The Things We Know That Just Aren’t So…

Michael Hicks is an economist on the faculty of Ball State University. He recently published two columns in the Indianapolis Star that deserve widespread attention.

Hicks documents two inconvenient facts: more people move into high-tax areas than into low-tax precincts, and economic conditions in Blue cities and states are significantly better than conditions in Red parts of the country.

Hicks makes that first assertion in a column discussing the repeated mantra of candidates for Indiana’s legislature--elect me and I’ll cut property taxes! High property taxes are why Indiana keeps losing population! He points out that–despite the popularity of these proposals, property tax cuts would be highly unlikely to grow population, employment, GDP or household incomes. The data shows that population growth tends to cluster in high-tax places.

In Indiana, the 10 counties with the highest effective property tax rates alone accounted for 27,105 new residents since 2020, a whopping 61.3% of the state’s entire population growth. The 10 counties with the lowest effective property tax rates saw only 878 new residents, or less than 2% of the state’s growth.

I know many readers will recoil at this challenge to a long-held notion that lower taxes cause growth. However, it is a cold, hard fact that both population and employment growth is positively correlated with tax rates on income and property.

In Indiana, a 1% increase in the average tax rate leads to a 2% increase in population growth. That is simple mathematics.

Why would that be? As Hicks concedes, no one looks at tax rates and says “Let’s move to where taxes are higher.” What they do look at are indicators of quality of life–public services and amenities that will be available to them.

These are places where families judge themselves better off. If you live in a state where families are moving from low- to high-tax regions, your state is underinvesting in local amenities such as schools, parks, and public safety.

That reality–anathema as it is to those who view all taxation as evil–goes a long way toward explaining another phenomenon Hicks has discussed–the difference between the economic performance of Red and Blue areas of the country.

Nationwide, it is unambiguously clear that the U.S. economy is performing historically well. On every important measure — employment, wages, GDP, or wealth — the overall economy is not just performing at record levels, but also outperforming the rest of the world.

Robust national economic performance has benefits for every county and small town, but that does not mean every place shares equally in economic growth. There are plenty of places that continue to do poorly.

And the gap between them is growing. Rich places are, for the most part, getting richer and poor places poorer–in contrast to what has typically happened before. Moreover,

poor places are increasingly governed by Republicans and rich places by Democrats. The gap between rich and poor places might help explain the partisan differences in perceptions of the economy.

The regional differences are compelling across dimensions of rural and urban places, as well as between cities and rural areas.


The MAGA Vendetta Against Arts And Education

Well, I see where Ron DeSantis has petulantly stripped thirty-two million dollars of art funding from the Florida budget.

Ron DeSantis stripped more than $32m in arts and culture funding from Florida’s state budget over his hatred of a popular fringe festival that he accused of being “a sexual event”, critics of the rightwing governor say.

DeSantis justified his unprecedented, wide-ranging veto of grants to almost 700 groups and organizations by saying it was “inappropriate” for $7,369 of state money to be allocated to Tampa fringe, a 10-day festival that took place earlier this month with a strong message of inclusivity, and its sister event in Orlando.

I talk a lot about culture war on this blog. Usually, that term connotes the growing willingness of MAGA Republicans to publicly indulge their bigotries against Blacks, women, LBGTQ+ citizens and non-fundamentalist Christians, but DeSantis’ recent fit of pique should remind us that the war against anything “woke” extends to important aspects of the actual culture: the arts, certainly, but also public education. (The GOP proclivity for “projection”–accusing others of their own behaviors–is obvious in their hysterical ranting about public education “indoctrination.”)

The most successful effort to replace American public education with religious indoctrination, of course, has come in the guise of “parental choice,” or vouchers, which allow public monies to be siphoned from the public schools and sent  disproportionately to religious schools. I have posted repeatedly about that effort, which has not only failed to improve test scores but has increased civic divisiveness and re-segregated the schools in several places.

I forget who first popularized the phrase “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” but if Trump should win in November, Project 2025 has outlined policies that would dramatically escalate the attack on public education.

Here are some of the elements of what I can only describe as an assault on steroids:

  • Title I, the $18 billion federal fund that supports low-income students, would disappear in a decade.
  • Federal special education funds would flow to school districts as block grants with no strings attached, or even to savings accounts for parents to use on private school or other education expenses.
  • The U.S. Department of Education would be eliminated.
  • The federal government’s ability to enforce civil rights laws in schools would be scaled back.

The proposals are contained in a comprehensive policy agenda that’s part of a Heritage Foundation-led initiative called Project 2025: Presidential Transition Project, which includes nearly 900 pages of detailed plans for virtually every corner of the federal government and a database of potential staffers for a conservative administration. It will also feature a playbook for the first 180 days of a new term.

Project 2025 was devised by several former Trump administration officials and allies, working with dozens of aligned advocacy organizations (misnamed “think tanks.”) including Moms for Liberty. You will recall that Moms for Liberty is the organization that fought school boards over COVID-19 safety protocols, advocates for censorship of books in school libraries, and endorses far-right school board candidates.

Trump has said that parents should elect school principals. He advocates the abolition of teacher tenure, has promised to cut federal funding to schools pushing “progressive” social ideas, and pledges to establish universal school choice.

Under the Project 2025 agenda, states would be able to opt out of federal education programs, whose “regulatory burden far exceeds the federal government’s less than 10 percent financing share of K–12 education,” the document asserts.

States would also have full authority to decide how to spend Title I funds, which currently go to schools with large populations of low-income students.

Under the Project 2025 plan, those funds would first flow to states as “no-strings-attached” block grants before they’re phased out in a decade. Parents of students attending Title I schools could even have access to the federal funds in “micro-education savings accounts” to pay for private education or supplemental services for their kids. The plan outlines similar ambitions for funds distributed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s special education law, though it doesn’t propose phasing them out.

The assault on public education has displayed the fundamental disconnect between the civic purposes of education and citizens who see education as just another private, consumer good–skills to be acquired (by those who can afford it) in order to enhance the ability of one’s children to succeed in the marketplace.

Access to the arts and a common base of educational knowledge both facilitate civic conversation and cohesion. Both enlarge our understanding of the world we inhabit–its complexity and, yes, its diversity. The arts and liberal education are the antithesis of rigid ideology and group-think.

I assume that’s why MAGA cannot tolerate either.


An Excellent idea

As I’ve consistently pointed out, those of us who are concerned–okay, frantic–about the state of democracy in contemporary America need to do more than share our gloom with others on social media. We need advice about specific steps that would help ameliorate the situation.

Recently, I offered two sets of specifics: one, by Jennifer Rubin, enumerated what journalists ought to be doing (although logic tells me that most established media outlets will ignore those recommendations, it’s important that citizens recognize deviations from best practices). The other was my own attempt to suggest steps each of us can take.

Today’s post focuses on advice to educational institutions–especially universities, although it might be possible to adapt the recommended program for high school seniors. I came across it in a column by E.J. Dionne, who tells us about a program at a “small, distinguished college that has provided a model that other universities should study and adapt.”

Since 2008, Occidental College in Los Angeles has offered students a chance to join a “Campaign Semester,” in which they dedicate themselves to a political campaign of their choice in presidential and midterm years. Students spend 10 weeks working their hearts out in the field and then the rest of the semester reflecting on what they learned and engaging in the academic study of elections.

The program is the creation of Peter Dreier, an Occidental professor for more than 30 years who spent much of his pre-academic life in federal, state and local politics. Along with professor Regina Freer, Dreier supervises students’ independent study projects and runs the seminar they join after their return to campus.
Its origin owes a lot to former president Barack Obama, who attended Occidental before transferring to Columbia University. Obama’s 2008 campaign inspired a lot of young people, especially Oxy’s students, many of whom approached Dreier to learn how they might work on the campaign.

Dreier suggested they take a semester off, as he did to work on Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential effort, but quickly discovered that parents and many students were committed to a four-year college schedule. Campaign Semester was born out of a desire to square this circle.

The program allows students to work for either party, but they have to get involved in a contested race–one where the campaign itself will matter and especially one in which students will have to engage citizens with views very different from their own.

The process, Dreier said, requires learning “the skills that it takes to talk to people that you don’t agree with and persuading them.” Paradoxically, perhaps, partisan campaigns might have a better shot than universities at teaching the need to reach beyond comfort zones.

Dionne quoted one student who participated in the program’s first class and had volunteered for Obama’s 2008 campaign, calling her “a starring example of the program’s impact.” That student is now a state representative in Minnesota. “The nuances of policy can be learned in the classroom,” she said, “but the heart of politics — building a shared vision for improving people’s lives — can only be learned out in the field.”

As someone who spent 20+ years teaching university students about policy, I can echo this sentiment. Even in classrooms with students who have different political opinions, forging “shared visions” rarely occurs. Students can be taught to be civil and courteous about their differences, they can be introduced to the considerable technical concerns that policymakers face (and about which they are too often clueless), but those lessons take place in an environment far removed from the day-to- day realities of a political campaign, where getting your candidate’s message out requires a campaign plan geared to the constituency, the recruitment of volunteers, and funding sufficient to allow communication with voters.

Furthermore, much as it pains me to admit, most elections aren’t won or lost on the basis of policy disputes. (Thanks to the Supreme Court and the Dobbs decision, the upcoming election may well be the exception that proves that rule, but only because of the enormous negative effect of that decision). Some combination of a candidate’s persona–charisma, openness, even looks–will play a significant role. These days, partisan passions and grievances matter even more. Unfortunately, American elections aren’t academic debates in which logic and realistic self-interest compel a voter’s support.

Those realities about the democratic process simply cannot be communicated in a college classroom. Internships with campaigns can help, but relatively few students participate in such internships.

Dionne is right–Occidental’s program should be widely replicated.


It Seems There IS A “Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy”

Remember when Hillary Clinton was widely ridiculed for alluding to the existence of a “vast Right-wing conspiracy”? It turns out she wasn’t wrong. She wasn’t even exaggerating.

And it explains a lot of what’s happening now.

A number of articles over the past couple of years have pointed out that Trump didn’t suddenly turn a once-respectable political party into the MAGA cult with which we’re now dealing. As Maureen Dowd recently wrote in the New York Times, in a column about our corrupt Supreme Court, there has long been “a determined group of religious zealots with a long-term master plan to pack the court with religious zealots.”

“These conservative Catholic and evangelical Christian operators believed they were fighting the biggest moral battle of the modern age, and forced America to debate on their terms,” they wrote. “But despite their public appeals, they did not convince broad swaths of Americans of the righteousness of their cause. Instead, they remained a minority, and leveraged the structures of American democracy in their favor, building a framework strong enough to withstand not only the political system but also a society moving rapidly against them. They took power to remake the nation in their image. And they were far more organized than their opponents or the public ever knew.”

Emerging reporting and research confirm the allegations. Talking Points Memo recently described one such organization–a secret, men-only right-wing society with members in influential positions around the country, intent on recruiting a “Christian government.”

More recently, a study by the American Association of University Professors documented the manufacture of the recent backlash against institutions of higher education. It uncovered a network of  Right-wing “think tanks” that has been laying the foundation for those attacks for many years. In a chapter titled “Culture War, Think Tanks, and the Dark Money that Funds Them,” the scholars identified twenty-six national think tanks. Among them were the Center for Renewing America, the Conservative Partnership Institute, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and–of course–the Heritage Foundation.

The report also listed thirty-eight state-Level think tanks, and forty-three organizations it categorized as “Cultural Conservative Think Tanks (including the Claremont Institute, a think tank that figured prominently in efforts to overturn the 2020 election).

Given the purpose of the study, the report focused on eleven of the think tanks that have participated in the culture war by attacking educational institutions.

Many of these think tanks work closely with one another, often sharing personnel and board members, amplifying each other’s work, pushing the same messaging, and supporting shared political objectives. As demonstrated in Appendix 2, this level of coordination is unsurprising given that these think tanks also receive money from the same libertarian and conservative megadonors. Furthermore, as described in the second section, seven of the eleven think tanks are members of the State Policy Network (SPN), an umbrella organization that networks national and state-level libertarian think tanks.

Appendix 2 identifies the wealthy individuals funding these organizations.

The report analyzes a number of “model” bills that aim to impose a conservative Christian worldview on public education and promote election denial, and it describes several of the most extreme–and effective–organizations. One of those is the Manhattan Institute, which “houses Christopher Rufo, Ron DeSantis’ favored “educator.”

Rufo–who is largely credited with weaponizing the term “critical race theory”

started his anti-CRT campaign in a City Journal column in July 2020 where he wrote about diversity training offered by Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights. Since then, Rufo has published over one hundred columns in City Journal, many focused on critical race theory, DEI efforts in schools, woke-ness, so-called gender ideology, and “left-wing radicals” in K-12 and higher education. He claims that “critical race theory is becoming the operating ideology of our public institutions.

DeSantis appointed Rufo to the Board of Trustees at the New College of Florida, Rufo where he helped end the college’s gender studies program (which he deemed “ideological activism”).

After his appointment to the board, Rufo tweeted: “We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within. Under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, our all-star board will demonstrate that the public universities, which have been corrupted by woke nihilism, can be recaptured, restructured, and reformed.” 

The report–with copious citations–is 148 pages long, and for those with the patience to read it all, revelatory. 

The White Christian Nationalists who emerged from the shadows to support Donald Trump have been working for a very long time to reassert what they believe to be the proper world order: a society dominated by White Christian men, in which Blacks, women, non-Christians and LGBTQ+ citizens are kept in their deservedly “inferior” places.

They are indeed a “vast Right-wing conspiracy.”



A few days ago, I posted my belief that Indiana’s dismal education policies were the result of Hoosier legislators simply not understanding the difference between education and job training. A couple of commenters disagreed; rather than ignorance and inadvertence, they saw the GOP’s attack on education as intentional. Keep the peons ignorant, and they’re easier to exploit.

Evidently, those commenters were onto something.

Florida–led by “Florida Man” Ron DeSantis–has been one of the Red states leading the way back to the 1950s. That path back to a “Christian” paternalism has been paved by persistent attacks on educational institutions. DeSantis began by appointing far Right ideologues as university trustees, and working with his compliant legislature to threaten librarians and forbid teachers from “saying gay.”

But those measures–unAmerican as they were–were apparently just an introduction. Now, Florida’s schoolteachers are being instructed in how to teach Christian Nationalism.

Training materials produced by the Florida Department of Education direct middle and high school teachers to indoctrinate students in the tenets of Christian nationalism, a right-wing effort to merge Christian and American identities. Thousands of Florida teachers, lured by cash stipends, have attended trainings featuring these materials.

A three-day training course on civic education, conducted throughout Florida in the summer of 2023, included a presentation on the “Influences of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” on the founding of the United States. According to speaker notes accompanying one slide, teachers were told that “Christianity challenged the notion that religion should be subservient to the goals of the state,” and the same hierarchy is reflected in America’s founding documents. That slide quotes the Bible to assert that “[c]ivil government must be respected, but the state is not God.” Teachers were told the same principle is embedded in the Declaration of Independence.

The site Popular Information obtained the slides from the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which received them from the Florida Department of Education after filing a public records request.

The next slide in the deck quotes an article by Peter Lillback, the president of Westminster Theological Seminary and the founder of The Providence Forum, an organization that promotes and defends Christian nationalism. The group’s executive director, Jerry Newcombe, writes a weekly column for World Net Daily — a far-right site known for publishing hundreds of stories falsely suggesting Obama was a Muslim born in Africa.

Popular Information asked Amanda Tyler to review the presentation. Tyler is the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and an expert on Christian nationalism.

Tyler said that the “focus on the mythological founding of the country as a Christian nation, this use of cherry-picked history… is very much a marker of Christian nationalism.” According to Tyler, the aim of the presentation is “to solidify this ideology that equates being American to being Christian.” Tyler noted that the presentation does not address why, if religion was so essential to the structure of the government, the Constitution does not mention God at all.

Robert P. Jones, the president of the Public Religion Research Institute and the author of a newsletter on American Christianity, agreed, saying that the language in the slide deck is similar to what one would hear at “Christian nationalist rallies.” The term “Judeo-Christian,” Jones said, is frequently deployed in Christian nationalist circles as code for a white European Christian worldview.

One Florida middle school teacher who attended the civics training in 2022 and 2023 told Popular Information that, in one session, presenters used the King James Bibles to illustrate their points. Another said there was a heavy emphasis in the training on “dispelling the separation of church and state.” Teachers attending the training were told “that there was no such thing because the founders were Congregationalists,” (an assertion that is factually untrue and– had it been true– would hardly have supported a rebuttal of the constitutional separation of church and state.)

The training ignores John Locke and other Enlightenment figures. Instead, the slides claim that the basis of U.S. law is the Ten Commandments and that the phrase “all men are created equal” is derived from the biblical concept that “man is made in the image of God.”

Instructors were drawn from places like Hillsdale College, a Right-wing Christian institution seeking an overhaul of K-12 education that aligns with its conservative ideology. Hillsdale’s ideology downplays the role of slavery in American history and compares progressivism to fascism and the school is intimately connected to the Christian Nationalist movement.

Here in Indiana, clones of “Florida Man” include Republican culture warriors like Mike Braun, Jim Banks and Todd Rokita. If Hoosiers elect any or all of them, it will be an endorsement of the appalling “education” being pursued in Florida.