Over the past decade, and in particular since I started blogging on Room Eight in 2006, I’ve written hundreds if not thousands of pages on (for the most part) public policy in New York City and State, and posted spreadsheets with perhaps tens of thousands of numbers. That is in addition to the 427 pages per quarter I’ve written in the job I have held since I stopped working in the public sector, for a total now well over 13,500 and growing.
Most of this torrent of information, while perhaps still on the internet somewhere, is buried in a place where virtually no one is likely to see it. But this new blog format allows me to keep selected essays, posts and projects always on the top and always available and visible.
And this prompts a question. Of all the things I have written, what would I most like people to read? What would I suggest that someone who has not been following my posts over the years start with, to learn the most important things I know about government and other concerns, and to understand my own perspective with regard to philosophy and public policy?
The answer is the “foundation” posts and research projects attached as a series of MS-Word files below, along with the data and analyses on other “always up” page. These represent my best unpaid, avocational work, perhaps my best work overall, and the most important things I have learned in following public policy over the course of 30 years. They concern, for the most part, not the issues of the day but rather my fundamental values and the underlying conditions and concepts of government. Unfortunately, these sometimes fall under the category of the “unsaid.”
I’m not one to brag, but as far as I’m concerned reading all these essays, posts and projects, and downloading, printing and studying the spreadsheets, would provide a far better understanding of government and public policy in the United States, and in particular in New York State and New York City, than anything one is likely to read in the newspaper, or any political science course one is likely to take in any U.S. college or university. With all this information posted online for free, there is no excuse for anyone involved in politics or public policy, particularly here in New York, to not know at least everything that I do. It’s a lot of information. But I re-read it all over the course of one weekend, to try to catch a few last typos.
Much of what you will read is critical, but that is not because I believe everything that has happened is terrible. It’s just that I’m generally not motivated to write about things that are going well, at least not unless I am paid to do so, because those are not things that I believe ought to be changed. But there are some general projects that merely describe how things work, and the choices and challenges in public policy.
I begin by attaching the “platform” I wrote when I became fed up with the way New York State was being run, and ran a protest campaign against my local state legislator in 2004, before exiting the public sector. The campaign consisted of handing out thousands of flyers, whose purpose was to convince people to read this document, which was posted online.
Civic Union 2020
Following that campaign I was asked to join the Room Eight blog, and in 2008 Room Eight was invited to be the official political blog from New York State at the Democratic National Convention. I didn’t go to the convention: two others who blog on the site did. But I knew the blog would be attracting more attention while the convention was on. So I decided to post two essays that elaborated on two of the main themes from my campaign: equality and simplicity in government, and generational equity.
Equal Protection, Generational Equity and the Legacy of Today’s Politicians
I took courses on government in college, studied for a public service career in graduate school (in city planning), and have followed public policy in the newspapers since high school. But once I started compiling data on the complete scope of government activity, particularly at the state and local level, I found that what I had been taught and told was inadequate for a full understanding of the big picture. And most people know even less about the full scope of what the government does, and which level of government is primarily responsible for paying for, and carrying out, which public functions. So in 2007 I put the whole scope of U.S. public sector activity in one series of spreadsheets, and wrote the equivalent of a pamphlet to provide that big picture. And here it is. The tables are embedded in the document, but I’ve attached the spreadsheets as well.
Government in the U.S.: An Overview
One of the key findings of that project is that half of all government spending in the mid- to late 1990s (and more today) is not on public services and benefits that everyone receives or sees in their daily lives, but rather on services and benefits that are only available to those who are eligible. Based primarily on their age, their means, or their needs, at least in theory, but often based on other “unofficial” criteria for distributing public benefits in practice. Less edifying criteria. I examined, honestly, the moral dimensions of these criteria in the essay below.
With all levels of government under financial pressure, battles over what are often called “entitlements” are likely to continue, if not escalate, into the future. In my project on the subject, I promised that those who read it would never think of these issues in the same way again, particularly if they proudly (and blindly) call themselves “liberals” or “conservatives.” That promise still stands.
Equity and Eligibility
As someone who had sought a career in public service, and believed the value of shared public amenities and services, and the security afforded by public benefits, in living a happy, comfortable life, I had become at first concerned, and then upset, and then frantic at the increasing exploitation of public institutions by those seeking to suck more out, or put less in. This exploitation was disguised from those who would be negatively affected in the future by deferring the cost, through debts and other means. These concerns motivated my increasing avocational participation in public policy and politics, culminating in my campaign for state assembly. I wasn’t campaigning “against the system” like many of those running it (just look of the politics surrounding the MTA), but felt a need to try to save it because we needed it.
But in early 2008, one more special deal favoring an already privileged interest – and sure to re-wreck a public institution that much money and effort had been spent trying to turn around – darkened my views. I decided to stop writing, for the most part, pointless posts about what should be done to improve or at least save our public institutions (which no one cared about), and start predicting what was in fact likely to happen to our to them as a result of the values of what I call Generation Greed, and chronicling the damage.
The foundation posts for this viewpoint are attached — on preparing for institutional collapse, and education, health care, and non-profits in an era of institutional collapse, with the latter post containing my conclusions about the rise and fall of organizations in general.
Preparing for Institutional Collapse
I have observed that over the past few decades “freedom” has become associated with freedom from responsibility, with Democrats pandering to the desire for freedom from personal responsibilities, and Republicans to the desire for freedom from social responsibilities. Some politicians argue about the division between what families should be doing, and what communities should be doing via the government, as if one was a substitute for the other. In reality the two are complementary, and the same values – or lack thereof – affect both. In recent years negatively.
In general I have refused to write about the “social,” tribal and “identity politics” issues on principle, disgusted with the way the political class uses them to distract attention from the more pressing issues of public policy (less true now that it used to be, fortunately). But one can tease out my viewpoint on these issues, as usual probably shared by none, by reading this.
Generation Greed and the Family
I’ve been so upset at how this generation of leaders has sold out our common future, particularly the future of my state, that I felt the need to pay a personal price to protest against it. Perhaps people, or even the state legislators themselves, didn’t understand what they were doing?
Or perhaps there was something I didn’t understand. Most people had stopped caring about their own future, let alone the common future, making these future-destroyers “men of the people” after all. By the time I wrote this post in early 2007 I had come to understand that our consumer debt-driven economy was headed for a collapse, and had found a large set of unofficial observers, in places like The Housing Bubble Blog, who saw and understood it as well. But at the time even I didn’t understand how far it had gone, and how big the collapse would be.
Hard Times A Comin
What had happened, and continues to happen, was not just a recession but rather the collapse of an entire economic – and political — era. An era driven primarily by consumer spending, in which U.S. imports exceeded exports year after year as Americans sold off their individual and collective future to keep the party going. And an era during which the total debt owned by Americans – federal, state, local, personal, corporate, and financial, had more than doubled from 170 percent of GDP in 1980 to 380 percent of GDP in 2009, before starting to collapse. After having been stable from 1950 to 1980.
Neither the Republican Party, whose economic ideas were ascendant during the 1980 to 2009 debt explosion, nor the Democratic Party has grasped the enormity of our situation. The Republicans, in particular, continue to push the same ideas and slogans as if it is still 1980 as if nothing has changed, as I explained in this post.
Failed Republican Ideas Become A Cult
In 2008, faced with the likely decline in public services and benefits in the wake of Generation Greed, I promised to shift focus from normative public policy to how individuals and families can best cope with the current and likely future environment. From how the world should be different, to how to get by in it. Doing so is a sad concession. Obviously it is the most advantaged, educated and aware who stand the best chance of having a better life in an era of declining social institutions (and their possible replacement by entirely new ones), but it is the disadvantaged and the outsiders who have been the focus of my concern. But by 2012 I was finally ready to concede, and wrote the piece below.
For those who have known me the longest, in fact, it is my ideas on what could be called “home economics” or consumer lifestyle, and how my family has put them into practice, that really sets us apart. This series of posts is about how to live in an environment of diminished expectations, in general and in each of the major categories of household spending: housing, transportation, retirement, education, and food. (Another such category is health care, but I’m waiting to see how Obamacare works out before writing about it). It reviews our expectations and choices in our 20s, the choices that led us to live in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, how they worked out, how changing conditions make similar choices more or less viable, and how a young person or couple today might choose to structure their life. Hopefully my kids, approaching these same decisions in the next few years, will read it someday.
How Then Shall We Live?
While Republican politicians and the Executive/Financial class have taken from our common future primarily through debts, Democrats and the Political/Union class have done so through the public employee pension system. As debts and executive pay were rising, the pensions that public employees were entitled to receive were increased as well, even though those employees had already been promised the richest pensions. Even as other workers were losing their retirement benefits, and suffering from falling cash wages as well. The cost of these pension enrichments was hidden and deferred, and the consequences have been and will continue to be devastating for the public services provided by state and local governments.
As someone who has been primarily focused on state and local public policy over the years, I’ve written about pension policies repeatedly, but two posts can stand in as summaries. The first is on the way top executives have used office politics to unreasonably inflate their pay the way unionized public employees have used state and local politics to unfairly inflate their pensions, all while making everyone else worse off. It’s a comparison neither group likes, and there is a link between the two. The second considers the political fallout for the Democrats, in a well-researched essay on the reasons for the rise of right-wing Governor Scott Walker in blue state Wisconsin.
Point of Intersection Between the Bonus Rich and the Years in Retirement Rich
Who The Hell is Scott Walker and Why did the Cheeseheads Vote for Him?
The political fallout for Democrats, of being the tool of special interests seeking to gain at the expense of ordinary people, is a centuries-old story in New York City. At the federal level few places are as likely to support the Democratic Party, with that support coming not only from the poor and racial minorities but also from the richest people in the city. The Democrats are overwhelmingly the chosen party of registered voters in New York.
And yet New Yorkers have voted for candidates who ran AGAINST the city’s Democratic Party establishment, even if it meant voting for Republicans, in eight of the past nine Mayoral elections. And would almost surely do so again if a reasonably competent Republican candidate manages to raise awareness of what has gone on in the public employee pension system, and what the fallout has been and will be (while conveniently ignoring the role of New York Republicans in the disaster). I wrote post this after Republican Mayor Bloomberg won a third term.
One Win in Nine Tries
Just before Mayor Bloomberg was elected to his third term, I wrote a critique of his first two. It is a series of three posts based on the three roles of the public chief executive – management of the government as an enterprise, public policy, and leadership of the broader community.
This series is a lot more negative that it might have been, given the many good things Bloomberg has done for the city, but it was written soon after he had done two very big bad things. Coincidently (or not) he had done those things during a period when he was greatly concerned with his own political future, as a possible candidate for President and a third term Mayor. So why is that?
The Bloomberg Administration: A Review
Speaking of the evil done by those from whom we might have expected good, this post, written during the primary campaign for Governor of New York State back in 2006, explains why the public employee unions (and government contractor associations and their unions) are the enemies of us all. Even though the vast majority of their members show up every day and want to do their best to serve us fairly. A theologian whose work I read in college seems to have an idea. After his first of several screw-ups as a newly elected Governor, Eliot Spitzer ended up quoting that same theologian.
Spitzer, Suozzi, and Reinhold Niebuhr
Also in 2006, I wrote about local legislative politics as it was practiced at the time, with the local incumbent pols almost entirely focused on the little bits of money they are allowed to hand out in exchange for selling out their constituents, the media coverage of those little handouts, and the expectation that the serfs would be grateful for getting some of their own money back. It seems to work. The mostly miserable crew “representing” New York in the State Assembly, State Senate, and House of Representatives keeps getting re-elected every two years. Mostly because most people focus on the Mayor and the President and pay no attention to what the legislators do, until they get indicted.
The Importance of Member Items
Speaking of politics, four years after my protest campaign for state legislature, I looked back on what it was like to be a de facto criminal. Which is to say, what it was like to be an outsider running against an incumbent politician in New York City without establishment or special interest backing. Those who are thinking of doing the same should probably read this. Those who cover politics in the media, and could stand a little constructive criticism, should do so as well.
Are You An American in Any Meaningful Sense?
I didn’t make much of an impact in that campaign, and in retrospect that is not a surprise. I hadn’t grown up wanted to be a politician, as in the Byrds song. I had trained to provide information to democratically elected officials, who would then make decisions. But what I found is that no one wants to be bothered with real information, and no one wants to make decisions, because they might be held accountable for them. They want to secretly do deals, and then make non-decisions to keep those deals in place, hoping the losers will believe their losses are due to “circumstances beyond our control.” Which is why I seek to say the unsaid. I believe leaders should be accountable for their non-decisions.
In a nation of self-interested salesmen seeking to spin things their way, there are entire professions – in government and in business as sanctioned by the government – whose entire job is to tell the truth. The accountants, bond raters, property appraisers, stock analysts, executive pay consultants, and pension actuaries among others. They can always make more money by slanting the facts the way the person who is paying them wants them to be slanted. And in the era of Generation Greed virtually all of them sold out, with the rest ending up out of business or unemployed.
Nobody’s Gonna Pay You To Tell The Truth
I’ll conclude this “greatest hits” collection with three posts on national policy: on Social Security, health care, and energy. In each case the reality is not what you hear in the political arena, or in the media. People would think about these issues a little differently if they kept these realities in mind.
Social Security: The Generational Betrayal
Socialized Medicine? Get Real, It’s Already Here
Oil, Sugar and 35 Wasted Years