The Enduring Benefits of the Game of “Things”; Pt 1

29 06 2012

Maybe a year ago, me, my sister, and my friends Michelle and Marvin played the game Things–for like three hours. If you don’t know the game, here’s a quick summary from a website dedicated to the game (with the marketing banter judiciously edited):

The Game of THINGS…… is [a] party game that presents players with […] topics like “THINGS… people do when no one is looking”, …and allows each player to say whatever comes to mind. Pick a topic, get everyone to write a response, read them out loud and then guess who said what. There are no right answers. There are no wrong answers[…]

We had such a blast that I kept the massive pile of responses in my spare room, figuring I would do something with them at some point. Of course, I eventually tipped over the hat they were in, and the scraps of paper were, over time, blown around the room.

Occasionally, I’ll come across the responses or categories under some paper, under the futon, used a bookmark–everywhere–and they cheer me up invariably. Here’s the one I found today.

a low pressure front of cupcakes would have been ridiculous.





Life in the Neoliberal City: Post-Partisanship Wins!

29 06 2012

America’s big cities (and major metropolitan areas) are the laboratories of policy, if states are the laboratories of democracy. In metro areas and cities, universities, professional organizations, and trade associations and economic alliances are capable of exerting outsize influence and try to implement to approaches to social and economic problems that, again, are more easily identified and addressed because of high population concentrations in relatively small geographic areas.

Tell the nation! Draw near all ye with David Brooks columns bookmarked for other than hate reading purposes: Chicago and America’s big cities have achieved post-partisanship! The very post-partisanship our President talked about on the campaign trail. As the post-partisanship machine takes firmer hold of our cities, it will move upward, capillary-attraction speed, to the states, until finally–finally!–we achieve the post-partisanship paradise pundits prattle on and on about.

What does that post-partisanship look like? Let Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky tell you:

Welcome to part two in our ongoing series on the mayor’s millionaire’s club, in which we pore over the mayor’s daily appointment schedule with the aim of shedding light on how the mayor prioritizes his time–and his far-reaching connections…

[O]nce again, we found that his days were loaded with rich guys, campaign donors, powerful contractors, union busters, charter-school supporters, City Hall insiders, aldermanic brownnosers, and other favor seekers.

But during these three months Emanuel found time for another type of visitor: major funders of conservative attacks on President Obama. As such, the mayor’s calendar offers a glimpse of what passes for bipartisanship in Chicago–and shows the ways in which wealth and access, at least as much as party identity or ideology, have come to command the attention of politicians, leaving everyday people out of the conversation.

Meanwhile…

As a whole, appointments with neighborhood groups or community leaders were largely missing from the mayor’s schedule. [Amisha] Patel says her group’s requests for a meeting with the mayor have been ignored. She notes that Emanuel continues to find job subsidies for profitable corporations and developers at the same time he’s cutting library hours, neighborhood services, and public-sector positions. “Let’s talk about job creation but let’s do it in a full way.”

In fact, like many up-and-coming Republican stars, the mayor has shown a willingness–some would say an eagerness–to take on organized labor, especially the teachers union. He’s also an avowed supporter of charter schools, paying them about as many visits, and arguably more attention, as he does regular public schools.

Post-partisanship means staying away from the organized (and thus cantankerous) disaffected and powerless, and hew to the already powerful and wealthy who must know what’s best.

If this were just a Chicago phenomenon, it may be dismissed as yet another quirk of Chicago’s sui generis politics.

It’s not though! Phew, right? Post-partisanship lives to fight another day! In the form of…
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Vacuous Deference and the Affordable Care Act

28 06 2012

During oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act, Justices asked the challengers of the bill if they wanted to see a return to the “Lochner era.” The bill’s challengers strenuously denied this was their aim. The term refers to the era of Supreme Court jurisprudence after the turn of the last century, when the Court repeatedly struck down state statutes regulating workers hours, overtime pay, child labor, and the like, on the grounds that they violate a nebulous “freedom of contract.” The name refers to the case Lochner v. New York, a case striking down a New York statute setting wages and conditions for bakers and confectioners. The Lochner era was characterized close judicial scrutiny of legislatures’ determination of social ills and the best means to address them. In other words, the Justices were concerned that striking down the ACA would set a precedent of lack of judicial deference to legislatures’ political judgment.

I was of the belief that Chief Justice Roberts would not vote to strike down the minimum coverage requirement of the Act as a whole, for two reasons: first, because invalidate a law so hotly debated, that resulted from intense negotiation between massive political and economic interests (not just between parties) in an election year, would forever tarnish his name and his Court as the politicized Supreme Court. Second, because as the Chief Justice, he could by voting with the upholding majority, author the opinion and narrowly limit the holding. These two dynamics certainly won out when weighed against the potential risks and rewards of creating a nebulous line between “activity/inactivity” that the dissent encourages and striking down the law.

Indeed, Justice Roberts hewed to some basic canons in Supreme Court jurisprudence: don’t judge a statute as policy; defer to the legislature’s judgment as to findings of facts and potential remedies; and, if a statutory provision can be considered constitutional in any way, it should stand. In other words, be deferential to the legislature. That deference cuts both ways.

He got the best of both worlds: he upheld the statute, avoiding the firestorm that would have resulted from a murky decision, but also reinforced the Court’s traditional deference to the legislature particularly on its use of the taxing power. Reading the opinion, Roberts’ elan and cunning shines through. Scholars are going to be all over this bad boy for the next decade.

Ultimately, the Court avoided the more exacting “Lochner deference” standard for economic legislation that requires a legislature to prove that their statute address an actual problem, and that the means they’ve chosen will certainly achieve those ends.

That’s good news. The legislature is the most frequently elected body of government, thus the most accountable; and it is the largest, thus most representative. It should be afforded deference in all but a handful of narrow categories of legislation.

It has also become hopelessly manipulated by corporate and cash influence, such that elections are perennially losing efficacy, and lobbyist power neuters what change is made at the ballot box–for an example, look at the Affordable Care Act itself.

Americans largely supported the public option, but it was a non-starter not for electoral reasons but because of the power of a handful of very wealthy and influential lobbies, particularly AHIP, the insurance trade association that made it clear that the public option was unacceptable to them.

In a post-Citizens United electoral landscape, expanding deference to the legislature is not necessarily a victory for progressives. It indicates very little risk for elites. In the Lochner era, the Court was applying minimal deference as a reaction to populist legislation fighting the excesses of capital. In the current era, applying generous deference just enables capital’s excess as it is expressed through the legislature. Deference to the legislature is in other words a neutral value.

What’s more, Justice Roberts’ narrow holding–that the minimum coverage requirement was constitutional as a taxing-and-spending power, not a commerce clause power–makes the jurisprudential effect of the decision even less problematic for the political right. Taxation is always less-than-popular. In the big-cash-as-speech era, expansive deference to Congress’ power to impose and spend new taxes is judicial deference to political poison.

Ultimately, the Court held that the minimum coverage requirement or individual mandate is constitutional not under the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the power to regulate commerce “among the several States” (Art I, Sec. 8), but because it operates like a tax. If Congress wants to tax you for not having health insurance, a risk-taking behavior that potentially creates costs for others, they can do that. What they cannot do, Roberts says, is use the Commerce clause to induce people to buy a product. The Court held this explicitly.

The government briefed an alternative to their Commerce Clause argument, that the mandate was constitutional under Congress’ explicit power to lay and collect taxes for the public welfare. It was this alternative argument that Roberts accepted. Roberts is winning praise from progressive and moderate commentators for his deference to the political judgment of legislators–but the fact that he accepted this alternative argument means that that deference is qualified. The Commerce Clause is not a near-boundless grant of power for Congress to regulate social and economic relations.

Whether the case was “rightly decided” is not particularly interesting. The act of judicial restraint in not invalidating a statute because it is clumsy was appropriate. As a piece of precedent, the holding that the Commerce Clause does not justify consumer mandates is fairly politically neutral; recall that the individual mandate was originally a conservative idea. The precedent of deference shown to Congress’ taxing-and-spending power tracks with historical treatment of Congress’ taxing-and-spending power (see for example South Dakota v. Dole) and, in the big-money era of electoral wheel-spinning for progressives, such deference doesn’t promise anything new.

On the ramifications of the policy actually moving forward, more to come.





Privatization, Non-Profits, and Disinheriting the Public

26 06 2012

Privatization has been accelerating at break-neck speed (and in ludicrous ways) the last thirty years or so, in part because of the decline in government revenues and the general growth of the neoliberal consensus that assumes the profit motive brings with it ideal efficiency. It is also an efficient means of weakening the labor movement, because employees of a government contractor are covered by a different, considerably weaker, set of labor laws than employees of a state actor.

But privatization isn’t new; in fact, privatization of public services was quite common back in the day, and by back in the day I mean ancient Rome.

The late Roman Republic grew quickly as a result of conquests and voluntary ceding. There was no time to inculcate Roman civic values and grow the necessary institutions to ensure administration along Roman lines. Instead, what the Roman Senate, Consuls, and other governing bodies did to guarantee the provisioning of necessary public services and the gathering of taxes was to contract powerful local men, called Publicans, to provide these services and gather these taxes.

The Publicans in turn grew immensely wealthy with these government contracts, and thus were able to flex significant political muscle in Rome itself, through the buying of tribal leaders in elections and the funding of foreign adventures for ambitious soldiers and politicians. It was a textbook rent-seeking loop.

The privatization craze may be leading to similar results in the U.S. (hopefully without the foreign adventures, although, you know; military-industrial complex). Stories have been popping up with increasing frequency indicating that privatizing the provisioning of public goods is creating wealth, but not, you know, provisioning public goods any more efficiently.

First, here’s Paul Krugman on the privatization of the prison industry–he touches on several of the key points, so I’m quoting at length:
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The Weekly Theme: Week of June 24th

25 06 2012




Supreme Court on Montana’s Corporate Spending Law: Nyope.

25 06 2012

Taking the opportunity to go out of lockstep, the Montana Supreme Court upheld a state statute forbidding corporate expenditures on elections or political questions, sourced in the destabilizing political power held by the state’s old mining interests going back to its territorial days. The parties challenging the statute appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that the statue conflicted with the Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The case was to be decided without additional briefing or oral arguments. To the question of whether states could regulate corporate spending independently, the Court, in a per curiam decision, let out a disinterested nyope, consisting of about three sentences of legal reasoning:

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, this Court struck down a similar federal law, holding that “political speech does not lose First Amendment protection simply because its source is a corporation.” The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law. There can be no serious doubt that it does. Montana’s arguments in support of the judgment below either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case…The judgment of the Supreme Court of Montana is reversed.

Any hopes states had of passing their own uniquely tailored legislation to keep corporate cash out of state and local elections just diminished a little bit. Justice Breyer, joined by the liberal and moderate justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, dissented.





Negotiating with Doom in the Schools Debate

25 06 2012

cross-posted from Gapers Block.

The media is reporting, occasionally breathlessly, on the “standoff” and “contest” between the Board of Education–a proxy for the Mayor, who appoints it and controls it–and the Chicago Teachers Union, the democratically-elected collective bargaining representative for 24,000 public school teachers.

I watched an interesting debate over the weekend unfold on Twitter between a young academic in education policy and an award-winning teacher and activist. They were arguing about the supposed intractability of teachers and parents over the pro-privatization reforms of groups like Stand and DFER. The academic was striking a “reasonable” pose:

<em>You’re going to have to compromise. That’s politics. There are two sides with competing goals, let’s get an agreement.</em>

 

For a young academic looking to get into education policy, this is a smart position to take. Most of the money in education policy is on the side of organizations like Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform. If he ever wants to work in education policy, the good jobs are all going to be on the side of the pro-privatization reformers. Pro-privatizers have done a good job of conflating being against their version of reform (e.g., being with parents and teachers) as being pro-status quo. It’s the surest way to keep yourself out of the education policy job market to be on the side of the straw man status quo.

Notoriously funded by tiny groups of immensely wealthy people, with no control by or buy-in from communities, no democratic structures that allow for parent participation, and in fact nothing other than the whims of their millionaire funders, these groups have unilaterally decided they deserve a spot at the negotiating table. They bought their button, in other words.

Why shouldn’t we be heard, they ask. After all, although we don’t live in your community, don’t send our children to school there, don’t vote there, don’t have any meaningful membership there and, to what degree we do have some supporters there, they have no meaningful say in how we as organizations make decisions, we are rich. In other words, we are not rooted in your communities at all; we have no stake in the outcome of our programs and policies insofar as they don’t materially affect us; nobody in your community has any say in how our organization is run; but we, for no reason other than our wealth empowering our speech, deserve a seat at the table and you <em>must</em> negotiate with us, or you–not we–are “politicizing children.”

This is the absurd position they’ve taken. Their goals: liquidate teachers’ ability to collectively bargain and privatize enough the school systems to reduce the public schools to last-resort catchalls, not unlike public County Hospitals. Use unreliable but easily consumed standardized test scores and fluidly defined “graduation” rates to allow parents to choose a school from a menu, encouraging competition.

That parents and teachers are unwilling to treat these demands as coordinate in legitimacy is then called out as “politicizing,” or as being unwilling to compromise. Why should they compromise, though, with organizations that have no legitimacy outside of their cash reserves, and who have as stated purposes the de facto elimination of the two things parents and teachers care most about: keeping schools public and equal, and keeping teaching a competitive profession, drawing and keeping the best?

Parents and teachers see, in the middle distance, the death of public education as the incubator of civil society with the goal of equality, in the form of neoliberal privatization reform. Who says you have to negotiate with death to be reasonable? You don’t negotiate with death. You fight death to your dying breath.