Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

The Pope’s Encyclical

Constitutional lawyers who work on issues of equal rights are familiar with the concept of “disparate impact,” a term describing laws that are facially neutral but nevertheless have a very different effect upon citizens who are differently situated. Sometimes that different impact is intended; often it is not.

What brought that bit of “legalese” to mind was this recent headline in the New York Times: “Pope Francis to Explore Climate’s Impact on the World’s Poor.”

The article began by discussing a meeting between high-level representatives of the U.N. and the Pope:

Mr. Ban, the United Nations secretary general, had brought the leaders of all his major agencies to see Pope Francis, a show of organizational muscle and respect for a meeting between two global institutions that had sometimes shared a bumpy past but now had a mutual interest.

The agenda was poverty, and Francis inveighed against the “economy of exclusion” as he addressed Mr. Ban’s delegation at the Apostolic Palace. But in an informal meeting with Mr. Ban and his advisers, Francis shifted the discussion to the environment and how environmental degradation weighed heaviest on the poor.

The encyclical—which has since been formally issued–includes an economic critique of the way in which global capitalism, while unquestionably helping lift millions out of poverty, has also facilitated both the exploitation of nature and vast inequities among people—even people living in the same countries. That message makes the encyclical a distinctly political document, no matter how forcefully the Vatican insists that it is intended to be a statement of theology, not politics.

The ultimate effect of the Pope’s encyclical is as impossible to predict at this point as is the ultimate outcome of climate change, but the Pontiff has raised two issues that are seldom recognized in the heated debates over climate policy: the interrelated nature of the policy decisions we make and the social and economic systems we institutionalize; and the wildly disparate impact of those decisions and systems on those who are “differently situated,” as lawyers might put it.

The term “privilege” is usually connected to a descriptor like “white” or “male,” but we might also consider what privilege means for other kinds of diversity in the context of global climate change. We also tend to think of poverty as the absence of money and material goods, but poverty includes many other deficits, including an individual’s ability to withstand or recover from incidents of violent weather (Katrina, anyone?), to cope with economic changes and job losses linked to climate change, and eventually, the means to move away from newly uninhabitable locations.

Viewed in this way, “privilege” may mean having access to the resources needed to deal with economic and ecological upheavals, and “poverty” may describe those whose life choices are far more dramatically limited.

Whatever else the encyclical does or does not accomplish, it illuminates an underappreciated characteristic of inequality—susceptibility to disparate impact.


Speaking of Inequality…

There is enormous focus these days on economic inequality, and for good reason. The gap between the top 1% and other Americans is growing, the middle class that built the country and ensured social stability is shrinking, and the likely consequences of those phenomena aren’t pretty.

In the United States, our Constitution guarantees us only equality before the law. Critics may quote Anatole France for the proposition that “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread,” but there is much to be said for a system that protects individual liberties against encroachments by the state. In such system, however, efforts to ameliorate material deprivations are statutory, not constitutional, and as we continue to be reminded, statutory entitlements are vulnerable to efforts to punish poor people for their misfortune.

Most public discourse around “equality” tends to focus on these issues of legal and economic equality and the relationship—or conflict—between the two. We rarely focus on  a third kind of equality—democratic equality—despite the fact that it has a major influence on whether the country achieves the others.

Democratic equality simply means the equal right of each citizen to participate in the democratic process. It probably won’t come as a surprise to find that we aren’t doing terribly well on that front, either.

The influence of money in politics has grown exponentially since the Supreme Court’s ill-considered decision in Citizens United. (Actually, the problem started earlier, with the case of Buckley v. Valeo, when the Court first conflated money with speech) The result has been that those with money are able to “speak” much more loudly and effectively than the rest of us. When democracy becomes “pay to play,” there is no equality of participation.

It isn’t just money. In Indiana—which is unfortunately not an outlier— the legislature has used its power to make it more difficult to vote.

We have one of the strictest Voter ID laws in the nation—in order to cast a ballot, you must not only have a government-issued picture ID, that ID must have an expiration date. (This conveniently excludes the picture IDs issued by state universities.) Middle-class folks assume that it’s simple enough to obtain such identification, but for poorer people—particularly older black citizens who were born at home and lack a birth certificate—getting the necessary documentation can be both onerous and costly. (Despite pious rhetoric about deterring “voter fraud,” fraudulent in-person voting is virtually nonexistent.)

The Indiana legislature has also declined to enact other measures that encourage or facilitate voting by working-class Americans: keeping the polls open past six, establishing convenient voting centers, expanding early and absentee voting.

It’s bad enough that lawmakers see fit to erect barriers to voting rather than making it easier. But as I have previously posted, the most serious denial of democratic equality comes through partisan gerrymandering that produces an abundance of “safe” seats and eliminates voter choice.

Increasingly, especially at the state level, our legislators choose their voters—the voters don’t choose their representatives. So even when disadvantaged folks make it past the obstacles and manage to cast their ballots, they often find they are given no meaningful choice. A growing number of elections are uncontested.

As a result of democratic inequality, the people who would benefit most from the election of candidates willing to work for legal and/or economic equality have less access, less influence and less voice than their more privileged neighbors.

The system is broken.



Kansas, Louisiana, Wisconsin–and Minnesota

If I were Dorothy, I wouldn’t take Toto back to Kansas, where Governor Sam Brownback has doggedly (no pun intended!) pursued right-wing economic nostrums with devastating results.

Despite Brownback’s insistence that his massive tax cuts will translate into a booming state economy any day now, budget shortfalls have threatened to force layoffs of prison guards and massive cuts to public schools, health care providers and nursing homes, among others. A report from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics pointed out that Kansas was one of only five states across the country that actually lost jobs in the last six months. As a result of all this, the Kansas legislature has reluctantly raised taxes (albeit not on those rich “job creators”– mostly just the regressive ones).

Then there’s Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana, where state lawmakers are preparing to dump Louisiana’s 1.6 billion dollar fiscal crisis on the next governor and legislature. Among other disasters, Jindal has presided over the biggest legislative downsizing ever faced by higher education in the U.S.  The president of the Louisiana State University system has announced that Louisiana State (LSU) will consider declaring financial exigency—the equivalent of bankruptcy for academic institutions–and that as many as a dozen campuses throughout Louisiana could ultimately have to do the same.

Moving on to Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Budget Project reports that the state’s cuts to education since the start of the recession– the 7th largest in the country–  deepened the recession, slowed the recovery, and are likely to make Wisconsin less prosperous in the future. Walker and legislative Republicans voted to cut 250 million dollars from the University of Wisconsin’s budget (in a gratuitous addition, they also voted to eliminate the state’s tenure laws, virtually guaranteeing an exodus of scholars from what was once one of the most prestigious public universities in the country.) Other shortfalls have halted highway construction and reduced health care access for the needy, and job creation has remained anemic.

Then there’s Minnesota. When Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton took office in 2011, the state had a $6 billion plus deficit and an unemployment rate of 7%. Minnesota’s unemployment rate is now below 4% and the state boasts a budget surplus of over $1.2 billion dollars. On taking office, Dayton raised taxes on the wealthy; more recently, he signed a bill raising the state’s minimum wage–policies that are anathema to the right wingers in Kansas, Louisiana and Wisconsin.

Gov. Dayton stayed true to his campaign promise to ask everyone to in Minnesota to pay their fair share in taxes–including rich corporations and CEOs. It doesn’t appear to have deterred businesses operations there; a recent analysis shows Minnesota is among the top five fastest growing state economies and private-sector job creation exceeds pre-recession levels.

After committing half of the resulting revenue to balancing the budget (as required by the state constitution) Dayton and allies invested nearly three-quarters of the remaining funds in public education, with a focus on all-day kindergarten and expanding access to early childhood education.

Minnesota has also broadened access to health care, expanding Medicaid, and–according to the New York Times– keeping premiums in its insurance exchange among the lowest in the country (and well below premiums in Wisconsin).

The comparisons to Wisconsin are particularly telling because the two states share similar climates, populations with German and Northern European roots, farming communities, and (at least before Walker) populist progressive political cultures.

Policy choices matter.

Trusting in what George H.W. Bush called “voodoo economics” is a lot like trusting your operation to a surgeon whose last hundred patients died during the procedure he’s recommending.



More Lessons from Canada

Yesterday I shared Canada’s approach to management of government contracts–an approach American government officials would do well to emulate. Today, I want to share two examples of good urban policy from our neighbors to the north.

First, from Vancouver:

In Vancouver, Canada, walking, cycling and public transit are now viable alternatives to driving. Todd Litman blogs on Planetizen that recent data indicate that Vancouver’s “automobile mode share” represents about half of all trips.

By contrast, in most North American cities, personal vehicles are used about 80 percent of the time. Litman is executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

Vancouver’s urban planners have worked to make the city easier to navigate without a vehicle. As a result, in addition to the obvious environmental benefits,  Vancouver’s residents spend less money on transportation than urbanites elsewhere, have more opportunities for active lifestyles, and are less likely to be killed in an automobile accident– Vancouver has experienced a sizable drop in traffic fatalities.



Can’t find Place Jacques-Cartier? Curious about the history of Mount Royal? Ian Hardy reports for MobileSyrup that Montreal’s CA$23 million  (US$18.4 million) “smart city” plan would provide easy answers via free public Wi-Fi. The 70 projects to be completed by late 2017 would include real-time updates about buses and subways and digital access for citizens to municipal data.

The city promises to deploy free wireless connectivity at 750 locations. It also would require all major urban development projects to include superfast, wired fiber optic Internet connections, the article says. In addition, Montreal hopes to attract companies and startups that specialize in innovation that improves how cities govern and interact with citizens.

I served in city government “back when”–in an administration committed to making Indianapolis a place where people would want to live, a forward-looking city with a great quality of life. That was back when we still had planners…back before the entire focus of state and local government became keeping taxes low by providing only the most essential services at the lowest possible cost, before we took to selling off public assets to make budgets work.

Before the word “government” became a sneer.

A Lesson From Canada

I frequently post about the problems with “contracting out” by units of government–a process often misnamed “privatization.” (Contracting has also been a focus of my academic research, and my scholarly articles addressing privatization are archived on this blog under “Academic Articles.”)

The bottom line is that sometimes contracting makes sense, and sometimes it doesn’t. But even in situations where contracting is appropriate, the practice raises significant management issues that deserve attention. The “how” is every bit as important as “whether” and “when.”

So I was interested to see that Canada’s Project on Government Oversight recently issued a National Action Plan for Contracting Reform–a proposal that sets out 8 steps intended to “improve government contractor transparency and promote responsible contracting.”

Those steps–which I wholeheartedly endorse–are:

• An improved Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS) database.
• Publicly Release Contracting Documents
• Post Contractor Past Performance Reviews on FAPIIS
• Publicly Release the DoD Revolving Door Database
• Publicly Disclose Contractor Political Spending
• Publish an Annual Report on Defense Contracting Fraud
• A requirement for the government to inform FOIA requesters that specific contractor information has been withheld or redacted
• Ending Dun & Bradstreet’s control over how the government uses DUNS data

All of these steps are warranted, but the disclosure of prior performance reviews may be the most important. Units of American government preparing to enter into contracts to deliver services through private providers need to take a page from our neighbor to the north, and require those bidding on government contracts to document their prior performance.

Performance information is especially important when the contracts involve children. In Florida, to its credit, Palm Beach County recently tightened its rules on charter schools by requiring charter school applicants “to disclose any prior history with failed schools and prove they offer innovative programs.”

The underlying premise of government contracting is that the private sector can perform a given service or function more efficiently at the same or lower cost than government. It seems only reasonable to require solid evidence that the contractor can actually do so.