Life is a Mystery

21 March 2011 . Comments Off on Testimony to MN House Education Finance Committee on HF934

Testimony to MN House Education Finance Committee on HF934

I believe school is an intensely social experience. Raising my kids in a respectful multicultural environment is what East Metro Integration District has been about. Kids can be friends with anyone, they talk with each other, they share and know one another. Their comfort with each other will make the world a better place as they take their place in it. EMID is also an environment where smaller scale makes it possible to develop practices that could transform education, if only we had the fortitude to listen to the lessons. Unfortunately, some of the most transformative practices, such as multiage looping classrooms, have already been sacrificed on the alter of state standards and testing. Even our year-round calendar, which teachers and parents know prevents the summer “backslide” and keeps kids engaged all year long in learning, is under stress because it actually puts our kids at a disadvantage when they participate in statewide standardized tests (administered during a calendar window rather than a student-contact-days window).

Focussing solely on the achievement gap misses much of what happens in a school. EMID serves not only the kids in our schools, but educates the educators in 10 districts. Integration funds carve out an important space for innovation, for testing new ideas while giving kids the confidence and space to know one another and each others cultures.

But while this bill renames integration to innovation, it will significantly harm EMIDs ability to do this vital work. I sit on our site council, I attend our board meeting, I know how dependent we are on the foresight and understanding of this committee. We need your support, I hope we get it.

13 January 2011 . Comments Off on Where are you on the real political spectrum?

Where are you on the real political spectrum?

We are told over and over that the political spectrum in this country runs from right to left, from red to blue, from conservative to liberal. What if that is wrong? I believe there is another dimension to our politics that has always been there, but has grown to become the prominent axis on which our politics swivels since the Reagan era. I believe the real spectrum of our politics runs from anti-government to pro-government, from a sense that we are each on our own to a sense that we are at our best when we work together. If we look at the tragedy of this past weekend’s assassination attempt on a congressperson through this lens, the motivations and inspirations of the shooter become easier to understand.

There is nothing terribly new about noticing a pro/anti-government axis to our politics. But there are times when different axes are more or less prominent, and I think the last thirty years have seen the ascendence of this axis. For me it now overshadows the right/left axis. We are so used to the right/left axis, though, that we often mistake it for the pro/anti-government axis. But these are not the same things, they are, in fact, orthogonal. Where you stand on the right/left axis does not necessarily predict where you stand on the pro/anti-government axis.

During the 1960’s there was a clear thread of anti-government rhetoric and action on the left, though the predominant axis was still left/right as evidenced by our recollections of that time as peace&love vs. war&hate. By the time the 1980’s came around, Reagan claimed the anti-government banner arguing that government had grown “too big.”

The push for deregulation and free trade, which have been championed by right and left alike, are demonstrations of a lack of faith in government. Government has to get out of the way. It can’t be trusted. It must let us find our own way, a way toward individual wealth and happiness. The 2000’s brought us a presidential reign that actively dismantled government: made it incapable of even basic services like disaster recovery, made it unable to rule on the basis of law and instead resorted to torture and secret rendition, left us unable to keep the food supply safe and systematically removed science and research from government planning.

The fundamental change that Obama has delivered is a true faith in the capacity of government to be functional. For the first time since the 1980’s he is turning the tide of public opinion toward the belief that government can help us solve problems. While I believe the health care bill we got is far from ideal, I am amazed that we could get any health care bill at all in such rabidly anti-government times. It is a testament to this administration’s skills that inch by inch they are pushing back on a political axis few of us even recognize.

I think part of the reason it is hard to recognize President Obama as a liberal or a conservative is that he is not very far out on either end of that particular spectrum. But if you look at the pro/anti-government spectrum, Obama’s rhetoric and policies jump out into clear relief. He is a president who truly believes government can function and serve us all, he believes that we can do together all the things we can’t do alone.

Today I watched John Stewart grappling with the question of why the rhetoric of the “right” is so much harsher today than it was during the Bush presidency, even though many Bush policies, like No Child Left Behind, were arguably as big an intrusion of government as anything that Obama is doing. He could not get Tim Pawlenty to even see the issue he was trying to frame, I think perhaps because he was still referring to a right/left axis that is more or less irrelevant to the dynamic of politics today. No Child Left Behind is actually an anti-government policy. Remember, it only addresses public schools, it insists that public schools devote themselves to passing tests to justify their existence, and I would argue that it actually sets them up to fail as real centers for education in the process. NCLB has disempowered local governments and only focusses on punishments for non-performance rather than solutions for struggling schools. Over and over again, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush policies evidenced a distrust of government and an abdication of its role to the private sector or market forces.

The rhetoric has heated up during the last two years because the anti-government forces have recognized their first concerted opponent in President Obama. Not only is he pro-government, but he is effective and even got new laws in place against their concerted opposition. The “tea party” is not a “right wing” movement, it is an anti-government movement. It opposes Obama not because he is a “left wing” politician, but because he believes, and might convince others, that government can serve the people.

With the pro/anti-government axis clearly in mind, many contradictions or oddities of the current political climate become more comprehensible. Why is health care worth stopping? Not because it can’t work, but because it might work. In fact, obstruction becomes constructive, because by not funding portions of the health care bill or tying legislatures in knots government will appear more broken, which serves the anti-government forces. In fact, what appear to be incredibly irresponsible or incomprehensible strategies even to some conservatives, like tea-party opposition to raising the federal debt ceiling, actually make perfect strategic sense if your goal is to break government and make sure that people believe it can’t be effective. Similarly, dogged opposition to taxes, even at times of great deficits, ensures that government will not have the funds to be effective.

Who does this serve? I believe that an anti-government ideology serves organizations and individuals who have transcended national government boundaries. These are mega-corporations and the ultra-rich. Their interest is no longer the national interest. In order to continue amassing wealth they require that governments not interfere with their cross-border functioning. And they have acquired enough of that wealth that they can now effectively control governments, even our own, much of the time.

But an explicitly anti-government stance would not be very attractive to voters, and for now voters still matter. So these forces also have an interest in hiding the new axis of politics behind the old right/left rhetoric. Today they have inflamed the right, nearly bringing government to a halt amidst incredibly abusive accusations. Their interest is not actually in a healthy governing conservative movement, which is why many considerate conservatives are finding themselves increasing uncomfortable in this rabid “right” wing, the anti-government interest is in making sure our institutions remain dysfunctional.

Looking at the events of this weekend through this lens makes it clear, or at least as clear as we can be at such an early stage of investigation, that the shooter in Arizona was way out on the anti-government fringe. Some of his writings sound oddly leftist, but all of them are clearly anti-government. The FOX News rhetoric of the day may not have matched him on the left/right spectrum, but it sure is a great match for his place on the pro/anti-government spectrum. Again, the President aligned himself on the polar opposite of this position, pleading with us to build a “more perfect union” and a government worthy of the respect of an idealistic young student-council member who lost her life while catching her first glimpses of our democracy. His was a call to believe that government can be better, that government can work.

Understanding the real currents of the political landscape can help us build alliances and find common ground. America has maintained a two-party system for a spectacularly long time, but that’s not because there have only been two ends to a single spectrum. The axis of our politics have shifted before and the party’s have chosen sides and swiveled around to meet new challenges. What party would Abraham Lincoln belong to today? It would be very hard to say. I believe it is critical that we understand the real political battle of our time is not between right and left, but between pro-government and anti-government. What side are you on? Where do you want your party to be? What will you demand of your elected officials? Think about this, and if you agree, begin talking with others on the right and the left about how we can build a better world together, with effective government, appropriate regulation, and faith in one another.

19 November 2010 . Comments Off on Who do we trust?

Who do we trust?

We hear complaints about how our government is not entrepreneurial enough, not agile enough; and yet we burden government with the kind of fetters we would not begin to consider for real business. We don’t trust our government to get the job done. This week I was reminded of this distrust in a discussion of “data practices” sponsored by MNCOGI.

I am proud that Minnesota’s data practices act assumes the public has access to public data and forces lawmakers to enact specific exemptions to this presumption as law. This makes it a little more difficult for the government to keep secrets. The presentation by Don Gemberling helped us understand our rights and the government’s responsibilities. For example, you have a right to inspect public government data at reasonable times and places at no cost. The government has a corresponding responsibility to make government data easily accessible and convenient to use. Sound good, right?

But then, one of the panelists at the session, State Senator Warren Limmer, complained that after a three minute wait at a county office he was charged $22 for an aerial photograph of a property he was handling in his real estate business. $22 was way more this “piece of paper” should have cost, he contended. When I pointed out that that cost might easily be justified by the systems required to store and provide quick access to such photos, others in the audience responded that the government must be keeping this data around for its own purposes, we should not be charged for just getting copies for our purposes. And yet, I wonder, as we suck funding out of local government and insist on lower taxes toward state government, how can we at the same time expect services like this with little to no fee? Is $22 really so unreasonable? Isn’t a copy in three minutes flat as service to be commended, not ridiculed?

Another public official on the panel, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, floated a plan for a state commission to handle the tide of exemption requests that hit legislators with regard to data practices. She complained that these requests boil down to a late-night legislative bartering session where lobbyists are in control because part-time legislators just don’t have the time to become experts in data practices, privacy, and government transparency. A commission could operate year-round, hear requests at reasonable hours, and process recommendations for legislators, and perhaps even make interim findings in certain cases. How would such a commission be funded, asked one participant? Holberg simply said, “well, it would have to be a priority.”

Holberg and Limmer are both part of the new Republican majority in the Minnesota legislature. Here they were both demanding increased government service and responsiveness, but you can bet they won’t be arguing for increased funding to support such initiatives. Why won’t we agree to pay for the services we demand?

Meanwhile, I left the panel with real concerns about the fundamental mission of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. While I appreciate the ideal of transparency in government, I also recognize that government has to attract real people to its service and the threat of exposure of every action is chilling to government service. Two of four candidates for the recent University of Minnesota presidency pulled out of the process because they did not consent to the very public interviews that would have been required. State workers who supplement meager state technology offerings with personal equipment (like laptops or phones) then find that equipment could be confiscated as part of public information discovery. Government has to avoid the use of cloud services like Gmail or Flickr because public access rules may not be enforceable. How do we make compliance with requirements for public access to government data something other than a weight that drowns efficient administration?

I don’t have any magic bullet. I am simply very concerned that we are, with the best of intentions, destroying the viability of government to serve the common good. As government becomes less efficient, we complain more about the poor service, and we cut back on funding. It is a vicious cycle that leads nowhere but chaos and corruption. Who is left to roam free in the remains of government dysfunction? Private enterprise. With none of the same restrictions and subject to almost none of the same regulation, private enterprise slowly absorbs formerly public function. Then we are truly left in the dark.

We need to stand up for the good that we can do together, as a public. We must trust our government a little more and private corporations a bit less. I’m not sure how we get there, but if we don’t, we give away our state and our country.

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30 September 2010 . Comments Off on I don’t want a tax cut!

I don’t want a tax cut!

My family is middle class, well below the $250k earner limit. I am disappointed that the President is considering anything other than letting the Bush tax cuts simply expire.

Just let them go, even if it raises my taxes.

We should not get bullied by the Republicans and Tea Party into extending this Bush era disaster. If the Democrats can’t pass the President’s compromise then they should do nothing. Let the these cuts expire. That’s why there was an expiration date on them in the first place.

Please, Democrats, stand up for government. We can do together all the things we can’t do alone. But we can only do these things if we properly fund government. Bush and the Republicans have been doing everything they could to destroy our government. Don’t let them win. Fight for the funding a government of, by, and for the people deserves!

22 September 2010 . 3 Comments

Catholic Archbishop Campaigns Against Gays and the Poor

I am a Roman Catholic. There are times, like today, when I really wonder why. Again and again I shake my head in shame and frustration at the message coming from my leaders. I guess I bother because I don’t believe they are the church, rather we, the people of God, are the church. While I listen to and consider what my leaders say, I also know that as a faithful catholic I can also disagree and be part of a church that moves away from their bitter ways. But I need your help, I think we now have to take an action together, as the people of God, to let our church know they are on the wrong path.

Today I read about our Archbishop John Nienstedt’s plans to send a DVD to over 800,000 400,000 catholics in all Minnesota parishes to “rally the troops” against gay marriage in this election year.

Think about that. Whether you support or oppose gay marriage, I suggest that as a catholic Minnesotan this is offensive. There is only one race where gay marriage is even an issue this year: the race for governor. Mark Dayton and Jack Horner support gay marriage, Tom Emmer opposes it. But this is a fringe issue, the real issues in Minnesota as in most states is our budget. How will we trim? How will we raise revenue? The answers to these questions are life and death issues for some, especially the poor. Our candidates differ drastically on these issues too, and the candidate opposed to gay marriage is also opposed to extending many services to the poor.

Our Archbishop is telling us to make a decision based on a single fringe issue when it could cost us the opportunity to care for the most fragile and vulnerable in our society. Is this really what the gospel calls you to do?

I don’t really care to convince you one way or the other right now about the election, though I do have strong opinions and feel free to ask me or read the rest of my blog to see them. But I do want to convince you to stand up and tell the Archbishop that this is an offensive use of his pulpit. Return the DVD.

Here’s what I suggest. If you get this DVD in the mail, take it to church and put it in the basket at collection time instead of a financial contribution. Attach your envelope, if you like, or don’t. But let your parish and your Archbishop know that you are offended at a church that turns its backs on the poor in order to “rally the troops” around an issue that we can take up in many other venues.

Give the DVD back to the Archbishop in the collection plate. Make a contribution that really says something this week.

Archbishop John Nienstedt

26 March 2010 . Comments Off on Proud and scared

Proud and scared

I want to be on the record that I am proud of my party today. I am proud that Democrats in the House found the courage to compromise. The Senate health care bill was a bitter pill to swallow for many progressives. It is far from what we hope for, but it is what we could get. The realism of this vote is the real victory for America. We may be slowly learning how to govern again, how to make hard choices and move forward. I am proud to be part of a constructive political party.

But I am also scared today. Over the past couple days John Avalon at the Daily Beast has circulated two posts that chill me to the bone.

One cites a Harris Poll which showed 57% of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim, 45% think he is ineligible to be president, 38% think he behaves like Hitler, and 24% (one quarter of Republicans) think Obama may be the Antichrist. The Antichrist? A “mainstream” party, a gem of our democracy, is becoming a home to delusion and paranoia. This can’t be good.

The other describes some of the militia movement targeting Democrats after the healthcare vote. Avalon notes that the breaking of windows at congressional offices around the country…

…follows the online exhortations of militia leader Mike Vanderboegh of Pinson, Alabama – who wrote on his blog “Sipsy Street Irregulars” this past Friday: “if we break the windows of hundreds, thousands, of Democrat party headquarters across this country, we might just wake up enough of them to make defending ourselves at the muzzle of a rifle unnecessary.” The parallels, intentional or not, to the Nazis’ heinous 1938 kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass,” so-named for the 7,000 storefront windows that were smashed, are hard to ignore.

I just returned from Vienna this week. The horrors of kistallnacht are still remembered there. And even though we “won” the war against Hitler, there are still very few Jews left in Austria. Once violence starts, even winning is losing.

As Vanderboegh’s home page warns “All politics in this country now is just dress rehearsal for civil war.”

Really? Is that how far political discourse has descended? I hope there are some in the GOP who rescue their party from this lunatic fringe. Some who will stand up for the value of civil government, rather than civil war. Some who will return to constructive debate rather than obstruction and fanning flames. We need a civil opposition for democracy to work, we cannot become a one-party state.

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Update via the Washington Post:

Vanderboegh said he once worked as a warehouse manager but now lives on government disability checks. He said he receives $1,300 a month because of his congestive heart failure, diabetes and hypertension. He has private health insurance through his wife, who works for a company that sells forklift products.

How’s that for hypocrisy?

10 February 2010 . Comments Off on Google wants to bring fiber to your doorstep

Google wants to bring fiber to your doorstep

Google today announced its Fiber for Communities initiative. They want to bring 1 gigabit per second connections (20 to 100 times faster than what most of us have access to) to 50,000 to 500,000 homes. Google figures it can (1) do something cool, (2) learn how to run a network, and (3) demonstrate the benefits of the kind of open network it advocates by putting some money where its mouth has been. This looks like a really great opportunity, now the challenge is to get our community to make a concerted response by the March 26th deadline!

5 February 2010 . Comments Off on MPR goes off the rails

MPR goes off the rails

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) just announced that it is suing the Central Corridor project. That is a line I am not willing to cross, so Mary and I have suspsended our membership. I love MPR, but this is a boneheaded move! Here’s the note I sent them:

Please suspend our sustaining membership of MPR.

We are not willing to support an organization that is hindering as important a civic project as the Central Corridor rail line. We have been uncomfortable with your position for years because the Central Corridor plans were well known long before MPR renovated its space. As far as we are concerned, it is wholly MPR’s responsibility that it built studios as close to a known future rail line as it did. You should not be suing the state, but rather asking funders like us to up our contributions a bit to help you make necessary remediations.

Now that you have decided to sue the Central Corridor project we can no longer in good conscience support MPR. Maybe once this suit is over we will consider rejoining, we will see what the consequences of your action are. If this in any way leads to the demise or diminishment of the Central Corridor project, though, then you have lost us as member for good.

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26 January 2010 . Comments Off on 51 is a majority, use it or lose it

51 is a majority, use it or lose it

Are you as frustrated as I am at the timidity of Democrats in Washington? We act as if it takes 60 votes in the Senate to do anything. The Senate! Already an undemocratic institution (Wyoming == California, I don’t think so), has been made even more ineffective by our readiness to cave to filibusters that don’t even happen.

51 is a majority! And we have way more than 51 votes in the Senate. Let the Republicans talk for days on end if they want to block legislation. We should be making law! We have the votes. If someone wants to filibuster, make them get up and do the deed.

So I say, 51 is a majority, use it or lose it. If we stay timid, we will get what we deserve come November. Democrats have to be ready to make sausage, to compromise, but we must also get things done.

I’ve set up a little shop at CafePress with the message: 51 is a majority, use it or lose it.

Pick something up there if you agree. Pass it along. Tweet, blog, talk to your friends, call your Congresspeople, and call your Senators or Senator-wanna-bees. Make sure they know you expect courage and progress.

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21 January 2010 . Comments Off on Plea for (gulp) the Senate bill

Plea for (gulp) the Senate bill

I just called Betty McCollum’s DC office and asked where she stood on passing the Senate plan. I was shocked that the office could not articulate a position on this. I can understand “yes,” I can understand “no,” but I can’t understand a leader sitting on her hands and waiting for more input. This is a crisis time and the outlines of the crisis have been evident for over a week. I’m afraid this wishy-washy response left me feeling like my congressperson is weak and ineffectual.

After this past year of wrangling back and forth, I find myself urging my representative to hold their nose and vote for the Senate bill. And not only vote, but lobby her on-the-fence colleagues HARD to do the same. Yes, I hate what the Senate did, I can’t stand, especially, the abortion provisions, the Nevada deal, and much more of the mess they made. But we have worked too hard and fought too many special interests to let this moment pass by. Democrats have everything they need to turn ashes into victory here. As bad as the Senate bill is, it is not “toxic.” That notion is poison being fed to the Hill from the right. It is, in fact, antidote. Passing a bill, even the Senate bill, is the only way to wake up the public to what has been good in this fight all along. Once it is a done deal, we can wake people up to all the positive things that are in the bill (yes, even in the Senate bill). Democrats gain nothing by letting the moment pass, all the real toxins, the negative thumping of the right wing, remains our baggage if we cave in now. The only way to refute lies is with demonstration, and we can only demonstrate with action, and the only path of action left is the Senate bill.

I know you are not in a position to carry the water on this. But you are all I’ve got. You can call your representative now, during most important week of the year that was and the year to come, and ask them where they stand. This will define Democrats. Governing is not about getting everything you want, it is about compromise. Can the Democrats govern? We have majorities in House and Senate and we have the White House. There is nobody else to blame. Can we govern? Can we compromise? Can we make sausage? Now we find out. Today. This week.

(Not sure who to call? Check with OpenCongress.)

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Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 / efc@clst.org