Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Pence, Pre-school and the Right-Wing Base

In case you were wondering why on earth Indiana’s Governor would refuse to apply for 80 million dollars in federal funds for preschool development, I point you to the most recent newsletter from the Indiana Family Association’s Micah Clark.

After urging his readers to “thank Governor Pence” for refusing that terrible, intrusive federal government support, Clark wrote

I disagree with the Governor and many others who support state preschool programs. I have yet to be convinced from the research that any benefits from the expensive programs attempted in other states are lasting and, therefore, the best use of Hoosier’s taxdollars. However, I completely agree with Governor Pence telling the federal government “no thanks.”

Here’s a key point. If the government offers “free” preschool only to those it approves, then churches, homes, and private alternatives are crowded out of the market. Over time, parents could actually have fewer choices.

As I heard one inner city pastor say, “the governor saved our preschool with this move.” AFA of Indiana supports parents having as many choices as possible, not just a one-size-fits-all. government dictated option.

It doesn’t take a lot of skill to read between those lines. Just follow the money.

We’ve seen this movie before. Every time the state legislature tries to pass minimum health and safety standards for daycare and preschools–usually, after a tragic accident at some unregulated, unsafe facility– conservative churches mount a hysterical assault on “big government,” and claim a religious right to be free of pesky (too-expensive) rules about nutrition, fire safety, minimum ratio of caregivers to infants and the like.

Churches operating daycare and preschool operations that don’t want to comply with health and safety standards are a big part of Governor Pence’s base. Those churches clearly didn’t want federal money funding safer competitors, and the Governor just as clearly got the message.

If poor Hoosier families lose out, so be it.

Ironically, the usual message of AFA of Indiana is: we don’t need no stinking preschool. Mothers should be home (preferably barefoot and pregnant) taking care of their own children, like God intended.

But if some mothers absolutely must work, and really have to leave their kids somewhere, it needs to be in a “bible-believing” facility that makes us money. If accepting federal dollars might threaten that business model, Indiana should refuse those dollars.

It’s always instructive to follow the money.

In this case, you can follow it to the other states whose children will benefit from 80 million dollars that our bible-belt state was too “pure and independent” to accept.







Politics as Usual

Contemporary politics has a lot in common with tantrums in a nursery school classroom. So it is understandable, although not very helpful, to see every dispute between the City-County Council and the Ballard Administration characterized–and dismissed–by local pundits as “politics as usual.”

Not every difference of opinion between the Council and the Mayor–or between Congress and the President–can be dismissed as “playing politics.” Some reflect genuine disputes over what constitutes good policy.

Take the current dispute between the Mayor and Council over funding for expanded preschool. That dispute is not over the value of preschool or the need for expansion; it is about identifying a funding mechanism that is both reliable and fiscally responsible. It is about how, not whether. Both sides have principled arguments worth weighing; it would be nice if we had local journalists willing and able to help readers understand the different perspectives.

Instead, we get naive admonitions to “play nice.”

Which brings me to yet another unfortunate consequence of lawmakers’ decision to constitutionalize property tax caps.

A couple of weeks ago, this particular dispute sparked a friendly argument. I didn’t understand the Council’s reluctance to approve the Mayor’s funding proposal by eliminating a local property-tax credit. Why not? I asked. It’s not a biggie, and if it would fund preschool, great. My friend insisted that elimination of the credit would cause a revenue shift that would end up costing both IPS and the Library significant revenues, and would cost township schools nearly 3.9 million. But he couldn’t explain why.

I couldn’t see how that would be true, and refused to believe him, so he sent me an analysis by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute that confirmed those shifts, which are a result of whether individual property owners have or have not hit the cap.

Here’s the thing: I read the analysis, and another posted by Ed Delaney, several times. Call me dense (many do), but the operation of the tax caps on local property taxes is so complicated, I am still at a loss to understand precisely how it works. I gave the analyses to a colleague whose area is Public Finance, and he patiently explained it–but only after even he’d struggled to work through the formula.

When the operation of tax law is so complicated that even former lawyers and professors of public finance have trouble figuring it all out, you have a prescription for mischief–and worse. Transparency in government doesn’t only mean that citizens need to know what their elected officials are doing, it also requires rules that are comprehensible to most of us.

Until I looked at the issue, I simply did not believe the Councilors who said the proposed funding mechanism would shift money–would create winners and losers. Now, it may be that funding preschool expansion is worth doing even if it does take revenue from other units of local government, but that is a very different argument than the “should we/ shouldn’t we have preschool” debate portrayed by local media.

The moral(s) of the story:

In the absence of clear and understandable laws, We the People simply cannot make intelligent decisions about policy and policymakers.

In the absence of a local media capable of analyzing and reporting on the reasons for disagreements, we lack any basis upon which to render democratic judgments. We the People are not well-served by a media that characterizes even legitimate differences over policy as “playing politics,” and fails to do the hard work needed to understand and explain the arguments .


Have Americans Gerrymandered Ourselves?

On Tuesday, I attended the “Pancakes and Politics” breakfast hosted by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. It was a lively and informative panel. One exchange that really struck me was a brief discussion of redistricting.

Everyone on the panel–Republican, Democrat and Statehouse reporter Ed Feigenbaum (who was officially neither)–agreed that noncompetitive elections are bad for democracy, that they pull parties to the extremes, encourage lazy legislators and reduce electoral participation.

The question was, what can be done about it?

The Democrat on the panel endorsed nonpartisan redistricting; the Republican on the panel (I should be better about names!) disagreed. He pointed out that Americans have been “sorting” ourselves into Red and Blue enclaves–voting with our feet to live in places where our neighbors agree with us about values and priorities. True enough–anyone who’s read Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort would recognize the accuracy of his observation.

His second argument against nonpartisan redistricting was less persuasive. Basically, he pooh-poohed the notion that we can really take partisan politics out of the process. The success of nonpartisan processes in Iowa and elsewhere suggest otherwise.

The truth–as is so often the case–is likely somewhere in the middle: eliminating partisan gamesmanship and gerrymandering will not solve the problem of underrepresentation of people living in overwhelmingly blue cities in red and purple states. But it would be measurably fairer than the current system, in which representatives choose their voters rather than the other way around, and that fairness would ameliorate at least some of the cynicism and apathy that depresses voter turnout. And it would increase the numbers of competitive districts–perhaps not as much as advocates hope, but certainly more than the panelist conceded.

Common Cause, which has made redistricting reform a high priority, has announced a contest that highlights one of the reasons that challenges to highly gerrymandered districts have failed: the Supreme Court has consistently declined to get involved unless the districts can be shown to have been drawn to disenfranchise minorities. The Court has said that partisan districts (districts drawn to unfairly benefit a political party) are “justiciable”–that is, that such challenges will be heard by the courts–but they have routinely declined to overturn political decision-making unless racially discriminatory motives can be demonstrated.

Common Cause has invited lawyers and political scientists to propose a new definition of partisan gerrymandering that might allow citizens to win such challenges, promising money prizes, publication of the winning paper and a trip to Washington, D.C.

It will be interesting to see what that contest produces.

Hope springs eternal…..




The Socialists are Coming! The Socialists are Coming!

Okay–consider this my Sunday Sermon….

We know that America has an equality problem. We also have a language problem that makes issues of equality more difficult to discuss rationally.

Pundits across the political spectrum, the so-called “chattering classes,” increasingly use words as epithets, rather than as a way to describe reality. Terms like “liberal”—which used to mean “open minded,” “generous,” or a follower of the philosophy of John Locke—have become a content-free insult to be hurled at anyone favoring a marginally more activist government or slightly more robust social safety net.

When “liberal” gradually lost its sting, partisans moved on to “socialist.”

The problem is, few people using the term these days seem to know what socialism is, and even fewer recognize that socializing the solution to a problem can often be very good for capitalism (another system which few can define with any precision), by ameliorating more savage inequalities and thereby avoiding social instability.

The Affordable Care Act—aka “Obamacare”—is unremittingly attacked for being “socialism.” And it is absolutely true that it’s an effort to socialize access to health insurance. But what does “socialism” in this context really mean?

Rhetoric to the contrary, the ACA is hardly an unprecedented departure from a purely market-based system. (Prior to its passage, governments at all levels were paying nearly 70% of America’s healthcare costs, albeit through a grossly inefficient patchwork of programs.) More to the point, ours is a mixed economy, meaning that over the years policymakers have determined that some services are more appropriately or efficiently provided communally–”socialized” through units of government–while others are best left to the market.

We socialize police and fire protection. Most cities have socialized garbage collection. Federal and state highways and city streets are public goods provided by governments and paid for through (largely redistributive) taxes—that is, socialized. Add publicly-financed parks and museums and public schools. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security all offer “social insurance.” After some 100 years of policy debate, we have finally added health insurance to the list.

The ACA is far from perfect. Many Americans would prefer a single-payer system similar to those that operate in many European countries. Others fault the law’s complexity. Interest groups that stand to lose profits under the new accounting rules argue about the fairness of those provisions. Such complaints are to be expected when any major new program is introduced. Much as we saw with the evolution of Medicare, we can expect significant modifications going forward.

Policy debates are to be expected. What is much harder to understand is the level of hostility aroused by the suggestion that struggling Americans should be provided with access to affordable health insurance. Opponents of the ACA call it “socialized medicine” (it isn’t; at most, it is “socialized insurance”) as though the very label should be evidence that it is anti-American to use tax dollars to subsidize coverage for those who cannot afford it. People who live on their Social Security benefits and love their Medicare positively froth at the mouth at the notion that America has any obligation to extend the reach of such programs to less fortunate folks.

The irony here is that the very people who are fighting tooth and nail to bring down the ACA—bringing lawsuits, supporting candidates who vow to repeal it—are already among the Act’s beneficiaries. America’s previous non-system—the most expensive in the world by far—was widely acknowledged to be unsustainable. The cost of health insurance was a major impediment to job creation, and a drag on the whole economy. In the wake of the ACA’s passage, the indicators have all improved, benefitting all of us.

The ACA hasn’t just improved our economic health. It has also improved our moral health.

There is something very wrong with a society that rations healthcare on the basis of one’s ability to pay—a society willing to tell its most vulnerable members that they are expendable, that they do not deserve even the most basic medical care. Whatever we call this decision to even the playing field just a bit, to mend this major hole in the social safety net, it brings us closer to that elusive thing called civilization.

If that requires a bit of socialism, so be it.






Man of the Century

Paul Ryan is the man of the century. Unfortunately, that century is the 14th.

Per Daily Kos:

Ryan basically wants to divide the poor up into two groups: the deserving poor (elderly and disabled people), who will get special protections from his plans; and the undeserving poor, who will be his guinea pigs. This group would have to sign contracts promising to meet specific goals and would lose aid if they didn’t meet the goals, and they’d be trying to hit their goals with lots of personal supervision from the government or a private company with a government contract.

The notion that some poor people are “deserving” and others are not can be traced all the way back to the English Poor Laws, which (among other things) prohibited people from giving “alms to the sturdy beggar.” 

Supporters of social welfare programs and the critics of those programs are still arguing about policies dating to 1349, when England enacted the Statute of Laborers, prohibiting alms, or charity, for those who had the ability to work–that is, to “sturdy beggars.” (Never mind whether work was available to them.)

The distinction between the “worthy” and “unworthy” poor was substantially grounded in the Calvinist belief that poverty is evidence of divine disapproval, while virtue is signaled by material success. That belief has morphed somewhat (the undeserving poor now lack “middle class values” rather than divine approval), but it continues to influence American law and culture.

In the early 1900s, this moral opprobrium directed at the poor found an ally in psuedo-science, and poverty issues were caught up in the national debate between Social Darwinists like William Graham Summer and their critics. In language reminiscent of those earlier admonitions against rewarding “sturdy beggars,” Sumner wrote:

“But the weak who constantly arouse the pity of humanitarians and philanthropists are the shiftless, the imprudent, the negligent, the impractical, and the inefficient, or they are the idle, the intemperate, the extravagant and the vicious. Now the troubles of these persons are constantly forced upon public attention, as if they and their interests deserved especial consideration, and a great portion of all organized and unorganized effort for the common welfare consists in attempts to relieve these classes of people….

If I believed in reincarnation, I’d seriously entertain the possibility that Sumner has returned as Paul Ryan….