Kinsley on Citizens United

This is a well-considered analogy from Michael Kinsley, one I wish more people would consider when they cry foul when (some) corporations decide to spend money advancing their preferred ideas or candidates:

The analogy I like (as did the Supreme Court in its ruling) is to a newspaper. Suppose Citizens United were reversed and President Trump decided one day that he was sick of The New York Times. So he proposes a law setting a ceiling on the amount any individual or organization can spend putting out a newspaper. Constitutional? I hope not. But it’s hard to see the difference in principle between this and a law limiting the amount a corporation or union may spend promoting a political candidate.

I recently chatted with Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth about his proposal to remove First Amendment protections for many public discussions of federal candidates. He wasn’t particularly convincing in presenting an argument on behalf of an amendment that would strip away the constitutional protections for media outlets to discuss candidates openly while simultaneously asking that I trust Congress to delicately reanimate the corpse of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance rules prohibiting corporations (but not Trusted Media Outlets) from having their say. I have a hard time thinking that Congress, given the opportunity, would craft a proper balance between the interests of Democratic Government and the rights of individuals to band together and say whatever they think needs to be heard.

Listen here:

RIP Lowell Reese

Lowell Reese was a journalist who cared deeply about the rules that governed the game. His decades in journalism, his sharp mind, and his kind heart all contributed to his engaged, deep, often meticulous data-driven reporting on politics and policy.

More than that, Lowell Reese was a helpful, generous friend to anyone who wanted to understand practical politics on a deeper level. He gave me important information that drove my studies into Kentucky’s pension system, for which I wrote more than a little bit. In the process of writing on this subject, there weren’t many people to talk to, and Lowell Reese was absolutely invaluable as I tried to understand the ground-level realities of the incentives that drive Kentucky’s pension plans.

I came to know Lowell well while working for the Bluegrass Institute, directing the group’s KentuckyVotes.org platform to track lawmakers’ daily activities in Frankfort.

It’s fun to remember how energizing Lowell was to me, Chris Derry, and Jim Waters as we worked to get the project off the ground and bring that all-important daily rundown of lawmakers’ votes to the public for free. His enthusiasm for the project played out through introductions to helpful lawmakers, helpful staff at the Legislative Research Commission and the various people who had either pull or knowledge to help us move the project forward. I can never thank him enough for so gleefully giving me access to his network.

When I moved to Frankfort to run the project throughout the legislative session and write for Kentucky Gazette, Lowell revealed himself to be a great friend, as well. Always interested in what I knew and freely giving of what he knew, we held occasional meetings in the maddeningly beautiful office behind his home. It was, I recall, the perfect perch for an independent journalist: a life’s work on the walls and a relaxed, engaged journalist behind the desk.

The big issue toward the end of Lowell’s life was pension transparency. You’d be forgiven for thinking this meant he was concerned only about abuses perpetrated by Wall Street profiteers on the poor, defenseless managers of billion-dollar pension funds. Private equity’s appeal to pension managers is a big problem, to be sure, and Lowell was concerned about it, but for him this was at most half of the problem associated with a lack of transparency in pension finance.

Lowell was also intensely concerned with the manner in which individual public sector workers could make relatively minor adjustments in their working lives to trigger massive pension payouts. He made various estimates of how a little-known bill, HB 299, passed in 2005, would allow some Kentucky lawmakers to make a few key moves with respect to their employment and pensions to increase their lifetime wealth by a million dollars or more.

It’s a bigger issue than just lawmakers, of course, and the kind of data detailing the size of pension payouts and and various decisions that balloon pensions is also still shrouded in mystery. But thanks in no small part to Lowell Reese, that issue is on the table like never before.

Only since Kentucky Gazette published his obituary have I learned that Lowell was apparently an active Republican campaigner. Personality driven politics were rarely a part of our discussions. What made Lowell interesting to me was his own interest in the consequences of ideas and appropriateness of rules.

Here’s more from Kentucky Gazette and more from Jim Waters, and some more precise details of his later projects with the Bluegrass Institute.

Big Speech in the Kentucky Senate Race

In The New York Times Magazine‘s piece on the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky, I came across this:

This year’s Kentucky Senate race is the latest chapter in this political arms race, drawing contributions from large outside “super PACs” and wealthy individual donors.

Factually incorrect, but not surprising.

It’s typical for media outlets to ignore the important distinction between a direct contribution to a campaign and political advertising that supports a candidate. What’s troubling to me how often the error occurs and the ignorance it demands of reporters and editors. I’d prefer to believe that it’s borne out of a poor understanding of both the First Amendment and campaign finance laws, but it’s very hard to square.

Reporters, in my experience, broadly support restrictions on free spending on political ads and other advocacy by unaffiliated groups. Establishment journalism has long occupied a special place free from exactly those kinds of restrictions, but there’s no good reason to believe that kind of exemption would have to continue. Newspapers, radio stations and television outlets have served as providers of both information and advocacy, endorsing candidates freely and spending mightily on the bandwidth to broadcast those messages. There’s no clear distinction between the spending of a super PAC on a message and the spending of a newspaper to express the same thing.

If it’s pure ignorance that drives reporters to not clearly understand the implications of tight regulation on “outside” advocacy, it’s galling. If the error is driven by the specious, unstated belief that no future Congress would dare impose those same restrictions on establishment media, it’s dangerous.

Violence in Louisville Revisited

Recent violence in Louisville has thankfully started many public conversations about poverty, education and culture that otherwise be relegated to quiet, resigned laments at the dinner table. That Louisvillians are talking about this publicly is broadly to the good. Unfortunately, one well-worn claim about How We Got Here doesn’t stand up to basic scrutiny.

In a piece that has more to recommend it than indicated here, Tim Druck writes:

We used to pay for real educators and leaders spending the time to teach youth who are currently neglected and forgotten. We used to have career and vocational programs for kids who aren’t necessarily college material – I know plenty of successful adults today who learned a trade in high school, anything from auto mechanics to printing to agriculture. Today, if you’re not college-bound, an athlete, or an entertainer, you are entirely on your own to find a trade or a career – no wonder ‘pro athlete’ and ‘gangsta rapper’ are the only goals of so many children. Kids don’t learn that there is success in working for a living – in our culture, in our education systems, in the media, either you are fabulously wealthy or you are nothing.

I include the latter part about vocational education because I agree with it almost entirely. The median salary for plumbers in America is about $49,000.

On the broader issue of what “we used to pay for”, I responded:

Tim responded:

And I responded with this:

Here’s the relevant chart:

This chart doesn't include the costs of school buildings, btw.
This doesn’t include the costs associated with school buildings, btw.

It’s a powerful testament to the power of public school salesmanship and media handwringing that the most carefully considered, thoughtful answer to basically any problem with public schools must always be, say it with me, More Funding.

It’s past time Kentuckians admitted that More Funding has been tried for decades. The persistent problems of low proficiency in reading and math in Jefferson county (despite decades of More Funding) should be laid squarely at the feet of the public school establishment and its defenders.

Kentucky is among a shrinking number of states with no charter schools and no private school choice. This, too, is a testament to the power of the public school establishment that has fought to keep students in failing schools.

But let’s be clear: School choice is not the silver bullet cure to my hometown’s violence. It is, however, a powerful way to engage parents in making one of the most important decisions on behalf of their children that they’ll ever make. If a robust transfer of power away from public schools and into the hands of low-income parents isn’t on the table, then I think it’s safe to call that intentional oversight yet another testament to the power of the public school establishment.

(Related: KidsCount.org has a darn good website.)

Update: Alas, it appears Mr. Druck would rather punish the wealthy than help the poor

If the betterment of school district performance were the only relevant metric for school choice … Tim would still be mistaken.

Also, does anyone honestly care about school districts? Better to worry about how kids currently trapped in those districts get educated.

Violence in Louisville

My friend Terry Meiners has some very pointed thoughts on the recently high-profile violence in Louisville. I can’t say if I agree with what he says entirely – I haven’t lived there for ten years – but the closed-off nature of much of the media and political establishment in Louisville makes me suspect that we’ve been getting a far-too-rosy picture of the downtown area for some time.

Lynn’s Paradise Cafe Is Still Closed, Still Unknown Exactly Why

A year ago this week, I was puzzling over why one of my favorite Louisville tourist traps, Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, had suddenly closed. I suggested it may have had something to do with the impending regulations that would be foisted upon businesses in 2014 by the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare). I haven’t lived in Louisville for nearly nine years, so I’ll admit that I don’t understand all the dynamics that went into Lynn’s decision to shut down. I earned only one response I believe was ill-considered. Louisvillian Briana Morgan said that my suggestion was irresponsible. Here are her thoughts. More

Public Pension Woes

I wrote a short piece for The American Magazine on state pensions. Here’s a nug:

Most public pension funds across the United States were on an unsustainable course long before the financial crisis hit.

For example, prior to the crisis, in my home state of Kentucky, the share of pension fund assets flowing from the pension fund to retirees went from less than 5 percent to more than 9 percent between 2001 and 2007, just before the financial crisis began to cascade. That means that however quickly the pension fund grew, payments to pensioners grew considerably faster — during good times. All well before Taibbi’s supposed “legend of pension unsustainability” got started.

Furthermore, while the shift by public pension funds away from secure fixed income and into riskier investments accelerated after the financial crisis, it was actually decades in the making. Between 1984 and 1994, U.S. public pension funds in total held just 5 percent of assets in alternatives and 50 percent in fixed income, reports Pensions and Investments. By 2007, alternatives had doubled to comprise 10 percent of all pension fund holdings. Since the financial crisis, alternatives have nearly doubled again to 19 percent of total assets. By contrast, fixed income holdings have fallen nearly in half to 27 percent of total assets.

Clearly, pension funds have been chasing returns. Part of the cause is that politicians, during the reasonably good economic times before the financial crisis, were loath to make the full contributions recommended by actuaries — the people who tell lawmakers how much to contribute to keep pensions funds functioning into perpetuity.

Here’s the rest.

By All Means, Destroy Coal Mining Jobs

I’m not sure if the above tweet is meant to convey something negative, but I certainly don’t view it as downside. While productivity has grown tremendously, employment in coal has been in decline for a very long time and thank goodness it has!

Coal-mining production and employment over time in the United States.
Coal-mining production and employment over time in the United States. Data aggregated by SourceWatch.

The trend translates to fewer coal-related deaths, both in mining disasters and (later) black lung. The downside here isn’t that fewer people are employed in coal mines, it’s that these people are unemployed. That’s a much better problem than black lung or having lost a working-age parent to a tragic and premature death.

Coal mine tragedies and death over time from the CDC.
Coal mine tragedies and death over time from the CDC.