Friday, November 16, 2012

'Iowa Nice' & the Compromise Three-Step

November 16, 2012, 7:20 a.m.

"How the County Can Get to 'Yes' on the Justice Center"
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
November 16, 2012, p. A7

The Justice Center bond proposal was defeated November 6. What’s next?

That’s what the County Supervisors and their supporters are asking.

Some want to turn up the volume on their megaphone, spend more on better public relations and advertising, and push the original proposal one more time – kind of like a Hawkeyes’ fourth-and-goal brute force effort.

But Supervisor Terrence Neuzil says, "I’m not interested in putting the same proposal in front of the voters that just voted it down." He thinks, "the proposed center [could] use some changes." Supervisor Janelle Rettig notes the racial disparity of those who stay in jail for longer than a week. County Attorney Janet Lyness thinks supporters should include in their future discussions those who oppose the bond.

These folks are setting the right tone and strategy. Brute force reeks of the City Council's recent effort to end run a public vote when giving away taxpayers’ money to private profit projects. Or the School Board’s attempt to sell property owners on funding schools with a sales tax that will fall hardest on the poor – until the tail on this scorpion flips back on them years later.

The Justice Center, by contrast, can emerge from democracy at its best.

Consider: Many opponents acknowledge that “something” is needed. Many supporters have serious concerns. Unlike in Washington, D.C., a Johnson County compromise is possible.

Both supporters and opponents left a lot of alternatives on the table, and can bring to it a substantial reservoir of civility -- to everyone's credit.

There is no need for consultants, meaningless surveys, and endless discussions that never reach conclusions -- except the agreement to have yet another meeting. We can work this out.

I would make one suggestion that’s worked elsewhere.

Find one or two persons willing to do some writing. Task them to put forth each of the advocates' assertions for, and opponents' assertions against, the current proposal.

Second, have them meet, first with selected groups of supporters, and then with opponents, to come up with the best responses each group provides to the others' arguments. Revise the first paper accordingly (including both assertions and responses).

Third, select representatives of both camps who seem to be the most inclined to rational, analytical, data-driven, civil discourse. See what kind of a compromise proposal, if any, can be created when they meet.

My allotted 500 words don’t permit itemizing all arguments pro and con, let alone possible compromises. Many have appeared in these pages over the past few weeks, including an earlier column of mine embedded in To them, Supervisor Rettig has recently added “building in stages.”

Discussion can be constructive; it is essential. But it can be multiples more efficient and effective if it is focused on written documents, revised as the discussion progresses.

In my experience, this approach can produce a tangible product from the discussion, greater likelihood of agreement, and a record of the process.

It also just might produce a Justice Center proposal with over 60 percent support.
Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law, formerly served on the local school board, and maintains and

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Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Now What? Organize to Pressure Congress

November 7, 2012 3:25 p.m. -- Note: The latest blog entry, November 8, 2012, regarding the failed proposal for a bond issue-funded new Johnson County Justice Center, is embedded at the beginning of the October 15 blog entry on that subject (which also contains the Press-Citizen op ed column): "Prisons: The Costs and Challenges of Crime," and can be found there.

"When the People Lead, the Leaders Will Follow"
-- Mahatma Gandhi (attributed, but no source)
"The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us; it’s about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self- government. That’s the principle we were founded on."
-- President Barack Obama, "Election Night Speech," Chicago, November 6, 2012
(And, from 2008: "This victory . . . is not the change we seek; it is only the chance for us to make that change. . . . It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice." President Barack Obama, "Victory Speech," Chicago, November 4, 2008.)

President Obama won re-election. The morning after the night before, how are you feeling about that? Joyous? Depressed? Ho, hum?

Regardless of your answer, we all have a lot of work to do.

The Challenges
  • We're still not dealing meaningfully with climate change.

  • We still have troops in 150 countries, the remnants of two wars, and a Defense Department budget that's greater than the military expenditures of the next ten largest countries' combined.

  • Unemployment. Meager growth. Rotting infrastructure.

  • We're paying more, and getting less, for increasing healthcare costs that produce life expectancy and infant mortality stats near the bottom of the industrialized world.

  • We get similar comparative results for our K-12 educational expenditures.

  • Those most responsible for our economic difficulties haven't been prosecuted, nor have their successors been effectively restrained from personally profiting by creating the same disaster all over again.

  • Taxes have been driven down to levels that require us to put our ongoing expenses on a credit card. This creates annual deficits in the $1 trillion range, which have accumulated into a national debt of $16 trillion. We're quickly coming to the place in the road where Congress last kicked the can, the so-called "fiscal cliff" of program cuts and tax increases that most concede will be disastrous if we don't change course.
  • You undoubtedly have many more challenges you could add to this list.

    Impediments to Solutions

    My point is not that "it's hopeless; we're doomed." Quite the contrary. Solutions for each of these, and more, can be created and proposed with the application of reason, rational analysis, and the use of science, data and best practices. Solutions are not "easy," but they are possible. That's not our problem.

    The problem is Washington gridlock, and the money and lobbying power of special interests. The problem has been that one party controls the House and has the capacity to prevent action in the Senate -- and that it chooses to use this power to obstruct any proposals from the White House that might contribute to President Obama serving more than one term.

    That goal is no longer available. President Obama has been elected to a second term, and the Constitution prevents his being elected to a third. But continuing obstruction may still be perceived as an attractive way to maintain that party's House and Senate control. Nothing said so far suggests the likelihood of any change in party strategy. With so many of the obstructionists coming from safe districts, meaningful challenges to their longevity only come from primaries in which they are attacked from the right for not being conservative enough. Intransigence may be seen by their constituents as a virtue.

    A Possible Strategy

    There's an anecdote regarding President Franklin Roosevelt's response to advocates of various progressive ideas. He would listen, and then tell them, in effect, “I agree with you. Now you go out there and make me do it” -– at least with Frances Perkins (Social Security) and A. Philip Randolph (civil rights legislation), and probably many more. His point, of course, was a variant of the old adage, “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.” It’s very difficult to pass legislation over the opposition of the special interests without overwhelming popular awareness, involvement and support.

    One of those efforts to "make him do it," was "Cox's Army." "In January 1932, Cox led a march of 25,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians, dubbed 'Cox's Army,' on Washington, D.C, the largest demonstration to [that] date in the nation's capital. He hoped the action would stir Congress to start a public works program and to increase the inheritance tax tax to 70%." "James Renshaw Cox,"

    I have been, and remain, hopeful that Senator Obama, as president, will follow President Roosevelt's example. I base this on a conversation I had with Obama in April 2007, his experience as a community organizer, his 50-state-strategy during the 2008 primary, and his millions of ground troops, contributors and email addressees in 2012.

    Marches on Washington, and other creative and peaceful demonstrations are still effective. But the Internet and mobile networks can be even faster, cheaper and more effective to organize -- as we saw during "the Arab spring." "Asmaa Mahfouz: Democracy's Heroine." There are Web pages, blogs, email, text messages, Skype video conversations, Tweets, Facebook, and the possibility of "circulating" petitions online to pick up thousands of signatures in the course of a day. Those who might be unwilling or unable to take three or four days off from work to travel to Washington, are often able to take 15 seconds to sign an online petition.

    When a president can't legislate, he can at least educate. "Legislating, Educating: Obama as Community Organizer."

    If President Obama was willing, able, and comfortable doing so, he might pick one to a half-dozen things he wants to accomplish during the next four years that will require some measure of Congressional support, pick one at a time, and tour the country as if back in campaign mode -- focusing on the states and districts of those elected officials who are providing the most opposition. He, and preexisting organizations with some coordination, could email those officials' constituents likely to support the proposal, who could then engage in demonstrations, phone, mail, and email communications focused on the official.

    This is the way defense contractors, and other large manufacturers, do it with their suppliers and customers, and it ought to be at least somewhat effective for the rest of us.

    I wish it were otherwise, but it's not. Executive branch agencies, and so-called "independent regulatory commissions," tend to be covered by a pro-industry trade press, rather than general media. The congressional committees that determine the agencies' appropriations, legislation, and oversight tend to be made up of elected officials who come from areas impacted by those industries, and whose campaigns are funded by them. The agencies' employees are wined and dined by representatives of the industry. (In the case of the agency responsible for monitoring BP prior to the Gulf oil spill, it turned out the employees were literally sleeping with industry representatives.) And industry representatives often have easier access to the supervising cabinet officers and White House staff than the agency heads themselves.

    As The Smothers Brothers' head writer Mason Williams once said, "You can't fight the system from within, because the system is from within." It's one of those observations that rings true even though you can't quite figure out what it means. The point is simply that with the pressures on, and from within, Washington, it is not likely that any one individual can do much to change that one-industry town's institutional behavior -- even if that one person is the President of the United States.

    If not "any one individual," then who? The initially small group created by that individual, one that expands into a larger group, whether one thousand or one million, that's who. For dozens of examples see the "List of protest marches on Washington, D.C.," As Margaret Mead put it, "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." "Margaret Mead,

    Yesterday was Barak Obama's "last hurrah." At this point he's just running for the history books. For four years he's tried Mr. Nice Guy. He's tried executive orders. If he has a better option than Community Organizer-in-Chief, educating and then legislating -- with our help -- let us know what it is and we'll join him in that effort.

    But Washington, as it is, cannot save us. We have to save ourselves. The list of crises is just growing longer each day. "Mr. President, please lead, follow, or get out of the way." Here we come.

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