BREAD AND BUTTER : OR, WHY IT’S AN ADVANTAGE THAT WE DON’T UNDERSTAND OUR POLITICAL SYSTEM

 

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^ bread and butter success : the new MBTA website

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Today a friend of mine posted, on facebook , a kudo to the MBTA’s new website. “It’s so much easier to navigate,” he wrote. Just another little improvement, by a Governor who has become the most popular politician in the state by getting little reforms done.

The day prior, Governor Baker announced a reform not quite so little : he will continue the $ 500 million, priority investment in the life sciences industry first established by Governor Patrick, but where Patrick”s funding focused on structures, Baker’s funds will give priority to jobs : as he noted, it isn’t much good to prioritize our state’s life sciences industry if school graduates aren’t prepared for the jobs the industry needs filled.

Assuring the transition of young people from student to employee certainly counts among our state’s most serious policy challenges. Baker is hardly the only politician talking about it. It’s figured prominently in his campaign agenda since the 2014 election season began, and many politicians, Mayors especially, have taken up the call. The matter is not a slam dunk. Preparing students for actual employment raises all sorts of school issues, from “the achievement gap” to charter school availability to MCAS testing and the length of a school day. It also touches one of education politics’s third rails : how much involvement in education should corporations have ? Talk of corporate involvement in education leads quickly to the “privatization” that public school advocates dislike.

Thus the careful steps that Baker takes even where large sums of money are allocated. It is easier to reform when the reform being pushed is small or cautiously nudged.

All of the above leads me to the actual subject of this column : that what makes Massachusetts government work is that almost everybody misunderstands how it works and why it works, and why what people do think the political system is would be disastrous to reform if it were actually implemented.

Hardly any of the activists who make up Massachusetts’s political community seems to realize that our system works because the two parties aren’t really political parties, and that, that being the case, ideologues have scant way to force their platforms upon us. One hears, these days, “progressives” calling for the Democratic party to adhere to a platform, and for those who don’t adhere to it be challenged, even defeated. Yet when one talks to the voters at large, there is very little urge for the initiatives “progressives” wish to secure. The situation for Massachusetts Republicans is similar, yet opposite as well. Because there are very few Republicans — only eleven percent of our voters — the ideologues command much more power within the party than progressives do within Democratic circles; but the ideologies demanded by Republican ideologues are even more unpopular among the voters at large than Democratic ideologies: so that even when Republican ideologues are able to control their party’s agenda, their agenda has zero chance of ever being enacted.

As a result of these two asymmetrical impasses, Massachusetts is actually governed by low-intensity pragmatists who view systemic change skeptically, thus assuring that when they do enact legislative reforms, they’re bread and butter stuff, not champagne and ice cream. Progressives and so-called “conservatives” see this and express great frustration at it — they want noise and drama and popular uprisings — yet they do not seem to grasp why the system frustrates them rather than embrace them. The voters, too. Our voters seem to think that we have a Democratic party government, and a Republican Governor, where what we actually have is a legislature that moves slowly, usually in consensus, and a Governor who plays his own variation of the legislative tune; a Governor more popular with Democratic voters than with Republican ones, in tandem with a “Democratic” legsialty7ure that activist Democrats do not like. What’s in a name ? With apologies to Shaespeare, in this case, what’s in the names people politically use is not at all what they mean when they name it.

And our state is much the better for it

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

RESPECTING OPINIONS OTHER THAN YOUR OWN

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^ Governor Baker : “in order to get things done, you have to listen to opinions other than your own.”

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At a recent East Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast, Governor Baker gave the keynote speech. First, he spoke about what his administration has done, and is still doing, to reform Massachusetts government. Then came the words that most impressed upon me : “if you want to get things done, you have to listen to opinions other than your own.”

Government — and politics generally — cannot work if people of differing opinions block each other out. As we all know, blocking has been all too common these past several years. People shout at each other; everybody is convinced that he is right and that the world will come to an end if those who are wrong win out. Worse, there exists an entire world of media enterprises which profit from shouting at others and tuning them out. These businesses — my cousin Chris calls them “hate profiteers” — amass fans, far too many fans, who feel good ranting bile at those who differ from them.

Even before the tragic shooting, barely a week ago, of a Congressman and staffers at a Congressional baseball practice, many political leaders had begun to change the message — to listen to those with opinions different from theirs. Senator Elizabeth Warren took the lead getting a confirmation vote for her former opponent Scott Brown, nominated to be ambassador to New Zealand, and voting yes to confirm him; and Scott Brown publicly thanked her for doing so. And yes, this is Massachusetts; it’s how we do.

We do this, not because we’re better than other Americans, but because the agents of demonization don’t control of our politics. Most of the inflammatory  media aren’t programmed on Massachusetts radio, and almost no demonization money flows through super PACs into Massachusetts campaigns. Why would it ? Something like eighty percent of our voters agree on the most inflammatory issues, and we haven’t any kind of competitive two-party politics in place to change that. Our Democratic party isn’t really a party in the usual sense — it’s simply everybody who wants to win elections — and our Republican party, at barely eleven percent of our voters, is far too small to contest said “Democratic” monopoly. The one thing that our Republican party does do — elect a Governor — is done in a non-partisan manner, electing a sort of referee who negotiates reforms with various segments of the “Democrats” who control super majorities in our legislature. This system, unique in American politics, as worked well for 27 years now, since the election if Bill Weld as Governor in 1990.

This system was fairly easy to operate in the years before mutual demonization became the political norm. Much less simple today, as Massachusetts pursues consensus governance while all around us rancor and partisanship rule. Nor is Baker’s observation true only of him. His method, of respecting and learning from opinions other than his own would be dead on arrival if it were not also an operating principle for the rest of our elected leaders. Almost all of the reforms that Baker has initiated have won unanimous, or almost unanimous, support vin the legislature. Three state budgets with no new taxes and no new fees all were adopted unanimously : “progressives” voted for them, as did right wing Republicans.

Divisive issues remain, and there are political forces at work bringing them forward. I think of the two-tier tax initiative that will appear on the 2018 ballot. Another such issue is the “sanctuary state” movement seeking to place Massachusetts in opposition to President Trump’s aggressive immigration police. Many advocates involved in these campaigns use them to force Governor Baker out of the consensus groove that has made him the state’s most popular politician; yet I doubt they will succeed. Baker knows that the two-tier tax question has broad support, and that his best response is to make sure that the money it seeks for education and transportation actually get allocated to these, and not to some other legislative priority. He also knows that the voters will support the tax question only for these purposes, and that those who are using the two tier tax idea to put him on the defensive misjudge voter sentiment.

As for the “safe communities” issue, Baker has never wavered from his middle position: that it’s a question not for the state as a whole but for each of our 351 towns and cities to decide; and while I favor the statewide view, I concede Baker’s point. Sanctuary has been a very divisive issue in some of our communities, and putting it to the entire state, by some sort of legislation, would needlessly fracture the state’s political peace. It’s not enough just to listen to opinion s other than one’s own, or to take them into account; there has to be a willingness to take this road, and the willingness has to come of its own accord, and not by an imposed political move. I think the Governor’s saying so, in a major speech, and demonstrating its successes in state reform, can have the persuasive power that will move our state in the consensus direction that other states — and the nation — are beginning to realize works better than angry accusation and fearful condemnation.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

YES, A BIG TENT. ALWAYS.

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 ^ Speaker DeLeo : the personification of a Democratic “big tent” party. Some do not like that.

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Debate is under way now concerning what Massachusetts’s Democratic party should be. One faction says that the party platform defines the party. If you’re a Democrat, you must support it. The other faction — much the larger — says, no, the party platform is only a proposal, and actual candidates are not bound by anything in it, the objective being to represent the candidate’s voters, not a document drafted by a committee.
You can tell by what I just wrote that I favor the second position: that a political party cannot allow itself to be bordered by a committee’s platform.
Candidates must of course stand for something. The voters need to know that if they elect X, they will be supporting this or that. It’s part of the compact that candidates make with voters. Still, that compact runs between candidate and voters, and every district is different in our diverse, complex society; and all of that diversity and complexity has a right to be heard when the legislature meets.
A party platform should be heard, too; but why should it claim more respect than the voices of the state’s voters ?
We are hearing calls for party platform dominance because Democrats see that the Republican party’s ideological rigidity has won recent elections nationally. The easy lesson to take is that what worked for Republicans can work for Democrats too.
Unfortunately for the advocates of platform dictation, most voters are not ideologues, and it is a mistake to assume that those who have voted for a rigid Republican campaign do so because of the ideology. Much more likely is that most voters who have voted Republican do so merely to express rejection of the status quo.
In Massachusetts, none of this has legs. We elect almost exclusively Democrats, of many ideological varieties, or no ideology at all, because we still vote the old fashioned way ; for the candidate we know best, or who commands the most campaign respect, or who seems the most likely to master the many issues that voters care about. In short, character and competence rule our elections, and they do so in a very non-partisan way. Those Democrats who want a party platform party forget that the majority of Massachusetts voters belong to no party and don’t much want to.
The many Democrats who prefer the “big tent” principle understand that ideological parties are small parties — the more ideological, the smaller. This was the dynamic of Leninism. Lenin purposely imposed ever more ideological rigidity upon his followers because his goal was ferocious insurgency; and ferocity was not an absurd tactic for opposing a regime as incompetent, unjust, and bankrupt as Czar Nicholas’s rule. Nothing like that exists in Massachusetts, however; you may disagree with the priorities expressed by the Democratic legislative leadership, but they are not incompetent, or unjust, or bankrupt. Indeed, they seem qui9te prudent and likely represent majority sentiment among all the voters. Legislators are not fools. They want to be re-elected, and the votes they cast for bills that usually are enacted almost unanimously are not cast recklessly.
Nor is it a horrible sin for Speaker DeLeo to suggest that he prefers seeing Governor Baker, a Republican, re-elected rather than an alternative. The Speaker and the Governor have partnered the enactment of many bread and butter reforms, most of the enabling legislation being adopted unanimously or almost so. In what way is this bad ?

The platform advocates think it’s very bad. Read their view here : http://bluemassgroup.com/2017/05/ma-dem-house-speaker-wont-commit-to-voting-for-dem-gov-nominee/consensus

The Speaker understands that, as the most powerful legislator in the state, he must answer to all the voters. (The same is true of Governor Baker.) As far as I’m concerned, a political party is far more useful, and successful, answering t,o all than to the limited perspectives of platform writers.

May the “big tent” always be big and proud of it.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

WE CHERISH THE RIGHT TO VOTE: SO WHY DO SO MANY OF US NOT USE IT ?

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^ huge lines of voters waiting to cast a ballot in last year’s election : we have the power. And we know it. Whether we use it or not. Often we do not use it. But the important thing is that we have it. Even we who haven’t registered know we always can, know that the power is ours

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Almost everyone except the nationalists who love Mr. Trump cherishes the right to vote. Those of us who think of citizenship consider voting rights the bedrock civil right. We are not wrong. Our ancestors fought a bloody civil war at least in part to se cure voting rights for African Americans and immigrants. Several important expansions of voting rights ensued; today our nation practices universal suffrage, at least in principle. If you’re a citizen, and eighteen years of age, you have the right to vote.

Yet the path from the right to vote to actually voting is not universally taken. About half of vote-eligible citizens never register; and in local, Boston elections, only about 37.5 percent — and not always that high a percentage –of those who do register actually cast a ballot. Boston’s registration rate is high: about 80 percent of eligibles register; still, these numbers tell us that about 68 percent — more than two of every three — of vote-eligible Bostonians do not vote in city elections.  Why not ?

Because more than two of every three vote-eligible Bostonians do not vote in city elections, those who do acquire about three times the voting power that they would have in a universal suffrage participation. Because elections are won by a majority, if only 32 percent of eligible vote, barely 1/6 of all vote eligible citizens choose who wins. This isn’t much different from the situation that prevailed in the 1780s and 1850s, long before /universal voting eligibility was enacted, or even thought of . Boston in 1822, the year it, became a city, had about 10,000 voters; by 1850, about 30,000; Civil War Boston counted about 60,000 voters. Today, 150 years later, 60,000 votes almost wins a Mayor election (65,000 is the actual).

Does it matter that most of us who  could vote do not ? Evidently it doesn’t. Very few people except pundits complain that Boston elections are decided by 16 to 19 percent of us. Would elections look all that different if 50 percent of us voted ? Maybe not. But one thing seems  certain : if 50 percent voted — about 230,000 voters — there’d be far more  candidates. There’d be a culture of participation. There’d be vigorous primaries and heated second rounds. Today, at least half the municipal election contests have no primary. If there’s no primary, there isn’t much to excite voters.

But perhaps political excitement, except for President, is a rare thing and one that doesn’t feel necessary. Life in Boston has its pressures, and its drama, but those in charge do not slack, and every citizen, voter or not, makes her voice heard in a dozen venues including social media and the streets. If a citizen can make her voice thus heard, as so many are now effective at doing, maybe voting isn’t so crucial. Perhaps democracy is an arsenal with many different weapons in it.

A weapon need not be used to be effective. If the opposition knows it’s there — and you know it’s there — that’s often effect enough. Having the right to vote is power enough. And we all know that we all have that. We have the power.

Those who want to restrict the right to vote, or impede it, would not bother if they did not understand, as well as we do, how powerful the right to vote is, used or left unused. We cannot let them restrict us or impede us, and we won’t, no matter if we vote this time, or next time, or hardly ever, and even if we have yet to register.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

HAS ANYONE YET NOTED THAT THE STATE’S BUDGET IS EXPANDING ?

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^ Governor Charlie Baker : bread and butter reform in sometimes surprising directions

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Two recent developments in state funding, both of them Governor baker initiatives, have resulted in an FY 2018 State Budget that is expanding despite the substantial revenue shortfall revealed a couple of months ago.

The first development is Governor Baker’s ongoing program of grant awards to various industries pursuant to his Workforce Development initiative that began almost the day he first took office. As the link I’m attaching makes clear, Baker’s grants come frequently and are hardly ungenerous : http://www.masslifesciences.com/news/announcements/

Baker has also delivered substantial funds to the development of workforce-priced housing. In a Budget that has included no new taxes or fees, and that has a revenue shortfall, where is this money co0ming from ?

This may well arise from Baker’s careful analysis of the State’s Budget; there is, however, nothing careful about Baker’s really ambitious new move : assessing $ 180million in fees to businesses that do not offer their employees health insurance. It’s not precisely anew tax, but it is a new levy, and it comes with full support by the House, and thus that of Speaker DeLeo : http://news.wgbh.org/2017/04/10/politics-government/mass-house-budget-enables-gov-baker-pursue-employer-assessments

Baker originally proposed an even larger assessment : $ 300 million; but the House felt that the smaller levy would do. So far, so good. What’s truly interesting Is to see Baker, who has the label “Republican” attached to him, moving in a direction one would never expect from the term “Republican” today.

I have often wondered what would happen when the “no new taxes or fees” Baker of 2014-16 met the “we need new revenue” reality of 2017. One need wonder no longer. Baker has made his choice : to seek new funds for a purpose that cannot be quarreled with : we badly need to pay our rapidly rising health care costs, especially in light of potential hurt if the Congress ends up enacting its controversial, undermining health care venture. Baker has now signed onto doing so. It is, in fact, his top priority.

Baker recently told a gathering of his activists that “there’s no partisanship in our program going forward.” He said it with pride, and it was and is true.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here andm Sphere

 

THE MUGGLEBEE FILES : A MEMO ON INTELLIGENCE

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^ the man and his memo : Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein

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The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. — F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

  • The firing of James Comey defines this political moment. As America continues to unpack his sudden firing by President Trump,what becomes immediately clear is the contradiction in it: the firing of Comey is supported, and unsupported, by almost everyone. Why is that? It’s simple, really, yet nothing in American politics is, or is allowed to be, so simple.The American narrative is based in contradiction. We’re for wars before we are against them. Firing FBI Director Comey was a curveball that almost no one saw coming. No one, except Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, that is.Late last October, you will recall, Comey stepped into the election at a critical time and in a very critical way, one that seemed to most an unprecedented partisan effort to sway an election by speaking about an ongoing investigation. The election then resulted in boosting the very candidate Comey’s move seemed to benefit. Couldn’t be better, right? Not right.Comey had a peculiar set of values and a sterling reputation, but at once his move became a scandal of a type seen in our history but which we hoped we’d never see again : the tyranny of an FBI Director; of J Edgar Hoover. Since Trump had now won, Comey’s role seemed affixed…yet, perhaps, not. Because, you see, Comey had his own conflict. He absorbed so much criticism for his decision to speak on the Clinton e mail matter in a way that had the appearance of impropriety, that he literally felt he needed to make it right. Perhaps, and this is based on his testimony last week on his regrets, his contradiction side began to take command: bent on correcting a perceived error of serious magnitude and, thus, using the only things at his disposal…turned his focus on the focus of much of the nation- the Trump/Russia ties.As Attorney General, Jeff Sessions had already recused himself of handling the Trump/Russia inquiry thanks to his own ties thereto : which made the sudden firing of Comey all the more strange : because the President acting on advice from Sessions would violate the promised recusal. So into the picture steps Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a 27 year Department of justice veteran. The President solicits a recommendation – a memo -regarding Comey’s actions in November. This, mind you, is on the heels of Comey’s most recent testimony highlighting significant investigation into Trump/Russia collusion and the high level of threat to the country that it presents. No wonder that the timing of James Comey’s sudden firing is immediately suspect.During perhaps the most divisive election in our country’s history, most Trump supporters, who were rabid anti-Hillary, at the time saw Comey’s rogue actions as “saving the country”, and of course acceptable (on their side). But this is how things get difficult: the very same man who helped them defeat Hillary is now helping defeat Trump, possibly.The crux of F Scott’s quote above. Two opposing ideas.Americans are tasked, right now, with understanding the inherent contradiction of two opposing ideas at the same time: Jim Comey deserved to be fired, but not now. Not under these circumstances. This is what makes this so damn difficult- politics loves to sow confusion and divisive thought. If F Scott is right, the very measure of intelligence is also the very lever of anti-intelligence, or forcing people to hold two opposing ideas in mind and retain the ability to function. People like Sarah Huckabee Sanders want you to function on one idea and one alone, and that isn’t intelligent. Rod Rosenstein has chosen a curious duplicity here. While he memo’d what most Americans on each side of the isle truly believe about Comey’s actions (which did indeed stun and worry most of us), Trump wanted to use Comey’s actions when they benefitted him (and so did his supporters)…and then completely reverse direction when it also suited him. He did so on the back of this simple memo from Rosenstein seemingly suggesting firing Comey. Why? You could say Rosenstein merely addressed Comey’s over-steps: an analysis as non-partisan as objective. Yet given the cut-throat culture in today’s White House, the Rosenstein memeo could easily be a trap. It’s been said that the difference between clever and intelligent is that clever is short-sighted and seeks immediate gain at the expense of long-term loss. Intelligence travels the opposite path.What F Scott was talking about, and makes clear, is doing the opposite twice; but taking two different opposing actions at separate times isn’t intelligence: it’s clever. To be intelligent, one must keep two opposing ideas in mind at the same time AND function from there. Trump was for Comey before he was against him. Rosenstein, on the other hand, may be for AND against at the same time. But for and against what? By handing Trump a memo, which seemed to be for firing Comey…He’s also against Donald Trump.Trump firing Comey suddenly may have thrust into him the sword that will end his presidency. As things unfold — and Trump admitted last night he indeed fired Comey to “end the investigation” — undoubtedly it’s clear to everyone that new have obstruction of justice. (clear to everyone but Trump, that is.)As the likely Constitutional crisis unfolds, I end with yet a second Scott Fitzgerald quote, one that I personally like:So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

 

  • — Christopher Mugglebee / The Mugglebee Files for Here and Sphere
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FROM OUR EDITOR, A PERSONAL NOTE

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^ Tylenol is my constant companion as I recover from nine days of hospitalization and ten days of home therapy.

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As you may know, I have had a significant health issue to deal with, one that put me into the hospital for nine days and has imposed a rehab regimen on me that has already lasted ten more days and will continue for about another week. My absence has left you the reader without much of Here and Sphere’s food for thought.

I want now to share with you some details of what I have been though as well as what portends.

An explosion of blood disorder hit me practically without warning (although in hindsight, there were song indications of what would soon blow up). There I was: vomiting, loss of appetite, slow urination, fever over 101 F: This was sepsis, infection of the blood, a grave portent. Three days later my Doctors finally specified the precise bacteria causing the infection, and from then on, I began get better.

I was saved, yes; but recovery from such a blow is not fun. It hasn’t been fun for me. On this the eleventh day after I was released from hospital, I remain somewhat incapacitated. Walking is difficult. Hospital bedding left my lower back sore, my bum numb, nerve pressure excruciating — I live with Tylenol.

Today is my first on the computer writing to you, our faithful readers. I apologize for the interruption. Read on : we’ve an op-ed on the drama of Salem’s Sanctuary City ordinance.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere