Penny Wise, Pound Foolish…Again

Here’s a great example of what happens when a fixation on keeping taxes low no matter what (yes, Governor Pence, I’m looking at you) ends up preventing authorities from engaging in oversight that would actually save taxpayers money.

The IBJ has reported that 

Local governments will see fewer audits due to a recent change in Indiana state law.

The State Board of Accounts used to audit cities and counties every year, and audit school corporations every two years. Now those audits will be conducted every four years unless there are red flags.

And why is the frequency of audits declining? Budget constraints.

But budget limitations and the sheer number of entities that require auditing means there’s too much work and not enough people to do it, Caldwell told The Muncie Star Press….

Local officials confirmed this week that Delaware County and the city of Muncie haven’t been audited for three years.

State audits are important because they can uncover costly financial mistakes, wrongdoing by officials and other issues that local governments can correct–ideally, before the error or wrongdoing has cost significant amounts of money.

In the not-so-distant past, audits by the State Board of Accounts have found problems with the Muncie Sanitary District’s finances and then-Delaware County Treasurer John Dorer, who resigned in February 2015 after pleading guilty to a charge over the mishandling of funds. It would seem prudent to continue supervision of Delaware County to insure that these problems are not continuing, rather than taking a three-year hiatus.

There’s an axiom from the criminal law literature that is relevant here; it is the certainty of punishment, rather than the severity, that deters criminal behavior. (In other words, if you are considering a burglary, and the punishment is 20 years, but the likelihood of getting caught is 5%, the deterrent effect is negligible. If, however, the punishment is 5 years, but the likelihood of getting caught is 95%, the deterrent effect is considerable.)

Most reasonable people would not reduce police patrols in a previously lawless neighborhood and expect crime to go down. Same principle.

The Pence Administration is “saving” us money by keeping taxes (and revenues) low. In the process, it is issuing an unintended invitation to embezzlement and mismanagement. I’d be willing to wager that taxpayers will end up losing much more money than the administration is saving by reducing the mechanics of oversight.

But then, as a former student of mine who was working for the administration until he quit in disgust puts it, this Governor’s office has zero interest in actually governing.

That’s becoming more obvious with every passing day.

Within Normal Parameters

Attention, Hillary haters…

I disagree with much, if not most, of Charles Murray’s scholarship, but he–and the (very) conservative publication National Review– have done something I’ve been struggling with: in a pointed essay debunking attempts to equate the Presidential candidates, they have provided language that explains the reality of November’s ballot choices.

In his response to those who assert that “Hillary is no better” or “Hillary would be even worse” Murray begins by acknowledging what most political observers know, that we have rarely if ever elected people who don’t have serious flaws. After listing several examples, he says

Candidates who lie? This is a little more complicated. Yes, many candidates for president have lied. Hillary Clinton has — with stupefying ineptitude — told and continues to tell whoppers. But Trump takes first prize for sheer bulk, averaging one factual untruth every five minutes, according to a systematic fact-check of over four and a half hours of stump speeches and press conferences….

It’s one thing when a candidate knowingly deceives the public on a few specific topics. Hillary Clinton has knowingly tried to deceive the public about her flip-flop on gay marriage and her misuse of her e-mail server. That’s bad. It should be condemned. This aspect of her character should affect one’s deliberations about whether to vote for her. It’s another thing entirely when a candidate blithely rejects Pat Moynihan’s (attributed) dictum, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.”

Trump’s indifference to facts is an example of why he is unfit for the presidency — not dispositive in itself, but part of a pattern. That pattern is why “Hillary is even worse” misses the point. P. J. O’Rourke recently announced that he is voting for Clinton. “She’s wrong about absolutely everything,” O’Rourke said. “But she’s wrong within normal parameters!” Similarly, I am saying that Clinton may be unfit to be president, but she’s unfit within normal parameters. Donald Trump is unfit outside normal parameters.

I encourage you to click through and read the entire essay–especially if you are a political conservative who is trying to convince yourself that Donald Trump is an acceptable recipient of your vote (or a “purist” whose vote for a third party candidate is effectively a vote for Trump.)

Unfortunately, it is an increasingly rare occurrence when informed voters go to the polls enthusiastic about voting for someone. But the fact that there may be reasons to be unenthusiastic about our choices is not the same thing as saying that there isn’t a lesser of two evils.

In this case, for rational Americans, no matter what one’s opinion about Hillary Clinton, a vote for Donald Trump– the far, far greater of these “two evils”– is simply unthinkable. It is not just a vote for a dangerously ignorant narcissist, it is a vote for abandonment of the American ethos.

Thanks to Charles Murray and P.J. O’Rourke, I now have language to express my conviction  that we must recognize and act upon differing degrees of risk, and vote for the candidate whose flaws fall within normal parameters.

Facts and Frames

I think it was Talleyrand who said something along the lines of “language has been given to man to enable him to conceal his thoughts.” Nowhere is this observation more apt than in the debates over school voucher programs.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that many public systems are underperforming, and that people of good will are working on a variety of reforms intended to improve them. Reform is not a dirty word; it is also not a specific description. Some reforms show promise; others do not. Some are consistent with the democratic mission of public education; others are not.

Thus far, the scholarship evaluating voucher programs suggests that participating schools perform no better than public schools when you control for student population–that is, if the children in the public and private classrooms all have the same socio-economic characteristics, voucher schools do no better (and sometimes far worse) than their public counterparts. I should also note that despite careless rhetoric used by proponents and opponents of this or that reform, vouchers and charters are different animals. Charters–whatever their merits or problems–are public schools.

Indiana, under Mike Pence, has vastly expanded its voucher program, and the funds for that expansion have come at the expense of the state’s underfunded public schools. So it is understandable that members of local school boards have gotten “a bit testy,” as the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette put it.

Things have gotten a bit testy between several members of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Last week the foundation sent a new report extolling the virtues of vouchers via email to Mark GiaQuinta, president of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board.

He responded with “more distortions and lies.”

The ensuing back-and-forth was not a model of civil discourse, but it certainly highlighted something that many of us who consider ourselves pro-reform but anti-voucher have long recognized: this is a fight to which people bring different weapons. Voucher proponents use framing (it is hardly an accident that the Friedman Foundation’s vice-president is a PR professional). Voucher opponents, by and large (and with some exceptions), counter with facts. 

Voucher proponents frame these programs as a means of getting poor children out of failing public schools and into private schools that will give them a better education. That may even be their sincere intent, but it is a frame, a proposition for which, thus far, there simply is no evidence. Quite the contrary; as the Brookings Institution reported a few days ago:

Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. These studies used rigorous research designs that allow for strong causal conclusions.

Fort Wayne School Board members responded with several facts inconsistent with the “frame”:

  • A majority of children using vouchers in Allen County go to religious schools at taxpayer expense, raising troubling questions about family motivation and public oversight.
  • Fewer than 10% of Allen County children using vouchers ever attended public schools.
  • Three times more students left Fort Wayne Community Schools that had earned an “A” rating from the state than left “D” schools.

At its base, the voucher debate is an argument about democracy, and the role of public schools in creating a polity–an “us”–out of the diverse populations that make up our nation. As I have previously written, in an article titled Privatizing Education: The Liberal Democratic Idea, Constitutionalism, and the Politics of Vouchers,

Arguments about the education of the young are at least as old as Socrates. However, it is fair to suggest that the voucher debate that has erupted over the past few years is qualitatively different from many that have preceded it. Rather than arguing about whether public schools are deficient, and if so, in what respects; rather than debating the merits of one “reform” over another, the issue has become whether America should continue to support a system of free, publicly controlled schools or whether government’s educational role should be reduced to dispensing vouchers to families, enabling them to “buy” educational services in the marketplace. It is a classic political confrontation, engaging partisan strategies and implicating political ideologies.

And all too often, giving short shrift to facts and the actual consequences of ideologically motivated reforms.


Well, THIS Certainly Ups the Stakes….

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been reports from interviews with Donald Trump that should give any sentient being pause: in one, it became embarrassingly clear that he had never heard of the GI Bill; in another, challenged on his ability to push through a constitutional amendment to stop women from giving birth to all those “anchor babies,” he responded–wrongly– that birthright citizenship wasn’t in the constitution. (“It just takes a statute.”)

The Donald’s most recent policy pronouncement, however, is far more terrifying. As a number of media outlets are reporting, Trump says that if he is elected he will pull out of the Paris climate agreement and approve the Keystone pipeline.

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said on Thursday that he would pull the United States out of the U.N. global climate accord and slash environmental regulations on the energy industry if elected…

“We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement,” Trump said at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismark, the capital of North Dakota, the second largest U.S. oil-producing state. It was Trump’s first speech detailing the energy policies he would advance from the White House.

Trump said he would invite TransCanada to reapply to build the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the United States, reversing a decision by the administration of President Barack Obama to block the project over environmental concerns.

“I want it built, but I want a piece of the profits,” Trump said. “That’s how we’re going to make our country rich again.”

Trump is on record (not that being on record means anything in his case, since he changes his positions more often than most people change their underwear–but still) as repeatedly saying that climate change is a hoax. Whether he believes that or not, the policies he is promising to pursue are all based upon the increased use of fossil fuel and the rollback of regulations on energy.

As Ed Brayton wryly observed over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, it may simply be another rather breathtaking exhibition of Trump’s hypocrisy:

Now remember, he said this literally two days after it was revealed that his company has applied to build a high sea wall at one of his golf courses in Scotland in order to protect the property from the rising seas resulting from global warming. So he knows damn well that global warming is real and has serious consequences. But he’s more than willing to screw over pretty much the entire world in order to get elected. Speaks volumes about the man, don’t you think?

At the end of the day, however, what Trump actually thinks (assuming, in the absence of evidence, that he actually does engage in that activity) is irrelevant. He is promising that on his watch, America will pursue policies having the foreseeable consequence of making the planet largely uninhabitable.

If his misogyny, racism, xenophobia, narcissism and profound ignorance about our government haven’t given Americans reason enough to insure that he never, ever gets near the Oval Office, this should do it…..

Creating A City That Works

The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce–like most such entities–is concerned with the economic future of our city, and the region it inhabits.  Recently, it engaged in a planning exercise–engaging a consultant to survey a wide variety of stakeholders and to analyze efforts of “peer cities” to see what strategies work.

Among the conclusions reached in this exercise was one I feel was particularly important, and I quote: “economic success wasn’t dictated by the most generous tax breaks. Prosperous regions focused on the bigger picture.”

Your immediate reaction to this insight–gained from “thousands” of survey results, no less–was probably something like “duh.” But that doesn’t make it any less important, doesn’t lessen the impact. Bear with me.

For at least the past quarter-century, Americans have been sold a bill of goods: if taxes are kept sufficiently low, all will be well. Nothing else really matters. That’s all it takes.

Are your parks overrun with dandelions and weeds?  Are you closing libraries? Do you have too few police to patrol dangerous neighborhoods? Does the paving on your streets look like battle zones in Syria? Do you lack decent public transportation? Are teachers decamping for places that support public education?

Not a problem! Our taxes are low!

The Chamber’s strategic plan discloses the utter cluelessness of this mantra.

Think about it: if you were getting ready to move (for example, if–God forbid–Donald Trump won the Presidency and you were frantic to leave the good old USA) where would you choose to go?  Would you choose a third-world country with expensive healthcare, iffy public safety, no reliable public transportation, decaying infrastructure and low taxes? Or would you choose a low-crime country with excellent national healthcare, great infrastructure (both digital and physical), superior education, and higher taxes?

Here’s the deal: the existence of a superior infrastructure–roads, bridges, electrical grid, wifi, public education, public transportation, etc.–saves citizens a lot of money. Good public safety and a robust safety net provide citizens with a sense of security that adds immeasurably to social stability.

I don’t know how to “monetize” the value of public parks, libraries, museums and similar amenities, but not knowing how to value them is not the same thing as saying they have no value.

The question isn’t: how much are we paying in taxes? The tax question is: are we getting our money’s worth?

Like  the Chamber, we need to look to see who is moving where….and not just what the inhabitants of those cities are paying in taxes, but what they are getting for their money.