Tag Archives: Kansas

What We Don’t Know Is Hurting Us

There’s an old saying to the effect that it isn’t what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know that isn’t so.

Misinformation, in other words, is more damaging than ignorance.

I agree–with a crucial caveat. The adage is only true when we are aware of our ignorance–when we recognize what information or skill we lack. As research continues to demonstrate, however, there’s a high correlation between ignorance of a particular subject-matter and ignorance of our own ignorance. (It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

That’s why lawmakers’ allergy to data and preference for evidence-free policy pronouncements are so maddening.

A while back, I read a column making the point that data is inevitably political. The government collects data in order to inform policy decisions, because in order to address issues, it is essential to understand the facts involved, to have a handle on what we academic types like to call “reality.”

The column that I read (and no longer remember where, or I’d link to it) considered the consequences of the Reagan Administration’s decision to stop collecting data on corporate market share. Without that information, policymakers have no idea how large the largest corporations have become. They lack evidence on the degree to which companies like Amazon, Walmart, et al can dominate a segment of the economy and effectively set the rules for that segment. It’s likely that this lack of data is a significant factor accounting for diminished anti-trust enforcement.

The problem goes well beyond economic data. For a considerable length of time, the United States has been mired in one of the nation’s periodic and damaging anti-intellectual periods, characterized by scorn for expertise and empirical evidence.  (Another troubling manifestation of that scorn is the reported evisceration of Congressional staff–the panels of employees with specialized knowledge that advise Congressional committees and individual Representatives on complicated and technical issues.)

Instead of evidence-based policy, we get faith-based lawmaking. Ideology trumps reality. (And yes, I meant that double entendre…)

Last year’s tax “reform” is a perfect example. It was patterned after Sam Brownback’s experiment in Kansas–an experiment that spectacularly crashed and burned. As NPR reported

In 2012, the Republican governor pushed reforms through the state Legislature that dramatically cut income taxes across the board. Brownback boasted the plan would deliver a “shot of adrenaline” to the Kansas economy.

But the opposite happened.

Revenues shrank, and the economy grew more slowly than in neighboring states and the country as a whole. Kansas’ bond rating plummeted, and the state cut funding to education and infrastructure.

You might think that Kansas’ experience would inform a similar effort at the federal level, that it would at least be taken into account even if it wasn’t considered dispositive, but clearly that didn’t happen.

It’s that same dismissive attitude about “facts” and “evidence” and “data”–not to mention science–that is the largest single impediment to serious efforts to slow the rate of climate change.

Some lawmakers who deny climate change ground their beliefs in religious literalism (making them ‘literally” faith-based), but most do so on the basis of the same free-market ideology that led them to dismiss results in Kansas, and oppose even the most reasonable regulations. (There’s a highly convenient aspect to that ideology, since it keeps campaign contributions flowing…but it would be a mistake to think everyone who subscribes to it does so only as a quid pro quo.)

If the country doesn’t emerge from this “Don’t bother me with the facts” era, we’re in for a world of hurt.

And speaking of literalism, the whole world will hurt.

 

 

Those State “Laboratories”

Ah, federalism.

Life in the 21st Century challenges our federalist system in a number of ways; it gets more and more difficult to decide–at least at the margins–what sorts of rules should be applied to the country as a whole, and what left to the individual states.

However those issues get resolved, however, our federalist system pretty much guarantees that state governments will continue to be the “laboratories of democracy” celebrated by Justice Brandeis, who coined the phrase in the case of New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann.  Brandeis explained that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

Most recently, state governments have been “laboratories” for the GOP’s belief that low taxes are all that is needed to stimulate economic growth.

As David Leonhardt of the New York Times recently noted,

Until recently, Kansas offered the clearest cautionary tale about deep tax cuts. The state’s then-governor, Sam Brownback, promised that the tax cuts he signed in 2012 and 2013 would lead to an economic boom. They didn’t, and Kansas instead had to cut popular programs like education.

Now Kansas seems to have a rival for the title of the state that’s caused the most self-inflicted damage through tax cuts: Louisiana.

Those who follow economic news have been aware of the painful results of the  Kansas experiment for some time. Evidently, however, the news of its dire results and the subsequent, ignominious retreat by the Kansas legislature failed to reach Louisiana–and that state’s legislators appear unable to deal with the reality of their own failed experiment.

“No two ways about it: Louisiana is a failed state,” Robert Mann, a Louisiana State University professor and New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist, wrote recently.

A special session of the State Legislature, called specifically to deal with a budget crisis caused by a lack of tax revenue, failed to do so, and legislators adjourned on Monday. No one is sure what will happen next. If legislators can’t agree on tax increases, cuts to education and medical care will likely follow.

Leonhardt places the blame for this state of affairs on Bobby Jindal, who came to the Governor’s office having drunk deeply of his party’s ideological Kool-Aid:

Louisiana’s former governor, Bobby Jindal, deserves much of the blame. A Republican wunderkind when elected at age 36 in 2008, he cut income taxes and roughly doubled the size of corporate tax breaks. By the end of his two terms, businesses were able to use those breaks to avoid paying about 80 percent of the taxes they would have owed under the official corporate rate.

At first, Jindal spun a tale about how the tax cuts would lead to an economic boom — but they didn’t, just as they didn’t in Kansas. Instead, Louisiana’s state revenue plunged. The tax cuts helped the rich become richer and left the state’s middle class and poor residents with struggling schools, hospitals and other services.

Unfortunately, these “laboratories” aren’t working the way Justice Brandeis envisioned, because Republican representatives elected by the rest of the country refuse to learn from their failures. Ideology has once again trumped evidence– the tax bill passed by Congress and signed by Trump is patterned after those in Kansas and Louisiana.

The rich will get richer, and the poor and middle-class will pay the price. And those who refused to learn from the experiences of our “laboratories of democracy” will profess astonishment.

When Evidence Doesn’t Matter

A friend who lives in Wisconsin recently shared an article from the Madison newspaper, detailing the declining rank of the University of Wisconsin in the wake of Scott Walker’s savage cuts to that institution.

Now-retired UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley would often say that it took well over 100 years for the people of Wisconsin to build a world-class university, but it won’t take but a few years to tear it all down.

We saw the first signs of how true Wiley’s observation is when late last week the National Science Foundation reported that the UW-Madison has fallen from the ranks of the top five research universities in the country, a position it had maintained for the past 40 years.

The news underscored how the university is being impacted by the draconian policies of the current crop of Republicans who are running state government. .The governor and several key legislators have consistently insisted that UW faculty are overpaid and coddled. Walker chided that budget cuts could be weathered if only professors taught one more course. Other legislators would go so far as threatening more budget cuts when they would hear of a class they didn’t like.

Not surprisingly, a number of professors have left for greener pastures, and have taken their research grants with them, exacerbating the University’s fiscal woes.

As the article points out, Walker’s dogged insistence that cutting taxes and spending are the cure for anything that ails state government isn’t just affecting the university.

Wisconsin’s once-proud K-12 public education system is being forced to go begging to property taxpayers with referendums just to keep school districts’ heads above water. The condition of our lakes and streams and even our groundwater has been deteriorating each year and the DNR, charged with protecting it all, is being starved to death under a secretary who won’t fight for it. Our job creation is far below the national average and Wisconsin workers, many no longer protected by unions, earn less.

Wisconsin’s experience isn’t unique. Kansas’ economy continues to decline under the similar ideology and even more draconian policies of Sam Brownback. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, has presided over the abysmal performance of Detroit’s schools, thanks to a radical privatization philosophy she and Trump want to employ nationally. Paul Ryan and other House Republicans have their guns trained on Medicare, ignoring the fact that the program is both popular and cost-effective.

In each of these cases–and many others I could cite–elected officials are pursuing their ideological commitments with a decidedly religious fervor. Reality be damned.

When evidence doesn’t matter and experience doesn’t inform, Dark Ages aren’t far off.

Ah..Those Laboratories of Democracy…

When I introduce students to America’s constitutional architecture, I sometimes begin by asking them to define federalism. Judging from the blank stares and efforts to avoid being called on, I think it’s fair to say that our federalist system is not widely understood.

That’s too bad, because one of the policy debates we should be having–but aren’t–is how such a system should operate in a time when transportation and communication technologies have changed the way we view state lines. What sorts of rules and policies need to be national in scope, and which are best left to state and local government?

However we answer that question, one important role that states will undoubtedly continue to play is in the development of new approaches to governing.

Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to the states as “laboratories of democracy;” the idea was that state governments would try new ideas and programs, acting as “pilot projects,” that would allow the rest of the country to evaluate the merits of those approaches before adopting them.

Inevitably, some will be cautionary tales, and pre-eminent in that category is Kansas or, as Charles Pierce calls it,

the failed state of Kansas, now in the fifth year of the Brownbackian Dark Ages, as such things are reckoned. Somehow, the fact that Kansas’ status as a supply-side lab rat has dropped the state down a political garbage chute the likes of which hasn’t been seen since they shredded the Articles of Confederation is beginning to seep under the guardhouses of the gated communities. The head of a healthcare company is fleeing to the Missouri border and he’s not shy about telling the world why.

The blistering indictment of Brownback’s Kansas by that company’s CEO is illuminating; noting that Kansas has become a test center of “trickle down” economics, he pointed out that those policies have led to a “dramatic failure of government.”

Brownback implemented unprecedented tax cuts in 2012. The largest cuts were in the highest tax brackets, and Brownback promised that they would provide a “shot of adrenaline” for the Kansas economy. They actually had the opposite effect, with Kansas lagging neighboring states in job growth and missing revenue targets in 11 of the past 12 months. In the face of ever-deeper debt and another round of degraded bond ratings, Brownback has asked his citizens to pray and fast to solve the budget crisis.

That should turn things around. Not.

It is tempting to look at the hot mess that is Kansas and feel better about Indiana. And granted, our fiscal problems–while substantial– are less severe. But our Governor has  generated his own cautionary tales.

Take, for just one example, his attack on public education and his fervent support of school vouchers. Indiana now has the largest voucher program in the country–and some of the most consistently under-resourced public schools. The public justification for expanding the voucher program is that allowing parents to choose private schools will improve education, at least as measured by test scores. (Given the percentage of families using those vouchers at religious schools, however, it is likely that the Governor’s preference for church over state– his consistent effort to bolster religious institutions and practices– is implicated.)

So how has Indiana’s “laboratory experiment” been working out? Not so well.

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. And they showed that the results were not explained by the particular tests that were used or the possibility that students receiving vouchers transferred out of above-average public schools.

Perhaps Governor Pence can call for a day of prayer and fasting to raise the test scores of those voucher students. In the meantime, other states can be grateful for a federalist system that lets them learn from–and avoid– others’ disasters.

Lessons from Kansas

Remember the book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” If we ask that question today,  the obvious answer is Sam Brownback (and in all fairness, the Kansans who elected–and inexplicably re-elected– him.)

Brownback took office in January of 2011. Like Indiana’s Mike Pence, Brownback had Republican majorities in both legislative houses, and together they were able to implement what Rolling Stone has called “the Republicans’ wet dream agenda.”

They passed huge tax cuts for the wealthy along with tax cuts on business profits, significantly reduced business regulations, and at the same time cut spending on welfare, rejected federal Medicaid money, and put the delivery of Medicaid services into private hands.

One of Brownback’s advisors was Arthur Laffer—best known for the “Laffer curve”–the theory that reducing tax rates leads to higher tax revenues. Laffer’s theory was the impetus for Reagan’s tax cuts; he has called what Kansas Republicans did “a revolution in a cornfield.” Other advisors included Steve Anderson, from the Koch brother’s Americans for Prosperity.

Whatever Kansas is these days, however, it sure isn’t prosperous.

As New York magazine recently reported in an article characterizing Kansas as a “parallel political universe,” the “revolution in the cornfield” has left the state in a world of hurt.

Marginal gains at the municipal level were dwarfed by the $688 million loss that Brownback’s budget wrought in its first year of operation. Meanwhile, Kansas’s job growth actually trailed that of its neighboring states. With that nearly $700 million deficit, the state had bought itself a 1.1 percent increase in jobs, just below Missouri’s 1.5 percent and Colorado’s 3.3.

Those numbers have hardly improved in the intervening years. In 2015, job growth in Kansas was a mere 0.1 percent, even as the nation’s economy grew 1.9 percent. Brownback pledged to bring 100,000* new jobs to the state in his second term; as of January, he has brought 700. What’s more, personal income growth slowed dramatically since the tax cuts went into effect. Between 2010 and 2012, Kansas saw income growth of 6.1 percent, good for 12th in the nation; from 2013 to 2015, that rate was 3.6 percent, good for 41st.

Meanwhile, revenue shortfalls have devastated the state’s public sector along with its most vulnerable citizens. Since Brownback’s inauguration, 1,414 Kansans with disabilities have been thrown off  Medicaid. In 2015, six school districts in the state were forced to end their years early for lack of funding. Cuts to health and human services are expected to cause 65 preventable deaths this year in Sedgwick County alone. In February, tax receipts came in $53 million below estimates; Brownback immediately cut $17 million from the state’s university system. This data is not lost on the people of Kansas — as of November, Brownback’s approval rating was 26 percent, the lowest of any governor in the United States.

This is what happens when people elect stubborn ideologues unwilling to learn from reality or experience. (Here in Indiana, we’re about to see whether Hoosier voters have learned anything about returning ideologues to office.)

If Brownback had been Governor of Kansas when that storm blew her away, Dorothy probably would have stayed in Oz.