Category Archives: Random Blogging

Ideology is Expensive

Here’s another entry for my growing pile of public policies that cost more money than they purport to save. (Of course, the more illuminating question is: who bears the costs and who gets the savings. The answer to that question explains a lot.)

According to the Economic Policy Institute,

“.. if the minimum wage were boosted from its current level of $7.25 per hour to $10.10, as proposed by the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2014, more than 1.7 million Americans would no longer have to rely on public assistance programs. This would produce $7.6 billion per year or more in savings for the federal government, according to the study.”

The report noted that approximately half of all people earning under $10.10 per hour–or some 11.9 million Americans–receive some form of means-tested benefits from the government. That would include benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps and other forms of welfare.

We the People pay for those benefits. Walmart, McDonalds and other major low-wage employers don’t. The money companies save by paying their employees poverty wages goes directly to their bottom lines. The arguments for continuing to have taxpayers subsidize the (very handsome) profits of such employers is that, if the minimum wage were to be raised, these companies would choose to raise prices rather than (horrors!) see any erosion of those huge profit margins.

Maybe.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d prefer paying an extra nickel for a cheeseburger, and putting that 7.6 billion dollars per year toward something that advanced the common good. I’d rather repair our crumbling infrastructure, educate our children, develop a vaccine for Ebola…there are lots of priorities I’d place ahead of subsidizing the continued wealth of the Walton family and McDonald’s shareholders.

Trust, City Life–and a Meditation on Branding

One blog I follow is CityScope–an ongoing conversation about urban life and innovation around the globe. A recent post there focused on one of my preoccupations, the importance of trust in building social capital and facilitating city life, from a fresh perspective.

Obviously, trust has always been a social dynamic in cities. (So has mistrust. See Ferguson, Missouri.)  Today, some combination of technology, austerity and social transformation seems to be changing the conversation. The rise of mobile apps, social media and other web-enabled forms of communication are a big part of what’s going on. These platforms don’t create trust, but they do create new ways for us to discover trust and put it to work in cities.

The author of the post quoted Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, who described how his service, which lets people rent out their homes or spare bedrooms to strangers, had expanded to more than 34,000 cities in 190 countries in a mere six years.

“At its core, the thing that we invented wasn’t the ability to book someone’s home,” Chesky said. “What we invented was a very streamlined mechanism for trust.”

“Before us, essentially everyone was a stranger,” Chesky continued. “The only thing you could buy was from companies — those companies had brands, and those brands said the companies could be trusted. A person — you couldn’t trust. The moment identity got attached to people, suddenly the playing field was level. People could act as businesses. They could act as microentrepreneurs.”

I hadn’t really thought about the role of branding in creating trust, and reading this gave me one of those “aha” moments. Of course! That’s why people stop at a Wendy’s or McDonalds when they’re on a road trip–they “trust” what they’ll get; they’ll know what to expect. That’s why my husband orders his khakis from LL Bean when he buys on the internet; he knows what he will get in both quality and fit.  Creating and then fulfilling expectations is what “branding” is mostly about. (I do recognize that a large part of the preference for upscale appliances and identifiable designer clothing among those who can afford such things is not reliance on the inherent quality of the goods, but the message sent by flaunting the brand.)

Keeping one’s brand trustworthy is incredibly important to commercial enterprises. Public relations professionals sometimes specialize in “crisis management”–handling events that might reduce brand trust and thus loyalty. (NFL, anyone?) Companies that cannot manage these PR disasters find themselves in deep trouble.

Politically, we are about to see what happens when a political party’s brand becomes toxic to the nation as a whole, but the dynamics of the organization prevent cooler heads from “managing” the problem.

Recently, a Republican high in the party hierarchy admitted to a friend of mine that there is no way today’s GOP can win the Presidency; absent residential sorting, gerrymandering and voter “ID” laws, the party would not be able to win House seats. It may take another couple of election cycles, but the “brand” is increasingly toxic to younger voters, who “trust” it to take positions that are anathema to most of them.

When the old white guys who can be relied upon to support the brand no matter how repellent it has become die off, the Grand Old Party will face a choice: abandon its current radicalism and return to the center-right brand that sold well, or become irrelevant.

 

 

Out-of-State Money

Ah, campaign finance!

Anyone who follows politics–even slightly–knows what a mess our campaign finance laws are, and the multiple ways in which money has screwed up our politics and confused even the most local of campaigns. The most recent example of the latter is debate over the upcoming Indianapolis’ School board races.

Full disclosure: our daughter, Kelly Bentley, is running for her former seat on that Board. (She previously served three terms, then didn’t run four years ago.)

Kelly and other candidates have been endorsed by an assortment of organizations–among them the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, and a national group called Stand for Children. As I understand it, the Chamber made contributions to the campaigns of its preferred candidates.  Stand for Children did not–instead, it has done mailings urging support for those candidates that its local membership (consisting of IPS parents) endorsed.

As an independent organization, Stand for Children is legally prohibited from coordinating with its endorsees, and those candidates have no say in what Stand for Children does or says on their behalf. (I don’t like the current law, especially the fact that independent organizations don’t have the same reporting requirements as candidates, but it is what it is.) Stand for Children has given Kelly’s campaign exactly zero dollars, and has never even informed her of its activities on her behalf.

This endorsement by a national education reform organization has generated a broader discussion–in blogs, on Facebook and elsewhere–about the propriety of accepting “out of state” money.

My favorite example involved a $2,500 gift from a mysterious “New York based” donor, Stephen Suess, to Kelly’s campaign. Stephen, of course, is our son–Kelly’s brother. He’s a web designer, and the $2,500 in-kind contribution was the value of the work he did creating her campaign website.

More to the point, this is yet another debate generating more heat than light. Politics in 21st Century America is increasingly nationalized around philosophical issues: a woman’s right to choose, same-sex marriage, minimum wage….these issues play out in local arenas, but they are anything but local. My husband and I are not wealthy, but we often send small contributions to national organizations working in other states on issues that matter to us, and I’d wager that many of the folks raising red flags about out-of-state contributions do likewise.

If a candidate for a local office were to be entirely funded by people from elsewhere, that would tells us something useful, but when–as here–the bulk of the candidates’ contributions come from local folks, refusing to accept support from people living elsewhere who agree with your positions on the issues–or refusing help from your brother because he lives in New York– would be pretty silly.

If you live in IPS District #3 and you don’t agree with Kelly’s positions on education, or the path that IPS should be pursuing, don’t vote for her. But I can vouch for her integrity, her passion for focusing on the well-being of children, and her grasp of education policy.

Is a parent’s endorsement also “improper”?

 

 

Turning Over the Rocks?

In response to yesterday’s blog post about residential “sorting,” one of this blog’s regular readers sent me a report about a study that confirmed that sorting, but also confirmed a disquieting element of contemporary American life:

According to Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford University, often the most divisive aspect of contemporary society is: politics.

“Unlike race, gender and other social divides where group-related attitudes and behaviors are constrained by social norms,” writes Shanto — with co-author Sean J. Westwood of Princeton University — in the recently published report Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization, “there are no corresponding pressures to temper disapproval of political opponents. “

The study’s conclusions mirror my own research, and I’m persuaded that they are accurate, but I think the quoted paragraphs raise a different–and even more troubling– question.

Is our brave new world of Internet interactivity and social media eroding those “social norms”?

I recently had this discussion with the editor of a local “niche” paper. He was bemoaning the tone and content of comments left on the publication’s website, and posited that the ability to speak without having to identify oneself–the ability to remain anonymous or at least feel that you are shielded by the medium–has weakened those social norms, and thus our reluctance to share unpopular and socially disfavored opinions.  The expression of bigotries has become less constrained. (The recent Facebook rant by Charlotte Lucas is just one of hundreds of examples.)

There’s no doubt that online nastiness is at its worst when the discussion is political, but it is also increasingly–and distressingly– common to come across racist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic sentiments as well.

The real question, I suppose, is: has the Internet simply operated to shine a light on the nastiness? Has the advent of this new communication medium operated to “turn over the rock” so that we now see things that have always been there, but have been less visible?

Or has the ability to go online and find fellow bigots who will confirm your resentments and displaced hostilities actually increased their numbers?

I don’t know. But I worry….

 

Hard To Argue

Sometimes, snark hits the nail on the head.

A couple of days ago, over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton made a snarky and audacious claim: After noting those aspects of Sharia Law that are most frequently criticized as being inconsistent with American values, he pointed out that today’s GOP holds those same beliefs:

  • Government is to be based upon religious doctrine
  • Women should have fewer rights than men
  • Homosexuality is to be outlawed
  • Religious doctrine trumps science
  • There is no separation of church and state
  • Religion is taught in government schools
  • Abortion should be illegal

All of these positions are proudly held both by extremist Muslims and the extremists who control  today’s Republican party.

Brayton’s conclusion: if you don’t want Sharia law, don’t vote Republican.

I hadn’t planned to share this–it seemed unnecessarily partisan–but Sunday evening I moderated a panel discussion sponsored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The panel was hosted by Broadway United Methodist Church, and candidates for the Indiana legislature (both incumbents and challengers) were invited to participate. Five accepted: four Democrats and one Republican.

I was initially impressed that a Republican would be willing to defend the party’s current platform to a group that was unlikely to agree with much of it, but it immediately became clear that the Republican had not the foggiest notion what AU stood for, or for that matter, how church and state differ. Her answers to the questions were rambling, incoherent and  filled with personal anecdotes and biblical quotes. (Although she seemed totally unaware of the operation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, she did at one point offer the opinion that Jefferson “lied” in his letter to the Danbury Baptists.)

When a question was asked about recognition of same-sex marriage, she responded that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” (I kid you not.) She offered her support for pharmacists who refuse to fill birth control prescriptions and merchants who refuse to provide services to gay customers, because “liberty,” and when asked whether those same merchants should also be able to refuse service to African-American patrons, she at first said she didn’t understand the question, but when pressed, said yes.

There was much, much more–including a closing statement in which she shared with the audience the information that God had asked her to run for office.

I know this woman is not representative of all Republican candidates. (As one appalled attendee noted afterward, she was a “stereotype on steroids.”) But the party was willing to have her run under its label. She somehow made it through slating.

In the course of the evening, she took every position on Brayton’s list (indeed, she went well beyond the list).

I’d be interested in knowing which of those positions today’s GOP–aka the American Taliban–would disown.