Saturday, December 9, 2017

And the winner is: Why Mark Dayton should pick Melisa Franzen to replace Al Franken

Speculation is at a fever pitch regarding who Governor Dayton should select to replace Al Franken as US Senator.  There are many contending interest groups, constituencies, and factors that are being articulated.  But at the end of the day if the goal of Dayton and the Minnesota DFL is to pick someone who can win and hold the set in 2018, then State Senator Melisa Franzen is his best choice.
There is no correct criteria or criterion that should drive or determine Dayton’s choice to replace Franken.  There are many competing factors.  Should it be someone who will be able to win in 2018, or should it be a caretaker, someone not interested in running for fear that if Dayton politicizes the choice it runs the risk of a rerun of the 1978 Minnesota Massacre when Governor Anderson effectively chose himself to replace Senator Mondale who resigned to become vice-president.  That decision 40 years ago led to both US senate races being won by Republicans, as well as the Governor’s race and the loss of the state legislature.  It is unlikely that such a scenario will reoccur, unless the DFL is so self-serving that it backfires.
Others are arguing that given the reasons why Franken is stepping down (allegations of sexual impropriety), the choice has to be a woman.  Others say it is not just a woman, but a woman of color.  Or perhaps it should be someone of color, regardless of gender.  Or maybe it should be someone who can raise the millions of dollars it will require to win.  Or maybe it requires someone who can hit the ground running when taking office so that the person can dive into the complex policies issues he or she will face.  Or maybe it should be someone who represents the future of the DFL in the state, or someone who will satisfy other state political criteria.
Conversely, there are some in Washington, D.C., who are pressing perhaps for other national factors to be considered.  Listening to Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee would be a mistake.  For Speaker of the US House Tip O’Neill once said: “All politics is local.”  Never forget that.  The Democrats nationally and the DFL in Minnesota err in going with cookie-cutter approaches to politics and that is why they lose.  Those in Washington are clueless to what drives Minnesota politics.
I still remember back in 2002 when Wellstone died.  I did a ton of interviews and was asked who the DFL should pick to replace him and I said Judy Dutcher.  She had run for governor and was pushed away with an appeal to seniority and that it was Roger Moe who deserved it.  That worked out well.  However in one interview with the Wall Street Journal a reporter–less than an hour after Wellstone died–told me the Washington consensus was it had to be  Walter Mondale.  That worked out well–picking an aging politician who represented that Minnesota of the past.
So who should Dayton pick?  Assume first that you want someone who can win in 2018.  Second, pick someone who is young and represents the future of the party.  Third, pick someone who  has come from a swing district and proven to be able to raise money and appeal to swing voters.   Fourth, pick someone who is not white, acknowledging that the future of Minnesota is multi-cultural.  Finally, pick someone who is a good speaker, who appeals to suburban women (a critical swing demographic), and who is a smart and quick study.  Put them all together and the choice is State Senator Melisa Franzen. 
I am not endorsing anyone and have no influence in the DFL or with Mark Dayton in terms of who should be selected.  However Senator Franzen is a two-term Minnesota Senator who is from Puerto Rico.  She is young, comes from an affluent swing district in Minnesota, and who meets all the criteria above.  I have been at several forums (such as the Edina League of Women Voters) where both of us were speakers.  She is personable, a terrific speaker, and smart.  In my opinion, she would  be a great selection for Dayton and should be given serious consideration.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Curse: Law and Politics of Senate Vacancies in Minnesota

The Minnesota Senate seat held by Al Franken appears to be cursed.
With his resignation over sexual harassment allegations and Governor Dayton soon to announce his replacement, the seat held by Franken continues its troubled history, both legally and politically.

The 1978 Elections
The stored history of the seat goes back to 1976.  Then Senator Walter Mondale, tapped to be with Jimmy Carters running mate, resigns to become vice-president of the United States.  With the senate seat open, then Governor Wendell Anderson resigns, his Lieutenant Governor Rudy Perpich  becomes governor, and then names the former as senator.  This apparent quid pro quo looked sufficiently bad enough that voters in Minnesota threw out all the major Democrats (Dflers) in the state, replacing them with Republicans in 1978.  Wendell Anderson was replaced with Rudy Boschwitz.  Muriel Humphrey, who replaced her husband Hubert when he died in 1978, was replaced by Republican David Durenberger, and Governor Perpich was defeated by Republican Al Quie.  The DFL also lost control of the state legislature.
Voters were so angry about the way Anderson apparently acted to make himself governor that the law regarding filling of US Senate vacancies was changed, codified now in Minnesota Statutes  §204D.28.  It allows for the governor to appoint to fill a temporary vacancy (Subd. 11.) until a special election can be held at the next regular election in November (Subd. 6) (except in cases where the vacancy occurs close to another election), with the winner then serving out the remainder of the regular term.

1990 Elections
Boschwitz served two terms, losing to Paul Wellstone in 1990.  The 1990 election was odd for several reasons.   There was a gubernatorial election that year pitting incumbent Rudy Perpich (who won back his seat in 1982) against Republican State Auditor Arne Carlson.  Originally the GOP had nominated John Grunseth as their candidate but several weeks before the election stories regarding sexual improprieties against him emerged, and there was pressure for him to quit.  Pressure came from Boscwwitz who offered to pay his expenses to quit.  Such an offer was illegal under state law and when later Grunseth sued in court for a breach of contract the suit was dismissed.  A legal battle then ensued by Democrats over replacing Grunseth with Carlson as the GOP nomination, culminating in a Minnesota Supreme Court decision allowing for that to occur.  Carlson went on to win the election.
At the same time Wellstone, outspent by more than 6:1 by Boschwitz, beats the latter to win the Senate seat.  In part Wellstone’s victory was attributed to a letter Boschwitz ( who was Jewish) sent out to the Jewish community accusing Wellstone (also Jewish) of not being a good Jew.  The letter was written by two of Mr. Boschwitz's Jewish supporters and signed by them and 70 others, and it was printed on Boschwitz campaign stationery and mailed at campaign expense on November 1, 1990, just days before the election.

2002 Election
Wellstone served in the senate for two terms, and then was running for a third term in 2002 when on October 25,  less than two weeks before the election, he died in a plane crash.    At that point in a race against Republican Norm Coleman more than 25,000 absentee ballots had already been cast.  In a special DFL Executive Committee meeting former Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale was picked to replace Wellstone.  Democrats wanted absentee votes cast for Wellstone automatically transferred to Mondale or in the alternative, the absentee ballots thrown out.   State law did not appear to allow for absentee voters to request a new ballot to vote A major legal battle ensued where eventually in Erlandson v. Kiffmeyer, 659 N.W. 2d 724 (2003), the Minnesota Supreme Court allowed for voters to request new ballots if they had already voted.
In addition, the Mondale-Coleman race was also marred by another controversy.  Just days before the election there was a televised memorial service for Wellstone which attracted national celebrities to pay their respects.  It was supposed to be a non-partisan event but when it turned partisan (at least this was the impression by some) through a speech by Rick Kahn (a friend of Wellstone’s) who more than a dozen times said let’s "win this election for Paul Wellstone."  Governor Jesse Ventura  walked out in disgust, the media and the public came to view the service as a political pep rally, and that shifted the momentum to Norm Coleman who won the election.  On November 4, Governor Ventura named Dean Barkley senator until Coleman was sworn in.

2008 Election
In 2008 Coleman was running for re-election, challenged by Al Franken who returned to the state to run for election.  It was an expensive election, culminating in what appeared to be less than a 1,000 vote victory for Coleman on election day.  After the Canvassing Board meet it declared Coleman the victor by a 206 margin.  A mandatory recount took place resulting in fights over absentee ballots.  Specifically, during the recount, local election officials and the candidates reviewed the absentee ballot return envelopes that had been rejected on or before election day and agreed that some of them had been improperly rejected.
On January 3, 2009, the Secretary of State's Office opened and counted the 933 ballots identified during this process. On January 5, 2009, the State Canvassing Board certified the results of the election as 1,212,431 votes for Franken and 1,212,206 votes for Coleman, a margin of 225.  Coleman sued and eventually in Coleman v. Franken, 767 N.W.2d 453 (Minn. 2009), the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled for Franken and on July 7, 2009–after the seat had been vacant for more than six months–he was seated.

2017 and Beyond
And now it appears that Franken is resigning, kicking in Minnesota Statutes  §204D.28, allowing Governor Dayton (DFL) to replace Franken.  There is a lot of speculation surrounding who it will be but assume as one choice that it will be his Lieutenant-Governor Tina Smith (although there are many other possible picks to replace Franken).  If so, this means there will be a vacancy in that position.  Article V, section 5 declares that: “The last elected presiding officer of the senate shall become lieutenant governor in case a vacancy occurs in that office.”  That would make it Senator Michelle L. Fischbach (GOP)  who would become Lieutenant-Governor, creating a vacancy in her position and necessitating a special election for her senate seat under Article IV, Section 4, of the Constitution. 
Why is all this important?  Until recently the GOP held a one vote majority (34-33) in the Minnesota Senate.  But effective December 15, 2017, DFL Dan Schoen will resign, coincidently also because of sexual harassment allegations.  Assume that the DFL will hold his seat (which is not guaranteed but possible with him having won 53.13% in 2016) and that the DFL picks up Fischbach’s seat (not likely since she won with 68.6% in 2016 in a strong Republican area), the DFL could then flip party control of the Minnesota Senate in DFL Governor Mark Dayton’s last year in office.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Entirely Unsurprising New Minnesota Budget Deficit

So yet again the Minnesota State budget is in the red.  The fiscal forecast projects a $186 million
deficit for the remainder  of the biennium, exploding to $586 million for the 2020-21 cycle. If the state is lucky it will only be that amount, but the possibility is far more.  How did this happen again that Minnesota is facing a deficit.
There are three forces driving the new deficit in Minnesota: state policy, the state and national economy, and federal policy.  Only the first is within control of the state, the other–to use the language of economics–are exogenous.
State policy is the first problem.  Simply stated, there has been bipartisan fiscal irresponsibility.  When the budget surplus grew to well in excess of a $1.65 billion earlier this year the Republicans thought the solution was to cut taxes, the Democrats to increase spending.  We did  both.  What was ignored were all the structural problems in the budget and budget process such as counting inflation for revenues for revenues and not obligations.  There was ignoring commitments to K-12, to pensions, and local governments.  There was funny number budgeting when it came to  infrastructure and other projects.  The budget was simply not honest.  But in addition, when there was a surplus no one wanted to say “Save for a rainy day,” thinking that the economy would continue to grow and perform well (generating continued and growing tax revenues) and that the federal government would continue to subsidize the state’s programs.  Instead, the political horizon was the next election cycle and not the long-term fiscal health of the state.
But all good things come to an end.  Since 2009 the US has been in an economic recovery and growth.  Economic fortunes have improved for many but no economic expansion lasts forever and there are signs of a slowing US economy.  A slower state or federal (or even international in a global economy) means less tax revenues for the state.  Uneven growth in Minnesota may mean 2.3% unemployment for the Twin Cities but it is not so good in greater Minnesota.    Minnesota’s politicians premised spending on an infinitely growing economy and that is not happening and the fiscal forecast notes that.  The economic slowdown is largely beyond control of state policy makers, and it is the second driver of the deficit.
Third, the big imponderable is whether Congress and the president agree to a tax reform bill.  Depending on what is in it, it could have huge implications for the state.  One proposal would reduce or eliminate the federal for state and local taxes.  For big spending and social welfare states like Minnesota that could be a big hit.  Elimination of the Obamacare individual mandate, or elimination of health and medical deductions, or doubling the standard deductions (which affect non-profits) could impact the state.  Additionally, while a few tooth-fairy believing supply-side trickle down economists believe the tax cuts will boost the economy, most disagree and thing it is more possible that it throws the economy into reverse and slows it down more.  On top of which, if the federal government needs to make more  cuts to make up for the projected budget hemorrhage, they may come from federal health care spending and money transferred to states such as Minnesota.
What most people and many legislators fail to grasp is that nearly $46 billion budget for Minnesota only represents the State’s part of its fiscal obligations.  Minnesota is actually obligated to spend billions more than that, with that money coming from the federal government.  Cut federal government spending and Minnesota will still have the obligations but not the revenues.
Thus, a slowing economy and federal tax reform and budget cuts could thus transform the not so rosy Minnesota  budget deficit into an ever greater one.  Had the governor and legislature thought through this when they rushed to spend and cut taxes they might have been able to plan and cushion for it.  But alas, they did not do this...yet again, leading to the entirely unsurprising new Minnesota budget deficit.

Addendum:  Recently someone questioned my expertise on budgets and economics and asserted  I was "merely a dumb political scientist."  Perhaps I am but lets think about this.  In graduate school I amassed nearly enough credits to have a masters in economics.  At Hamline for 15 years I taught in the business school, teaching graduate (masters and doctoral level) classes in economic policy, and I taught local economic development at the HHH school at the UMN.  Oh, and I worked as a housing and economic planner for several years and also was a researcher at the UMN Institute on Race and Poverty doing work on racial and economic segregation and policy.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Expendables: Donald Trump versus the US Congress

Donald Trump is increasingly expendable to the Republicans in Congress.  Assuming the tax plan is
signed into law, Trump will be increasingly expendable and a liability to Congress as they head into the 2018 midterm elections and beyond.  Simply put: With the passage of the tax and the increased problems the Mueller investigation will pose to Trump and the Republicans, the latter will have less and less need for the former while finding him more and more an electoral problem.

Few if any see the connection between the tax overhaul and the fate of Donald Trump with the GOP Congress.  Yet if there is anything the Republican Congress wanted more than anything else was the tax cuts and overhaul.  Since Reagan the issue that has defined the party has been tax cuts.  It is the answer to everything.  If the economy is doing badly cut taxes. If the economy is doing well and the government is taking in too much money, cut taxes.  If we need to produce more jobs, cut taxes.  If there is tax cheating by businesses hoarding money in off-shore accounts, cut taxes.  Cutting taxes is like the classic cure-all nostrums sold by traveling salesmen in the 19th century.  One  bottle will cure anything that ails you.

Preaching tax cuts for all social ills is what the Elmer Gantrys of the GOP have preached for years.
Yes a few Republicans talked once of fiscal restraint and worried about deficits.  Yet those old Concord Coalition folks are gone.  So many seem shocked–shocked as Captain Renault was in Casablanca–that the likes of Susan Collins and John McCain would support this tax cut bill even though its regressive nature and impact will be to hurt the very people Trump and Republicans say they want to help.  Neither Collins not McCain were progressives; they are Republicans defined by  tax cuts über alles.  With this tax plan the Republicans get so much of what they have wanted for the last quarter century.

Depending on the version that finally passes, the Obama health mandate is gone, the estate tax is effectively gone, corporations pay less taxes and the rich pay less taxes.  In addition, the doubling of the standard deduction will help some but hurt non-profits, the poor will not be able to take advantage of the child care tax credit, the loss of medical deductions will do more to push many into debt, and the loss of the deductions for state and local taxes will penalize Democratic high tax and social welfare states such as Minnesota.  One should not infer that the GOP plan is intentionally cruel but its regressive nature to help the rich will have this impact.  Further, since there was concern that the tax cuts will not live up to the mythical trickle down magic, there are requirements to make further cuts to balance the budget in the future–this will pressure cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  All of this is reminiscent of what David Stockman talked about in terms of the logic of the Reagan tax cuts back in the 80s–blown up the budget with large deficits into to pressure cuts to the welfare state.

Assuming the GOP gets all of this, they have gotten most of their agenda and what they want from Trump.  Of course this is a big if.  The outcome of an Alabama Senate election, the fate of Al Franken, and the ability of the House and Senate to reach agreement with one another and Trump  might still wreck all this.  But assume not...what value is there in keeping Trump around?  His agenda is largely over with the tax plan.  There will be no wall, there will be no major infrastructure  package, and abandoning NAFTA and the other trade agreements are either superfluous, icing on the cake, or something the Republicans do not really care about.  For most Republicans, the Trump presidency largely ends with his signature on the tax plan.

It will not be too much to assume that with Michael Flynn cooperating with Mueller, Jared  Kushner, Donald Trump, Jr., or Jeff Sessions might not be next.  How they too might implicate the president if at all is only a question of time.  But if polls suggest that Trump is already a problem for the GOP into 2018, he will become more so next year as more indictments and trials mount.  One can also speculate on whether the swirling sexual harassment controversies will finally ensnare the president next year.  If all that happens, the Congressional Republicans might be better off without him than with.

No this does not mean he will be impeached by Republicans.  This is still a Democratic Party fantasy.  Nor should the Democrats count on an unpopular president guaranteeing their path back to power.  Yet if Trump has already succeeded in getting the congressional Republicans most of what they want, the president will become expendable to them in 2018 and beyond.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Guilt, Truth, and Politics in the Age of Hyper-Democracy

Sexual harassment and assault are wrong.  But it is not so clear that the court of public opinion is
the best way to adjudicate the truthfulness of any allegations or statements about public figures and officials  in era where alternative facts seem to be facts of life.   The problem here is that there is a fundamental confusion among  the concepts of the marketplace of ideas, the court of public opinion, real courts, and how all of them operate in a hyper-democracy that the United States has become.
Determining what is truth or true is never easy.  But in law and democratic politics there are rival notions of finding the truth.
In US law the adversarial process and courts are the mechanisms at arriving at truth.  Questions of guilt or innocence in criminal law or culpable or not in civil law are determined in a structured setting where there are formal procedures that determine what is admissible evidence, factors to consider when determining the credibility or witnesses, and there are procedures put into place that seek to guard against bias.  The adversarial process is not perfect, but it does usually provide a structured reliable path that determines the truth of a matter.
Democracies are messy.  At their best truth is determined through the marketplace of ideas as described by philosopher John Stuart Mill where competing ideas challenge one another in a process that allows for truth to emerge.  The marketplace of ideas presupposes truth exits, that there are ways to find it, and that rules can guide its discovery.  Truth is not necessarily what 50% plus one of the population thinks. Yet the marketplace of ideas does not always work, instead degenerating to simply where majority rule decides what is true via the court of public opinion.
There is a long line of political thinkers, historians, and scholars ranging from James Madison, Alexis deTocqueville, James Bryce, and even to Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann who worried that in America the powers of public opinion would produce a tyranny of the majority.  Passions aflamed, majorities might rush to judgment and suppress the rights or others.  When it works well, public opinion and majority rule are great ways to determine who should be the next president of the United States, or for the public  to adjudicate rival claims made by candidates to decide which they prefer, but it is not clear that either are good mechanisms to decide guilt, culpability, or truth.
In most cases there is a big different between whether someone is legally guilty or liable for an act versus whether someone is fit to serve in office.  This is the difference between law and politics. Law is about real courts, politics is about the court of public opinion.  But when the two are merged–as in case of determining whether allegations against Senate candidate Roy Moore or Senator Al Franken are true and how they address their fitness to serve in office–then the rules are  unclear.  What standards of proof do we need to decide if the accusers are telling the truth and are credible and how do their stories overall fit into defining whether Moore or Franken should be senators is not clear.
And the problem is now exacerbated in our hyper-democracy.  Here accusations are flung  out immediately into the social media without any serious vetting in a world where it is all about being first to report, maximize hits or likes, or generate audience and profits..   Accusations, rumors, and innuendo can be shot immediately through Facebook and Twitter, distorted by partisan politics, confirmation biases, and cognitive dissonance.  Accusation is enough to render someone guilty, liable, and unfit for office.  Image the Salem witch hunts and the McCarthy communist accusations in a social media era and that is what has emerged.  It is tyranny of the majority, the pressures of uncontrolled public opinion operating through an unconstrained court of public opinion judging individuals in ways that make it impossible for them to prove their innocence.
The court of public opinion in a hyper-democracy is not suited either to determine legal or real truth as real courts or the marketplace of ideas can.  In the court of public opinion there are no rules, no definitions of truth, no standards of conduct that provide clarity.  What we are left with  are rival ideologies and pronouncements of opinion masking as truth.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Moore, Franken, and the New Politics of Sex

Sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault are wrong.  But there is a difference between accusations of the three and guilt.  Yet in a post-HarveyWeinstein world, we are dangerously close to treating accusations as guilt, pushing our culture into another Salem witch hunt or McCarthy era that will damage many individuals, permanently labeling them as modern day witches or communists who can do nothing to prove their innocence or redeem themselves.
Fear and prejudice has led America to do many ugly things.  It all started in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.  Told brilliantly by Arthur in the Crucible, 20 individuals–14 of which were women–were accused of being witches, and hung or died as a result of the accusations.  Those accused were done so because they were unpopular, or scapegoats given up by those who wished to blame others for offenses they were accused of and were able to save themselves by implicating others.
Salem is the story of the ugly side of American society.  Overtime we have had many Salems.  The city and its witch hunts are the backdrops for Miller’s Crucible, written at the height of the McCarthy era in the 1950s, where congressional hearings and the question “are you now or have you ever been a member  of the community party?” denounced individuals as guilty simply by accusation or invocation of the right to remain silent.  Thousands lost their jobs, Hollywood decimated, often because they held views, joined organizations, or supported causes, sometimes many years earlier, which some deemed objectionable.
Some will claim false equivalence in  equivocating sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault with accusations of being a witch or communist.  Witches don’t exist and the McCarthy era  was about an attack on the First Amendment.  But Salem and witches are metaphors.  Many live in Salems–closed communities or bubbles of like-minded people who fear outsiders and condemn  them with nary a hint of real evidence of something heinous.  It is guilt unless improbably they prove their innocence.  It is judging someone as evil regardless of the gravity of the action simply because they did something objectionable somewhere or sometime in their life, regardless of the circumstances.
For nearly 20 years I have taught professional ethics.  Among the questions I ask is how to we judge the relationship between the personal and professional role of public officials?  Can one be an ethical Senator, for example, even if one is not so in his private life?  Or what if someone did something wrong years ago–perhaps at a time before they held office–should that action continue to define their character for the rest of their life or career?  At one point does something we did perhaps in our youth years ago define who we are today, rendering us unfit to serve?
None of us are angels.  We are all human and make mistakes. Yet to let one mistake condemn us to purgatory or hell may be wrong.  At some point what one did, when, why, how many times, and how matters.  How and whether it interconnects our personal and professional lives are matters of judgment and fine moral distinctions.  We also need to distinguish between bad acts and what the philosopher Aristotle labeled habits of character which define who we are.  Judge based not necessarily on one or several mistakes but on how they define a person’s overall character.
There is a moral or ethical difference between crude sexual jokes and sexual assault and treating them all as equally disqualifying for office does a disservice to how we judge culpability for bad behavior.  There needs also to be recognition of the changing standards of conduct that define the ethics of actions. There is a slippery slope here.  At one time being gay, divorced, having an affair, or even smoking a joint were considered damning grounds to exclude one from public office or declare one to be a witch.   Yes, sexual assault and discrimination should always have been wrong, and the same might be said of sexually offensive gestures or statements.    But in some cases it may be unfair to judge people by contemporary standards for actions that occurred along time ago when standards were different, or when individuals were young, immature, or simply different people from whom they are now.
Portia in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice declares that “The quality of mercy is not strain'd,” Forgiveness is our better virtue in many cases.  Our society and prisons are jammed with many people whom we  refuse to forgive, condemning them for life for mistakes that they have  made at one time in their life, perhaps long ago.  Might as a society it be more just and fair we give some a second chance?  Might as a society we be more just and fair and not jump on the bandwagon and condemn equally all who said or did something we find offensive.  There are powerful differences among what Roy Moore, Al Franken, Donald Trump, and others did, or allegedly did, as well as what many in Hollywood are accused of.  Treating them all the same–as witches with equal culpability –is too crude of a way to address the problems of sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault in our society.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Unfit to Hold Office: Sexual Harassment and the Minnesota Legislature

Are Minnesota legislators who sexual harass colleagues or members of the public unfit to hold office? The answer should be yes, and both the Minnesota House and Senate should be prepared to reach this conclusion if Representative Cornish and  Senator  Schoen do not resign  and the two legislative bodies are required to judge the fitness of these two members to remain in office.
There appears to be a sea change afoot in politics when it comes to gender discrimination.  Inspired by the accounts of the like of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore (Senate candidate in Alabama), and Donald Trump, it is possible that there is a new political standard emerging in politics that make the creation of a sexually hostile environment by elected officials wrong.  If that  is the case, then the standard of conduct expected of public officials is only 30 years behind the times.
In 1986 in Meritor Savings Bank  v. Vinson,  477 US 57 (1986) the US Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment in the workplace was actionable as sexual discrimination  under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Prior to that decision, short of actual unwanted  physical conduct, women (who are mostly the victims) had little recourse against their bosses or co-workers when they made unwanted sexual advances or engaged in unwanted sexual language.  Meritor Savings changed that.  It, along with rulings by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said that there were two forms of sexual harassment or discrimination.
The first is quid pro quo–conditioning employment upon the exchange of sexual favors (“Sleep with me if you want to keep your job”).  The second is hostile environment–creating a workplace where  unwelcome conduct based on sex or gender that is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.  Such conduct need not br specifically directed at a particular person, but it can include offensive jokes, remarks, pictures, and general discussion by employers, managers, or coworkers.
Across the public, private, and non-profit sectors, most people get it, sexual harassment is wrong, and grounds for discipline and dismissal.   But some still do not, and among those who don’t, it appears some are elected officials.  It should not only be wrong to harass your staff, but also your legislative colleagues and even lobbyists and members of the public.  While the public may not always view legislators and lobbyists  favorably, they should not be sexually harassed.  For legislators, unwanted sexual advances are part of the good old boys club that pervaded for so long, and which appears to persist.  It sends a signal that women are second rate, and that they, their work, and the legislation they advance is  judged not on it merits but how they look in a dress.
Lobbyists advocate for their members and they should not be hit on when doing they job.  While not employees of the legislature, they nonetheless are in a power differential position when it comes to legislators, potentially feeling that  they must  acquiesce to sexual overtures as a condition of doing their job.   Such behavior  sends signals also to constituents and the general public that if they too are female they may to exercise their First Amendment rights in a sexually hostile environment..  The point here is that sexual harassment by legislators  undermines democracy by chilling half the population out of exercising their rights to free speech.
So what should be done?  Ultimately the conclusion should be that all forms of sexual harassment by Minnesota State Legislators is wrong and grounds for removal from office by the House and the Senate.  The Minnesota Constitution, Article IV, Section 6 declares that: “ Each  house shall be the judge of the election returns and eligibility of its own members.”  This clause gives each house the power to set and judge the ethical standards of its members, setting their own standards on evidence needed to prove violations.  It need not be a standard of beyond a reasonable doubt found in criminal law, but something less than that in the judgment of the House and Senate.  The level of proof demanded in many ways sets the standard of ethical conduct for its members.
Senate Rule 56 declares that it may discipline members who display behavior that “violates accepted norms of Senate behavior, that betrays the public trust, or that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor or disrepute.”  House Rule 6.1 says the same thing.  One would hope that the two chambers would conclude that sexual harassment of not just staff but other legislators, lobbyists, and the general public, would be something that violates these standards, rendering members who do this unfit to serve.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Advice to Mayors-elect Carter and Frey: Ten Lessons about Successful Governance

Dear Mayors-elect Carter and Frey:

Congratulations on your elections as mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis, respectively!  Your elections mark many important transitions for the two cities, not the least being the beginning of the shift of political power from the Baby Boomers and GenXers to the Millennials.  This generational shift brings with it new ideas, politics, perspectives on the world, and an ideology about governance.

 In many ways your election reminds me of when I worked on a mayoral campaign back in New York where I grew up, helping to elect a then 37 year-old woman who became the city’s first female and Baby Boomer elected as mayor.  I served on her transition team, and then in her administration as the city director of planning, zoning, and code enforcement.  What I learned then and over my years as a professor and as someone who continues to work with local governments is that there are some basic rules or values of good governance that never die, even if politics or values change.  As the two of you prepare to take office, I hope these ideas are useful.

First, remember a city is all its people.  Not some of the people in part of the city but all of the people across all of the neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St Paul.  For too long mayors of both cities have failed to commit development and resources across the entire city, leading to uneven development.  As a result, parts of the city are developing and others stagnant.

In many ways, Minneapolis and St Paul are two cities.  No, not two separate cities, but two cities each within  themselves. Both are shining cities on the hill for those who are white, affluent, and live in the right neighborhood.  They are cities of concentrated poverty, racial disparities, and lack of opportunity for  people of color, the poor, and those who live in the wrong neighborhoods.  The defining issue for the 2017 Minneapolis and St Paul mayoral elections ought to have been in part about rectifying the difference between the two cities–providing justice to all to prevent the conditions that led to the deaths of   Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, and all the anonymous individuals who are victims of race and poverty.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are great cities with a wonderful quality of life, for some.  But both are  hugely segregated by race and income.  It was that way nearly 20 years ago when I worked for the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty and we documented that segregation.  Over a generation little progress has been made. They remain cities with  neighborhoods torn by concentrated poverty, race, crime, and disparate educational outcomes.  They are cities where wealth is concentrated in the urban core and in a few neighborhoods, leaving many others behind.  Mayor Hodges, and before her R.T. Rybek and before him Sharon Sayles Belton, all promised to put money into the neighborhoods, to delivery economic development for the least advantaged, and either failed or were ensnared in the demands of downtown urban development.  The same is true for Chris Coleman and before him Randy Kelly and Norm Coleman.

The issue for Minneapolis and St Paul is social and economic equity. Fundamentally, the defining issue for the two cities is creating economic opportunity for all.  It is making it possible for individuals, regardless of race or neighborhood, to have a decent job, a choice of where to live, a voice in where to send their children to school.  The role of the mayor is steering investment, encouraging economic development, making it possible for people to create their own businesses.  Expand the economic base for all, especially those who are left out already, and that is they way to generate the resources both to finance the city and help those who have been left behind.

Such a vision for the two cities requires several things.  Neighborhoods need to be diversified.  Concentrated poverty neighborhoods are no good for anyone.  There needs to be a mix of people, incomes, and structures in every neighborhood.  Rethinking the two cities’ comprehensive plans is one step.  Allowing in some places for more intensified or mixed development, to allow some people to  invest in their own neighborhoods will help.  Yet private investors and banks will not act on their own to finance this.  Both cities need to think of their own investments in terms of streets, sidewalks, and  other services such as code enforcement.  The cities can help foster the conditions for economic development in their various neighborhoods, but they can also do things such as provide micro-financing to help some communities and guarantee loans in some situations.  Make neighborhoods attractive for all to live and invest it.  Deconcentrating poverty is one step in making neighborhoods more opportunity-based.  Thus, both place-based and mobility strategies are needed.

But that is not enough.  Businesses or people invest where there are skilled workers.  Strategies to attract and remain college graduates and provide real training for those lacking skills too are important.  Better partnerships among the local colleges, employers, and workers to train and connect businesses to people should be on any mayoral candidate’s agenda.    Quality services, the amenities of parks, libraries, and the arts are too what candidates should be discussing.  So too should they be talking about schools.  No, mayors cannot improve schools themselves, that is not their job.  But they can provide the conditions that make it possible for children safely to go to schools, or to live in neighborhoods that support learning though the maintenance of libraries and communities centers, for example.

Second, stick to the basics.   Cities are about the delivery of basic services.  It is about housing, streets, sewers, water, parks, putting out fires, and arresting the bad guys.  It is not about world peace and global issues.  Recent mayors have forgotten that.  Mayors can do little directly to help schools or improve education but they can stabilize neighborhoods and develop social service and community programs to support schools.

Third, Minneapolis and St Paul have finite resources.  In the two cities  property taxes are going up rapidly, and the traditional middle class feel squeezed such that they cannot afford to stay in their homes anymore, or that they cannot buy or rent a place in the city.  Raising taxes is not always  the solution.  If one wants to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, then one also needs to think about creating the businesses and jobs that will provide these types of wages.

Fourth, remember the demographics.  Minneapolis and St Paul are demographically and generationally changing.  Build your political base and plans for a future–do not seek to look backward and simply aim for holding together a coalition from the past but look to what you can do to work with our new residents and future leaders to develop the next generation of leaders to follow after you.

Fifth, it is about balancing economic development with housing, downtown with neighborhoods.  There are connections between the economic strength of Minneapolis and St Paul and how well their  housing does.

Sixth, be realistic.  Develop Minneapolis and St Paul as the cities they  could be, not the one a fantasy pines for.  Make decisions based on real data, realistic projections, and not on political rhetoric and hope.

Seventh, have a plan.    Have a real plan for your cities. By that, talk to residents and business people.  Construct a serious Comprehensive Plan with realistic zoning specifications.  Let your planning staff do its job and project what makes the most sense and what is the best use of property, land, and space.  Do not let the market alone dictate what happens–using planning to guide markets.

Eighth, think regionally.  Minneapolis and St. Paul are the largest cities in the state if not in the upper Midwest region.  They are the drivers of the metropolitan economy and what happens in these two cities has a far wider impact than simply what happens within the borders of Minneapolis and St.  Paul.  Think about building regional alliances and strategies not just with one another but also with your suburbs.

Ninth, not only is a city its people, but the public is your customer, your citizens or residents, and your partners. Successful mayors understand that the people they serve occupy all three roles and realize that they cannot succeed unless all work together.

Finally, govern to lead and not simply to get reelected.  Ambition is good but first of all, you are trustees for the public good, with your first mandate being to serve the communities and people you represent.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Understanding the Minneapolis and Saint Paul Elections: First Draft

What did we learn from the Minneapolis and St. Paul elections, specifically with Jacob Frey and Melvin Carter, respectively, elected as the new mayors of the two cities?  The simple answer is that what happened in these two cities has significance well beyond their borders.
Turn first to Minneapolis.  It is less clear that this is an election endorsing Frey or voting for him than it was one rejecting the incumbent Betsy Hodges.  After the first round of voting Hodges received 18.1% of the first-choice votes, meaning more than 80% voted against her.  The voters clearly did not like her style, handling of issues such as police use of force or crime or her oversight of the construction on Nicollet Mall.  But that did not mean that any one candidate emerged as the alternative to her.  Council member Jacob Frey did not even receive 25% of the vote.  In fact, the top five candidates split up 96% of the vote, with each receive more than 15% of the vote.  
What emerged was a city polarized and divided.  It is not clear that Frey enjoys widespread support of most of the constituencies in the city, and he clear has a long way to go in terms of his ability to reach out to the business community.  In addition, given his lack of administrative experience and really, his general lack of experience in government (only his tenure as a city council member), and the fact that the mayor’s position in Minneapolis is relatively weak, it will be a challenge for him to govern.  This is especially the case when it looks also as if the city council will have several new comers and it too is divided.  Frey won less because of his positions (in many ways his positions were not so different from Hodges) and campaign and more because Hodges was unpopular, the opposition was divided, and he was the strongest of those who were not the mayor.
But perhaps one of the less appreciated or overlooked events that took place in the Minneapolis elections was that City Council President Barb Johnson lost.  This is an enormous blow and loss of institutional knowledge and skill in Minneapolis.  She held together a factional city council since 2006, and her loss means both a new mayor and council president taking over at the same time.  The challenge will be to figure out how to govern in Minneapolis.
St. Paul’s election was a surprise in the sense that almost everyone thought it would be a close election between Melvin Carter and Pat Harris. In the end Carter won for several reasons.  He had a better campaign, name recognition, and more DFL endorsements that were meaningful.  But also, Pat Harris’s campaign was not as good as many assumed.  But the real game-changer was an ad by the Police union (Building a Better St. Paul) that accused Melvin Carter’s stolen guns as being involved in crimes.  This was perceived as a Donald Trumpish type of race-baiting that backfired.  It energized many to vote and probably also turned away some from Pat Harris who was stuck.  If he fully disavowed the group and ad then he repudiated his base, if he did not act aggressively enough he would be seen as endorsing this attack.  In the end, he waffled, and it hurt him.
Electing Frey and Carter as mayors of the two largest cities in the state is significant for several reasons. First, they are young, and it signals a passing of the DFL leadership mantle to a new generation.  This started already in Minneapolis four years ago.  In St. Paul, with Carter elected and Coleman out, the latter may well be the last White Irish Catholic mayor in the city, recognizing the changing politics and demographics in that city.  Second, both are liberal.  There liberalism will push the two cities further to the left on a range of issues.  This will have an impact not just in the two cities, but both regionally and state-wide.  Regionally, if both cities move to establish living wages for employment in their towns it could have an impact in terms of how other cities in the region have to respond.  Additionally, if the two cities move further to the left, it potentially causes a political schism between the DFL there and across the rest of the state.  It also sets in motion a potential stronger urban-rural or DFL-Republican conflict in the state.

A Note on my Predictions
            So how well did I predict the mayoral elections in the two cities?  In the end I got some things right and some wrong.  There were no surveys or polls to use to help make election predictions, so I was shooting in the dark, so to speak.  In a September 21, 2017 blog I made the following predictions:

Frey 26%
Hodges 24%
Dehn 20%
Hoch 15%

Final first-choice votes
Frey 24.97%
Hoch 19.27%
Hodges 18.08%
Dehn 17.34%
Levy-Pounds 15.06%

The final order of votes after RCV was applied, had Frey winning, followed by Dehn, Hoch, Hodges, and then Levy-Pounds. I clearly overestimated support for Hodges and underestimated that for Hoch and Levy-Pounds.  I let you decide how good my predictions were.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

And the Winners of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Mayoral Elections Are...

I don’t know.  But I think it is still Betsy Hodges and Pat Harris, but it is still too close to call.
For two major elections in Minnesota it is odd that there is very little data upon which to make decisions.  Perhaps that is good–not letting pollsters drive an election.  But for those of us wishing to make sense out of elections, the absence of any polling or survey data on Minneapolis and St. Paul makes predictions and analysis difficult. Not only do we not have polling data on who is likely to vote, which candidates are the first choice of voters, and which candidates are the second and subsequent choices of voters, but will also do not have some other basic data about the electorate. 
By that, even though both cities are overwhelming Democratic, we do not know what the real percentages of the electorate are in terms of Republican, Democrat, and Independent.  Even among Democrats, how they break down into how liberal, or whether they are pro-business, environment, or civil rights orientated, or how race factors into voting preference, we do not know.  Largely, unless the campaigns have data they are not sharing, there is little in terms of good research available to make meaningful predictions.  Even more–as someone who worked on or managed more than 50 campaigns in the past–having good data is critical to strategy and get-out-the-vote plans.  Without such data campaigns are simply guessing to what will happen or what to do.  In an era of big data and political micro targeting, on the surface it looks as if the mayoral campaigns in the two cities are largely operating in the dark.
In St. Paul it is a two-person race between Harris and Carter.  For weeks I thought there would be no first round winner and that RCV would be decisive.  At one point I thought Carter wins the first round but Harris takes it subsequently.  The Building Better St. Paul attack on Carter explicitly injected race into the campaign and it perhaps looked to be game changer to give the election to Carter.  That may still happen, but more than a political week of eternity has passed and I am not sure that the racial attack will be as big a game changer as thought.   Race will still be a factor in the election, but in different ways.  Will Dai Thao’s voters come out and only cast a first choice for him?  Will the old White Irish Catholic vote come out strong for the safe white guy Harris?  How motivated is the party base to make Carter their version of Obama?  With a possible 20-25% turnout, the logic of small numbers kicks in and slight shifts in turnout will decide the outcome.
In Minneapolis Hodges is unpopular and has run an inept campaign but she probably remains the favorite to win.  She does so because the DFL machine, if there is one still, favors her, and because still no candidate has emerged as the clear anti-Hodges alternative.  As I said several weeks  ago, Hodges can poll in the low to mid 20 percent in the first round of voting and still win if she is the preferred second choice of most voters. That assumes that among other voters they do not know the other candidates will and prefer Hodges as the devil  they know as opposed to the devil they do not know.  But there is also a chance that Hodges is so disliked that “anyone but her” is the option of most voters, again in an electorate that may be in the 30% range.
We also do not know what the voter ID bell curve looks like in Minneapolis.  Among those who will vote, how liberal and what type of liberals will they be?  For those who are not DFL, pro-business,  or more centrist, if they turn out to vote, Tom Hoch is the likely choice.  If the voters are  looking for the Hodges alternative with name recognition, then Frey is the likely choice and winner.  Minneapolis’s liberalism and voting patterns are much more difficult to predict than St. Paul this election, in part because there are three to maybe four candidates that have a real chance of winning,  and with a total of five who could possibly top 10% in the first round voting.  Perhaps for the first time since RCV was adopted in Minneapolis, it may actually make a real difference in who becomes mayor.
Given the above factors and the lack of real data, predicting who will win on Tuesday is complicated.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

What is Orthodox Republicanism?

What does Republicanism mean?  This is the burning question for the Republican Party today with
Steve Bannon declaring war on his party enemies and the likes of Senators Flake and Corker opting to resign because they are outcasts likely unable to win their nominations in the party that Donald Trump remade.  And the answer will have fateful consequences not only for the GOP but the health of the American Democracy.  Contrary to the hopes of Democrats, there needs to be a responsible Republican Party that has a soul.
The Republican Party today is not the party of Lincoln and civil rights.  It is not the environmental party of Teddy Roosevelt, and it is not the party of Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits from New York where I grew up.  Back then it would not have been farfetched to argue of the two New York senators–Republican Javits and Democrat Bobby Kennedy–the former was more liberal.  Nor is this the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan that worked across the aisle with Tip O’Neill, or the Party of George H.W. Bush who signed the American with Disabilities Act,  supported tax increases because it was in interest of the nation, and forged international alliances to  liberate Kuwait.  And it is not the Party of George W. Bush who supported immigration reform.
The Republican Party today is an ugly, selfish, and mean party.  It is a Party premised on the  anger, resentment, intolerance, and nastiness.  It is a party that does not want government to work, one that tolerates a president referring to women as pussy, immigrants as rapists, Muslims as terrorists.  It is a party that looks at someone like Jeff Flake–a pro free trade, internationalist who believes in a strong US international presence while also endorsing tax cuts and small government –as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). 
The same is true of Bob Corker, Susan Collins, and John McCain.  All traditional Republicans, but none of them find a place in the Party of Bannon and Trump.  It is not enough to support some principles of Republicanism, it is an ideological purity test demanding 100% loyalty. Bannon and Trump have become the Grand Inquisitor and Joe McCarthy of the Republican Party, and when Flake or Corker step into the role of Joseph Welch, asking of them “Have You No Sense of Decency,?" few within the Republican Party are willing to support them.  The new orthodoxy overrides principle, integrity, and what is right for the party and the county.
George Washington warned in his farewell address of the dangers of parties, seeing in them how they encouraged “the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, [and] kindles the animosity of one part against another.  He thought we would be better as a nation without them.  Perhaps, but they day is long since past.  Parties are a reality and the task as political scientists such as E.E. Schattschneider said, is to make them responsible.  Parties make governance possible, they make American democracy possible by mobilizing voters, checking the opposition, and articulating a vision for the public good.
The Republican Party of Bannon and Trump does not do that.  It is a party of nihilism, consuming itself and American democracy with it.  There is a need for a Republican Party to speak for the Constitution, Bill of Rights, free speech, and freedom of religion.  It is a party that needs to respect the right of people to kneel at football games, to acknowledge that scientific facts and that alternative facts are not facts but lies.  It needs to say that conspiring with a foreign government to  influence an election is treason, that conflating personal wealth and self-interest with the public good is wrong, and that remaining silent in the hope that it will advance a party agenda is wrong. 
There was time in my lifetime during Watergate when the likes of Howard Baker, William Ruckelhaus, and Elliot Richardson put the good of the nation ahead of party and did the right thing in opposing  Richard Nixon.  They were heroes, and Republicans, and no one tried to oust or outcast them.  The Republican Party needs people like this, as does the country, and we need a Republican Party and an American public that will support people like this.  This is what orthodox Republicanism once was, and it needs to be that again.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Trump Three Ring Circus

The Trump administration is a circus, but the question is whether its antics are an intentional
sideshow or a byproduct of dysfunctionalism?  The answer lies perhaps somewhere in between.  But like any good showman, Trump has learned how to manipulate his audience, and this includes both his supporters and distractors.
There is no question that the Trump administration has had the air or a circus, headed by a ringleader part Elmer Gantry, part P.T. Barnum.  Legislatively the Trump administration’s record of accomplishment is weak by any comparison, forcing it into the use of executive orders nearly double the pace of that of the Obama administration which Trump decried as a failure of leadership and inability to work in a bipartisan fashion.  Trump’s problem too is party politics, except it his own, not the Democrats, yielding intra-party gridlock. Trump has made some headway with executive orders, reversing some of Obama’s.  Yet there is a limit to what he has and can do here, with the easiest pickings (Obama’s Clean Energy executive order) already undone and the others requiring legislation or facing litigation.
The point is that the list of accomplishments by the Trump administration is thin and will continue to dwindle unless there is a major course correction in how it works with Congress.  Some will point to Trump’s blustering on the Mexican Wall (remember that?), the sort of cancelling of  the Iranian nuclear agreement, the Obamacare subsidies for the poor, and North Korea as accomplishments, but those victories are dubious at best.  If success is defined as ticking off the rest of the world, Muslims, women’s reproductive health, and transgender individuals, then it might be a banner day, but few beyond a core group of Trumpistas, few agree.
So the issue then there more than meets the eye?  Do the Trump blusters, his daily tweets, the soap opera treatment of his cabinet members, war heros, members of Congress, and anyone else who crosses him, merely represent a diversion or sideshow from what is really going on?  The answer is yes and no.  Yes it is a diversion in that the media and the public are so obsessed with “Keeping Up with the Trumpdashians” that less focus is placed on the failures of the Trump administration to govern.  Yes there is some intentionality here by Trump but it may be more a product of hiding failures, his ego and desire to maintain media attention, and simply not knowing  what it means to govern than a master plan to engage in disinformation.  Put simply, the Trump administration may be deluded by its own illusions, thinking that what it says or what it displays is reality.
The Trump circus is both a distraction from and a cause of  the administration’s failures.  After nearly ten months the defining characteristic of the Trump administration is its inability to learn from its mistakes, confusing tweets with governing, and  a denial that the Constitution defines how the political process works.  Trump’s presidency is a failure in all but one respect–knowing how to push the buttons of the American public.  He has convinced his supporters he cares about them and that he is doing things, and he has figured out how to get the media and his distractors to react to every single utterance or act of his.  He has train both camps to react, controlling both of them with predictability, just like a ringmaster in a circus.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Governing by Executive Order: As Obama goes, so goes Trump

This was the week of  the Trump executive order presidency.  Frustrated with his own inability to
govern and work with his Republican Congress, Trump used executive orders to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) regarding contraception, minimum coverage for health plans, and subsidies for the poor.  If the Obama presidency is precedent, it is not clear that Trump has the authority to do all this.  Instead, one legacy of Obama may be passing on to Trump a weaker presidency when it comes to the use of executive orders.

As candidate, Donald Trump criticized Barack Obama for governing by executive order, bypassing Congress and instead leading by fiat. Now that Trump is president executive orders look good to him. Democrats lauded Obama’s efforts to do an end run around Congress, which Republicans condemned. Now the reverse is the case.

Consider first who has used more executive orders.  According to CNN, by October 11, into his first year in office, Obama signed 26 executive orders–the fewest of any president going back to Eisenhower.  Trump has already signed 49–the most since Lyndon Johnson and on pace to be more than any president since Franklin Roosevelt.  Trump has become the executive order president.  For his supporters this is no doubt good–it is a sign of taking charge and being a leader.  But the criticisms that applied to Obama apply to Trump–it is side stepping the Constitution or at the least,  it is illegal or demonstrates contempt for the concepts of checks and balances and separation of powers.

At least this is what many Republican attorney generals thought when Obama was president.  Presidents have no inherent powers.  Their authority derives from either Article II or the Constitution or what Congress has delegated to them via the Administrative Procedures Act and other laws.  Executive orders in many cases carry the force of law and once issued, especially if they go through  a rule making process,  cannot easily be repealed without going though a series of procedures.  When Obama issued executive orders regarding immigration and rules for power plants, Republicans successfully challenged them in court with decisions that limited presidents going forward.  Among the principles these lawsuits established  is that presidents may not use executive orders to sidestep laws made by Congress.

This may exactly be what is happening now with Trump. Unable to get Congress to do his bidding when it comes to repealing Obamacare, he is governing by edict.  In some cases the orders seek to alter Obama executive orders, in others they go against congressionally-authorized law.  But in both cases, Trump  needs to do more than issue an order.  No president, including Trump, can say  “Make it so” like captain Picard from Star Trek, and make it happen.  Already Democratic attorney generals are using the same tactics against Trump their Republican counterparts used against Obama.  Time will tell if the legal results will be the same.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Gunfight at the Second Amendment Corral

Like it or not the Second Amendment exists and the Supreme Court has ruled that its language guarantees an individual right to bear arms.  Like it or  not , the best estimates are that 40% of US households have guns and there are perhaps 270 million guns privately owned in the country.  Like it or not, guns are not going away and even if the Supreme Court were to reverse itself and declare there is no individual right to bear arms, all the existing guns are not going away.  Like it or not, banning guns in a mass way will produce a firearms bootleg problem that will make alcohol smuggling during Prohibition look like child’s play.  Like it or not, for much of the country, guns are rooted in political culture of the United States–it’s God, guns, and the Constitution.
So what do we do after the Las Vegas killings?  There are no simple solutions even though there are the usual recitation of simple slogans that are more about political posturing in the next election than they are about real policy solutions.  We already are hearing talk from one side that we  need more gun control, with predictable opposition from the other side.  One side will say “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” or the way to “stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”  The other side will embrace universal background checks to screen out criminals or those with mental illnesses, or will, as is now the solution de jour, a ban on bump stops for guns as a remedy.
The gun debate is complicated for two major reasons: the politics and the multifaceted nature of the problems surrounding the causes of gun violence.  The politics is about how the debate has been constitutionalized around the Second Amendment and weaving of guns within parts of the US into the very fabric of cultural identity.  Urbanites, northerners, and liberal-Democrats largely are clueless about this. Moreover, the gun debate has been defined by the NRA which has taken an absolutist position of the Second Amendment.  For many of its members, guns are the defining issue for them and they turn out to vote.  For the opposition, there is no equivalent.  The NRA has also captured the Republican Party, making guns, along with cutting taxes, the two defining issues for itself.  So long as the NRA and the Republican Party define their raison d’etat around guns, little will change in terms of the politics.
But even if the politics were to change, defining both what the problems with guns are and  what are the solutions is not easy.  Right now the media is hyperventilating over the NRA saying it could support a ban on bump stocks.  This is brilliant politics.  Banning the stocks will do little so long as assault weapons are available.  Gun manufactures no doubt love this proposal–instead of letting some people spend just a few dollars to modify a regular gun, make them spend more to buy a real assault weapon.  Moreover, the focus on bump stocks takes the political focus over other reforms, and the NRA looks outright reasonable in favoring the bump stock ban.  At best, a symbolic idea that solves nothing and which also plays well with some swing voters in 2018.
But what would actually work to curb gun violence?  This of course is complicated.  Part of the solution is understanding the underlying nature of the violence.  Yes, some of it is rooted simply in the availability of assault and other weapons and they do need regulation.  And regulation is constitutionally possible.  At no point has the Supreme Court said that reasonable regulation of some weapons is not possible.  Lower courts have upheld some regulations.  Not even in the case of the First Amendment has the Supreme Court said that free speech is absolute–time, manner, and place restrictions are possible, and not all utterances qualify as constitutionally protected speech.  There is nothing inconsistent in saying that possession of bazookas (which are arms) is unconstitutional, and the same is true for assault or automatic and semi-automatic weapons.  Such regulation might solve some problems but certainly not all.
Increased penalties for weapons use is not a solution.   There is little evidence, as I and others have show several times, that many people who commit crimes are rational actors deterred by the calculation of prison time.  Moreover, the experience and failure of mandatory minimum and three strikes laws demonstrates the futility of this approach.
The call for background checks, especially if instant and without some waiting periods, will solve only a small part of the problem, if at all. Do we screen for mental illness and past criminal behavior, for example?  When it comes to mental illness, are all who have a mental illness dangerous?   The American Psychology Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists hundreds of conditions that count as mental illness, with estimates that more than 42 million qualify.  To say that everyone with a mental illness is dangerous is a gross stereotype and demeaning.  Moreover, what is a mental illness?  Remember at one time the DSM listed being gay as a mental disorder.  Additionally, are all those with felony records dangerous, and what about the idea of people having paid their debt to society?  Finally, keep in mind that the Las Vegas shooter had no record of mental illness and no criminal record.  A background check would have done little to deter him.
Finally, what do we do about all the guns that are used in cases of domestic abuse, suicide,  crime, and street fights?  Yes guns make such killings and violence easier, but the underlying roots are located in alcohol and substance abuse, in problems surrounding poverty, or in cultural values about manhood, masculinity, and honor.    Decreasing the supply of guns will help, but there are underlying  socio-cultural problems at play. One hypothesis worth testing is the connection between areas that have high levels of alcohol dependency or poverty and gun violence. There may be other  correlations, but more research is needed and the NRA and the politics of guns has prevented that.
The point that is being made here is that the problems of guns are complex. The politics of guns makes solving the problem of guns impossible.  The problem of guns is in part availability of  some types of weapons and where, but it also about regulation of human behavior.  Guns do kill people, but people also kill people, and any viable solutions must disaggregate the variety of problems surrounding gun violence into viable policies that have identified problems and solutions.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Trump, Lies, and Tax Cuts: Why they Will Not Help the Economy

Among the most enduring political-economic myths is the claim that tax cuts on the wealthy
stimulate the economy and will benefit all of society, including the middle and lower classes. This is the central claim of supply-side economics, and this is the logic behind the Trump tax cuts.  One might as well believe in the tooth fairy, big foot, and the Loch Ness monster.  The truth about taxes–especially income taxes on individuals and corporations–is that there is no correlation between tax rates and economic growth.  There is also no evidence that taxes serve as potent tools to encourage business relocation decisions. History has repeatedly proven both of these claims wrong, yet both ideas fails to die, enduring as a chicanery that continues to waste public money, benefiting only the rich.

Two issues place the role of taxes in the economy back on the agenda.  The first is the Trump tax plan, the second is the scramble across the country to use tax incentives to lure Amazon to locate its corporate headquarters to a specific state and community, such as Minnesota.

Turning first to the Trump tax plan, there are multiple frauds and myths here.  First the plan calls for an elimination of the  estate and the alternative minimum tax as well as increasing the standard deduction.  The three are described as helping the middle class.  In reality, none of them will do anything for the middle class or poor.  Right now few individuals pay estate taxes.  As of  2016, there is no estate tax if it is less than $5.45 million.  There are not too many poor or middle class people I know who are worth more than $5.45 million.

Second, the alternative minimum  tax only applies to the likes of billionaires like Donald Trump or major corporations who are able to use creative tax formula to avoid regular incomes taxes.  The alternative minimum tax was meant to impose taxes on the rich and no poor or middle class pay it.  Finally, for most middle class families, the doubling of the standard deduction will not be used because either they make too much or, in the case of the poor, make too little to qualify.  The trump tax cuts will do little to help most middle class.  If any tax cuts would help them and the poor, it would be cutting the payroll taxes which are regressive.  For example, change the Social Security taxes from a flat tax into a progressive one, or lift the income cap on the maximum taxable income for Social Security.  These options will actually put more money into the hands of the poor or middle class.  The same would be true by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit.

But the bigger fraud is the believe that taxes are efficient and effective tools to stimulate the economy and encourage business investment decisions.  Do high taxes really hurt the economy as much as they believe and will lowering them have much of an impact on stimulating it?  Anecdotal stories and illustrations confirm the tax fallacy.   High tax states such as Minnesota have generally fared better in terms of economic growth, unemployment, median family incomes and location of Fortune 500 companies, than low tax ones such as Mississippi and Alabama. If taxes were the only factor, Mississippi would be thriving, Minnesota in the tanks.  At best, there is little correlation between taxes, income, and unemployment rates, but in many situations high taxes, and with that, government expenditures on education, workforce training, and infrastructure, correlate positively with income and low unemployment and business retention.  One needs to look not just at one side of the equation—taxes—but the other side too—what taxes buy—to see what value businesses get out of them in terms of educated workforces and infrastructure investments. Most debates fail to do this.

Using statistics gathered by the Bureau of Economic Analysis one can also examine how economic growth is related to tax rates.  One can compare annual economic growth as measured by the percent change in the gross domestic product (GDP) percent based on current dollars, comparing it to the highest federal individual marginal tax rate and the top corporate tax rate since 1930.  Effectively, look at the tax on the wealthy and corporations. If taxes are a factor affecting economic growth, one should see an inverse relationship between growth of the U.S. economy and higher tax rates.  The GDP should grow more quickly when top individual and corporate tax rates are lower.  If taxes are a major factor deterring economic growth, lines on a graph should go in opposite directions:  As tax rates go up the GDP should go down.

No such pattern emerges between high taxes and GDP growth over 80 years. During the Depression era of the 1930s corporate and individual taxes rates increased but in 1934 through 1937 the GDP grew by 17%, 11%, and 14% annually.  Top corporate tax rates climbed to over 50% through the 1960s, again with no discernible pattern associated with decreased economic growth.  The same is true with top tax rates on the richest which were as 91% into the 1960s. Conversely, since the 1980s after Kemp-Roth and then after 2001 with the Bush era tax cuts, there is no real indication that the economy grew more rapidly than in eras with significantly higher tax rates on the wealthy and corporations. Looking at time periods when tax rates were at their highest, GDP often grew more robustly than when taxes were cut.  Visually, the graph simply fails to demonstrate that tax rates negatively impact economic growth.

Pictures are worth a thousand words, but statistics are priceless.  Statistically, if a tax hurts economic growth, the correction with it is -1. If they positively facilitate growth the relationship is 1, and if they have no impact the 0.  The correlation between GDP and top individual taxes is 0.29, between GDP and top corporate taxes is 0.32, and among the three it is 0.14.  Statistically, there is a slight positive impact on either top individual or corporate taxes or economic growth, but overall almost no connection between tax rates on the wealthy and corporations and economic growth in the United States.

But what about taxes as job killers?  Again running similar statistical tests, there is little connection.  Using Bureau of Labor Statistics data on unemployment rates since 1940, the correlation among top individual and corporate taxes and the annual unemployment rate is -0.02—essentially no connection at all.

Now some will claim that the 1963 Kennedy tax cuts are an example of how changing tax rates will stimulate the economy.  Contrary to the folk legends, there is little evidence they helped the economy.  And even if tax cuts do stimulate the economy, presently the US economy is doing well with near 3% GDP growth.  The cuts will do little to help the economy, especially if concentrated in the hands of the wealthy  or corporations.  If anything, targeted cuts to help those currently unemployed, or incentives to invest to increase worker productivity, will be more helpful.
 Cuts in taxes without cuts in spending inflate the national debt and that may not be beneficial.  Conversely, cuts in taxes along with cuts in government spending will depress the economy.

Finally,  now think about the bidding war  by states to lure the new Amazon headquarters to their communities.  Again, there is little evidence that tax incentives are a major determinant of business location decisions.  Businesses, when looking to locate, look to the quality of the workforce, access to markets and suppliers, infrastructure, and other amenities (such as the arts) are far more important factors influencing location decisions than tax cuts.  Literally hundreds of studies and interviews with  businesses confirm this.  Businesses ask for tax cuts for one reason--because t hey can--and  governments are foolish enough to oblige.

The belief that tax cuts make much of an economic difference is a lie that is hard to kill off. Trump's tax plan, along with the Amazon scam, are just the latest examples of policy ideas that do no more than enrich the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.