January 29, 2012
The costs of redistricting
By Bill Kraus
Everybody knows what big money is doing to political campaigns, candidates, and politics itself. Most people don’t seem to like it. But five of the big nine on the Supreme Court do, and no one else counts.
Everyone also knows and dislikes the reconfirmation of the McLuhan premise that the medium is the message and that the campaign medium is TV commercials. Quick, simple/simplistic, pervasive. Most people don’t like this either, except, of course, the TV station owners and the producers and purveyors of commercials whose livelihood is dependent on or greatly enhanced by this phenomenon.
There is little or nothing that can be done about the flood of money masquerading as free speech or the popularity and power of TV as a medium.
There is another democracy destroying phenomenon, however, that is working below the radar of public notice that is doing as much or even more to diminish our democracy and the people we elect to run it.
It’s called redistricting. Redistricting determines which voters will get to vote for which candidates.
The rules are that each district will have the same number of voters, racial minorities will be given a chance at representation, the physical districts will be compact, and something called community of interest, which is vaguely defined, will be respected.
Competitiveness, if any, is not a criterion. If it happens, it will be inadvertently.
The hidden criterion is non-competitiveness. Given the high cost of campaigning and the fact that the burden of raising the necessary money needed to compete has fallen on the legislative leaders who have the blue chips in this mostly white chip game, non-competitiveness is more than a criterion. It’s an objective.
When one party controls the legislature and the executive office, that party will create as many safe seats for their candidates as the courts (who are charged with enforcing the aforementioned rules) will allow.
When power is split within the legislature, collusion raises its ugly head. Party leaders scratch each others' backs in pursuit of safe seats for both. This has been most visible at the congressional level in Wisconsin. After the 2000 census, the 1st and 2nd districts, which had been competitive, were rearranged in ways to make one safer for a Democrat and the other for a Republican. After the 2010 census, collusion led to a 3rd district which was more Democratic and the neighboring 7th district which became more friendly for the Republicans.
This is a diverse country, but we do tend to cluster. Ethnically, economically, racially, and politically. This makes reducing the number of districts which are truly competitive possible. In a few areas it is inevitable. But should it be an objective? I don’t think so.
The consequence of conceding or advancing party preferences is that we are elevating the importance of primary elections and making more general elections irrelevant. Fewer people vote in primaries, and those who do vote are usually more partisan and predictable. The less committed, less rabid voters tend to wait till November. This is too late in too many places. The November results are more and more a foregone conclusion in legislative races.
Redistricting in the hands of the incumbents has filled a lot of safe seats with too many unambitious ideologues who are interested less in governing than in staying in office.
This diminishes an honorable trade which attracts superior people into the Congress and legislatures we have come to love to hate.
The route back to putting problems not political advantage on the top of the priority lists of those elected to represent us starts with competitive general elections.
January 22, 2012
The rise of Newt
By Bob Menamin
The Palmetto state, South Carolina, has discovered a vein of gold with Newt Ginrich. South Carolina loves cockfighting as sport and has finally discovered Newt, the biggest rooster of all, who will get down and dirty. The Tea Party GOP has found Newt after its chronic rejection of all its previous candidates. The question is, will it last in the Tea Party's ongoing quest to find the perfect, right-wing corporate candidate? No one seems to have the purity demanded by the party of hate.
Newt is at peace in his cathedral of hatred. The eloquent organmaster is professional at striking the discordant themes of resentment, grievance, anger and hatred as he softly plays the cathedral pipe organ. He plays his audience like a fiddle, using openly hateful statements as well as the more subtle code words of bigotry that warm the cockles of hardened GOP hearts.
Newt has also become the redemption poster boy by admitting that he has sinned again and again, promising a future life of virtue after each transgression. This is music to the ears of the religious rightwing faithful who are in love with redemption stories. How many times can one person go to the redemption well? Howard Fineman has noted that the eloquent wordmeister can "go from Judas to Jesus in one sentence." Newt has achieved the status of a Cardinal (not St. Louis) in the Tea Party GOP Church of Deception. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Newt has risen from the dead again. This resurrection insures that the "GOP reality show" will continue for some time.
January 15, 2012
By Bob Menamin
The tax code desperately needs revision at the state and federal level. Most people have no idea how much money (corporate welfare) is given to the wealthy and corporations through deductions and exemptions at the expense of the middle class. This madness has also created the huge deficit.
The tax code should not be used to implement welfare subsidies for wealthy individuals and powerful corporations. If welfare handouts are to be given to these entities, it should be in a highly transparent and direct fashion with reasonable justification and not through the tax code.
Why should there be a ceiling on social security deductions at 106K? Why should investment income be treated different than earned income? Why should there be a mortgage deduction for those with multiple homes? In fact, maybe that deduction for anyone is questionable. These are a just a few examples, there are many more.
If people were aware of the welfare for the wealthy and powerful corporations, more people would be in the streets. Many policies are driven by the tax code with little awareness about the implications for impact on needed revenue to fund necessary government functions. Ginrich, Perry and Romney have unconsciously set the table for the general election with their back and forth about vulture capitalism.
In addition, how about a transaction tax for Wall Street? Sarkozy, the conservative president from France, supports one.
January 8, 2012
True believers ascendant
By Bill Kraus
I have a lot of trouble with true believers...I have always had a lot of trouble with true believers. The main reason is that they think they can simplify the truly complicated and contentious into a slogan.
This tendency would be correctable if they listened, but they don’t.
The true believers on the right are fundamentally anarchists who think the market and its free enterprise operatives have the solution to all things large and small. Those on the left believe the public sector in general the government in particular is father-knows-best and can solve all things large and small.
Both are wrong.
The recently marginalized occupants of what we call “the middle” are less sure of anything than the true believers are of everything, which may or may not be a virtue, and know that there are no simple solutions to most of the things that confront us as individuals and collectively.
The anarchists pause when it is pointed out that half of most cities’ budgets go for fire and police protection. A full laundry list of vital public functions might weaken their commitment to “the marketplace.” The “we know what’s best for you” socially sensitives twitch when confronted with the long series of failed wars on poverty and other flights of fancy in search of easy solutions to intractable problems.
It seems to me that the free market has to be restrained. It will always go too far.
The guilt-ridden socially conscious will sacrifice initiative and creativity, even personal liberties to create their edenic version of what life on this planet could be if all were indeed created equal.
The maligned moderates in the middle want the benefits offered by a free society. They also realize the less able and less fortunate will always be with us and cannot simply be thrown off the bus.
My kind of Republicans think that the public sector has a legitimate role to play in society but it should not be the lead role. My kind of Democrats know that the government is good at welfare, infrastructure and public education, but will flounder in the high risk, high failure rate markets where society does its business.
They will probably never come fully to terms about what is the best way or even that there is a best way.
There are differences between them that moderates of both persuasions understand are probably irreconcilable. The Republicans I respect are confounded by people who pass up opportunities and unsympathetic to those whose lives are unfulfilled because they did pass them up. The Democrats I respect think it’s their fault that people pass up opportunities, that some people need more help, easier routes to a good--okay, acceptable--life.
A longtime friend of mine who served honorably in the highest reaches of our federal government gave a graduation speech years ago where he did not offer solutions to the problems in the world they were entering. Instead he told his audience that life is coping and groping. He was right. He still is right.
It is unlikely that any true believer on the right or the left agrees.
January 2, 2012
Three wishes (and some other stuff)
By Bill Kraus
Resolutions are unlimited, nice, personal, breakable. Wishes are bigger, better, limited (like a political agenda; no more than three) and are so hard to achieve that breakability is superfluous.
When I asked for nominations, I excluded personalities. Recall Walker or Re-elect Obama and the like were edited out.
The three that survived are headed by, no surprise here, a wish that someone, anyone running for public office would talk about the fact that our representative government is at risk, endangered. Everyone I talk to loves the reform agenda: less gerrymandering, shorter election cycles, an even playing field, less spending. Unfortunately, nobody loves the agenda passionately. A “Save Representative Government” rally would not draw flies.
It does, nonetheless, need saving. It has plenty of enemies. The U.S. Supreme Court among them. The money drive election process is wretchedly unbalanced. Candidates must follow strict rules on how much money they can collect and from whom and must report in great detail the sources of that money. Candidates are routinely outspent by outside organizations that do not have to reveal the sources of their money and are spared the candidates’ burden of declaring who they are or that they approve the message being delivered.
Under the rules of the free speech free market Supreme Court, the most that can be done to level the playing field is to make those outside organizations reveal where they get their money and do a candidate-style declaration as well.
Nobody is talking about that.
The other threat to representative government is self-serving districting of legislative seats to make as many of them safe for one party or the other. This is done to save money, of course, and to perpetuate incumbents as well. The deleterious outcome diminishes general elections and makes primary elections the main battlefield for individual candidates. Party outcomes are predetermined.
Nobody is talking about that either.
Wish number two is widespread adoption of the Ed Koch (former mayor of New York City) rule that “If you agree with me on 9 of 12 subjects, you should vote for me. If you agree with me on all 12, you should see a psychiatrist.” Too many voters are reduced to one issue: taxes, debt, guns, gays, privacy, crime, even jobs. Candidates believe that voters’ political consciousness is severely limited. So campaigns tend to simplify to this narrow view of the world where decisions are more black and white, good and evil. As the endangered political system drives choices down to the primary election level where the true believers are disproportionately powerful, candidates are increasingly judged on litmus tests on what I consider marginal issues. Competence to deal with difficult situations and interests where the decisions are more like 51-49 one way or the other is not even graded.
I would like to clutter this blog post with wishes about our crippled public communication system, about the way the fear factor is squeezing individual freedoms, about combatant civility, about the rise of politics as hockey, about the empty talent pipelines for all offices, about a lot of quibbles, but the rule is no more than three wishes.
My third, then, is to stop treating education and educators and the education system as a cookie jar and start living up to the rhetoric that the future of the country is connected to the success of the education system and the educators' ability to deliver preparation commensurate to an increasingly complicated, definitely more cerebral world of work and life.
The industrial revolution made workers into machines. The educators responded to this revolution. The technological revolution is making machines into workers. A very high priority should be preparing people for that world. Putting resources against that monumental task is going to require money, ideas, a redesigned workplace, an inspired education system staffed by inspired educators, even a redesigned society.