By What Right?

Quo warranto.

It’s part of obscure legal terminology. Literally, it translates as “by what warrant”. It is a legal formulation that questions authority in ruling over others, acting in an official manner, demanding compliance, claiming ownership, possessing economic benefits, making use of natural resources, declaring rights, etc. More than anything, it’s the last in the list that is most relevant to the modern mind. By what right?

Quo warranto has a specific legal meaning based on almost a millennia of Anglo-American history. But the idea itself is quite basic and intuitive, not to mention more broad and older (such as settling territorial disputes in the ancient world, “Do you not possess that which Chemosh, your god, has given into your possession? And shall we not possess that which our God has given into our possession?”; Judg. 11:24). This question of authority is at the heart of every challenge to anyone who has demanded or denied something to another. It’s an issue of what kinds and what basis of rights, who gets them and who enforces them.

Every teenager implicitly understands this, an age when arbitrary power becomes clear and burdensome. This sense of unfairness is far from limited to teenagers, though. It concerns every person who was ever taxed without representation, enslaved, indentured, debt bondaged, imprisoned, tortured, sentenced to death, had their land taken away, made homeless, put in a reservation or ghetto or camp (concentration camp, internment camp, or refugee camp)—anyone who felt disempowered and disenfranchised, who experienced power that was unjust and abusive, oppressive and overreaching.

Even the powerful sometimes find themselves demanding by what authority something is being done to them or to what they own. Such as governments forced to deal with revolts and revolutions, kings who have been deposed and sometimes beheaded, politicians confronted by mobs and protesters, and company owners having their businesses shut down by strikers. Authority ultimately is enforced by power and power comes in many forms, typically from above but sometimes from below. Of course, in a real or aspiring democracy, the issue of quo warranto takes on new meaning.

In the United States, quo warranto is most well known in its form as states rights. The history of this involves the secession and Civil War, Native American treaties and land theft, the American Revolution and early colonial relations with the British Parliament and Crown. As such, states rights are directly related to charter rights, as the colonies all had official charters and sometimes were operated as corporations. Charter organizations were once a far different kind of political and economic entity.

The later states of the United States were no longer treated as having charters for, in the early US, they were considered the ultimate source of authority as representatives of the people, not the federal government. It was (and still is) the role of states, instead, to give out charters—and, based on past British experience of the sometimes oppressive abuse of charters, the early states were extremely wary about giving out charters and extremely restrictive in the charters they did give. They wanted to be clear by whose authority charters were upheld or revoked.

This is a long way off from the origins of quo warranto. It first became a serious legal precedent in English law with King Edward I. His actions in challenging particular charters inadvertently helped to institutionalize those and other charters, specifically Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Initially, his focus was on the charters of boroughs, in their self-governance which at the time meant rule by local aristocracy.

This related to feudalism, the commons, and the rights of commoners—as they developed over the centuries. Feudalism formed the basis of later corporatism that became so important during the colonial era. Also, the notion of rights transformed over time as well. The commoners had their rights in relation to the commons. Once the commons were enclosed and privatized, the commoners became landless serfs. This led to centuries of social upheaval, from the English Civil War to the American Revolution.

When the first colonies were established, they quickly began to grow. England had to come to terms with its developing role as an empire. What were the rights of Englishmen as related to the rights of imperial subjects, Englishmen and otherwise. Many colonists sought to maintain rights of Englishmen while some in power sought to take them away. There was the additional problem that an increasing number of British and colonial citizens were not ethnically English. They were also Welsh, Scottish, and Irish; French, German, and Dutch—not to mention enslaved Africans and native populations.

Empire building is messy and complicated. If you want to rule over people, you have to justify your rule to compel compliance. Empires before had faced this dilemma, such as the Roman Empire, which eventually led a Roman emperor to declare all free inhabitants (no matter ethnicity, religion, or place of birth) to be Roman citizens with the rights thereof.

As Roman republicanism was an inspiration for the American founders, I’m sure this historical detail didn’t pass unnoticed—certainly not by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, a learned man about ancient history. Thomas Paine noted the problem of a multicultural empire; and, using different words, essentially brought up quo warranto: If a large number of colonists weren’t English, then by what right do the English have to rule such a vastly diverse and distant population? Even John Dickinson, no fan of revolution, ultimately defended the right if not the principle of revolution based on the precedence of quo warranto in constraining governmental power.

The colonial aspect is inseparable from that of corporations. Early charters didn’t clearly distinguish between types of official organizations. All charters were creations by the government and supposedly served the purposes of the public good. Chartered organizations were public institutions, having no independent rights other than what a government gave them and those rights necessitated obeisance to law and order, a public duty to country and countrymen, and a set of social obligations with a proscribed reason for existence and only for a set period of time before requiring renewal or forfeit.

Technically, even to this day, corporations as chartered by governments remain public institutions, not private organizations. Corporate charters can be revoked at any time for numerous reasons. But a corporate charter isn’t required to operate a business. A corporate charter simply gives legal and economic protections to a business in exchange for serving or at least being in compliance with the public good. What has changed is that, in corporations gaining power over the government, they’ve declared their own private interests to be primary—so defining public interests according to private interests instead of the other way around as it had been defined for all of previous history.

In early America, the idea of corporate personhood would not only have been an alien and oppressive idea but likely even sacreligious. The American founders and the generations that followed knew the dangers of corporate charters to act as oppressive agents of government or to take power for themselves in co-opting the power of government, even gaining influence over government. They regularly warned against this and wrote laws to protect against it. The acute awareness of this danger continued into the early 20th century, only having been forgotten in recent times.

Finding ourselves in an era of corrupt and oppressive corporatism, of a rigged political system and what at this point appears to be a banana republic, of a distant government disconnected from our lives and our ability to influence, of a militarized police state in endless war, we the people are confronted with questions of legitimacy. These are same questions faced by generations before us, by centuries of protesters and revolutionaries. By what right are we being ruled, if it isn’t by the authority of we the people in governing ourselves? Quo warranto?

* * *

Quo warranto

Quo warranto (Medieval Latin for “by what warrant?”) is a prerogative writ requiring the person to whom it is directed to show what authority they have for exercising some right or power (or “franchise”) they claim to hold. […]

In the United States today, quo warranto usually arises in a civil case as a plaintiff’s claim (and thus a “cause of action” instead of a writ) that some governmental or corporate official was not validly elected to that office or is wrongfully exercising powers beyond (or ultra vires) those authorized by statute or by the corporation’s charter.

REAL Democracy History Calendar July 4-10

King Edward I, first to utilize the “quo warranto” written order
Quo warranto is a Medieval Latin term meaning “by what warrant?” It’s a written order by a governing power (e.g. Kings in the past, legislatures early in U.S. history, and courts in the present) requiring the person to whom it is directed to show what authority they have for exercising a claimed right or power. It originated under King Edward I of England to recover previously lost lands, rights and franchises.

This power was transferred to states following the American Revolution. State legislatures utilized “quo warranto” powers to challenge previously chartered or franchised corporations that acted beyond their original privileges granted by the state. The result was frequent revocation of corporate charters and dissolution of the corporations — in the name of affirming sovereignty/self-governance.

All 50 states still retain elements of quo warranto. The authority concerning the creation and dissolution of corporations was meant to be a legislative power, not judicial.

Real Democracy History Calendar April 4-10

State ex rel. Monnett v. Capital City Dairy Co., 62 OS 350 (1900) – example of corporate charter revocation
It was common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries for state legislatures and courts to revoke the charters or licenses of corporations that violated the terms or conditions of their charters. The legal procedure for this was called “quo warranto” in which the state demanded to know what right the corporation possessed to act beyond the terms of its state-granted charter.

Some states were more active than others in utilizing this democratic tool. Here’s an example of the language from an Ohio State Supreme Court “quo warranto” charter revocation decision:

“Quo warranto” may be invoked to stop corporation’s disregard of laws in conduct of authorized business, and to oust corporation if abuse be flagrant….The time has not yet arrived when the created is greater than the creator, and it still remains the duty of the courts to perform their office in the enforcement of the laws, no matter how ingenious the pretexts for their violation may be, nor the power of the violators in the commercial world. In the present case the acts of the defendant have been persistent, defiant and flagrant, and no other course is left to the court than to enter a judgment of ouster and to appoint trustees to wind up the business of the concern.”

A Better Guide than Reason: The Politics of John Dickinson
by M.E. Bradford

Yet still he felt obliged to deny the principle of revolution, even as he maintained the right. As he had done in the Farmer’s Letters. As he had done since his first appearance in public office, as a member of the Delaware assembly in 1760. For, like no other American political thinker, John Dickinson had absorbed into his very bones the precedent of 1688. In abbreviated form, that creed might be abstracted as follows: The English political identity (the Constitution in its largest sense, including certain established procedures, institutions, chartered rights and habits of thought) is a product of a given history, lived by a specific people in a particular place. Executive, judicial, and legislative arms of government are bound by that prescription and must deal with new circumstances in keeping with its letter and its spirit. The same configuration qua Constitution should be available to all Englishmen, according to their worth and place, their deserts. And any man, upon his achievement of a particular condition (freeholder, elector, magistrate, etc.) should find that his rights there are what anyone else similarly situated might expect. Finally all Englishmen are secure against arbitrary rule under this umbrella and have an equal right to insist upon its maintenance. To so insist, even to the point of removing an offending component by force, is loyalty to the sovereign power.[3] To submit to “dreadful novelty” or dangerous innovation,” even if its source is a prince or minister who came rightfully to his position, is treason.[4] For the authority belongs to the total system, not to persons who operate it at a given time. Or rather, to such persons as “stand to their post” and attempt with and through it nothing contrary to the purpose for which it has been developed. It was this historic and legal identity, formed over the course of centuries by so much trial and error and with such cost in turmoil, which was deemed to be worth whatever efforts its preservation might require—given the danger of being called a rebel—because it was the best known to man.[5] And therefore the most “natural” and conformable to reason. To correct any declension from such experienced perfection was thus clearly more than patriotic. Like the Glorious Revolution itself, it could be called an assertion of universal truth.

[3] Dickinson cites Lord Camden and the statute quo warranto 18th of Edward I. See The Political Writings of John Dickinson, 1764-1774 (New York: Da Capo Press, 19701, edited by Paul L. Ford (originally published 1895), p. 485. From Lord Coke to Chatham ran the argument that law bound King and Parliament. See the famous Dr. Bonham’s Case, 8 Coke 118a (1610). Also Herbert Butterfield, The Englishman and His History (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1970).

“Why Process Matters,” By Bruce Frohnen
by Peter Haworth

It is worth noting, here, that we Americans owe our liberty, in no small measure, to a rather obscure set of circumstances going back eight hundred years in England. This set of circumstances arose from the greed and desire for power of a king, which were somewhat ironically channeled in a direction favorable to liberty by the procedural tool he chose in his quest.

First signed in 1215, Magna Carta generally is credited with institutionalizing due process in the English tradition. By committing the king to prosecute subjects only according to “the law of the land,” Magna Carta bound him to abide by procedures already existing throughout his kingdom, solidifying a powerful bulwark against arbitrary arrest and punishment. But the binding nature of law on kings was far from assured by this one document. It was significantly bolstered later in the thirteenth century by a series of events that combined elements of custom, law, and contract and related to the humble English borough.

Medieval English boroughs were relatively important towns with their roots in military encampments. Over time, many of these communities gained charters from the crown giving them significant rights of self-government. Whether awarded to them for special services or monetary donations, or rooted in customary relations from time out of mind, these charters were precious to those who held them. In theory, kings could only revoke such charters for cause, or for failure to exercise their rights. King Edward I (1272-1307) sought to bring boroughs more closely into his power by reviewing all their charters at essentially the same time. To do this he used an old common law writ called “quo warranto.”

Quo Warranto (or “by what right”) was a proceeding by which a person or community claiming a right to do something (say, appoint their own tax collectors or keep goods found on the local beach from a wrecked, unclaimed vessel) was ordered to show by what right they exercised their claimed powers. Before Edward, kings occasionally had revoked borough charters, either under quo warranto or through unilateral action. Edward had a grander scheme, by which he made every borough answer the question of by what right they exercised their powers of local self-government. If the party answered the writ successfully they would keep their rights, but if not the charter would be confiscated or held void. […]

Edward sought, not the elimination of all borough charters (he had not the power to make that kind of scheme succeed over time) but to better define which boroughs had what rights and to establish that a borough could have its charter revoked for abuse or noncompliance with its provisions. […] Perhaps the most important, if unintentional, byproduct of Edward’s aggressive program of quo warranto was institutionalization of Magna Carta. His grand, universal scheme required formal procedures, establishing due process rights that guaranteed, in the formula of the time, “each man’s own liberty, warranted by a charter, upheld in the courts.” […] Under Edward’s general quo warranto investigation, due process went so far as to show that the king, as a person, was not above the law.

Colonial self-government, 1652-1689
by Charles McLean Andrews
p. 17

The king’s interest in his revenues, as well as the demands of commerce and trade, the nation’s jealousy of Holland, and the influence of men like Clarendon and Downing, must be taken into account if we would understand the navigation acts, the founding of new colonies, the establishment of new boards and committees, and the quo warranto proceedings to annul colonial charters between 1660 and 1688. The colonies were the king’s colonies, and his also was the burden of providing money for the expenses of the kingdom.

Since the attempt to cripple the Dutch by the navigation act of 1651 proved a failure, the act of 1660, in repeating the shipping clause of the earlier act, made it more rigorous. Thenceforth ships must not only be owned and manned by English- men (including colonists), but they must also be built by Englishmen, and two-thirds of the seamen must be English subjects. In later acts of 1662 and 1663, provision was made whereby real or pretended misunderstandings of this clause might be prevented ; and one of the most important functions of the later committees of trade and plantations was, by means of rules as to passes, denization and naturalization, and foreign-built ships, to prevent trade from getting into the hands of foreigners.

American History
by Macrius Willson
p. 310

About the close of King Philip’s War, the king’s design of subverting the liberties of New England were revived anew, by the opportunity which the controversy between Massachusetts, and Mason and Gorges, presented for the royal interference, when New Hampshire, contrary to her wishes, was made a distinct province and compelled to receive a royal governor. ‘Massachusetts had neglected the Acts of Navigation— the merchants of England complained against her—she responded by declaring these Acts an invasion of the rights and liberties of the colonists, “they not being represented in parliament,” and when finally the colony refused to send agents to England with full powers to settle disputes by making the required submissions, a writ of quo warranto was issued and English judges decided that Massachusetts had forfeited her charter. Rhode Island and Connecticut had also evaded the Acts of Navigation, yet their conduct was suffered to pass without reprehension. It was probably thought that the issue of the contest with the more obnoxious province of Massachusetts would involve the fate of all the other New England settlements.

Throughout this controversy, the general court of Massachusetts, and the people in their assemblies, repeatedly declared they would never show themselves unworthy of liberty by making a voluntary surrender of it ; asserting, “that it was better to die by other hands than their own.”—The resolute, unbending virtue, with which Massachusetts defended the system of liberty which her early Puritan settlers had established, and guarded with such jealous care, deserves our warmest commendation. The Navigation acts were an indirect mode of taxing the commerce of the colonies for the benefit of England; and the opposition to them was based, mainly, on the illegality and injustice of taxation without representation—a principle on which the colonies afterwards declared and maintained their independence.

pp. 320-1

In his relations with the American colonies, James pursued the policy which had been begun by his brother. The charter of Massachusetts having been declared to be forfeited, James at first appointed a temporary executive government, consisting of a president and council, whose powers were to extend over Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New Plymouth; and soon after he established a complete tyranny in New England, by combining the whole legislative and executive authority in the persons of a governor and council to be named by himself. Sir Edmund Andros received the office of governor-general.

It being the purpose of James to consolidate all the British colonies under one government, measures were immediately taken for subverting the charters of Rhode Island and Connecticut, both of which colonies were now charged with making laws repugnant to those of England. Writs of quo warranto were issued against them, but the eagerness of the king to accomplish his object with rapidity caused him to neglect to prosecute the writs to a judicial issue, and the charters were thereby saved from a legal extinction, but Andros arbitrarily dissolved the institutions of these colonies, and by the authority of the royal prerogative alone assumed to himself the exercise of supreme power.

The government of Andros, in obedience to the instructions of his royal master, was exceedingly arbitrary and oppressive, and he often took occasion to remark “that the colonists would find themselves greatly mistaken if they supposed that the privileges of Englishmen followed them to the ends of the earth; and that the only difference between their condition and that of slaves, was, that they were neither bought nor sold.”

In 1688 New York and New Jersey submitted to the jurisdiction of Andros. A writ of quo warranto was issued against the charter of Maryland also, and that of Pennsylvania would doubtless have shared the same fate had not the Revolution in England arrested the tyranny of the monarch. “When some vague intelligence of this event reached New England, the smothered rage of the people broke forth, and a sudden insurrection over threw the government of Andros—sent him prisoner to England—and restored the ancient forms of the charter governments.

The important events in England, of which the new settlement of the crown and the declaration of rights are the closing scenes, are usually designated as the English Revolution, or, the Glorious Revolution of I688. This Revolution gave to England a liberal theory of government, based on the avowed principle that the public good is the great end for which positive laws and governments are instituted. The doctrine of passive obedience to the crown, which the princes of the house of Stuart had ever labored to inculcate—which the crown lawyers and churchmen had so long supported, henceforth became so obnoxious to the altered feeling and sentiments of the people, that succeeding sovereigns scarcely ventured to hear of their hereditary right, and dreaded the cup of flattery that was drugged with poison. This was the great change which the Revolution effected—the crown became the creature of the law;—and it was henceforth conceded that the rights of the monarch emanated from the parliament and the people.

This Revolution forms an important era in American, as well as in English history—intimately connected as the rights and liberties of the colonies then were with the forms and principles of American of government that prevailed in the mother country. From this time, until we approach the period of the American Revolution, the relations between England and her colonies present great uniformity of character, and are marked by no great excesses of royal usurpation, or of popular jealousy and excitement. Hence that portion of our colonial history which dates subsequent to the English Revolution, embracing more than half of our colonial annals; has but a slight connection with the political history of England. The several important wars, however, in which England was engaged during this latter period, extended to America; and an explanation of their causes and results will show a connection between European and American history, that will serve to give more enlarged and accurate views of the later than an exclusive attention to our own annals would furnish.

Moreover, these wars, in connection with the growing importance of colonial commerce, exerted a powerful influence in acquainting the several colonies with each other; thereby developing their mutual interests.—softening the asperities and abating the conflicting jealousies which separated them—and, finally, gathering them in the bonds of one political union. The early portion of our colonial history presents a continuous conflict between liberal and arbitrary principles, and shows why we are a free people:—the latter portion, subsequent to the English Revolution, exhibits the causes which rendered us a united people.

A Conservative Trend, To Where?

I was sitting at work and thinking too much, again. On such occcasions, my thoughts naturally drift toward particular topics. I got to thinking about government, as I’m a government employee, albeit a mere minion. How government operates in the practical sense is a personal preoccupation.

I’ve been with the local city government for more than 15 years now (along with having lived in this town off and on since the mid-1980s). My civil service position offers perspective on certain issues. It forces me to think about local community a bit differently. I regularly see my coworkers and I know people who work in other departments. Most of my coworkers are union members. I even work along side my union steward a couple days a week. In talking to various people, I get a bit of the inside scoop on what is going on in the department and in city government (plus, I get a sense of what is going on in the community in general). This is fodder for my mind.

Right now, the parking department is doing repairs to the ramps. Another coworker told me that the ramps were only built to last a couple of decades. Some of them are now several decades old. They’ve built new ramps over the years, but the old ones remain. To get an idea about how old they are, as one of these ramps has been worked on, a large chunk of concrete came loose in a different section of the ramp and it landed on a car. If that had landed on a person, that would have been a quite the lawsuit. Obviously, repairs are needed and have been needed for a long time… or maybe entirely new ramps built to replace the old, but that would cost even more money.

Not being privy to the decision-making process, I’m left curious about what goes on behind the scenes, beyond what little info I’m able to gather. Many changes have been happening in recent years and it is sometimes concerning or simply perplexing.

Like in many other cities, a particular kind of conservativism has taken hold here, in spite of it outwardly being a liberal college town. The city council, from what I can tell, has always been dominated by local business interests, most especially the Downtown Business Association. It’s certainly not the left-wing university professors and other intellectual elite running this town. Then again, local business owners around here don’t seem to be as right-wing as you’d expect in some places. This is still a liberal town and, as data shows, liberals have high rates of small business ownership. The conservatism that has taken hold has a vain of liberalism running through it (or is it the other way around, that this liberal town has a vein of conservatism running through it?). Besides, conservative-minded liberals aren’t all that rare, especially in a fairly small town in a rural Midwestern state, but that is another issue.

One aspect of this conservatism has been seen downtown. That is where can be found the pedestrian mall, the main public space. It has a permanent stage, a fountain, playground, and adjoining public library. It’s a popular gathering place, the heart of the community. But the idea of the public, all of the public, not just shoppers, freely using this public space has bothered many of the downtown business owners.

Through the Downtown Business Association, their voices get heard by local officials and their demands often get heeded. They helped push through a number of changes to discourage the low class people from hanging out too much downtown (by “low class” I mean average people, the common folk; not just bums, punks, and “ped rats”). They banned smoking in the pedestrian mall, banned people from setting their belongings down around them, and for a while banned dogs as well. They constricted the areas where panhandlers could do their thing. They made it illegal to lay down on a bench.

Still, that wasn’t enough. They removed a large number of the benches and picnic tables where the low class people convened and ‘loitered’ about. The place where that seating used to be is called the People’s Park because some decades ago, before the pedestrian mall was built, it was created by the public having demanded public space downtown (now it is part of the pedestrian mall). A new expensive, TIF-funded I might add, highrise was built and the People’s Park is now basically the front yard for rich people. That was also where a drum circle had met weekly for decades, but one of the rich people complained about the noise and the police made them leave, never to come back. I half expect to discover homeless spikes around one of these new fancy highrises popping up around downtown.

So, that is the mood right now of the local economic and political ruling elite. I should note that none of these changes were protested by any of the local liberal activists, and they have been known to protest about many other things (I’ve occasionally joined them, radical that I am). I suspect it’s the boiling frog scenario. These changes were put into place in a slow process stretched out over a number of years, many of them done covertly. For example, the seating was removed during some construction work and they were conveniently never put back. My brother at the time was working in the CBD department (Central Business District) and, according to him, management said this was done on purpose.

That gives you the context for my thinking. My direct focus at the moment, however, is on fiscal conservatism. It’s a strange beast. Most people are familiar with it at the federal level, i.e., big government. Reaganomics used the rhetoric of fiscal conservatism. But what is that rhetoric supposed to mean? It’s hard to take it at face value.

In the eighties, Republicans had plenty of control (with a majority in the Senate for the first 6 years of the Reagan administration) and the Democratic Party wasn’t being obstructionist (some key Democrats were Southern conservatives who later became Republicans, which meant that Reagan began with a “working conservative majority” in the House). The Reagan administration was able to act according to their own vision and agenda. Many cuts were made to taxes, only to later raise taxes again. Some government funding was slashed, while other government funding was increased massively. All of this was done according to Reagan and his advisors. Republican budgets were passed and Reagan basically got the spending he requested; actually, slightly less. The national debt almost tripled in Reagan’s eight years in office. This is how the Reagan administration created the permanent debt that we still have. Worse still, along with a bigger military, big government in general grew bigger still, including an increase of public sector jobs.

It’s not as if this happened on accident. They knew what they were doing. No one was forcing their hand. The question is why did they want to do this. Obviously, Reganomics was the opposite of acting fiscally responsible. If fiscal conservatism doesn’t mean fiscal responsibility, then what does it mean? I’ve read about suggested theories. For example, some see it as Starve the Beast. It’s seen as a way of attacking government by forcing it into debt. In reality, this just means attacking the social safety net and public services. It certainly hasn’t led to the shrinking of big government, as that was unlikely ever its real purpose.

It’s not just an issue of big government at the federal level. Even small local government is attacked using this same rhetoric and the same tactics. I’ve seen this firsthand in this town where I live and work. Although a liberal town, the business-friendly city council hired a fiscally conservative city manager. He has been the city manager for a while now, long enough to implement his policies. This includes a number of things:

1) They’ve been decreasing city employee numbers through attrition. However, at the same time in the department I work in, the number of office and management positions has increased. Also, one of the problems in the parking department is that they even decreased the number of the parking enforcement attendants (AKA “meter maids”) who actually bring in money, and so they are bringing in less money through tickets while also having less presence in enforcing the parking laws, the latter of which (parking enforcement) one presumes is or should be the main purpose of the parking department.

2) Decreasing employees has been made possible through several means. Unsurprisingly, they’ve privatized much of the work city employees used to do.* I’m not sure this actually saves money, but it sure helps to weaken the labor union. It really just seems like the city is doing less, rather than being more efficient or whatever. The contracted workers don’t do a lot of the work that city employees used to do and neither do the remaining city employees. All the workers are stretched more thin. So, basic maintenance often goes undone. Here are a few examples: the stairwells in the ramps are dirtier, parking lines get painted less often, weeding is low priority, large areas of green space are no longer mowed, and some of the multi-use trails weren’t plowed this past winter; not to mention repairs such as to the ramp were long overdue. It’s all very basic work that isn’t getting done.

They’ve sought to get rid of employees through other means as well. One method has been to mechanize particular jobs, such as putting an expensive (both expensive to buy and maintain) automated system with pay stations in the ramps to replace cashiers, but the system is too unreliable and so they still need to keep some of the cashiers around. I assume that the main justification for the new system was to save money. Did it save money? It is far from clear, as the financial investment in this new system is massive. Basic parking for a smaller town like this easily could be operated with a much smaller budget than is required for these high tech improvements. Parking cars doesn’t require some of the most advanced and expensive technology around. Such things can be nice, but they are far from necessary. There is nothing fiscally conservative about investments so large that they may never pay for themselves in savings.

* Let me offer some interesting backstory.

There is a company that does the contract work in the former departments of Parking, Transit, and Central Business District—all combined into a single department now. It might be the same company that also is contracted by the Parks and Recreation department. The company was hired by Parking/Transit management before there was ever any bidding. Then bidding took place, but management said it decided to go with that company because they were already doing the job. So, basically, it was a no-bid contract and the bidding was just a legal formality.

I don’t know that anything fishy was going on behind closed doors, but it is quite suspicious. It makes one wonder if there was cronyism going on. Of course, at the federal level, they often don’t even have to pretend to go through a bidding process and blatantly give contracts to cronies. More covert behavior is maybe required at the local level… or maybe I’m just being paranoid.

3) They have consolidated a number of departments.* This means there are fewer departments and so fewer department heads. However, in practice, this just means the remaining departments are much larger with more responsibilities and more staff (along with more expensive computers and other technology; specifically why they need more office and tech staff to operate/maintain it and more supervisors to oversee it all). Plus, this makes the remaining department heads all the more powerful in their greater authority and territory, especially as they are working closely with the city manager in making these decisions and implementing them. Isn’t it interesting that fiscal conservatism ends up growing the size of government departments and further concentrating power in the hands of a few? How does this shrink government or necessarily even save money?

* By the way, one coworker told me the best theory for some of the recent department consolidations.

The guy who was the head of the Parking Department is still the head of the new consolidated department, which is now called Transit, the former name of the separate department for buses and vehicle maintenance that was incorporated into Parking. Now, Refuse has also been brought into the fold, which is truly bizarre. Neither this department head nor any of the Parking/Transit staff below him knows anything about Refuse. Plus, going by what I’ve heard, it seems there may have been a number of occasions in the past when OSHA regulations were broken in management’s dealing with chemicals and waste disposal, although no investigation ever occurred. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

The only explanation that made sense of this departmental consolidation is that there was one commonality between Parking, Transit, and Refuse. They all receive major federal funding. I was told that the department head is highly skilled in getting federal funding, one of the most important skills of all for a bureaucrat.

4) The issue people in the local area are most familiar with are TIFs (Tax Increment Financing). It’s a way of giving temporary tax cuts to builders for specific building projects in order to incentivize development where it is needed. It’s original purpose was for blighted neighborhoods, but Iowa City has no blighted neighborhoods. Nor does Coralville, the adjoining town (essentially, the suburb for Iowa City) that has used TIFs to an even greater degree. All the TIFs go to major projects, such as upscale highrises (for expensive apartments and expensive stores). Also, a recent upscale grocery store also got a TIF. My father is the president of the local chapter of Kiwanis. He recently heard a city official speak (I think it was the assistant city manager or something like that). The city official admitted that every major project (i.e., big biz) expects a TIF to build anything. It’s become an expectation. Of course, no small business owner or lowscale builder received a TIF in this town. It’s become yet another form of cronyism via big biz subsidies.*

* This is odd and irritating for more than the obvious reasons.

If you give it a sleight amount of thought, you realize this means that these TIF-funded developers aren’t paying the taxes that pay for the services that the local government provides. Someone has to pay for them. So, already established businesses and smaller developers end up footing the bill, and in doing so essentially subsidize their competition.

This is at a time when the city government has lost revenue from other tax sources, because of a change in Iowa tax laws. This is the whole reason for tightening the public belt by reducing services, eliminating staff, privatizing work, etc. From the perspective of fiscal responsibility, this makes no sense. These TIF subsidies are in essence the giving away of money that will have to be offset somehow… or else the city will go into debt.

Furthermore, it’s not even that this TIF-funding is going to all big biz developers in a neutral fashion, as a favoritism has formed where TIFs have mostly gone to one particular developer. The city council says it gives TIFs to this developer because he is reliable, but few other probably reliable developers even bother because they know they’re systematically being excluded.

My father told me about one guy who wasn’t local and so had no crony connections. He wanted to build a hotel here. After dealing with endless red tape and other bureaucratic obstructionism, he gave up and decided not to build at all. Developers who have connections get TIFs and those who don’t have connections can’t even get their plans approved, much less get massive tax breaks through TIFs.

I suppose all of this is standard politics in this plutocratic and corporatist era. I’m used to hearing about this on the national level or even the state level. But it is so much more disheartening to see it with my own eyes at the local level, in my own community. This isn’t even a big city. It’s just a little college town surrounded by rural farmland.

The point I’m trying to make here isn’t to argue for cynicism. I’m genuinely curious what it all means. Where is this coming form? What is motivating it? Why is fiscal conservatism so fiscally irresponsible in practice and it seems intentionally so? What is the link between fiscal conservative rhetoric and social conservative rhetoric? Furthermore, what is the close tie between conservatism and cronyism or even outright corporatism?

It feels like there is some larger force or vision behind all of this, transcending any single place and government. Particular policies and government actions don’t seem all that significant taken in isolation. Yet when put all together, it points toward something. What exactly?

None of this is necessarily intended as a criticism toward those who genuinely believe in conservatism, and certainly not intended as criticism toward those who genuinely believe in fiscal responsibility and good governance. My point is that conservatives themselves should be mad most of all. Even ignoring the fiscal irresponsibility, actual functioning conservatism so often seems unconservative and anti-traditional, especially in its embrace of laissez-faire capitalism with its privatization of the commons and undermining of the public good. If that is conservatism, then conservatism has nothing to do with traditional values and social order.

To be fair, some conservatives are bothered by all of this or at least parts of it. My father has complained about what he sees here locally. We both live in the same town at present and so it comes up in discussions on a regular basis. Although my father fully supports fiscal conservative objectives, he doesn’t see this town as a shining example of fiscal conservative success. It doesn’t bother him that city employees are eliminated or that work is contracted out. Still, even he can’t shake the feeling of a cronyism that runs this town.

This is something that should bother all local citizens, across the political spectrum. Where is the outrage? Where are the protests? Heck, where is the local media to report on any of this?*

* One coworker I know well has wondered about that last question, in particular.

He has noted some of the close personal ties between city officials and those who run the local newspaper. He has also observed that the employees of the local newspaper get a special parking permit that no one else has, not even other permit holders from downtown businesses. The best coverage, for example, of local TIFs came from a small alternative publication and not from the main local newspaper.

But that is me being paranoid again.

It would be simple to see this as good versus bad, as evil cronies against the common man. But that misses the point. All of the people I’ve met who work in city government, including management, seem like nice people and many of them are quite dedicated to their jobs. I’d say the same thing about local business owners I’ve met, some of whom are part of multigenerational family businesses.

I think it is more of a systemic problem. It’s how our society functions. It’s how present capitalist systems are designed, especially as they transition into brutally competitive globalization. It’s a particular social darwinian worldview that is built into our culture, but is taking over many other societies as well. One could argue that most people are simply acting in the way that makes sense under these conditions and according to these biases.

Maybe most of the people involved really do hope to shrink government, lessen costs, and cut taxes. If so, why does that rarely materialize? Neither Reagan nor any other conservative has accomplished any of these things. It’s not clear that they even seriously tried. Still, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment. As these policies don’t lead to what conservatives claim to want, then why do they keep pushing them? Is this really a failure? Or is there some other purpose? If so, what and whose purpose? Do conservatives even understand their own motivations? Do they know the master they serve? What is this vision and what is driving it? Also, why do so many Democrats and liberals seem to go along without any fight?

More importantly, what kind of society is being built in the process? What will the end result look like? Is it a world that I’d want to live in? Is it a world most people would want to live in? Do any of these changes make the nation and local communities better in any way?

The most problematic part of all this is that almost none of this has been part of public debate. No plans were presented to be considered and voted upon. No reasons were given for what they are hoping to accomplish. There is obviously some vision or agenda, but apparently only insiders know what it is. Even in the department I work in, management rarely explains much of anything. Changes just happen.

All of this is being forced onto an unwitting public. Maybe it’s the public’s fault for not paying enough attention, but still that isn’t much of an excuse for those who take advantage of this state of affairs. Certainly, there is nothing democratic or even libertarian about any of this. It’s simply people with power doing whatever they want without transparency or accountability.

What is happening in my town is a microcosm of what is happening all across the United States and in many other countries as well. The changes are too wide-ranging and concerted to be dismissed lightly as just politics as usual. Many have argued that the culture wars have been an intentional distraction, for all Americans across the political spectrum. No matter which side wins on the social issues, the monied elite will always win on the fiscal issues.

This is why it is in a sense irrelevant what people think about gay marriage, marijuana legalization, or whatever else. It doesn’t matter that the town I live in is socially liberal (nor that my state was one of the few to legalize gay marriage before it became a federal decision). It doesn’t matter that the entire country is becoming ever more socially liberal. None of that touches upon the fundamental social order or challenges the entrenched power within the system.

On top of that, fiscal issues are harder to grasp and to use for rallying people, even though most Americans are also rather liberal on many fiscal issues (e.g., most believe that the distribution of wealth is unfair and something should be done about it). Despite its importance, it is rare for a straightforward public debate to happen about fiscal issues and hence few seem to notice what is happening and what it all adds up to.

There is something about fiscal issues that makes people feel so powerless and apathetic. Part of the problem is that fiscal issues often seem boring and maybe are intentionally portrayed by the corporate media in boring ways. I don’t know. It seems strange that all of society can be transformed before our eyes and most people act as if they don’t notice or can’t be bothered to care.

* * * *

Public Good & Democratic Government (pt. 2)

The Mechanized City

TIFs, Gentrification, and Plutocracy
(more on local gentrification)

Shame of Iowa and the Midwest

Paranoia of a Guilty Conscience

John Bior Deng: R.I.P.

Officer Shoots Homeless Man: Comments

Iowa Biking & Rural Politics

Old Forms of Power

* * * *

Bonus article:

‘By the People’ and ‘Wages of Rebellion’
by George Packer

A New Rule On Immigration

I have a new rule. *

We can only deny immigration to citizens of countries where the US government and military has never meddled in their society. We will demand any immigrants to go away and leave us alone, if and only if we have done the same to them.

We should make the Golden Rule a law. Also, self-righteous ignorant hypocrisy should be made illegal.

* * *

Why do those on the right love to complain about government but then demand that government is the final arbiter of reality?

Immigrants are illegal because they’ve broken the law. Others have noted there are so many laws on the book that every American regularly breaks laws every day. Are we illegal citizens? Unemployment is so high that a large part of Americans work on the black market. Are these Americans illegal workers?

Why do some people argue that people should serve the legal system instead of the legal system serving people? Is the legal system simply a system for defending power? Why, for example, have we allowed the War On Drugs which is a war against the American people?

When law and governance is used for oppressive social control, why should we allow that power structure determine our reality? Maybe we should make our own reality through self-governance.

* * *

* I was ‘inspired’ by an discussion about President Obama’s Immigration Actions on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. It was hosted by John McArdle. The guests were Jon Feere (Legal Policy Analyst of Center for Immigration Studies) and Crystal Williams (Executive Director of American Immigration Lawyers Association), the former from the right and the latter from the left. It is one of those mainstream media debates where both sides frustrated me.

Government Spending: Budgets, Deficits, & Debt

What is even being debated about government budgets?

It’s obviously not a matter of what we can and can’t afford.

Most people who complain about deficit spending and growing debt are perfectly fine with unfunded wars that are wars of choice and an increasing number of prisons being built to hold those who commit victimless crimes. They are more than willing to spend money to kill people and imprison people, but apparently not to help people.

It’s not about the money, rather about who deserves what and how much. Such people want to live in a Social Darwinian ‘meritocracy’ where the rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer, and that is simply supposed to be the natural order of things. They would deny this, but this is what their choices and actions have inevitably led to.

The military-industrial complex which is built on government spending is the single largest sector of our economy.

That doesn’t even include the alphabet soup agencies involved in intelligence, investigation, security, and who knows what else. That doesn’t include the growing prison-industrial complex along with the growing police state and all that it entails. That doesn’t include all the money spent to help big business by offering subsidies and tax breaks, negotiating trade agreements, securing/defending access to natural resources and cheap labor in other countries, selling natural resources on public lands at below market value, giving government contracts to cronies, and allowing the privatizing of various publicly-funded benefits while socializing or otherwise externalizing costs.

And don’t get me started about the massive black budget that rarely gets mentioned, much less seriously discussed.

For a fraction of a percentage of what we spend on all of that, we probably could offer high quality education and health care for the every American citizen. If we weren’t spending all that money on the security state, on the corporatocracy and on imperial aspirations, we could easily pay off the entire debt and never have to worry about deficit spending again.

The answer is obvious and simple, but those who complain the loudest (or rather those whose complaints most often get heard and debated in mainstream media and politics) don’t care about obvious and simple answers. I’m not sure they even understand and it is in their interest to not understand or to pretend they don’t understand.

Still, the ‘debate’ goes on and so does the problem. Those benefiting from it all, the political and corporate plutocracy, are content with the status quo.

The Mechanized City

I just left a meeting at the place I work, City of Iowa City Parking Department. The management of the department and of the city have been planning for future developments to improve the downtown area, some of which will eventually alter my job. It’s interesting to see the functioning of government from a slightly inside perspective.

Being a liberal city, the government here is very obsessed about such things as transparency and providing optimal services. There is some bureaucracy involved, but not as much since it’s a smaller population, not even large by Iowa standards. Also, surprising to some people, I’ve observed how Parking management doesn’t seem overly focused on profit-making, despite Parking being the only department that actually makes a profit. Everything is about serving the public. They take their role as civil servants very seriously.

(Although not focused on the profit of the parking department, they are focused on overall tax revenue. So, the ‘public’ in question particularly includes anyone involved in the downtown economy. The downtown business association — going by a different name these days — is directly involved in such city decisions. As such, the city is very focused on the profit of downtown businesses and thus the happiness of prospective customers.)

I’ve wondered about some of the recent changes, as I get to see much of it firsthand with my job. I’m a parking ramp cashier. I started out working in an empty lot that had no ticket spitter or even gates. Everything was done manually and it was a bit chaotic. Over the years, they keep adding new elements to parking such as building new ramps and now putting in self-pay stations. Eventually, my job will be replaced by what they call and ambassador position which then be my new job. Being an ambassador means I won’t be stuck in a booth and my job description will involve more customer service of the ambulatory variety, i.e., going to the customers when they have problems and generally being out and about doing what needs to be done.

They’ve invested massive amounts of money into technology. Along with self-pay stations, they have cameras everywhere and they are looking into various other possibilities: new meter systems with more options such as paying by smartphone, license plate reading machines, etc. One idea is that they might save money in the long run because they’ve let recidivism decrease the number of employees, but I doubt that can be a very central goal since they are spending such a vast amount of money in the process. I suspect they could run the parking department very cheaply with almost no technology at all.

It’s not really about money. It’s about information. Technology means data can be collected, stored, organized, and analyzed. Also, it is data that can be provided to the public as part of the services offered such as maps showing where open parking is at any moment or where a bus is at any moment.

The future is all about information. It’s not data for the sake of data as might be seen in the bureaucracy of a more authoritarian government. It’s all data with a specific purpose, the idea of a smoothly running machine, an entire city mechanized. Some might find that disturbing, maybe even dystopian. As for me, I’m just a curious observer.

Romney’s Mormonism: Socialism, Progressivism, Xenophobia

A caller on Diane Rehm’s NPR show (I think it was October 11) offered an insightful observation. And the two guests, mainstream talking heads, were utterly clueless in typical fashion.

The caller commented on how Ryan spoke of Romney’s charity. The caller thought that charity was great and that it was great that Mormons take care of their own, but he wondered how much Romney donates to charities that aren’t Mormon.

In a president, you want someone who will be concerned about everyone, not just those seen as part of their group. This is the fundamental problem about Romney honestly admitting that he thinks 47% of Americans are unworthy of his concern and compassion, that therefore he is genuinely only interested in representing the upper classes and other groups of people he happens to personally identify with.

What really caught my attention was something else the caller said. He pointed out that the Mormons are socialist within themselves. This is common on the right. Conservatives are fine with socialism for people within their own group, but not for those not part of their group.

This is where the cluelessness of mainstream talking heads comes in. They denied this was socialism. How can smart people be so ignorant about such basic issues. Of course, it’s socialism. Just because it doesn’t fit Cold War anti-communist propaganda doesn’t mean it can’t be socialism. Most early socialists in America were religious and limited their socialism to the in-group.

This is clueless in another way. The guests argued that the Mormon church isn’t a government. Of course, the Mormon church is a government.

Mormons have always kept their church governance closely tied with political governance. In Mormon Utah, the church essentially is the government, in fact originally tried to create a government separate from the  United States. You move to a Mormon town and you will be forced to follow Mormon-based laws. Furthermore, tithing is a tax, not a choice if you want to be a Mormon just as federal taxes aren’t a choice if you want to be American, although both being a Mormon and being American are choices that one can always choose otherwise. Mormons don’t even have a choice in how their church government spends their money, certainly less choice than an American citizen for at least democracy allows for one to vote in or out one’s leaders.

Besides, the right all the time uses the government to fund their religious programs. Churches get tax exemptions and many religious organizations get government funding. For example, the religious right voted in Bush who then rewarded them by funding abstinence only sex education. Compassionte conservatism is ultimately religious ‘socialism’ being implemented in secular politics (‘socialism’ in the broad sense as defined by conservatives).

This is all made clear by looking at history. Back when immigration was low and there were fewer foreigners\outsiders, Mormons were strong supporters of the social welfare programs of Progressivism. Now that immigration is at a high point, Mormons vote against the very programs they once voted for. Such xenophobia is sadly predictable, and it is equally true for the rest of the religious right.

Government Efficiency: Public’s Lack of Knowledge

I was following a discussion the other day. It was between some liberals and conservatives.

What intrigued me and irritated me was the issue on which this particular group of people agreed. I don’t remember the exact discussion, but it had to do with government. Somehow the issue of efficiency came up. At least one liberal in the discussion agreed with the conservatives that government is inefficient. Can you believe that!?!

That is simply not true as a generalization. Studies have shown that in providing certain services the government does it more efficiently than the private sector. The private sector can have a lot of competition and hence redundancy. What the private sector excels at isn’t necessarily efficiency but choice. You get many choices. Some of those choices may be efficient or not, but it’s quite likely that the average customer isn’t getting the most efficient service. Government typically offers fewer choices, but the choices it offers tend to be very efficient (except in situations where a government is dominated by or obstructed by fiscal conservatives; making a fiscal conservative a poltician is like making an atheist the Pope or making an anarcho-socialist the CEO of a transnational corporation).

Even without looking at studies, this should be commonsense. Why do so many people not get this? Why has this misinformation become accepted as fact?

Furthermore, why is the implicit assumption that efficiency is always good? Fascists were known for their efficiency. The Italian fascists made the trains run on time and the German fascists also were good about making efficient train transport. Maybe we should put other values above mere efficiency. This is the failing of capitalism. Most value that creates benefit for individuals, for communities and for society as a whole can’t easily be measured in monetary terms.

That is what government is for. Even though government can be more efficient in doing many things, that isn’t it’s primary purpose. Government is there to create public good, a result of which capitalism is inferior in achieving in many cases. Government exists to step in to do the work that the private sector fails at doing well or doing at all.

Trust & Compromise, Science & Religion

I noticed several different sets of data about trust in terms of public opinion. (My thoughts here are somewhat a continuation of my thoughts in one of my other recent posts: .)

The first piece of data was something I’ve come across before. Basically, Democrats tend to trust government whether or not they’re in power and Republicans only trust government when they’re in power.

Imbalance of Trust
By Charles M. Blow

Is it partly the utter gullibility of some people? Sure. Is it partly deep-seated resentment of the black man in the White House? No doubt. But it’s also about something more fundamental: fluctuations of basic trust in the federal government.

These fluctuations highlight a peculiar quirk of recent American politics — according to an analysis of The New York Times/CBS News polls from the past 33 years, Americans seem to trust the government substantially more after a Republican president is elected than they do after a Democratic one is elected — at least at the outset.

Since 1976, the polls have occasionally included the following question: “How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right — just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?”

The first poll taken in which this question was asked after Ronald Reagan assumed office found that 51 percent trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing just about always or most of the time. For George H.W. Bush, it was 44 percent, and for George W. Bush it was 55 percent. Now compare that with the Democrats. In Jimmy Carter’s first poll, it was 35 percent. In Bill Clinton’s, it was 24 percent, and for Barack Obama’s, it was only 20 percent. (It should be noted that the first poll conducted during George W. Bush’s presidency came on the heels of 9/11.)

Surprisingly, Democrats’ trust in government was the same or higher after a Republican was elected than it was after a Democrat was elected. That in spite of the fact that all three Democratic presidents came into office at the same time that their party had won control of both chambers of Congress.

There are two parts to this data.

First, Republican administrations are trusted more for the very reason that Democrats trust government in general. Democratic administrations can’t win because Republicans won’t trust them from the moment they take power, no matter what they promise or accomplish.

Second, Democrats are seemingly more open to being self-critical. Maybe this is because Democrat voters have high expectations of Democratic politicians. Or it could be that the Democratic Party is big tent and the Republican Party is small tent. It’s easier for the GOP to keep it’s narrow base satisfied. The diversity of Democrats, on the other hand, will always contain much disagreement.

This relates to another poll which shows the differing views on compromise. Unsurprisingly, the small tent Republican Party dislikes compromise and the big tent Democratic Party likes compromise. Independents are halfway between the two parties, but what is interesting in that same poll Independents identify more with the Democratic Party than with the Tea Party which would seem to imply that Independents realize a party that compromises (however imperfectly) is more likely to represent them. The Tea Party likes compromise even less than the Republican party which corresponds with data showing the average Tea Party supporter is more conservative than the average Republican.

Many Say Ending Tax Cuts for Wealthy Would Hurt Economy
The Pew Research Center

There is little agreement among the public about compromise in politics. About half (49%) say they most admire political leaders who stick to their positions without compromising, while slightly fewer (42%) say that they most admire political leaders who make compromises with people they disagree with.

The latest Pew Research/National Journal Congressional Connection poll, sponsored by SHRM, conducted September 16-19 among 1,005 adults, finds that Republicans, in particular, admire politicians who stick to their positions (62%) over those who compromise (33%). Although independents are more divided on the question, a majority (53%) says they favor leaders who do not compromise; four-in-ten independents (40%) say they most admire leaders who compromise. The balance of opinion is reversed among Democrats; 54% of Democrats say they prefer politicians who compromise with those they disagree with, while 39% say they prefer politicians who stick to their positions without compromising.

The next poll I came across (The AP-National Constitution Center Poll) dissected how much trust people had in various institutions and news sources. The data shows a split between what is trusted and who trusts it. There wasn’t a majority trust any of them, but here is the order of most trusted (least mistrusted) to least trusted (most mistrusted):

  1. Military
  2. Small and Local Business leaders
  3. Scientific Community
  4. Organized Religion
  5. Broadcast News Media
  6. Print Media
  7. US Supreme Court
  8. Local Government
  9. Public Schools
  10. State Courts
  11. Organized Labor
  12. State Government
  13. Federal Government
  14. Independent or Citizen Media
  15. US Congress
  16. Banks and Financial Institutions
  17. Major Companies

AP-NCC Poll: Not Much Trust in Major Institutions
By Alan Fram and Jennifer Agiesta

Republicans most trust the military, followed by small business and religion. Democrats prefer science, small business, then the military. Just one in five Republicans expressed strong confidence in science, about the same proportion of Democrats who said so about religion.

Only 10 percent of Republicans expressed strong confidence in state governments, despite frequent GOP demands that Washington cede more power to the states.

Just 10 percent of Democrats voiced strong trust in Congress, even though their party controls it.

The print and broadcast media were strongly trusted by just 13 percent, only slightly more than the 8 percent with faith in blogs. Those under age 30 were far likelier than older people to voice confidence in what they read.

I would criticize one part of this poll, especially as it was described above. The poll lumped the professional New Media with the blogosphere. Some blogs are good and some aren’t. Some blogs are written by professional journalists and some aren’t. Anyway, the New Media isn’t limited to blogs. Cenk Uygur has been running an online news show for years and has been a guest on the mainstream media. Of course, most people don’t trust blogs written by often anonymous people. But I’m willing to bet that if New Media would be higher on the trust ranking if it were categorized separately from the blogosphere.

This seems indicated by the fact that the younger generation has more trust in non-traditional media. The reason for this is probably because the younger generation is able to distinguish the New Media from the general blogosphere. Older people don’t trust anything on the internet because older people know less about how to vet sources. As a side note, liberals are the demographic that gets more news from the internet than any other demographic and this goes along with the present younger generation being more liberal than other generations at the same age. This younger, liberal generation is also more trusting in general of big government and big business. So, public trust will probably be increasing in the coming decades.

What some might find surprising is that both Republicans and Democrats trust small businesses. Republicans are always trying to portray Democrats as anti-capitalist, but other data (Beyond Red vs Blue) shows Liberals have high rates of small business ownership and high rates of trading in stocks and bonds.

Not surprising is that Democrats trust science more than religion and Republicans trust religion more than science. I was glad to see that Americans in general trust science more than religion (or at least organized religion). So, on this issue, Democrats are in line with the majority position.

This issue of public opinion about science is what got me started on this whole line of thought and the research that ensued. I heard on NPR about a global poll about science. The global data should offer clear context for where US public opinion stands and how Democrats and Republicans respectively compare to people in other parts of the world.

Scientific beliefs vary by culture, says global poll
By Margaret Munro

Americans are far more pronuclear and willing to trust flu experts than Europeans, and much less concerned about genetically modified crops, according to a survey by Scientific American and the journal Nature.

But the most notable difference was between East Asia and the rest of the world. The survey found 35 per cent of Japanese and 49 per cent of Chinese respondents agreed there is “reason for doubt” that evolution can explain the incredible variety of species on Earth. That view was shared by about 10 per cent of respondents from the rest of the world.

Japanese and Chinese respondents were also less likely to say that they trust scientific explanations of the origins of the universe. And almost one-third of Chinese respondents said that scientists should stay out of politics, compared with about 10 per cent of respondents from other countries.

That would seem to put US conservatives more in line with Asians and US liberals more in line with Europeans. I don’t know what that means, but it’s interesting. I was glad to see that the world’s overall trust in science is strong and growing stronger. And liberals would seem to be in line with people worldwide in trusting scientists more than religious authorities.

The survey did find some common ground. Worldwide, respondents agreed that scientists are more trustworthy than other public figures. Religious authorities were deemed least trustworthy, followed by politicians and company officials.

And more than 70 per cent of respondents agreed science funding should be spared in tough economic times. When asked what should be cut instead, defence spending was the overwhelming choice — 82 per cent of Canadian respondents favouring cuts to defence over cuts to education or social-welfare programs.

And despite a recent controversy over leaked emails by climate researchers and the UN’s climate panel, the survey found climate change denial is in decline. Among Canadian respondents 41 per cent said that over the past year, they’ve become more certain that humans are changing the climate, compared with 12 per cent of respondents who have grown more doubtful.

In conclusion… well, actually I don’t know if I have any conclusion. I just found the data interesting and even more interesting when compared. The closest to a conclusion I could offer you is that there are distinct demographics (such as those belonging to the two parties) which have consistently distinct positions and attitudes. Most significantly: among Democrats, there is a correlation between trusting the government and trusting science; and, among Republicans, there is a correlation between being against compromise and being in favor of religion. Maybe that doesn’t provide any grand insight, but it does provide data to back up what many would suspect to be true.

Government is Good

What Americans REALLY Think about Government

If we are asked about this issue in the abstract, 45% of us say we want “a smaller government providing fewer services,” and 42% say that we want “a bigger government providing more services”5 — a pretty even split. But then when people are asked about specificpolicy areas, much larger numbers of people say they support expanded government services. For example, almost three quarters of Americans say they want to see more federal involvement in ensuring access to affordable health care, providing a decent standard of living for the elderly, and making sure that food and medicines are safe. And over 60% want more government involvement in reducing poverty, ensuring clean air and water, and setting minimum educational standards for school. These are hardly the answers of a people who want drastically smaller government.

Table 1: Public Attitudes Toward Spending on Government Programs8

Should Spend More Spending About Right Should Spend Less Don’t Know or No Answer
Protecting the environment 59.8% 27.9% 7.7% 4.6%
Protecting the nation’s health 66.8% 25.0% 5.6% 2.6%
Halting the rising crime rate 60.9% 28.4% 9.3% 3.0%
Dealing with drug addiction 58.2% 27.9% 9.3% 4.6%
Improving the education system 69.7% 22.1% 6.3% 1.9%
Social Security 55.7% 31.9% 6.3% 6.1%
Solving urban problems 45.5% 29.8% 12.1% 12.5%
The military, arms, and defense 17.5% 46.3% 30.3% 5.9%
Highways and bridges 38.2% 47.1% 9.6% 5.1%
Welfare 16.0% 36.1% 43.3% 4.6%
Parks and recreation 34.0% 55.2% 6.1% 4.7%
Mass transit 31.7% 47.3% 9.4% 11.5%

No Turn to the Right

Another striking finding of the polls cited above is that Americans’ positive attitudes toward many key government programs have held steady for the last three decades.24 Since the 1970s, our strong support for these programs has hardly wavered at all. This comes as a surprise to many people, especially those on the right. Minimal government activists like to argue that their attempt to cut programs is simply a reaction to the public’s increasing conservatism and hostility toward government. They suggest that there has been a general turn to the right in American politics in response to the liberal excesses of the Great Society in the 1960s,  and this includes an increasing public opposition to big government. But no such “right turn” has taken place. As numerous studies have shown, “there is virtually no compelling survey evidence that more Americans have actually embraced conservatism since the 1960s.”25 Surveys that ask people to position themselves on a conservative—liberal continuum have found that the number of people calling themselves “conservative” has increased by a mere 2% since the 1960s. And a study of the public’s view of left-right issues conducted by Morris Fiorina concluded that “Americans are about as conservative or liberal as they were a generation ago.”26

Polls also reveal that negatives attitudes toward government have not increased across the board during the last decades – and some have even decreased. In 1972, when asked if government was “too powerful,” 49% of Americans said yes. But that figure was down substantially in 2002 – to 39%.27 And when asked whether they wanted to cut government services or to provide more services (even if that required raising taxes), Americans were evenly divided in 1992. By 2000, however, more than twice as many wanted to increase services (39%) than wanted to cut them (18%).28

Something has turned sharply to the right in the last 30 years, but it has not been the public. It has been the conservative leadership. A generation ago, most Republican politicians were actually moderates, in the mold of Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Nixon was probably the most conservative of these four, but he often embraced government and expanded its powers and programs when necessary to deal with a variety of problems. He signed into law the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, he helped to implement Affirmative Action, and he supported passage of a national health insurance plan. More new federal regulations were adopted under Nixon than under Lyndon Johnson. Hardly the policy record of someone who thought that we had too much government.

But conservative leaders began to veer sharply to the right in the 1980s, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have documented in their book, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy. They show, for example, that the median Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives is now 73% more conservative than their counterpart in the 1970s. They also cite studies that examine how the political views of core Republican activists compare to those of independent voters. These studies show that in the 1960s Republican activists were only about 20% more conservative than independents, but that by 2002, they had become 40% more conservative.29 Hacker and Pierson conclude that “Republican activists are not only far to the right of independents, they are also far to the right of ordinary voters within their own party. And they have been heading ever more sharply right since the 1980s.”30

Part of this increasing gap between conservative leaders and many independent and conservative voters can be seen in their diverging attitudes towards the value of government programs. This is clearly evident in the results of the polls cited earlier on how much the public supports spending on various government policy efforts. These surveys reveal that those who oppose the conservative leadership’s agenda of cutting vital government programs are not just liberals – they include many independents and conservatives as well. Only about 20% of the electorate identify themselves as liberals; and yet the figures in Table 2.1 show that upwards of 90% of Americans believe we should not be cutting spending on health, education, environmental protection, and so on. This means that very large numbers of people who see themselves as moderates or independents support these government programs. And since over 30% of Americans identify themselves as conservative, clearly many of them too do not want to see cuts in these areas of government responsibility. This is understandable. You could be a social conservative, for instance, who is strongly anti-abortion and anti-gay, and yet also strongly supports spending on health care and environmental protection. In any case, these poll figures provide more evidence that the anti-government movement’s policy agenda of slashing funding for many of these programs is not only at odds with the views of most Americans, it is out of touch with the views of many conservatives as well – a good indication of just how extreme this agenda really is.