Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

When Partisanship Trumps Patriotism

When even Fox News anchors accuse John Boehner of a “major breach” of U.S. foreign policy, you can safely assume that Boehner has taken a giant step too far.

Both Chris Wallace and Shepherd Smith have joined other media commentators and harshly criticized both Boehner and Netanyahu for making secret plans to have the Israeli Prime Minister address Congress—to make a speech critical of the Administration’s Iran policies.

Long-standing rules of protocol for foreign visits require White House involvement and sign-off. In this case, the White House was not only bypassed, but as several media sources noted, the entire Administration was intentionally kept in the dark.

In a major departure from what used to be considered patriotic behavior, Boehner and the GOP have invited a foreign leader to use the floor of Congress to bash an American President.

The policies involved are irrelevant. Millions of Americans were deeply opposed to George W. Bush’s foreign policy decisions. If Democrats had invited a foreign leader to Congress, without letting the White House know, to deliver an address critical of Bush’s policies, Republicans—and most patriotic Americans, including Democrats—would justifiably have found that conduct close to traitorous.

It used to be a given that partisan politics stopped at the water’s edge; that in foreign affairs, we were all Americans. Our policy disputes, no matter how bitter, were rightly seen to be internal arguments. Until now, the behavior Boehner has exhibited would have been unthinkable—on both sides of the aisle.

I’m 73 years old, and I’ve followed politics closely for over fifty of those years. Never in my adult life have I seen a President subjected to the level of disrespect that has been shown to Barack Obama. Even FDR, who certainly aroused deep animosity, didn’t have to deal with the level of pure over-the-top hatred shown to this President. I can only conclude that the election of an African-American President has driven a substantial percentage of white America over the mental edge, to the point where they are willing to undermine their own country if that’s what it takes to show their contempt for its President.

This behavior has to stop.

Barack Obama is THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. Deal with it. Love him or hate him—agree with his policies or despise them—feel rage or elation over the fact that a black guy handily won two national elections—the occupant of the Oval Office is entitled to respect.

And We the People are entitled to public servants who understand that the rules apply to them whether their party is in power or not– who understand the need to put aside personal pettiness and partisan vindictiveness when they reach the water’s edge.

Bring Back Government

Washington Monthly recently reported on a new book by Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, and its review by John DiIulio.

Neither of them can be considered politically liberal. Fukuyama is best known for his book The End of History and his association with the rise of the neoconservative movement. DiIulio, late of George W. Bush’s Office of Faith Based and Community Organizations is, as the Monthly noted, a

scholar of government as an institution, and it is in that capacity that he expands on Fukuyama’s critique of modern governments, including that of the United States, as increasingly ineffective not because of excessive size, but because their bureaucrats serve too many masters, including client groups and private interests. And both Fukuyama and DiIulio hold that Americans’ distinctive mistrust of government has kept it from redeeming the hopes and plans of the Progressive Era reformers who sought to give the public sector its own sense of mission and esprit de corps.

DiIulio is concerned that “third party government”–the outsourcing of federal government responsibilities to state and local governments and to private contractors– is making government less accountable as well as less effective.

I have been making this point for years, along with many other scholars, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I agree with this diagnosis, and with DiIulio’s prescription:

There are many steps on the path to reversing America’s political decay by proxy. We need to reinvent federal grants-in-aid to the states, drain the federal for-profit contracting swamps, and wring more public value from grants to nonprofits. But we also quite simply need to hire more federal bureaucrats. The federal bureaucracy is more nearly the solution than the problem. In Bring Back the Bureaucrats, I crudely calculated that we need about one million more full-time federal workers by 2035 in order to serve the public, stop draining its purse, start improving performance, and create an actual system of national public administration.

Most reasonable people can see the problem that DiIulio describes very clearly:

America’s political decay is fed daily by public disdain for public servants and fueled each election season by bovine congresspersons in both parties who score points with voters by bashing “the bureaucrats” and “running against Washington.” The first step toward slowing or reversing America’s political decay is to recognize how for-profit contractors and other administrative proxies have rigged the system in their own interest, expand the federal civil service, and start treating federal bureaucrats as if our public well-being depended on them—for it does.

Unfortunately, the “bovine” folks in charge of Congress are so deep into batshit crazy territory, I doubt anyone will listen. 


At Least We Aren’t Kansas….

States are often referred to as “laboratories of democracy,” a phrase coined by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Although we might debate the utility of a federalist system in our shrinking, ever-more-connected world, it is certainly the case that different states pursue different policies and that the experience of, say, State A may have useful lessons for State B.

It is also the case that Governors tend to portray their own states in rosy terms.  In Indiana, the last couple of administrations have certainly “accentuated the positive” and “eliminated the negative.” Scholars and policymakers seeking to evaluate the claims must go beyond the hype and ask inconvenient questions. (It’s wonderful that you brought the XYZ company to Indiana, but doesn’t it pay minimum wage and hire only part-time workers to avoid offering benefits?)

 Which brings me to a recent report issued by Indiana’s Institute for Working Families. (Full disclosure: I am on the Institute’s Advisory Board.)

The Institute’s focus is self-sufficiency for Hoosier families, and it conducts research and advocates policies that are calculated to achieve that goal. Every two years, it issues a report measuring the economic health of Hoosier families. This year’s report (available on its website) does not support the rosy claims made by the Administration, to put it mildly.

Despite an improving unemployment rate, the number of impoverished and low-income Hoosiers is still on the rise, median household income is
still declining and income inequality in Indiana is growing… Hoosier families have steadily lost ground, too often at clips greater than the nation and even our neighbors. The data make it clear that Hoosier families are not the fiscal envy of the nation.

The report is lengthy, thanks to copious documentation, but highlights from an accompanying Infographic tell the story: 1,015,127 Hoosiers are below the poverty level—a record high. Another 1,260, 419 live on the edge of poverty. That brings the total number of low-income Hoosiers to 2,275,546.  Indiana is home to approximately 6, 500,000 people, so slightly over a third of all Hoosier citizens are struggling.

 Since 2007, the number of low-income Hoosiers has increased 20.7%. Indiana’s number of middle and high income residents has fallen by 8.7%.

Median household income in Indiana in 2013 was $47,529—down sharply from 2000, when it was $55, 182.

Indiana’s performance cannot simply be shrugged off as a consequence of the recession. Certainly, the recession was a factor, but between 2007 and 2013, while the country as a whole experienced a 20% increase in the poverty rate, Indiana’s increase was 29.3%.

What accounts for Indiana’s dismal income figures? The Institute’s research suggests a couple of culprits. First of all, there is what the Institute calls “the jobs swap”—during the recession and its aftermath, the state steadily lost jobs in mid-and high-wage industries, while the jobs we added were low wage positions. The numbers tell that story: Indiana added 14,726 low-wage jobs between 2007 and 2013; we lost 35,814 mid-wage jobs and 23,369 high-wage jobs.

And then there was government.

 What was Indiana government doing to address the erosion of Hoosier wage levels? It was cutting public employment, trimming the social safety net–and bragging about how “right to work” and a low minimum wage had made Indiana “competitive.”

 If we are a “laboratory of democracy,” our lab experiment failed.

 On the other hand, I suppose we should be glad we aren’t Kansas…

I Hate It When That Happens!

Everyone (okay, every economic conservative) knows that raising the minimum wage kills jobs. If employers have to pay more per hour, they will hire fewer people. Obvious.

Except real life doesn’t seem to work that way. Washington Monthly recently reported on the experience of states that ignored the conventional wisdom and raised their minimum wages.

Such hikes were not without opposition. Notably, fast food companies sounded the alarm over the possible consequences of minimum wage hikes—namely, that consumers would pay higher prices and companies would be forced to cut jobs….

Six months after California’s minimum wage rose to $9, the state’s job growth continues to outpace nearly every other state in the country. In November, California added more than 90,000 jobs, its highest single-month total in almost two decades.

The Golden State is not alone. Of the 13 states that saw minimum wage hikes go into effect on January 1, all but New Jersey saw positive job growth in 2014. And as a group, those 13 states averaged significantly higher job growth than states that did not raise the minimum wage.

It turns out that decisions to hire more workers are determined more by things like consumer demand than wage levels.

In fact, demand is far and away the most important factor in job creation. So when wages rise, and poorer people have more money to spend, they spend it. Demand increases. The economy improves. Everyone benefits–including the rich. (Except, evidently, in New Jersey…I wonder what/who Chris Christie will blame…)

In 2015, 21 additional states are set to raise their minimum wage. It will be interesting to see what happens–and, if there is a repeat of the experience of 2014– how the ideologues will spin the results.

Things I’ll Never Understand…

Yesterday’s New York Times had an editorial that began

Over the last several years, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has shown utter contempt for the State Supreme Court’s three-decades-old ruling in the Mount Laurel housing case, which bars wealthy towns from excluding affordable housing and requires them to write zoning laws that permit a reasonable amount of such housing to be built.

The editorial went on to describe Christie’s persistent refusal to comply with the court’s orders. It’s hard to believe that Christie was once a lawyer–a profession rooted in respect for the rule of law.

Of course, even ignoring “Bridgegate,” this is hardly the first time Christie has privileged his personal political interests over the common good. When he was first elected, he killed a much-needed, long-planned tunnel into Manhattan. As a New Jersey paper recently noted,

The ARC tunnel would have doubled cross-Hudson rail capacity – helping commuters get to high-paying Manhattan jobs and increasing property values back home in New Jersey. When Christie killed the plan – he didn’t have a Plan B. Instead, Christie grabbed the billions of dollars set aside by Gov. Jon Corzine and spent it on in-state transportation projects – which allowed him to pay for road and bridge repairs without raising the gas tax.  By pulling out of the ARC tunnel and spending the money, Christie left billions in federal dollars on the table and has nothing left to contribute to a new tunnel project – rail capacity that is still desperately needed.

Christie justified that decision by saying that the project faced cost overruns; the General Accounting Office said otherwise.

I wish Christie were an anomaly, but he isn’t. In fact, Christie’s is the face of far too much of today’s politics: officeholders who are contemptuous of the government that pays them and the interests of the voters who elect them, power-hungry, self-absorbed lackeys of special interests willing to do whatever it takes to stay in the good graces of their patrons, no matter who gets hurt in the process.

What I don’t get is why these people–who appear to have no concept at all of the common good, or respect for the purpose of government–choose political life in the first place. Surely in a capitalist economy there are more appropriate venues for their narrowly-focused ambitions.

Might it be that these pompous preachers of the virtues of the market lack the ability to succeed in the real-life marketplace? Why else go into a line of work for which they are so clearly unsuited?