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"

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