How Much Will You Pay for Better Schools?

By David Postic

Oklahoma Education

 


Oklahoma does not value education. Our spending shows it. Our outcomes show it. The number of teachers flocking to other states for better pay and better schools (or, in Oklahoma, leaving the profession entirely) show it. Each year, it seems like the Legislature keeps cutting and cutting and cutting the education budget as our classroom size keeps growing and growing and growing. Each year, we complain that the Legislature needs to get their act together, that it needs to better fund our schools. And each year, we are absolutely right. But it’s also easy to complain; it’s tougher to conceptualize. What would better education look like in Oklahoma? What would it cost?

The Problem

First things first: let’s go ahead and admit that we are not funding our schools like we should. Because we aren’t. Over the past 10 years, Common Education funding in Oklahoma has increased a mere $78,680,179, not adjusted for inflation ($2,348,041,255 in FY 2007 compared with $2,426,721,434 in FY 2017). That might sound like a lot of money, but just wait. Adjusting for inflation (because we can), annual spending on Common Ed has actually decreased to the tune of $389,722,187 (or ~14%). To put that in comparison, the amount of money the Legislature has cut from Common Ed (let’s not even get into the amount it’s cut from Higher Ed) could pay the entire Thunder payroll (pre-salary cap increase) for 5 years. It could pay the Red Sox payroll for 2 years. Or it could buy 121,550 of these super nice toilets to symbolize where the Legislature is throwing our education funding. It’s that much money.

But to be fair, a decrease in funding, by itself, is not necessarily bad. If we have fewer students, then per-pupil funding stays the same, right? Theoretically, yes, dear reader, you would be right. Only that’s not the case. Because we don’t have fewer students. We have more students. We have many more students. To be precise, as of April 2016, Oklahoma is home to 692,670 students, which is a 50,999 student (or ~8%) increase from 2007. (We don’t have enrollment totals for FY 2017, so the comparison of enrollment to funding is a bit off, but it’s close enough.) Funding has gone down; enrollment has gone up. Uh oh.

What this means is that our per-pupil, inflation-adjusted state funding for Common Ed has decreased by $1,761 over the last 10 years ($5,264 in 2007 to $3,503 in 2017), or about 33%. Keep in mind that state funding is only about 45% of total funding for public education; another 45% is local funding from property taxes, bonds, etc.; and 10% comes from the federal government (these numbers are slightly different in Oklahoma, but you get the idea). So at first blush, a decrease in spending may seem like it has a silver lining, what with all the tax money we don’t have to pay and whatnot (more on this later). But because a decrease in state funding means that local funding has to pick up the slack, you will end up paying about the same amount in taxes—and some people will even have to pay more—if we are to maintain constant levels of funding.

Of course, that’s the problem: we aren’t maintaining constant levels of funding to Common Ed. We are siphoning it off to pay for tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy. That’s a judgment call our state Legislature has made. And it’s wrong. Their judgment is wrong. They have decided that it is more politically expedient to sacrifice the potential of us students than to make the difficult call to halt tax breaks or—God forbid—raise taxes. They have decided that our students don’t deserve better. That our teachers don’t deserve better. That our state doesn’t deserve better. And they are absolutely 100% wrong.

The Solution

But I digress. I’m not just here to complain (although I’m definitely here to do that); I’m here to offer some solutions. Mostly, though, I want to quantify (in very brief and simple terms) what it will take to better our public schools. As a result, my focus is on revenue and does not cover qualitative improvements to Oklahoma education.

Let’s start with the obvious: Oklahoma hates taxes. Like, a lot. Like OU hates Texas. Like Donald Trump hates facts. Like everyone hates Ramsay Bolton. That much. As a result, we cut taxes a lot. How much do these tax breaks cost, you ask? Great question.

Exceedingly low tax rates for horizontal drilling will cost us in the neighborhood of $379 million in 2016 (and that’s just horizontal drilling tax breaks, not to mention other tax breaks for the oil and gas industry), while wind power credits are expected to cost another $133 million. I point out these two tax breaks for special treatment because—as every Oklahoma knows—oil and wind are two things that this state does not have in short supply. So it begs the question why we need such high tax breaks at all? Of course, a little incentive is fine. But our tax rate on horizontal drilling, for instance, is well below other states, and it’s not like oil companies are going to stop coming to Oklahoma—we have all the oils. As State Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger has said, a fiscally responsible policymaker “needs to seriously consider at what level government should incentivize something that is now standard practice.” Even walking back these two tax breaks a tiny bit could bring in tens of millions of dollars in new revenue. Phasing them out entirely (which, for horizontal drilling, would merely return to the ordinary 7% gross-production rate) would be half a billion dollars in the bank.

But these corporate tax breaks (and many more) pale in comparison to the lost revenue from cuts to the state income tax rate. Since the top rate (which applies to income above $7,200; the first $7,200 is taxed at rates between 1/2% to 4%) has been cut from 6.65% in 2004 to 5% in 2016, Oklahoma’s annual revenue loss is $1.022 billion. Annual. Billion. Is. What was that really big thing we had this year? A budget deficit? And how much was it? $1.3 billion? An extra billion dollars really would have helped with that. Too bad.

Now, tax cuts are nice. I like money. Money is good. Money buys me things like Netflix subscriptions and raisins and trips to Harry Potter World. But how much money did these tax cuts actually give us? And are they really even worth the cost? As of 2016, about 72% of the benefit from these cuts (about $735 million in 2016) goes to the wealthiest 20% of households (those making $246,000 a year). The wealthiest 5% of households ($568,000 a year) get 43% of the benefits. And the wealthiest 1% receive about the same benefit as the bottom 80%. The Oklahoma Policy Institute put this disparity in dollar terms:

The median Oklahoma household with annual income of $49,800 has seen its taxes reduced by $228, compared to a $15,519 cut for the average household in the top 1 percent (income of $476,600 and above). Households making less than $21,700 — the bottom 20 percent of households — have received an average of just $4 per year from cutting the top rate, since little or none of their income is taxed at the top tax brackets.

But wait, the inequity gets even bigger. When looking at the share of income paid in taxes, the Institute on Tax and Economic Policy has calculated that, in 2015, the poorest 20% of Oklahomans paid 10.5% of their income in state and local taxes compared to just 4.3% paid by the wealthiest 1%, or about 2.4 times as much. The middle 60% paid, on average, 9.3% of their income in taxes, 2.2 times as much as the top 1 percent. In policy terms, this is called a regressive tax system, as it places a larger burden on low-income households than on high-income households.

A billion dollars of lost revenue. Very little money in my pocket. And I pay more of my income than do wealthy people (who, coincidentally, benefit much more than I do from these tax breaks). Remind me why these tax cuts are good again? Oh yeah, because they foster growth and improve the economy. Only there is no evidence to support this. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities looked at 40 years of data and studies on state taxes and economic performance:

The large majority of these studies find that interstate differences in tax levels, including differences in personal income taxes, have little if any effect on relative rates of state economic growth. Of the 15 major studies published in academic journals since 2000 that examined the broad economic effect of state personal income tax levels, 11 found no significant effects and one of the others produced internally inconsistent results.

In fact, four of the five states that have enacted the largest personal income tax cuts in the last five years — Maine, Kansas, Ohio and Wisconsin — have experienced total job growth and personal income growth below the national average since the tax cuts took effect. A recent study by the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution found “neither tax revenues nor top marginal income tax rates bear any stable relation to economic growth rates across states and over time.” Yet Oklahoma continues to cut its tax rates despite the fact that we cannot afford to do so. And education has suffered because of it.

So how are we to proceed? What could we do with the money even if we had it? This is where qualitative analysis comes in, and to a certain extent a mere increase in funding won’t necessarily improve outcomes. And outcomes are, to a large degree, what are most important. But money helps. And it’s easy to imagine what would be possible with an extra billion or two in funds available for education.

With an extra billion dollars, we could give our 46,571 (FTE) teachers a $21,000 raise (or at least give them the $3,338 raise they need to meet the regional average). We could roll back the 30% cut to school lunch matching programs. We could replace the $38 million cut from support for public school activities. Or we could actually buy textbooks for students. We could do so much to address the problems we have and to make Oklahoma a better place for both students and teachers. With an extra billion dollars, we could spend $1,443 more per student than we currently do, which would move us from 47th in the nation for per-pupil spending all the way up to 33rd. Those are good things. Those are things we could do. If only we had the money…

Conclusion

And we do have the money, at least in theory. There was a time when we weren’t losing a billion dollars a year in income tax cuts; there was a time we weren’t giving half a billion dollars away to energy companies. And guess what? We survived. Not cutting taxes did not kill us. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t like paying taxes. And if the Legislature eliminated all of the tax cuts mentioned above, my taxes would go up. Yours would to. But the Legislature can craft policies that minimize the impact on Oklahoma citizens while still providing the revenue we as a state need to function properly. It’s possible.

The politics of crafting those solutions is what seems impossible. Oklahoma is not a place that believes in things raising taxes or making tough political decisions. Politicians need votes to stay in office, and it will be much more difficult to get those votes if they tell their constituents that taxes are going to go up. You might feel less inclined to vote for someone who tells you that. Hell, that would give me pause. But consider this: is there anything we do as a state that is more valuable than education? Is there anything that gives our state’s future more promise? Is there anything that you would say to a child to justify taking away their free or reduced lunch, their textbooks, their teachers, their classrooms, or the educational opportunities?

It will cost us all to make education better in Oklahoma. It will cost us a lot. But our schools will be better for it; our students will be better for it; our future will be better for it. How much am I willing to pay for better schools? As much as it takes.

—–

See this original post on Medium.

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Dear Oklahomans Who Want to Leave…

By David Postic

Young Oklahomans Want to Leave


I love Oklahoma.

There is something about this state that holds a special place in my heart, aside from it being my home. Anyone who has looked out across the endless plains knows what I mean. The flatness of it all is intoxicating. But even more than the geography, it is the people that makes this place special. Oklahomans themselves are incredibly caring individuals, true salt-of-the-earth, born and bred on an ethic of hard work and on a faith so pervasive that it guides every part of their lives. Ours is a state with an enormous potential for diversity, prosperity, and opportunity.

But we have not lived up to that potential.

The actions of some of our governmental officers and representatives have shown that we, as a state, have either misplaced or misprioritized our values. And it’s something we need to fix. Rather than open our arms to diversity and tolerance, we have passed laws to discourage it. Rather than create opportunity, we have stolen it away from the most vulnerable in our society. Rather than look to the future — both in terms of our budget and our children — we have chosen instead to repeat the mistakes of the past. Whatever a properly functioning government looks like, this isn’t it.

This goes beyond the (embarrassing, in my opinion) events of the past few days (e.g., the continued assault on transgender rights, the admittedly unconstitutional abortion bill, the dishonest and inhumane decisions of the governor’s office vis-à-vis execution drugs). It goes to the heart of who we are as a people. Because although it is our elected officials who have caused these events to pass, it is we who elected them and continue to re-elect them. (I note here that there are more than a few courageous officials who have taken a stand against the rising tide of hatred and irresponsible government, and as a result they are not the subject of this complaint.) That’s on us. Authority without accountability breeds tyranny, and that is precisely what we are beginning to see.

But it is not only the particular representatives of our government that we need to hold accountable; we must hold accountable our system of government itself. Our system is based on politics and politicking, and as entertaining as it is to watch (and as necessary as it may be to some extent), it has become destructive. Politics — in my ideal vision of the concept — is simply a dream of (and a means to) establishing good government. At its heart, and what it most seeks to promote, is the body politic: the people. That is the basis of our democratic republic.

Today, however, politics has become divorced from the good of the people. Politics is no longer concerned with the body politic; it no longer cares. Not about you, not about me. It no longer cares about anything except winning and legacy and airtime and money. I am even convinced that politics writ large does not actually care about making the world a better place. Politics is no longer a solution; it is not a cure. It is a virus that spreads and infects everything and everyone it comes into contact with. Politics is no longer synonymous with statecraft or diplomacy or improvement. It is about maneuvering and brinkmanship and ultimatums. Politics today is more about grandstanding and fearmongering and fundraising and celebritizing than fixing and building and moving forward and helping people.

Why has this “new politics” become the mainstay? How did we get here? More than a little of the blame falls on us, the people. By and large, we do not want politicians to compromise — not on gun control, abortion, immigration, climate change, the budget, or anything else. All we want is for our guy to win, our side to win. Because for some reason, we have created a binary world where there is only right and wrong, winning and losing. There is no room for shades of gray, no room for discussion. And so it is that we as a society have come to view compromise as the antithesis of winning, something we wish to avoid at all costs. The media (and we, the consumers of media) have perpetuated this culture by buying into the hateful rhetoric and by accepting at face value the “facts” we are given. We do not verify, we do not seek the truth. We do not listen to people anymore. We hear them, and we speak to them, but we do not listen to them. There is no dialogue, and consequently there is no understanding. And that is a serious problem. Because if we ever want to work out our differences, we need to listen to each other. We need to understand. We need to care.

I am of the perhaps hopelessly optimistic opinion that our differences are not so great, political or otherwise, that we cannot overcome them. I do not believe that we are forever condemned to this destructive breed of “new politics.” I believe that Oklahoma — and the nation — can do better, and it starts with us. It starts with informed, passionate, caring people taking notice of the injustices and prejudices and wrongs that exist in our society and committing themselves to doing better, and electing representatives that are committed to doing better. We cannot fall victim to apathy, that old friend of oppression. We must do something.

It is no secret that making a better future will not be easy, and I am not going to try to make it seem easier than it is. Balancing budgets and funding schools and fixing bridges and providing health care and helping the poor and reducing violence will not be easy. It will be hard. It will be very, very, very, frustratingly, miserably hard. It will require sacrifice. It will demand our money, our comfort, our passions, our pride, our attention, our differences, and our egos. It will take everything we have.

Facing these large problems, and seeing discrimination and injustice perpetrated by the very government sworn to protect the liberties of its citizens, many young Oklahomans have given up. Oklahoma is beyond repair, they say. It’s a backwards state. They are embarrassed to be from here. They no longer see a future for this state and decide instead to leave it. The politics and politicians of Oklahoma are inspiring a mass exodus of young, talented individuals. This is more than just brain drain. It is passion drainand potential drain. And it is entirely unnecessary. This state has lost many of my friends, exasperated at the seemingly fixed order of things and the insurmountable obstacles ingrained into the very fabric of our government. I try to convince them to stay, to help fix things, but the politics and prejudices of Oklahoma are making my argument increasingly difficult.

But still, I must make it. Because the only hope for a brighter future in this state is a new generation of Oklahomans standing up for what is right and responsible when it comes to government. So to all young Oklahomans considering leaving this state: stay. The problems are big, but so are the possibilities. The path is not easy, but the reward will be worthwhile. Stay, and we can fight to bring this state back from the brink of self-destruction. Stay, and we can find solutions, make progress, and create a better Oklahoma, a better home for us all. We cannot do it without you. The people of this state deserve better. They don’t deserve irresponsible government and bigotry and the kind of politics that doesn’t care about them. Stay, and help give the people of this state the government they deserve. Isn’t that worth something?

Oklahoma is a special place, but it is in dire need of help. Its people are in dire need of help. So what can you do? You can stay. You can care about Oklahomans and about what happens to them. It will take time and patience — ungodly amounts of patience — but a better future is possible. We can make it happen if we work together.

Oklahoma is my home, and I plan to stay here and make it better. I hope you do too.

—–

See this original post on Medium.

10 Most Important SCOTUS Decisions of 2014

By Lester Asamoah and David Postic

U.S. Supreme Court


 

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores set the social media world (and the regular world, for that matter) on fire. Suddenly, people who usually couldn’t care less what those nine crazy old people say got all excited and started tweeting about it. In other words, Hobby Lobby was essentially the World Cup of Supreme Court rulings.

However, Hobby Lobby was not the only case the Supreme Court (or SCOTUS, for those who like acronyms) covered this term. In our opinion it wasn’t even the most important. Considering that the Court hears between 80 and 90 cases each year–on a wide range of issues–it is important to know what they decide outside of this one little case. Below we have ranked and summarized the ten most important cases from this term.

1. McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

Background: If you don’t know anything about the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision from 2010, stop now and go learn about it. Essentially, this case (like Citizens United) is about how much an individual can contribute to a political candidate, political party, or political action committee (PAC). McCutcheon was not arguing for the right to donate more money to a single candidate; rather, he wanted to be able to donate money to more candidates/parties/PACs. However, limitations on aggregate contributions constrained his giving, supposedly violating his First Amendment right to free speech.

Holding: The Court ruled in favor of McCutcheon 5-4. The practical effect of McCutcheon is that individuals will still be subject to a limit (currently $2600) on contributions to any one candidate and higher limits on contributions to any PAC or party committee.  Now, however, donors will no longer be limited in the number of candidates or committees they may support in any given election cycle. Viewed together, Citizens United and McCutcheon strike a major blow to proponents of campaign finance reform.

2. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

Background: The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) requires employers to provide their female employees with health insurance that includes no-cost access to twenty different kinds of contraceptives. Hobby Lobby, a craft store owned by a Christian family, objected to the requirement, specifically claiming that four types of contraceptives (two kinds of “morning after” pills and two kinds of IUDs–interuterine devices) are abortifacients and therefore burdensome to the free practice of their Christian religion.

Holding: The Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby. The first important thing to note here is that this ruling was not one centered strictly on the Constitution. Rather it was mainly a statutory issue concerning the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The decision here did not destroy Obamacare’s individual mandate; it also did not grant all businesses religious exceptions to Obamacare. The majority claims that this ruling is a narrow one that applies only to closely-held corporations and only on an issue such as contraceptives and only when it places a significant burden on religious freedom. Nevertheless, the dissenters (led by Justice Ginsburgh in what may be one of her most fiery dissents in recent years) claimed the majority established dangerous precedent that could have ramifications in racial discrimination, same-sex discrimination, and other issues.

3. Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action

Background: If you are unfamiliar with affirmative action, take 5 minutes to orient yourself. In 2006, Michigan voters approved Proposal 2, which prevented the state’s public colleges and universities from granting preferential treatment in the admissions process on the basis of race.

Holding: In a 6-2 decision (Justice Kagan recused herself), the Court ruled that voters can end state affirmative action programs. The opinion will not prevent universities from using race as a plus-factor in admissions processes; it merely stated that voters have the power to ban the use of racial preferences. Nevertheless, the dissent and proponents of affirmative action believe that this is a major setback for racial equality. While the decision focused on race-based admissions factors in universities, it would presumably also permit voters to end race-based policies in the hiring of state and local employees and in awarding public contracts.

4. American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo

Background: Aereo invented a technology that allows subscribers to view and record television broadcasts over the Internet by swiping the broadcasts from the airwaves with thousands of tiny antennas. Because the startup did not receive permission to stream these broadcasts, broadcasting companies sued Aereo, claiming copyright infringement. However, Aereo claimed that they were not infringing on any copyrights–they were simply renting antennas to consumers and they were doing the rest.

Opposing Aereo were the broadcasting companies, as well as corporations such as the National Football League and Major League Baseball, which earn hundreds of millions of dollars selling their broadcasting rights. On Aereo’s side was the cable industry. If Aereo won, cable companies would be able to sell their own Aereo-esque technology and provide broadcast content without paying broadcasters a penny. Interesting to note here: When Aereo won its case on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals last year, CBS and Fox threatened to go off the air.

Holding: The Supreme Court ruled against Aereo in a 6-3 decision. The justices seemed anxious to avoid a ruling that would imperil the legal foundation of cloud computing services such as Dropbox and Amazon Cloud Music. Instead, the majority said the decision pertained only to Aereo’s system so far as it enabled its viewers to view copyrighted TV programs “live,” or after only a brief delay. In the increasingly dramatic fight between cable companies and broadcasters, Aereo affirmed in part the power of the broadcasting industry.

5. Riley v. California

Background: A California police officer stopped the petitioner, Riley, for a traffic violation that eventually led to his arrest on weapons charges. When Riley was arrested, his cellphone was taken and searched. The police officer found photo and video content suggesting that he was involved a particular gang shooting. Riley moved to suppress the evidence from his phone connecting him to the gang, but the trial court denied the motion and he was convicted.

Holding: In a 9-0 decision, the Court held that the police may not search the cellphone of an individual who is arrested. All nine justices maintained that such digital content may only be searched with a warrant. Riley does not have a direct impact on allegations of government monitoring personal information, but it is a big win for personal privacy and the Fourth Amendment by reaffirming constitutional protections in an increasingly digital world.

6. Town of Greece v. Galloway

Background: Town board meetings in Greece, NY open with roll call, recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer and have done so since 1999. The town’s prayer program is open to all creeds, but all of the local congregations are Christian. Thus, nearly all of the prayers are Christian prayers. Respondents Galloway and Stephens argued that the prayers go against their personal religious and philosophical beliefs – they arguethe town should have “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers that would not associate the government with one belief system.

Holding: In a tight 5-4 decision, the Court held that the town of Greece was not violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The prayers have Christian elements, but they also invoke a sense of spiritual and civil principles. Additionally, the majority believed that reasonable attempts were made to include clergy of different faiths. Regardless, this case is big for religious freedom. The “traditional” protections that Congress and state legislatures have for prayer are now extended to local civil entities. City of Greece 1 – Laicism 0.

7. Hall v. Florida

Background: A man (Hall) kidnapped, beat, raped, and murdered Karol Hurst, a 21 year old newlywed. After killing her, Hall and his accomplice planned to rob a convenience store but were stopped by in the parking lot by a sheriff’s deputy. The two men then killed the deputy. The State of Florida recommended the death penalty for both counts of murder. Hall argued he cannot be executed on account of his intellectual disability. Hall’s IQ score is 71, but Florida laws state that an IQ score of 70 or below is required to present additional evidence of an intellectual disability to vacate the sentence.

(Note: Highly recommend reading the opinion brief, Hall was tortured by his mother and faced other troubling circumstances. The Florida jury and appellate court opinions are also worth the read.)

Holding: The Court ruled 5-4 that the state IQ threshold was unconstitutional because it put intellectually disabled individuals at unreasonable risk for being executed. Prior case law has established that any execution of intellectually disabled individuals clearly violates the Eighth Amendment. Florida’s hard and fast IQ threshold was a problem because the law did not account for standard error.

8. NLRB v. Noel Canning

Background: Several members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) were appointed by President Obama via the Recess Appointment Clause, which states that the President has the power to temporarily appoint officers without the consent of the Senate if the Senate is in recess. The NLRB members in question were appointed during a three day recess.

Holding: In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Court ruled Obama’s appointments invalid. Basically, the Justices felt that a three day recess is far too short to make appointments without Senate approval. There is no concrete definition on what is “too short” of a recess. However, it is generally regarded as a “significant interruption of legislative business” (e.g. Summer Recess). The ruling blocks the president from sneaking appointees past the Senate. Yet in a highly partisan Senate, it also slows down the appointment process of key political officials.

9. EPA v. EME Homer City Generation

Background: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), through the Clean Air Act, established national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for pollutants at levels that will protect public health. Once the EPA determines NAAQS, they determine the “non-attainment areas” where a regulated pollutant exceeds the NAAQS. A state with a non-attainment area must submit a solution to the EPA within three years. If the EPA thinks an the solution is inadequate, the EPA develops a Federal Implementation Plan where the EPA takes control. A solution can be ruled inadequate if it is in violation of the Good Neighbor Provision, meaning that the plan must include provisions to prevent regulated pollutants from one state from adversely affecting another [downwind] state.

In 2005, the EPA Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) sought to regulate nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide in 27 upwind states. However, the D.C. Circuit Court found fault with CAIR, so the EPA came up with a complex cost-based formula for determining how states should compensate one another. If this case sounds complicated, that’s because it is.

Holding: In a 6-2 decision, the Court reversed the D.C. Circuit’s decision. The decision is significant because President Obama announced an EPA plan last month to combat climate change. The aforementioned Clean Air Act is the source of the EPA’s authority–instead of creating a new law, the EPA regulations are interpretations of the Clean Air Act. Environmental politics are dicey, but the Court gave the EPA a victory.

10. McCullen v. Coakley

Background: The Massachusetts Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act made it a crime to knowingly stand within 35 feet of a public way or sidewalk of an entrance or driveway to a reproductive health care facility. Petitioner McCullen argued that he and others engaged in “sidewalk counseling” by giving women walking toward abortion clinics information about alternatives to abortion. McCullen claimed that the Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act significantly hampered his efforts of “sidewalk counseling”, and thus was a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Holding: In a 9-0 decision, the Court ruled the Act unconstitutional. Quite simply, the Justices believed that the State of Massachusetts did not do enough to address clashes between abortion opponents and advocates before passing the Act. In so deciding, the Court continued a strong trend of protecting free speech, even when it is perceived as hateful.

—–

Lester Asamoah is an International Security Studies senior at the University of  Oklahoma.

&

David Postic is a second-year law student at the University of Oklahoma.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Politics

Star Wars politics
Just the absolute best picture I could find, even though it has little to do with the actual content of this article.

We are at a low point in American politics.

That’s a pretty vague statement, so judge it how you will. It’s just my opinion. What is a fact, though, is that Congress is at a low point. Something like only 10% of people approve of our legislative branch. This is mostly due to the fact that they get little accomplished. As Jay-Z once aptly noted, I’ve got 99 problems and none of them are currently being solved because of irresponsible partisan bickering in Congress.

(Note: I swear those are the lyrics. If you don’t believe me, give me like 10 minutes and then check Wikipedia.)

I am inclined to agree with Jay-Z. In fact a lot of people agree with him. A lot of people think we need something better. For as long as I have been aware of the world outside my Nintendo 64 (i.e., around 2004), people have told me that (1) our political system is broken; (2) we need more bipartisanship; and (3) the best place to be on the political spectrum is right in the middle. 10 out of 10 kids my age would agree with this message because it has been beaten into us for most of our adult lives. So it goes.

Millennial Wars: A New Hope

Things will get better, they say, and my generation is going to be the one to make sure that happens. Desensitized by the fiscal cliffs and budget sequesters of our youth, we will rise above petty party politics to promote effective government and protect the future. And what gives people this impression that apathetic, baggy-panted, headphone-wearing Millennials are the political saviors of our broken nation? Why, the polls of course! Studies show that Millennials are more politically independent and/or moderate than previous generations. Other polls show that we are fairly disillusioned with institutions in general. It is these attitudes that are supposed to fix our deplorable political situation.

And maybe they will. Certainly we could do with a bit more bipartisanship. Certainly most people would love a more effective government. I am not here to argue about that stuff. What I am here to argue about is the polls. (Something Eric Cantor is probably doing a lot of this week.) I am here to dispute the theory that my generation is actually more moderate or bipartisan than previous generations. In fact, I claim we are just as partisan as ever, if not moreso.

(Funny Eric Cantor interlude.)

Let’s look at the basis for this hypothesis. A recent Harvard study polled Millennials on their opinions of President Obama. The results? 86% of young Democrats approved of the President’s job performance, while only 10% of young Republicans approved. That is a 76-point differential–almost historic in its vastness. Does that sound like a generation of independents? Does that sound like a generation committed to rising above partisan politics? Overall, Obama’s approval rating among Democrats is 82%; among Republicans, 11%. Now this is only one narrow metric, but it is an important one. If we are to extrapolate broader generational trends, Millennials are perhaps even more partisan than the public at large.

If we are so divided, why does everyone say we are a less partisan generation? Yes, we are generally more progressive as a group, and yes we broadly support things like gay marriage and marijuana legalization. But even our overwhelming support of Obama in the 2008 election waned in 2012. At the end of the day, we will vote for who we want to vote for. And the polls show that we are just as divided as ever on that issue. Yet we are hailed as the generation to end partisanship.

I have two theories about why these studies on moderate Millennials are misleading (or perhaps flat-out wrong).

Theory One: The Cootie Syndrome

Guys, remember when you were a kid and you first realized you liked a girl? And someone would ask if you liked that girl? And you’d say no because you weren’t supposed to like girls? But you did like girls. Girls were, like, the coolest thing ever. Girls were awesome. But you couldn’t tell anyone that because then they would judge you. Millennials hate being judged.

Politics are the basically just the girls of adulthood: People judge you if you give them the wrong answers. We have been told all our adult lives that partisanship is bad, so we reject partisanship. “Of course I am not a Democrat/Republican!” we say. “I don’t vote on party lines–I vote for ideas and values!” But rejecting hardcore partisanship as an institution does nothing to actually change our political motivations. It simply reflects the indoctrination of what is “socially acceptable.” Since partisan politics has gotten a bad rap, we want to be (or at least feel) more moderate and/or reasonable.

In reality, though, we have only rejected partisanship superficially. What’s boiling under the surface is the potential for even greater partisanship and idealogical extremism. Under the surface, we see the truth: For a generation that is supposed to end partisan gridlock by talking to one another, we are extremely good at shutting people out. We pick the friends we like on Facebook. We follow the people we support on Twitter. We have taken our cliques into the Digital Age.

What it comes down to is that we are becoming increasingly adept at isolating the people with whom we disagree. Social media just makes it easier to surround ourselves with people who think like us and isolate (or altogether ignore) those who don’t. We have essentially supplanted racial segregation with social and digital segregation. And, as with everything else, it is bleeding into our politics.

That is a scary theory, I admit. But it is just one theory. And fortunately I think it is less likely than Theory Two.

Theory Two: The Ignorance Theory

I hate to play into stereotypes, but here it goes: I think Millennials are ignorant. I can say that, as an ignorant young person myself. We are, broadly speaking, an ignorant group of people. However, so are our older siblings. So are our parents. Americans are generally pretty ignorant. If you disagree, you are probably just ignorant of your own ignorance. (I believe that’s check-mate.)

I think that young people don’t actually know what they believe, so they tend to play the middle, assuming that will make everyone happy. You can ask any random college student about their political leaning, and odds are they will tell you: (1) “Oh, I’m pretty moderate”; (2) “I’m socially liberal but economically conservative”; or (3) “I don’t really like to talk about politics.” Maybe one out of every ten of these people know what they’re talking about. But I would venture to guess that very few of them are informed enough to understand whether they are actually politically moderate.

Moreover, if you claim to be a conservative or a liberal, you open yourself up to a barrage of questions: Why do you believe this? Why don’t you believe that? Saying you are a moderate places you in the safe zone. You are free to agree with whatever the other person says, no matter their political leanings.

We live in a world that is increasingly divided politically, a world in which the other side is no longer “wrong” or “naive” but is now “hateful” and “evil.” Pragmatism is a dirty word; debate is poison; and democracy is, as a result, weakened. It is no wonder that Millennials prefer to play it safe and say that they are moderate: The alternative is being branded an insensitive, racist Republican or an irresponsible, controlling Democrat. And neither of those options sound too attractive to me.

So what does this mean?

I predict that, barring some massive societal shift (e.g., Miley Cyrus putting some clothes on, the Cubs winning the World Series, etc.), Millennials will not actually vote much differently than the generations before us. I think that the gridlock of our current political landscape will certainly affect our desire to work through problems, but it will not change our views. Maybe that means things will be better. It might also mean things could get worse.

So that I don’t end this post on a low note, I want to make one thing clear: I don’t necessarily think it is bad that Millennials are not as independent as the polls say we are. What worries me is that we, as a group, feel pressured to conform to what is supposedly “good” and “right.” We hide our true beliefs under this veil of centrism, and that is a dangerous habit to form.

Whenever you ask someone what party they belong to, and they give you some vague, appeasing answer like “I’m a moderate,” don’t buy it for a minute. Press them on it. Dig for the truth. Have them explain their views. Odds are, they have never had to do that. Most importantly, let them know that you will respect their opinion, even if it differs from your own. That is how we can fix our political dialogue. That is how we can help Millennials feel comfortable admitting what they truly believe–because I would be willing to bet they are nowhere close to center.

As for me, I’m pretty moderate.

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Edit: As an aspiring lawyer, I feel obligated to include this disclaimer: Although this post has (in my opinion) a wonderful title, I realized all too late that Paul Krugman wrote a NYT article of the same title in 2012. This post is not meant to be an emulation of that article, nor does it necessarily agree with the views of that author. Great minds sometimes do think alike.

David Postic is a second-year law student at the University of Oklahoma.