A selection of recent news stories with an ILSR insight into “The Public Good.”
State Universities Chase Non-State Students | State Authority Trumps Local Democracy |Trophy Hunting: Unnatural and Unconscionable | Are School Closings Racist? | Why Have We Let the Most Wasteful and Corrupt Federal Agency Off the Hook?
State Universities Chase Non-State Students
For more than a century, the state public university was embraced as a free or nearly free public good offering to all state residents “an uncommon education for the common man.” In 1906, University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise vowed to “never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in the state.” State taxes paid for state universities to teach state residents the skills not only to gain rewarding employment but to bolster the the polity with informed citizenship.
These lofty goals from the early part of the 20th century are being severely compromised in the early years of the 21st century. Stephanie Saul in the New York Times reports that since the 2008 recession, states have reduced spending on public higher education by 17 percent. As recently as 2002, the University of California system relied on state money for almost a quarter of its budget. Now, that figure is 9 percent.
To make up for these cuts state universities have massively increased tuition, burdening students with hundreds of billions of dollars in debt and shrinking higher education opportunities for those in need. More recently, state universities have turned to soliciting out-of-state students.
From 2010 to 2014, for example, the number of California residents enrolled in state universities declined by 1 percent, or 2,200 students, while nonresidents increased by 82 percent, or 18,000 students. In California, nonresident enrollment has been about 15.5 percent on U.C. campuses over all, but as high as 29 percent at the marquee Berkeley.
The University of Michigan student body of 43,625 is composed of nearly 37 percent out-of-staters and 14 percent international students. The University of Alabama’s student body of 37,000 is comprised of more than 50 percent nonresidents.
It’s simple economics. Teaching out-of-state students is far more profitable than teaching residents. In 2015, nonresident students paid $37,000 to attend the University of California, more than three times the $12,240 paid by California residents.
Adding insult to injury, colleges award billions of dollars in tuition scholarships to out-of-state residents, shrinking the amount available to poorer households. In 2015 Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus gave $100 million in merit aid. They are rewarded with high-achieving students from affluent families who raise average test scores, a metric used by commercial ratings groups to rank colleges.
As out-of-state enrollment increases, universities admit fewer minority and low-income students. The New York Times reported in 2004 that more freshmen at the Ann Arbor campus came from families with annual income of $200,000 or more than from families with less than the median national income of $53,000.
The dramatic reduction in state support to state universities coupled with equally dramatic tuition increases and ever-higher proportions of out-of-state students have already led some state schools to take the next step and become private universities. In 2013, Marian Wang at Pacific Standard discussed this new dynamic and the debate around it.
State Authority Trumps Local Democracy
In 2013 the City Council of Denton, Texas gave gas and oil companies permission to drill near neighborhoods and schools. In a refreshing display of local democracy the good citizens of Denton, Texas put the issue on the ballot and in November 2014, despite being outspent 10 to 1 by oil and gas companies, Dentonians voted 59-41 to ban further fracking.
Almost immediately, the GOP-dominated Texas state legislature passed a law forbidding any locality from banning fracking. Denton’s own state representative voted against the will of his constituents.
In the American Prospect, Abby Rapoport reports on the tsunami of pre-emption drowning local democracy throughout the country. Earlier this year, the Arizona legislature passed a bill that punishes cities that try to assert their autonomy. Any state legislator can ask the state attorney general to determine if a local ordinance is in conflict with state law. If he does make that determination, the town or city will have just 30 days to reverse the measure or be stripped of its share of state funds.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) the corporations’ vehicle for state lobbying, currently offers five model bills explicitly designed to preempt local democracy. Last year Jon Russell, the director of the American City County Exchange (ACCE), ALEC’s local government initiative, distributed a call-to-action titled “Preemption Laws Provide Backstop for Localized Progressive Politics.”
It should come as no surprise that a 2015 survey of 89 mayors in 31 states conducted by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities showed most mayors feel they have a worse relationship with their state legislature than with the federal government.
Will the courts come to the rescue? Regrettably, no. The issue was decided 150 years ago when Judge John Forest Dillon, Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court and one of the most influential authorities of his time on municipal law declared in an 1868 decision, “Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control.”
“Judge Dillon had a basis for being so harsh on local officials. He lived during what was probably the lowest point in the history of America’s cities,” observed Clay L. Writ, then Deputy Director of the Virginia Municipal League.
Many of our cities’ governments were sodden with corruption and inefficiency, and political machines and bosses controlled the day, particularly in big cities. Graft was shamelessly accepted in the many new public works projects and public utility franchises brought about by the changing technology and rapidly expanding growth. Lord Bryce of England, perhaps the most noted foreign scholar of American politics at the time, most succinctly summed up the era in his writings in 1888. He wrote, “There is no denying that the government of cities is one conspicuous failure of the United States.”
One hundred fifty years later the vast majority of cities are well-governed, independently audited and admirably well-managed. Moreover, many state constitutions have been changed to give cities “home rule” authority. Nevertheless, the Dillon doctrine continues to guide judicial decisions in many states and in all states its essential principal of almost complete subordination of the popular will of a community to the dictates of a state legislature is almost universally accepted.
An emerging court case, in Alabama is using a novel strategy to defend local autonomy. Alabama is one of the few states without a minimum wage. Thus 40,000 Birmingham residents make just $7.25 an hour (the federal minimum wage). Many must rely on taxpayer-supported welfare in the form of food stamps and public housing to make ends meet.
In August 2015, after much debates and a ton of research, the City Council decided to increase the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2017.Before the ordinance could go into effect, the governor called a special session that rolled back the measure.
Greater Birmingham Ministries, the Alabama Chapter of the NAACP and others are suing the state. As Rapoport describes, “The case is predicated on how quickly the majority-white legislature overrode a majority-black city council on a matter that would disproportionately impact African American workers, and on the character of the 1901 Alabama Constitution, which embraces state preemption. That constitution also still allows for a literacy test to vote, outlaws intermarriage, and requires segregation in education. (Federal law and Supreme Court decisions have rendered most of these laws unenforceable.) The suit argues that when state legislators rely on the preemption authority given by such an openly racist document, they are showing a similar discriminatory intent.”
Trophy Hunting: Unnatural and Unconscionable
In Monthly Review, Alexander Simon makes a compelling case that trophy hunting has no place in a civilized world. He makes clear he is not taking on hunting per se, citing with approval Doug Smith, chief wildlife biologist in charge of Yellowstone’s wolf reintroduction plan and a lifelong hunter’s comment, “(W)ell over 95 percent of the hunters…are recreational hunters…. [Y]ou don’t need that deer or elk every year…. I greatly enjoy hunting, even if I don’t get anything… I prefer to eat wild meat, but I don’t need it.”
Not all hunters pose a threat to bio-diversity and the last remnants of wilderness. But as iconic conservationist and ecologist Aldo Leopold has written, trophy hunters do. “(T)he trophy-hunter… never grows up…to enjoy (He)…must possess, invade, appropriate.”
Leopold was one of the first to note that apex predators, like wolves and mountain lions, by killing the weakest and most vulnerable members of a species, play key roles in maintaining the health of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Human trophy hunters do the opposite, intentionally removing the brawniest males with the largest antlers or horns and highest breeding value from the wildlife population. This “unnatural selection” reduces antler size and body size in roe deer and horn size and body size in mountain sheep and likely compromises the long-term viability of a wide variety of species.
Trophy hunters demand easy, comfortable and convenient access to game. Why walk when you can drive over new roads deep into wilderness areas? Why drive when you can hire airplanes or charter boats and guides, achieving kill rates far, far above those of the native population? In Alaska, one study found that the brown bear kill rate for non-Alaskans was 55 percent, while for Alaskans it was only 8.7 percent.
To overcome the natural limits to the number of “trophy quality” specimens ecosystems are capable of producing animals are selectively bred and raised in captivity on game farms. In some cases, the animals are “hunted” in pens too small to allow them any chance of evading humans who have purchased the right to kill them. Simon notes that some of the buck deer on these farms have been selectively bred to the point that their antlers impede their ability to hold their heads up and move freely.
For fees ranging from $9,950 to $14,500, the Texas Hunt Lodge offers its guests the opportunity to obtain a “Texas Slam” award from Trophy Game Records of the World. This prize requires killing a Sitka deer, an axis deer, a fallow deer, and a blackbuck antelope. All are bred on the ranch’s property. Potential guests are assured, “We can accommodate hunters of any age and experience level, as well as hunters which have physical disabilities or may be confined to a wheelchair.”
As noted, Simon does not condemn all hunting. He cites Leopold’s observation that at best hunting can teach respect and understanding of wildlife as well as patience and restraint. But these are most clearly not the goals of many modern hunters. Consider the “hunts” of former Vice President Dick Cheney. “Cages containing pheasants were reportedly rattled to confuse the captive birds, who were then released in front of Cheney and his companions. Together they killed 417 pheasants; Cheney was credited with 70 of these kills. In a later Hunt Cheney’s eagerness to kill led him to violate several gun safety rules, famously ending up shooting one his hunting companions, leaving him wounded and permanently disfigured.
Are School Closings Racist?
In Truthout, Mike Ludwig discusses the racial impact of neighborhood school closures. In May of 2014, civil rights organizers in Newark, Chicago and New Orleans filed complaints with the Department of Education demanding federal intervention to stop a wave of neighborhood school closures that overwhelmingly affected communities of color. More than two years later, the federal government has done nothing in two of the cities and little in a third.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated southern Louisiana in 2005, a state-run board took over the New Orleans school district, fired thousands of local teachers and initiated the most aggressive consolidation and privatization campaign in the nation. Public schools in poor black neighborhoods were closed at much higher rates than those with predominantly white students. After the closures the district often failed to provide them with adequate educational alternatives.
State and local officials use metrics attached to state and federal funding incentives (e.g. enrollment numbers, high-stakes testing scores) to identify and shut down schools, observes Jitu Brown, a community organizer in Chicago and national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, an organization of grassroots civil rights groups in 23 cities fighting for community-based solutions to failing schools.
Many schools targeted for closure lack the resources available to wealthier, whiter schools. In Chicago for example, schools in those neighborhoods enjoy teacher’s aides in every classroom and librarians on staff at all times, while schools in lower-income neighborhoods of color do not. Illinois is one of 14 states with “regressive” school funding formulas that spend less money on districts with more low-income students.
More than 100 Chicago schools have been closed in the past 15 years, 49 in 2013 alone. Black and Latino children were most likely to be displaced by school closures.
A recent Rice University study found that 27 school closures in Houston, Texas disproportionately displaced poor and Black students, and the closures were not associated with any academic gains among these students besides some small, short-term gains in math. Low-performing students and students of color were moved to schools that were only slightly better performing than the schools they came from. Ludwig notes several studies that suggest that displacing students can actually harm their academic performance if they don’t land in significantly higher-performing schools.
For those proposing charters as the solution, Ludwig also points to studies that indicate that many exhibit a pattern of exclusion that force already-marginalized students out of school in order to improve the school’s performance and attractiveness.
Civil rights advocates argue that the disruption caused by school closures reinforces a tragic dynamic, increasing the chances students will skip class and even drop out of school, further lowering enrollment numbers and graduation rates in districts already being punished for underperforming.
“Plus, when schools close, neighborhoods lose places to gather, learn and access public services. Children and alumni lose a place where they learned, played and made memories,” Ludwig maintains. Jessica Shiller, a “scholar-activist” who teaches education at Towson University in Baltimore, a city in the middle of a plan to close and consolidate 26 schools by 2022. Shutting down neighborhood schools is one of the worse things policy makers can do, especially in low-income neighborhoods, she observed. “That school is where kids get meals and have a relationship with somebody outside the family, a person watching them during the day; it’s where they play basketball, it’s a place to gather and see friends.”
Why Have We Let the Most Wasteful and Corrupt Federal Agency Off the Hook?
In 2011, I posed the question, “Why is the one part of government that best epitomizes everything conservatives say they hate about government— waste, incompetence, and corruption—all but exempt from conservative criticism?” I was talking about the Department of Defense, which consumes over half of the entire discretionary budget of the United States.
In 1994, the Government Management Reform Act required the Inspector General of each federal agency to audit and publish the financial statements of their agency. The Department of Defense was the only agency that has been unable to comply.
How did Congress’ respond to DOD’s delinquency? It gave it absolution and allowed it to opt out of its legal requirement. It did require DOD to set a date when it would have its book sufficiently in order to be audited. Which the Pentagon dutiful did, and missed every one of the target dates. The latest is 2017 and DOD has already announced it will be unable to meet that deadline.
In 2002 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted, “we cannot track $2.3 trillion in transactions.” Nine years later Secretary of Defense Robert Gates conceded, “My staff and I learned that it was nearly impossible to get accurate information and answers to questions such as ‘How much money did you spend’ and ‘How many people do you have?’ ”
The Defense Logistics Agency had no use for parts worth more than half of the $13.7 billion in equipment stacked up in DOD warehouses in 2006 to 2008. “We have about $14 billion of inventory…, and probably half of that is excess to what we need,” Navy Vice Admiral Mark Harnitchek, the director of the Defense Logistics Agency, told an audience in 2013. (The Defense Department defines “excess inventory” as anything more than a three-year supply.)
“Over the past 10 years, the Defense Department has signed contracts for the provision of more than $3 trillion in goods and services. How much of that money is wasted in overpayments to contractors, or was never spent and never remitted to the Treasury, is a mystery,” Scot Paltrow wrote after an investigation into DOD accounting practices for Reuters in 2013.
For years, the Inspector General – the Defense Department’s official auditor – has inserted a disclaimer on all military annual reports. The accounting is so unreliable that “the basic financial statements may have undetected misstatements that are both material and pervasive.”
In a December 2012 report, the GAO found that to eliminate an astonishing backlog of 450,000 contracts by the Army, the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) raised to $250 million from $15 million the threshold value at which a contract is automatically audited.
The Air Force’s Expeditionary Combat Support System was intended to provide for the first time a single system to oversee transportation, supplies, maintenance and acquisitions, replacing scores of costly legacy systems. Work got under way in 2005. Delays and costs mounted. In late 2012, the Air Force conducted a test run. The data that poured out was mostly gibberish. The Air Force killed the project.
The system “has cost $1.03 billion … and has not yielded any significant military capability,” the Air Force said in a November 2012 announcement. Fixing the system would cost an additional $1.1 billion, it said, and even then, it would do only about a quarter of the tasks originally intended, and not until 2020.
No one can even agree on how many of these accounting and business systems are in use. The Pentagon itself puts the number at 2,200 spread throughout the military services and other defense agencies. A January 2012 report by a task force of the Defense Business Board, an advisory group of business leaders appointed by the secretary of defense, put the number at around 5,000.
In November 2009 the Pentagon’s Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), the federal watchdog responsible for auditing oversight of military contractors, raised the question of criminal wrongdoing when it found that the audits that did occur were riddled with serious breaches of auditor independence. One Pentagon auditor admitted he did not perform detailed tests because, “The contractor would not appreciate it.”
Spotty accounting allows for such pilfering. But there may be another reason the Pentagon doesn’t crack down on contractors? From 2004 to 2008, 80 percent of retiring three and four star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives. “In almost any other realm it would seem a clear conflict of interest. But this is the Pentagon where…such apparent conflicts are a routine fact of life”, an in-depth investigation by the Boston Globe concluded.
In August 2016, Paltrow revisited the Pentagon financial mess. Nothing had changed. He reported on a June finding by DOD’s Inspector General that the Army made $2.8 trillion in wrongful adjustments to accounting entries in one quarter alone in 2015, and $6.5 trillion for the year. Yet the Army lacked receipts and invoices to support those numbers or simply made them up. As a result, the Army’s financial statements for 2015 were “materially misstated.” The “forced” adjustments rendered the statements useless.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 imposes criminal penalties on corporate managers who certify false financial reports. “The concept of Sarbanes-Oxley is completely foreign” to the Pentagon, says Mike Young, a former Air Force logistics officer who for years has been a consultant on, and written about, Defense Department logistics.