Category Archives: Local Government

What Is Government’s Role?

Americans love to defend liberty–and oppose government actions that they believe intrude on that liberty. (Granted, all too often they are perfectly willing to have government limit other people’s liberties, especially when those other people don’t espouse the same religious beliefs they hold, but that’s a subject for another day…)

We’re just emerging from one of those periodic, heated debates, triggered by “patriots” offended by government’s effort to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. Again, I’m not spending many pixels on the anti-mask, anti-vaccination folks, because (with very few exceptions) they are so clearly wrong–not just on the science, but on the role of government–not to mention remiss in discharging their most basic obligations to other humans. People who don’t believe public health is a public good that governments are bound to protect are beyond the reach of logic and reason.

In many other areas, we get into various shades of gray. There are plenty of issues that raise legitimate questions about the proper role of the state. I’ll admit to qualms, for example, about things like seat belt laws and similar”nanny state” measures, meant to protect individuals from their own heedless or self-destructive behaviors.

I was recently prompted to think about the proper and improper use of government authority when I read a recent “Eye on the Pie” column written by my friend Morton Marcus. Marcus, for those of you unfamiliar with him, is an economist and former director of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University. In this particular column, he defended governmental “intrusion” on the most hallowed of rights: property rights. He argued (I think persuasively) that your house may be private property, but it also has characteristics of a public good.

My house can be seen by anyone driving down my street. Unless I go to great trouble, I can not stop you from seeing my house. I can’t charge you for looking at my house.

But what you see of my house influences your opinion of my block and the price you’d pay to live near me.

Broken windows, leaky roofs, sagging gutters, piles of trash, and abandoned furniture are not inviting signs of habitation. Such a house may be a fire hazard and a danger to its neighbors.

At the same time, if my house has rats or unhealthy conditions, it may pose a health hazard not only to my family, but to yours as well. My children play with your children. I meet you in the grocery. We family may be carriers of disease, my house a public health menace.

Governments have limits on private behavior when public health and safety are at risk. Yet, we’ve seen great resistance to action that infringes on presumed private rights.

We don’t enforce building codes. We allow structural deterioration and abandonment. We don’t insist houses have adequate insulation from the cold of winter and the heat of summer to protect residents from chronic illness..

Our collective neglect is excused because we believe we’re protecting the poor and/or elderly who cannot afford repairs or adequate weatherization.

Yet our housing stock is one of the most vital aspects for the economic development we seek. Our state provides funding to restore abandoned, old movie theaters, but does little to resurrect declining houses.

Our reluctance to infringe on the “rights” of a property owner conflicts with the community’s need to preserve its critical assets.

Morton argues that there are many negative consequences of not treating housing stock as a public good: decay of our central cities, abandonment of our smaller towns,  encouragement of urban sprawl and environmental degradation.  He blames the  “infatuation with the myth of unlimited private property rights.”

Of course, as any lawyer will confirm, there are few if any rights that are “unlimited,” and property rights are no exception.  Laws against nuisance, and minimum upkeep regulations–neither very well enforced, unfortunately–are meant to protect the considerable investments people make in their homes.

Morton’s column raises some thorny issues: does government have an obligation to ensure that people’s homes are humanly habitable? How far does that obligation extend before it becomes an unconstitutional invasion of property rights? What about the rights of homeowners whose properties are adjacent to homes that have been allowed to deteriorate?

If we are talking about property values, it is interesting to note that, in historic areas that are subject to more stringent government regulation, values are not only stable, but tend to be higher.

I’m not entirely sure where I come down on what are often very technical/legal questions of property regulation, but I am sure that these are precisely the sorts of questions our elected officials ought to be debating–rather than worrying about my uterus, Jewish space lasers, or being “replaced.”

 

 

 

 

The Importance Of Local Politics

One of the reasons so many of us in today’s America feel angry and hopeless is the effect of what has been called the “nationalization of politics.’  That nationalization has been facilitated by the media we consume , which reports almost exclusively on national news– local newspapers that still exist increasingly confine their coverage to sports and crime and no longer regularly cover local government and politics.

As an article from Vox recently confirmed, America may have local political institutions, but it increasingly has a nationalized politics–and for a number of reasons, that needs to change.

If you own a home and pay local taxes, have children in the public schools (or depend in any way on an educated population and/or workforce), live in a neighborhood where public safety is a concern (and that’s pretty much every neighborhood), you have a big stake in what happens locally–and as I posted a couple of days ago, those local races also matter more politically than most people realize.

So why is participation in local electoral politics so anemic?

The overwhelming majority of Americans consume disproportionately more news about national politics than about state and local politics. In one analysis, 99 percent of respondents in a typical media market never visited websites dedicated to local news. In a typical local election, fewer than one in five citizens bother to vote.

The last several decades have seen the standardization of parties across state lines. I recently saw a website in which a Republican running for  a local office described herself as  “pro life, pro gun, pro God.” (I’m sure God is grateful…) There was no explanation why any of this should matter–I’m pretty sure she was running for a position where she would have little or nothing to say about any of those issues. She was just signaling her Trumpist “brand.”

I’m sure this “homogenization” of partisans makes it easier for voters, who can just vote based on the R or D next to a candidate’s name. But when everyone running for office is a clone, the individual candidates themselves don’t much matter.

But the short-term convenience of standardized brands comes at a long-term cost for democratic accountability: If local candidates know that they won’t be evaluated on anything more than the D or R after their name, it changes how they think of their role. What can they do if their electoral fate depends almost entirely on national tides? As Hopkins writes, “Today’s vote choices are simply too nationalized for politicians to build much of a reputation separate from their party’s.”

The thing is, in the cities we inhabit, candidates and local institutions do matter–a lot!– and local efforts to support good candidates are much more productive than a few dollars sent to Beto O’Rourke, et al (although I hasten to say I plan to do both and you should too.)

And we have some first-rate, “non-clone” candidates running for local offices.

I became interested in our local prosecutor’s race, for example, because my youngest granddaughter–a high-school senior–has been interning in his Conviction Integrity unit. He established that process to review past convictions, to ensure that they had been dealt with properly–to catch errors or miscarriages of justice. When he took office, he also announced that he would focus the (necessarily limited) resources of the office on the prosecution of serious threats to public safety–and those serious threats didn’t include cases involving small amounts of pot.( He got a lot of flak for that from our local culture warriors, but I applauded.)

I recently had a wide-ranging discussion with that Prosecutor–his name is Ryan Mears–  and I was impressed not just with his very thoughtful and informed approach to criminal justice issues, but with his commitment to Indianapolis. That commitment is based on a belief that positive change at the local level is both necessary and  possible–and that improving our city matters.

I wholeheartedly agree.

Most of us are not in a position to affect national politics, but we definitely are able to make a difference locally. We can work to elect people who genuinely care about their communities–and , not so incidentally, to defeat the local Trump clones who just want to wage culture war and are clearly uninterested in doing the day-to-day grunt work needed to make our communities better places to live. I’ve begun meeting with other candidates for local and state office, and I intend to lend my (somewhat wizened) hand to selected campaigns.

if nothing else, participating in local races will allow me to actually do something–something that potentially matters.

It’s my way of fighting my feelings of political impotence. And maybe it will keep me from being so grumpy…

 

 

Bribes As Economic Development

According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, Indiana lawmakers are considering paying people to move here.

Members of what I still call “The World’s Worst Legislature” (despite a significant amount of competition from places like Florida and Texas) are evidently considering what the IBJ calls “an extensive piece of legislation to restructure the incentive toolkit of the Indiana Economic Development Corp.” One “key” component would create a statewide remote-worker grant program.

Senate Bill 361 has a provision that would require the department to design and implement a program giving remote workers cash incentives for moving to Indiana.

A remote worker would be eligible for a grant of up to $5,000 a year with a maximum of $15,000 over the life of the program. The total grants, which would come from the IEDC, would be capped at $1 million this year and $1.5 million in 2023….

The bill also would allow businesses outside Indiana to apply for IEDC tax credits, if they bring at least 50 remote jobs to Indiana, paying at least 150% of the state’s average hourly wage. That would be about $25.

This interesting use of taxpayer funds is essentially an admission that Indiana isn’t a very attractive place to live–that (at least, outside Indianapolis, the city our legislators love to hate) people need to be bribed to move to the Hoosier State.

A few days ago, in another blog, I noted that Indiana’s Statehouse is filled with legislators who have exactly one policy proposal to offer for any problem you can name: tax cuts. When it comes to economic development, they assure us that the only thing businesses look at when looking  to relocate or expand is a “favorable tax environment.” Believing this, of course, requires a certain imperviousness to that pesky thing called “evidence,” but if there is one thing our GOP super-majority is really, really good at, it’s ignoring evidence.

Which brings me to yet another bit of unwelcome research, sure to be dismissed and ignored.

The Brookings Institution has been examining ways to “rejuvenate” states in the Midwest that have, as we say, “missed the boat.” The report begins by noting that there are currently two Midwests

One Midwest features communities that have diversified and turned an economic corner in today’s urbanized, global knowledge economy. In this Midwest, many of the region’s major metro areas and university towns have found new economic dynamism and relative prosperity.  

In the other Midwest, however, factory towns that have lost anchor employers continue to languish. Most of these small and midsized industrial heartland communities rely on traditional economic development strategies to reinvigorate their economies, including doling out incentives to attract or retain employers or attempting to create a more “business-friendly” environment with lower taxes and labor costs. 

Most of Indiana clearly falls into that second category. But as Brookings reports, there is “compelling new data” telling us that these traditional economic development tools are–if not entirely ineffective–far less effective than investments in quality of life and place.

Research on smaller communities has found that community amenities– recreation opportunities, cultural activities, and especially “excellent services (e.g., good schools, transportation options, including connectivity to urban areas)” significantly exceed so-called “business-friendly” policies in their ability to  contribute to healthy local economies.

Smaller places with a higher quality of life experience both higher employment and population growth than similarly situated communities, including those that rank high by traditional economic competitiveness measures.

Research has confirmed that people are willing to pay higher housing prices and even accept lower wages to live in places that offer a higher quality of life.  

Indiana’s lawmakers will have great difficulty getting their heads around another finding (assuming they would even bother to consult the research); studies, including this one, have shown that businesses are willing to pay higher real estate prices and offer higher wages in order to locate in places with more productive workers. 

More productive workers, of course, are produced by better schools. Not religious indoctrination academies supported by Indiana’s voucher program with monies drained from our struggling public schools, and not schools in which teachers are forbidden to teach accurate history…

The bottom line:

After estimating quality of life (what makes a place attractive to households) and quality of business environment (what makes a place especially productive and attractive to businesses) in communities across the Midwest, we found quality of life matters more for population growth, employment growth, and lower poverty rates than quality of business environment. 

Or, of course, you can just take some of the tax money generated by those low rates and try to bribe people to move to the “hanging on by a thread” areas of Indiana.

Given the pathetic history of Indiana’s General Assembly, I expect they’ll opt for bribery.

 

Of Death, Politics And Economics

The other morning, I read two completely different columns, on different subjects, that came together in a surreal sort of way.

The first was from The Atlantic, titled “The Anti-Vaccine Right Literally Brought Human Sacrifice to America,” and it began with a collection of quotes comparing Republicans’ reality-denial and elevation of economic concerns over public safety to human sacrifice.

The immediate panicky focus on resuming business as usual in order to keep the stock market from crashing was the equivalent of “those who offered human sacrifices to Moloch,” according to the writer Kitanya Harrison. That first summer, as Republicans settled into their anti-testing, anti-lockdown, anti-mask, nothing-to-worry-about orthodoxy, Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, said it was “like a policy of mass human sacrifice.” The anthropology professor Shan-Estelle Brown and the researcher Zoe Pearson wrote that people who continued to do their jobs outside their homes were essentially victims of “involuntary human sacrifice, made to look voluntary.”

(Parenthetically, I will note that every time some pundit tells us that Americans are “losing faith in Biden’s handling of the pandemic,” I want to scream that the f**ing anti-vaxxers who are sacrificing the lives of their own voters are to blame for derailing his efforts. But I digress.)

The author of the article noted that the original concern about economic damage was “at least fundamentally rational, a weighing of social costs against social benefits.” But that original concern should have abated.

Today, however, the economy is no longer in jeopardy; unemployment rates and salaries have returned to pre-pandemic levels; GDP per person is higher than it was at the end of 2019; personal savings are growing, and businesses are starting up faster than ever; corporate profits and stock prices are at record highs.

The recitation of current economic realities was meant to emphasize the fact that the  “ongoing propaganda campaign against and organized political resistance to vaccination… has been killing many, many Americans for no reasonable, ethically justifiable social purpose.”

Almost immediately after reading that article, a reader sent me a column by Ball State economist Michael Hicks. It had nothing to do the political insanity surrounding COVID–it was instead an explanation of why Indiana’s economic future is grim.  Compare the Indiana data to the relatively rosy national picture relayed by The Atlantic.

Hicks began by noting that Indiana’s relatively good recovery from the effects of the pandemic, particularly in manufacturing and logistics, was largely due to the fiscal policy interventions of the Trump and Biden administrations, and that the state’s current, flush fiscal condition is “wholly a consequence of COVID stimulus.”

Otherwise, not so hot.

In 2000, Indiana ranked 24th in average wages nationwide, with the typical worker earning almost 88 percent of the national average. By 2019, we’d dropped to 35th in average wages per job, or just over 85 percent of the national average. In just the decade of the longest economic expansion in American history, Indiana’s per capita income relative to the rest of the nation saw its biggest 10-year decline in history. This sort of rapid declines in job quality and earnings are catastrophic for Indiana’s long-term prosperity, and addressing the decline is the number one policy issue facing the state.

To the extent that Indiana’s economy has grown, it is due to the performance of Indianapolis–the city our legislators love to shortchange.

Just to clarify this point, from 2000 to 2019, Indiana created 154,000 new jobs, but 195,000 of these went to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Area. No, that is not a math error. The non-Indianapolis portions of the state had 40,000 fewer jobs in 2019 than they did at the turn of the century, while Indianapolis grew much faster than the state as a whole. Only the highly educated, high-tax parts of Indiana are growing.

And how about that GOP fever dream that cutting taxes will fix anything and everything that ails you? (Probably including thinning hair and genital warts…)

Our overall business taxes, as reported to the Federal Department of Commerce ranked 8th lowest in 2000, dropping to 6th lowest by 2019. However, our taxes on manufacturing dropped from 25th to 4th lowest over the same period, while we shed 120,000 factory jobs.

No one can construct an honest argument that this has bettered the Indiana economy. This is mostly because cutting taxes on manufacturing necessarily means spending less on key public services, while shifting the tax burden to households and other businesses.

Indiana’s Republican super-majority (courtesy of gerrymandering) is pursuing both kinds of death addressed by these articles: anti-vaccine policies that will kill real people, and demonstrably stupid economic policies that will depress economic growth while making Indiana a less attractive place to live and work.

All while waging war on education and the urban areas that are critical to the state’s economic well-being.

Talk about sacrificing human and economic health to ideology!

 

 

 

Indiana’s “Pro Life” Liars

Those of you who read this blog with any sort of regularity already know that the Hoosier legislators who wrap themselves in the “pro-life” label are anything but.  They are either pro-birth or anti-woman or focused on pandering to far right constituencies–usually, all three.

Nowhere is the hypocrisy of that label more vivid than in their devotion to instruments of death. I recently received the following email from a university staff member; I am sharing it in its entirety, in the hopes that many of you will take the indicated actions (not that our legislators listen to the broader public, which favors more gun control by massive margins.)

House Bill 1077 passed the house last week despite broad opposition, including from law enforcement. This bill allows for anyone, 18 or older, unless otherwise prohibited, to carry loaded handguns in public without a permit. Senate Bill 14 is similar to House Bill 1077; it allows anyone, 21 or older, unless otherwise prohibited, to carry loaded handguns in public without a permit. Senate Bill 14 will be heard by the Judiciary Committee on January 19th. Indiana has nearly 1,000 gun deaths a year, and gun deaths have increased 30% in the last decade, compared to an 17% increase nationwide. Indianapolis has seen a record number of homicides in 2021— many of which were gun homicides. Repealing the permitting requirement is irresponsible, reckless, has led to increased gun violence, and guts essential permitting standards for carrying handguns in public.

What you can do:
Sign and Share the Petition: https://www.change.org/p/oppose-hb-1077-say-no-to-permitless-carry.
Text INDIANA to 644-33 to tell your lawmaker to vote NO on HB1077/SB14 when it comes up for discussion and a vote before the full Senate chamber.

Senate Bill 143, Self-defense, specifies that “reasonable force” includes the pointing of a loaded or unloaded firearm for purposes of self-defense and arrest statutes. This is a dangerous policy as pointing a firearm does not deescalate a confrontation. This stand your ground expansion will likely disproportionately impact communities of color. When white shooters kill Black victims, the resulting homicides are considered justifiable 5 times more often than when the shooter is Black and the victim is white. Senate Bill 143 has a hearing on January 18th.

What you can do:
If your senator is on the Corrections and Criminal Law Committee, tell them to vote NO on SB 143.Corrections and Criminal Law Committee: Sen. Michael Young, Sen. Susan Glick, Sen. Mike Bohacek, Sen. Aaron Freeman, Sen. Eric Koch, Sen. Jack Sandlin, Sen. Kyle Walker, Sen. Rodney Pol, Sen. Greg Taylor
If your senator is not on the Corrections and Criminal Law Committee, tell them to vote NO on SB 143 if it comes up for discussion and a vote before the full Senate chamber.

Senate Bill 228, Acquisition and storage of firearms, prohibits a person from keeping or storing an unsecured firearm on any premises controlled by the person under certain circumstances; it also requires a person wishing to transfer a firearm to another person to transact the transfer through a firearms dealer. Senate Bill 228 has yet to have a hearing scheduled. Unsecured guns in the home pose a substantial risk to children who may find and use them against themselves or others. Estimates suggest that modest increases in the number of American homes safely storing firearms could prevent almost a third of youth gun deaths due to suicide and unintentional firearm injury

What you can do:
Email or Call Senator Young (s35@iga.in.gov | 317-232-9517) and ask him to hear SB 228 in the Corrections and Criminal Law Committee.

Something else you can do, if you live in a district (mis)represented by one of Indiana’s pro-death, pro-gun cowboys, is vote against them at the next election and get your rational neighbors to do the same.

And be sure to let them know why.