Saturday, April 22, 2017

Soundings: April 2017

“If you don’t know where you are, how can you get to where you’re going? That’s why you’ve got to take stock of yourself every so often” – a waitress to a customer in a diner.

Q: You’re getting on in years; isn’t it time for some sort of summing up?

A: I don’t see any pressing need.

Q: You’ve written a great deal about politics in Connecticut…

A: … most of it lying dead in newspaper morgues…

Q: Maybe so, but a record has been established in Connecticut Commentary for those who wish to consult it. Has anything changed because of your writing?

A: Do you mean for the better?

Q: Yes.

A: Well, obviously not. Just now, we are the laughing stock of the nation. The Wall Street Journal lately has had great fun with our progressive government, dominated for years by Democrats. One recent editorial begins, “Wailing and lamentations broke out in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and even as far away as Texas and Florida, as Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy announced Thursday that he won’t seek a third term in 2018. Politicians in these and other states are disappointed that Mr. Malloy’s policies won’t continue indefinitely to be a source of jobs and taxpayers fleeing Connecticut.” Other views from the right outside the state are similar, and no more charitable. There seems to be wide agreement that we are a ruin and desolation.

Q: Are we?

A: That view is not unsupportable.

Q: How long have you been writing about politics in the state?

A: Around 35 years, perhaps longer.

Q: And the state is a ruin and a wreck?

A: It’s not the happiest of times. Governor Dannel Malloy has announced that he will resign and not continue torment us with his ineptitude. Some take that as a sunny sign of good things to come, but there is a vast difference between wishing well and well-being. Republicans have put forward some ideas worth exploring. They have been out of power since I have been writing. True, we’ve had two Republican governors and Lowell Weicker, whose real affiliation has been, both as U.S. Senator and governor, with Democrats.

Connecticut’s Indifferent Media

A: Weicker saved Connecticut’s obese state government the necessity of losing weight – i.e. cutting spending. He did this by introducing an income tax, and in so doing destroyed the state.

Q: We’ll get to him later. Here are the two questions for this week: 1) Has your 35 years as an opinion journalist been useless? and 2) If the answer to 1) is “Yes”, what keeps you going?

A: The categorical imperative of journalists, when journalism mattered, used to be, “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” You can’t do that unless you have over the years managed to cultivate a liberating “contrary” frame of mind.

Q: And the answer to the first question -- Has your 35 years as an opinion journalist been useless? – would be what?

A: Well, I’m for low, necessary and sensible taxes, and we have high and ruinous taxes. I’m for minimal and sensible regulations, and we have a Gordian knot of regulations, few of which make any sense at all. I’m an inflexible federalist who believes "that government governs best that governs least " and is closest to the governed. I prefer, in other words, a government in which every person governs himself, a government of fathers and mothers, to a government of pestiferous neighbors, a government of neighborhoods to a government of towns, a government of towns to a state government, and a government of states to a federal regulatory octopus. In the United States, we have a government that pushes governance and moral accountability up to the highest rung. Neighborhoods cede their authority to towns, towns to the state, and the state to the federal government – all of which makes a mockery of self-government. So, I suppose in that sense, much of what I have written over the years has fallen on stony ground. Had my views prevailed, the WSJ editorial cited above could not have been written. The laughter at our expense would not be ringing, annoyingly, in our ears.

Q: Two other questions: 1) Where did Connecticut begin to slip? and 2) Does journalism in Connecticut afflict the afflicted?

A: The answer to number 2) is “No.” Taxpayers are afflicted by unsupportable taxes; they have few champions among the state’s political editorialists and commentators. Among the unaffiliated are lifer-politicians such as U.S. Representatives John Larson in the 1st District and Rosa DeLauro in the 3rd District, both gerrymandered Democratic sinecures. It used to be said that safe politicians were politically impregnable unless they had been found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. I can’t imagine what kind of scandal it might take to dislodge these two. The present US Congressional Delegation is made up of all Democrats; all the constitutional offices in state are held by Democrats; the General Assembly has been dominated by Democrats for the most part of half a century; and, of course, Democrats, following the gubernatorial election of Malloy, have been in command of the gubernatorial office for six years, going on seven. I think it’s safe to say that Democrats in Connecticut are both comfortable and unafflicted. So, the question arises: where are all the Connecticut contrarian journalists who have pledged themselves to afflict the comfortable? Lying, I should say, in cozy conformity with Democrats. There are some few exceptions who stand out like green thumbs. But really, considering the raucous laughter coming from the WSJ, is there no one in the state’s journalistic community who has courage enough to point out the abysmal failings of Democratic politicians and rise to defend the honor of the state by insisting the bums should be thrown out of office? What flowerpots are the brave Connecticut contrarians hiding behind?

Q: Well now, there are degrees of affliction, right? I think we can agree that a young, black, African-American student who must dodge bullets to arrive at an underperforming school in Hartford,  deemed a few months ago the murder capital of New England, is more  afflicted, certainly more uncomfortable, than Larson or DeLauro. What has the Republican Party done for him?

 A: The more important question may be “What has the Democrat Party done to him?” It’s important to pin the tail on the right donkey. Whatever is wrong in Hartford is wrong because Democrats have been shaping the futures of young, black, African-American boys in Connecticut’s larger cities for a much longer period of time than I’ve been writing columns. And their future is much more storm-tossed than Connecticut’s ship of state. Responsible politicians not in full flight from their responsibilities- OWN  the inevitable consequences of their policies.

Weicker Saved Government Ruined The State

Q: And the second question: When did things in Connecticut start to go wrong?

A: Back to Weicker…

Q: …I figured you’d get there.

A: If we have to date the beginning of Connecticut’s downslide, it would be 1991; that’s when Weicker bludgeoned an income tax through the General Assembly. A couple of days after that measure passed, an “Axe the Tax” rally, the largest assembly of its kind in state history, turned out in front of the Capitol in Hartford.

Q: You’ve written that it was not the first time Connecticut had passed an income tax.

A: That’s right. An income tax, revoked within days, was passed during the administration of Tom Meskill, another Republican governor.

Q: Why the sneer?

A: Meskill was Republican in the same sense that Santa Claus is Santa Claus; grownups know Santa is a pleasant fantasy for children. Weicker also was a Republican in the same sense; his leftist Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) rating during his last term in office was higher than that of U.S. Senator Chris Dodd. In all but political affiliation, Weicker was a Democrat. Weicker’s major domo, Tom D’Amore, who became chairman of the State Republican Party at Weicker’s insistence, was an aide in the Meskill administration. The Meskill income tax was quickly withdrawn, rather as if its passage had been a typo -- oops, sorry about that!  Weicker, of course, had better luck as governor. To salt the income tax, a constitutional cap on spending was added to it. A year ago, Attorney General George Jepsen, who replaced consumer protection Attorney General Dick Blumenthal, now occupying Dodd’s seat in the U.S. Congress, handed down an opinion – which, of course, was correct – that the cap was unconstitutional. The General Assembly had never supplied the necessary definitions to constitutionalize the cap. So the cap, the lure that had led diffident legislators to vote in favor of the income tax in 1991, was an inoperative fiction. The cap was never a bar to excessive spending anyway. There is not a single barrier to temper spending in Connecticut that has not been successfully stormed by the ruling party, including dedicated lockbox funds regularly picked by revenue hungry legislators.

Q: Weicker has surfaced recently. He commented on Malloy’s decision not to run for a third term.

A: Right. Every so often, the father of Connecticut’ income tax pokes his head above the foxhole, looks around for a friendly face and spills some political beans. Ken Dixon of the Connecticut Post asked Weicker to comment on Malloy’s decision to pack it in, and he obliged. What Weicker said was, as usual, confusing and contradictory. The decision not to seek a third term, he said, “unties Malloy’s hands.” Of course, Malloy’s hands were never tied during his entire administration; quite the contrary. All the heights of power in Connecticut’s government – the governor’s office, the General Assembly, all the state’s constitutional offices, the entire state U.S. Congressional Delegation, important positions in the courts made by Malloy – have rested securely in Democrats hands since Malloy had first been elected governor. So untied were Malloy’s hands that he felt comfortable denying Republican leaders in the General Assembly any voice in union contract negotiations with SEBAC, the union conglomerate authorized to fashion contracts with the governor. When budget deliberations began during Malloy’s first and second terms, he shooed Republicans out of the budget negotiation rooms and gleefully shut the door in their faces. One thinks of Cromwell marching into the British Parliament and shouting,” Gentlemen, go home!”

Where are the “tied hands” in all this? Weicker then added that, were he governor, “I would to the best of my ability deny the spending spree in the legislature. We’ve got to stop spending. That’s our huge problem. Every legislator has their pet project. We’re probably in the worst financial condition of any state in the union, and we’re known for that, rather than being the wealthiest.” And he finished by commending Malloy, whose approval rating in Connecticut is among the lowest in the nation at about 28 percent: “Dan’s had two terms, which is heavy-duty in Connecticut. I would say he still wants to leave a positive legacy. I admire the man. I like him. He’s a good governor.”

So let’s see: Malloy in 20 months will have been in office for two terms; he is the author of both the largest and second largest tax increases in Connecticut history, overmastering even Weicker on this score; the Connecticut legislature, dominated by Democrats for a half century or more, has, even by Weicker’s reckoning, spent the state into a hole; state deficits are about what they were during Weicker’s first term in office – which, everyone will recall, necessitated the imposition of an income tax; Connecticut is   “in the worst financial condition of any state in the union” – and yet, yet, implausibly, “I admire the man. I like him. He’s a good governor.” What work does the word “good” do in that sentence?

In Weicker's mind -- not that we need bother too much with Weicker's mind -- spending is not a function of taxation, and taxation is not a function of spending. That is why Weicker can say, both and at the same time: a) spending is a problem; if I were governor today, I would put a stop to spending, and b) Malloy, who has NOT done this, is never-the-less an admirable governor. Malloy and Weicker have increased spending BECAUSE they increased taxes. The two operations being unattached in Weicker's mind, Malloy is “good governor” for the same reason Weicker was a good governor -- because Malloy imitated Weicker.  Psychologists call this method of disassociation from reality something or other; I forget what. Could it be creeping narcissism?

A Lack Of Will, Not Intelligence

Q: So where do we go from here?

A: We could take Weicker’s belated advice and refrain from doing what both he and Malloy had done. Increasing revenue is an invitation, rarely resisted by Democrats, to spend. The two are intimately, causally connected. Repetitive deficits have not tempered Democrat’s default instinct when they run the state into debt – increase revenue. Malloy’s most recent budget increases state revenue. Pray God, lead us not into temptation. Connecticut has now passed through the rabbit hole; we are in a strange land in which up is down and right is left. Shall we take Hartford as an example?

Q: Sure, go ahead.

A: Hartford, Connecticut’s Capitol City, is a microcosm of the state. Whatever is wrong in Hartford is wrong in the state; whatever is right in Hartford is right in the state. Hartford has been a one-party town for more than fifty years. The presence of the Republican Party in the city as a political force is a shadow of a shadow, a whisper in the whirlwind.

Hartford’s Mayor, Luke Bronin, is Malloy’s former legal counsel. Bronin replaced Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra who, before leaving office, gifted the incoming mayor with a financial mess and a new ballpark that will be losing millions of dollars two years out from opening day. The school system in Hartford, laboring under a court order that requires schools in the city to maintain a “non-racist” ratio of 25 percent whites to 75 percent minorities, is a continuing mess. A charter school in Hartford that provides to African Americans and Hispanics an education that does not require remedial courses for those of its students who graduate and go to college has been forced to turn away African American and Hispanic students because it must preserve a 25-75 percent mixture of white and non-white students the court considers constitutional.

The city derives its revenue from property taxes, but there is a hitch: fifty percent of the property in Hartford cannot be taxed. When the city wades into red ink, it makes an effort – only partly successful much of the time – to reduce costs by reducing expenditures. In both the city and the state, union givebacks have been insufficient to balance budgets without additional revenue increases.

Here is Bronin’s dilemma in a nut shell: he cannot increase taxes without incurring business flight and a consequent diminution of revenue, and he cannot – dare not – institute permanent cuts in spending. Yet spending continues to outpace revenue collection. So, both he and Malloy find themselves in the same fix as Mr. Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery."

Q: So how does a government separate itself from continuing problems such as these?

A: By attacking the problems, by reforming government processes. Politicians, especially those who are not answerable to an analytic media, are geniuses at leaping over real but difficult solutions to problems and boisterously putting forward the much easier right or wrong answers to the wrong problems. It is state government that needs reform. If you don’t like the end, you change the means. We have a legislature that is intent on reforming everything but the legislature, a governor intent on reforming everything but administrative problems, a judiciary, wandering far beyond constitutional limits to pronounce unconstitutional everything but its own radical departure from constitutional limits.

Connecticut is drowning in state employee pension obligations. The amount the state owes to its employees is daunting, about -- depending upon who you ask -- $65 billion. Connecticut’s state pension system was created 80 years ago. For the first 30 years, no money, not a penny, was deposited in the dedicated fund. When waitresses working in diners hear that a governor and a legislature wants to tax them and deposit the receipts into a fund dedicated, let say, to improving highways, they laugh themselves silly. The tax receipts put into the state employee pension fund this year are considerably less than they were last year. Presently, only 35.5 percent of the State Employees Retirement System is funded, the lowest percentage in the nation. So, we have an under-financed fund that any accountant worth his salt would consider kaput. And this problem – the obvious inability of the governor and General Assembly to correct the problem -- is crowding out necessary financing for legitimate state functions. The more you spend on A, the less you have to spend on B. Solution: provide some relief to taxpayers and those in government who want to discharge their obligations by – changing the funding for new hires from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan. If you stop the runaway train, you can clean up the mess left in its wake. But if the train continues to roar through the towns, the mess is multiplied and the chance of a clean-up becomes more and more remote. In time, people become used to runaway trains plowing through their towns. I would guess there is not a single legislator who has spent more than two years in the General Assembly who does not know a) that this is a problem, and b) that a real solution lies to hand. The Yankee Institute has put forward a five point plan to pull teacher pensions from the fire.

  1. Require additional reporting on the system’s risks to improve transparency.
  2. Increase teacher contribution rates to the national average of 8% (up from 6%).
  3. Eliminate or reduce cost of living adjustments.
  4. Include new teachers in Social Security.
  5. Require defined contribution or hybrid plans for new teachers to increase portability and reduce taxpayer risk.

This is not rocket science. The difficulty has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence – the political will is wanting.

Q: But if the solution is that obvious, why is nothing done?

A: By confronting a real problem with real solutions in this particular instance, the General Assembly must confront a powerful special interest – teachers’ unions. Politically, that would be dreadfully inconvenient for them. The worm in the apple is progressive partisan politics and special interests – the unwillingness of individual politicians to advance the general welfare. Laws should be general in scope, not particular, and they should benefit the general public, not special interests. A law or a process or a rule of state that advances a particular interest – say, the interest of a particular union or the interest of a particular business, should be considered inimical to democracy. An appellate judge who snatches out of pure air a “constitutional” provision he has himself spun out of whole cloth should be forced from the bench. The last appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court became a manner of life or death for partisan politicians. Why? Because judicial decisions now determine the drift and substance of politics. One of the Federalist authors tells us that no Supreme Court justice could ever be more powerful than the governor of New York – because the constitution itself assigns legislative decisions to a more authoritative and democratic department of government, the legislative branch. Really? In our day, the Supreme and appellate courts are daily used to overthrow decisions made by state governors and legislatures. The death penalty in Connecticut was overthrown by the state’s high court because it was inconsistent with current opinion on the death penalty – months after state legislators had voted to end the death penalty except in the case of eleven death row prisoners who had been convicted and sentenced by multiple juries of truly heinous crimes. So, who in a representative republic is better able to reflect count opinion on the death penalty – juries and legislators, or high court judges? This is why court appointments have become shuttlecocks in the great game of politics.

Q: Will Hartford go bankrupt? Will the state go bankrupt?

A: Hartford may go bankrupt; there are those who think it should declare bankruptcy because politics in the city has become so entangled with partisan government and special interests it is no longer capable of governing in the public’s interests. States cannot declare bankruptcy, which means there is but one solution to the states seeming intractable problems – throw the bums out.
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