Category Archives: Random Blogging

In the Land of the Blind…..

Yesterday’s New York Times had a story about efforts to register voters in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the tragic shooting of Michael Brown. This paragraph absolutely floored me:

“A lot of people just didn’t realize that the people who impact their lives every day are directly elected.” Said Shiron Hagens, 41, of St. Louis, who is not part of any formal group but has spent several days registering voters in Ferbuson with her mother and has pledged to come back here each Saturday. “The prosecutor—he’s elected. People didn’t know that. The City Council—they’re elected. These are the sorts of people who make decisions about hiring police chiefs. People didn’t know.”

The story also repeated the statistics we’ve seen before about Ferguson: a town that is two-thirds African-American with a virtually all-white power structure and a twelve percent voter turnout in the last municipal election. (And that was overall—black turnout was even lower.)

A few pages on, the Times had a report about the growing influence of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ vast organization. Taken together, these articles are a dramatic picture of what is wrong with our political system.

I know I sound like a broken record on the issue of civic knowledge. I quote the studies (only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government! People who are civically ignorant rarely vote!). I insist that our civic deficit is far more worrisome than our fiscal one.

These articles explain why it matters. Vividly.

We The People need to understand something about the disproportionate influence of money in politics: it requires civic ignorance. Whether it is intentionally misleading political messages or well-meaning but wrongheaded appeals to voters, these tactics are effective only when the people on the receiving end of the message don’t know any better.

The most basic civil right we Americans enjoy is the franchise. It would be great if we could reverse Citizens United and the other cases that have enabled the wealthy to buy our political system, but we actually have the power to neuter these people now.

The antidote to money in politics, ultimately, is an informed electorate.

In this day and age, it is absolutely unforgivable that American citizens don’t know who they elect—not that they don’t know the names of officeholders, but that they don’t know what offices they can vote to fill. This phenomenon is not limited to impoverished residents of Ferguson, Missouri; I regularly encounter middle-class college students who cannot define government, have no idea what a Constitution is or how it differs from a statute, and have only the haziest notion of what “rights” are.

Money is a huge advantage, and I am not minimizing its power. But the people who are all-too-often exercising undue influence in America are those who’ve figured out how to benefit from widespread civic ignorance.

What’s the old saying? In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

The Warmongers Refuse to Learn

John McCain ( “get off my lawn”) and Lindsay Graham (“I’m running for re-election and nobody gets to the right of me!”) have a letter in yesterday’s New York Times, insisting that President Obama do something about ISIS. They don’t say what that something should be, but they scold the President for failing to do it.

McCain and Graham have a long history as proponents of a “muscular” (belligerent)  foreign policy; in their world, war is the first, not last, resort. As I recall, both were supportive of the Bush Administration’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq and further destabilize the  Middle East.  Given the way that little adventure turned out, you might think they’d be a bit more reluctant to rattle their swords, but they don’t seem to have learned anything.

Martin Longman, over at Political Animal, reminisces.

It’s surprisingly easy to compose a list of the 25 stupidest things Bush administration officials said about the invasion of Iraq, and no such list can be remotely comprehensive. For example, the list I just referenced has President Bush assuring Reverend Pat Robertson that he doesn’t need to prepare the public for casualties because we won’t have any casualties, and it has Donald Rumsfeld dismissing concerns about looting because “free” people are free to do dumb things, but it makes no reference to Paul Wolfowitz saying in Congressional testimony that, “There’s a lot of money to pay for this. It doesn’t have to be U.S. taxpayer money. We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.” It doesn’t include his testimony that “It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his army — hard to imagine.” It doesn’t include his testimony that “I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to spend another $30 billion to be there for another 12 years.”

The current Administration is trying to deal with–or as Longman puts it, triage– the disastrous consequences of massively wrongheaded policies. It’s a huge mess.

I have no idea whether Obama is doing what needs to be done, because I have no idea which measures would help and which would make things worse.  I definitely have no advice to offer.

The difference between me and McCain/Graham is: I know what I don’t know.

Rural versus Urban

These days, “us versus them” seems to describe the whole world: Israel versus Gaza, ISIS versus non-Muslims, cops versus African-Americans, theocrats versus secular folks, Republicans versus Democrats… Choose your team–there are plenty of them.

When I wonder why Americans can’t “just get along,” as Rodney King memorably put it, I think back to a wonderful rant published by the editors of The Stranger, an alternative newspaper published in Seattle, in the wake of the 2004 elections. Looking at the red and blue of the election map, they noted that cities were bright blue dots in even the reddest states–that urban areas comprised an “urban archipelago” with political values and attitudes vastly different from those of rural America.

Researchers have confirmed their observation: virtually every major city (100,000 plus) in the United States of America has a political culture starkly different from that of the less populous areas surrounding it.

As New York Times columnist Gail Collins noted a couple of years ago, people living in densely populated urban areas understand the need for government–paved roads and public safety and garbage collection. That farmer out at the end of the gravel road who rarely gets a visitor (and isn’t worth the effort of the burglar), doesn’t see much reason to pay taxes.

Living with lots of people who are different from you shapes a certain worldview, an identifiably urban value structure. As the authors of the Urban Archipeligo wrote in that seminal essay,

Look around you, urbanite, at the multiplicity of cultures, ethnicities, and tribes that are smashed together in every urban center…: We’re for that. We’re for pluralism of thought, race, and identity. We’re for a freedom of religion that includes the freedom from religion–not as some crazy aberration, but as an equally valid approach to life. We are for the right to choose one’s own sexual and recreational behavior, to control one’s own body and what one puts inside it. We are for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…..

 Unlike the people who flee from cities in search of a life free from disagreement and dark skin, we are for contentiousness, discourse, and the heightened understanding of life that grows from having to accommodate opposing viewpoints. We’re for opposition…. Republicans have succeeded in making the word “liberal”–which literally means “free from bigotry… favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded”–into an epithet….

Let’s see, what else are we for? How about education? Cities are beehives of intellectual energy; students and teachers are everywhere you look, studying, teaching, thinking…. It’s time to start celebrating that, because if the reds have their way, advanced degrees will one day be awarded based on the number of Bible verses a person can recite from memory. In the city, people ask you what you’re reading. Outside the city, they ask you why you’re reading. You do the math–and you’ll have to, because non-urbanists can hardly even count their own children at this point. For too long now, we’ve caved to the non-urban wisdom that decries universities as bastions of elitism and snobbery. Guess what: That’s why we should embrace them. Outside of the city, elitism and snobbery are code words for literacy and complexity. And when the oil dries up, we’re not going to be turning to priests for answers–we’ll be calling the scientists. And speaking of science: SCIENCE! That’s another thing we’re for. And reason. And history.

 Is this stark “we versus they” picture fair? Of course not. There are plenty of thoughtful and measured inhabitants of rural precincts. That said, the inclusive culture created by the urban worldview is one of the reasons so many marginalized folks–LGBT people, Jews, atheists, artsy nonconformists– tend to migrate to cities.

The problem is, the people who live in densely populated cities have demonstrably less political voice than their country cousins; most states don’t really have “one person one vote” and the result is that rural values are vastly overrepresented. State taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas, and the people who populate state legislatures  have gerrymandered voting districts to keep things that way.

Representative government just isn’t very representative these days.

Until we address gerrymandering—and the efforts to suppress the votes of minority voters—the values of rural areas will continue to be over-represented, and the views of folks living in the urban archipelago will continue to be ignored by policymakers.

And that’s not good for democracy.

Rokita, Redux

A Facebook friend shared this statement from Indiana congress-critter Todd Rokita:

After many emails, phone calls and letters, as well as meetings with all involved, I’m pleased to announce a long-term solution to low-flow situations along the Tippecanoe River: Late last week, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service agreed that NIPSCO, operator of Oakdale Dam, should allow the river to flow more naturally.

My office continues to work on shorter-term ways to alleviate the situation on Lake Freeman — but we find ourselves in this situation due to the Endangered Species Act, which places endangered species, including six species of mussel along the Tippecanoe, ahead of the economic interests and safety of human beings. There is no economic balancing test under the law by design.

The Senate passed it unanimously, and the House passed it 355-4, in 1973. Only one Indiana Congressman, Earl Landgrebe, opposed the law.

Given the situation on Lake Freeman today, would you support repeal of the Endangered Species Act? When I posed that question at my Monticello Town Hall last week, several people raised their hands. Others said no.

What say you?

Well, Congressman, I say that the “economic interests and safety of human beings” is rather obviously connected to the health of the environment, and that protection of the ecosphere is a rather obvious element of environmental health.

I also say that, in sane times, comparing yourself to Earl Landgrebe (most famous quote, “Don’t confuse me with the facts. I’ve got a closed mind”) wouldn’t be seen as a particularly helpful career move.


Foreclosing America

One of the great benefits of teaching college is what you learn from your students. Sometimes the lessons are new, sometimes they appear as new ways of understanding information you already have.

Recently, I served on the doctoral committee of a student who was writing her dissertation on the “Lived Experience of Foreclosure.” Her research connected a number of insights, and highlighted a number of policy issues, in a way that illuminated the interdependence of economic stability and self-worth in American culture in a way I hadn’t previously appreciated.

There weren’t many people who were willing to share their experiences with her, and the reasons for that reluctance could be inferred from the painful insights of those who did respond. In America, after all, homeownership is a cultural marker, tangible evidence of solid and responsible citizenship. Home is more than a roof over ones head or a place to live; it’s a time-honored symbol of the American Dream—and its cultural symbolism makes foreclosure an American nightmare.

Research on the effects of the mortgage default epidemic that accompanied the Great Recession has confirmed foreclosure’s more “macro level” consequences: foreclosures are a threat to neighborhood stability and community well-being; they affect predominantly the low-income and minority populations most likely to be hard-hit by economic downturns; they create an environment conducive to criminal activity and lead to disinvestment.

Those consequences are bad enough, but it is the experience of real people caught up in an economic downturn not of their making—and the lessons that can be drawn from those experiences—that can help us shape policies to minimize a repeat of the recent epidemic.

Foreclosure, it turns out, is not just a legal process triggered by an inability to pay. It is equally the consequence of a profound disconnect between the borrower and lender. That disconnect is a function of dramatic changes in banking since the days when mortgage loans were the product of face to face agreements between an officer of the bank on the corner and a long-term, well-known customer.

The purchase of local banks by ever-bigger, national ones was driven by the bankers’ belief that bigger would be better, that consolidation would permit efficiencies that would ultimately benefit both their bottom lines and their consumers. Divorcing banks from their customers was an unanticipated consequence.

That initial disconnect was exacerbated by the practice of “flipping” mortgage loans. In some cases, the borrower was barely out the door when a letter arrived informing him that his loan had been sold and would henceforth be serviced by Bank B, with whom the borrower usually had no previous relationship.

It is no longer uncommon for a mortgage to be sold several times during its term. Among the consequences of flipping is the obvious one; when the bank extending the loan doesn’t intend to keep it, there is less incentive to ensure that the borrower can repay. The growth and prevalence of inadequate and unethical underwriting standards—a scandal widely discussed in the wake of the Great Recession—is largely attributable to flipping.

This distance between the borrower and the eventual owner of the mortgage emerged over and over in the conversations with the foreclosed homeowners. In one case, the delinquent homeowner found a buyer, but couldn’t reach anyone who had the authority to approve the short sale.

Consequential as it has been, the foreclosure epidemic illustrates a problem that is far larger and more pervasive than current banking practices: America’s growing power imbalance.

Free markets require willing buyers and willing sellers, each in possession of the relevant information, and each able to walk away from a transaction if they deem it too one-sided. People who enter into such agreements are expected to live up to their terms—an expectation that most of us agree is just. Increasingly, however, the transactions to which we are party are not the result of negotiation and unforced decision-making. Instead, they are “take it or leave it” arrangements in which one party has all the power and possesses most or all of the relevant information.

In an economic world characterized by such imbalances of power, it may be time to rethink policies that operate to penalize the powerless and reward the predatory.