The Rich and the Rest

Recently, Paul Krugman considered the disconnect between Republican candidates who continue to attack Social Security and the overwhelming majorities of American citizens who support the program.

His explanation? It’s all about the big money.

Wealthy individuals have long played a disproportionate role in politics, but we’ve never seen anything like what’s happening now: domination of campaign finance, especially on the Republican side, by a tiny group of immensely wealthy donors. Indeed, more than half the funds raised by Republican candidates through June came from just 130 families.

And while most Americans love Social Security, the wealthy don’t. Two years ago a pioneering study of the policy preferences of the very wealthy found many contrasts with the views of the general public; as you might expect, the rich are politically different from you and me. But nowhere are they as different as they are on the matter of Social Security. By a very wide margin, ordinary Americans want to see Social Security expanded. But by an even wider margin, Americans in the top 1 percent want to see it cut.

The study Krugman references is fascinating–and deeply troubling.

Titled “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” it confirms the old adage that “the rich are different from the rest of us.” A few sentences from the abstract are instructive.

We report the results of a pilot study of the political views and activities of the top 1 percent or so of US wealth-holders. We find that they are extremely active politically and that they are much more conservative than the American public as a whole with respect to important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation,and especially social welfare programs. Variation within this wealthy group suggests that the top one-tenth of 1 percent of wealth-holders (people with $40 million or more in net worth) may tend to hold still more conservative views that are even more distinct
from those of the general public. We suggest that these distinctive policy preferences may help account for why certain public policies in the United States appear to deviate from what the majority of US citizens wants the government to do. If this is so, it raises serious issues for democratic theory.
Cliff’s Notes version: the minuscule number of obscenely rich donors who are financing Americans elections are intent upon “buying” their preferred policies. It doesn’t matter what American voters want or think. (And thanks to gerrymandering, in most districts, those voters cannot show their displeasure by “throwing the bums out.”)
And that is, indeed, a “serious issue” for democracy.

Our Third-World Country

It has come to this: the Mexican government has issued a statement to its citizens planning to travel in the United States, warning them to avoid drinking tap water.

I think it was Eric Hoffer who said the measure of a civilization is not what it builds, but what it maintains. We look back at the Romans with considerable awe, not just because they built roads and aqueducts, but because they kept those elements of their infrastructure operational for such a long period of time.

America could take some pointers.

In the wake of Flint’s water crisis, there has been a renewed attention to the country’s scandalous neglect of our aging infrastructure. A recent article from the Brookings Institution points to the magnitude of the problem:

A combination of factors, of course, have contributed to Flint’s crisis—including lapses in state monitoring—but the aging and deteriorating condition of the city’s water infrastructure plays an enormous role.

Similar to many older industrial cities in the Midwest, Flint has struggled to pay for needed maintenance on pipes and other facilities, which not only buckle under time and pressure in the form of widespread leaks, but also result in higher costs and declining water quality. Typically out of sight and out of mind, many pipes are more than a century old and are expected to need $1 trillion in repairs nationally over the next 25 years alone. With more than 51,000 community water systems scattered across the country and the federal government responsible for under one-quarter of all public spending on water infrastructure, states and localities must coordinate and cover most of these costs.

Infrastructure isn’t sexy. But it is essential; when you cannot flush your toilet, when clean, safe drinking water doesn’t come out of your tap, the effects on the economy and the quality of life are immediate and dire.

One of the great missed opportunities of the past decade was Congressional refusal to address the Great Recession with a program to repair America’s infrastructure. As the President pointed out at the time, such an initiative would not only have put millions of people to work, the depressed interest rates would have allowed us to do the work at a considerable savings.

Evidently, opposing anything and everything Obama proposed was more important than safe water and bridges.

The rest of the world has noticed.

 

The Continuing Attack on Public Education

And Indiana’s legislative session continues…..

In the Fort Wayne Journel-Gazette, Vic Smith has accused the Indiana legislature of a frontal assault on public education.

Two bills have been filed that would create the biggest expansion of private school vouchers Indiana has ever seen. They would advance the privatization of our educational system in line with the plans of voucher-inventor Milton Friedman, who supported the abolishment of public education.

I didn’t think that the Republican supermajority would make a direct attack on public education in an election year, but it appears the Republican leadership is poised to push forward a radical new private school voucher plan. It would be the biggest voucher expansion since Gov. Mike Pence’s voucher plan costing taxpayers $40 million in new dollars and diverting $120 million from public schools was enacted in 2013.

Smith asserts that these measures are part of a longer and more ambitious effort to replace public schools with a “marketplace” of private schools funded by government, but without government oversight. He points out that although 94% of Indiana’s children still attend public schools, those public schools are being systematically starved of resources that are being redirected to private schools.

Smith sees this assault as intentional, but let’s give voucher proponents the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say they genuinely believe that privatized schools will offer better educational results. (Put aside, for the moment, important questions about what we believe constitutes a good education, and how we measure that.)

To date, research has provided no evidence that vouchers improve anything other than parental satisfaction and the bottom lines of struggling parochial schools.

A recent study of Louisiana voucher schools by the Brookings Institution found student achievement actually declined, and fairly substantially.

When comparing school performance, researchers struggle to distinguish differences in schools’ effectiveness from variation in the types of students who choose those schools.

A voucher lottery provides an unusual opportunity to measure the effectiveness of private schools. The lottery serves as a randomized trial, which is the gold standard of research methods. Random selection means that lottery winners and losers are identical, on average, when they apply for the voucher. Any differences that emerge after the lottery can therefore be attributed to the private-school attendance of the winners.

The results were startling. The researchers, a team of economists from Berkeley, Duke, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that the scores of the lottery winners dropped precipitously in their first year of attending private school, compared to the performance of the lottery losers. The effects were very large: roughly a quarter of a standard deviation in math, social studies, and science. There were no effects on reading scores.

In previous posts, I have argued that the tragedy in Flint, Michigan, can be attributed in large part to people who did not understand the government they were elected to manage, and who substituted ideology for competence. The voucher movement displays the same hubris.

In both cases, children are the victims.

Allow Me To Repeat Myself

File this one under “here we go again.”

Common Cause, the Brennan Center and other nonpartisan organizations are warning about the dangers of an effort to call a Constitutional Convention, purportedly to consider a “balanced budget amendment” to the U.S. Constitution.

A balanced budget amendment is a truly bad idea but a Constitutional Convention is an even worse idea, as constitutional interpreters as different as Harvard’s Lawrence Tribe Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and former Chief Justice Warren Burger  have  explained.

So what is all the fuss about?

As I wrote in 2014, lawmakers frustrated by their inability to change government policies of which they disapprove, and unable to amend the Constitution through the process that has given us all of the amendments we have, will periodically propose convening a Constitutional Convention.

Thus far, none of these efforts have yet succeeded—for which we should be very grateful.

Why do I say we should be grateful?

When activists clamor for wholesale changes or major revolutions in the status quo, they always assume that the changes that ultimately emerge will reflect their own preferences and worldviews. History suggests that’s a dangerous assumption.

As an alert from Common Cause and the Brennan Center recently warned,

The effort to call a constitutional convention to pass a balanced budget constitutional amendment is being led in part by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization consisting of corporations and conservative state legislators. Advocates of such a balanced budget amendment claim that 27 states already have passed such calls. A major effort is underway in 2016 to obtain the seven more states they believe they need to reach two-thirds of the states, the number required by the constitution to call a constitutional convention.

It isn’t just ALEC. A variety of proponents of systemic change—liberal and conservative—want the states to convene a Constitutional Convention under provisions of Article V of the Constitution. They usually insist that the convention could be limited in scope to just their pet change.

Constitutional scholars disagree. The great weight of authority makes it clear that once a Convention is called, anything and everything would be on the table.

But the risk isn’t simply that a Convention could rather easily be hijacked by people who disagree with the conveners about the nature and extent of needed changes. There is also a real danger in calling together a group of people and asking them to amend a document that few of them understand.

 

Anyone who thinks that the public officials who take an oath to uphold the Constitution have actually studied it and understand it–are in denial. What they might do inadvertently to the Constitution is anyone’s guess.

As a recent USA Today editorial put it,

This year’s presidential election has seen more than its share of bad ideas, including deporting 11 million people, bombing Syria and Iraq until the sand glows, and enacting massive tax cuts or equally massive spending hikes.

To these we can add another: Sen. Marco Rubio’s call for a constitutional convention to draft amendments to balance the federal budget and impose term limits on judges and members of Congress.

Rubio’s convention is an invitation to constitutional mayhem and, even if it went as planned, his proposals could further poison our politics and hobble American leaders at moments of crisis.

And that’s the best-case scenario.

The Most Important Issue in 2016

Yesterday, the Indiana Senate killed the bill expanding civil rights in Indiana to protect LGBT Hoosiers. The bill was terrible, but its continued viability at least provided a vehicle for further discussion and improvement. Its death means that Indiana law will continue to allow people to be refused employment, or fired, simply because they are gay. Indiana law will continue to allow landlords to turn away gay couples simply because they are gay couples.

And if you’re gay, Indiana law will allow that deeply “religious” baker to turn you away without a cake. In fact, unless you live in one of the cities that has passed a civil rights ordinance, you might as well resign yourself to continued second-class citizenship status–despite the fact that remedying the situation enjoys widespread public support.

It isn’t only Indiana’s legislature that seems incapable of acting on behalf of the common good. The last time I looked, the approval rating of the U.S. Congress was 9% (and many of us are scratching our heads, wondering who the hell is in that 9%).

In Indiana, much of the legislative paralysis is a direct consequence of the man who sits in the Governor’s office; when the chief executive of a political subdivision is incapable of leadership, it feeds intra-party squabbling and lack of discipline.

In Washington, the problem goes in the opposite direction: a deeply dysfunctional Congress intent upon thwarting any and every initiative proposed by the President is mired in petty posturing and has largely abandoned its constitutional role (not to mention any sense of obligation to the voters).

In fact, the only part of our national government that is functioning (barely) is the Supreme Court, and that Court is on the brink.

As election law guru Richard Hasen recently wrote,

When the next President of the United States assumes office on January 20, 2017, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be nearly 84, Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy will be over 80, and Justice Stephen Breyer will be 78. Although many Justices have served on the Court into their 80s and beyond, the chances for all of these Justices remaining through the next 4 or 8 years of the 45th President are slim. Indeed, the next president will likely make multiple appointments to the Court.

Hasen’s article is long, but well worth reading in its entirety. His point, however, can be summed up by the title of his piece: The Most Urgent Civil Rights Issue of Our Time is the Supreme Court Itself.

As important as this year’s gubernatorial and legislative races will be, electing a President who will elevate non-ideologues to the Supreme Court is the most important issue for voters in 2016.

Without a Court willing to hold legislatures and governors to account, America runs the very real risk of becoming a nation none of us would recognize, and in which most of us would rather not live.