Estate Tax Exemption Spotlights Minnesota Republicans’ Twisted Priorities

In the first year that Minnesota Republicans took full control of the Minnesota Legislature, they elevated Minnesota’s millionaire heirs and heiresses to the very top of their fiscal priority list.  Representative Greg Davids (R-Preston) says the wealthiest Minnesotans should be able to “keep more of what their mothers and fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers have earned,” so Republicans significantly increased the’ estate tax exemption for millionaires.

To be clear, we’re talking about filthy rich grandfathers and grandmothers,  After all, only the very wealthiest Minnesota estates pay any estate tax.   According to the Minnesota Public Radio:

“Up until now, your estate would have to be worth more than $1.8 million before the Minnesota estate tax kicked in, but that changed during this year’s legislative session.

The tax bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and reluctantly signed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton increases the taxable estate value from $1.8 million to $3 million over the next three years. The top tax rate remains at 16 percent.

Minnesota is among 14 states that impose their own estate tax. Farms and family-owned businesses worth up to $5 million are already exempt.”

So, we’re not talking about the four-, five- or even six-figure inheritance you might get from Aunt Gertie.

All of this is being proposed by Republicans at at time when wealth inequality has reached grotesque proportions, as illustrated by this stunning video:

This is how intergenerational privilege perpetuates: Millionaire heirs and heiresses – having done nothing more than winning the birth lottery by being born into a wealthy family — are exempted from taxation, including for wealth that has already avoided taxation because it is unrealized capital gains.

And on it goes, generation after generation. This is how we get the Donald Trumps and Donald Trump, Jr.’s of the world, entitled scions born inches from home plate crowing about their home run.

To state the obvious, because it apparently is no longer obvious to everyone, this is not in keeping with the American value of “all men are created equal,” which used to be all the rage in America. America was founded in defiance of the British system of aristocracy, which gave power to a small, wealthy privileged “ruling class.”  Abolishing aristocratic forms of inheritance was a primary way the founding fathers went about furthering American equality.

While today’s Republican Tea Partiers don Revolutionary War-era tri-corner hats while asserting that the estate tax is “Marxist,” the truth is that the estate tax has been strongly supported by a number of founding fathers.

Remember Thomas Jefferson, the guy who penned “all men are created equal,”  America’s “immortal declaration?” He promoted the egalitarian values of America’s founding fathers by arguing against the passing of property from one generation to the next:

“The earth and the fulness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural.“

Jefferson was hardly alone in this opinion. Similar sentiments were expressed by Adam Smith, the hero of conservative free market advocates, as well as Republican Party icon Theodore Roosevelt.

“The absence of effective state, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.  The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is passed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in … a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”

You might guess that someone like Bill Gates, Sr. would be all-in when it comes to increasing the estate tax exemption. But he eloquently explains why the wealthy people need to pay back the community that supported them:

“No one accumulates a fortune without the help of our society’s investments. How much wealth would exist without America’s unique property rights protections, public infrastructure, and academic institutions? We should celebrate the estate tax as an ‘economic opportunity recycling’ program, where previous generations made investments for us and now it’s our turn to pass on the gift. Strengthening the estate tax is important to our democracy.

Consider all of the other alternative ways Minnesota Republicans could have used the $357 million that they are giving to Minnesota’s wealthiest heirs and heiresses over the next two bienniums. They could have used it to improve our transportation or broadband infrastructure,  help vulnerable children access early learning programs to close our dangerous achievement gaps, or expand clean energy capacity.  Those kinds of investments would have paid dividends for all Minnesotans far into the future.

Instead, Republicans made their top priority lavishing more enormous tax breaks on the small number of ultra-wealthy Minnesotans who least need help.

Governor Dayton has already signed the Republicans’ estate tax exemption, so at this point he has little if any negotiation leverage. But if Democrats take control of state government in 2018, this should be one of the first policies they reverse in 2019.  In the meantime, at every campaign stop they should spotlight this outrageous Republican giveaway to the wealthy elite.

A Policy Agenda For Minnesota’s Next Progressive Governor

In 2018, progressive Governor Mark Dayton will be retiring, and Minnesota voters will be selecting a new chief executive.  To retain control of the Governor’s office in 2018, Minnesota Democrats need a compelling policy agenda. It goes without saying that they also need a compelling candidate, but this discussion is about policy.

What constitutes a compelling policy agenda? First, it’s bite-sized. It can be quickly consumed and remembered by casually engaged voters. It’s more like five proposals, not fifty proposals. That doesn’t mean leaders should only do five things as a governor, but it does mean that they should only stress and repeat five-ish policies as a candidate, so that the agenda can be remembered.

Second, a compelling policy agenda delivers relatively bold change. It’s not merely about protection of the status quo from the bad guys, or small incremental improvements (see HRC campaign). It’s aspirational, and not limited to ideas that currently have the necessary votes to pass. If a candidate has to scale it back after elected, so be it. But they should run with a bold vision.

Third, a compelling policy agenda needs to have popular support beyond the political base. After all, a campaign agenda is about winning votes.

Fourth, it’s is easy to understand. Few have the time or inclination to study the intricacies of a 15-point tax reform plan, so candidates should stick to things that most can easily grasp and embrace.

Finally, a compelling policy agenda must be directed at Minnesota’s most pressing problems. It shouldn’t merely be about kowtowing to the most powerful interest groups, as is so often the case. It must actually be about the problems that most need fixing.

What fits those criteria? In no particular order, here’s my recommendation for a progressive gubernatorial candidate’s agenda.

  • MinnesotaCare for All Option. Allow all Minnesotans to buy into the MinnesotaCare public health insurance program. This will put competitive pressure on private insurance companies to keep premiums down, and ensure Minnesotans will always have a coverage option, even if health plans pull out of the market.
  • Transportation Jobs Fund. Increase the gas tax by a nickel per gallon — one penny per gallon per year over five years — and put the proceeds into an untouchable fund that will put Minnesotans to work improving the state’s roads, bridges and transit system. This will lift up the portion of the workforce that is struggling the most, and ensure Minnesota has a competitive economy and quality-of-life into the future.
  • Achievement Gap Prevention Plan. Ensure every child under age five has access to a high quality early learning program, starting with the children who can’t afford those programs on their own. This will prevent low-income children from falling into Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps, gaps that opens before age two, lead to lifelong inequity and pose a grave threat to our economic competitiveness.
  • Fair Share Tax. Create a new, higher tax bracket for the wealthiest 10% of Minnesotans.  During a time when income inequality is the worst it has been since  just prior to the Great Depression (1928), the wealthiest Minnesotans are paying a lower share of their income in state and local taxes.   Adjusting the state income tax is the best way to remedy that disparity.
  • Super-sized Rainy Day Fund. Increase the size of the state’s rainy day fund by 25%. This will control taxpayers’ borrowing costs and help keep Minnesota stable in the face of 1) an economy that, after the longest period of economic expansion in history, may be due for a downturn and 2) a federal government that is threatening to shift many fiscal burdens to states. Bolstering the rainy day fund will also communicate to moderate voters that a progressive will be a level-headed manager of their tax dollars.

Yes, worthy issues are left off this agenda.  But we’ve seen time and again that when Democrats try to communicate about everything, they effectively communicate about nothing.  Long, complex “laundry list” policy agendas may please the interest groups who are constantly lobbying the candidates and their staffs, but they are simply too much for busy voters to absorb.  As legendary ad man David Ogilvy preached, “the essence of strategy is sacrifice.”  To be heard, many things must be left unsaid.

This kind of progressive gubernatorial policy agenda would be simple enough to be understood and remembered, but not simplistic.  It would be relatively bold and visionary, but not pie-in-the-sky.  It would be progressive, but swing voter-friendly.

This agenda would put Republican opponents in a political bind, because these progressive proposals are popular with moderate swing voters.  The partial exception is the Transportation Jobs Fund, where swing voters are conflicted.   Surveys tell us that gas taxes are somewhat unpopular, particularly in exurban and rural areas, but the transportation improvements that would be funded by the higher gas tax are very popular with voters of all political stripes, as are jobs programs.  On that front, one key is to guarantee that tax proceeds could only be spent on improvements, something many skeptical voters seem to doubt.

If such an agenda were sufficiently repeated and stressed by a disciplined candidate, fewer Minnesotans would be lamenting that they “have no idea what Democrats stand for.” Most importantly, this agenda also would go a long ways toward fixing some of Minnesota’s most pressing problems.

Why Have DFL Progressives Stopped Pushing For Progressive Tax Reform?

Every year, we hear the State Legislature endlessly debate “water cooler” issues, such as Sunday liquor sales and legislator pay. Meanwhile, we hear almost nothing about more fundamental issues of governance, such as whether we have a taxation system that treats Minnesotans fairly.

When you look at Minnesotans’ effective state and local tax rate — the proportion of income paid in combined state and local taxes – it’s clear that we don’t have a progressive system. That is, we don’t a tax system where the rate of taxation increases, or “progresses,” as income increases.  This chart based on Minnesota Department of Revenue data paints a pretty clear picture:

Note: Department of Revenue study authors point out that “effective tax rates in the 1st decile are overstated by an unknown but possibly significant amount.” If you want to know why, there’s an explanation on page seventeen of the study.

However, even disregarding that first bar for the purposes of this discussion, we can certainly say that Minnesota has a state and local tax system that is not very progressive. That is, it is not taxing Minnesotans according to relative ability to pay.

As you can see in this chart, local taxes in Minnesota are particularly regressive.   Compared to other income groups, the wealthiest Minnesotans are paying the smallest share of their income in local taxes.  So if state lawmakers want tax fairness for Minnesotans, and they can’t rely on local officials to reform local taxes, then they need state taxes to be more progressive to offset those regressive local taxes.

Before my conservative friends trot out their tired old “socialism” rhetoric, they should read the words of Adam Smith, the father of free market economic theory who conservatives worship, on the subject of progressive taxation:

“The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess … It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”

Republicans should also keep in mind that the nation’s first progressive income tax was enacted when the revered father of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln signed the Revenue Act of 1862.  A few decades later, Teddy Roosevelt carried on this Republican tradition when he strongly advocated for progressive taxation:

I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in . . . a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, . . . increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.

The fact is, until relatively recently Republicans were comfortable with much higher top income tax rates than they are today. While the top rate under Democratic Presidents Obama and Clinton was 40%, the top rates were 91% under Republican President Eisenhower, 70% under Republican President Nixon and 70% under Republican President Ford.

So, to my right wing friends, you’re embarrassing yourselves when you call progressive taxation “Marxism.”  For more than a century, progressive taxation was mainstream Republican thought.  Don’t let the uber-wealthy interests who seized control of the Republican Party in more recent years blind you to that fact.

To my friends in the center, spare me the “be reasonable” lectures you deliver every time progressive taxation is proposed.  Unless moderates also view Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford as wild-eyed extremists, you need to stop characterizing progressive taxation proposals as being somehow “radical.”

Finally, to my progressive friends, show some courage and leadership.  Don’t get so obsessed with shiny objects, like the Sunday liquor sales issue.  Don’t shy away from fighting to make our state and local taxation system more fair.  It’s time for DFLers who are “progressives” in name to become more progressive when it comes to substance.

Minnesota GOP’s Tobacco Tax Cut Is A Killer, Literally

There is a lot to dislike about the Minnesota Republicans’ tax cuts that were recently signed into law. For instance, increasing the estate tax exemption from $2 million to $3 million is an unnecessarily lavish gift to about 1,000 Minnesotans who won the birth lottery by being born into a relatively wealthy family.  Overall, the Republicans’ tax cuts will compromise Minnesota’s future fiscal stability by reducing state revenue by more than $5 billion over the coming decade. This is a particularly reckless move at a time when President Trump and his Republican congressional supporters are proposing to shift billions of dollars in future costs to states.   The next time Minnesota has a budget shortfall, remember the Republicans’ 2017 tax cuts.

But the stinkiest of the Republicans’ tax cut stink bombs was their tobacco tax cut, because in the coming years it will cause suffering and death.

Think that’s hyperbole?  A mountain of research shows that every time tobacco prices increase, tobacco consumption decreases. The corollary is also true – tobacco consumption increases when tobacco prices decrease.

This is particularly true when it comes to price-sensitive young Americans.

Here’s why that matters:  When tobacco consumption increases, tobacco-related suffering and death increases. Though we don’t hear about it as much as we used to, tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable diseases and death in America. It causes a variety of deadly cancers, lung diseases, and heart diseases, among other serious health problems.  If you’ve ever seen anyone suffer from one of these illnesses, I promise you will never forget it.

If you don’t believe the legion of public health and economic researchers about tobacco taxes decreasing tobacco use, listen to the tobacco industry executives themselves. In a previously secret document that got disclosed during lawsuits, an executive from Philip Morris, the makers of Marlboro cigarettes, said:

“Of all the concerns, there is one – taxation – that alarms us the most. While marketing restrictions and public and passive smoking [restrictions] do depress volume, in our experience taxation depresses it much more severely.”

Likewise, an executive from RJ Reynolds, makers of Newport and Camel cigarettes, came to the same conclusion:

“If prices were 10% higher, 12-17 incidence [youth smoking] would be 11.9% lower.”

So if Republican legislators think their tobacco tax cut is doing a favor for Minnesota smokers, they couldn’t be more wrong.

Yes, financially speaking, the tobacco tax is regressive. That is, the higher costs of tobacco products that result from tobacco taxes disproportionately impact the pocketbooks of poorer Minnesotans.

But that’s not the end of the story, because the reduction in tobacco-related suffering and death that comes from higher tobacco taxes is progressive. That is, the life-saving health benefits associated with higher tobacco taxes disproportionately flow to poorer Minnesotans.  And by the way, the millions of dollars in savings from not having to pay as much to treat those tobacco-related diseases flow to Minnesota taxpayers and health insurance premium payers.

The bottom line is that cutting tobacco taxes, as Minnesota Republicans did this year, has two major impacts. It causes tobacco executives to profit more from increased sales, and it causes our family members, friends, and neighbors to suffer tobacco-related diseases.

Therefore, when it comes to tobacco taxes, Minnesotan leaders have to be cash cruel to be clinically kind. If the DFL Party wins control of the Minnesota Legislature in 2018, increasing tobacco taxes must be at the very top of their agenda.

This is Not Mark Dayton’s Finest Hour

TCursor_and_Constitutional_fight_escalates_between_Dayton__Legislature_-_StarTribune_comhis is going to sound awfully school marmy, but I expected more from you, Mark Dayton.

I’m speaking, of course, of the spat over Dayton’s defunding of the legislative branch of government in retaliation for the Republicans planting a legislative stink bomb in their unwise tax cut bill.

Admittedly, poor Mark Dayton suffers from my high expectations. During his career of public service, he’s usually been a thoughtful and mature leader who has shown great respect for our constitutional democracy.  For that reason, I just expect a lot more from him than I do from Republican state legislators, who have, in recent years, had more of a track record of recklessness and immaturity.

So, I’m disappointed with Dayton’s gamesmanship in this case, because it is probably unconstitutional and certainly childish. Mind you, this criticism is coming from someone who hates the Republicans’ tax and budget cuts, and dislikes many of their policy changes, but is also all too aware that, heavy sigh, elections have consequences.  That means that the party that won control of both chambers of Legislature in 2016 unfortunately gets to win a lot.

Someone who respects our guiding principle of separation of powers should never use their executive power to defund a coequal branch of government. Regardless of what the courts decide about the strict constitutionality of Dayton’s fiscal trickery, the question of “should” still ought  to matter to defenders of democratic principles, not just the question of “can.”

When it comes to the playground “they started it” defense that Dayton and his DFL allies are using, I can’t disagree on factual grounds.  At the same time, I’m with old Mahatma Ghandi on this one: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

In these dangerously politically polarized times, “adults in the room” are in desperately short supply. I’m grateful that Governor Dayton has played that thankless adult role many times during his career. Unfortunately, this time, our frustrated Governor has joined Republican legislators on the puerile path, just when we needed him most.

Is Minnesota GOP Sabotaging The Individual Health Insurance Market By Rejecting MinnesotaCare-for-All Option?

Minnesota Republican legislators spent their 2016 election campaigns expressing grave concerns about whether private health insurance companies in the individual market* have sufficient competitive pressure to keep prices down, and whether Minnesotans who live outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan region will have at least one solid coverage option available to them in coming years.

Those are legitimate concerns shared by both parties. But after Republicans won control of the Minnesota House and Senate, they have been unwilling to do one very important thing that that could achieve those two goals. They have been unwilling to give those Minnesotans the option of buying into MinnesotaCare health coverage.

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Governor Dayton’s proposed “MinnesotaCare-for-All option” would allow any individual market consumer to buy into the state government-run health plan that has served over 120,000 Minnesotans since 2006. An unsubsidized version of MinnesotaCare would be an available option for all Minnesotans.

In other words, MinnesotaCare for all would be a Minnesota-specific “public option” that would always be there for Minnesotans. MinnesotaCare wouldn’t be able to abandon individual market consumers the way corporate insurance companies can and do. Moreover, MinnesotaCare’s presence in the marketplace will pressure private insurers to offer more competitive prices, because MinnesotaCare’s prices don’t have to account for corporate salaries and profits.   Representing the buying power of about a million public plan consumers, the large MinnesotaCare plan should also have leverage to negotiate consumer-friendly reimbursement rates with health care providers, which helps keep premium costs more affordable.

In fact, Governor Dayton’s office estimates that Minnesota families who purchase MinnesotaCare coverage would pay on average about $838 per person less in 2018 than they pay for private coverage in 2017.  To secure those long-term annual savings for Minnesota families, a one-time taxpayer investment of $12 million – a relatively tiny drop in the State’s $39 billion annual budget — would be required to establish the option. In subsequent years, no additional taxpayer funds would be needed to keep the lower costs flowing to Minnesotans. The MinnesotaCare-for-All option would be self-sustainable.

If you believe that government-run operations are always less efficient and customer-friendly than corporations, here’s your chance to prove it. If that’s true, comparison shopping Minnesotans will “vote with their feet” by rejecting it en masse. But if it’s not true, Minnesotans in the individual market will finally have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that at least one coverage option will always be there for them and their loved ones.

Given that 71% of Americans support having a similar Medicare-for-All option, a MinnesotaCare-for-All option is likely popular with Minnesotans.  Still, Republican state legislators killed the proposal this year.

Minnesota Republicans can’t have it both ways. They can’t reject the MinnesotaCare-for-All option and then turn around blame others if competition is insufficient in some parts of Minnesota, or if corporate insurers’ prices prove to be unaffordable to many Minnesotans. No one can know for sure if this idea will work, but if Republicans are unwilling to give things like this a try to help vulnerable consumers, then Minnesota voters should hold them accountable for their obstructionism.

*(Note: The “individual market” is made up of the 10 percent of Minnesotans who a) can’t get insurance through their employer and b) whose incomes are not low enough to quality for either of Minnesota’s two publicly subsidized health insurance plans — Medical Assistance (Minnesota’s version of Medicare) for very low-income citizens or MinnesotaCare a subsidized option for the working poor. Last year, about 250,000 consumers bought coverage in Minnesota’s individual market.)

Inattentiveness At Minnesota State Legislature Isn’t Gender Or Race Specific

Cursor_and_Minnesota_House_DFL_leader_Melissa_Hortman_calls_out__white_males___won_t_apologize__VIDEO____City_PagesWhen it comes to the kerfuffle about Minnesota House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brookly Park) calling out the “100% white male card game in the retiring room” during a House floor debate, most would probably guess that I would be cheering on Hortman.  After all, I’m a committed liberal, and a strong believer that white male privilege has unfairly benefited me and is a significant problem in all aspects of our democracy and society.

But Minority Leader’s Hartman’s self-righteous speech didn’t sit right with me. In that particular case, the use of “white male” felt gratuitous, an over-the-top attempt to inject race and gender as a partisan bludgeon, because the opposition party is increasingly made up of whites and males.

The core objection at that moment was inattentiveness, so why make it about race and gender?  When race and gender get shoehorned into partisan zingers, I worry that it cheapens more legitimate criticisms of serious race and gender discrimination.

Don’t get me wrong.  As a white male, I certainly didn’t feel discriminated against by Representative Hortman, or in need of an apology, as oh-so-wounded Republican legislators apparently do.  That’s silly.  I just thought the “white male” part of Hortman’s speech was extraneous to the legitimate core criticism.

More importantly, though, the charge felt hypocritical and selectively applied. Anyone who has spent time at the State Capitol has watched all types of legislators being inattentive during proceedings, often quite brazenly and rudely. Legislators are engrossed in their social media monitoring. They’re giggling over whispered inside jokes. They’re dozing. They’re gossiping in the hallway or back of the room.

Last year about this time, I penned a humor piece entitled “The Five Anthropological Certainties of Minnesota Hearings,” and two of the five were dedicated to legislator inattentiveness.

#2. The iPhone Prayer.  The reason legislators continually have their heads bowed is not because they are prayerful or otherwise contemplative. It’s because of smart phones.

The hearing observer will quickly notice that legislators much prefer their smart phone to their smart constituents. Therefore, visitors should expect to mostly see the crowns of legislators’ heads, as they stare down smirking at their latest epic text or tweet.

You see, the State Legislature is like high school, with its complex network of cliques constantly angling to mistreat each other. But the environment is actually much more toxic than high school, because unlike high school, unlimited smart phone use is permitted in class.

#3. The Extras. Visitors will notice that the least relevant person in the committee room is the lowly testifier. The person delivering testimony is an extra, a volunteer who is cast by legislators to create the illusion of information gathering and democratic participation.

Seemingly unaware of the ruse, many testifiers spend hours earnestly preparing their thoughtful, fact-filled remarks.  But they quickly discover that committee members have much more pressing needs to attend to, such as epic texts and tweets.

You’ll notice that the anthropologist’s observation was not limited to any one gender, race, party or ethnicity, because the observation applies to just about every single legislator in the building. If you ever have occasion to attend a legislative committee hearing or floor debate, I guarantee you will see plenty of non-white non-males among the inattentive herd.

So, Minority Leader Hortman, thank you for speaking out about the problem of legislators being inattentive during legislative proceedings. That’s a worthwhile cause.  I’d encourage you to look at systemic approaches to making the place more respectful of democratic debate and citizen input, such as asking party leaders to be more vigilant and consistent about insisting that their colleagues at least pretend to pay attention during legislative proceedings, or maybe even closing or repurposing the “retiring room.”

But you lost me when you tried to portray the problem of inattentiveness as something that is specific to a subset of legislators. Because inattentiveness at the Minnesota State Capitol is endemic to all parties, races and genders.

On Marijuana Prohibition, Minnesota Legislators Are Not High On Substance

Cursor_and_Support_increases_for_marijuana_legalization___Pew_Research_CenterI recently wrote to Minnesota legislators to ask them to end marijuana prohibition, as many states have recently done. The responses I’ve received have been disappointing, not because they disagreed with me, but because they were utterly vacuous.

In matters of political debate, I’m a big boy. For more than thirty years, I have worked in and around bare knuckle politics. I grew up a liberal in a deep red state (South Dakota), so I am very accustomed to losing arguments. Still I value a good substantive discussion, because that’s how attitudes change over time.

But what I got back from Minnesota legislators was birdbrained political handicapping, not substance. I sent them a note with this evidence-heavy blog post, and expected at least a somewhat substantive rebuttal to my arguments.

Instead, I got responses like this from Minnesota legislators (excerpted):

“…it is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future that the Minnesota Legislature will take such a step.

Numerous concerns have been expressed about the negative impact legalization would have on public safety, and the incidence of addiction.

Nonetheless, please know should any proposals related to marijuana come before me, I will give them the thoughtful consideration they merit.”

Blah, blah, blah. I don’t use marijuana, but reading these responses made me dumber than any drug ever could.  Every response I received had a similar cavalier shrug of the shoulder, political handicapping, “some people say…” passive aggressiveness, and refusal to state a personal position or respectfully rebut mine.

In my misspent youth, I spent a few years drafting such responses for a U.S. Senator.  So I’m a bit of a connoisseur of this dark art.  My liberal former boss always insisted on providing his mostly conservative constituents with his evidence-based arguments.  He felt he owed them that, that it was a sign of respect.  I got nothing of the kind from Minnesota legislators.

Obviously, the chances of overturning marijuana prohibition under a GOP-controlled Legislature, U.S. Department of Justice, Congress and White House are nonexistent.  But I took the time to contact legislators because I wanted to educate them, compare notes and move the conversation forward.  I know that popular opinion on this issue is changing rapidly, and that election swings change political calculations overnight, as we saw with marriage equality. So I sincerely wanted to gain a better understanding of how Minnesota legislators were processing the issue.

If Minnesota legislators really believe that marijuana is more addictive than alcohol, show me your data.  If they really believe that marijuana laws aren’t being used to disproportionately punish people of color, show me your data.  If they really believe that marijuana kills more people than alcohol, or causes more health problems, show me your data.

And if you concede the accuracy of all of the data that I’ve supplied, explain the logic of continuing prohibition of marijuana, while expanding the availability of much more destructive alcohol products.

That type of disagreement I can respect. That kind of disagreement moves the democratic dialogue forward. But using “it’s not going to pass” and “some interest groups say…” deflections as a substitute for substantive debate is for pundits, not policymakers.

Improving Minneota’s Health Insurance Market With A “MinnesotaCare for All” Option

For Minnesotans who can’t get health insurance from an employer, Minnesota Republican legislators have been demanding improvements.

where-mn-get-insurance-donut-graphic-254x300_jpg__254×300_Out on the campaign stump, Republicans say they want more health plan options than are currently available. They want health insurance companies to feel more competitive pressure to keep a lid on premiums. They want consumers to have a broad network of health care providers available to them. They want assurances that there will always be at least one solid coverage option available to every Minnesotan, even when health insurance companies decide to pull out of the marketplace, as they have in recent years. Those are all good goals.

To achieve them, Republican state legislators should work with Governor Dayton to give Minnesotans a MinnesotaCare for All option.

Background

Currently in Minnesota, those who can’t get health insurance from an employer can get coverage from one of three sources:

  • TOP TIER. For Minnesotans who can afford premium costs, they can purchase coverage from nonprofit health plans – UCare, HealthPartners, Medica, and Blue Cross. (As part of the federal Affordable Care Act, about 60% of those buying from these companies through the MNsure online shopping tool are offsetting premium costs with federal tax credits, which this year are averaging over $7600 per year.)
  • MIDDLE TIER. For Minnesotans who can afford some, but not all, of the premium cost, they can purchase MinnesotaCare at a subsidized rate that varies depending on household income.
  • LOWER TIER. For the poorest Minnesotans who can’t afford any of the premium cost, they can get Medical Assistance at no cost to them. Medical Assistance is Minnesota’s version of the federal Medicaid program.

MinnesotaCare for All Option

Governor Dayton proposes to give those in the top tier an additional option.  He wants to give those consumers the option of buying into that middle tier — the public MinnesotaCare program.

Adding a MinnesotaCare for All option would achieve what Republicans say they want – more options for consumers, more marketplace competition to drive down prices, a guarantee that at least one plan option will always be available to Minnesotans, and consumer access to a broad network of Minnesota health care providers statewide.

A fact sheet from the Governor’s office elaborates on the consumer benefit:

Purchasing quality health coverage through MinnesotaCare is less expensive than buying coverage directly from a private insurer, because it leverages the buying power of more than 1 million Minnesotans enrolled in public plans.

Minnesotans who purchase MinnesotaCare would get high-quality health coverage for approximately $469 per month, on average. That is more than 12 percent ($69) less than the average statewide premium of $538 for private insurance in 2017.

Under the Governor’s proposal, families would spend on average $838 per person less in 2018 than in 2017 on their health insurance premiums.

After a one-time startup investment ($12 million), the cost of Governor Dayton’s plan would be funded entirely by the premiums of Minnesotans who choose to buy MinnesotaCare coverage. If the Legislature enacted this proposal by April 1, Minnesotans could purchase MinnesotaCare coverage as early as the 2018 open enrollment period.

Having this MinnesotaCare option would likely be very popular with Minnesotans.  After all, a national poll found that an overwhelming 71 percent of Americans support a similar Medicare for All option, while only 13 percent oppose the idea.

Let Consumers Choose

Why would Republicans not want this for Minnesota consumers? If the Governor’s claims about the MinnesotaCare option turn out to be accurate, many of the Republicans’ stated goals for the individual market would be achieved.

At the same time, if the Governor’s MinnesotaCare-related claims about lower prices and better health care network turn out to be inaccurate or inflated, Minnesotans will surely reject the MinnesotaCare option. If it is to their advantage, consumers will choose a nonprofit health insurance company, or a for-profit health maintenance organization (HMO), which the Governor recently agreed to authorize as part of a compromise with Republican legislators.

With the addition of the MinnesotaCare option, private, nonprofit and public options all would be available to Minnesotans who are shopping and comparing via MNsure. Then the politicians could get out of the way, and let the consumers choose the option that works best for them.

Trump Resistance Roadmap

For progressives aiming to win the hearts and minds of the 46% of American voters who supported Donald Trump in 2016, there is a  better and worse way to approach conversations and campaigns.
Trump roadmap chart Slide1

For messages about the Trump policy agenda, the villain needs to be Trump flip-flops, not Trump voters.  The focus needs to be on Trump not keeping his 2016 promises, not on Trump voters being stupid for being conned in 2016.

Trump voters need a face-saving way out of this, so avoiding polarizing “I told you so’s” is critically important.

Much of what I currently see on social media and progressive media is using the “Trump voters are dumb” approach to messaging.  We need to stop.  Believe me, I understand why people are going there.  It’s very cathartic to say “I told you so,” but you can feel it entrenching Trump voters more deeply and permanently into Team Trump.

The messaging nuance recommended in this chart won’t win every Trump voter, but it gives progressives a more hopeful shot at winning a modest subset of them, such as voters who were more anti-Clinton than pro-Trump.  If only a small slice of the 46% of 2016 Trump voters are angry at Trump congressional allies in 2018, the mid-term elections could deal a serious blow to the Trump agenda.  Winning in 2018 is worth taking a pass on cathartic “I told you so’s” over the next two years.

Banning Trump From Ballot Doesn’t Pass Smell Test

cursor_and_democrats_right_to_vote_-_google_searchWhen it comes to the Minnesota DFL’s attempt to bar Donald Trump’s name from appearing on Minnesota ballots, the party is making a mistake by focusing on the could versus the should.

Yes, banning Trump from Minnesota ballots could be possible. It appears as if the ever-bungling Minnesota Republican Party perhaps didn’t follow the letter of the law in nominating their presidential elector alternates. I’m no great election law mind, so I’ll let the Star Tribune explain the DFL’s legal argument:

The petition said the state GOP erred at its state convention on May 20-21 in Duluth, where delegates “at large” and from each of Minnesota’s congressional districts nominated 10 presidential electors but failed to nominate 10 alternate electors.

The petition quoted the law (the italicized type is the party’s) as saying, “Presidential electors and alternates for the major political parties of this state shall be nominated by delegate conventions called and held under the supervision of the respective state central committees of the parties of this state.”

The petition continued: “This language is clear and unequivocal: Alternatives ‘shall’ be nominated — not unilaterally by party leaders — but by ‘delegate conventions.’

It sounds as if they might have case.  But letter of the law aside, should DFLers ban Trump?  The spirit of the law is that citizens should get to a chance to vote for the candidate who prevailed in the nominating process, in this case Trump.   That’s what Minnesotans of all parties feel in their gut.  The practical effect of the DFL’s move is to effectively disenfranchise Trump voters in Minnesota, more than one-third of the citizenry. For a party that justifiably preaches keeping democracy open to all voters, effectively disenfranchising at least one-third of the voters just doesn’t pass the smell test. It will offend many voters, including some who would otherwise be DFL-friendly, and it will seed even more cynicism in an already dangerously cynical citizenry.  That’s not good for our democracy.

Beyond the disenfranchisement of it all, DFL Party leaders perhaps should be wary of unintended consequences. An April 2016 Star Tribune-sponsored survey found Clinton with 48% of registered voters, Trump with 35%, and 17% undecided. While that’s a four month old poll, the chances are that Clinton still holds a lead in Minnesota. So, absent Trump being banned from the ballot by the DFL, Clinton probably would win Minnesota the old fashioned way, by earning the most votes.

So, there probably isn’t a lot to gain Electoral College-wise by gagging Trump voters. However, what happens if Trump refugees and undecided voters coalesce around Libertarian Gary Johnson?  What likely would have been a blue state could become, I don’t know, the Libertarian Party color.  That’s probably a long shot, but the possibility exists after the DFL kicks the Trump hornet nest by taking away their ability to vote for their hero.

DFL electoral tacticians likely see it differently. They may think that if Trump isn’t on the ballot, discouraged Trump voters will stay home, which will help the DFL win down-ballot races.  They’re banking on Trump voters to stay home and sulk, and they may be right.  But what happens if Trump voters instead get outraged enough by the perceived injustice of the situation to turn out in record numbers to vote against the party that they feel stole their votes?

DFL leaders probably feel quite self-satisfied about this clever little “gotcha” game.  I’m one strong DFLer who just doesn’t like it.  It feels like a betrayal of one of the party’s most admirable values – defense of every voter’s right to vote for the candidate of their choosing.  In my opinion this is not the Minnesota DFL’s finest hour.

South Dakota: Imagine There’s No Parties

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace… 

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

John Lennon

Cursor_and_amendment_v_south_dakota_-_Google_SearchWhen I heard about the constitutional amendment on the South Dakota ballot to make all
state elections nonpartisan, I thought of these lyrics.

Imagine there’s no parties?

Believe it or not, that’s sort of what South Dakota is debating this fall.   At first blush, it struck me as every bit as unlikely and impractical as what John Lennon sang.  But if Amendment V gets a plurality of votes from South Dakotans of all party affiliations this fall, every state office would become nonpartisan.

That means that in every election except for presidential contests there would no longer be separate primaries for the respective political parties, party labels would not be used on ballots, and citizens would no longer have their voting restricted due to their party affiliation, or lack of a party affiliation. Instead of party primaries, a single primary contest would be held, and the top two finishers, regardless of their party affiliations, would face off in the general election.

Cursor_and_nonpartisan_nebraska_-_Google_Search

“Imagine there’s no parties. It isn’t hard to do.”

Partisanship Pros

Except that it is hard for me. Very hard. While municipal and judicial elections currently don’t use party labels, I like having party labels on ballots. They give me helpful shorthand clues when I come across an unfamiliar name towards the end of the ballot.  For instance, if I want to avoid inadvertently casting my vote for someone who wants to underfund public services or weaken environmental protections, seeing that “D” next to a candidate name on the ballot reduces the chance that I will mistakenly vote for someone who doesn’t share my  values.

To be sure, party labels don’t tell you everything, but they give a pretty solid clue about a candidate’s likely positions. I support disclosure in government and governing, and requiring party labels has disclosure benefits.

If party labels weren’t on the ballot, I’d have to do more homework to avoid making voting blunders on the more obscure portions of the ballot.  On the other hand, with online resources that are now available, homework has never been easier.  By the way, this problem could be lessened if all state and local governments allowed citizens to use smart phones or other types of computers while voting. That’s an antiquated rule that needs to be changed.  I need to be able to use my spare brain in the voting booth.

Imagine A Nonpartisan System

Maybe the inconvenience and lack of disclosure associated with a nonpartisan election system would be worth it.  I am painfully aware of what extreme partisanship is doing to our politics. It’s making us mindlessly tribal. It’s causing legislators to substitute logic and analysis for blind loyalty to party leaders and their most powerful interest groups. It’s muting the voices of independent and moderate citizens who don’t identify with either of the major parties. It’s making compromise almost impossible.

Drey Samuelson, one of the founders of the South Dakota public interest group championing Amendment V, TakeItBack.org, feels strongly that the benefits of nonpartisan elections and offices greatly outweigh whatever disclosure-related benefits there might be associated with the status quo.

Imagine no closed door caucus scheming.  Samuelson says one of the most compelling reasons to keep party labels off the ballot is that it removes partisan control from the Legislature, as it has in Nebraska. Party caucuses don’t exist in the Nebraska Legislature, so policy isn’t made behind closed party caucus doors.

Party caucuses aren’t banned by Amendment V.  But Samuelson said that if the nonpartisan amendment passes in South Dakota this fall, there would be strong public pressure for South Dakota legislators to organize themselves in a nonpartisan way — without party caucus meetings and with party power-sharing — as Nebraska has done.

Imagine sharing power and accountability.  In Nebraska’s nonpartisan Legislature, legislators from both parties can and do become legislative committee chairs. Because they share power, they also share credit for legislative successes, and accountability for scandals. There is less time and energy wasted on blame games.

Imagine an equal voice for all.  TakeItBack.org also stresses that a nonpartisan system will give South Dakota’s 115,000 registered Independents an equal voice in the elections and government they fund, which they lack today.  This is particularly important in primary elections, where many of the most important decisions are made.

Imagine a popular Legislature.  A nonpartisan Legislature would also very likely be a more popular Legislature.

“People, by and large, don’t like the division, the bickering, the polarization, and the inefficiency of partisan government,” says Samuelson. “They find that nonpartisan government simply functions better.”

In fact, the nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature is nearly twice as popular as the partisan one to the north. A January 2016 PPP survey of South Dakotans found a 36% approval rating for the South Dakota Legislature, while a June 2015 Tarrance Group survey of Nebraskans found a 62% approval rating for the Nebraska Legislature.

A 62% approval rating should look pretty good to Minnesota legislators.  Minnesota DFL legislators have a 29% approval rating, and Republican legislators have an 18% approval rating (PPP, August 2015).

For my part, I’d be willing to give up partisan labels on the ballot if it would get us a less petty, Balkanized and recalcitrant Legislature.   If Nebraska is predictive of what Minnesota could become, the benefits of such a nonpartisan body would outweigh the costs.

Is South Dakota About To Lead An Anti-Gerrymandering Revolution?

I adore my home state of South Dakota, but I rarely find myself calling for my adopted state of Minnesota to copy South Dakota policies. On a whole range of issues from progressive state income taxes to a higher minimum wage to LGBT rights to dedicated conservation spending to teacher pay to Medicare coverage, I wish the Rushmore state’s policies would become more like Minnesota’s, not vice versa.

But if a majority of South Dakota voters embrace Amendment T at the polls this November, I may soon be feeling some serious SoDak envy.

gerrymander_-_Google_SearchOnce every ten years, all states redraw state and congressional legislative district lines, so that the new boundaries reflect population changes that have occurred in the prior decade. In both Minnesota and South Dakota, elected state legislators draw those district map lines, and the decision-making is dominated by leaders of the party or parties in power.

South Dakota’s pending Amendment T calls for a very different approach. If a majority of South Dakota voters support Amendment T this fall, redrawing of legislative district lines would be done by a multi-partisan commission made up of three Republicans, three Democrats and three independents.  None of the nine commission members could be elected officials.

South_Dakota_Amendment_TThe basic rationale behind Amendment T is this: Elected officials have a direct stake in how those district boundaries are drawn, so giving them the power to draw the maps can easily lead to either the perception or reality of self-serving shenanigans.

As we all know, redistricting shenanigans are common. Guided by increasingly high tech tools and lowbrow ethics, elected officials regularly produce contorted district maps that draw snickers and gasps from citizens.   Often, the judicial branch needs to intervene in an attempt to restore partisan or racial fairness to the maps that the politicians’ produce.

Gerrymandering and Polarization

There are all kinds of problems created by the elected officials’ self-serving gerrymandering.  Legislators in control of the process draw lines to ensure that the gerrymanderer’s party has a majority in as many districts as possible. This leads to many “safe districts,” where one party dominates.  In safe districts, the primary election is effectively the only election that matters. General elections become meaningless, because the winner of the primary elections routinely cruises to an easy victory.

In this way, disproportionately partisan primary voters, who some times make up as little as 5 percent of the overall electorate, effectively become kingmakers who decide who serves in legislative bodies. Meanwhile, minority party and independent voters effectively have almost no say in the choice of lawmakers, even though they usually combine to make up more than 50% of the electorate.

In other words, gerrymandering has given America government of, for and by 5 percent of the people.

Because these primary election kingmakers tend to be from the far ends of the ideological spectrum, gerrymandering has contributed to the polarization of our politics. It has created an environment in which elected officials live in fear that they will be punished in primary elections if they dare to compromise with the other party. As a result, bipartisan compromise has become increasingly extinct in many legislative bodies.

Gerrymandering and Distrust

Beyond political polarization, perhaps the worst thing about politician-driven redistricting is that it makes citizens cynical about their democracy.  Whether you believe problems are real or merely perceived, the fact that elected officials are at the center of redistricting controversies creates deep citizen-leader distrust.  When citizens become convinced that elections are being rigged by elected officials so that the politicians can preserve their personal power, citizens lose faith and pride in their representative democracy. When we lose that, we lose our American heart and soul.

So Minnesota, let’s commit to creating — either via a new state law or by referring a constitutional amendment to voters –our own multi-partisan redistricting commission that removes elected officials from the process. Let’s govern more like South Dakota!

Did I really just say that?

The Wrong Bernexit

So you, like me, voted for Senator Bernie Sanders for President. Now maybe you’re considering switching allegiances to the Libertarian presidential candidate, Governor Gary Johnson?

I respect your decision to shop around and do thoughtful research.  Here’s something to inform your decision.

Gary Johnson Bernie Sanders positions table2

(Source for Sanders positions here.  Source for Johnson positions here.  Source for estimate of Sanders spending increase total here.)

Yes, Governor Johnson would do some very smart and important things, such as scale back the war on drugs and be careful about entering military quagmires. But most of the centerpiece policies championed by Senator Sanders are vehemently opposed by Governor Johnson.

How DFL Legislators With Only 29% Voter Approval Could Win in November

Minnesota_Legislature_-_Google_SearchDFL state legislators are an awfully unpopular bunch. According to an August 2015 Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey of registered Minnesota voters, only 29% have a favorable view of DFL state legislators, while 49% disapprove. Not many candidates with 29% approval ratings get reelected.

Still, DFL legislators may manage to do well in the November general election, due to at least five factors.

More DFLers voting. First, DFL turnout should be much higher in this presidential election year than it was in the 2014 midterm election. Historically, presidential year electorates tend to be more favorable to Democrats than mid-term year electorates. That historical trend is somewhat in question this year, with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton proving to be particularly uninspiring to her base in the primary season and Republican front-runner Donald Trump proving to be particularly inspiring to his base. But traditionally presidential elections have high Democratic turnouts, and Trump-fearing Democrats – particularly women, communities of color and new immigrants – have a particularly compelling reason to vote in 2016.  That should give a big boost to Democratic state legislative candidates.

No catastrophes. Second, DFL legislators haven’t imploded. So far, there are no big DFL-centered scandals, like Phonegate or leadership sex scandals. There also is no particularly controversial issue, like a large tax increase on the masses. The construction of the Senate Office Building probably still has some demagogic appeal, but that doesn’t seem like a significant political albatross at this stage.

Happy days are here again. Third, it’s the economy, stupid. Fortunately for DFL legislators, Minnesota’s economy is quite strong. Seasonally adjusted unemployment is only 3.7%, while the national rate is 5.6%. Under Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota had a steady stream of budget shortfalls.  Under DFL Governor Mark Dayton, Minnesota has enjoyed budget surpluses the last several years, while 19 states still have had budget deficits despite a relatively strong national economy. Republicans promised Minnesota voters that DFL proposals to increase taxes for the wealthiest and the minimum wage for the poorest would surely decimate Minnesota’s economy. That simply did not happen, robbing conservatives of their most compelling criticism of Democrats – that they can’t manage the economy.

Bully pulpit in DFL hands. Fourth, DFLers control the Governor’s bully pulpit.   A relatively popular Governor Mark Dayton (47% approval) can use the bullhorn and large audiences that come with his position to make the case for DFL achievements and legislators. So can other popular prominent statewide elected DFLers, such as Senators Al Franken (48% approval) and Amy Klobuchar (55% approval).   Governor Dayton is certainly no Tim Pawlenty out on the stump, but he is in a strong position to help drive a strong unified message about DFL legislators’ accomplishments.

Republicans are even less popular. Finally, and most importantly, DFL legislators’ 29% approval rating looks pretty awful, until you put it alongside GOP legislators’18% approval rating. Then it looks nearly stellar.  To put that 18% approval rating in context, a disgraced President Richard Nixon had a 24% approval rating when he was forced to resign due to the Watergate scandal. With 63% of Minnesota voters disapproving of the job being done by Republican legislators, the slightly less disrespected DFL legislators would seem to have a shot at winning some elections this fall.

Note:  This post was also featured in MinnPost’s Blog Cabin.

Caucuses: Democracy Of, For and By the Extroverts

minnesota_caucus_-_Google_SearchOn March 1, Minnesota’s two major political parties will select its presidential nominees with a caucus system.  Iowa will use a similar system in just a few days.  So maybe we should take a moment to consider who gets the most and least representation out of this system.

The caucus approach requires that party members gather in groups in various locations to debate issues and candidates before they vote.   If a citizen wants to be a party delegate, they must attend additional lengthy gatherings.

In contrast, with a primary system for nominating candidates, party members simply cast a vote and leave.

Who is Over-Represented?  

Ideological Extremists.  It’s pretty well established that the caucus system over-represents ideological extremists. As Brigham Young University researchers Christopher Karpowitz and Jeremy Pople  found:

“The average primary voter is not at the center of the spectrum either, but such voters tend to be center-left or center-right. Caucus-goers, on the other hand, tend to be much more ideologically extreme. In fact, in their issue attitudes, caucus attenders are indistinguishable from representatives currently serving in our polarized Congress.”

People With More Time. Beyond over-representing ideological extreme party members, the caucus system works best for those who have free time.  For instance, citizens who you have children or other dependents, travel for work, and/or work long hours are going to find it more difficult to attend a caucus than to cast a primary vote. The caucus system doesn’t work very well for them.

Extroverts.  But there is also a less obvious type of group that the caucus system inadvertently discriminates against – introverts.

Introverts have a preference for less stimulating environments over more stimulating environments, using the definition used by many psychologists. Obviously, bustling caucus meetings and conventions are significantly more stimulating than sedate voting booths, so the former is much more off-putting to introverts.

Sure, some introverts attend caucuses, but overall introverts are about as attracted to frenetic caucuses and conventions as extroverts are attracted to all-silent retreats. You could hardly design a better system for driving away many introverts.

Why Care About Introvert Non-Participation?

Introversion isn’t just any trait.  Psychologists say it is a particularly influential one. Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking describes it like this:

“Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most aspect of personality — the “north and south of temperament,” as one scientist puts it — is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.”

Not A Small Group.  Experts estimate that between one-third and one-half of Americans are introverts who have a preference for less stimulating environments. So, depending on which estimate is correct, introverts are a sub-population that may be as large as many major religions, races and ethnic communities.

If political parties designed a nomination system that they knew drove away any of those groups, would we okay with that?  So, why are party leaders comfortable with an approach that many introverts will be strongly inclined to avoid?

If party leaders did a personality profile of party members who regularly sit out caucuses and conventions, it’s a fair bet that they would find that a disproportionate number of the non-participants are introverts. Extroverted party activists may think these introverts are so far outside the mainstream that they should be shrugged off, but the parties do pay a price for effectively driving away up to half of the electorate.

Important Perspectives.  Researchers describe a range of positive traits that introverts could be bringing to political party decisions. For instance, introverts are highly empathetic. They tend to be more spiritual and philosophical, and less materialistic. They notice subtleties that others miss. They like to think before they speak. These are not bad things for any political party to have in the mix.

Party leaders should be uncomfortable driving away the participation of introverts, given that people like Abraham Lincoln, J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates, Laura Bush, George Stephanopoulos, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffet fall into that category.

I understand that this will strike many as a peculiar argument.  Contemporary society is much more inclined to divide the world by gender, race, ethnicity and income than by personality types. I also know this argument will particularly baffle extrovert party activists, who are so profoundly energized by caucus and convention gatherings that it can be almost impossible for them to comprehend that so many others could be repelled by those gatherings.

It’s awfully easy for extroverted party leaders to dismiss introverts as being an insignificant and odd minority that is flawed, lazy, or not civic-minded. But ignoring the strong preferences of up to half of Americans is pretty bull-headed and self-defeating for leaders who need attract every vote they can get.

Note:  This post was featured in MinnPost’s Blog Cabin.

DFL Shouldn’t Politicize Makeout-gate

news_conference_microphones_-_Google_SearchThe messenger is the message. If a professor delivers a message, it tends to sound objective, studied and evidence-based. If an elder statesman delivers a message, it tends to sound thoughtful, even-handed and rational. If a reporter of a credible news outlet delivers a message, it tends to sound legitimate, consequential, and relevant.

And if a political party leader delivers a message, it tends to sound one-sided, hyperbolic, manipulative and, obviously, political.

Maybe that is not always fair, but the messenger delivering the argument profoundly shapes how the audience processes the messages that are presented.

This is hardly a novel observation, yet it seems completely lost on Minnesota’s major party leaders. Often when political party leaders weigh in on an emerging issue, they inadvertently leave a slimy residue behind.  The message becomes “this is a political game being played, not a legitimate issue.”  At a time when survey research shows that a strong majority of Americans have an unfavorable view of both major political parties, pointing the spotlight to a partisan messenger can be the PR kiss of death.

Take the issue of whether or not two Minnesota state legislators should apologize to a suburban law enforcement officer.   The legislators initially called the officer a liar when the officer reported that the legislators were doing something in a suburban park that was a bit more intimate than the claimed “exchanging documents.”  The teen term of art “makeout” was used in the officer’s report, and, to the delight of the incurable gossips who inhabit the State Capitol campus, more racy details were included.

Subsequent news accounts reported that the officer documented the salacious details of the incident via email in near real time. Faced with this new reporting, the legislators in question reversed course.  As the Associated Press reported:

Two Republican lawmakers whom a park ranger cited for making out in a public park apologized Monday for accusing that ranger of lying and stepped down from a Minnesota House ethics panel in an apparent effort to head off a complaint from Democrats.

But that wasn’t good enough for DFL party officials.  Two days after the legislators had already apologized and resigned from the House Ethics Committee, the DFL called a news conference to ask the legislators to, I don’t know, issue a new and improved apology.

With reporters and law enforcement officials exposing the truth, and reporters continually seeking legislators’ reaction to each new revelation, why do DFL PR people feel the need pile on with self-righteous sermons? I’m sure partisan warriors surrounding DFL leaders were giving them high fives for continuing to criticize the Republicans, but their partisan finger wagging is starting to make the whole issue look like just another partisan pissing match, which many Minnesotans are conditioned to tune out.

In public relations, as in health care, the guiding credo should be primum non nocere, Latin for “first, do no harm.”  Party messengers especially need to realize the harm that their tainted voices can do.  Or as the country music classic put it, sometimes “you say it best when you say nothing at all.”

Why Aren’t The Best and Brightest Flocking to the Minnesota Legislature?

Both political parties are busily approaching new candidates to seek seats in the Minnesota Legislature for the 2016-2018 legislative session.   This is a noble cause.  For those of us who care about good public policy, this is an opportunity to recruit Minnesota’s best and brightest to elevate the level of discourse, analysis and decision-making that will guide our great state forward.  I’m thankful to all who do this work.

So if you know anyone who has the right stuff, encourage them to run!

HELP WANTED:

Help_wanted_retroBecome a member of our dynamic Minnesota House of Representatives team!  We are seeking candidates with deep professional experience, strong educational background, extensive community ties, impeccable personal ethics and morals, outstanding interpersonal skills, uncommon diplomatic acumen, stellar leadership qualities, deep policy expertise in several different areas, and a highly photogenic family.  Come associate your good name with an organization that has the approval of  a historically low 17 percent of your friends and neighbors.   Candidates must be willing to work round the clock, seven days per week, surrounded by often manipulative, self-serving colleagues and associates, many masquerading as friends.  Even the most talented employees should be expected to remain largely silent and powerless for several years, due to seniority rules that ensure that major decisions are shaped by senior committee chairs and caucus leaders from gerrymandered-safe legislative seats.  Employees will be constantly criticized by news reporters, snarky bloggers and anonymous Tweeters, often based on inaccurate or incomplete information. Employees shouldn’t be surprised if they are audited, scrutinized and prosecuted for partisan purposes. Even the most highly accomplished employees will be automatically fired every two years. However, employees willing to work round the clock may earn rehiring,  following thousands of job interviews conducted by hostile and lightly informed interrogators who are often basing their rehiring decision  on just one of the thousands of official decisions the employee has made over the course of their career.  To finance the rehirement attempt, employees will be expected to continually raise large sums of money from friends, relatives, neighbors, strangers and interest groups making shady demands.  The non-negotiable salary for this position is less than the average salary of a sewage worker, $31,141 per year.

I ask you, what thoughtful Minnesota citizesn wouldn’t jump at such an opportunity?

Note:  This post was republished on MinnPost.

The Problem With Political Untouchables

Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, among many others, have made the case that our contemporary politics are “vehemently adversarial.”  That’s not exactly breaking news, but their book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” does a particularly good job of documenting the phenomenon. Even more than at most points in history, our leaders are clinging to their partisan corners, and rhetorically portraying Americans in cartoonish hero versus villain terms.

A lot of attention is given to the corrosive effects of partisans’ villainizing.  But in its way, the partisans’ hero worship is just as harmful.  Polarizing partisans have effectively created groups of Untouchables, constituency groups that are so celebrated by one or both of the major political parties that leaders fail to responsibly oversee and regulate them.

Both major parties have their Untouchables. With Democrats, government workers, teachers, and union workers are among the Untouchable groups often described like infallible heroes. Meanwhile, Republicans place business people, military brass, and religious leaders on unreasonably high pedestals.   Both parties compete to see who can slather the most flattery and government benefits on bipartisan Untouchables, such as soldiers, health care providers, and seniors.

Untouchable Teachers

Miss_BeadleAs a case study, consider how the left often treats teachers. Listening to Democrats talk about teachers, you would think that every last one of them is a cross between saintly Miss Beadle from the television series Little House on the Prairie series and life-changing John Keating from the film Dead Poet’s Society. Anyone who has spent time in the public school system understands that the reality is more complicated.  Teacher quality ranges the full gamut from excellent to poor, as is the case with every profession on the planet.

So what’s the harm with a little too much constituency group rah-rah? Can’t the world benefit from more positivity?  The problem is, this over-the-top hero worship leads to bad policy, where everyone in the worshiped group is treated as if they are all equally noble and skilled.

They aren’t. While teaching is a very noble profession, poor teachers obviously exist. Being a poor teacher doesn’t equate with being a bad person – I’m not a bad guy, but I would be a horrible teacher – but bad teachers are harmful to children. Ineffective teachers, even well-meaning ones, can do a lot of damage to students when they are allowed free reign to teach ineffectively.  The education reform group Students First explains:

Unfortunately, the reality is that many current policies treat all teachers as if they are interchangeable. These policies often cause highly effective teachers to be paid less than their least effective colleagues. And they fail to protect the best teachers—the ones who are most positively impacting student achievement—from layoffs. As a result, most districts have low retention rates and retain their best and worst teachers at similar rates.

Despite this, many Democrats universally treat even poor performing teachers like Untouchables. For instance, this year Minnesota again failed to enact a law that would allow teacher performance to be one of the factors considered in teacher retention decisions. During this debate, anyone who dared to say that teachers should be judged on performance – as happens in almost all other professions — were called names by liberals.  “Anti-teacher!”  “School-basher!”  “Right wing extremist!”   (By the way, about two-thirds of Minnesotans currently fall into this category.)

Untouchable Business People

GeorgeRepublicans also have many Untouchables that they fail to regulate responsibly. Listening to the right talk about business people, or ”job creators” as their PR gurus coach them to say, you would think that all business people will automatically turn any type of tax break into great-paying jobs.  You would think that every last one of them is some combination of the job-creating genius Henry Ford and the Main Street humanitarian George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life.

Obviously, the reality is that some businesspeople do use tax breaks to invest in ventures that create good jobs, while others will use their tax savings to amass personal wealth, expand their operations in other countries, make poor investment decisions, or invest in purchasing a plutocracy that will deliver still more tax loopholes to them.

Yet anyone who objects to giving more tax breaks to business people is labeled by Republicans as “anti-jobs,” “anti-business” or “socialist.”

The world is just not that black and white.  No group of Americans is 100% virtuous, or 100% worthless, and public policies have to recognize that.

While it may be unpopular to say in the partisan cheering sections, the truth is that some health care providers are unethical, greedy and/or insufficiently skilled, and need to be regulated.  Some government workers are incompetent, unqualfied, and/or lazy, and allowing them to continue offering sub-par job performance hurts taxpayers and vulnerable citizens they are supposed to be serving. Some seniors are wealthy enough that they don’t need to be lavished with government benefits at the expense of more vulnerable Americans. Some military leaders are too trigger happy or myopic, and therefore need to have their arguments carefully scrutinized or rejected.

When partisans blindly apotheosize political Untouchables, important oversight and regulation goes undone. Untouchable constituencies lead to unaccountable policies.  A leader fighting for accountability among Untouchables shouldn’t be shouted down with simplistic name-calling. They are merely doing their job as responsible public managers, regulators and legislators.