All posts by Sheila

No Merit In Merritt?

Jim Merritt wants to be the Mayor of Indianapolis. It seems timely, then, to evaluate whether his performance in the statehouse has been in the best interests of those of us who live in the city he wants to lead.

His most recent performance fails that test.

During this session, a really important bill was sent to the Senate Utilities Committee, which Merritt chairs. Introduced by Sen. J.D. Ford, it would  have repealed last year’s highly controversial and damaging measure phasing out net metering in Indiana.

Merritt refused to give it a hearing.

Net metering is a billing arrangement between a customer who has a renewable energy system—typically solar panels—and the customer’s electric utility. When the system generates more electricity than the customer uses, the excess gets added to the grid and the customer gets credited at the same rate the utility charges when the customer is purchasing energy from the grid. Even though it’s an even swap, however, the customer also pays the utility an amount sufficient to cover its overhead costs–billing, meter reading, etc. Fair enough.

Net metering benefits utilities, customers and the general public by increasing grid resiliency and security, reducing carbon emissions, and reducing toxic air emissions.

But Senate Bill 309, passed last year, phased net metering out. Instead, it required customers to sell all of the electricity they generate to the utility at a much lower price than the utility charges its customers, and then buy back what they need at the “retail” price.

As I calculated it at the time, utilities would pay customers somewhere between 2.5 and 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour, but customers would have to buy it back at retail rates between 11 and 16 cents per kilowatt hour. It effectively priced rooftop solar and small-scale wind generation out of Indiana’s market–at a time when other states were encouraging it.

An Indianapolis Star investigation looked at how such laws have played out in other states, as well as the impact of the bill’s introduction, and warned that SB 309 “could put an entire industry at risk of stagnation at best — and, at worst, collapse.”

The Columbus’ Republic accurately summarized the bill at the time as a “fundamental change to Indiana’s solar energy policy,” based  “on a lack of evidence and faulty logic”and warned that it would severely undermine the future of solar power in the state.

The newspaper called the measure a “Trojan Horse,” and ended with a plea to Indiana legislators to defeat the bill.

A number of legislators opposed the measure. Representative Carey Hamilton–one of the most environmentally knowledgeable members of the Indiana legislature–argued that the task of determining rates should be left to the IURC, rather than the legislature. (During the committee hearing, Brant Hershman–the bill’s sponsor– admitted that he had “come up with” the rate in the bill himself.)

Rep. Matt Pierce, who also opposed the bill, pointed out that it would create uncertainty for small businesses and Hoosiers investing in the solar industry. Pierce also pointed out that there had been six hours of testimony, and the only people in favor of the bill were the utilities.

Senator Ford’s bill was a welcome effort to reverse what every knowledgeable observer considers bad policy. Senator Merritt refused to hear it.

I assume the utilities are properly grateful. Voters shouldn’t be.

Religion And Sex

Breaking news! It isn’t just the Catholics.

The Houston Chronicle, among other publications, has now publicized revelations about what the Baptists have been doing.

It’s not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

 They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

The revelations about Catholic priests spawned a number of articles blaming the priests’ sexual misconduct on celibacy–after all, human sexuality is a primal urge. Asking men to forego sex in the service of Godliness…well, that’s asking for trouble.

But Baptists don’t have to be celibate. What’s their excuse?

I’ve always been bemused by the emphasis so many Christian denominations place on morality “below the belt.” When I was growing up, my impression of Christianity was that its practitioners were obsessed with sexual “purity”–and not particularly focused upon other issues of morality/immorality, like cheating, lying, stealing, bullying…..I could never understand the belief, evidently held by many Christians, that concerns about “morality” applied primarily if not exclusively to the genitals.

The impression I got–at least from clergy representing more fundamentalist denominations–was that Christians could engage in all manner of questionable and self-serving behaviors, and God will still love them–so long as they don’t have sex outside of marriage.  Have you been stealing from widows and orphans? Cheating on your taxes? Forwarding racist emails? Those behaviors might elicit a “tut tut,” but they would be likely to elicit far less pastoral opprobrium than sexual misconduct.

Interestingly, that judgmental approach to sexual behavior was absent when it came to their own clergy. Much like the Catholic Church, the Baptists protected their own.

At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct.

The new revelations about Baptists’ sexual misconduct are particularly ironic in view of the denomination’s thundering disapproval of LGBTQ folks. Labelling gay men as pedophiles looks more and more like projection. In fact, when it comes to Protestants, it seems to be clergy from the most theologically-rigid denominations, the most “fire and brimstone” pastors, who are most likely to prey while they pray.

I haven’t seen any accusations of misconduct against, say, Episcopalians or Unitarians.

I’m not a psychologist, so I am ill-equipped to analyze the appeal of clerical careers to sexual deviants. It may be that working for the church attracts weak men who want to dominate others–or perhaps it’s an easy way to meet potential victims, men and women who come to the church at times when they are most vulnerable.

It really is amazing what you can get away with when you are cloaked in faux piety.

I wonder what denomination is next…..

 

What’s In A Name?

Paul Krugman’s recent column in the New York Times was titled “Trump versus the Socialist Menace,” and the tag line beneath the title warned that commies were coming for your pick-up truck.

The title alluded to Trump’s most recent effort to generate fear in his base. Krugman reminded us that we’ve seen this movie before, when the horrible threat of Medicare was looming, and the AMA hatched a plan to defeat it.

Here’s how it worked: Doctors’ wives (hey, it was 1961) were asked to invite their friends over and play them a recording in which Ronald Reagan explained that socialized medicine would destroy American freedom. The housewives, in turn, were supposed to write letters to Congress denouncing the menace of Medicare.

Obviously the strategy didn’t work; Medicare not only came into existence, but it became so popular that these days Republicans routinely (and falsely) accuse Democrats of planning to cut the program’s funding. But the strategy — claiming that any attempt to strengthen the social safety net or limit inequality will put us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism — endures.

It sure does. It’s fed by America’s bipolar, “either-or” approach to policy and ignorance of economic systems.

In the real world, there are very few countries where either socialism or capitalism characterizes the entire economy. Virtually all democratic nations have a mixed economy, meaning that certain things are socialized (i.e., provided communally, through government and paid for by taxes) and others are left to the market.

The actual question facing policymakers is which approach is appropriate in a given situation.

America already “socializes” police and fire protection. Most cities “socialize” garbage collection. Our streets and sidewalks–and interstate highways–are “socialized.” (In a recent Facebook post, a friend warned that a “socialist snowplow” was coming down his street.)

One way to think about this (although “thinking” is apparently a difficult assignment for many folks) is that government is a mechanism through which societies provide infrastructure. Some of that infrastructure is physical–bridges, roads, etc.–and some of it is social. Police and firefighters, Social Security and Medicare and a variety of social welfare programs are part of the social infrastructure.

Market capitalism, properly regulated, is incredibly successful in providing goods and services when buyers and sellers are operating on relatively equal terms. Economists tell us that markets work well when there is 1) a willing buyer and a willing seller both of whom are in possession of all relevant information, and 2) government has ensured a level playing field.

Quite obviously, there are areas of the economy in which markets don’t work. (Utilities come to mind–when did you last take bids from companies wanting to supply your water or sewer?) In those areas, government gets involved, either through stringent regulation or –gasp!–by socializing the service.

It is perfectly reasonable to debate whether a given service or economic area should be left to the market or provided communally–and if the latter, how that should be done. It is both unreasonable and dishonest to pretend that every decision to socialize a service is a step toward totalitarian communism, but as Krugman says, that’s this administration’s rhetoric.

You say you want free college tuition? Think of all the people who died in the Ukraine famine! And no, this isn’t a caricature: Read the strange, smarmy report on socialism that Trump’s economists released last fall; that’s pretty much how its argument goes.

Ironically, these hysterical descriptions have actually made the word “socialism” less off-putting. Recent polls show a significant number of voters approving of socialism (including a majority of those under 30). They’ve evidently accepted conservative labeling that “describes anything that tempers the excesses of a market economy as socialism, and in effect said, “Well, in that case I’m a socialist.””

When words are used as invective, they no longer communicate anything of substance. I think that’s where we are with both capitalism and socialism, and that really impedes rational policymaking.

 

 

 

Wehner On Tribes

Peter Wehner is one of those “homeless” Republicans--a category composed of principled people whose primary allegiance was to their country and intellectual honesty, not a political party. He is currently a contributing editor to the Atlantic. Wehner titled a recent article for the magazine “What I’ve gained by leaving the Republican Party,” and noted that he is “more willing to listen to people I once thought had nothing to teach me.”

Like so many of the people who have left the GOP, Wehner was anything but a “casual” Republican.

For most of my life, I’ve been closely affiliated with the Republican Party. My first vote was cast for Ronald Reagan in 1980. I worked in his administration, as well as that of George H. W. Bush; for seven years, I was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush.

Most of my professional friends and almost all of my former colleagues—those with whom I served in government as well as in the think-tank world—have been Republican. The GOP has been my political home since college, a party I was once proud to be a part of, and a source of cherished relationships. Part of my identity was undoubtedly shaped by my party affiliation.

Leaving a political party, or a religion, or a cause in which one has been deeply involved is like losing a limb. In my more charitable moments (which are admittedly few and far between) I sympathize with the lifelong Republicans still standing with their party despite its metamorphosis into an irrational and dangerous cult.

It’s their tribe, and we live in a very tribal age.  Wehner is eloquent on that subject.

When I was a card-carrying member of a political party, I wasn’t automatically blinded to other points of view, or unable to challenge conventional orthodoxy. I did it on issues ranging from climate change, to the Tea Party’s anti-government rhetoric, to the characterological and temperamental defects of Newt Gingrich; so have many others. Nor did I knowingly put party above country. That’s a common charge made against party loyalists, when in fact most members of a political party believe that the success of their party is tied to the success of their country. They might be wrong, but that’s how many of them see things.

 But here’s what I think does happen. People who are part of a tribe—political, philosophical, religious, ethnic—are less willing to call out their own side’s offenses. That’s human nature. To be sure, some are more willing to show independence of judgment than others, but none shows complete intellectual independence. I certainly didn’t.

Some of this has to do with feelings of solidarity, of not wanting to alienate those whose affirmation and support are important to us. Some of it has to do with the fact that our brains filter information differently, depending on whether it confirms or challenges our preexisting political commitments and affiliations. When we’re part of a team, we have a natural tendency to let our sympathies shape our views and opinions of others. As a result, we perceive the world differently, often more narrowly and sometimes incorrectly.

The entire essay is well worth the time it takes to read it.

The thoughtful Republicans who drew a line at Donald Trump–whose intellectual honesty demanded that they leave what had become of their “tribe”–deserve our profound respect. We can only hope that whatever ultimately replaces today’s GOP is their creation, and not that of the troglodytes who control the current remnants of a once Grand Old Party.

Negativity Isn’t Bias

I recently came across a blog post making what I think is a pretty important distinction between biased media coverage and negative media coverage.

A common complaint of President Trump and others in the GOP is that a high percentage of media coverage of him is “negative.” The official GOP Twitter account often tweets about this, sometimes citing a statistic from a Harvard study stating that over 90% of media coverage of Trump is negative. This, the President and his allies complain, is evidence of bias. In this post I argue that “negative” coverage itself isn’t necessarily “biased,” and is often perfectly fair. However, it is often easy to confuse negativity and bias, and it is similarly easy for them to overlap within the reporting of a story. As a result, many casual media observers feel like media sources have become recently more biased against Trump because of a seeming increase in negative reporting about him.

When is negative reporting simply unbiased reporting of the facts, and when is it bias? Almost 100% of stories about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults are negative, but no one says it is because newspapers are biased against Weinstein himself. Almost 100% of stories about drunk drivers are negative, but no one says it is because the local news anchors are biased against drunk drivers. We intuit that the reporting is appropriate because the sexual assaults and the drunk driving themselves are bad things. Often, when the news reports that someone did a bad thing, it’s because the thing was actually bad.

With their accusations of “fake news” and complaints that equate critical coverage with bias, Trump supporters are trying to de-legitimate reports on this President and this administration. That in itself isn’t new–partisans of all sorts engage in spin intended to counter bad publicity.

I think there are aspects of this pushback that are new, however. One is fairly obvious: this is the first President in my lifetime who is seemingly incapable of generating good news.  This administration is so ignorant of governance, not to mention venal, incompetent and mean-spirited, that the negative coverage isn’t a consequence of emphasizing the bad stuff and ignoring the good. There isn’t any good.

The second element that is new is demographic. The President’s critics are, by and large, educated people–both Democrats and Republicans. (I can’t think of any other President who has repelled so high a percentage of his own party’s elder statesmen and intellectuals.) His defenders tend to be people whose arguments–on Facebook, Twitter and right-wing publications–disclose a lack of even superficial familiarity with history, the Constitution and democratic theory. There are obviously exceptions to this broad characterization, but a case can be made that Trump appeals to people who share both his ignorance and his racist and sexist animus.

As the author of the quoted blog put it,

What does it mean when an historically conservative and/or Republican writer writes a piece that is “negative” about Trump? Does it mean that the conservative/Republican is now a liberal/Democrat? I argue that the answer is no, and many such journalists/writers have argued the same themselves.

Principled conservatives have recoiled from an administration that is anti-science, anti-democratic, anti-free-market, and anti-rule-of-law. Principled liberals who were prepared to work against a traditional Republican agenda have instead confronted a President whose only fidelity to that agenda has been its alliance with big money and its Southern Strategy.

No wonder genuine journalists from credible news organizations aren’t writing positive articles.