Monday, July 30, 2012

The Art of the Possible

I wrote this earlier and posted it somewhere else about someone who was outraged about building the new Vikings stadium instead of spending "the money" on other stuff, but here it is:

Sorry but I think this line of argument is a little bit off the mark, and is a bad way to look at political choices in general.  It's not like there is some magical pot of money out there that can either go to bridges or a stadium.  Rather there's funding streams that could go to the stadium or nothing else.  Remember the City's share of the funding came from dedicated restaurant taxes and such NOT the general fund.  In fact, the State Legislature has always traditionally controlled these funds and said pretty much (and this is both DFL and GOP folks talking) that the money could go to a stadium or nothing at all, fixing bridges or hiring fire fighters simply was never in the cards for the money that's going to the stadium.  The question thus was never should we invest in bridges or stadiums, it always was should the Vikings stay or should they go?  Or perhaps even broadly should the NFL leave resulting in us spending a lot of money (more than the stadium deal) to get them to come back some time in the future (just ask Houston or Baltimore how much fun that was)? Political choices are always defined by the art of the possible and often times political choices can be unfair and limited in what is possible. 

To paraphrase a great post by Matt Yglesias where he was talking about Max Weber's "Ethic of Responsibility" in foreign policy, I'd say a lot of what goes wrong in Minneapolis progressive politics is a refusal to adopt an ethic of responsibility in politics.  That is people want to make the "right" choices regardless of their impact in the real world.  Instead, too many progressives seem to want to orient themselves in a way that expresses a sense of moralized outrage. So if some policy proposal isn't completely pure in all aspects and results that political choice is inherently wrong, because what’s important in City Government is to be on “the right side” in some maximal way.  Anything less is some kind of grand betrayal of our sacred progressive values. The problem is that what’s needed, from the Mayor's and City Council's point of view is public policy that does in fact make conditions in Minneapolis better not an allocation of bonding funds that expresses high ideals and a grand sense of purpose.  Indeed, the history of our City is filled with noble intentions resulting in disaster.  And we see this a lot in Minneapolis politics, people get mad at MPD Chief Dolan because he's not doing enough about police brutality even when the Police Union is always complaining he is going to far.  Or folks want an independent city library system with great services when the real choice is between having open libraries under the Hennepin County system or no libraries open at all.

Corruption and feathering of nests is immoral, but the pursuit of laudable goals in an unrealistic and destructive manner doesn’t help anyone either.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Historical Preservation Run Amok

I think preserving history is important.  For example, building a Wal-Mart on a Civil War battlefield might not be the best idea ever.  But it increasingly seems to be out of hand with not tearing down buildings being held as a normative status quo, even if the buildings preserved will serve no point and something better could be built.  We see this in an emerging fight over Shingle Creek Elementary on the far North Side of Minneapolis.  The school was built in the 1950's when there were a lot more kids in the Minneapolis Public Schools, especially in the Shingle Creek Neighborhood.  Things changed since the 50's, the city lost over 130,000 residents and got its demographics got older.  Then in the 90s and 00s thousands of school children left the Minneapolis system for suburban districts, especially from the North Side.  Accordingly. the school was closed in 2007 and has sat vacant ever since.  In fact it isn't even a working building, it's been striped of pipes and fixtures and is basically just an unheated brick shell with big holes in the roof and walls.  But people want it preserved and are outraged that a cash strapped district might want to unload this piece of property.  Their reason?

The case for doing so is based largely on the building's design, which features clusters of classrooms connected by enclosed walkways. It's the city's sole example of this design concept from the 1950s, an era that some architectural historians consider under-appreciated.

Got that?  Its historic because it has classrooms connected by walkways.  Now maybe that is some huge architectural achievement, but it you are going to argue that the building needs to be preserved because its important as it "features clusters of classrooms connected by enclosed walkways", isn't every building every built arguably historic?  Can an abandoned strip mall be "historic, as it features shop fronts connected by a common sheltered walkway, with a parking lot"?  I personally think our city would be better served by building density and a property tax base not preserving everything with four walls and a roof.  Cities have always been changing, dynamic things (what was torn to build this school by the way?) and we shouldn't let a small group of people's obsession with trying to turn their neighborhood into a frozen moment in time stop us from making our city better.  Besides, if we are going to preserve something, lets find something that looks good, not something that looks like a Borg ship.

Friday, July 20, 2012

New Experts

In the aftermath of the Colorado shooting we are sure to hear from a variety of experts.  Lawyers and law professors will talk about upcoming hearing, arraignments and likely trial to come.  Doctors and mental health workers will tell us about mental health issues (what’s the difference between being a weirdo and being psychotic?) while aforementioned lawyers will talk about the difficulties of successfully pleading not guilty by reason of insanity.  In short, experts will talk about their fields to explain complex legal proceedings or how schizophrenia develops to us laymen.  So why can’t we do the same with politics.

There’s a whole world of political science out there that is almost completely ignored by the news media that tells us all sorts of interesting things about how our political system works and how much of what you and reporters believe to be iron clad truths about politics is totally wrong.  Here’s a quick true or false quiz for you to take:

1. Independent voters are the most important part of the electorate because they switch between supporting different parties in different elections.

2. Identifying with a party won’t influence who you chose to vote for very much.

3. Building public support for policies is one of the best ways for a president to advance his agenda through Congress.

4. Public addresses such as the State of the Union or televised address are one of the best ways to change public opinion making the “bully pulpit” one of the most effective tools a president has at his disposal.

5. Presidents don’t try to keep their campaign promises very much.

So how’d ya do?  Unless you answered false to every question not very well.  Indeed a wealth of findings in political science, some of which is empirically tested and goes back decades, tells us that each one of these statements is just wrong.  But I bet that most political pundits and voters would agree with some, if not all, of them.  Let’s go through them.

1. A whole host of data out there tells us that while lots of the electorate, maybe over a third, may identify with the label “independent” but most of those people actually behave like partisans.  That is they cast their votes generally towards supporting one party over election cycles.  And it makes sense, as someone who’s been personally told “I’m an independent but I’d never vote for a Democrat” more than once, I can attest to this.

2. Party identification is one of the strongest influences on how people vote and political science literature has proven this again and again.  In fact, it’s probably as big of an influence as demographic categories like race.  Thus, just as it’s easy to take a good guess as to how a white heterosexual man with a high school education over the age of 40 from rural Alabama or a Jewish mother of two with a graduate degree and lives in White Plains will vote, it’s also easy to guess how someone who identifies with a party will vote.  News stories may be full of people who are a lifelong _____ but are now voting for _____ because _____, but these people are actually a tiny slice of American society.

3. Actually this is false as well.  Time and time again Presidents have tried to get Congress to do things by building public pressure and time and time they fail.  Ronald Reagan summed things up quite well:

Time and again, I would speak on television, to a joint session of Congress, or to other audiences about the problems in Central America, and I would hope that the outcome would be an outpouring of support from Americans…But the polls usually found that large numbers of Americans cared little or not at all about what happened in Central America…and, among those who did care, too few cared…to apply the kind of pressure I needed on Congress.

4.  Just read above. The bully pulpit is in many ways a myth. Presidents can bring attention to issues with it, sort of, but they can’t necessarily do much more. Indeed the original advocate of the Bully Pulpit, Theodore Roosevelt, could speak out about unsanitary conditions in slaughterhouses but he couldn’t change them. That took legislation from Congress and the forming of the FDA and bureaucracies of meat inspectors much later.

5. This one is my favorite.  Ask this of a focus group of voters and most folks will probably sagely nod their heads.  But it’s also false, political science tells us that Presidents at least try to keep their promises.  Both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton campaigned heavily on reforming health care and both spent a good deal of their first terms trying to enact this policy change at great political expense.  And those Bush tax cuts?  They came into being as a way to counter Steve Forbes’s call for a “flat tax” on the campaign trail and once Bush became President they became law.

So there you have it, much of what you take for granted about politics isn’t true at all.  But alas no one wants to do news segments on this even though it’s more interesting that two people screaming at each other on air for 3 minutes.  I think we should get some new experts on cable news, but that’s just me.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

This Would Be Easier

Sorry about the intermittent blogging, I’ve been quite busy at work and watching Clint Eastwood movies from the 70s.  Anyway, I came up with a way to make columns/blog-posts out there on the interwebs both cooler AND easier for laymen to understand.  We should bring back the numbering of names or use of titles to make it easier to discern family dynasties in American politics.  I’ve already seen more than a few progressive bloggers and such differentiate between “Bush the Elder” and “Bush the Younger”.  Obviously coming off the two Cato’s (there’s and elder and younger one of those from the Old Roman Republic) it works quite well I think.  Personally I would like to see Mayor of Chicago Richard J Daley (he’s the guy with the Sears Tower, 68’ bloodbath in Chicago, O’Hare Airport and other stuff) become “Daley the Elder” and his son, Richard M Daley (guy from the 90s through the aughts) be “Daley the Younger”.  If there are more generations of Bushs or Daleys we can start doing the III or VI type stuff.  If we got bored we could go all out Medieval and stuff and start issuing names, for example the was a lord in the 1300’s in France named “Charles the Bad”, although it was probably assigned to him by later chroniclers and not contemporaries due to the fact he was always trying to overthrown the French Crown and a very evil man as well.  So then Bush the Younger could be “Bush the Bad” (alliteration just like his campaign slogans {“Reformer with Results” etc}!)  This might cause problems as everyone would want to be “The Great”.  Hmmm, maybe we should stick with democracy…anyway, I think this new way is easier and sounds cooler as well.       

Sunday, July 8, 2012

TV is Not Free to be You and Me

This spring there were two big breakout hits on HBO, “Girls” and season two of “Game of Thrones”.  While epic fantasy set in the mythical kingdom of Westeros makes for smashing TV in my opinion, it became clear that “Girls” is probably the more controversial of the two shows.  Because nobody really goes out and does actual “reporting” on what happens in our world these days on the internet, criticizing “Girls” became something of a cottage industry among bloggers and commentators.  It didn’t hurt that the show is set in New York (the most important place in the universe) about a group of highly dysfunctional 20’s something women and is filled with awkward/hilarious sex (the most important subject in the universe) scenes to boot.  This made for great commentary about all sorts of hot button subjects in American life; Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coats let loose a typical critique.

But reading these types of arguments I was struck by how narrow their subject matters of identity are.  Gender, race and sexuality seem to encapsulate the be all and end all of who a character—dare I say who we—can be.  This of course is a profoundly limited way to look and human beings and identity.  While Ta-Nehisi might be right that “Girls” doesn’t have a very racially diverse cast, I think that “Girls” brings an element of diversity that is often overlooked: it is filled with unhappy, miserable people.   Just think about it, with the exception of a few shows (“Curb Your Enthusiasm” comes to mind) TV is a non-stop parade of happy people with interesting lives, great careers and loads of material security.  The ignored group on TV doesn’t strike me as being an ethnic group at all, but people who say hate themselves, or have dead end jobs or are miserable every day.  I think this this is a big reason why a movie like “Office Space” or a show like “The Office” became such hits, finally something about people who are profoundly dissatisfied with life and their jobs was made.

When American TV tries to deal with unhappiness it is often forced to simply borrow from other countries.  Some of this probably has to do with economics; TV execs probably figure that no one wants to watch a show about some guy who is dissatisfied with his life but can’t make any meaningful changes to it either or someone who starts her morning acting like the protagonist from “A Single Man” (a really good, really sad movie by the way), staring at themselves in the mirror and saying “Just get through the god damn day.”  But I think it also has to do with the history of American entertainment, which largely comes of out things like vaudeville and 19th century commercial theater like what’s shown in “Old Man River”.  Most American TV shows that deal with unhappiness are adaptations from other countries.  “The Office” or course comes from Britain and the only American show I’ve seen that puts unhappiness front and center, “In Treatment”, is a development of an Israeli show, with some sections of dialog simply translated from the original Hebrew script. 

When sadness, frustration or misery does get shown in American TV it often takes on an almost petty quality.  Izzie gets sad in “Grey’s Anatomy” because the chief of thoracic surgery yelled at her (fyi Izzie this is what chiefs of thoracic surgery at major American hospitals do, they are ornery leaders who yell at people who fuck up, what they aren’t are people who think their role in life is to make you feel better).  Izzie also has big existential conundrums, like which gorgeous highly successful doctor she will date, sure is hard being Izzie.  “Girls” breaks this mold by serving up miserable characters, going nowhere in life, in terrible relationships doing things like eating cupcakes for breakfast.  Now maybe adding an inter-racial lesbian couple to season 2 would diversify things some on the show, but if she was a professor of journalism at Columbia and she was high power executive in the high tech field living some 2 million dollar loft in so-ho while they both find life to be a fun and interesting adventure where everything works out in the end, I think something would be lost as well.  Personally I’m glad that one of the most ignored groups in all of American culture, unhappy people, finally gets some screen time.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Maps of Utopia

Take a look at this state-by-state map of where the uninsured live from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Now this is far from perfect, Pennsylvania probably has a low rate not because it is a haven of social justicy people but because demographically its the oldest state and thus gets a lot of coverage via Medicare. That said, its fair to say that our uninsured problem is heavily located in the south and California, which is in some ways surprising and in some ways not really at all. ACA attempts to fix this problem by giving generous subsidies to states that expand access for low-income people to health insurance programs like Medicaid. Just match the map up with one of those Electoral College maps you've been seeing and its pretty apparent that health reform will sending lots of money from "blue states" to "red states" and thus it makes sense from a economic standpoint for these conservative "red" states to jump on board. That of course isn't happening, lots of GOP Governors like Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have vowed stymie the dreaded "obamacare" and presumably not get the funds. So why are they doing it? Well its a complicated story that involves ideology, politics and the future career aspirations of these Governors and the need to build an image inside their political party and not anger powerful political actors.

What we are seeing in this story is how limited free market utopian economic theory can be when it has to explain the actions of real people in our real world.  The GOP governors aren't acting like rational actors in a economic system at all, even with billions on the line, rather they are acting like politicians.  British filmmaker Adam Curtis called view of  people the "lonely robot", that is people are really just isolated islands unto themselves of self-actualizing utility maximization floating around the world interacting in a highly logical and predictable manner.  This idea of people is the ideological and theoretical underpinnings to the belief that deregulating financial instruments would lead to a self balancing stable system of global finance and great prosperity at the same time among other things.  And its come to dominate how we see and discuss the world as well as being applied to things that traditionally been seen as outside of the realm of economics like education policy, art and the legal arena.  But then when tried out in the real world these theories can't even explain the actions of just a few actors like the GOP governors, let alone how say 10,000 people on Wall Street will collectively learn, plan, act and respond to each all in real time.  People really are a lot more complex tha mathematical concepts playing a theoretical game of poker and we would do well to remember that.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Not Privatization

Matt Yglesias made a great point the other day about the New Jersey privatized halfway house scandal, namely that the current policy moves to “privatize” government services is not really privatizing things at all.  Instead what we are seeing is a giant shift of money that instead of going to government departments is being diverted to private firms in the form of contracts.  As Matt points out, to “privatize” a halfway house would be to sell it to someone or a company and thus allow it to be turned into luxury condos or a regular single family home if the owner wanted.  What he we see instead is a form of wealth capture that just funnels tax dollars to a few lucky ducks that get rich.  Oftentimes with Halliburton “no bid” style contracts.  The same thing is starting to happen in Louisiana, with a new “school reform” scheme being set up by Governor Bobby Jindal that looks like its set up to shrink the public education system, and Mitt Romney has already embraced this form of “privatized” education.

These types of policies are often sold to the media and public through the language of free market utopianism that has come to dominate the way we see the world.  After all, who would favor the calcified old system of government bureaucracy when we could have something “free” or “dynamic”?  The language itself sells these concepts more than any actually policy improvement might.  The problem is that this is not a “free market” at all, it is something totally different that looks much more like an armaments firm from pre-World War One Europe than any form of “privatization”.  And I think we will see more and more of this kind of thing in the future.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

John Roberts, Pope Benedict XIII and the King of France

In the wake of the whole Obamacare/ACA ruling new narratives have been emerging from both right and left about how the unlikely makeup of the majority decision was reached.  I’ve heard nuanced stories of Roberts joining Scalia at first and then jumping over the “liberal” bloc at the last minute for reasons unknown.  There are also some idiotic ideas that it’s some sort of master stroke that the President’s signature domestic policy accomplishment was affirmed by SCOTUS because Roberts said it was a tax, thus giving Republicans a talking point.  I guess it’s possible that the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States of America spend their time trying to devise schemes to slip good talking points for Sean Hannity into their decisions, but I doubt it.  The larger lesson I think to draw here is while we can learn about the forces acting on political actors like Supreme Court Justices or other politicians, we can never really know what goes on inside their heads, it’s just too complicated and there are just too many unknowns.  Call it the existential principle of politics.

This is not necessarily a principle unique to American democracy.  Throughout history powerful leaders have made decisions and changed in ways in high office that often times defy explanation compared to their previous views.  By the late 1300’s the Catholic Church-that is the only Church is Western Europe-had been divided for decades between two Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon in a series of events scholars now generally refer to as the “Papal Schism”.   By the close of the 14th Century there was an overwhelming demand to heal this wound and return to one Pope and one unified Church from both within the Church and without.  A massive series of events began in 1392 that included theologians at the University of Paris wrestling with the question of how to use scripture and theology to force two Popes—that is two representatives of God on earth—to accept political compromise (have fun with that one), a referendum on solutions that 10,000 Parisians voted on, the sudden death of the French Pope and a desperate ride that covered 400 miles in four days bearing the letter of the King of France seeking an end to the schism.  The most favored solution proposed by the University was simple; both the French and Roman Popes would mutually abdicate and a new compromise Pope would be chosen.   Not unlike picking a dark horse railroad lawyer from Illinois to head up the ticket.  The Cardinals gathered and proceeded to pick for the new French Pope one of the biggest proponents of ending the schism, Cardinal Pedro de Luna of Aragon who was elected as Pope Benedict XIII.  Barbara Tuchman in her great book on the 14th Century “A Distant Mirror” tells what happened next:
The second French embassy heard the news on their way to Avignon.  On their arrival, the new Pope assured them of his intent to pursue every means of ending the schism and repeated his statement that he would abdicate if so advised as easily as taking off his hat, which he lifted from his head in illustration…He had accepted election only to end the “damnable schism,” and would rather spend the rest of his life in “desert or cloister” than prolong it.
De Luna of course never ended the schism; he refused to abdicate and made it worse than it was before.

So why did he do it?  Because he became greedy for power once he became Pope?  Because he never wanted to end the schism and just said he did to gain support?  Because he wanted to but kept putting it off until circumstances made it more likely he would succeed in ending it?  I have no idea; your guess is as good as mine.  An important fact about political leaders is that their reasons and motives are often too difficult to ever truly understand.  Do they mean what they say or are they just saying it to gain support?  Are their actions part of a grand scheme or merely improvisations to get through the day?  Have they changed since their election to the Holy See or confirmation to the Supreme Court?  These are questions that there are few answer to, if any.  Just look at the Iraq War and tell me why we went to war in the first place?  What did Bush, Cheney, Rummy and Wolfowitz really “want”?  What were their real goals?  Was the decision to invade the sum of all its parts, or once the push for war began did it take on a life of its own?  None less than Colin Powell's deputy Richard Haass has said “I believe I will go to my grave not knowing why we are in Iraq.”

So don’t try to find a snazzy narrative for why Roberts did what he did.  Look for trends in his decisions and forces that might have influenced him, not clever arguments or political stratagems.  What he said in his confirmation hearings seven years ago might not be all that goes on under that overgrown middle school haircut of his.