Thursday, January 26, 2012

Inaugurating Elections

Last month as I drove from Los Angeles to Minneapolis I spent several hours crossing through Iowa. It was days before the Caucuses and the national media had parked themselves throughout the state. Several of the candidates had been active in the state for years. I was tempted to pull into Des Moines and sit at a diner and claim to be an undecided farmer just to see the circus reaction…but I’m more comfortable in the role of blogger than agitpropist... though some may say they’re not all that different!

Inauguration Day is just about a year away – Sunday, January 20, 2013. In the next year political prognosticating will consume Cable TV, newspapers, magazines and terabits of data on the Net. Candidates from dog catcher to President will make this the most expensive electoral season ever, with predictions that the race for the White House alone exceeding a billion dollars. The end result will look a lot like what exists today: a deeply and sharply divided country.

In 2010 the voting eligible population in the U.S. was 41.6%.  Nearly every Presidential election over the country’s history has had the popular vote pretty evenly split between the major parties so elections are won by as little as 21% of the voting pool. When compared to the entire population – which is nearly 2.5 times the voting population – the percent needed to win goes down to just 8.75%. That’s how a minority make decisions that impact the majority.

Voter apathy, election funding schemes and a continuous news cycle all contribute to the problem. Electing a U.S. President is comparable to launching a new brand via a reality show. Is there a better way?

Every four years there is much hand-wringing about whether Iowa and New Hampshire “should” be first in the nation. From each state’s perspective there is much pride taken in their role and the individuals take the process seriously and put the candidates through months and years of rigorous one-on-one questioning.

Rotating the “first in the nation” to other states may not result in that populace taking the same rigor to the candidates that Iowa and New Hampshire do. A California first-in-the-nation contest would yield a very different campaign and candidate since it is the most populous state and also one of the most diverse. New Hampshire is #43 and Iowa #31.

Like it or not today the Presidential race is all about media and branding. The policy result is problematic with highly complicated and nuanced issues being ignored or simplified to sound bites. This trend won’t change. Recognizing that the selection of a party’s nominee isn’t about retail politics allows for some different approaches.

Primaries should be held regionally – the East Coast on one Tuesday, the South on the next, the Midwest the following and the West the next. Let New Hampshire go first on a Monday and the rest of the East the next day on a Tuesday to keep the narrative and historic value of being first in the nation in place. Regions would have much more of an impact – and a “winner” wouldn’t be necessarily clear until every part of the country could weigh in.

Limit the primaries to six months before Election Day – so no balloting before May of the Election Year. That won’t stop the prediction derby of the political class, but it will narrow the attention spans of the electorate and might increase participation.

Financing: people who can vote for a candidate are the only one’s who can fund them. Corporations, unions, PACs can’t vote so they couldn’t give money. Out of district people can’t fund a candidate…only in district people can. Fully disclose donors within 24 hours on the Internet.

The political power brokers would never allow these easy to implement proposals to kick in. Maybe we need an agitpropist to push ‘em?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Religious Discrimination

I’m Church shopping. It doesn’t have quite the same impact as racing out at midnight for a Black Friday sale, but there are more similarities than you’d think. There’s not too much pushing and shoving, but window shoppers like me are eyed warily by the shopkeepers. I’m looking for certain specific liturgical traditions inside of my life long denomination but I’m equally interested in finding a community of people to connect with in my new city. It’s an interesting process and allows me to evaluate whether I’m drawn to a particular type of service out of habit and tradition, or out of spiritual fulfillment. Much as I miss my home Parish, I get to choose my Church, a wonderful opportunity. After last week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, however, religious institutions are now able to choose the people they welcome. Religious institutions can now legally discriminate.

Discriminate is a loaded word and implies judgment. The New York Times reported that  the Court made a sweeping change to the law – allowing religious institutions to fire somebody if they aren’t able to adhere to the dogma of that Church. Employment laws before the ruling required equal treatment regardless of an organization’s philosophical beliefs on a bevy of social issues had to treat its employees equally. Institutions that believed women should be in the home were required to hire women. No longer. Today a gay musician working at a denomination that believes gay marriage threatens the future of humanity (as the Pope said last week). Under the unanimous ruling by the Court, the musician can be fired for no other reason than their orientation conflicts with Catholic teachings.

The Court took steps to make sure that it was clear that only people who perform ministerial functions were impacted by this decision. It left the delineation of ministerial functions to the lower courts to sort out. In many traditions music is an integral part of the liturgy and certainly would be defined as part of the ministry. Judge Clarence Thomas wrote: “The question whether an employee is a minister is itself religious in nature, and the answer will vary widely.”

The Universal Life Ministry will ordain anybody online for free. 20 million have done so. That’s a lot of ministers with a lot of opinions.

In the United States, thanks to the First Amendment, Government is prohibited from making any law impeding the free exercise of religion. For 235 years the courts have respected and honored this core principal while balancing individual rights with universal employment laws. The balance has now shifted. 

In 2008 the Mormon Church played a significant role in California’s Proposition 8 campaign. They were fully involved against the effort to legalize gay marriage – funding, promoting, and producing propaganda.. Their historic involvement in the political campaign was documented in the award winning film “The Mormon Proposition.”

Minnesota will be voting on gay marriage this November. No matter how the vote goes gay marriage will still be illegal after the election – the issue is whether the constitution should be amended in the event that gay marriages should be considered in the future. Talk about proactive. In the midst of the campaign the Catholic Bishop told his priests to "toe the line on marriage or keep your mouth shut."

It seems in the instances of personal liberty issues, especially related to LGBT issues, many different religious denominations have quite a bit to say and quite a few rules to be followed. They’ve worked hard to pass laws that dictate how people are to live and interact with each other. Could it backfire?  The next possible manifestation of the law could be to allow a GLBT organization to fire somebody when it is discovered that the person is Catholic or Mormon.

When it comes to adhering to societal standards of fairness in employment religious institutions can now be left alone to practice their faith. These same institutions should be consistent and stay out of political campaigns and allow people to be left alone to live their lives.  I'll add it to the shopping list.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

An Inconvenient Calculation

I have talked about the weather more in the brief time I’ve lived in Minnesota more than I ever did in California. Maybe it’s because it’s easy small talk or more likely because it’s something that has a very real impact on everybody’s day to day existence. My lack of practice in the subject could be because Los Angeles is perceived has not having weather while the Twin Cities are famed for their winters. Not this year. We’re in the midst of the mildest winter here in recent memory with daytime highs in the 50s in a city used to sub-zero January’s. I have taken credit for bringing the warm weather with me. Maybe Al Gore is right – and Global Warming is the reason?

His Oscar winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” laid out a powerful narrative about how the climate has changed globally. Relax, I’m not going to argue against nor deny climate change. Perspective in today’s hyper-partisan country (and world) is all about how an issue is framed than its basis in facts. From the National Climate Data Center run by the U.S. Government: “Some areas (including parts of the southeastern U.S. and parts of the North Atlantic) have, in fact, cooled slightly over the last century.” This quote from a highly regarded agency could be easily and legitimately used to dispel the idea that temperatures have gone up. The opening paragraph of their website concludes: “seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 and the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1995.” Using that quote exclusively similarly wouldn’t tell the whole story.

The inconvenient truth is that facts can be manipulated and used to support whatever one’s point of view is. Consider taxes. Under President Reagan the top marginal individual income tax rate fell from 70.1% to 28.4%. According to the Cato Institute, on 8 of the 10 key economic variables examined, the American economy performed better during the Reagan years than during the pre- and post-Reagan years. The economy produced a $15 trillion increase in American wealth. Reaganomics also took the U.S. from being the largest creditor nation to the largest debtor nation, tripling U.S. debt and starting the current pattern of deficit spending. Wages stagnated or decreased to the point that dual-incomes were no longer a political rallying point of the Women’s equality movement, but instead an economic reality. Government spending soared. Taxes increased on the Middle Class with increased payroll withholdings to fund Social Security.

All of these facts are true – the economy grew because of deficit spending and the wealthy were relieved of significant amounts of tax burden and businesses grew. The consequence was a more bloated government and the start of living off of credit that has lasted for 30 years.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. “ Catchy and valid, the quote ignores that selective choosing of facts to support an opinion is what helps to polarize U.S. politics. There will never be unanimity on any issue. Centuries later evolution continues to be debated.

Knowing that for each point there is a counter-point it’s possible to stagnate. Compromise is the ideal … except when it requires us to give up too much of our perspective. Common ground is the missing ingredient. On climate change there can be common ground that changes in temperature and weather patterns has a consequence on the environment. On taxes there can be common ground that revenue is required from individuals and businesses to support government functions. The devil is in the details of what to do to mitigate environmental hazards and in who gets taxed and by how much. Politicians and their constituents have failed in compromising because the common ground that unites us has all but disappeared from the equation. It’s time to recalculate.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Hotel Minnesota

Living in a hotel has its perks. Everything you needs is provided: kitchenette, desk, bureau, bed, TV and recliner. Housekeeping comes by weekly and there’s laundry on site. Utilities are included. They even plow the road. Pricing is good as tourism in January in Minnesota is low. It’s a perfect solution for me moving to a new city on short notice. It gives me the opportunity to discover the Twin Cities on my timetable before making the big determination as to where I’ll settle.

Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that where I ultimately settle has as much to do with government regulation as with my own personal preferences. I thought Los Angeles’ regulation of hedge height and West Hollywood’s house color palette recommendations was intrusive. As of January 1 West St. Paul, MN has a new ordinance that limits the number of rental units in certain geographic areas of the city. It’s a variable on neighboring towns which cap rentals at 30% of housing inventory.

Rental units are considered negatives for neighborhoods because they are not owner-occupied and perceived to be maintained poorly and impact housing prices. There may be elements of truth in the diagnosis, but the remedy punishes responsible landlords, is anti-capitalist, and likely illegal.

What is the Government’s role in Housing? St. Paul has decided that 10% of a block can be rental. If the unit is on a nicer street in a good location rents will soar, artificially increasing the cost of living for renters since the supply of available units will dwindle. The remaining 90% of units must be owner occupied, even if that owner would benefit from renting out a room or two to prevent foreclosure.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as part of his New Deal, got the Government involved in housing. The Federal National Mortgage Association bought mortgages from banks, allowing the banks to have ready cash to lend to other people who would in turn buy their own house. Previously the bank would lend to somebody to buy a house, collect the money from them and eventually lend to somebody else. With the government buying the mortgages the banks had immediate liquidity to lend more money faster since they didn’t need to wait for repayment. More people bought houses, driving up the demand.

Construction workers, building suppliers and a slew of related industries blossomed. The Real Estate industry was born and millions of people over nearly a century have benefited from available housing, jobs and trillions of dollars have been generated, expanding the economy. Over the years the government programs changed – many names and variations, but their essential role remained the same. Today Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac own or guarantee the vast majority of U.S. Mortgages. To see if yours is by Fannie, click here  for Freddie, click here. (Happily for this Libertarian, my mortgage is privately owned!)

Conventional wisdom blames the 2008 financial crisis on the housing collapse. (It certainly played a part, but the roots of that crisis and the anemic recovery are much more complicated than just one sector of the economy and the subject of other blogs.) When people were buying homes who didn’t have the financial wherewithal to do so, the banks kept going because the Government was largely on the hook, not the bank. The relatively small amounts that the banks were on the hook were remedied through various bailouts.

Fannie & Freddie were nationalized by the U.S. Government on July 8, 2008  and are the beneficiary of the largest bailout in history. According to CNN, the net cost to taxpayers was reduced in October to $124 billion, down significantly from prior estimates of $193.

It’s never been a good idea for government to take on the role of banker. During Ronald Reagan’s Presidency the U.S. went from being the greatest creditor nation to the greatest debtor nation – and then as banker for mortgages the government began using borrowed money. (It’s sort of like when you use your Visa Card to pay your car loan.)

Nor is it a good idea for government to tell people how to live. Since the introduction of the Income Tax in 1913 every President and Congress has used the tax code to encourage home ownership through deductions and incentives that drive behavior encouraging home ownership.

It’s time for the Government to get out of the housing business – remove the mortgage deductions and hundreds of other incentives that favor home ownership. It’s time for the U.S. to stop being the primary funder of mortgages and spin off Freddie and Fannie to commercial banks and hold them responsible for all lending. Until that happens good thing I’m enjoying hotel living, eh?