Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

The Rich and the Rest

Recently, Paul Krugman considered the disconnect between Republican candidates who continue to attack Social Security and the overwhelming majorities of American citizens who support the program.

His explanation? It’s all about the big money.

Wealthy individuals have long played a disproportionate role in politics, but we’ve never seen anything like what’s happening now: domination of campaign finance, especially on the Republican side, by a tiny group of immensely wealthy donors. Indeed, more than half the funds raised by Republican candidates through June came from just 130 families.

And while most Americans love Social Security, the wealthy don’t. Two years ago a pioneering study of the policy preferences of the very wealthy found many contrasts with the views of the general public; as you might expect, the rich are politically different from you and me. But nowhere are they as different as they are on the matter of Social Security. By a very wide margin, ordinary Americans want to see Social Security expanded. But by an even wider margin, Americans in the top 1 percent want to see it cut.

The study Krugman references is fascinating–and deeply troubling.

Titled “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” it confirms the old adage that “the rich are different from the rest of us.” A few sentences from the abstract are instructive.

We report the results of a pilot study of the political views and activities of the top 1 percent or so of US wealth-holders. We find that they are extremely active politically and that they are much more conservative than the American public as a whole with respect to important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation,and especially social welfare programs. Variation within this wealthy group suggests that the top one-tenth of 1 percent of wealth-holders (people with $40 million or more in net worth) may tend to hold still more conservative views that are even more distinct
from those of the general public. We suggest that these distinctive policy preferences may help account for why certain public policies in the United States appear to deviate from what the majority of US citizens wants the government to do. If this is so, it raises serious issues for democratic theory.
Cliff’s Notes version: the minuscule number of obscenely rich donors who are financing Americans elections are intent upon “buying” their preferred policies. It doesn’t matter what American voters want or think. (And thanks to gerrymandering, in most districts, those voters cannot show their displeasure by “throwing the bums out.”)
And that is, indeed, a “serious issue” for democracy.

Our Third-World Country

It has come to this: the Mexican government has issued a statement to its citizens planning to travel in the United States, warning them to avoid drinking tap water.

I think it was Eric Hoffer who said the measure of a civilization is not what it builds, but what it maintains. We look back at the Romans with considerable awe, not just because they built roads and aqueducts, but because they kept those elements of their infrastructure operational for such a long period of time.

America could take some pointers.

In the wake of Flint’s water crisis, there has been a renewed attention to the country’s scandalous neglect of our aging infrastructure. A recent article from the Brookings Institution points to the magnitude of the problem:

A combination of factors, of course, have contributed to Flint’s crisis—including lapses in state monitoring—but the aging and deteriorating condition of the city’s water infrastructure plays an enormous role.

Similar to many older industrial cities in the Midwest, Flint has struggled to pay for needed maintenance on pipes and other facilities, which not only buckle under time and pressure in the form of widespread leaks, but also result in higher costs and declining water quality. Typically out of sight and out of mind, many pipes are more than a century old and are expected to need $1 trillion in repairs nationally over the next 25 years alone. With more than 51,000 community water systems scattered across the country and the federal government responsible for under one-quarter of all public spending on water infrastructure, states and localities must coordinate and cover most of these costs.

Infrastructure isn’t sexy. But it is essential; when you cannot flush your toilet, when clean, safe drinking water doesn’t come out of your tap, the effects on the economy and the quality of life are immediate and dire.

One of the great missed opportunities of the past decade was Congressional refusal to address the Great Recession with a program to repair America’s infrastructure. As the President pointed out at the time, such an initiative would not only have put millions of people to work, the depressed interest rates would have allowed us to do the work at a considerable savings.

Evidently, opposing anything and everything Obama proposed was more important than safe water and bridges.

The rest of the world has noticed.

 

Guns, Gays and Greenhouse Gases…Welcome to Indiana’s Legislature

I don’t know about the rest of you, but when Indiana’s (mercifully part-time) legislature is in session, I tend to break out in hives. Thanks to our massively gerrymandered election map, a number of people who get elected to that august body tend to advocate measures that don’t reflect the opinions of most Hoosiers.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, in many cases, Indiana’s lawmakers’ actual constituencies are the special interests–the NRA and gun manufacturers, the Christian Right, Big Agriculture….

A quick look at some of the bills being considered this year may illustrate the point:

Let’s start with guns. Every year, guns kill some 33,000 Americans. The Indiana General Assembly isn’t deterred by that number, or by repeated massacres of children and innocents. No siree. This year, bills have been introduced 1) to get rid of Indiana’s requirement of a license to carry a handgun, 2) to allow guns at public universities and state office buildings, and 3) to make it easier for repeat alcohol offenders to get a handgun license.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’ve posted previously about the reluctance of our lawmakers to just bite the bullet and admit that LGBT folks are citizens and taxpayers entitled to the same civil rights protections that apply to women, racial minorities and religious folks. (Although it has been sort of enjoyable to watch the discomfort of legislators who are used to doing the bidding of both the Religious Right and business interests—constituencies that are on opposite sides of this issue.)

Survey research has uniformly found a solid majority of Hoosiers favor adding “four words and a comma” to the state civil rights statute. Employers large and small are lobbying for that approach, and significant numbers of clergy and other representatives of faith communities have come out to support it–but our lawmakers have thus far been reluctant to incur the wrath of the small (but shrill and intensely homophobic) Christian Right.

Then there’s HB 1082, authored by Representative David Wolkins. Dubbed the “no more stringent than” bill, it would forbid Indiana agencies from making or enforcing any environmental rule that is more stringent than those established by the federal government. As the Palladium-Item noted

Indiana consistently ranks near the bottom of the states regarding environmental quality. If State Rep. David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake, has his way, Indiana will stay there.

As the Hoosier Environmental Council points out, the situation in Flint illustrates precisely those gaps in federal regulation that Indiana would be prevented from addressing under HB 1082: For example, under federal regulations, drinking water systems can continue to deliver lead-tainted water to households and businesses for up to 24 months while a variety of fixes are attempted. In 24 months, children’s health and cognitive abilities can be permanently damaged.

In fact, there are a number of areas where EPA regulations are considered weak, among them pollution from fracking, factory farm manure pits, and outdoor wood boilers. There are probably others.

Why would we want to prevent Indiana from addressing areas where federal regulations may prove to be inadequate for our needs? It isn’t as if the absence of a “no more stringent” bill would require the state to act. Why tie the hands of those charged with citizens’ public health and safety?

I’m sure a closer examination of the bills that have been introduced would uncover still others belonging to the category that I call “good god, what were they thinking?”

Maybe I should just drink until they go home….

Will We Learn the Right Lessons from Flint?

Inquiries triggered by the Flint, Michigan water crisis have turned up several unpleasant reminders that ideology is no substitute for managerial competence or public ethics.

The most offensive recent discovery was evidence that—at the same time state officials were assuring Flint residents that their water was safe—they were providing clean water to state workers. As the Detroit Free Press reports,

In January of 2015, when state officials were telling worried Flint residents their water was safe to drink, they also were arranging for coolers of purified water in Flint’s State Office Building so employees wouldn’t have to drink from the taps, according to state government e-mails released Thursday by the liberal group Progress Michigan.

A Jan. 7, 2015, notice from the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which oversees state office buildings, references a notice about a violation of drinking water standards that had recently been sent out by the City of Flint.

“While the City of Flint states that corrective actions are not necessary, DTMB is in the process of providing a water cooler on each occupied floor, positioned near the water fountain, so you can choose which water to drink,” said the notice.

Needless to say, residents of Flint did not get a similar choice.

Then there’s this…

In The Public Interest is a think-tank monitoring privatization in the U.S. The organization warns the public when poorly-conceived public-private “partnerships” threaten to enrich private contractors without serving the public interest, or when such arrangements lack sufficient oversight or accountability. According to its recent newsletter,

In February 2015, almost a full year before the news of widespread lead poisoning gained headlines, the world’s largest private water corporation, Veolia, deemed Flint’s water safe. They were hired by the city to assess water that many residents had been complaining about—a General Motors plant had even stopped using Flint’s water because it was rusting car parts.

Veolia, a French transnational corporation, deemed Flint’s water to be “in compliance with State and Federal regulations.” While they recommended small changes to improve water color and quality, their report didn’t mention lead.

The city paid Veola 40,000 for that advice. Apparently, state government lacked the expertise to assess either the water quality or Veola’s competence to test it.

Whether the Governor and/or his aides were criminally negligent is a determination for the courts. That they are responsible for incalculable damage is inarguable.

Let me be clear: I have a bias here. I teach in a school of public affairs, a school that operates on the belief that competent public management requires knowledge of public finance, an understanding of the policy process, and respect for democratic institutions, public law and public ethics. We offer rigorous courses in those and related subjects.

Contrary to what appears to be popular opinion, the average businessman or CEO cannot just waltz into a government office and do a credible job; very different constraints—both managerial and ethical— apply to public service. You cannot do what Governor Snyder did, and simply abort the democratic process, install your preferred puppet to manage political subdivisions in accordance with your preferred ideology, and “hire out” essential responsibilities.

When we elect people who don’t understand the difference between the public and private sectors, and don’t care to learn, we get Flint.

 

You Really Can’t Make This Shit Up….

Media coverage of the Flint water crisis continues to accelerate, as the release of additional information suggests that the Governor and his office actively discouraged testing that would have confirmed residents’ fears.

The situation has sparked national outrage. (One of the more…interesting…responses has come from a Michigan militia group that has threatened to “take up arms” to protect Flint’s citizens against poisoned water. I’m not sure who they plan to shoot, or how “arms” would help, but their righteous anger is duly noted…)

What is truly incomprehensible is the continued assault on environmental safety, even in the face of this horrific example of what can happen when those safeguards are ignored–or worse, eviscerated—and even in the midst of the media’s continued focus on the issue.

Yesterday, not long after I posted about Congressional Republicans’ effort to gut the Clean Water Act, I received the following advisory from the Hoosier Environmental Council:

“This morning, SB 366 passed out of the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee on a vote of 6-3. This bill would enable — by a simple vote of two county commissioners — a community to eliminate its Solid Waste Management District (SWMD); that elimination could happen anytime after June 30, 2017.

“SWMDs have been on the frontlines of protecting our drinking water sources. By working successfully to substantially increase collection of household hazardous waste as well as construction & demolition waste, SWMDs prevent serious contamination of our waters from improper disposal of such waste.” said Jesse Kharbanda, Executive Director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. health of a community, would be adequately replaced by other programs in the community….

 Communities need strong, stable, and effective SWMDs to continue making environmental improvements; such improvements are so clearly tied to the state’s overarching goal of improving quality of life — for the sake of people’s lives and our economic competitiveness.”

Reasonable people can differ about the propriety of many government activities, but—as the reaction to Flint demonstrates— very few citizens consider protection of our air and water frivolous or unnecessary. Individuals cannot insure the purity of their own drinking water; the private sector cannot sell us clean air. We depend upon government agencies to monitor and protect these essential resources.

A commenter on yesterday’s post suggested that the real beneficiaries of weakened oversight are the large corporate farming operations that generate much of the solid waste pollution that contaminates waterways. Proper disposal of solid waste is more expensive than discharging it into a nearby stream.

If SWMDs are not operating properly, we should fix them. Allowing local county commissioners to eliminate them is both an invitation to corruption and a threat to public health.