Sunday, March 13, 2011

Anti-Democratic is Fine; Anti-democratic, Not So Much

The fact that the Republican Party doesn’t really believe its own rhetoric about “getting government off people’s backs” has been demonstrated too many times to truly be in doubt. The GOP wants to intercede in our sex lives, our private medical conversations, and our most harrowing end-of-life decisions. But until recently, most of their promotion of local control rang true.

True, there has been more than a little hypocrisy about the horrors of federal spending from Republican governors who quietly accepted billions of dollars of stimulus money, balanced their books because of it, and now are cursed by having received what they pretended to wish for: a significant curtailment of federal spending programs. But while GOP disingenuousness may be a little more qualitatively outrageous than normal, it is not quantitatively abnormal: politicians lie. Often.

Moreover, while there has certainly always been a smack of selectivity in the right’s much-touted belief that local governments are “closer to the people” than the feds are—funny how the presidency and Congress weren’t such bad places to invest with power when the GOP was in control—there was also an apparently sincere invocation of the libertarian spirit that is indeed part of the American psyche. The fact that such local control tended to manifest itself in resistance to, say, civil rights legislation may have been less than a coincidence, but that isn’t an inherent indictment of Republican motives: it would be unfair even for one as cynical as I to pretend to know with certainty that arguments purporting to be grounded in states’ rights or local control are in fact hypocritical.

That said, it is impossible—not merely problematic, impossible—to reconcile many recent actions of the GOP with any real interest in localized control of the political process. One of the first indications of a sea-change came in the form of the totally cynical, totally phony furor over the Park51 project. Apart from the protestors’ utter disregard for the U.S. Constitution, a document which to them takes on the attributes described in Mark Twain’s definition of a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read,” there was the completely disingenuous citation of national polls opposing the construction of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” which of course isn’t a mosque and isn’t even within sight of Ground Zero. As I pointed out in an August post, Manhattanites actually approved of the project; it was the folks in Gopher Gulch who didn’t like the idea. But you’d never have known that from listening to the right-wing media, or, frankly, the corporate media in general.

More interesting, to me at least, is what is going on in Texas, especially with respect to education. For some time there has been a mandated state curriculum, complete with assigned textbooks and high stakes standardized testing that structurally encourages teach-to-the-test strategies and memorization. But the new “standards” in social studies, rammed by a cabal of ideological storm-troopers through a state board of education whose arrogance is matched only by their ignorance, are a prime example of how not to conduct educational policy. The principal cause of the Civil War? Sectionalism (whatever the hell that is); slavery is third, behind states’ rights. See what I mean about arrogant and ignorant? And local school districts where people might actually care about real education are powerless to do their jobs in the face of state mandates to the contrary.

I’ve written about this at least twice before, in March and May of 2010. But let’s add on another layer. Governor Perry, in his State of the State address this year, euphemistically offered “to help school districts reduce their expenses in these tight budgetary times.” Translation: we’re unilaterally cutting your budgets. And that inevitably means firing teachers: in a good analysis by Peggy Fikac and Gary Scharrer of the Houston Chronicle, the authors point out that Texas schools could cut
every school superintendent, all principals and assistant principals, every school counselor, every librarian, every school nurse, all cafeteria workers, custodians and bus drivers—all 329,574 non-teacher jobs—and still not save the [mandated] $11.6 billion in public education cuts.
An AP article says that “Independent experts have estimated as many as a third of Texas school teachers could lose their jobs if lawmakers adopt the budget Republicans put forward with the support of Gov. Rick Perry.”

Perry, of course, wants to shift the blame for any layoffs to local school boards, while his proposed budget provides nearly $10 billion less in education funding than current formulas require. Given the fact that Texas is currently is well into the bottom third of states (as high as 36th or as low as 44th, depending on how you figure it) in terms of per pupil spending already, that’s not good news. The headline to an editorial in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram characterizes Perry’s assertion as originating in an “alternate reality.” But the fact remains that nothing that Perry could do budgetarily could have the huge negative impact that his short-sighted and pig-headed policies will in fact precipitate were it not for the fact that the state exercises enormous control over education funding, projected to be about 42%, down from over half just a couple of years ago.

Of course, the ratio of state to local funding is in large part the result of a complex balancing act between ensuring adequate educational opportunities for students in poorer districts on the one hand with allowing local municipalities to spend their locally-collected revenues on whatever projects they like, including, of course, education. My purpose here is not to argue that the state’s role ought to be greater or lesser than it is, but rather simply to note that real local control doesn’t exist—not in Texas, at any rate.

But, for once, the ultimate inanity by a politician isn’t committed by a Texan (I should probably downplay this, lest they get any ideas… and it is certainly true that in any normal week our own Louis Gohmert would be a strong contender for Most Embarrassing Politician of the Week). Even Wisconsin’s ample supply of miscreants on both sides of the aisle can’t compare.

No, this week the most awesome, stupendous, outrageous case of political hubris comes from the great state of Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder and the GOP-dominated legislature have colluded to expand the powers of appointed emergency financial managers (EMFs) to exercise a terrifying range of options, from voiding contracts to removing elected officials. EMFs would be appointed by the governor, and would not be answerable to local communities, only to the state legislature; even an amendment that would have limited their salaries to the $159K the governor himself makes failed after Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley broke a tie with a “no” vote.


Don’t get me wrong. I know that there are municipalities (and especially school systems) that have been mismanaged, but this is a colossal over-reach. Perhaps the stipulation that EMFs can only be appointed if other measures fail is sufficient to prevent abuse, but frankly, I doubt it. This certainly seems to be really frightening legislation. An unscrupulous governor and state legislature (as the incumbents sure as hell appear to be) could deny funds to struggling cities (this is, in fact, happening), force them into “financial martial law,” appoint the governor’s cronies at unlimited salaries (note that the rejected limit on EMF salaries was more than double the average income, including benefits, of those mercenary teachers that Fox News keeps yammering about), wipe out city councils, and basically turn Michigan into that socialist dystopia the GOP has been warning us about. All power, both political and economic, would then reside with the state.

All this, ladies and gentlemen, is brought to you from the party of local control. I understand that the Republicans are feeling their oats after considerable electoral success last November. But their unwillingness to adopt reasonable tax policies has left them with no possibility of intelligent or even ethical governance. Nietzsche’s conception of the will to power pales in comparison to Republican politicians, who are, needless to say, übermenschen only in their own minds. I try to stay clear of “slippery slope” arguments, but this power grab for the politically powerful and connected is more brazen and more audacious than anything any so-called “big government” Democrat has ever contemplated.

Last fall, Texas sued the US government because Rick Perry and his cronies used stimulus dollars earmarked for education on something else, and the feds don’t want to have them do it again, so they’re insisting that any future education funding be spent on, you know, education. As Representative Lloyd Doggett (D, Austin) says, “Federal aid to education should actually aid education in our local Texas schools. It is almost as if the Governor felt he was entitled to his own blank check federal bailout and now he has the lawsuit to prove it."

You see, according to the King of Texas wannabe, actually expecting a governor to obey the law represents an egregious manifestation of top-down interference. Ah, but you see that situation is about the bigger entity insisting that money it provides be used for its intended purpose. In Michigan, it’s about literally displacing the smaller government from above. That’s OK, you see, because… uh… the bigger government would be Republicans.

The Michigan bill has been described as an attack on unions. It no doubt is. But it is also an attack on teacher tenure, on anyone with government contracts, on the very notion of elected government. I have no problem with the Republicans being anti-Democratic, but this is actively anti-democratic. Capitalization matters.

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