Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fatal Extraction

(Apologies to Mark Rom for the post title)

After reading James Mulder's account today of the trail of negligently poor treatment left by a Manlius dentist, I was stunned to also read that she had been fined a whole thousand dollars and suspended from practice......until she completes a "retraining."  Are you kidding me?  A thousand dollars is less than one root canal.  And one wonders what it would take for a permanent suspension.

I want to connect this to two broader problems.  The first was suggested by a recent New York University study of regulation in the State, which concluded that the problem with regulations here is not simply that there are too many of them, but that they are not well crafted, and in particular do not consider appropriate cost/benefit analyses.  Based on the article, it's hard to imagine in this case that the benefit to the local community of having one additional dentist practicing would outweigh the cost of having this particular dentist practicing.

Second, to the degree that these regulations from the State Board of Dentistry reflect the influence of the profession--that they are, despite occurring under the umbrella of the state, in effect internal policing--it illustrates a general problem with the way in which and the degree to which the medical professions monitor themselves.  Part of the unwritten social contract for the sky-high salaries many medical practitioners receive is that in return the quality of care we get will be consistent, and high.  We have expensive health care, but we have excellent health care, so the story goes.  A growing body of research on health care shows that this is often not the case.  Here's one small but jaw-breaking example of that.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Newspaper Candidate Endorsements -- Practicing What Is Preached?

The Syracuse Post-Standard's candidate endorsements for the November elections gathered some criticisms--as they always do.  One set of endorsements in particular seemed a bit odd, taken as a group and viewed from the perspective of an emphasis on reform of the state's political process--the three State Senate picks, for Patty Ritchie, Andrew Russo, and John DeFrancisco (all Republicans). 

In an editorial previewing its forthcoming endorsements, and then again in response to one published criticism, the newspaper adamantly defended the practice of making endorsements.  And in the state senate case it also claimed that the endorsements were arrived at individually, and not from some general (but unargued for) desire to see the State Senate return to Republican control.

I think the paper has it right, that it should be in the endorsement business, that it has a responsibility to the community and to the political process to weigh in on such matters in its editorial pages.  But the validity of that argument prompts a further question that I don't think the paper has fully addressed, at least not to my knowledge.

This is the question of precisely how these endorsements are derived.  Although the public probably knows that the paper's top editors are involved in some way, I doubt that most people know the important details of this decision-making process.  But if these endorsements are appropriate and valuable because the newspaper is a public institution--even if it is not a government institution--then is it not also equally appropriate that the public knows how the decisions are made?  In other words, does the paper itself not need to do what it is currently calling out the Jordan-Elbridge School Board to do--be more communicative and transparent?  As it stands, the endorsements have a "black box" feel to them.

More specifically, what people might want to know is:

--Who exactly gets to participate in the decision-making?

--What is the process among those participating?

--Is there a vote taken, and if so, what is the threshold for making an endorsement?

--What is the role of the publisher and the ownership in the deliberations and the final decision?

Perhaps those questions have been answered before, but I cannot remember it.  If they were, then perhaps we would better appreciate the important recommendations that are being made.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Joanie Mahoney Announces She's Running for Re-Election as County Executive

The Campbell Conversations broke a story yesterday, when we taped an interview with Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, and she announced publicly for the first time that she is indeed running for re-election.  WRVO ran the story and some clips from the interview yesterday on its afternoon and evening news broadcasts.  Our conversation covered a lot of interesting topics--look for it soon.

Surprise! -- No Surprise: A Post-Mortem on the Maffei - Buerkle Numbers

The picture is clear this morning, and looking at the numbers, I think I had it about right in earlier posts from last week and the week before:  "Check my Math," and "Updated Math on Maffei - Buerkle."  After election day, the math was always tilting against Maffei's campaign.

The surge Maffei enjoyed at the beginning of the Onondaga County vote--which for a day made it look more possible for him to win (though I still wrote that things were tilting against him)--seems to be the result of the question that always gets feverishly asked in party command centers on election night:  Where are the results coming from?  Maffei had his best areas counted early.

The one aspect of this absentee count and vote-challenge process I'm most left with is that in the end it went totally according to Hoyle.  The numbers were about what you'd expect them to be, given the election day results.  And the challenge process didn't change the course of things.

That's in stark contrast to the election day results themselves, which did not match the pre-election day polling, or the expectations in this race, at least among the politicos I talked to (a similar though less dramatic pattern held in the 23rd and 24th districts).  I think a local factor that Ann Marie Buerkle kept talking about during the campaign--and pointed to on the day after the election--explains a part of this:  the difference in the ground game, right from the start. 

I plan to write something more generally on this campaign, and will come back to that issue when I do.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Buerkle the Almost Certain Winner

If the numbers I think I just heard on WRVO are correct, she has essentially won.  Underline think I just heard--was in another room.  UPDATE:  A second listen--yes, if those numbers are right, it's basically over, unless a recount uncovers something dramatic.

A second independent news story this evening.  This political scientist is calling the race.  Stay tuned in the future for some final reflections on this campaign.

Further Update Maffei - Buerkle

The numbers reported this morning (Nov. 19) in the Post-Standard are a bit different from what I read yesterday and what I heard last afternoon--specifically, that there are still 3,500 votes in Onondaga County to count.  More votes must have come in, or the "emergency" ballots are now part of the number.  I won't try to subject the results so far to another statistical calculation of possible outcomes--the big question remains the same:  Will Maffei emerge from the Onondaga County count with a large enough cushion to stave off Wayne County and the ballots that are reinstated in Cayuga and Monroe Counties?  I still think the answer to that is tilting toward a "no," given the numbers I'm seeing.  But that's a guess.

After all that, we're likely to have a recount, as the margin of victory--either way--is probably going to be small enough to prompt a request.

This process has also prompted bigger-picture questions about voting and about the campaigns' behavior (see some earlier posts), and I may return to those in future posts.  But right now I'm waiting and watching.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

More Updated Math on Maffei - Buerkle

I've run the numbers based on what was reported today (Nov. 18) in Michelle Breidenbach's piece in the Post-Standard (the piece does not seem to be on the website yet this morning), and here's what I'm getting, and what I still don't know.  I actually had to use my rusty Algebra to generate this, so beware.

There are 6,063 Onondaga County absentee votes, and Maffei picked up 325 votes after 38 percent (2,304) of them were counted.  If he keeps the same winning margin on the remaining votes in the county, he will pick up about another 530 votes.

Buerkle is currently 499 votes ahead, so again, if those margins stay consistent, and if it were just Onondaga absentee ballots to be counted, Maffei would emerge as the winner by about 30 votes.

BUT:  Wayne County, which voted heavily for Buerkle, has not counted its absentee ballots. 

AND:  It's not clear to me whether all the challenged ballots in the other two counties have been adjudicated and counted, and if that's not the case, then Buerkle will likely pick up some additional votes, especially since Maffei's team was challenging more of those votes than Buerkle.  If many of those challenges are overturned, then more of those votes will go to Buerkle.

AND:  It's not clear where the military ballots fit in here.  Are they still to be counted, or are they being counted along with the others?  If they are still to be counted, then that's also likely to work in Buerkle's favor, I think.

SO:  Add all those up and it's likely that Buerkle gets more than the 30 votes she'd need to make up for the Onondaga County effect.

Another way to look at these numbers as reported today is to focus on the total number of ballots yet to be counted--about 7,000 according to the article.  But of those, only about 3,760 are still remaining in Onondaga County, and that is where Maffei will have to look to make up the remaining difference.  That's only half of what's remaining to count.

SO AGAIN:  Based on all that, I conclude that the math is still tilting in Buerkle's favor, but it's going to be very close.  And I'm just working off the numbers I can read in the paper.

UPDATE:  I believe I heard on WRVO driving home, and again on YNN, that a spokesperson for the Maffei campaign said that earlier today, with 58 percent of the Onondaga County votes counted, Buerkle's lead was down to 303.  If that's true, and using the same method I used above, that would now mean that Maffei would emerge from the Onondaga County vote with about a 75 vote lead (consistent with what I calculated earlier), with those other absentee votes still yet to be counted.  Again, that's if I heard the story right and the figures are accurate.  But if that's true, then what I said above is still probably true regarding the other votes and the math--still slightly in Buerkle's favor.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Where's a Political Scientist When You Need One?

As I read this morning's Post-Standard story by Michelle Breidenbach on the new developments in the Maffei - Buerkle absentee vote count, I chuckled when I got to the part where Maffei's attorney initially objected to a ballot from Ghana with an unreadable post office time stamp, but then left the room--presumably to phone out for a second opinion--and subsequently returned and withdrew the protest. 

You think?

Demographics and culture aren't the destiny that they used to be when it comes to voting behavior, but they still tell you an awful lot.  A former colleague of mine, who will remain nameless but who is now teaching at a prominent Massachusetts institution, used to play a game with the students in his large introductory class--a version of "stump the professor," in which individual students who were registered either as Democrats or Republicans simply stood up to be seen, and my colleague would then tell them what party they belonged to.  He rarely missed.  Perhaps he's on retainer....

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What Happened to Student Voters, and Will They Come Back?

An interesting piece in Politico by Matt Negrin and Gabriel Beltrone yesterday on the college vote in the mid-term elections.  The youth turnout for many Democrats running in districts with universities plummeted, and it might have made a difference in some elections.  In one student-heavy precinct in Tom Perriello's Charlottesville-centered district, for example, his votes dropped by almost 50 percent. 

Negrin and Beltrone's piece includes the Maffei - Buerkle race here in Upstate New York as another possible example, citing an interesting statistic, that although Maffei won Onondaga County by 8 points the other week, in 2008 he carried it by 15 points.  In a race that could come down to a few hundred votes--or less--the student drop-off could prove decisive. 

I noticed a LOT less student political interest on campus this year, and contributed that observation to Negrin and Beltrone's piece.  It seemed nothing like 2008 here on the Hill. 

Some of the activists quoted in the piece located the problem in the candidates under-emphasizing college voters this time around and failing to engage them.  I'm not so sure that's the main issue.  College students are much easier to motivate during presidential elections, when the election is decidedly national.  Granted, this mid-term was all about national-level economic issues, but at the end of the day, congressional elections are still largely local affairs, in terms of how they are experienced by voters--and most college students do not feel rooted to their university neighborhoods in the same way that other local residents do. 

Furthermore, the fact that this election was about the economy may have lowered the interest.  It's not that students aren't worried about the economy--they are for sure, but I doubt that they as easily translate those concerns into policy positions and electoral passions in the same way that they do regarding issues of war and the environment.  Note that there were two big recent bumps up in voting among youth--one in 2004 and then again in 2008, and the war played a large role in both.

Finally, and here I'm back riding a favorite hobby-horse, I would think that the negative attack ads would have their strongest alienating effect among the youngest voters.  These voters are already predisposed to distrust politicians, and the 2010 election season probably just confirmed their worst suspicions.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Future of Israel-Palestine and the Future of Barack Obama

Check out the upcoming Campbell Conversation interview with Middle East and Islamic Affairs analyst Roger Hardy.  I was struck by the central importance Hardy placed on progress in the Israel-Palestine conflict for President Obama's standing and success in the Muslim world, even in nations like Indonesia.  I think we have tended to lose sight of this factor in the focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Pakistan and Iran.  Hardy also makes some provocative observations about the depth of Obama's challenges in these areas, and the sources of the administration's own ambivalence.

My conversation with Hardy also brought me back to one of the most vivid "Ah-ha" moments from my first summer working in London.  The difference between the way Europe views the Israel-Palestine conflict and the way it's viewed in the U.S. is so stark as to be disorienting to an American living abroad for the first time, and can't be fully appreciated until you actually live in a different country.  It quickly becomes clear just how much of an outlier we are among our Western peer nations on this issue.  I also happened to be in London this past spring when the Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla occurred, and the experience repeated itself.  The reported facts were largely the same on both sides of the Atlantic, but the framing and the feeling of the media treatment were completely different.  This is not to suggest that we have it wrong, but it's an instance of "American exceptionalism" we may be less aware of than, say, our comparatively stronger endorsement of market capitalism.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Could the Maffei Campaign Be Writing Its Own Attack Ad for 2012?

The Maffei - Buerkle absentee count and recount has become a saga.  Both sides are doing what they can to give themselves the best opportunity of winning in the final tally, and it's perfectly understandable that they do what the law permits to further their chances.  Neither side has clean hands in this race or, for that matter, in almost any other race across the country that was remotely competitive.

However, an impression of the Maffei campaign's post-election behavior is arguably being built, which could come back to bite the candidate later on.  Three recent things in particular come to mind.

--The calling of absentee voters to determine how they voted (see earlier posts, "Countdown with Dan Maffei" and "Playing the Recount and Playing with Fire").  All the available reports suggest that it's the Maffei campaign which has been doing this.  Of course it's legal, and from an academic or theoretical perspective it brings up some interesting questions about the nature of the voting act--when the public aspect of it yields to the private aspect.  But many people may view this move as crossing a line.

--The labeling of Onondaga County Election Commissioner Helen Kiggins as "an agent of the Buerkle campaign," and a subsequent effort to remove her from the count process, on the part of one of the campaign's lawyers (according to Michele Breidenbach's Post-Standard pieces on Saturday, Nov. 13 and Sunday, Nov. 14).  That seems like an attack on the referee, and probably off-base.  In my recent Campbell Conversation interview with two political strategists, both my Democratic and Republican guest heatedly agreed that the Onondaga County commissioners are of the highest integrity.

--Maffei's own public absence.  Breidenbach's Saturday article ends with the observation that Maffei himself has not made any public appearances since declaring victory on election night, and Mark Weiner makes the same observation in his Sunday Post-Standard Washington Notebook.  It's been noticeable, particularly as Ann Marie Buerkle has appeared frequently, displaying the persona of the Happy Warrior. 

In combination, these three things could create the impression of a hunkered-down, aggressive, and secretive end-game.  Furthermore, the public narrative of the campaign is that all the votes should be accurately counted, but the appearance is more of a strategy organized around excluding votes.  The concern here for the Democrats is that the campaign may be writing its own negative ad for 2012, regardless of the ultimate outcome of this election.  The Republican candidate in 2012 might have a ready-made issue to trot out, as that election season will surely be as nasty as the most recent one.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Updated Math on Maffei - Buerkle

According to the figures in the Post-Standard on Saturday, Ann Marie Buerkle has a 729 vote lead over Dan Maffei, with 6,086 absentee votes received so far and still to be counted in Onondaga County.  That means Maffei would need to win Onondaga County by 12 points in order to make up the difference, leaving out (I think) the military and overseas ballots yet to come in.  In addition, the Maffei campaign has challenged 170 Republican ballots in Monroe County (versus 30 Democratic ballots challenged by Buerkle's campaign), and if most of those votes are validated, then Maffei's required margin of victory is likely to increase.  (For earlier thoughts on this see "Countdown with Dan Maffei" and "Check my Math.")

I think it's fair to say that the math is beginning to tilt a little against him, though he's by no means out of things yet.  But, he won the election day vote in Onondaga County by about 8 percent, so he'd have to outperform his original showing to close the gap.  If the military votes do not break his way, the hill becomes even steeper.  There is also, of course, the question of the re-examination of the ballots already counted.

The question:  Do we have a winner by Thanksgiving?  Update:  Christmas?

Friday, November 12, 2010


My colleague Brian Taylor sent me an interesting academic article about the use of "none of the above" (NOTA) in post-Soviet Russia, published in 2008 and titled "Voting 'Against All' in Postcommunist Russia," by Ian McAllister and Stephen White.  (See my earlier post, "Still Not the One.") 

From 1993 to 2006, Russian voters had the option of voting "against all" in elections to the lower house (Duma) of their Federal Assembly, and in their presidential elections.  NOTA was started in order to boost participation in a society with little faith in competitive elections.  The option grew in popularity after its inception, and in 2003, almost 13 percent of Duma voters chose NOTA, making it the second most popular choice in terms of party affiliation.  For at least part of its existence, the NOTA provision had real bite, in that election results would be invalidated if NOTA were to finish first.

The measure became increasingly controversial among academics and reformers, and was dealt perhaps a fatal blow when the Constitutional Court ruled that private funds could be used in campaigning for NOTA in a way that, according to the article, "appeared impossible to regulate."  One powerful argument against it was to point out that NOTA was extremely rare in Western democracies.  Furthermore, a change in election law eliminated the single-member district, where NOTA had been most popular and where, theoretically, it made the most sense (and indeed, that is the context in which I have advocated for it).  The authors draw on post-election surveys to show that NOTA voters "do no reject liberal democracy, but are critical of the contemporary practice of Russian politics and find no parties that reflect their views."  Demographically, they are "younger than other voters, more urban and more highly educated."  The authors predicted in 2008 that its elimination would lead to lower turnout.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

TODAY -- You're Invited!

On Friday, Nov. 12 at 4 p.m. in the Maxwell Auditorium on the SU campus, Roger Hardy will deliver a Maxwell State of Democracy lecture titled "Islam and the West:  The Challenge for Barack Obama."  Roger will talk for about 45 minutes, and then there will be very brief responses by Bill Banks, a law and public administration professor and an expert on national security, and Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a political science professor and director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Maxwell.  Following that, we'll open the conversation to the audience, and then there will be a reception with food and drink.  Parking is available in Irving Garage for $4.

Roger is a former Middle East and Islamic affairs analyst with the BBC World Service, and the author of The Muslim Revolt:  A Journey through Political Islam.  It's a neat book that provides a lot of insight in a short space.  Currently, Roger is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in DC.  I interviewed Roger this past summer for the Campbell Conversations.

I think it will be a very thought-provoking afternoon--please consider attending.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Playing the Recount and Playing with Fire -- More on Maffei - Buerkle

In an earlier post ("Countdown with Dan Maffei"), I referred to the "no stone left unturned" strategy apparently being employed by the Maffei campaign, when it came to contacting absentee voters regarding how they voted.  It occurs to me that there is one more stone that might be turned over--coaching absentee voters to respond strategically (i.e., lie) when contacted by the opposing campaign.  Hopefully we don't reach that.

Remember, the likely purpose of finding out how citizens cast their absentee votes is so that you know which ballot signatures to challenge and which to leave alone--at the signature examination stage of the process, all you have is signatures; the vote is inside the envelope and unknown.  Therefore, if a Buerkle voter was contacted by the Maffei campaign and asked how she voted, she'd be advancing the chances of her candidate to say that she voted for Maffei, as they'd then leave that one alone.  And vice-versa.

I'm also reminded of a story I heard about another race in the region, which went down to just a handful of votes, and in which a successful challenge of a few ballots by one campaign actually knocked out its own votes.

Smile When You Steal That

With the Halloween shootings, the proposal to install police security cameras at particular high-crime locations is back in the news.  Concerns about the cameras include the "Big Brother" worry--that their presence and use will violate our privacy and lead to other kinds of government tracking and personal intrusion.  A related version of this criticism is that the selective use of cameras on certain streets and certain neighborhoods makes a negative statement--a statement coming from government--about those areas and about particular groups. 

For what it's worth, here's one person's take on this.  For the past few years, I've spent part of my summers living and working in London, the undisputed world capital of camera surveillance (CCTV).  The selective use concern is not an issue there, because the cameras are everywhere.  They're found across the country as well.  It's been estimated that in the U.K. there's one camera for about every 14 citizens, and although the country has one percent of the world's population, it has 20 percent of the world's CCTVs.  Outside their homes and offices, most Londoners spend a lot of their time being filmed.  The heavy use of CCTVs is controversial, and getting more so, as demands there for U.S.-style individual rights against the government grow.  There are also criticisms that the cameras don't help to solve or deter crime.

I consider myself to be a pretty private person--although I've started a blog you will not find what I ate for breakfast or my personal life goals in these posts.  I've never posted a personal video on the web.  I have, however, pointed out to doctors' offices that their reception area is not sufficiently private in the way they speak with patients or doctors.  And dining out with my late father was always a potential adventure in loud personal disclosure that could make me want to crawl under the table.

But the cameras don't bother me.  In fact, I find them comforting at times, and look for them when I'm traveling by Tube late at night.  I often stand directly in front of them while waiting for the next train.  My privacy seems much more at risk when I'm asked by a doctor's office to supply a social security number, or even when I use my shopper's card at Wegmans--I bet life insurance companies would like that information (a concern expressed in Britain about the use of store "loyalty cards").  The visual record of my whereabouts doesn't seem as threatening to me as specific (and privately collected) data about me and my activities.

The following effect should show up in aggregate statistics, and if those statistics show that the cameras don't actually lower crime, then I'm off-base in what follows, but:  If I'm feeling safer with the cameras around, chances are that others are too, and therefore chances are that there are more people like me--i.e., non-criminals--occupying that space, and in turn, chances are that space is likely to be safer than it would be, absent the cameras.

This is something that might be worth a trial look.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Countdown with Dan Maffei

Check out this week's Campbell Conversation, airing this Friday at noon and again at 4 p.m. on Saturday, and available now as a podcast here.  I'm talking with two folks with a ton of political experience in campaigns and political strategy--Christine Fix and Scott Armstrong.  We consider the elections in this listening region and across the state--why the outcomes were what they were, what races in particular surprised them, and what it all will mean for politics in the state in the coming months.  They also make some national predictions for 2012. 

One topic we spend a bit of time with in the conversation is the count and the recount in the Maffei-Buerkle race.  It's shaping up to be a full-blown affair that could run into December, and involve a bevy of attorneys.  Both Christine and Scott have been involved with past races that were very close, and Christine has been involved in a similar recount.  They draw on those experiences to assess the likely scenarios here. 

As a citizen, I left our conversation feeling better about the counting and recounting.  One concern I had about the process--as it's described in today's Post-Standard--is that individual ballots with clear intentions would be thrown out based on legalistic nit-picks.  Although each side can challenge votes for the other candidate, the commissioners serve as referees, and both my guests had very high praise for the two election  commissioners in Onondaga County, where most of the absentee ballots will be counted.

The newspaper piece also reports that Maffei's people are trying to get the entire set of ballots recounted by hand.  That's certainly reasonable and fits a "no stone left unturned" approach, but the fact that it's the Maffei campaign seeking this move suggests that, other things being equal, it sees itself as more likely to lose the race at this point.

The other interesting wrinkle is the report that Maffei's team has already started contacting individual absentee voters to ask how they voted--one possible outcome (as suggested by Ann Marie Buerkle in the article) is that it will then be better able to focus its efforts on throwing out the absentee votes for Buerkle, on the grounds that the signature on the absentee ballot application does not properly match the signature on file with the election commission.  Another possible purpose of this inquiry is to check and see if people who say they cast a vote for Maffei do actually have such votes recorded in the system.

Again, it's a "no stone unturned" move, but it also brings up a deeper question regarding the privacy of one's vote.  Voting is both a public and a private act, and the boundary between these two aspects can get complicated.  It's often considered impolite to ask someone how they voted.  Try it out on some strangers.  Some folks wear their votes on their sleeve, but others will look at you in horror if you ask them, particularly, say, in the check-out line at Wegmans.  At the same time, from a civic perspective, and thinking perhaps of the ancient Greeks, one might argue that we should own our votes, and be able and willing to defend them publicly.  But I'm not sure if that logic extends to an after-the-fact phone call from a campaign.

Update:  I've spoken with Keith Kobland at Channel 9 and he has told me that the Maffei campaign has told him that Republicans are also contacting absentee voters.  But so far (early afternoon), the station has received calls only from citizens reporting that they've been contacted by the Maffei campaign.  He gave me permission to report this information here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Still Not the One

Just before the election I wrote an editorial advocating a formal "none of the above" (NOTA) option on the ballot.  I still think the idea has merit.  The contribution that it could make is not in yielding whole new "do-over" elections with entirely new candidates--the evidence suggests that NOTA will very rarely win--but rather in supplying a small but real impetus for reform in the behavior of office holders, candidates, and institutions.  Check it out and share what you think.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

An American Tragedy

The Jordan-Elbridge school board controversy has been in the news again this past week--The Post-Standard's editorial today has a decent synopsis of the story.  I played a minor role in the process, when I was brought in as the outside moderator for the big public meeting on October 6, when the board decided to set aside additional time for public comment before it fired its lawyer and went forward with proceedings against the high school's principal, among other actions.  800 people attended the meeting, and about 600 of them were really mad.  Afterward, I wrote about the experience in The Auburn Citizen, and made a plea to the community to focus on healing as best it could. 

It's rare that a political event makes me sick to my stomach, and I'm not talking here about the deflation I get watching a particularly distasteful negative political ad.  I'm talking about something more visceral, a reaction to violence, akin to the feeling you get when you witness a car collision, or a couple having a vocal, bitter argument in the middle of the shopping mall.  But that's the feeling I got that night as I watched members of the community rip into the board, and each other.  This was despite the fact that the meeting went fairly well by some standards--everyone who had signed up to speak was able to speak, hear a response from the board, and then provide a brief rebuttal, and there were even some others who had not signed up who were also able to speak.  But the anger in the room was deep and raw, and it flashed frequently.  One of the community members who came up to me afterward told me that going in, he had fully expected physical violence to erupt before the meeting was over.

Local education is always a touchy subject.  In this case, many in the community have rallied behind the dismissed staff, particularly the principal--that's to be expected when there is no information.  And the principal has been encouraging the community in that reaction--the ginning up was clearly on display the night of October 6.  Community members are furious that they don't know why this is happening, and they are rightfully worried about the future health of the school system.  The board asserts they have good reason to do what they are doing, but that they cannot divulge their reasons for doing it because of legal concerns. 

My hunch--and underline that this is just a hunch, based on things as murky as the vibes I picked up at the meeting--is that the board's disciplinary actions will be vindicated, if not its way of handling the communications regarding those actions.  Investigators from the attorney general's office coming in to the district a few weeks ago to inquire about student records is a clue that supports that hunch.  In this regard, the Post-Standard's editorial today, which seems to locate the main problem in the secrecy of the board and the government being "run on autopilot" may be a tad off the mark, I think.  To repeat, this is based on a hunch and I could be wrong.

The biggest tragedy though, and what made my stomach turn on October 6, and what I wrote about in The Citizen, is that the community is now headed down the path of a nasty divorce, with itself.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Plus Ca Change.....

I opened up my college alumni magazine and came across this first paragraph of a feature profile:

"I used to tell people I worked in the world's oldest profession," says Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, making a joking reference to her career with her family's California land-development firm.  That was before she answered a call last fall from the U.S. State Department--while on a golf course--and was offered her choice of three ambassadorships.

Something's wrong with that paragraph.  Though to its credit the profile goes on to note the possibility that her appointment might have had something to do with the more than $1 million she helped raise for Hillary Clinton, this is--and stick with me on the double-negative here--not change I can't believe in.

Update:  As with all life, things can get more complicated.  Here's something I came across in editing a chapter for a new edition of a book, from Robert Maranto, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas:  "Even the use of noncareer ambassadors, which journalists and members of Congress love to attack, may in practice prove necessary.  As an Office of Presidential Personnel official told me, Congress simply does not appropriate sufficient funds to support major embassies, which makes the recruitment of wealthy (and one hopes charming) campaign contributors a practical necessity."  Fair enough, but I still don't like it.

Potted Votes

When I heard Tuesday night that the California referendum to legalize small amounts of marijuana failed, I didn't give it much additional thought.  It wasn't expected to pass, and both the framing of the initiative itself and the campaign in support of it had been roundly criticized.  But I've just read that the final tally of the vote was 54-46.  Though it failed everywhere except San Francisco, 46 percent is real support.  Let's put it this way:  Legalizing pot was a lot more popular than Carl Paladino.

Pundits are predicting that we'll see more of these initiatives in 2012, given the level of support that this one received.  No doubt, but what I'm left with is a thought about demographics and the slightly more distant future.  It's hard not to think that in five to ten years, as the oldest generation continues to die out and the 60s generation becomes the main body of seniors, these initiatives will pass easily.  The most vocal supporters of the measure were dismissed as "stoners" just wanting to get high.  I think they may just need to be patient.

GUEST Post -- More on Buerkle versus Maffei

Tim Bunn wrote in to endorse the legitimacy of the negative ad Dan Maffei aired regarding Ann Marie Buerkle’s property taxes (see “Check My Math”).  His comment was substantial, and with his agreement I’m running it here as a guest post, slightly edited for length—but like all the others, note that these are solely the author’s views.  Tim was a newspaper editor for 33 years before retiring in 2007 from The Post Standard.  He makes many good points, but I still wonder whether the ad itself backfired.  We’d need to spend some money on well-designed focus groups to figure that one out.  But here’s what Tim writes:

Maffei was well within the bounds of reasonable political debate in bringing up Buerkle’s tax delinquency. Paying property taxes isn’t a private matter. It’s a public one. Tax payment is a public record for a good reason. It’s a public act.  Buerkle’s tax record was fair game in the campaign on a number of counts. For one, any person who wants my vote to represent me in Congress – a pretty high public office – ought to live up to the first rule of leadership – set the example. Then, of course, she should do what any responsible, ordinary citizen is expected to do – pay her taxes when they're due. I have to –  and I do. I bet you do too and so do the readers of your blog. Why shouldn’t our congressional representative, if she wants our vote for that office? Also, she tried to mislead voters by trying to lay off her responsibility on her tenants.  As an editor, I have more experience than I ever dreamed I'd get with triple-net leases, which is the type she had with her tenants. I negotiated plenty of them when we leased news bureau office space throughout Central New York. In commercial real estate, the so-called triple net lease is pretty much standard fare. They usually have a clause requiring tenants to pay the landlord – Buerkle, in this case – a pro rata share of taxes on the property in addition to other rents. That’s fine. Landlords don’t know what taxes will be year to year, and with a triple-net lease they're covered if taxes soar. Tenants benefit too if taxes go down. OK.  But here's the rub:  Buerkle claimed her tenants failed to pay her the money for the taxes and that’s why she didn't pay them. Come on! She’s still the property owner. She's still the one with the responsibility to pay the taxes. The county doesn’t care – nor should it – about what lease provisions she has with her tenants. The county's got no skin in that game. If, as she said, she wanted to help her tenants because she's just that kind of swell person, fine. Let her work out a time-payment plan with them to pay her what they owe her. God bless her. But what’s that got to do with her obligations to the county? What’s that got to do with other taxpayers like you and me, who she’s asking, in essence, to front her tax money while she’s waiting around for her tenants to pay her? Buerkle was giving voters the old head-fake by laying the blame on her tenants. Why shouldn't all that be a matter for public discussion in a political campaign? What’s between Buerkle and her tenants is their business. What’s between Buerkle and the county is public business. That’s what Maffei was getting at, and he’s right.

Looking for a Brief Break from Politics (sort of)? -- New Campbell Conversation with Lakshmi Singh

I had the great pleasure and NPR honor to interview Lakshmi Singh, the mid-day newscaster for NPR.  The interview aired this week and can be found as a podcast here.  We talked about her personal experiences doing this job for NPR, but I also asked her about the politics of story selection and story delivery, given the NPR audience.  I threw in my local experience of audience reaction from deciding to put two local Tea Party leaders on the show last spring.

The interview was originally taped a few weeks ago, before the Juan Williams firing, but we did talk about the general political pressures the news team faces.  What she has to say is in some respects made even more interesting by its coming before the Williams incident.

Make sure you listen to the end of the interview--the three questions at the end are both fun and inspiring.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Check My Math -- Buerkle versus Maffei

According to the numbers I'm looking at, this thing could come down to just a handful of votes.  In the last article I read, about 8,400 absentee ballots have been received.  Maffei is currently down by about 680.  To win, he'd need to open up an 8 percent gap among those ballots.  Most of them are from Onondaga County, which on Tuesday he won by--you guessed it--8 percent. 

That leaves me with two thoughts.  The first:  Will Maffei's vote against the additional Afghanistan funding last summer hurt him among the overseas military voters, who will be part of this final count?  He gave an impassioned defense of this vote in one of the debates I saw, and concluded by saying that if that vote cost him the election, then so be it. 

The second is the hobby-horse I like to ride regarding attack ads.  No one's hands are clean in this election, but some of Maffei's ads were pretty sharp and character-driven--especially the one regarding Buerkle's delinquent property taxes.  Based on what I read in The Post-Standard on this, Buerkle may have actually been trying to help out her tenants.  Obviously there were national-level factors involved in this race, but did those ads turn off enough people to make a difference?  Could they have backfired?

Smilla's Sense of Justice

Tim Bunn had an interesting piece in The Post Standard the other day, about the political economy of Denmark. 

Some other factoids to add in:  The New York Times did a study a while back, which showed that upward mobility in the Scandinavian countries was actually higher than in the U.S., which ranked similarly to Britain.  An article of faith about our high levels of inequality and poverty (the latter defined relative to our own society and not in absolute terms) is that we also have high levels of upward mobility--hence the American Dream.  It turns out that we've slipped in this area over the years, compared with our peer nations.  By providing a firmer springboard at the bottom tiers of the income distribution, it appears that some other Western countries enable more people--or at least their kids--to jump into the middle and upper tiers.

Also, and perhaps counter-intuitively, many of the higher tax nations in the Western world have comparatively flatter income tax schemes.  Countries with smaller public sectors like the U.S. and even Britain favor more progressive arrangements.  This might be connected to the upward mobility statistics in ways that conservatives would recognize--their taxes bite the same from the get-go, so there's no disincentive to earning more.  And if you're going to have much higher taxation, as Denmark does, then it might also make more sense to have fully inclusive social programs and a revenue stream that takes the same from everyone.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Could Obama's Best Next Move Be to Leave the Country?

It may seem ironic after an election that was all about the domestic economy--exit polls indicated that few voters had Iraq or Afghanistan foremost in their minds when they went to the polls--but President Obama may be best served in the next two years by turning more attention abroad.  After all, there is little of significance that he will be able to accomplish domestically, given congress.  And to do things at home usually involves spending money, which is not popular at the moment.

In the international arena, the president has much more freedom of movement, relatively speaking--so much so that political scientists and presidential historians have argued that there are in effect "two presidencies," one for domestic affairs and one for foreign affairs.  Being commander-in-chief helps in the latter case, as does the need to act more quickly than congress typically can, and the benefit of being able to speak with a single voice. 

But now may be an especially opportune time for such an effort, because absent a new war, much of what the president might accomplish would not require a lot of additional spending.  And he still has a large store of political capital abroad.  If he can invest himself personally and show some progress on conflicts and threats beyond the middle east, and forge some understandings in Asia that benefit the U.S. (and the economy turns around enough that the domestic policies of the past two years start to appear wiser and better-timed), then he could generate a body of work he can stand firmly beside in 2012.

They Didn't Play Nice, But Will They At Least Clean Up After Themselves?

In the next few days, keep an eye out on the side of the road, to see who picks up their campaign yard-signs, and who lets them turn into litter.  Granted, it's not the most important behavioral issue in these elections, but it might reveal something about the campaigns' characters.  I was reminded of this yesterday when I saw a volunteer dutifully going along the road retrieving one candidate's signs.

Reality Bites -- Republican State Senate Leadership Will Have Its Hands Full

We're still sorting out which party--if either--will control the State Senate.  But either way it's going to be close, and either way, the Republican leadership will face a particular challenge similar to--but perhaps more vexing than--the one John Boehner will have to deal with in congress. 

Many of the Republican senators ran on a no-new-tax pledge, but there is a large deficit that will need closing, and there will be a heavily Democratic Assembly and a strong new governor to be bargained with.  Late state budgets generate as much public criticism as big state budgets.  And history doesn't help here--past Republican Senate majorities were not afraid to both tax and spend.

What will the rank and file Republican senators do when faced with the need to bend? 

Patty Ritchie, the newly-elected senator from the 48th district, is likely to be a poster-child for this dilemma.  She ran on a no-new-taxes platform and firmly tied herself to the mast on the question of additional spending.  In her "Campbell Conversation" debate with Darrel Aubertine, when I pressed her on where she'd find the savings to balance the budget, she turned to the three usual suspects:  waste, fraud, and abuse (and personal drivers).  I'm not sure that will turn up $9 billion.

The problem becomes easier if the Republicans remain in the minority--they can always just vote no.  But what if they're the majority and the leadership comes to its members with a "best deal possible" compromise?  Unless economic growth swoops in like some deus ex machina to save the day, either the voters will have to forgive and forget or those pledges will have to be reinterpreted.

Health Care Reform and the New Congress -- A Possible Scale-Back of Medicaid?

There's been a lot of buzz about what changes we might see in health care policy with the new congress.  Outright repeal of the reform package is out of the question, but it's quite possible that there will be several adjustments at the margins, such as a removal of the new 1099 requirement.  It's in both President Obama's and House Republicans' interests to show that they can get some things accomplished, though the big domestic policy initiatives are likely frozen for the next two years.

One potential larger change that I've not heard discussed, and that might actually have a chance, is scaling back the planned expansion of the Medicaid program.  This was a big ticket item in the reform--one of the features that actually did involve a lot of additional direct government spending--and a principal mechanism for getting more people covered. 

Republicans could find some political traction in pushing for such a change, as it would save real money (at least for the government), and the benefits from the expansion are concentrated among the poor, the lower middle class, and the non-elderly--groups that might be less on the President's mind if he continues to lose support among white, better-off, independent, and older voters.  House Republicans could also get some additional political help from state governors.  Despite the reform's provisions to have the feds pick up the tab for the expansion, many governors have been wary of the provision, suspicious that they'll be caught holding the bag down the road.

Bottom line:  Look for Medicaid to get back on the national agenda in 2011.

Update:  Since I wrote this I have read some things about a possible effort by House Republicans to de-fund the entire expansion, but I don't think this is nearly as likely to work--especially with Democrats--as a significant but marginal scaling-back of the expansion itself.  The mechanism for scaling it back would be to lower the income threshold for eligibility.