Why Politicians Like Rokita are More Dangerous–and Anti-American–Than you Think

According to yesterday’s New York Times, pragmatism about climate change is beginning to trump politics at the local level. The article focused primarily on candidates in Florida, where rising sea levels and other consequences of global warming have become too obvious for local Republican candidates to ignore. But the article also quoted Carmel’s Mayor, Jim Brainard, who has defied his national party’s fealty to Big Oil (more than 58% of Congressional Republicans deny the reality of climate change) and who has worked actively to reduce Carmel’s carbon footprint.

“I don’t think we want to be the party that believes in dirty air and dirty water,” Mr. Brainard said, noting that the Environmental Protection Agency was founded under President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican.

Contrast Brainard’s eminently sensible approach with that of Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita, who recently told the Purdue Exponent that claims about global warming are still “under debate,” and that the belief in anthropogenic climate change is “arrogant,” because after all, who are we to think our human activities could change God’s climate?

When asked by a constituent about government subsidies for renewable energy sources like wind and solar, Rokita said that he respects “God’s green earth,” but that the private market should decide which energy sources receive funding.

Evidently Rokita  hasn’t noticed the massive subsidies we taxpayers are providing to the (enormously profitable) fossil fuel industry.

It would be easy enough to dismiss Rokita and the other dogged defenders of the energy status quo as politicians pandering to a know-nothing base. As a 2012 article from Scientific American pointed out, however, these anti-science attitudes not only threaten America’s economic future, they represent a dramatic–and dangerous–departure from traditional American values.

The Founding Fathers were science enthusiasts. Thomas Jefferson, a lawyer and scientist, built the primary justification for the nation’s independence on the thinking of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon and John Locke—the creators of physics, inductive reasoning and empiricism. He called them his “trinity of three greatest men.” If anyone can discover the truth by using reason and science, Jefferson reasoned, then no one is naturally closer to the truth than anyone else. Consequently, those in positions of authority do not have the right to impose their beliefs on other people. The people themselves retain this inalienable right. Based on this foundation of science—of knowledge gained by systematic study and testing instead of by the assertions of ideology—the argument for a new, democratic form of government was self-evident.

The authors warned that the anti-science posture of contemporary politicians “reflect an anti-intellectual conformity that is gaining strength in the U.S. at precisely the moment that most of the important opportunities for economic growth, and serious threats to the well-being of the nation, require a better grasp of scientific issues.” Anti-science positions occur at both ends of the ideological spectrum, from anti-vaccine activists on the left to climate change deniers on the right.

By falsely equating knowledge with opinion, postmodernists and antiscience conservatives alike collapse our thinking back to a pre-Enlightenment era, leaving no common basis for public policy. Public discourse is reduced to endless warring opinions, none seen as more valid than another. Policy is determined by the loudest voices, reducing us to a world in which might makes right—the classic definition of authoritarianism.

The entire article is well worth reading, but I found this paragraph particularly  compelling:

“Facts,” John Adams argued, “are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” When facts become opinions, the collective policymaking process of democracy begins to break down. Gone is the common denominator—knowledge—that can bring opposing sides together. Government becomes reactive, expensive and late at solving problems, and the national dialogue becomes mired in warring opinions.

When Congressmen like Rokita substitute convenient and uninformed opinion for science and fact, they threaten both our planet and our democracy.

 

 

 

Dehumanizing the Poor

Paul Krugman can generally be counted upon to tell it like it is, and yesterday’s column in the New York Times was no exception. In the first couple of paragraphs, he used the recent upheaval in Hong Kong as an example of the disdain with which affluent folks in developed countries regard the working poor, and quoted Leung Chun-ying, the Beijing-backed leader of Hong Kong, who inadvertently blurted out the real reason the regime is resisting giving pro-democracy demonstrators a voice:

With open voting, “You would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month. Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies” — policies, presumably, that would make the rich less rich and provide more aid to those with lower incomes.

So Mr. Leung is worried about the 50 percent of Hong Kong’s population that, he believes, would vote for bad policies because they don’t make enough money. This may sound like the 47 percent of Americans who Mitt Romney said would vote against him because they don’t pay income taxes and, therefore, don’t take responsibility for themselves, or the 60 percent that Representative Paul Ryan argued pose a danger because they are “takers,” getting more from the government than they pay in. Indeed, these are all basically the same thing.

For the political right has always been uncomfortable with democracy. No matter how well conservatives do in elections, no matter how thoroughly free-market ideology dominates discourse, there is always an undercurrent of fear that the great unwashed will vote in left-wingers who will tax the rich, hand out largess to the poor, and destroy the economy.

As Krugman notes, this attitude is anything but new. If there is a staple of human politics, it is the tendency to demonize the “other.” Gays, Jews, African-Americans, Muslims, non-Ayrans– the identity of the marginalized may change, but the political and psychological need to draw a distinction between those who are righteous and “deserving” and those who are not seemingly remains constant.

These days, demonizing racial or religious minority groups is publicly frowned upon (although privately indulged), but blaming the poor for their poverty is seen as analysis rather than bigotry.

It’s bad enough that this moral opprobrium prevents us from implementing ameliorative economic policies, but it also retards our efforts to fix public education.

On Thursday, the Mind Trust and the United Negro College Fund hosted a lunch. The keynote speaker was one Roland Fryer. He was brilliant. Fryer–the youngest African-American ever tenured at Harvard–is an economist who studies education, and he reported the results of a large-scale experiment he and others recently conducted in Houston and Denver.  (I’m told his entertaining and informative speech will be shown on Channel 16, and for those who missed it, it would be well worth watching.)

Fryer made a number of important points, but the basic message was simple and profound: poor children–including poor black children–are every bit as capable of learning as their more affluent peers. (Fryer himself grew up in a poor neighborhood in Houston; he never knew his mother and his father was imprisoned.) When poor kids are given good teachers, when their schools support those teachers appropriately, and when the teachers expect those children to learn and excel, performance improves dramatically.

If we want to live in a society where the gulf between the haves and have-nots is deep, where resentments fester and plutocrats retreat ever farther into their gated communities–if we want to inhabit a society focused upon what divides us rather than what we have in common–we just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

I See Ignorant (Elected) People

Fair-minded Americans have welcomed the recent wave of court decisions striking down bans on same-sex marriage. The LGBT community and its allies have been positively euphoric.

Of course, the homophobes and those who pander to them have had a somewhat different reaction.

Here’s the thing: people who don’t approve of gay people, or whose religious beliefs somehow require them to see gays as sinners and same-sex marriage as an abomination, are entitled to those beliefs. It’s a free country. And elected officials are entitled to disapprove of judicial decisions, although they are not free to disregard them. All of these debates over what is best for the country, what constitutes fair play, what discrimination looks like…all of the cacophony that surrounds social change is both predictable and within the bounds of democratic deliberation.

Abject ignorance is not.

Which brings me to Jan Brewer, Governor of Arizona, and her rant in the wake of court rulings that invalidated her state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

“It is not only disappointing, but also deeply troubling, that unelected federal judges can dictate the laws of individual states, create rights based on their personal policy preferences and supplant the will of the people in an area traditionally left to the states for more than two hundred years.

 Simply put, courts should not be in the business of making and changing laws based on their personal agendas. It is not the role of the judiciary to determine that same-sex marriages should be allowed.”

Sorry, Governor Brewer, but your civic ignorance is showing. Courts are absolutely “in the business” of “supplanting the will of the people” when that will violates the Constitution. As I pointed out on this blog yesterday, the Founders of this country created an independent federal judiciary (one that was not elected) and provided those judges with lifetime tenure, because judges were supposed to be responsive to the Constitution and the rule of law—not to the electorate.

Congress and the Executive branch were supposed to respond to majority preferences; the judiciary, however, was supposed to safeguard individual and minority rights and to ensure that the other branches did not violate the Constitution in their eagerness to pander to popular passions.

I have repeated this basic premise of American constitutional law over and over—in my columns, my blogs and my classrooms. Let me do so again.

The Bill of Rights answers an important procedural question: who decides? Who decides what prayer you say, what book you read, how many children you have? In our system, government doesn’t get to decide these and other very personal matters—we individuals decide these things for ourselves. The Bill of Rights doesn’t tell us what we should value or how we should live our lives; it protects our right to make those decisions for ourselves, free of interference by government scolds.

The Bill of Rights also limits what popular majorities can vote to have government do. In fact, the Bill of Rights is sometimes called a “libertarian brake” on the power of the majority. A majority of your countrymen cannot vote to make you a Baptist or an Episcopalian; they don’t get to vote on your reading materials or your political opinions or your choice of a life partner.

People who don’t understand the most basic operation of our system—like Arizona’s Governor Brewer, or Indiana’s Mike Pence—misunderstand and misrepresent court decisions that uphold the right of individuals to live their lives as they see fit without sacrificing their right to equal treatment under the law.

The fact that we keep electing people like this is what I find “deeply troubling.”

Same-sex marriage doesn’t threaten the republic. What threatens the republic is the election of people who are totally ignorant of the Constitution they are sworn to uphold.