How state governments touch on nearly every aspect of public policy

This week in North Philly Notes, Michelle Atherton, co-editor of Pennsylvania Politics and Policywrites about what states do and how much power they have within modern politics and policy.

In the midst of the modern 24/7 news cycle, and the focus on the tweet of the moment from our president, it’s easy to forget that politics in our federal system runs much deeper than the national level. Americans in general are woefully unaware of what states do and how much power they have within modern politics and policy. Statewide and local elections have much lower voter turnout than presidential years, as if the composition of state legislatures and governors’ offices barely matters compared to who occupies the White House. Many would argue these governing bodies matter even more to the lives of the average citizen, as state governments touch nearly every aspect of public policy.

Pennsylvania Politics and Policy_smRepublicans in control in Washington, DC did not manage to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), but it was originally up to the states to create their own healthcare exchanges, and whether to expand Medicaid. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in 2017 lowered federal taxes for most individuals—and especially corporations—but it also capped the state and local tax (SALT) deduction at $10,000, greatly effecting the calculus of state and local governments’ approaches to maintaining revenues.

Pennsylvania, for example, is one of the states most highly dependent upon property taxes for the support of public schools, collected locally, as opposed to relying on state taxes. Will the wealthy Philadelphia suburbs revolt come November’s general election as higher income households lose thousands of dollars in tax deductions? Perhaps the results will strengthen the case among many voters for doing away with the property tax altogether as a source of funding for public schools in the Commonwealth.

This issue and many others are explored in the first publication of Pennsylvania Politics and Policy: A Commonwealth Reader. Further topics include:

  • What would it mean for Pennsylvania to adopt direct democracy such as the citizen-initiated referendum and recall like other states? Would politicians be more responsive and less prone to corruption?
  • Why doesn’t the state of Pennsylvania place a severance tax on natural gas production? Every other state does. Alaskans each receive a dividend from fossil fuel extraction, yet Pennsylvania’s legislature refuses to move the issue forward even in the face of severe budget woes.
  • Why doesn’t the state fund education based on the number of students in schools? Every other state in the nation bases funding on real student counts. In Pennsylvania, the politics of party and leadership control in the legislature dictates funding.
  • Why does Pennsylvania not tax any form of retirement income, one of just a handful of states to do so? And, what does the rapid aging of the state mean for the bottom line of funding services both for the elderly and younger individuals and families?
  • Why did it take so long to be able to buy wine and beer at the local supermarket? Pennsylvania took a unique approach to policing vice.

Another election for the governor, the entire House, and half the Senate of Pennsylvania is just around the corner. Here’s hoping Pennsylvanians find their way to the polling place to vote in proportion to the gravity of the election’s policy implications.

 

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Revisiting The Kerner Report, 50 Years Later

This week in North Philly Notes, we look at the Kerner Report 50 years later, and our new book,  Healing Our Divided Society edited by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis. 

Following the terrible summer of 1967 disorders in many American cities, like Detroit and Newark, then-President Lyndon Johnson appointed a bipartisan citizens investigative commission, the Kerner Commission, to analyze the sources of unrest and propose solutions.

On February 29, 1968, the Commission issued its historic report which concluded, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

The Commission recommended significant, long run federal government-led progress in reducing poverty, income inequality, wealth inequality and racial injustice in America.

Healing Our Divided Society_smHealing Our Divided Society is a fifty year update of the Kerner Commission, a kind of Kerner Report 2.0, edited by Fred Harris, former U.S. Senator and the last surviving member of the Commission, and Alan Curtis, President of Eisenhower Foundation, the private sector continuation of the Commission—along with contributions by a 23-member National Advisory Council of distinguished Americans, including Nobel Prize winner in Economics Joseph Stiglitz, Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman, and Stanford University Professor Emeritus and Learning Policy Institute President and CEO Linda Darling-Hammond.

“In Healing Our Divided Society,” writes former Secretary of State John Kerry,” Senator Harris and Dr. Curtis have curated brilliant pieces authored by a diverse group of respected experts and activists, to examine the places we’ve gone wrong and wrestle with what we must do to live up to the promise of our country, and respond at last to the alarm bell of the Kerner Report.”

Occupied by the Vietnam War and concerned about the legacy of his domestic policy, President Johnson rejected the “two societies” warning.  But leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy strongly endorsed the Kerner Report in 1968.

Since then, Healing Our Divided Society concludes that there has been only some progress, much of it in the late 1960s and in the 1970s—yet we have learned what works and must assemble “new will” among a broad-based coalition of Americans to legislate a better life for the poor, working class and middle class of all races in the nation.

Over the 50 years since the Kerner Commission, we have elected an African-American president.  There has been an increase in the number of other African-American and Hispanic/Latino elected officials and an expansion of the African-American and Hispanic/Latino middle class.

Yet there has not been nearly enough progress, and, in some ways, things have gotten no better or have gotten worse over the last 50 years.

A Woman Out of Time

New Freedom and the Radicals book

The New Freedom and the Radicals
Woodrow Wilson, Progressive Views of Radicalism, and the Origins of Repressive Tolerance
by Jacob Kramer

This week in North Philly Notes, Jacob Kramer, author of The New Freedom and the Radicals, writes about Hillary Clinton and the issue of income inequality.

As Occupy Wall Street and the ground-breaking book by Thomas Picketty have shifted the national conversation in the direction of income inequality, Hillary Clinton is now claiming the issue as her own.  Clinton has a long record of advocacy for the poor, though she has not always chosen to make it her principal focus.  The change in her emphasis over the years is not simply a matter of inconsistency.  Rather, it reflects a progressive tendency to take a strategic position in order to achieve long-term objectives.  At times, Clinton’s ideals have seemed to suffer at the expense of political expediency.  But the context is now more suited to her fundamental hopes.

Much like Clinton more recently, in the early twentieth century progressives tended to modify how they viewed politics to their left depending on the circumstances.  Sympathetic to socialism before the First World War, progressives publicly kept their distance during the repression that followed the American intervention, yet they defended the rights of radicals during the 1920s.  100 years later, the political trajectory of Clinton is a good illustration of a similar tendency.

Looking back at her 1969 commencement speech at Wellesley, what is striking is not Clinton’s youthful idealism, but her attempt to harness student radicalism to practical ends.  Speaking in the context of student protest on the one hand and the idealism of the space race and civil rights movement on the other, she said, “We feel that for too long our leaders have used politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.”  Articulating her classmates’ frustration at the “gap between expectation and realities,” she called, in the words of Nancy Scheibner, “not to save the world in a glorious crusade,” but for the essentially progressive notion of “The art of making possible.”

As first lady, by contrast, Clinton seemed to overestimate the readiness of the public for sweeping health care reform.  Defending her 1993 universal health insurance proposal before two congressional committees, for instance, she at times blurred the distinction between the public and private sectors.  Questioned by Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert whether the proposal would introduce rationing, she said, “right now we have rationed care throughout this country.”  When asked about price limits, she suggested that there was already control over prices on the part of insurers and government.  Nearly a century earlier, progressives like Walter Lippmann also sought to break down the distinction between corporations and government, but Clinton scared people.  The failure of health care reform and the excess of idealism she exhibited seemed to convey a lesson that she carried with her in her two terms as United States Senator from 2001 to 2009.

Like progressives during the intervention in World War I, Clinton faced a fundamentally changed context after 9/11.  It was very difficult to oppose the president or defend civil liberties, much as it had been to oppose Woodrow Wilson or defend radicals during World War I.  With 29 other Democratic senators she voted in favor of the authorization of the use of force in Iraq and was one of the nearly unanimous Democrats in the chamber—all except Russ Feingold of Wisconsin—who voted for the Patriot Act.

These votes, especially the former, came back to haunt her in the 2008 presidential primary campaign, by which time the political sands had again shifted.  In the wake of the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis, and growing frustration with the war in Iraq, Barack Obama put together a remarkable coalition calling for an end to the war and economic reform and outmaneuvered Clinton for the Democratic nomination.  Obama seemed to herald the passing of the pro-business centrism previously associated with the Clintons.

Clinton now seems determined to keep in step with the times.  Like progressives in the 1920s, she is re-asserting her connections with her more egalitarian roots.  No doubt she will be criticized for being both inconsistent and too far to the left.  And as with progressives, one must ask at what point a step away from the left made for strategic purposes becomes a difference in substance.  But a majority of the public may now be ready to hear about her long-standing goal of helping the least well off.

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