may make it difficult to find the next job.

What is currently going on in Washington (and in states across the country) is that we are cutting spending on precisely the things that will cost us in the long run. Less money for heating assistance or head start will result in catastrophic health care costs and prison populations over the long run. Too many of the proposed cuts by either party have been aimed at stuff they didn't like in the first place. Not that these cuts amount to much impact, but they help demonstrate to political supporters that they acted. The analogy here would be the family who thought that the newspaper had been late too many mornings so they canceled their paper. That small amount doesn't dent the family budget and runs the risk of not having want ads or cost saving coupons available.

Fourth, budgets need to plan for the future. If the kids are going to college, it's necessary to set some aside (or rely on the home equity line on grandma's house). Scrimp on that and you don't have a future (which makes it hard to "win the future"). And we really ought to be concerned about the college expenses of all the kids, not just the oldest.

Consider how hopeless our conversations are about social security. We know we need to do something about the needs of future generations (the youngest child heading for college) but we are focused on not doing anything to disadvantage the oldest child. Now obviously it would have been better to have planned for all the kids at once, but we didn't anticipate the future demands. But to suggest that we create voucher systems so that the kids can do their own planning is to create a new system that breaks faith with what we've promised in the past.

What this all means is that budgets are long-term projects, they get modified over time, and we adjust accordingly. But when we engage in tropes like "it's our money" and "no new taxes", it's just not a realistic approach to budgets. Imagine if the employers of the family members simply said "no more raises because the stockholders need their benefits". Okay, that's a bad example but you get my point.

I could continue this series with more classes. There's much that would benefit folks from knowing Shakespeare, from knowing Science, from knowing Anthropology (talking to you Rep. Peter King!). The most important thing is that we stop pretending that we don't have choices. It's what sociologist Peter Berger called Bad Faith and it's got no place in civil discourse.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Required Classes for Civil Discourse: Third Course -- Introduction to Civics

My previous posts in this series dealt with statistics and US History, both legitimate college courses. Unfortunately, while there are courses offered in American Government in many institutions, "civics" or the study of the responsible citizenry, seems to be a high school requirement to get out of the way.

But there are several lessons we should keep in learning about how we govern ourselves. To be careless with these lessons is to ask for trouble within modern society. I want to explore four questions we should all explore about the nature of government and citizenship.

1. What is Government? You know the old Reagan joke -- the eight scariest words are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." Why does that get traction? Why is it that when we think of government, we only think of the federal government and then only of bureaucrats? Sure, there were problems with the way FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) responded to Katrina. But are we suggesting that those folks along the gulf were SORRY to see a federal response to a hurricane, a flood, or tar balls on the beach? Why do we focus on the cases of abuse as if all assistance were rife with fraud? For example, last month there was an article in the Huffington Post reporting that over 7,000 filings for gulf spill relief were fraudulent. But there were nearly 500,000 filings made. The error rate is about 1.5% and those weren't fraudulently paid, just filed. One more illustration of our unreasonable suspicion. How many times has the trope been repeated about waiting at the DMV as an example of government efficiency? First, that's not the federal level (more below) and second, it's a function of proper review of documents. It's why we wait in lines fairly patiently at the airport.

2. Where is Government? Here is a related idea: government happens at multiple levels. If you look at your W2 when preparing your taxes, you see a box for the federal government, a box for the state, and perhaps boxes for county or city government. Each of them has to deal with the balance of revenues to expenditures. (I'll deal with the issue of budgeting in my next post.) So when the crazy guy in New York runs for Governor on the "Taxes are Too Damn High" ticket, he failed to realize that the state doesn't handle rent control. But its also true that the lines between these levels of government are notoriously fuzzy. Michael Bloomberg pointed out that pension benefits are set by the New York State but paid by New York City. In California, the state government has been supporting public education (normally a local function) and funding enterprise zones for the cities instead. Much needs to be clarified here. But when Florida governor Rick Scott says he wants Federal Block Grants but with No Strings, you see some of our problems of government funding. It is true that many states are required to balance their budgets, but too many do so by using money from either cities or the federal level to do so. And it needs to be recognized that the two biggest drains on state finances today are medical costs and corrections. As those eat up the small discretionary reserves, it will get harder and harder for states to get to balanced budgets. And when ideologues refuse to consider taxes under any circumstances (like in California) it's hard to be optimistic.

3. How should government work? This is a critical issue that seems to have gotten lost in our never-ending battles over politics. Politics may be about winners and losers, but government is about pragmatic things. How do we care for the infrastructure, for public safety, for education, for development, for the general quality of life? These are all related to the successful operation of an economic model because jobs will follow quality of life. Texas has advertised itself as a mecca for business because of low taxes, but there are indications that deteriorating infrastructure and failing schools will make that short-lived.

The time horizon for government programs should be way longer than an election cycle. E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post recently observed that all government has a "temporary majority". One party may be in power right now, but one needs to be careful about the see-saw policies that result from the kind of rapid reversal of political fortune we're currently seeing. This would sugggest that even though the Democrats had the power to pass the Affordable Health Care Law, slower might have been better (if only the other side wasn't being obstructionist). The Republicans in Congress would do well to remember that they have a "temporary majority" and what they do in the short term will come back to visit them if that majority disappears.

The events in Wisconsin point out the challenges of pension negotiations with public workers. How did we get here? Not as political payback as some claim. It was a long process of two sided negotiation of benefits instead of salaries. The focus was on the next contract and not on the long term stability of those payments over time. Yes, there are abuses (many of the most prominent here in California) where a pension payment was extravagant. If I hear about the cities of Vernon or Bell in one more national conversation, I'll go nuts. Just like the fraudulent claims mentioned above, these things are rare. And to paint all public workers with that brush is just as unfair as it would be to treat all corporate workers based on the example of Enron executives.

4. Whom should government serve? This is the heart of the civics challenge. It even has it's own acronm: NIMBY. Not In My Backyard. People want to protect their own way of life. Too many of them treat government as an expression of personal interest. Fortunate enough to not live in a high crime area? Why do you need to pay for police? No kids in school? Why do you need to approve the school bond? But you can't know when you might need governmental services. You pay taxes to provide a potential response. The argument that the city should cut its services to the level can afford is a remarkably short term response. It may be that the fire department can close a couple of stations. But a fire in the uncovered area will do far more damage than the additional cost of having those services available if needed. This is similar to the Health Care debate. The individual mandate makes sense because you can't predict that you won't need health care if you don't have insurance.

I could go on to take about the moral imperative of caring for the poor and underserved who lack the resources to live in nice areas without crime or drugs or poverty or homelessness. It's got to equal the moral imperative that Speaker Boehner sees related to deficit reduction. And those served by government programs aren't future generations of citizens. They're the ones right here in our midst.

Next Time: "Personal Finance"

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Required Classes for Civil Discourse: Second Course -- US History to the Civil War

In this series, I'm attempting to outline some basic knowledge that would support significant civil discourse that strengthened the Common Good instead of encouraging us to shout at each other. Last time I explored how a working knowledge of statistics would cause us to argue from established data sources instead of cherry-picking, misconstruing, or simply making stuff up.

My imaginary curriculum adds a second course in United States History, focused especially on the period before the Civil War. This is a fairly common breaking point in US History courses. I believe that the first half is more relevant to imagining our shared future that the second half. Why? Because it's absolutely foundational to how we understand the nation. And too much of what gets included in contemporary debate involves nice stories we've told ourselves that aren't accurate.

Here's the first takeaway lesson from our History class: The country wasn't founded by "The Founding Fathers". We've all picked our favorite heroes and their voluminous biographies usually make the top 10 on the New York Times book list. But the authors of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were working 169 years after the founding of Jamestown, 156 years after Plymouth Rock, and 146 years after the settlement of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Want to put that in context? Subtract the same period from today and it would be 1842, 1855, or 1865 respectively. Consider the changes in society since Lee surrendered at Appamatox; that's how much time passed between Massachusetts Bay and the Founding Fathers.

So what? Well, the colonies were formed for very different reasons with different assumptions and goals. Jamestown was an economic outpost. Plymouth Rock was where a group of Puritan separatists attempted to carve out their freedom of worship mixed with civil authority. Massachusetts Bay was created as an experiment in civil society. Sarah Vowell's wonderful book, The Wordy Shipmates, explores the differences between the latter two settlements with stark application to contemporary society. That's my second lesson: Forming a Nation Required Negotiating Different Points of View. Independence, when it came, wasn't broadly embraced by everyone running to pour tea in Boston Harbor. Over time, those recognizing that continuing in colonial status wasn't going to work, especially after British soldiers started killing people. (I'll leave Middle East references for some later time, but you get the point).

The Declaration contains beautiful language but it isn't a structure for a new nation. It was simply the prelude to what would follow. Be careful when folks toss around phrases like "in the course of human events" or "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Those phrases are about why we were no longer part of England but don't begin to explain what it means to be America. This management of difference was also evident among the men who drafted the Declaration. While not completely accurate, the Musical 1776 does a great job of illustrating these differences. Whether minor issues of the national seal (Eagle vs. Turkey) or major issues like Slavery, the differences were stark and reflected the interests of the citizens of the colonies.

Third Lesson: The tension between States Rights and National Government has been around since the beginning. It's useful to go back and review what was in the Articles of Confederation that lasted from 1777 (ratified in 1781) until the Constitutional Convention supplanted it in 1789. If you review nothing more than the Wikipedia site I've linked, you'll see that the States didn't recognize a national entity except to resolve disputes. This notion of a limited national government, with States being the important entities is with us today.

Of course, the Constitution dramatically adjusted the relationship between national and state entities. And when John Jay ruled in Marbury v. Madison (just 13 years after ratification) that the national interests could trump State interests through the checks and balances enumerated in the Constitution it set in motion the idea of a national government. When Madison created a National Bank in 1816, it was within the context of commerce done by the nation as a whole. President Jackson worked to decertify the National Bank and Congress censured him (funny how the sides got switched -- the Democrat was decentralizing and the Congress tried to stop him).

When States argued in the Nullification Crisis that they didn't need to follow National Law they didn't like, Jackson held his own and held off disunion for another 30 years. (Jon Meachem's American Lion does an excellent job of illustrating Jackson's complexity.) When popular rhetoric rails against the national government in favor of the local level, the argument has far more in common with the Articles of Confederation or the Nullification Crisis than with the Constitutional Convention. What John Jay clarified is that the national perspective wasn't "a difference in philosophy". It was the Settled Law of the United States under its Constitution! Within that context there is room to work through what is done by the States and what is done at the National Level (except for what is constitutionally defined) but the National Level does not "overreach" or "engage in power grabs".

The final lesson is that we went to war to resolve the balance between national and regional interests. It may be a matter of semantics to describe the warring armies as the Army of the Union and the Army of the Confederacy, but I think it's telling. The South was fighting for the unique interests of the region, including the institution of Slavery. The North, at least as Lincoln saw it, was fighting to "preserve the Union". After the bloodiest military exercise in our history, the Union prevailed. Not just as an occupying force, but as a concept. That doesn't excuse some of the excesses of Reconstruction, but it does point out that this idea of "E Pluribus Unum" isn't just a nice idea to put on coins. It's the heart of the American Experiment. That's where the Exceptionalism comes from. We'd do well to hold that in high regard when we talk to our fellow citizens.