Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

How Long Can This Go On?

From the New York Times, we learn about the next crop of Republicans likely to become U.S. Representatives:

 One nominee proposed reclassifying single parenthood as child abuse. Another suggested that four “blood moons” would herald “world-changing, shaking-type events” and said Islam was not a religion but a “complete geopolitical structure” unworthy of tax exemption. Still another labeled Hillary Rodham Clinton “the Antichrist.”

Congressional Republicans successfully ended their primary season with minimal damage, but in at least a dozen safe or largely safe Republican House districts where more mild-mannered Republicans are exiting, their likely replacements will pull the party to the right, a move likely to increase division in an already polarized Congress.

For the past several years, my husband has insisted that the GOP–to which we both belonged for many, many years–could not possibly become any more radical, could not continue to nominate and elect people ranging from ignorant to bat-shit crazy, without paying a price at the polls, and ultimately returning to the sane, center-right positions it used to hold.

All of the indicators are that the electorate is losing patience with these people, although–thanks to gerrymandering and “sorting”– change is coming very, very slowly. But progressives and Democrats who anticipate winning more elections once the “angry old white guy who watches Fox” demographic fades gloat at their peril.

The fact is, America needs two responsible, grown-up political parties, and when one of our major parties goes off the rails, there’s no one to keep the other party focused and reasonable. Unless the American public sends a compelling message soon to the travesty that is the current GOP, our government will continue to be dysfunctional, utterly incapable of confronting and solving the problems we face.

We need that message sooner rather than later.

I’m waiting….

 

When a Video is Worth a Thousand Words….

Many of you have undoubtedly seen this clip from the Daily Show, in which Jon Stewart eviscerates members of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. If you haven’t, you need to watch it; if you have seen it, you may want to watch it again, just to confirm that, yes, these really are people making policy for the world’s most powerful nation.

Either way, once you have watched members of our nation’s national legislature make complete and total fools of themselves–once you have cringed at the level of intelligence (not) displayed, and the pride and self-satisfaction with which they trumpet their embarrassing ignorance of even the most basic science–perhaps you can answer two questions that continue to confound me:

How do people like this get elected?

Why in the world are they on the Science, Space and Technology Committee?

For that matter, what is this appalling excuse for a patriot doing on the Armed Services Committee?

We really are doomed.

Reduction by Addition

Over at the Washington Post, John DiIlio (late of the Bush White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives) makes a point I’ve frequently made--if we want to reduce the actual size of government, we need to hire more federal workers.

As DiIlio points out, the number of federal civilian workers (excluding postal workers) has been flat for quite some time. When George W. Bush became president, the executive branch employed about 1.8 million civilians–virtually the same number as when John F. Kennedy won the White House.

There were more federal bureaucrats (about 2.2 million) when Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984 than when Barack Obama won reelection in 2012 (about 2 million)…

This is the dirty secret behind all those debates over the size of government. Yes, government is big and is dangerously debt-financed, but it is also administered by outsiders — and that is what guarantees that our big government produces bad government, too.

DiIlio calls this state of affairs “Leviathan by proxy,” and it’s an apt phrase.

America has had a 30-plus year love affair with “privatization.” The problem is, what we’ve been doing is not privatization–it’s contracting out, a very different animal. As my friend Morton Marcus is fond of pointing out, privatization is what Margaret Thatcher did; she sold off enterprises that government didn’t need to operate. They became private, they paid taxes, they either prospered or failed. What Americans call privatization is dramatically different–we provide government services through third-party, for-profit or non-profit surrogates.

Not only does this mode of service delivery lead to the inefficiencies and management problems that DiIlio identifies in his article, it makes the size and reach of government less visible. It enables Leviathan.

The last time I looked, there were approximately 18 million people working for federal, state and local governments who were not on any government’s payroll. The number of employees who work for contractors doing the work of government agencies–people whose full-time jobs are to deliver government services and who are paid with tax dollars– dwarfs the number of bureaucrats actually employed by those governments. It is virtually impossible to keep track of them, let alone ensure their accountability–constitutional or otherwise.

As DiIlio notes,

Big government masquerading as state or local government, private enterprise, or civil society is still big government. And privatization that involves “acquisition workforce” bureaucrats contracting out work to entrenched interests is not really privatizing. The growth of this form of big government is harder to constrain, and its performance ills are harder to diagnose and fix, than they would be in a big government more directly administered by an adequate number of well-trained federal bureaucrats.

When you demonize government, but demand services, this is what you get.

It isn’t pretty–and it isn’t privatization.

 

Indiana Could Learn a Few Things from Oregon

People who live in Indiana are aware that our public officials are somewhat deficient when it comes to recognizing ethical standards. Not to put too fine a point on it, we have far too many people in public office who wouldn’t recognize an ethical issue if they fell over one–and they do have a well-documented tendency to stumble.

The most recent display of ethical chutzpah revolved around Eric Turner, the Senate Republican who knew enough to recuse himself from voting on a bill that would damage his son’s very lucrative business (in which he held a significant interest), but somehow failed to see any problem with strong-arming members of his caucus behind the scenes. Perhaps the most interesting part of that story is that he broke no rules–because Indiana’s legislative code of conduct is for all practical purposes non-existent.

I’ll leave it to others to opine on the ethical propriety of a sitting Governor appointing University Trustees who (what a coincidence!) then hire him to be President of that University. Or the City-County Counselor who cast the deciding vote on a fifty-year contract with a vendor represented by his law firm. Or or or…..the list is long and definitely not pretty.

Indiana might take a lesson from Oregon.

Data from the Justice Department, compiled by political scientists at Indiana University at Bloomington and the City University of Hong Kong, show that, over a period of 32 years, there were fewer corruption convictions in Oregon than in any other state, when controlling for the number of state workers.

The researchers attributed Oregonion honesty to robust transparency laws, tough rules for campaign finance disclosure, and rules forbidding lobbyists and special interest groups from giving gifts worth more than $50 to state employees. It is also significant that Oregon  requires most public-improvement contracts to be awarded based on competitive bidding–they don’t do the no-bid contracts so popular around here.

It’s no surprise that taxpayers foot the bill for corrupt practices, but the number of ways in which corruption costs us did surprise me.

Corruption forces states to spend more on everything from construction and highways to corrections and police. But the authors of the study, John Mikesell and Cheol Liu, also found that states with higher rates of corruption tend to spend less on education, public welfare, health and hospitals. So more corruption costs taxpayers — in terms of money and the social services the government provides.

Hoosiers can and should tighten up our lax ethics laws. But that’s unlikely to happen unless voters make it an issue.

Meanwhile, as we wait for that (thus far undetectable) civic indignation, Indianapolis is proposing to cut a deal with “consultants” and private contractors to build a massive justice center–and being considerably less than forthcoming with the details. The Administration has taken the position that we mere taxpayers (and the City-County Councilors who represent us )have no right to know how these transactions are being structured.

Somehow, knowing that –whatever “extra amounts” that deal ends up costing us, whatever no-bid or “wink wink” arrangements may be involved–none of the deals being cut are likely to violate Indiana’s nonexistent ethics laws doesn’t comfort me.

I hear Portland is a really cool city.

 

 

A Task for Indy’s Next Mayor

So, yesterday, Joe Hogsett opened his campaign office, joining fellow Democrats Ed Delaney and Frank Short who previously announced they’d be opposing Greg Ballard. Early as it is, it would seem that the mayoral race is officially on.

Whoever wins that election will have his job cut out for him. (And yes, “him” is the proper pronoun. So far, Indy hasn’t exactly embraced female candidates for mayor, and this time around we don’t have any.) To suggest that our city faces multiple challenges would be a real understatement–from transit (rather, the lack thereof), to crime, to poorly maintained parks, to battles over the Mayor’s role in decisions about how to fix our schools, to debates over municipal funds for fancy sporting venues, the list is long–and resources to deal with the problems are getting ever more scarce.

You can add to the list of obvious issues a less recognized one: our unenviable status as the U.S. city with the fastest-growing inequality. According to the Institute for Working Families’ Derek Thomas,

This week, the Indy Star reported on the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ ‘Income and Wage Gaps Across the U.S.’ report. The story presented the group’s finding that “wage inequality grew twice as rapidly in the Indianapolis metro area as in the rest of the nation since the recession.”

The consequences of that inequality can be seen everywhere: in taxes we don’t collect, in hopelessness that leads to all manner of social dysfunction, in crime, in economic development that isn’t sustainable….

The candidates contending for our votes need to demonstrate that they understand the ways in which these problems are interrelated–and they need to tell us how they plan to address them.