Maureen Hayden on LSA

Good to see the Legislative Services Agency getting some love. (H/t Indiana Law Blog). LSA is the non-partisan agency that provides support to the Indiana General Assembly. Among other things, the staff attorneys draft legislation and the fiscal analysts provide analyses of the fiscal impact of legislation.

As Maureen Hayden’s article notes, the hours can be challenging – particularly around the holidays. It was not atypical for a legislator to drop off a bunch of bill requests on his or her way out of town for Christmas vacation so the requests would be ready for the beginning of session at the beginning of January. During the session, late nights and weekend work were not uncommon. One of the things that was most frustrating to me was, during session, Friday mornings were often slow. The House and Senate would adjourn on Thursday and not come back until Monday morning. So, you would have a slow Friday morning then, at 3 pm, you’d get a call from a lobbyist saying that Representative X told him to get in touch with you to have a proposed amendment ready for Monday morning. The ebb and flow of negotiations would manifest in bill and amendment requests at odd hours with quick turn around times and frequent last minute edits.

Occasionally a legislator asks you if you think whatever the proposal might be is a good idea. But, mostly they don’t; and that’s not really your role as a member of LSA. The snarky tone you see on this blog from time to time is probably a fair reflection of the behind closed door grousing you’d hear from time to time among LSA staffers. But it was studiously equal opportunity — you didn’t burden the legislators with those opinions; and you tried to produce a good product regardless of how flawed you thought the underlying policy goals might be.

It was probably those years of bottling up my opinion that made me so eager to share them here. Also, just an aside, but I wonder if it’s just coincidence that two of the longest running blogs about Indiana law/policy/politics (my own and the Indiana Law Blog) come from people with LSA backgrounds.

Interim Committee on Commerce Focuses on Tax Breaks for Biomedical Device Industry

The Interim Committee on Commerce and Economic Development seems to have focused almost entirely on the biomedical device industry during their interim meetings. See, this draft final report of the committee. That was the task assigned to it by the Legislative Council. I’m not sure whether they have discretion to go beyond legislative council assignments. They produced this draft resolution urging tax breaks for the biomedical device manufacturers. Specifically, the resolution expresses grumpiness about the federal medical device excise tax. To counter this, the resolution suggests reworking of the patent income tax exemption and the venture capital income tax credit as well as passing a “new markets jobs act providing for a state income tax credit” available to the medical device and biomedical industry.

None of this is necessarily bad policy (maybe it is – I’m just not informed enough to know) or nefarious, but it does give an example of how money begets money. You use your economic influence to get law and policymakers to focus on the well being of your economic interests in a way that’s not available to those with fewer resources.

Shawshank and Privilege

With Ferguson over the last couple of months and the 2014 Isla Vista killings several months before that, white male privilege (as compared to the experiences of women and racial minorities) has been brought more under the microscope — at least over social media. I’m going to walk on eggshells here. As an upper middle-class white guy, there is mostly only downside if I offer opinions on questions of race and privilege. Where I see nuance in those questions, others might see me as offering self-serving qualifications that justify or blind me to my privilege. “Shut up and listen” probably isn’t bad advice. I’m pretty good at listening, but shutting up has long been a problem for me.

Maybe it shows I’m too steeped in pop culture, but at some point during my musings about the race and privilege question, The Shawshank Redemption came to mind. Seems to me that Andy Dufresne could be excused for thinking that he had it pretty rough. He was cheated on, unjustly charged with and convicted of murdering his wife, served twenty years in jail, and only made it to a better place through patience, industriousness, and crawling through “a river of shit” before coming out clean on the other side. So, you can imagine he might be skeptical if told that he owed his life on the beach in Mexico to his privileged status as a white man.

And, yet, it’s true. Certainly Andy’s (fictional) path was not easy, and he prevailed in the end because of admirable personal qualities and actions. But the fact is that Andy prevailed in ways that simply would not have been available to his black friend, Red. For example, the education and social connections that leads to Andy becoming a banker never would have been available to Red back then (and would be much, much less likely even today). Red (even if he had the tax background), unlike Andy, probably gets thrown off the roof before Hadley settles down and takes his tax advice. The warden probably never lets a black guy near the books for the illegal accounts. Even with a suit & tie, Red probably can’t just waltz into the bank and withdraw large sums of money without drawing suspicion.

From Andy’s perspective, he went through hell to get to that beach in Mexico. He has reason to feel like he earned every bit of what he has, and having someone attribute it to white, male privilege may well provoke a negative reaction. And, still, without white, male privilege, he would probably be dead or in jail. He had and took advantage of opportunities not available to Red.

I see this movie-as-metaphor to be more descriptive than proscriptive. It may be a trite example in any case. I’m not presuming to advise anyone to act or feel differently on this issue than they do. But, for my part, I felt like the metaphor offered me some insights into the dynamics involved.

Woman Accused of Trafficking Cellphone to Inmate

I spent much of the last month taking depositions of inmates at various state correctional facilities, including the one at Wabash Valley, so this story about a woman accused of attempting to traffic a cell phone caught my eye.

Prison officials said Elainey Michele Reynolds, 22, of Marion failed to clear a metal detector at the maximum-security facility shortly after 9:30 a.m. Monday. Visitor processing custody staff became suspicious after Reynolds indicated that a body piercing was the cause. She then went to the restroom to remove the piercing. After claiming she threw the metal piercing away, the restroom was searched and a cell phone was found in a trash can, authorities said.

Just as an aside, even though working at these places has to be challenging and grim, I have to say that my experience with most of the employees who helped us get in and out and arrange the depositions were almost all pleasant, polite, and professional.

Federal Separation of Powers – Revisited

Back in 2011, I posted:

I had a high school history teacher who, periodically, would draw three circles on the chalkboard representing the three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. Depending on what era in history we were looking at, the respective circles would be bigger or smaller. Possibly there was a better visual representation to be had, but the basic notion was that, where one branch refused or declined to act, the other ones would expand into the vacuum.

Speaking of three rings, Congress has largely looked like a circus for the past generation or so. And that, as much as anything else I believe, is why we have seen the Presidency and the Supreme Court looming larger in our lives. This might also be why “limited government” is mostly a fantasy — at least if its proponents seek to achieve it through gridlock and inaction. The branches would have to affirmatively limit themselves and the other branches. Inaction simply leads to one of the other branches stepping into the breach.

President Obama’s executive order on immigration, and Gov. Pence’s executive action in opposition – joining a lawsuit by various pieces of various state governments – made me think of that post from a couple of years ago.

Simply stopping one branch of government is not, by itself, enough to stop the other branches. They can and probably will expand their reach until affirmatively checked by one of the other branches. In fact, I think Obama is, to some extent, trolling Congress here – baiting it into action. The political calculation is probably that regardless of which way Congress jumps, you’ll get some mix of better immigration policy and/or his Republican opposition making themselves less popular with Latinos. Additionally, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, I don’t get the feeling that President Obama is actually a big fan of a strong executive — at least not as much as his recent predecessors. So, rhetoric and action pushing back on a stronger executive might be welcome. (That last sentiment is more speculative than the former.)

Happy Harvest Festival!

This is a re-post of my 2011 Thanksgiving entry which I liked quite a bit.

I’ve blogged about this before – 2007, in particular, but in the recent past, I’ve come to learn that the “First Thanksgiving” has only a nodding acquaintance with the mythology we’re taught in school. At the end of the day, it boils down to our country’s harvest festival and, as such, the literal history probably isn’t that important.

As I recall the version I learned in school, the Pilgrims left England because they hated religious oppression, they arrived a Plymouth Rock, hewed a settlement out of the wilderness, received the help of some friendly Indians; in particular an English speaking one named Squanto; they were taught how to plant corn with the help of fish fertilizer; and then, at harvest time, had a feast to celebrate.

The reality is a little more complicated. The Pilgrims mostly did not think the right kind of religious oppression was underway in England. The Pilgrims had left England and settled in Holland for about 10 years; but, among other things, they thought the environment was a little too permissive for the kids and that the congregation was losing its identity. Their trip was poorly timed, bringing them to New England in November 1620. While on the Mayflower, the Mayflower Compact was created and signed in response to the suggestion of certain passengers that, once in the New World, they would be at liberty to do as they pleased.

Arriving in New England at the beginning of winter was a bad idea. Fortunately for the Pilgrims, the Native Americans along the coast had been decimated by disease – leaving empty villages with at least a little in the way of food and supplies. The eventual site of Plymouth Colony was in an area that had been cleared by the Patuxet before they had been ravaged by smallpox.

The Pilgrims were assisted by Squanto (Tisquantum), a Patuxet who had been kidnapped years earlier and enslaved by Thomas Hunt and taken to Spain to be sold. Some friars intervened, and Squanto was not sold. He made his way to England and worked for some time as a shipbuilder. After about 5 years away from America, he got back to find his tribe had been wiped out by disease. Shortly thereafter, he seems to have been captured by the Wampanoag people and may have still been a captive when he was acting as an intermediary between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims; leading to some tension later on between Squanto and Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader. Squanto may have been playing the two sides against each other to some extent. I even read that the actual Thanksgiving feast was as much a display of arms and strength among the competing sides as a celebration of the harvest. I’m not sure how much to credit that.

Regardless of the beginnings, what I think is important to remember is that the tradition stems from a time where people can and did starve. Survival was uncertain from year to year where a bad harvest could mean famine in the winter. People had an incomplete understanding of the science behind weather and agriculture, so Native Americans and Europeans mixed their gratitude with a fair amount of superstition, believing, perhaps, that angry gods would cause famine in the future and gods who felt well respected would be more beneficent. Even without incorporating the supernatural, gratitude is entirely appropriate. I am thankful to live in a society (if not necessarily a world) with a secure food supply. And, of course, I have a lot of other things for which to be grateful – a loving family, a good job, and a warm place to sleep primary among them.

So, take stock of what you have going for you; and if you’re not cold and hungry tonight, you have it a lot better than a good chunk of the multitudes that have lived over the course of human history. And, if you think your good fortune is attributable to God or the Great Spirit or Ceres or Demeter or being responsible for good harvest; by all means offer thanks to them as well. Gratitude isn’t a limited resource; but should be spent freely.

Eric Turner resigns

A statesman, policy wonk, and dedicated public servant retires. These are sentiments not reflected in this article about the retirement of long time representative Eric Turner or, so far as I’m aware, by anyone else reflecting on the legislative career of Rep. Turner.

Tony Cook’s article is entitled “Rep Turner, plagued by scandal, formally resigns.” He announced his intent to retire back in September following a brouhaha involving his efforts to kill legislation behind closed doors that had the potential to cost his family piles of money in the nursing home business.

Nice Shootin’ Rosetta!

I’m pretty excited about the news that the European Space Agency landed a module on a comet. Although, I’m kind of bummed that the harpoons didn’t work. Saying we harpooned a comet makes humans seem pretty badass. And right now, the situation might be precarious. With almost no gravity, the lander weighs less than a sheet of paper on earth and the comet is outgassing as it approaches the sun which apparently creates a bit of a wind. The screws on the landing legs may be securing the lander, but it will be a while before we know for sure.

But, even without the harpoons, the planning and math necessary to land a tiny spacecraft on a comet 30 million miles away is audacious.

As Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy blog puts it:

After 10 years of travel through the depths of space, and at least that long beforehand filled with meetings, designs, construction, and a launch in 2004, the Philae spacecraft was successfully released from its Rosetta mothership. Then, seven hours later, it made history.
. . .
It’s difficult to overstate this achievement. The comet is moving on an elliptical orbit that takes it just outside the orbit of Jupiter (850 million kilometers from the Sun) and as close as 186 million km sunward (just inside the orbit of Mars). The Rosetta spacecraft had to travel for a decade through space to catch up to its target, flying past two asteroids—Lutetia and Steins—as well as getting a gravitational boost by swinging past Mars and even Earth. It was a long, cold journey, which finally brought it alongside 67P in August 2014.

Humans can ban together collectively and achieve amazing things. We forget that way too often, envisioning ourselves as reasonably competent individuals surrounded by idiots in a world that only gets worse and never better. (Never mind, as Louis CK points out, everything’s amazing.)

Religion, Social Conformity, Isolation, and Politics

I came across a comment in the Guardian (h/t Barry) which discusses the demographic shift in religious belief in the U.S. and predicts long term doom for the Republicans. It’s entitled “Godless Millennials Could End the Political Power of the Religious Right.” The column notes the prospects for short term success for the Republicans but predicts long term problems because the short term success in deep red states ought to be even greater. I’ve seen the doom of one political party or another predicted too often to put much stock in it. In political circles, short term success is the only kind of success there is. The voting public doesn’t seem to have a sufficiently long term memory for political parties to build up (or cost themselves) a lot of equity. (Pundits seem to be even more immune from long term accountability for good or poor prognostications.) In the past, I’ve seen predictions of a permanent Republican majority. More recently, I’ve seen predictions that will put Democrats in the majority based on demographic shifts that are always just around the corner.

Normally, those demographic predictions are based on race — e.g. Latinos vote for Democrats more often. The Guardian comment discusses religious belief. Its premise is that Americans, particularly millennials are becoming more godless.

What we’re seeing may well be the first distant rumblings of a trend that’s been quietly gathering momentum for years: America is becoming less Christian. In every region of the country, in every Christian denomination, membership is either stagnant or declining. Meanwhile, the number of religiously unaffiliated people – atheists, agnostics, those who are indifferent to religion, or those who follow no conventional faith – is growing. In some surprising places, these “nones” (as in “none of the above”) now rank among the largest slices of the demographic pie.

Even in the deep South, the Republican base of white evangelical Christians is shrinking – and in some traditional conservative redoubts like Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky, it’s declined as a percentage of the population by double digits. Even Alabama is becoming less Christian. Meanwhile, there’s been a corresponding increase in the religiously unaffiliated, who tend to vote more Democratic.

It may well be that the religious right loses its clout. However, the two party system being what it is, I would expect that if that happens, the Republicans will attempt to shift somewhat to stake out territory that gives them something close to a 51% stake in the electorate. (Power being what it is, political factions tend to want to be large enough to retain power but small enough that they share it as little as necessary.)

With that long lead up, what captured my interest is the premise. If America is becoming less religious — and I don’t pretend to know if the premise is sound — why now? The column suggests something like a backlash against the religious right’s treatment of gays and lesbians. Millennials regard bad treatment of those groups as an anachronism and hostile rhetoric against them as unacceptable. People who feel this way leave their various churches and, with such departures, the antipathy of the remainder toward gays and lesbians is higher as a percentage, and the rhetoric grows more extreme; causing a vicious cycle.

I’m more inclined to see aversion to rhetoric about the sinfulness of gays and lesbians as more of a symptom than a cause. I mean, why now? Certainly the public acceptance of gays and lesbians has grown dramatically. But why the sudden shift? I’m going to go with the Internet as a force multiplier accelerating the acceptance of the gay community. As I understand it, more people came out publicly as gay in the 70s and increasingly thereafter. This forced friends and acquaintances to deal with homosexuality as being something experienced by real people, including friends and relatives, and not as some kind of cartoonish abstraction that’s easy to hate. The Internet made it easier for people to come out and more likely that straight people would come into contact with gay people in every day life. The Internet does this by reducing isolation as an influencer of human behavior. By learning that other people think like you, it becomes easier to express your opinions and stand behind your beliefs. You learn that you’re not crazy and you’re not alone. You’re more likely to speak up and stand up for yourself.

When communities were formed almost exclusively by physical proximity, it was much harder to communicate and much harder to learn whether you were alone or whether your beliefs were shared by at least some others. When communities were formed by geography, it was much easier for powerful minorities to control the conversation and create the illusion of social norms and enforce that vision by, in effect, dividing and conquering.

I think I’ve mentioned a passage before from Howard Bloom’s “Global Brain.” He discusses a study by a guy named Schanck of a New York town in the 30s. It seems to have been populated by people who were nominally Baptists and the community was dominated by a minister’s daughter. Publicly almost all of them would declare the sinfulness of things like cards, liquor, and tobacco. Privately many of them would engage in those things.

How completely the anointed had commandeered collective perception became apparent when Schanck asked the closet dissenters how other people in the community felt about face cards, liquor, a smoke, and levity. Hoodwinked by suppression, each knew without a doubt that he was the sole transgressor in a saintly sea. He and he alone could not control his demons of depravity. None had the faintest inkling that he was part of a silenced near-majority.

Here was an arch lesson in the games subcultures play. reality is a mass hallucination. We gauge what’s real according to what others say. And others, like us, rein in their words, caving in to timidity. Thanks to conformity enforcement and to cowardice, a little power goes a long, long way.”

My suspicion, based in no small part – I must confess – on projection of my own experience, is that people aren’t just suddenly reacting to gays. Rather, I expect that a lot of people have long been dubious about the socially conservative behavioral components of religion — antipathy to, for example, gays, dancing, sex, gambling, alcohol. To one degree or another, probably based a lot on their geographic community, that large minority or even majority were perhaps too timid to speak up because they thought they were more isolated in their opinion than was actually the case. This might go not just for those behavioral components but also for a skepticism of religion itself. I grew up Presbyterian and in a family that wasn’t especially ardent about its religion, and I have never been shy about sharing my opinions. But even I felt a strong social conditioning against speaking out about my non-belief. The Internet (along with living in a geographic area with a wide range of beliefs and a non-trivial number of non-believers) has reduced that inhibition by bringing me into contact with others of similar thinking.

So, I wonder if that’s what’s really going on with the millennials. From day one, they grow up immersed in the Internet and exposed to the wide range of beliefs of the millions (are we at billions yet?) of people online. Social conformity based on isolation has to be reduced. (Social conformity based on a howling, mostly anonymous mob might be a thing, however.) What this means for politics is anyone’s guess, however. Prognostications are usually wrong.

Sheila Kennedy on why Gov. Pence will not seek preschool grant money

Sheila Kennedy has a post entitled “Pence, Pre-school, and the Right Wing Base”. The back story is that Indiana had the inside track to get $80,000,000 in federal grant money to fund pre-kindergarten education for Hoosier children. In a surprise move, Gov. Pence decided that Indiana would drop out of the race. He cited vague concerns about entanglement with the federal government. I speculated that Gov. Pence’s presidential ambitions were the explanation.

Sheila suggests a related but more local and specific rationale: opposition by the likes of the Indiana Family Association because it would fund competition to church day cares:

We’ve seen this movie before. Every time the state legislature tries to pass minimum health and safety standards for daycare and preschools–usually, after a tragic accident at some unregulated, unsafe facility– conservative churches mount a hysterical assault on “big government,” and claim a religious right to be free of pesky (too-expensive) rules about nutrition, fire safety, minimum ratio of caregivers to infants and the like.

Churches operating daycare and preschool operations that don’t want to comply with health and safety standards are a big part of Governor Pence’s base. Those churches clearly didn’t want federal money funding safer competitors, and the Governor just as clearly got the message.