Tag Archives: Indiana

A Hoosier Cautionary Tale

First Kansas. Now Indiana. One by one, the pillars of conservative fundamentalism are failing real-world tests.

Under then-Governor Pence, Indiana negotiated a much-ballyhood 35-year “public-private partnership” with the Spanish firm Insolux Corsan to build and maintain a portion of Interstate 69, between Bloomington and Indianapolis. The project has dragged on and on, making trips between Bloomington and Indianapolis slow and treacherous. (I know this from personal experience; faculty of IU routinely make the trip between campuses, and I’ve done my share of cursing while in transit.)

The original contract called for a completion date of October, 2016; that date has been pushed back four times amid media reports suggesting that the state’s private partner was as slow in paying subcontractors as it was in building the highway. Now, it appears the contractor is going bankrupt. The Indianapolis Star reports that the state “intends to take control of the troubled I-69 project from Bloomington to Martinsville as the public-private partnership used to finance and build the highway crumbles.”

It is a GOP article of faith that the private sector is always more efficient and more competent than government, and that contracting out–privatization–saves money. In the uncongenial place called the real world, it seldom works out that way. The collapse–or “crumbling”–of this particular partnership joins a long line of failed privatization schemes, some scandalous and corrupt, many simply ineffective and expensive, that have ended up costing taxpayers more than if government had done the job.

This isn’t to say that contracting out is always a bad idea. As I’ve said repeatedly, the issue isn’t whether to work with the private sector, but when and how. Public officials need to carefully evaluate proposed contracting arrangements: is this something government routinely does, or an unusual task requiring specialized expertise that the agency doesn’t have? If the motive is saving money, how realistic is that? (After all, private entities have to pay taxes, and their bids will reflect that expense.) Does the contracting agency have the expertise needed to properly negotiate the contract and monitor the contractor? Have all the risks been weighed, and due diligence exercised?

Do the officials making the decision recognize that contracting with a third party won’t relieve the government agency of its ultimate responsibility to see that the project is properly completed or the service is properly rendered?

Are there situations where public-private partnerships are both appropriate and competently structured? Of course. The Brookings Institution recently reported on the success of the Copenhagen City and Port Development Corporation in revitalizing Copenhagen’s waterfront. I was particularly struck by this description of that effort:

The approach deploys an innovative institutional vehicle—a publicly owned, privately run corporation—to achieve the high-level management and value appreciation of assets more commonly found in the private sector while retaining development profits for public use.(emphasis mine)

Two elements of this particular partnership stand out: (1) it was formed to execute a lengthy, difficult and highly complex project requiring skills that few municipal governments have in-house; and (2) it distributed risk and reward in a way that ensured taxpayers would benefit financially from the project’s success.

In contrast, virtually every American contract I’ve seen has socialized the risk and privatized the reward; that is, taxpayers have assumed the risks of cost overruns, unanticipated problems and project failures, while the private contractors have reaped the lions’ share of the profits.(Trump’s infrastructure plan–to the extent it exists–would take that formula to new heights. Or lows…)

I69 and the Indianapolis parking meter fiasco are just two of the more recent examples of what happens when privatization is a mantra–a semi-religious belief–rather than one of several strategically deployed tools in the public toolbox.

Personal P.S. Thanks to all of you who posted good wishes for my husband’s surgery. All went well, and he’s home (with a very rakish temporary eye patch).

Human Rights, Equal Rights, Political Rights

Last night, I spoke at the annual dinner of the Columbus, Indiana, Human Rights Commission. Here’s what I said (sorry for the length…):

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Over the past several years, American political debate has become steadily less civil. Partisan passions have overwhelmed sober analysis, and the Internet allows people to choose their news (and increasingly, their preferred realities). During the recent election cycle, it was clear that in many cases, Americans were talking past each other rather engaging with opponents through thoughtful public discourse.

I am firmly convinced that an enormous amount of this rancor and partisan nastiness is a result of what I call civic illiteracy—widespread ignorance of the historical foundations and basic premises of American government. I don’t want to belabor this lack of civic literacy, but I do want to share some statistics that should concern all of us. A few years ago, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs asked high school seniors in that state some simple questions about government. Let me share a few of those questions and the percentages of students who answered them correctly:

  • What is the supreme law of the land? 28%
  • What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution? 26%
  • What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress? 27%
  • Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? 14%
  • What are the two major political parties in the United States? 43%
  • We elect a U.S. senator for how many years? 11%
  • Who was the first President of the United States? 23%

Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th graders can describe federalism. Only 35% can identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Only five percent of high school seniors can identify or explain checks on presidential power. (There’s a lot more depressing research on IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy website.)

Why does it matter? Well, for one thing, productive civic engagement is based on an accurate understanding of the “rules of the game,” especially but not exclusively the Constitution and Bill of Rights– the documents that frame policy choices in the American system.

Understanding the history and philosophy that shaped what I call “the American Idea” is critically important for understanding the roots of our national approach to human rights.

The American Constitution was a product of the 18th Century cultural, intellectual and philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment. Most of us know that the Enlightenment gave us science, empirical inquiry, and the “natural rights” and “social contract” theories of government, but what is less appreciated is that the Enlightenment also changed the way we understand and define human rights and individual liberty.

 We are taught in school that the Puritans and Pilgrims who settled the New World came to America for religious liberty; what we aren’t generally taught is how they defined liberty. Puritans saw liberty as “freedom to do the right thing”—freedom to worship and obey the right God in the true church, and their right to use the power of government to ensure that their neighbors toed the same line. The Founders who crafted our constitution some 150 years later were products of an intervening paradigm change brought about by the Enlightenment and its dramatically different definition of liberty.

America’s constitutional system is based on an Enlightenment concept we call “negative liberty.” The Founders believed that our fundamental rights are not given to us by government; instead, they believed that rights are “natural,” meaning that we are entitled to certain rights simply by virtue of being human (thus the term “human rights”) and that government has an obligation to respect and protect those inborn, inalienable rights.

Contrary to popular belief, the Bill of Rights does not grant us rights—it protects the rights to which we are entitled by virtue of being human against infringement by an overzealous government. The American Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to do. For example, the state cannot dictate our religious or political beliefs, search us without probable cause, or censor our expression—and government is forbidden from doing these things even when popular majorities favor such actions. 

In our system, those constraints don’t apply to private, non-governmental actors. As I used to tell my kids, the government can’t control what you read, but your mother can. Public school officials can’t tell you to pray, but private or parochial school officials can. If government isn’t involved, neither is the Constitution. Private, non-governmental actors are subject to other laws, like civil rights laws, but since the Bill of Rights only restrains what government can do, only government can violate it. I’m constantly amazed by how many Americans don’t understand that.

Unlike the liberties protected against government infringement by the Bill of Rights, civil rights laws represent our somewhat belated recognition that if we care about human rights, just preventing government from discriminating isn’t enough. If private employers can refuse to hire African-Americans or women, if landlords can refuse to rent units in multifamily buildings to LGBTQ folks, if restaurants can refuse to serve Jews or Muslims, then the broader society is not respecting the human rights of those citizens and we aren’t fulfilling the obligations of the social contract that was another major contribution of Enlightenment philosophy.

The Enlightenment concept of human rights and John Locke’s theory of a social contract between citizens and their government challenged longtime assumptions about the divine right of kings. Gradually, people came to be seen as citizens, rather than subjects. The new concept of human rights also helped to undermine the once-common practice of assigning social status on the basis of group identity.

The once-radical idea that each of us is born with the same claim to human rights has other consequences. For one thing, it means that governments have to treat their citizens as individuals, not as members of a group. America was the first country to base its laws upon a person’s civic behavior, not gender, race, religion or other identity or affiliation. So long as we obey the laws, pay our taxes, and generally conduct ourselves in a way that doesn’t endanger or disadvantage others, we are all entitled to full civic equality, no matter what our race, religion, gender or other identity. When our country has lived up to that guarantee of equal civic rights, we have unleashed the productivity of previously marginalized groups and contributed significantly to American prosperity. And I think it is fair to say that—despite setbacks, and despite the stubborn persistence of racial resentments, religious intolerance and misogyny, we have made substantial progress toward a culture that acknowledges the equal humanity of the people who make up our diverse nation. So on that scale, good for us!

In addition to civic equality, however, respect for human rights also requires democratic equality—an equal right to participate in self-government. We now recognize—or at least give lip service to—the proposition that every citizen’s vote should count, but on this dimension of human rights, we not only aren’t making progress, we’re regressing, as anyone who follows the news can attest.

One element of civic literacy that gets short shrift even among educators is the immense influence of systems in a society—an appreciation of the way in which institutions and conventions and laws shape our understanding of our environments, and obscure our recognition of social problems. Right now, longstanding practices are obscuring the degree to which American democracy is becoming steadily less democratic—and the extent to which we are denying citizens the human right to participate meaningfully in self-government.

Vote suppression has been on the rise, especially but not exclusively in Southern states that have not been required to get preclearance from the Justice Department since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. Thanks to population shifts, the current operation of the Electoral College gives disproportionate weight to the votes of white rural voters, and discounts the franchise of urban Americans. Ever since Buckley v. Valeo, which equated money with speech, and especially since Citizens United, which essentially held that corporations are people, money spent by special interests has overwhelmed the votes and opinions of average citizens.

The most pernicious erosion of “one person, one vote” however, has come as a consequence of gerrymandering, or partisan redistricting. There are no “good guys” in this story—gerrymandering is a crime of opportunity, and both political parties are guilty.

Those of you in this room know the drill; after each census, state governments redraw state and federal district lines to reflect population changes. The party in control of the state legislature at the time controls the redistricting process, and they draw districts that maximize their own electoral prospects and minimize those of the opposing party. Partisan redistricting goes all the way back to Elbridge Gerry, who gave Gerrymandering its name—and he signed the Declaration of Independence—but the process became far more sophisticated and precise with the advent of computers, leading to a situation which has been aptly described as legislators choosing their voters, rather than the other way around.

Academic researchers and political reformers alike blame gerrymandering for electoral non-competitiveness and political polarization. A 2008 book co-authored by Republican Norman Orenstein and Democrat Thomas Mann argued that the decline in competition fostered by gerrymandering has entrenched partisan behavior and diminished incentives for compromise and bipartisanship.

Mann and Orenstein have written extensively about redistricting, and about “packing” (creating districts with supermajorities of the opposing party) “cracking” (distributing members of the opposing party among several districts to ensure that they don’t have a majority in any of them) and “tacking” (expanding the boundaries of a district to include a desirable group from a neighboring district). They have tied redistricting to the advantages of incumbency, and they have also pointed out that the reliance by House candidates upon maps drawn by state-level politicians has reinforced what they call “partisan rigidity”– the increasing nationalization of the political parties.

Interestingly, one study they cited investigated whether representatives elected from districts drawn by independent commissions become less partisan. Contrary to their initial expectations, the researchers found that politically independent redistricting did reduce partisanship, and in statistically significant ways, even when the same party retained control.

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of gerrymandering is the proliferation of safe seats. Safe districts breed voter apathy and reduce political participation. After all, why should citizens get involved if the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? (For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner?) What is the incentive to volunteer or vote when it obviously won’t matter? It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation, either: it becomes increasingly difficult for the “sure loser” party to recruit credible candidates. As a result, in many of these races, voters are left with no genuine or meaningful choice.  Ironically, the anemic voter turnout that gerrymandering produces leads to handwringing about citizen apathy, usually characterized as a civic or moral deficiency. But voter apathy may instead be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. People save their efforts for places where those efforts count, and thanks to the increasing lack of competitiveness in our electoral system, those places often do not include the voting booth.

If the ability to participate meaningfully in self-governance is a human right, partisan game-playing that makes elections meaningless should be seen as an assault on human rights. And increasingly, it is.

Safe districts do more than disenfranchise voters; they are the single greatest driver of governmental dysfunction. In safe districts, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that almost always means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. So Republican incumbents will be challenged from the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left. Even where those challenges fail, they create a powerful incentive for incumbents to “toe the line”— to placate the most rigid elements of their respective parties. Instead of the system working as intended, with both parties nominating candidates they think will be most likely to appeal to the broader constituency, the system produces nominees who represent the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide.

The consequence of this ever-more-precise state-level and Congressional district gerrymandering has been a growing philosophical gap between the parties, each with an empowered, rigidly ideological base intent on punishing any deviation from orthodoxy and/or any hint of compromise.

A study done by researchers at the University of Chicago concluded that Indiana is the fifth most gerrymandered state in the country. We had a chance to change that system in the just-concluded legislative session; Representative Jerry Torr, a good government Republican, introduced a measure that was co-sponsored by Brian Bosma, the Republican Speaker of the House. Thanks to efforts by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, the public came out in droves from all over Indiana in a massive show of support for the bill; however, the chair of the Elections Committee, Milo Smith, refused to allow his committee even to vote on it, and killed it.

In the United States, we tend to think of Human Rights in terms of legal rights: equality before the law, an equal right to participate in democratic governance and to have our preferences count at the ballot box. But most of us recognize the existence of non-legal challenges to full realization of equal human rights. Poverty is one; a citizen working two or three jobs just to put food on the table doesn’t have much time for civic engagement, and in Indiana, that’s a lot of people.

In 2014, the United Ways of Indiana took a hard look at “Alice.” Alice is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed; it applies to households with income above the federal poverty level, but below the actual, basic cost of living. The report was eye-opening.

  • More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working 40 or more hours a week.
  • In Indiana, 37% of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14% below the poverty level and another 23% above poverty but below the cost of living.
  • These families and individuals have jobs, and most do not qualify for social services or support.
  • The jobs they are filling are critically important to Hoosier communities. These are our child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.

ALICE families don’t have time or energy for civic participation or political engagement through which to exercise their human and civil rights. Human Rights Commissions lack the jurisdiction to address ALICE inequities, but we all need to recognize that people preoccupied by a daily struggle for subsistence are unable to participate fully in the formation and conduct of civic society.

How can our civic institutions—including local Human Rights Commissions– help guarantee citizens’ human rights?

Human Rights Commissions can act when employers or owners of public accommodations violate local ordinances. Indiana also has a civil rights law, although it currently omits protection against discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity, and the federal government has several agencies charged with enforcement of civil rights—although recent statements from Administration officials have called their commitment to doing so into question. Local to federal, these agencies are important, and the work they do is critical to social stability and fundamental fairness.

Critical as they are, there are rights violations these agencies cannot address or solve. Reversing the erosion of America’s democratic norms, turning back the assault on equal access to the ballot box, and fixing the gerrymandering that makes too many votes meaningless will require political action and persistent civic engagement by an informed, civically-literate citizenry. We all have a stake in improving civic knowledge and encouraging informed participation, because safeguarding human rights ultimately depends upon the existence of a civically-informed electorate.

It won’t be easy, but We the People can do this.

 

 

Activism Engine is Live!

I don’t usually clog your inboxes with “extra” posts, but I’m making an exception.

As many of you recall, I posted a few weeks ago about a tool my son was creating to make activism simpler. He is a web developer, and his goal was to help people who wanted to make a difference but were neither “tech savvy” nor previously politically involved.

If you missed those posts, they are here and here.

Just to remind you, on the site you can search for issues of concern at either the state or national level, in one of three ways: you can look for pending legislation, you can see what sorts of direct actions–meetings, rallies, petitions, marches, etc.–are upcoming, and you can find a list of organizations working on those issues. You can then take action on items–you can call your lawmakers, you can send emails, join or contribute to an organization, attend events…the list goes on.

And you can track all of your activity and impact on a myActivism dashboard.

What is really cool is that you can call up a current list of every elected official who represents you– from the President on down to City Councillor– with clickable phone numbers and email links to directly contact them.

And it’s all really intuitive and SIMPLE to use. Visit and see!

For the next couple of weeks, my son will be “beta testing” the site in Indiana–people who have signed up (nearly 300 so far) will use the site and let him know if they encounter bugs or problems. When he’s confident the site is working as intended, it will be rolled out nationally.

If we are going to resist what I am beginning to call the “Trump coup,” we need involvement by every good citizen who is disheartened and/or terrified by what is happening in and to our country. This tool makes that involvement much simpler and easier.

I hope you will use it, and share it widely! And if you are politically or civically engaged, I hope you will sign up to provide information about pending bills and actions. Without that “on the ground” information, the site won’t do what it is designed to do.

Activism Engine is live!

 

 

Peter the Citizen and “Less Appealing” Indiana

On Wednesday, I shared portions of an analysis of TANF–welfare after “reform”–from Peter the Citizen, a conservative policy analyst who has deep experience with social welfare policies.

Among the many papers he has written on the subject is one I found particularly interesting, because it references poverty and welfare policy in my home state of Indiana–and because Peter’s analysis is consistent with my own understanding of conditions in the Hoosier state.

In this particular paper, Peter was responding to an article attributing the “success” of welfare reform to the fact that such reforms have made welfare “less appealing.” (I suspect that many recipients would be shocked to discover they were accepting help because they found it “appealing.”) His rejoinder is worth reproducing at some length.

TANF is best viewed on a state-by- state basis and digging deeper suggests that there are limits to Winship’s argument about making welfare “less appealing.” Some states have tried to focus on real “welfare reform” (to the extent they can given the limitations of TANF’s block grant structure and dysfunctional federal requirements), while others use it primarily as a slush fund and have adopted very harsh policies to push families off the welfare rolls. Using a simplistic pre-post approach, one can easily compare states over time based on the harshness of their policies. (Note: This is not the evaluation approach I prefer, but it seems to resonate with conservatives.)

Robert Doar, now at the American Enterprise Institute, says he ran a “model” TANF program in New York – both at the state level and in New York City. (Doar’s bio states: “Before joining the Bloomberg administration, he was commissioner of social services for the state of New York, where he helped to make the state a model for the implementation of welfare reform.”) Doar is proud of New York City’s track record in reducing poverty:

In America’s biggest cities, more and more Americans are now living in poverty. From 2000 to 2013, the poverty rate in America’s 20 largest cities grew by 36 percent, to an average of 22.7 percent. Nationally, the poverty rate has risen too, from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 14.8 percent in 2014.

But there’s one stand-out exception to this phenomenon: New York City.

Over the last decade, New York City’s poverty rate has defied national trends by declining. While New York once suffered one of the highest poverty rates among the country’s large cities, today it boasts one of the lowest…

Indeed, Doar presents data to show that between 2000 and 2013, the percent change in poverty in New York City was minus 0.9 percent – the lowest in the nation among major cities, followed by Los Angeles and San Diego (plus 3.6 and plus 7.5 percent, respectively). At the opposite end of the spectrum, with the largest increases, were Indianapolis (81.5 percent), Charlotte (67 percent), and Detroit (57.9 percent).

Notably, both New York and California (the states with the top three cities) have much more appealing TANF programs than Indiana, North Carolina, and Michigan (the states with the bottom three cities) and they have become relatively more appealing over time. New York and California didn’t eliminate the entitlement (an important component of “welfare reform” for conservatives), they don’t impose full family sanctions or enforce the federal 5-year time limit (California removes the adult’s needs after 48 months but children continue to receive benefits; New York simply continues assistance with state funds.) Both states have among the most generous benefits, paying over $700 a month for a family of three. In contrast, the states with the cities in the bottom three have lower benefits ($272 to $492 a month for a family of three), do impose full-family sanctions and do enforce the federal 5-year limit and two have shorter time limits (24 months in Indiana – for adults – and 48 months in Michigan – for the entire family).

While Indiana, North Carolina and Michigan were “less appealing” in 1996 (and 2000) than both California and New York, they have become much, much less appealing over time. For example, between 1996 and 2014, the TANF-to-poverty ratio (the ratio of families receiving cash assistance per 100 poor families with children) fell from 101 to 65 in California and from 79 to 40 in New York. The declines were much larger in Indiana (61 to 8), North Carolina (74 to 8), and Michigan (88 to 18).15 The maximum benefit for a family of three fell 23 percent in real terms in California and 10 percent in New York; compare that to Indiana (-34 percent), North Carolina (-34 percent), and Michigan (-30 percent). TANF is failing as a safety net everywhere, but much more so in some states than others.

I’ve written before about the United Way of Indiana’s description of ALICE families (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and the huge gap between what those families need simply in order to survive and the public and private resources available to them.

There’s a lot of faux concern about “welfare dependency” expressed by people who are quite comfortable themselves. What those people worry about is “takers” getting too comfortable with those appealing “handouts”.

Peter the Citizen uses the term properly, to describe people who depend upon social welfare programs in order to survive.

There are many things policymakers could do to decrease that real-world dependency: raise the minimum wage, reinstitute Reagan-era tax brackets, eliminate the ACA in favor of “Medicare for All”…and jettison a self-satisfied ideology that equates poverty with a lack of moral fiber and “middle-class values.”

 

 

Why We Don’t Negotiate with Terrorists

The principle that government does not negotiate with terrorists is a longstanding American policy, endorsed (to date, at least) by foreign policy experts of both parties. The reasons are–or should be–obvious: when you reward an activity, you encourage it.

If kidnapping our diplomats or other citizens proves profitable, more kidnappings will occur.

Of course, if you are the spouse or loved one of the person being held hostage, you are likely to have a somewhat different perspective. Which brings me to the recent announcement–made with much fanfare–about Carrier Corporation’s decision to keep a thousand of its employees in Indiana, rather than moving their jobs to Mexico. Affected employees are undoubtedly (and understandably) euphoric.

Details thus far have been sketchy, but it appears that Indiana will provide financial “incentives” to keep the company here for the next few years. Since federal government contracts currently generate $6 billion dollars annually for Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies, it is likely that promises about that contracting relationship sweetened the deal.( A spokesperson for Trump hinted that the government might relax regulations United Technologies found “onerous.”)

As one economist tweeted, “Every savvy CEO will now threaten to ship jobs to Mexico, and demand a payment to stay. Great economic policy.”

Trump’s Carrier “accomplishment” is Exhibit A in what would likely be a long list of “teachable moments” if Trump were teachable. The lesson is: deals that make perfect sense in the private business sector can be invitations to disaster in the public sector.

I learned that lesson when I served as Indianapolis’ Corporation Counsel. Cities get sued with some regularity; a car goes in a ditch and the driver blames the design of the road; a building inspector tags a property and the owner disputes the violation; a homeowner objects to a sewer assessment, or a rezoning..the list is endless.

In the business world, it often makes fiscal sense to settle a suspicious “slip and fall” case, for example–especially when the amount at issue is much less than the cost of litigating the matter. If a City did that–if it “bought off” relatively small claims–it would be tantamount to hanging a sign out that said “Come sue us–we’re patsies.” Plaintiffs and their lawyers know that, unlike many private defendants, government entities have money; if all they had to do was file a lawsuit, if they didn’t have to risk going to trial, it would be open season.

So–unless the City was clearly in the wrong– we litigated them all, large or small.

Thanks to Americans’ ignorance of the significant differences between the public and private sectors, there’s a widespread and profoundly naive belief that anyone can “do” government, that public sector experience and/or specialized skills are unnecessary.

I wonder how many terrorists Trump and his cabinet of inexperienced newcomers will negotiate with–and what it will cost us taxpayers– before they figure it out…