Does Government Simply Spend “Other People’s Money?”

In Tuesday’s editions, the Times-Dispatch followed up its creedal statement of New Year’s Day with a self-review of the ways in which the paper put that creed into practice in 2006.

We won’t take issue with that self-assessment just now; what is more revealing is the brief editorial note at the bottom of the page. Noting various proposals by local politicians to spend money bolstering community college, preschool for poor kids, and road construction, the RTD notes that “When you’re spending other people’s money, no tax ever is” enough.

This raises a serious question: do government officials simply spend “other people’s money” when they allocate public funds?

A positive answer to that question implies that “government” is something apart from the people, an alien power in our midst, a Leviathan to be tamed. That image of government derives largely from the views of John Locke, writing in the 17th century, over a century before the emergence of the first modern democratic states. Locke was writing in reaction to defenders of absolutism, whether traditional royalists like Filmer or more sophisticated moderns like Thomas Hobbes. In that context, his concern was to limit government’s power to dominate individuals–because government in his experience really was an alien power.

Democratic theories of government have a different premise: the government belongs to us, and is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as a noted Republican president once put it.

This being the case, government officials who allocate public money are not supposed to be or be thought of as alien officials who spend other people’s money. Rather, they are to be thought of as our own representatives who make decisions on our behalf about how to spend our money for the sake of our common good. And when these representatives decide to raise revenues through additional taxation, they are authorized to do so by the power we have invested in them.

From the standpoint of democratic theory, then, the right question to ask is not whether government officials are addicted to spending other people’s money. The proper question is whether the proposals they forward and the decisions they make about raising and allocating public money are truly in the public interest and truly advance the common good.

Too little government spending on the right priorities can be as damaging to the commonwealth as too much, and if the legislature is persuaded that spending more money on these initiatives is the best way to advance the common interest, that’s exactly what they should do, without fear of being labeled as greedy, voracious consumers of “other people’s money.”

Published in: on January 2, 2007 at 10:05 pm  Comments (2)  

Tim Kaine’s Philosophy of Leadership

We’re going to interrupt our usual format (and postpone part three of our response to Barton Hinkle’s critique of economic populism) and report on the visit of Gov. Tim Kaine to the University of Richmond on Tuesday evening.

Speaking to an audience primarily composed of students at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, Kaine provided a useful and interesting summary of how he views the governor’s job, and what he hopes to accomplish this term.

Kaine said being governor involves three distinct leadership functions: first, being “CEO” of the state government, a task which he says occupies 60-70% of his time; second, being involved in the legislative process, which occupies about 20-30% of his time; and third, being the political leader of the Democratic Party in Virginia, a task which takes up roughly 10% of his efforts.

Kaine noted that the state government of Virginia is a massive enterprise, involving over 100,000 employees in roughly 100 different agencies. After listing various good governance plaudits Virginia has received in the past from Governing magazine and others, Kaine laid out his own philosophy of leadership one he said he developed at the “school of hard knocks” via his prior work experience.

Effective leadership involves two primary aspects, Kaine noted: setting goals, and developing relationships. Kaine argued that setting goals is essential to boosting productivity and performance, and said he had spent six weeks this year reviewing in detail each agency’s proposed goals for the next several years.

Kaine said that in the near future the state will launch a web site, Perform Virginia, which will publicly state the performance goals of each state agency, and provided regular updates on progress towards meeting those goals.

Kaine also said that he has his own goals for his term in office:

1)      To address Virginia’s transportation needs.

2)      To improve health care outcomes, particularly with regard to expanding access for the uninsured and reducing child obesity.

3)      To improve K-12 education, and specifically to reduce by over half the number of third graders failing statewide reading tests

4)      To preserve at least 400,000 acres of open space in Virginia

The governor then went on to talk about the role of relationships in leadership. On a few things, an executive has the ability to make things happen by fiat, but for large, complex goals you need to get the cooperation of many other people. The best way to do that is through fostering relationships.

Kaine cited through types of relationships in particular: the relationship between different agencies within state government; the relationship between state and local governments; and the relationship between the state government and the private and nonprofit sectors.

Kaine went on to talk about the symbolic importance of the gubernatorial role, and the importance of him simply showing up at certain events. (As an example Kaine cited a funeral for a state trooper he attended earlier the day Tuesday). Interestingly, Kaine stressed the particular importance of reaching out to groups that often feel left out of the political process and who only have rarely access the highest levels of power, noting that this was important in bringing to life the notion of a “Commonwealth” in which we’re all in it together.

Kaine then went on to describe his successes and failures in working with the legislature this year. Kaine called attention to several pieces of legislation he supported which managed to get through, including requiring evaluations for public school teachers, ending
Virginia’s estate tax, and providing tax incentives to protect open space.

But he acknowledged that the larger goal of coming up with a transportation bill had ended in stalemate. Kaine said there was basic agreement on certain priorities, particularly using state money more wisely and addressing land use issues, but not on how to fund new initiatives.

In subsequent comments Kaine said that room to maneuver on that question had been hampered by the no-tax pledges many Republican legislators have signed. Kaine added that his own position on taxes was that it was beneficial for Virginia to remain relatively speaking a low tax state, but that he saw no benefit in letting important public needs go unmet for the sake of having the lowest possible tax burden.

Finally, Kaine talked about his role in leading the Democratic Party and encouraging potentially strong candidates to run for office. He said that he was proud to be a Democrat and proud to be part of a big tent party, but that the Democrats don’t have a monopoly on wisdom or virtue. Consequently, he wants to reach out to Republicans and also independents, even at the same time he’s trying to get as many Democrats as possible elected.

Interestingly, Kaine said that recent election results show that Virginia is fundamentally an “independent” state, and that he thought that was a healthy situation, as a robust two-party system is a “wonderful form of government.”

In the question and answer period, Kaine responded to questions about taxes, leadership and ethics, protection of minority rights, and the relationship between Virginia’s cities and counties. On that last score, Kaine said he intends to use his first two year budget next year as a tool to encourage regional cooperation among city and county governments by providing funding incentives to metropolitan regions which engage in regional problem-solving.

Kaine also movingly spoke of his opposition to both the death penalty and the recently passed marriage amendment, saying that the amendment had targeted an unpopular minority in a manner inconsistent with Virginia’s best traditions, and that the amendment went much too far in denying any possibility of public recognition for unmarried couples.

All in all, the hour-long session provided some rich insight into the mindset and aspirations of Virginia’s not-quite-a-rookie-anymore governor.

Published in: on November 29, 2006 at 2:53 am  Leave a Comment  

Jim Webb’s Economics, II

The Times-Dispatch finally saw fit to give Jim Webb space to air his economic views on Tuesday, reprinting an op-ed which originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal last week. Curiously, however, the op-ed staff chose to give top billing on the printed page to a piece by regular columnist Barton Hinkle—even though Hinkle’s piece is clearly a response to Webb.

Webb writes that many of the relatively privileged have put great effort into downplaying the scale and significance of the vast increase in economic inequality witnessed over the last generation. Hinkle proves Webb’s point in his article, intended to persuade us that Webb’s economic populism only “skims the surface” of the real economy.

Hinkle’s piece trots out several old chestnuts of conservative “wisdom” concerning economic justice. First, Hinkle assures us of the degree of social mobility which American capitalism affords, by pointing to the fact that many people rise and fall through the income quintiles over the course of the life cycle. Second, Hinkle assures us that the rich are already paying a great deal in taxes. Third, Hinkle argues that inequality measures really aren’t important anyway, because the real standard of living is rising over time.

Each of those claims is contentious and, I believe, either wrong or seriously misleading. To provide an adequate response to each of those points would be too much for a single humble blog posting. So over the remainder of the week, this space will roll out responses to each of those core claims in three separate blog postings; look for the first one tomorrow morning.

Published in: on November 21, 2006 at 4:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Congratulations”

Right about now, with the Democrats poised to take control of both houses of Congress, it sure would be nice to own stock in a paper shredder manufacturer.

Sadly, that’s not the case, but there are other satisfactions at hand.

In Thursday’s paper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch calls on George Allen not to pursue a recount barring any major changes in results from the post-election canvas; with 95% of that canvas done at this point, Webb is indeed on pace to win by about 8,000 votes.

Apparently suspecting as much, the RTD spends the rest of its editorial treating Senator-Elect Webb as a fait accomplit. Much of the editorial consists of a scathing critique of some of Allen’s tactics, along with the claim that the vote was not about “issues” but about a gut reaction to Iraq. (Along the way the editorial board can’t resist taking a shot at “sleep-inducing lectures that try to pass off partisan boilerplate as scholarship,” not to be confused, of course, with partisan boilerplate that tries to pass itself of as insightful editorial writing.)

But the editorial almost approaches graciousness in noting that Webb is an independent spirit in the Jacksonian tradition. Fair enough. It’s also fair to say that the median Virginia voter doesn’t want, just as the RTD says, a clone of a Howard Dean or John Kerry–and that Webb is no such clone.

But if Webb really is not a Dean or Kerry, why did the paper spill so much ink before Election Day trying to draw just that equation?

Pre-election day RTD: Don’t vote for Webb, he’s like Dean and Kerry and Hillary, and he’s against the President. (Here’s Ross Mackzenie’s column saying pretty much exactly that, in case you’ve forgotten.)

Post-election day RTD: Well, Webb won, but at least he’s not like Dean or Kerry.

Pre-election day RTD: “Allen’s opponent in this race, echoing Democrats everywhere, has cast Allen’s (and Warner’s) backing of the president as sufficient reason for Allen’s defeat.” (October 22) Translation: Party identification tells us pretty much all we need to know about a candidate, and Webb should be shunned because he’s like Democrats everywhere.

Post-election day RTD: “Candidates run as Republicans and Democrats; citizens elect individuals to govern.” Translation: our party lost, but voters vote for the man, not the party.

The RTD’s post-facto analysis of Webb is in much the same spirit as David Brooks’s recent column on the Senator-elect. But there’s a key difference between Brooks’s analysis and that of the RTD editorialists: Brooks published his piece before the election (on Sunday in The New York Times).

The RTD, in contrast, never made an effort in its editorials to inform readers that Webb is an independent-minded Democrat with an interesting worldview that is populist but not necessarily liberal.

Describing Webb that way might have made the Senator-elect sound more appealing to some of the RTD’s readers, and possibly even cost the RTD’s endorsee Allen a few votes.

It also would have leant the newspaper’s editorial page a measure of credibility and intellectual integrity that proved sorely lacking this election season.

Published in: on November 9, 2006 at 5:42 am  Leave a Comment  

Control of the Senate on a Razor’s Edge

Not that you couldn’t find this out in a couple of thousand other blogs and web site, but as of 7 a.m. Wednesday morning here’s the situation:

In Virginia, Webb now leads by 8,359 votes with just 6 precincts statewide not reporting to the SBE. Those precincts include one in Isle of Wight County, one in Loudon County, one in Fairfax City, two in James City County, and one in Halifax County. Four of those precincts then are in localities that voted for Allen overall, but it seems impossible that there are enough votes there for Allen to make much headway into cutting into Webb’s first count lead.

A final lead of say, 7500 votes is a much better cushion for Webb to rest on than a 2000 vote margin heading into a recount. What will be critical now obviously is the quality of the legal representation Webb can muster heading into the recount process. (One piece of advice: don’t hire Warren Christopher.)

Amazingly, things are even tighter in Montana, where Democratic challenger Jon Tester’s overnight lead over Conrad Burns has been chipped down to fewer than 2,000 votes with 91% of precincts reporting, according to CNN. A quick scan of CNN’s results show that 3 of the 4 counties with outstanding precincts are split pretty much 50-50 in their vote totals to date, but does anybody know anything about Meagher County? That county has zero percent of precincts reporting.

Time for the country to learn much more about the intracacies of Montana geography and politics!  The Democrats need to hold on to victory in both Montana and Virginia to acquire control of the Senate.

Move over Florida! It’s our turn.

Update at 8:45.

In Virginia, the official results now show Webb’s lead at 6,931, with six precincts still out. (Webb somehow lost 1400 off his margin in the last update.)

Re Montana and Meagher County: Official Montana election results in 2004 show that in Meagher County, a total of 977 votes were cast; the Bush-Cheney ticket got 698 of those votes. If similar results obtained this year, than Burns probably has about 300-400 net votes in that county coming to him. Total population in Meagher County according to the 2000 U.S. Census was 1,932.

So Burns will pick up ground in Meagher, but not enough to overtake Tester. As of of 9 a.m., Meagher is the only county with uncounted votes in Montana, and Tester’s lead is over 1,500. Throw in the Meagher results and Tester should still be ahead by well over 1,000 votes, going into what presumably will be a recount.

Published in: on November 8, 2006 at 12:23 pm  Comments (4)  

Correction: Richmond Votes Progressive in Senate Race AND on Marriage Amendment

Updated and Amended, 1 a.m; thanks to reader VoteNova for calling attention to the error on the SBE amendment numbers.

Let’s break down the vote here locally and see what Tuesday reveals about this region’s political culture.

As of 12:20, with 94% of Richmond precincts reporting, Webb was carrying 72.4% of the city’s vote in the Senate race, according to the State Board of Elections. In Henrico, the race nearly mirrored the state as a whole, with Allen tallying 49.9% of the vote compared to Webb’s 48.9%. In Chesterfield and Hanover, Allen racked up much larger majorities of 59% and 67% respectively.

How did Richmond vote on Constitutonal Amendment 1? Contrary to the State Board of Elections’s apparent error Tuesday evening in reporting a 74.3% “yes” vote on all 3 amendments, the City of Richmond’s website reports a city-wide vote of “no” on amendment 1 of 69.6%.

In Henrico, the “no” vote was 49.2%, compared to just 39.6% in Chesterfield and 35.2% in Hanover.
We’ll update the numbers in this post once the remaining Richmond precincts are tallied.

Published in: on November 8, 2006 at 6:12 am  Comments (1)  

It’s Official: Virginia is a Purple State!

As the midnight bell tolled away on another long Election Day night, Jim Webb appeared to have completed a stunning comeback to pull ahead in the initial vote tally in the Virginia Senate race. At 12:30 a.m., the State Board of Elections showed Webb ahead by about 1,800 votes, with 18 precincts uncounted. Four of those precincts are in Richmond, including the city’s two absentee precincts. (By 12:45, the city website had posted results for foot-dragging Precincts 212 and 413; Webb picked up a net total of 249 votes at those locations.)

How will this end up? Who knows.

But this much is clear: Virginia is back in play for the Democratic Party, and will be one of the states that count in 2008.

That’s good news obviously for progressives in Virginia, but also good news for all Virginians: Barring a large national landslide, presidential candidates in 2008 are going to have to pay serious attention to Virginia and its voters, rather than write it in–or write it off–as a solid red state.

Published in: on November 8, 2006 at 5:15 am  Leave a Comment  

Shameless

One of the distinctive features of the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s editorial page is its willingness to comment upon and criticize laws and policies enacted in other localities across the United States. Since, lo and behold, many other states and localities have implemented interesting policies which have not yet found their way to Richmond, there is much to keep the RTD staff busy.

Tuesday’s target is a proposal in New York City to severely limit artificial trans-fats in restuarant foods. While there is a strong public health rationale for the proposed regulation, reasonable people can oppose it, and make reasonable arguments against it.

What the RTD does is link the NYC’s consideration of the law to the Central Park jogger case of the 1980s, concluding “Rough luck for her that she was being assaulted instead of eating a burger and an extra-large order of fries.” The conclusion we are supposed to draw is that New Yorkers are willing to meddle with each other’s personal habits, but indifferent to violent crime.

So much for post 9/11 solidarity with the city of New York and respect for the many heroic responses from firefighters, policemen, and ordinary citizens that day.

I’m quite sure that the RTD would not want New York editorial writers doing a little investigation about Richmond’s own past, and writing barbed editorials that judge an entire city on the basis of its worst moments. The results would not be pretty.

Published in: on November 7, 2006 at 3:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Contradictions of the RTD

Deputy editorial page editor Todd Culbertson penned a column for Sunday describing the Times-Dispatch’s candidate endorsement process. The column describes the hours of face-to-face meetings the newspaper’s editorial board conducted with candidates, and the great effort the board spent in careful deliberation about its choices.

Culbertson explains that the editorial side of the newspaper does not affect the news coverage; editorial board members are blocked from campaigning for or donating to candidates; the editorial staff collects information from “trusted sources,” looking and listening, and reading; and above all from careful evaluation of how candidates present themselves in one-on-one individuals.

It’s almost as if we were supposed to believe that winning an RTD endorsement is equivalent to gaining favor from a Nobel Prize committee or some other high-minded set of dignitaries.

The reality is that the Times-Dispatch editorial page, on balance, is a blatantly partisan advocate of conservatism and the Republican Party. (Can one imagine any circumstances, short of being charged with a felony, in which George Allen would have failed to win the newspaper’s endorsement?)

Culbertson presents some fairly direct evidence of this in his own column, in stating the “principles embraced by Media General, our corporate parent.” These include “individual freedom and responsibility; self-determination; free enterprise; fiscal conservatism; a strong national defense; integrity, innovation and high quality; and a commitment to community.”

Notably missing from that list are other values, such as social equality, democratic participation, reducing poverty and needless human suffering. Any reasonably experienced observer of American politics would read the RTD’s list and come to the straightforward conclusion that the RTD is a conservative newspaper, and that the supposedly “neutral’ application of those stated principles to evaluating candidates will produce endorsements for Republican candidates.

In that sense, all of Culbertson’s insistence on the integrity of the RTD’s internal endorsement process utterly misses the point: by virtue of the values the RTD says it stands for, the final endorsements in any given campaign are (barring quite unusual circumstances) predictable and essentially preordained. Essentially, Culbertson’s column is trying to claim for the newspaper the credibility that comes with being a truly dispassionate observer, when in fact the newspaper (by its own stated principles) is far from neutral.

But it’s worse than that. When Culbertson notes that the editorial staff members are not permitted to be part of campaigns, the implication is that the RTD’s staffers are not mere partisans who condescend to actively campaign for candidates.

But how does that claim square with the publication of columns like Ross Mackenzie’s on Sunday? The column, once again, offers no substantive evaluation of a particular issue and reflects no original research or thinking. The sum total of his argument as to why Allen wins “on the issues and the company he keeps” is that Jim Webb is a Democrat, that other prominent Democrats endorse him, and that Webb takes Democratic positions. No substantial argument is offered as to why the Democratic positions are wrong; it’s just assumed or asserted. As we have said before here, this is tautological reasoning at its finest.

It’s also ad hominem, mean-spirited, and partisan (in the worst sense) to the core. Is there any real difference between Mackenzie’s column and that of a paid GOP pamphlet, other than the occasional presence of some high-falutin’ vocabularly? And can anyone imagine that the RTD would publish a single column, let alone a regular column, which (with little or nothing in the way of substantiaton) referred to Republicans as “arrogant,” ‘incoherent,” and full of “nonsense”?

The contradiction between what the RTD says it is or wants to be and what it actually is will remain clear for all to see so long as the newspaper sees fit to print Mackenzie’s column (and those unsigned editorials which bear his unmistakeable influence).

Published in: on November 5, 2006 at 4:04 pm  Comments (4)  

The Curious Political Vocabulary of Ross Mackenzie: A Guide (In Progress) For the Perplexed

There are certain days of the week when one can pick up the pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and think, “well I may disagree with much of what these folks have to say, but at least they are speaking in intelligible terms, and are recognizable members of the same cognitive universe as myself.”

 Then there are the days Ross Mackenzie’s column runs. Read his work, and one is transported to an entirely different cognitive universe, one which intersects at important points with our own but that is also unique, idiosyncratic, and at times requires translation.

Take today’s column on Senate candidate Jim Webb, describing his “leftism, temperament, and inconstancy.” At one point Mackenzie writes, “Webb says he and Allen ‘are so opposed on every major issue that is confronting the country.’ Yet Webb’s positions display no originality. They’re largely leftist platitudes right out of the Democratic playbook.”

This prototypical Mackenzie formulation is puzzling on several grounds. For instance, why the “yet”? Given that Allen is a staunch Republican, and Webb is saying that they are opposed on the issues, doesn’t it logically follow that Webb’s positions would in fact be those characteristic of the Democratic Party? The “yet” makes it seem that there is some logical inconsistency in this, some failure or contradiction on Webb’s part where none exists.

Secondly, Webb is here taken to task for lack of originality of ideas. Does this mean Mackenzie is prepared to defend George Allen as an original policy thinker, with many innovative ideas that are not simply pulled from the conservative playbook but reflect original thought and study? If not, why the double standard?

Third, in the column Mackenzie goes on to note that Webb “would use the tax code as a hammer to enforce `economic justice.’ He has railed against corporate profits and says corporations should pay greatly more in excess-profits taxes. He would roll back ‘some’ of Bush’s tax cut . . .”

All of this is accurate enough, but then Mackenzie in the following paragraph says that this position is an instance of “going wobbly.” Surely Mackenzie cannot mean “wobbly” as a synonym for flip-flopping, since Webb has been quite clear and consistent about his views on excsessive economic inequality throughout the campaign. But what does he mean, then, by the phrase “going wobbly”?

That one, I’m not sure I can answer. I am starting to come to grips, however, with Mackenzie’s repeated use of the term “leftism” and “leftist” in recent columns, to describe a wide variety of Democratic politicians.

Here is a clear-cut case of Mackenzie using a different political vocabulary than most of the rest of us. In the cognitive universe I inhabit, for instance, “leftists” are people who advocate fundamental restructuring of the political and economic institutions of capitalism, and replacing it with some version of economic democracy or democratic socialism. Occasionally activist folks who are simply anti-corporate or pro-labor in some generic sense–folks who challenge aspects of corporate hegemony (there’s an authentic leftist term for you)  without necessarily challenging the system itself–can be counted as “leftist” as well without excessive confusion or distortion of meaning.

People who simply support higher taxes on the wealthy and better pay for the poor, but don’t challenge the fundamentals of the political-economic system itself, are not “leftists.” They’re liberals. Webb is (at least on economic issues) a liberal, and so are John Edwards and similar figures. Because of the right’s success in tarnishing the world “liberal” such figures may these days be more likely to describe themselves as “progressive,” but in most cases that’s a distinction without a difference.

But back to Ross Mackenzie’s universe. In his world, there is no meaningful distinction to be made between liberals and “leftists”–they’re all the same. (Perhaps Mackenzie has in his unique vocabulary a special word to describe folks who really are leftists, but I haven’t seen it yet.) Anyone who would use the lever of government in a proactive way to lessen inequality, poverty, or the like can be grouped together as one and the same.

Now, it’s hardly necessary to belabor the obvious point that such a reductive analysis blurs over the huge variations among different varieties of liberalism, social democracy, and radicalism–as well as masks the fact that all modern economies (including the United States) are mixed economies, involving a mixture of government and private enterprise, planning and the market. (I see nothing in Mackenzie’s work yet indicating that he’s ready to disband the Federal Reserve system or put an end to federal insurance of bank deposits.)

But what’s most curious to me is why Mackenzie defines his terms this way. Politically, from a conservative perspective, it makes little sense. The attack on the word “liberal” was a brilliant success, because not long ago many Democratic and progressive politicans did call themselves “liberal” and proudly so. Now, for the most part, they don’t embrace the label or bother to defend the term.

But very few significant Democrats (or even third-party figures) have ever described themselves as “leftist.” A figure like Webb is not going to be put on the back foot if asked in a debate, “are you kind of a leftist?” Webb, I submit, would be utterly perplexed by such a question and might ask the questioner, “what are you talking about?”

Put another way, attacking an ideology that one’s opponent does not in fact embrace doesn’t seem very useful as a political tactic. This leaves two other possibile interpretations of Mackenzie’s vocabularly.

One is that he simply doesn’t see any meaningful distinction between liberal and more radical positions.

The second is that the word “leftist” is a deliberate exaggeration or smear intended to get his conservative readers fired up and reminded how very, very dangerous it would be if a place like Virginia ever elected a Democratic senator.

Either one of those interpretations appears quite plausible, and they’re not mutually exclusive. But perhaps those who’ve read Mackenzie’s work for much longer than myself can contribute your comments on how to interpret the columnist’s  highly unique political vocabulary–any further insight on this highly perplexing question readers can provide would be most welcome.

Published in: on November 2, 2006 at 5:26 pm  Comments (4)