Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Minnesota’s Broken Transportation Funding System

Note:  This blog appeared as my regular column in the December 22, 2014 edition of the Capitol report (Politics in Minnesota).

    Not only is Minnesota’s infrastructure in badly need of repair but so is the system set up to pay for it.    But it is not just Minnesota; the entire process for how America pays for roads, bridges, and other forms of infrastructure is vastly outdated, reflecting a carbon-intensive consumptive model of the world.  For that reason, whatever the Minnesota legislature likely does this session when it comes to infrastructure and transportation funding, it will be outmoded from the start.
    The 2015 legislative session is one that Governor Dayton declares is supposed to be about infrastructure and  transportation funding.  Everyone thinks this means road, bridges, highways, and perhaps mass transportation.  But infrastructure is more expansive than that.  It should also include water and sewer lines, aging runways for airports, and even broadband internet access.  All of these are just as important and decrepit as the roads we drive on.  Proof of the need lies not just in conjecture but studies by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
    Every three years the ASCE releases a report card on America’s infrastructure.  The 2013 report card graded the United States a D+, noting a needed investment of $3.6 trillion by 2020 to repair the existing infrastructure.  This does not include new construction but simply maintenance.  The maintenance includes not just roads, bridges, and sewers, but also investments in parks, hazardous waste treatment, dams, the energy grids,  rail lines, and the many nuclear power plants that should have already been decommissioned but whose life is being pushed to dangerous levels.  We have been living off  of our parents and grandparents investments for too long and it is time for us to pay our fair share.
    Minnesota does not escape from the infrastructure deficit.  There are 1,500 bridges, 10% of the total, which are structurally deficient or obsolete. The state has 14,500 miles of roads of which 11% are in poor condition.  The parks need $375 million in investment, and $7.4 and $4.1 billion respectively are required to upgrade drinking and wastewater facilities respectively.  Overall, the estimate is that the poor quality of the roads, and bridges alone cost drivers annually  in Minnesota an extra $1.2 billion.
    So what should we do?  Ignoring the needs is not an answer.  This is what the Ventura and to a larger extent the Pawlenty administration did.  A second option touted by the Republicans is that bridges and roads can be fixed without new revenue–we just need to readjust current priorities.  That option too is like believing in the tooth fairy.  The $1 billion dollar budget surplus, even if real, is not enough to pay for much.  Cutting spending from some other area begs the question–where?  The state has only just paid back K-12 and it still could use more money, especially to fix aging schools.  From high education?  Go talk to college students and parents about tuition.  From health and human services?  Go talk to our grandmothers in nursing homes or sick poor people sitting in emergency rooms.  Saying that you plan to shift priorities essentially means you are forcing a choice between roads or early childhood education. Both are important.  Finally the debate at the capitol  will also center around roads, bridges, and mass transportation, mostly ignoring the other infrastructure needs in the state. 
    Had the Republicans not taken control of the Minnesota House, Dayton and the Democrats  would have probably proposed raising the gas tax again.  That option is still on the table.  At best  this idea is a short term quick fix, but it is not viable any longer as a solution.  Nationally, the Federal Highway Transportation Fund is the main way to pay for roads and bridges.  It is based on a gas tax similar to what Minnesota has.  But the federal trust fund is insolvent or at least unable to generate the money needed.  Why?  Several reasons.  First the fund is a tax based on the number of gallons of gas people drive.  As cars have become more fuel efficient fewer gallons of gas are sold.  Second, people are actually driving fewer miles; this is especially true with Millennials who are less likely to own cars or who are increasingly living in the city and not commuting from the suburbs.  Finally, development of alternative fuel vehicles and mass transportation options are reducing  use of gas.  Overall, carbon taxes to pay for one aspect of our infrastructure needs is an aging funding  formula that no longer works.
    The worldwide collapse of oil prices is a mixed blessing.  Great for consumers on the one hand, but on the other it makes it difficult to investment in new energy technologies.  Short term the lower prices mean that the Bakken oil fields will become economically inefficient and cut production, or that some consumers will buy bigger cars and drive more, therefore using more gas.  All this is short term and does nothing to address the longer term trends impacting transportation funding. 
    More creative solutions are needed.  Economists have suggested taxes on miles driven, or  a variable tax that adjusts with the price of gas.  Others have even suggested more toll roads.  One could also scrap the fuel tax entirely and shift it to income or other consumption fees.  These are possibilities for Minnesota, although some such as toll roads are hugely unpopular and probably regressive.   Nationally, eliminating the tax breaks for carbon-based companies and putting at least part of that money into infrastructure is an option.  Still others have talked of privatization, but the track record with this option too is mixed.
    This column may not be able to offer the right answer, but it can say that simply doing what Minnesota has done for the last 30 or more years is the wrong solution.  Now is the time to revisit from scratch the entire funding system for all of Minnesota’s infrastructure needs and not just for roads and bridges.  New sources of investment are needed and they must reflect the changes in how people consume resources.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Tinker, Tailor, President, Spy: American Politics at the End of 2014

The November 2014 elections already seem ancient history.  Yet in barely seven weeks a host of major events have transpired, raising interesting questions about Barack Obama and the future of American politics, both short and long term.  Let’s review some of them and see what they potentially mean.

The End of the Cold War...Finally?
 The Cold War is over. Long live the Cold War!  These are the sentiments best captured by two events this past week–Obama moves to normalize relations with Cuba and the president threatens action against North Korea for hacking SONY.  Both events

Cuba and North Korea are perhaps the two last iconic symbols of the Cold War.  They conjure up images of the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis, and a divided peninsula and war that would never end.  The two countries were supposedly the last two communist countries standing, and they both were surrogate grounds for the conflict between the US and USSR.  But at least in the case of Cuba and  Castro, it also represented a host of other rumors and conspiracies about the assassination of JFK, the FBI, CIA, and spying.

We embargoed Cuba for 50 years with no avail. No real good came of it and in fact one could argue that the embargo and US politics toward Cuba did more to hurt America’s relations with South America than help it.  It also meant that we had little leverage with Cuba when the inevitable day came when the Castros were no long around.  Obama’s move was smart–it represented or reflected the new realities of the world.  The generation that wanted to maintain the embargo is largely dead or gone (keep that in mind Senator Rubio) and Cuba is no longer a front line for the Cold War.

North Korea is different.  It is no longer the surrogate struggle between the US and USSR.  It represents a new type of battle–cyber-terrorism.  There is an old adage that says the most countries  are militarily prepared to fight the last war. The same is true with the US.  We still think of war and terrorism as the use of bombs and bullets or of physical invasion of one country by another with troops, planes, or even drones.  Think of terrorism and we think of 9/11.  But that is old thinking according to Richard Clarke who in Cyber War points out how vulnerable the US is to cyber terrorism and also how badly prepared we are to fight it.

The US may be one of the most wired and computer connected societies in the world.  Such sophistication means there is a lot to hack–anywhere from official government defense sites to power plants, trains, planes, financial institutions, and private companies such as SONY.   Clarke argues we are hackable, that are defenses are poor, and that the US is overall ill-prepared to fight back.  The terrorism is what happened to SONY and that it what the future 9/11s will look like.

Obama has vowed action against North Korea but options are limited.  Very little of Korea is computerized so points of vulnerability are fewer.  We have little trade with that country and few think that the president is prepared to deploy old-fashioned arms against it.  For now there is a standoff.

This is the new Cold War.  But this is not the only part of it.  The new Cold War is the on-going battle against ISIS.  And the new Cold War is how the Ukraine has become a symbol for what looks like a lingering or rekindling of the old Cold War between Russia and the United States.

The Lost Soul of American Politics
The on-going stories of race and policing in America and the Senate CIA torture report together raise troubling images about America, especially when one considers the reactions to both.  They paint a partisan and racially divided picture about the use of force against citizens and non-citizens around the world.   Collectively, they also question the moral legitimacy of the US.

One of the defining characteristics of America–or at least Americans like to believe–is that we are different and that we embody a set of moral principles that distinguish us from the rest of the world.  This exceptionalism–America as the shining city on the hill-gave us moral authority over the rest of the world.  Yet police violence and torture of prisoners destroy any credence in that exceptionalism.

There is also something wrong with the law that sanctions repeated police use of excessive force. I used to teach a class on police criminal and civil liability under state and federal law, including what is called §1983 violations. It is not easy to win these claims. The law and the public favor the police. Maybe once that was appropriate, but knowing that we have scores if not hundreds of police shooting Michael Browns per year leads one to question whether the law has tipped too far in favor of the former.  Conversely, I remember once doing a WCCO radio show years ago when news of torture fist hit the news.  I explained the Geneva Accords on treatment of prisoners and then took calls.  Repeatedly military vets called in to condemn torture declaring that they learned that if we tortured they (the enemy) would do the same to us or that we would be no better than them.  No surprise that John McCain was one of the few Republicans to condemn the CIA.

My point here is that the Senate report itself was not a surprise.  We have long since known that torture does not yield good information.  Nor should we have been surprised that the torture existed.  We have known that for years.  The real surprise is how some such as Dick Cheney seem completely morally tone-deaf and, to a large extent, how Barack Obama seemed to distance himself from the report.

A New Obama Presidency?
For a president who was supposedly rendered irrelevant by the 2014 elections, Obama is perhaps finally showing that there is still life to his presidency.  Yes he blew it on the Senate torture report, and ISIS, and on Syria.  But increasingly his moves on immigration and Cuba look bold.  While too much of his first six years has been marked by timidly, there is a glimmer of hope for progressives that his final two years will not be marked by constant capitulation to the Republicans.

However, there are still nagging doubts about his presidency for many on the left.  What will he give away to protect Obamacare or make it look like he is a compromiser?  The mistake the progressive  made in 2008 was to think he was progressive.  He was compared to George Bush but not compared to many other Democrats.  Obamacare was a Republican idea he embraced.  Obama was or became  a Wall Street candidate who took more money from the too big to fails than any other candidate in history.   Obama has done more to kill off campaign finance reform and limit in politics than any candidate in history.  Yes he protested Citizens United but he has raised more money than any other presidential candidate in history.  He was the first to opt out of the presidential voluntary public financing system, and he just signed a bill dramatically raising contribution limits to political parties.  His tenure a president will be footnoted as the one where money took over politics.

Start Your Engines
The Iowa straw poll is eight months away and the Iowa caucuses are barely 12 months out.  The 2016 presidential race is upon us.  All speculation is on Clinton v Bush, but not so fast.  But are running with a sense of inevitability but both are candidates with tired old names who may no longer  represent where the parties are.  At this point it is equally probable that either or both of them get their party’s nomination, but it is equally probable they do not.  Clinton has a better chance given a weak Democratic field, but a serious challenge from the left (almost anyone for the Democrats will be from the left) could change the equation for her.  For Bush, there are many other potential rivals such as Rand Paul who excite the base more than him.  Finally, both Clinton and Bush have many liabilities that could be exploited.  Long records in office give opponents lots to attack.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

What We have Learned from Michael Brown and Eric Garner

Something is wrong with the law if those entrusted to enforce it repeatedly violate it.  This is the troubling story of  race and Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and police brutality in Cleveland, Ohio.  But these three examples raise even more profound stories about the role of the law in a democratic society regarding whose legal norms are enforced and how.  It is the story of legal legitimacy.
    W.E.B. DuBois' 1903 The Soul of Black Folk declared "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line."  Forty years later sociologist Gunnar Myrdal's 1944 The American Dilemma echoed that theme, contending that African-Americans were largely excluded from the promise of American democracy because of Jim Crow and racial segregation.  Rosa Parks sitting at the front of the bus, the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s  march on Washington, and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s supposedly ended this exclusion, with the 2008 election of Barack Obama proving we had entered a post-racial world.  Race, especially as it intersects with class, remains as salient and divisive  an issue as ever.  Surveys point to very different reactions among Whites and people of color when it comes to judging Ferguson and police behavior in general.
    But it is not just about race. Talk to feminists and women’s activists who contend that the law embodies a male perspective.  From issues of rape, sexual harassment, pregnancy,  disability, and job discrimination, to the persistence of women making 77¢ on the dollar compared to men, the law continues to treat the two sexes differently.  Or consider class.  One need not recount the plethora of evidence demonstrating the gap in wealth and income between the rich and poor in the United States is at record levels for the last century.  The law favors the affluent anywhere from their ability to hire good lawyers or to make excessive political contributions.  Not too many rich people get the death penalty or see prison time for their crimes. The current Supreme Court seems hellbent on turning corporations into full-fledged citizens and it is blind or deaf to the plight of the poor.  The law equally appears to allow the rich and poor to sleep  under the bridge.
    There is also something wrong with the law that sanctions repeated police use of excessive  force.  I used to teach a class on police criminal and civil liability under state and federal law, including what is called §1983 violations.  The course practically taught itself with examples of police behaving badly–including in Minneapolis alone.  It is not easy to win §1983 claims.  The law and the public  favor the police.  Maybe once that was appropriate, but knowing that we have scores if not hundreds of police shooting Michael Browns per year leads one to question whether the law has tipped too far in favor of the former.
    What all of these stories have in common is that many do not view the law as legitimate.    In a democratic society such as the United States legal values should be widely shared, equitably enforced, and obeyed by all, including by those who enforce the law.  What we have learned Michael Brown and Eric Garner is that the reality is far from what we would hope.