Tag Archives: government

A Glimmer

One test of a leader is her willingness to do something that may displease her fans/followers if she thinks it’s the right thing to do. Sen. Elizabeth Warren did just that when she voted in favor of Ben Carson for HUD Secretary. Even better, she utilized her Facebook page to explain why. Here’s an excerpt:

Yes, I have serious, deep, profound concerns about Dr. Carson’s inexperience to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Yes, I adamantly disagree with many of the outrageous things that Dr. Carson said during his presidential campaign. Yes, he is not the nominee I wanted.

But “the nominee I wanted” is not the test.

Millions of American families depend on HUD programs, including tens of thousands of families in Massachusetts. For many of them, HUD assistance is the difference between a safe, stable home and life on the street. As someone who has spent a lot of time working on housing policy in this country, my focus is on helping these families – and the countless others who could benefit from a stronger agency.

During the nomination process, I sent Dr. Carson a nine-page letter with detailed questions on a whole range of issues: Section 8 housing assistance; lead exposure in public housing; programs to prevent and end homelessness; programs to help victims of domestic violence; fighting housing discrimination; HUD’s role in preparing for and recovering from natural disasters; and, more broadly, the standards he will use for managing the department, including the steps he will take to protect the rights of LGBT Americans.

Dr. Carson’s answers weren’t perfect. But at his hearing, he committed to track and report on conflicts of interest at the agency. In his written responses to me, he made good, detailed promises, on everything from protecting anti-homelessness programs to enforcing fair housing laws. Promises that – if they’re honored – would help a lot of working families…

If Dr. Carson doesn’t follow through on his commitments, I will be the very first person he hears from – loudly and clearly and frequently. I didn’t hesitate to criticize past HUD Secretaries when they fell short, and I won’t hesitate with Dr. Carson – not for one minute.

That, my friends, is the first glimmer of light I’ve seen during a very dark period in Washington. I’m not saying I agree with her vote, but I am saying I’m glad to see someone finally showing some guts and exhibiting a little leadership.

Trust Us

If you walked down just about any street in America and randomly asked people their opinions of “government” they would almost certainly describe it as bloated, bureaucratic, incompetent, invasive, etc. You would likely be challenged to find someone with something good to say.

Some of these negative assessments are earned – many governments are bloated, bureaucratic and, at times, incompetent – but some of the sentiments are the result of a cacophony of anti-government or small-government advocates. Some of them believe in their heart of hearts that all services, with the exception of public safety, would be most effectively provided by the private sectors. Others believe government is inherently evil and hold an Orwellian world view that just about anything the government does is an assault on individual liberty.

On the flip side of the coin you have people who see the government as the best option for addressing many of society’s ills, but they might see the folks running the show as a lesser light or the systems in place as overly bureaucratic and inefficient.

What all sides have in common, though, is a healthy case of cynicism about the government. Most simply do not trust it, whether from negative personal experiences dealing with the government (DMV lines come to mind), or from stories they’ve heard repeatedly from friends and from the media.

Luckily, for the most part the lack of trust is fed by relatively harmless inconveniences like long lines, higher than expected water bills or slow permitting processes for home improvements. That gives us all some ammunition for running jokes, but since we’re relatively safe and secure in our daily lives it doesn’t give us much cause for doing much more than telling jokes.

That’s why the Flint, MI water story is so important. Multiple governments failed to protect the health and safety of Flint’s residents, and apparently even worked to cover up their failings. This wasn’t a normal hot button issue, like the police shootings and “Black Lives Matter” stories that we heard so much about. While those stories were important and people were hurt, not everyone could identify with them because not everyone has had interactions with the police or could empathize with what it’s like to be black in America.

The Flint water story is about the failure of government to provide a fundamental service that affects everyone, safe drinking water, and then trying to cover it up. EVERYONE can picture themselves in that situation, and they can empathize with the plight of the citizens of Flint. The government violated the public trust and by doing so it weakened the very foundation upon which a civil society is built.

Not to overstate it, because we still do live in an incredibly stable society relative to the rest of the world, but if we don’t start demanding responsible governance from our elected leaders then we are going to see more and more failures like this one. We get enough of those and our society won’t seem so stable anymore.

So, let’s stop with the “all government is bad” rhetoric, along with its “all taxes are bad” cousin, and start having intelligent discussions about how government can best serve our citizens’ needs and take it from there.

 

Water and Government

In the United States one of the things we take for granted the most is the easy access to clean water that we have. The vast majority of us live and work in places that we can walk into a room, turn on a tap and have as much clean water flow out of it as we need. And it’s cheap – of all the bills we pay the water bill isn’t usually the one we struggle to cover. The only time we don’t worry about it is when we experience a drought and then it jumps to the top of our list of things to worry about.

Last month I was in Las Vegas for a conference and one of the speakers there was a guy named Doc Hendley. He happens to live in Boone, NC which is just over an hour’s drive from my house and he founded a remarkable organization called Wine to Water. At this particular conference (the National Apartment Association’s annual education conference) he served as the keynote speaker for the awards ceremony, and every year that particular slot is reserved for a speaker with an inspirational story. Well his sure was, and I encourage you to hear it when you can, but what causes me to mention him here is that his organization does.

Wine to Water works overseas in some of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the world in an effort to give communities access to water. The most memorable part of Doc’s presentation, at least to me, was when he talked about shifting from just installing wells in communities and leaving, to teaching them how to install and maintain their own wells. He’d seen what happened when other agencies came in, put in a well and just left. Within months or years those wells were not functioning and no one in the community knew how to fix them. The folks at Wine to Water figured out how to build wells using materials that were readily available in the community so that the people who lived there could fix them when something went wrong. In other words they taught them how to fish rather than just giving them a one-time gift of a cooler full of fish.

So that’s what his organization is doing in places like the Sudan, but what happens here in the US when an area experiences an epic drought, private wells throughout a community go dry, and the folks who live there can’t afford to have new ones dug, and if they can afford it there’s a two year waiting list? Well, of course another charitable group pops up to help meet their needs (see the video below) but their efforts are definitely a band aid approach.

If one guy from NC can figure out how to help people half way around the world help themselves you would hope that we could figure out a way to help a bunch of Californians help themselves. If you watch the video you’ll hear the editor of the local paper say it’s a money issue – that it will take $30 million to get the residents without access to the city’s water system hooked up – and if that’s the case then it’s just a matter of making it a priority for the government at some level. Sounds simple, but we all know it’s not.

Here in Lewisville, NC many of us are hooked up to the city/county water system, but most of us don’t have sewer lines near us so we have private septic systems. Unfortunately much of the land here is high in clay content so it doesn’t perk well, and that means the septic fields in older housing developments are beginning to fail rather regularly. When they do the fix can be anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars up to $15-20,000 and many people on fixed incomes don’t have the money to do it. So they pay someone to come out and pump their tanks weekly – a band aid approach – and hope the health department doesn’t catch on. The town’s leaders are well aware of the issue, but running sewer lines is very expensive and they aren’t going to do it until they absolutely have to. Basically it comes down to money and priorities, and until either the right opportunity comes along to run new sewer lines (for instance the county building a new school which would require new lines run into that area) or it turns into a health crisis, there just won’t be enough political momentum to get it done.

That’s what’s going on in East Porterville, CA. Quite frankly those 900 households with dried up wells are caught in the middle of a much bigger problem. California’s drought is massive and is revealing long-term issues for the state that go well beyond drinking water for this one community, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering and that also doesn’t mean a solution shouldn’t be provided. That’s what good government is about and it will be interesting to see how this develops because we’re almost certain to see more situations like this in the future.

So back to the concept of teaching a community to fish. Here in the US we have something that many of the communities that Wine to Water serves do not: a functioning, stable government. That’s true at the local level, the state level and the national level. Yeah we all gripe about our government and joke about the ineptitude of our not-so-beloved bureaucrats and politicians, but in the grand scheme of things we have it great compared to the rest of the world. So maybe in this country, with our wealth and stability, the fishing is about how to effectively work with government to make sure that residents’ basic needs are met. Everyone I know, whether they’re staunch conservatives or liberals, do agree that government is necessary. They may not agree on how much government is necessary, but they do think we need it for the health and well being of our citizens. It would be hard to argue that access to clean drinking water is not part of the basic package that government should deliver.

Don’t agree with me on that last sentence? Well, think about it the next time you turn on the tap that’s likely less than 30 feet from where you sit reading this.

Some Things Shouldn’t Be Left to the Market

North Carolina’s freshman senator, Sen. Thom Tillis, is getting some pretty bad press today for saying that he has no problem with restaurants not being required to make their employees wash their hands after using the bathroom. Of course that’s the headline version that’s grabbing everyone’s attention, but when you see it in context it’s not quite that bad. Here’s what he said:

Tillis said his interlocutor was in disbelief, and asked whether he thought businesses should be allowed to “opt out” of requiring employees to wash their hands after using the restroom.

The senator said he’d be fine with it, so long as businesses made this clear in “advertising” and “employment literature.”

“I said: ‘I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says “We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom,” Tillis said.

“The market will take care of that,” he added, to laughter from the audience.

In that context the quote’s not nearly as bad as the headlines and social media posts would lead you to believe, but even so his stance is terrible public policy. First of all, just because you require a sign doesn’t mean it’s going to be seen. More importantly, how do you propose to deal with all the people who get sick or die before the word gets out that a restaurant is toxic?

I’m all for letting the market decide in many areas of our lives, but public health ain’t one of them.

San Francisco’s Poop Problem

In this day and age it’s not hard to find an argument about the proper role of government in American society. Almost everyone agrees that government should have a significant role in public safety and national security, but even with those gimmes there’s significant disagreement about what that looks like. Throw in topics like education, public welfare, transportation, etc. and you’re going to get heated debate in any room with more than one person in it.

Still, with all that disagreement you’d think that any municipality in the country would have a pretty easy time getting its citizens behind the concept of doing whatever is necessary to keep people from pooping in public. The folks in San Francisco seem to be intent on making a mountain out of a pile of poo:

As a Mission kid, I have experienced days, even weeks, in a row when I’ve had to pull my eager dog away from steaming pancakes of human shit, or I’ve had to step over a sad, sick turd-smeared man passed out among sculpture-like piles of his own doo-doo mere feet from my doorway.However San Francisco’s poop problem isn’t confined to the streets of the Mission. Other neighborhoods ­– particularly SOMA, Mid-Market, and the Tenderloin ­– have a similar human-excrement predicament. Let’s face­­ it: if you live in the city, regardless of location or class affiliation, you’ve probably had your own encounter with the aftermath of a public number-two.

We live in a beautiful city that’s praised for its progressive values and the deeply set urban intellect of its residents. Why, then, do I find myself, on a daily basis, stepping around errant piles of fecal matter? In simpler terms, what’s with all the shit?…

It’s there for one reason, and one reason only: people needed to use the loo, and none was there for the using. And for the most part, these people are San Francisco’s massive homeless population.

There are more than 10,000 people living on the streets at any given time in our fair City by the Bay. San Francisco must be scrambling hand over foot to provide at least some semblance of a plan for their very apparent human needs. Right? Wrong.

Nice, huh? It’s not that the fair people of San Francisco aren’t thinking about the issue, but they’re having a heckuva time coming to a consensus about what to do:

Of course, like everything else in San Francisco, it turns out that potties have long been lashed to political debates. In a city that’s constantly reimagining itself, a restroom isn’t just a place to pee, after all. It’s part of a larger dialogue about who owns the public space. It’s a piece of architecture that’s at once public and intimate, where the landed gentry have to squat right alongside the city’s poor. “I think as you see a more stratified city, obviously the restrooms are gonna become more politicized,” former Supervisor Chris Daly says, remembering years of public-restroom football in City Hall.

For at least a decade, bathrooms have stood in for the city’s anxieties about homelessness, public utilities, and the changing economy. They’ve created fault lines and frenemies, they’ve cost untold millions of dollars. (The tab for this year’s renovation of a particularly infamous Portsmouth Square lavatory comes to $1.13 million). They’ve become porcelain tea leaves through which we can analyze the city’s development, and proxies for all of its battles. Scoff or turn away at the door, but it’s undeniable: Toilets have been markers for civilization since long before even the venerable coffee bar, and understanding the city now is just a flush away.

The problem is so bad that someone’s created a map of poop incidents and it has a “Report Poop” function.

So a note to all of our fine citizens here in the Piedmont Triad who interact with our municipal governments, whether it’s through volunteering to serve on various boards, committees and councils or appearing before those boards on behalf of themselves or clients and are often frustrated with the process – no matter how bad it gets just think of the folks in San Francisco and remember that things could be worse. Much worse.

The Importance of Trust

If you want to know why it’s important that we have  strong, trustworthy government and media in our society then all you need to do is look at the developing ebola situation.

Unless you’ve been asleep for the last six months you’ve seen news about the growing ebola epidemic in Africa and the worldwide angst that has ensued as cased have popped up in Europe and the U.S. Here in America the government – the Center for Disease Control in particular – is under intense pressure and scrutiny after they bumbled in their initial response to the first U.S. case in Dallas. Unfortunately those early mistakes have created a scenario in which people who were already skeptical of the government’s competency will now disregard anything the authorities say about the disease. They’ll also be susceptible to overreacting to suppositions or improbable outcomes ginned up by media outlets desperate for their attention. Here’s an example from Fox & Friends:

http://video.foxnews.com/v/3840172448001/purdue-professor-says-ebola-primed-to-go-airborne/?playlist_id=930909787001#sp=show-clips

So while the story isn’t totally irresponsible in that the interviewee and the Fox on air talent repeatedly say that nothing currently indicates the disease can be transmitted through the air, they also say repeatedly that at some point the virus could mutate and become transmittable by air. While the interviewee couldn’t put a number on the probability he also couldn’t call it a zero probability.

You can guess what happens next. People who will look for any reason to discount the government because it’s led by their arch-nemesis President Obama, and that would be the vast majority of Fox’s audience, take to their social media accounts and start sharing the story and saying things like, “We knew that Obama/the CDC was lying about this to keep us from panicking” or “The CDC is so incompetent that they didn’t know that ebola could go airborne.” What makes it even worse is that the clip that Fox & Friends put on their Facebook page is a 22 second excerpt that includes only the pieces of the interview where the expert says it’s possible for the virus to go airborne. Here’s a link to it.

In my mind that’s just plain irresponsible. They have to know full and well that people will be sharing that clip, that it will spread quickly with their viewers, and it will play into their audience’s preconceived notions about the Obama administration and the federal government. That’s par for the course with just about any topic these days, but it’s especially bad when you’re talking about a public health situation.

Back to the government’s side of this equation. They admit they bungled the initial response to this situation. That’s good, because while people might be unhappy, critical, calling for someone’s head to roll, etc. they will at least be working under the assumption that the authorities are being straight with them. Unfortunately the government has not always been straight with the public (think Watergate or any of the other “gates” that have happened over the last 40 years) so there exists a baseline of distrust in the American public that the media outlets exploit to appeal to their audiences. In other words, no matter how transparent the CDC is on this they will have a very hard time getting anyone to trust them. Just take a look at Matt Lauer’s interview with the head of the Department of Health and Human Services to see how even morning TV shows are disinclined to accept the government’s word at face value:

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/32545640

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The really tragic part about all of this is that the public trust has been exploited  to the point that when the American public is confronted by a true crisis they won’t know who to trust.  How will they be able to discern a legitimate threat from a minimal threat that’s been hyped by various media outlets to discredit their favorite target? Hopefully we’ll never have to find out.

C-SPAN Sports

If you're into Robert's Rules of Order and all things parliamentary procedure-y you'll get a kick out of this. The Republican bloc in the House performed some parliamentary gymnastics to make sure they controlled how/if the Senate's continuing resolution made it to the floor and Maryland's Rep. Van Hollen (D) decided to call them on it. Confused? Welcome to the club, but it's crap like this that convinces the vast majority of Americans that Congress is totally screwed up.