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17.9.09

Melancon backs into losing health care debate corner

It’s never a good sign when a challenger devotes most campaign rhetoric to playing defense and trying to criticize the incumbent as a rejoinder. It’s even worse when his arguments factually fall flat. At this rate, Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon is going to have a long year-plus ahead of him.

In the brief but early campaign for the Senate seat of Republican David Vitter who intends to continue the claim on the seat, Melancon has been on the defensive from the beginning on precisely the issue where Vitter has been on the march, health insurance changes. Vitter has become a leading opponent of Democrat plans to boost regulation, vastly increase spending, and create a system to herd the populace into a government-run system.

But Vitter has shown he does not only oppose reform. Recently, he endorsed the general ideas behind a report issued by Louisiana’s Pelican Policy Institute, built upon the general recommendations of a firm headed by the visionary economist Arthur Laffer, and which largely.parallels Republican plans regarding health care. These endorse a system that, except for catastrophic, “high-risk” cases, would get government out of the health care business (the Institute report does not recommend the high risk pool) through a combination of health savings accounts while removing employer tax breaks, vouchers for the indigent instead of direct payments by government, tort liability reform, and policy portability (which already works with auto insurance). It would save money and likely would provide for better care.

Yet while Vitter has stated what he opposes and what he supports on the issue, Melancon has just claimed to be Rep. “No” – and not even convincingly at that. While he voted against one Democrat proposal in committee, for it he also voted against Republican amendments that would have steered that bill more towards the GOP’s version, and he also used a procedural vote to allow the potential for taxpayer-funded abortion in it. The strategy is that House Democrats want to find a way to pass their bill without having to call on Melancon’s affirmative vote.

However, if Melancon is supposedly against his party’s plans, what is he for? Well, nothing specific, just some general bromides about increased coverage at lower costs. He got a little more specific in criticizing Vitter’s support of the alternative, saying he was against making individuals buying their own even though statistics show they would actually pay less for health insurance this way.

So, Vitter has criticized effectively Democrat plans which are unpopular among his constituents and backed reasonable alternatives that data and research show have every chance of succeeding. Further, he has highlighted Melancon’s refusal to go along with the alternatives and his opponent’s implicit support of the Louisiana-reviled Democrat plans. Melancon, for his part, heretofore has become reduced to denying he supports specific Democrat plans, denying that he supports specific Republican plans, and spouting meaningless generalities to a public that has become agitated over the issue and wants specifics.

This latter scenario is no way to win an election, and the issue is no-win for Melancon. If, least likely, Republican reforms win, Vitter gets all the credit and Melancon none. If, more likely, Democrat changes win, Melancon gets no credit because he supported nothing but Vitter does get much because he valiantly opposed them. If, most likely, marginal changes get enacted in the Democrat direction and Melancon votes against them, the same applies, and if he votes for them, he’ll still get less political mileage out of that than Vitter’s opposition does for him.

Ironically for Melancon, his own party has made this one of the two biggest issues of the nascent campaign season and put him in a position that only can hurt his candidacy (and the other, the performance of the economy, also has set Melancon up for campaign failure). It has exposed the internal contradictions of Melancon’s national political career – supporting liberal policies representing a conservative district, now trying to get elected from a conservative state – and makes what is a difficult job for Melancon to win even harder.

16.9.09

Elizabeth Rickey, 1956-2009

I knew Elizabeth “Beth” Rickey before she became more widely known in the political world as a researcher into the nefarious life of David Duke, and join in the sadness of her death a few days ago.

In 1987, she started graduate studies in political science at the University of New Orleans, where I was approaching the conclusion of my degree program. Few on the faculty or among the other graduate students were conservatives or Republicans, so it was natural that we fell in with each other (regardless, I enjoyed my time with many of the department’s other graduate students, a fair number of which now teach at universities in Louisiana).

In fact, I like to argue that I was responsible for her getting elected in 1988 as the GOP State Central Committee member from which she launched her investigations into Duke. In those days, the 93rd House District extended from the lower French Quarter, where I lived, down to the eastern-most part of the Garden District where she lived. I did some minor campaigning for her and certainly voted for her, along with getting my building manager to do the same. She won by three votes, so it would have been uncomfortably close without my efforts. In fact, it was only a one vote margin before the machines were officially opened and their tallies counted so I trooped with her a few days after the election to where Orleans then kept (as I recall I hope accurately) its voting machines off the Earhart Expressway when they were opened to make sure the result held.

Later that year, she asked whether I wanted to act as a local host for a state delegation to the Republican national convention that was held in New Orleans. I consented, and drew the Indiana delegation. The key figure in it, of course, was then-Sen. Dan Quayle, whom the day after I met was named as the ticket’s vice presidential candidate and the rest was history. She got us some good seats to watch the proceedings when I wasn’t with the Indiana crowd.

I headed off to my first full-time teaching job at the beginning of 1989, right when the open seat in the 81st House District came up and she began to find out more about that creep Duke. I say that about the idiot because one of the times we talked years later she told me about this weird dynamic he established with her, like he was trying to seduce her (which she recounted in published material eventually). Years later, everything she said was confirmed to me when a former student and friend of mine (who shall remain nameless to protect his solid reputation) worked as a volunteer on the Duke gubernatorial campaign. Eventually, Duke came to trust him and told him some stories which were rather X-rated, so Beth’s vibe about the hooded one was spot on.

A couple of years ago I last heard from her. I don’t know whether she was the most important person in exposing Duke as an opportunist and not a real conservative, but she was one of them. Nor am I sure she would have been happy that many on the left used her efforts disingenuously to try to equate Republicans and conservatives with Duke. But I do know that she was a dignified, unassuming person who had a good sense of moral rights and wrongs, and, while assertive, public displays did not come naturally to her, felt compelled to act when few others were aware or seemed interested. Even if her efforts to unmask Duke had not succeeded, this aspect alone about her should merit admiration.

15.9.09

Clumsiness does not moot truth behind juror comments

Perhaps Bossier Parish Police Juror Wanda Bennett wished she never had opened her mouth during the Jury’s Jun. 17 meeting. But despite the criticism she has received regarding her remarks, the ensuing debate addresses a serious policy public matter that she may not have been intellectually or forensically able to articulate yet nonetheless needs attention.

The Democrat and former Bossier City Council member famously reacted negatively to an announcement by the Housing Authority of Bossier City that it would seek Neighborhood Stabilization Program Community Development Block Grant Funds, courtesy of “recovery” bills initially passed in the waning days of the Pres. George W. Bush and then as part of the spending orgy triggered by Pres. Barack Obama. Bennett said then, and tried to defend later, that the plan would attract apparently undesirable “lower socioeconomic people” to what is known as Old Bossier because they can cause the quality of life to deteriorate for the city as a whole. This sparked criticism from many who averred at best it was insensitive, at worst (because the poor disproportionately are racial minorities) racist.

Lost in all the invective and knee-jerk reactions is a thorough, dispassionate analysis of the policy in question, what is being done in Bossier Parish regarding public housing, and the merits of the move. The grant money would permit HABC to take possession of, renovate, and to rent out potentially dozens of single-family structures, many of which already are in adjudication, to very low-income families, which by law would have to be no higher than 50 percent of the existing poverty level because at least 25 percent of program funds would have to go to this purpose. It is restricted to this area, near the Louisiana Boardwalk, and would have to be a part of a consortium of public housing authorities in the state (totaling at least 100 units involved across the state) by law.

First, it is worth noting that the parish can not influence these plans in any way. HABC is governed by five appointees to staggered fixes terms by Bossier City, and receives all of its income from its own activities and in grants from the federal government. As long as matters such as zoning are met successfully, HABC can buy, renovate, and rent out to low-income families as many houses as it wants. The only way even Bossier City, if it wanted (no objections were raised by its council members at a similar presentation to them), could alter these plans and only over the long run, if at all, would be to replace gradually board members with others that would be against them.

Second, the parish never has been in the business of providing government-owned public housing. Instead, it administers a voucher program (colloquially known as “Section 8”) of federal government money that typically pays for at least half the market rate of rent for qualifying families. For this about 30 apartment complexes across the parish provide almost 1000 units, and some single-family residential houses also are enrolled in the voluntary program for landlords. By contrast, HABC owns the Riverwood/Eagle Pointe complex near the intersection of I-20 and Benton Road where a couple of hundred units are maintained as public housing units and others used for Section 8 and market-rate purposes. Thus, the proposal would be the first HABC ownership of single-family residential houses in Bossier, in a concentrated fashion.

Third, having a concentration represents a different philosophy than typically happens under the voucher strategy which has a greater potential to scatter recipient families throughout the community, and gets at the heart of the controversy. The most utterly misunderstood aspect about poverty is its origins. Many mistake the symptom for the disease when they define being in “poverty” as having a lack of income and/or assets because the “system” somehow is “biased” against them. Rather, “poverty” results from a set of attitudes within individuals that discourages the behaviors that create potential for these people to accrue wealth. That is (as history and research amply demonstrate), the large majority of the long-term poor are so not because something structurally about the economy or society prevents them from gaining wealth, it is because they adopt a present-oriented outlook that encourages, on the whole, even just a handful of actions that bring ephemeral, short-term benefits but with excessive long-term costs that could irretrievably shape their entire lives.

Thus, the concentration strategy has three detrimental effects. First, densely packing so many people together with the same inferior attitudes tends to feed on itself, intensifying the effect as well as increasing the chances the physical assets owned by the taxpayer will fall into disrepair if not be outright vandalized. Second, for those poor who have a future-orientation and the desire to move out of poverty, surrounding them with many who don’t feel the same way and therefore act in ways detrimental to themselves also then makes it more difficult on these others who do want to progress. These deviant behaviors not only are a bad influence but can be harmful to those who resist the influence. Third (and the point Bennett inelegantly tried to make), attraction of such people by government provision of inexpensive housing and their subsequent concentration makes it easer for a critical mass of these behaviors to form and spill out into the larger community that largely does not share these views, bringing social problems.

Neither, however, is a voucher strategy effective in dealing with the issue of housing provision for the poor. It has the potential to spread the problem widely out within the community, but, more to the point, both strategies rest on the mistaken notion that without government intervention, housing would not be available for the poor. Research has shown that (not for the elderly or disabled, the two other and smaller kinds of public housing clients) the private and nonprofit sectors can provide adequate, quality housing. In fact, the provision of cut-rate housing tends to bolster attitudes of entitlement and disregard of long-term planning and thrift, the very feelings that contribute to having to live in poverty.

Therefore, the optimal solution would be for Bossier City and Parish to dramatically alter its philosophy of dealing with public housing. Unfortunately, federal law provides many constraints in using grant money and is perhaps the greatest impediment to addressing the issue realistically (and is unlikely to change soon given Obama’s checkered history on this issue). But at its margins things could be made better. More along the lines of Shreveport with its Concordia Place development in the Stoner Hill area, HABC if it pursues this development should do so under the auspices of federal programs that encourage acquisition of the properties by tenants, with zero tolerance for those families that do not fulfill their end of the deal.

In the end, criticism of Bennett would be deserved only because of the clumsy way in which she delivered the message. The essential truth that she seemed unable to explicate, if understood by all policy-makers, would promote finally heading in the right direction in housing policy.

14.9.09

Direct democracy unworkable in almost all situations

As a means of governance, “direct” or “participatory” democracy might appear appealing at first glance, but fully investigating its implications shows it to be of limited utility as a form of government that might work only in very limited circumstances.

In this system, society’s members of appropriate voting qualifications (such as having attained the age of majority, being a citizen, not being a felon, etc.) would vote on every legislative policy that government is proposed to pursue. Any thoughtful review of this possibility should bring to mind numerous practical objections in application to national, state, or even municipal or county governance.

Including all matters such as procedural motions, Congress casts several thousand votes a year and passes hundreds of bills. This year, the Louisiana Legislature passed 560 acts (meaning a vote in each chamber), a couple of hundred resolutions and had roughly double this total number dealing with amendments and other procedural matters. Shreveport’s and Bossier City’s City Councils, and Caddo and Bossier Parish’s legislatures also pass dozens of ordinances each year and have as many of other kinds of votes. Given that it’s hard enough to get even half the voting-eligible public to show up for the occasional election, probably far fewer than one in a hundred would vote regularly on the myriad matters that concern these bodies – even if the technological difficulties could be overcome to allow regular mass participation.

In addition, those microscopically-few who would regularly participate would be unlikely to be representative of the public as a whole. While representative democracy does not allow for direct participation in policy-making, it beautifully creates sufficient and diverse representation because officials must face a broad electorate and respond to it. Therefore, practically speaking policy from a representative democracy more likely will reflect society’s preferences as a whole than would that produced by a direct democracy (if it could be gotten to work). This also does a better job of protecting the political rights of minorities whose numbers by definition cannot win against a majority that may decide to be oppressive, showing the downside of translation of popular passions unfiltered into policy.

Thus, for these obvious reasons, only the smallest political jurisdictions can operate a direct democracy (such as the two Swiss cantons –states – of less than 15,000 inhabitants that still practice the Landsgemeinde) and in a limited fashion (such as in American townships by having a board of selectmen who make periodic decisions of which the most important may be subject to infrequent ratification by electors). A modified version could work, for example, in Louisiana with special districts such as fire, water, levee, etc. where (as is done currently) governing members of boards are selected by local governments, but to have some of their important decisions such as tax increases also requiring ratification by electors.

But to argue such a system could work to any larger extent shows ignorance of the concept and inability to understand the philosophical and practical aspects of the idea.

13.9.09

Roemer's education actions portend political promise

You’ll have to ask Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Chas Roemer whether he reads this space, but, regardless, he’s making a lot of sense that is targeting him as a politician to watch for Louisiana’s future.

In the area of education reform and improvement, Roemer has been the brightest spot statewide. He was the most prominent elected official to criticize the new state high school curriculum that threatens to produce a “dummy diploma” for too many of the state’s students. Now, not surprisingly given his former position as a charter school official, he has expressed strong public support for them.

Better, in statements made in conjunction with the Louisiana Charter School Conference, Roemer explained the political challenge to improving Louisiana’s educational system. Reiterating what has appeared in this space, Roemer said, “Charter schools are now a threat to a jobs program called public education …. It’s old-school politics and it will be a formidable opponent …. [causing reformers to battle] a system that does not work and those who want to protect it.”

Commendable about Roemer’s words is he doesn’t shy away from naming who are the opponents – teacher unions, representatives of local educational establishments, and some politicians – and their motives for opposing reforms such as charter schools, which have demonstrated in Louisiana better educational outcomes for students who often start from worse initial positions. Only by understanding who are the obstacles to better performance and their self-serving motives can the political effort be made to neutralize their influence, so Roemer bravely takes that extra needed step here for success.

In response sniffs the head apologist for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Stephen Monaghan, who insists union opposition to charter schools is not for ideological reasons then contradicts himself with this ideological appeal: “If Mr. Roemer’s idea is to lower the wages for educators, to deprive them of benefits, then we are definitely going to oppose those kinds of initiatives.” Note well the worldview here: to unions, education is all about jacking up wages and benefits to teachers as high as possible and has nothing to do with equipping children to contribute to their and their society’s well-being.

That’s the mindset Roemer and reformers must fight to prevail over parochial interests that damage the common good on this issue. Let’s also hope that Roemer takes the next logical step and supports efforts for greater teacher accountability such as regular subject area testing of knowledge in the areas in which a teacher is certified and teaches. No doubt Roemer is aware that this very issue was a great setback for his father as governor, so it is more than appropriate that he becomes the first state official with the foresight and guts to publicly get behind this effort.

It’s refreshing to see Roemer’s candor and willingness to speak with its attendant political risks because it’s the right thing to do. If he keeps up this style as a politician, his political career could eclipse his father’s.