Sine Die for the Georgia General Assembly (updated)

Sine Die is not a rare but catastrophic outcome of trigonometry exam-induced stress (rimshot!) but the end of the General Assembly’s regular session at the Capitol in Atlanta. Barring any urgent business requiring a special session, this particular laboratory of democracy is just about done experimenting until next year.

Although the contemplation of a water war with Tennessee over where the state line crosses the Tennessee River has generated the most attention, far more immediately consequential bills revolve around the collection of taxes in Fulton County. HB 541 proposes doubling the Fulton County Homestead exemption to $60,000, while HB 346 would make the Fulton County Tax Commissioner an appointed official.

note: read here a point-counterpoint between north Fulton Republican and Speaker Pro Tem of the Georgia House Jan Jones and Democratic Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves on the impact of the homestead exemption….

update: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the homestead exemption bill’s supporters on Tuesday had largely given up hope of the bill reaching a Senate vote before the end of the session. It’s on the list of pending bills, but not likely to see a vote. that passage now seems likely (after who knows what horse-trading).

These bills join others passed last week that redistrict the Fulton County Commission to create a new Republican seat and give the Fulton County legislative delegation power to choose the head of the County elections board. These bills were sponsored by area Republicans and passed to the floor through a gerrymandered Fulton County delegation that tilts Republican despite the facts that Fulton County is a majority-minority county that voted by nearly two thirds for Barack Obama and five of seven County Commissioners are on record as opposing the slate of local legislation advanced by the Fulton County delegation.

This is an effort by a local minority to appeal to a higher level of government to win its agenda. Jim Galloway explains:

Finally, there was H.B. 347, a bill aimed at the Registration and Elections Board, which came under scrutiny last year when mismanagement caused more Fulton voters to use paper ballots than the rest of the state combined. The fix: allow Fulton’s state legislators, rather than the County Commission, to pick the board’s chairman. That would likely make the board 3-2 Republican rather than 3-2 Democratic.

All this would all happen in an overwhelmingly Democratic county that is 60 percent non-white.

When this involves invoking the Federal Voting Rights Act to protect racial minority interests, it’s an intolerable intrusion on liberty. When it involves a state majority engineering a potential partisan advantage in the administration of elections to boost a partisan minority’s chances, it’s democracy in action.

There’s no doubt that the redrawing of legislative boundaries in 2011 was done to pack the Fulton County legislative delegation with white Republicans (but I repeat myself) from the Atlanta suburbs (but I repeat repeating myself) by creating districts that include small parts of Fulton County and larger parts of outlying (and more conservative) counties. I wrote about this issue without specifying the extent of this districting technique. Johnny Edwards and David Wickert explain:

Until this year, Democrats held a 14-8 majority of Fulton County’s seats in the House and a 4-3 majority in the Senate. But in 2011 the Republican-controlled Legislature redrew House and Senate districts across the state based on 2010 census data.

Now Republicans enjoy a 13-12 edge in Fulton County House seats and a 7-4 majority in the Senate. To accomplish that, they extended districts into Fulton that previously had not included the county.

As a result, 13 of 36 state legislators whose districts now include a piece of Fulton live elsewhere. Four live in Cobb County. Two each live in DeKalb, Gwinnett and Fayette counties. Others live in Cherokee, Coweta and Forsyth. Eleven of the 13 lawmakers who live outside Fulton are Republicans.

State Senator Vincent Fort thinks, as this blog does, that this delegation-packing represents an effort to diminish the authority that local black elected officials can wield over white residents through county government:

“You have a bunch of white Republicans who just resent African-American political power and control over resources,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “They’re willing to do any and everything to take away African-American political power.”

State Senator Mike Crane, who lives 20 miles from the Fulton County line in Coweta and received 835 votes in his recent unopposed bid for reelection from Fulton County voters (out of more than 60,000 total votes), disagrees, and insists that

Fulton will benefit from the quality and principles of the people added to its delegation.

“Give us a little time,” he said. “We’ll prove it to you.”

This blog suspects that increasing the representation of people with two particular qualities–whiteness and Republicanism–were foremost in the minds of the architects of the redistricting. Over the course of this legislative session, those qualities have certainly proven to support a radical redirection of state policy affecting the county.

I also wrote some weeks ago that legislative delegations fall between the cracks of voting rights law. The courts have generally interpreted county legislative delegations as administrative units of the legislatures, meaning that if the districting and apportionment of the whole legislature pass muster under the VRA, then legislatures are largely free to determine the composition of legislative delegations. It doesn’t matter if all of the seats in a delegation lie within the county or not, how much of a county is contained in a seat that is part of the district, if the members of a county’s legislative delegation actually live in the county or not. Most importantly, while the Voting Rights Act protects the ability of minority group voters to elect representatives and guards against vote dilution, legislatures remain free to dilute the power of legislators within local delegations without running afoul of the VRA, on the assumption that these delegations remain subordinate to the legislature as a whole.

State Senator Jason Carter recognizes, in terms that echo this blog’s analysis, that the gerrymandering of the legislative delegation is part of a plan to bypass the Democratic majority in Fulton County, bring local legislation to the floor where the statewide GOP majority aligns with the GOP minority in north Fulton County, and ultimately to give that Republican minority the power to control elections in Fulton County:

“The next thing you do is pack a Fulton delegation with people from outside Fulton County…Then you give power to that gerrymandered delegation over the elections commission. At some point, someone’s going to say you’ve gone too far.

As Jim Galloway explains, this legal doctrine prevented Georgia Democrats from pursuing a suit under the Voting Rights Act to challenge the composition of the delegation. In this the Assembly may have crossed a line that would open the composition of the Fulton County delegation to scrutiny:

When legislative districts were presented to the U.S. Justice Department for approval – as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – Democrats declined to protest the GOP delegation packing.

By law, legislative delegations are only advisory bodies, it was determined. They had no real power.

But H.B. 347 changes that. With the signature of Gov. Nathan Deal, the Fulton legislative delegation will be given real, statutory authority over the county’s election committee. Republicans, Carter explained afterwards, may have just provided Democrats the leg they need to stand on in front of a federal judge and mount a challenge to GOP delegation packing.

We’ll see.

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New Work on Urban Form

My friend and colleague Andrew Whittemore and his co-author Sam Bass Warner discuss their book on the changing spatial form of American cities on Atlantic Cities

You write not only about the physical form of the city, but about their socio-economic divides as well. Tell us about how those divides have evolved and changed from our early compact cities to today’s sprawling metropolis with a center city and far-flung suburbs.

The American city is both an ever-changing physical presence and a social and political experiment. The first towns began with Englishmen and Hollanders and slaves from Africa, a beginning our nation is still trying to overcome. We know our urbanized nation today as compositions of highways, suburbs, scattered centers of all kinds. Compared to denser earlier eras it is a confusing physical brew where Americans are trying to live out a social and political goal of cities composed of citizen equals, regardless of color, sex, or class. Our book chronicles the conditions of the past and the progress made along the way. Today it is difficult to estimate what the new global corporate economy will do to our cities because the unexpected has always characterized urban history.

Read the whole article, then go buy the book!

Representation and Apportionment in Metropolitan America

The case of Lepak v. City of Irving(TX) will be considered for a hearing before the Supreme Court in its next term. This case, brought by the Project on Fair Representation, a conservative legal foundation responsible for Shelby County v. Holder (challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act) and Fisher v. University of Texas (challenging race-aware admissions measures in public universities), would seek to change the standard of apportionment from one based on district population to one based on the numbers of voters in a district.

It’s not hard to grasp the significance, as Adam Liptak writes in the NYT: 

Were the challengers in the new case to succeed, the practical consequences would be enormous, Joseph R. Fishkin, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin wrote last year in The Yale Law Journal.

It would, he said, “shift power markedly at every level, away from cities and neighborhoods with many immigrants and many children and toward the older, whiter, more exclusively native-born areas in which a higher proportion of the total population consists of eligible voters.”

In Irving, Texas, switching to a standard based on the number of voters would combine neighborhoods where Latino immigrants live with areas dominated by older white Anglos. In metro areas like Atlanta, it would further shift power in state legislatures toward suburbs. This case thus presents a recurrent problem: determining the relevant universe of people for apportionment is inherently political. The Project on Fair Representation would like to make this a discussion about formal principles rather than one about real-world power.

Wall Street vs. Woodward Avenue? (or, will Detroit’s Emergency Manager address predatory interest rate swaps?)

In a move that’s been anticipated for months and was presaged by last week’s release of a Michigan Treasury Department assessment (link to .pdf) of Detroit’s fiscal health and political willingness to pursue austerity measures, Governor Rick Snyder has used his controversial powers to appoint corporate bankruptcy attorney Kevyn D. Orr to oversee the governance of the state’s largest city.

Two closely intertwined points are in order, the first relating to the racial impacts of emergency management and the second to the kind of austerity measures that such management inevitably takes as the ability to control local affairs is stripped from local electorates. The Detroit decision means that nearly half of all African Americans in Michigan now live in cities where their elected officials have been supplanted by emergency managers appointed by a conservative Republican governor. Half of all black Michigan residents are denied the opportunity to elect the people who make decisions about their communities.

In the majority-black city of Benton Harbor in western Michigan, an emergency manager’s order effectively reduced elected officials in the city to figureheads, with the power to convene and adjourn meetings, but not to conduct any official business. In the Detroit suburb of Pontiac, Steven Yaccino and Monica Davey write in the NYT, a series of emergency managers who have controlled city government since 2009 have imposed similar constraints on elected officials, and undertaken an aggressive program of austerity (cutting the city budget from $57 to $36 million, a 37% reduction, and outsourcing city jobs to private contractors in the course of reducing the public payroll from 600 to 50 workers) and privatization (selling off the city’s fire trucks, parking meters, wastewater treatment facilities, and the Pontiac Silverdome stadium).

The symbolism of black political power in Michigan is, to say the least, conflicted.

21-joe-louis-fist-sculpture-in-the-middle-of-the-woodward-jefferson-avenue-intersection-iii

While many whites appear to accept the proposition that black self-government is doomed to failure through its own profligacy (such comments generally ignoring the history of white disinvestment from cities in racial transition), the substitution of managers appointed by a white conservative governor for officials elected by black voters is a serious provocation. As Pontiac councilman Donald Watkins argues,

“An emergency manager is like a man coming into your house…. He takes your checkbook, he takes your credit cards, he lives in your house and he sleeps in your bed with your wife.” Mr. Watkins added, “He tells you it’s still your house, but he doesn’t clean up, sells off everything and then he packs his bag and leaves.”

The appointment of Orr, an African American, to direct Detroit’s financial restructuring, is a concession that is absolutely vital to securing even minimum legitimacy for the manager’s decisions, which are likely to hurt.

The racially disproportionate impact of emergency management is also reflected in the way that the popular media addresses the roots of Detroit’s problems. The conviction of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on corruption charges supports an implicit argument made in the report advocating emergency management: that corrupt and incompetent leadership (particularly by Kilpatrick, the self-styled “hip hop mayor”) took Detroit’s problems from serious to terminal. There’s no doubt that Kilpatrick had a hand in many of the decisions that exacerbated an already bad situation in Detroit. But what has been scarcely acknowledged is that Kilpatrick had some very powerful partners in crime that haven’t been, and won’t be, facing any criminal charges.

As Darrell Preston and Chris Christoff report in Bloomberg, the City of Detroit currently owes at least $474 million in fees to Wall Street banks that it incurred as a result of financial deals it entered into in the early 2000s.

The city started borrowing to plug budget holes in 2005 under former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was convicted this week on corruption charges. That year, it issued $1.4 billion in securities to fund pension payments. Last year, it added $129.5 million in debt, 9.3 percent of its general-fund budget, in part to repay loans taken to service other bonds.

The loans were structured in an increasingly common form called an interest rate swap. As Andy Kroll writes in Mother Jonesthese are contracts in which

[a city and a bank] will “swap” interest rates with each other: the city will pay the bank a fixed rate—3 to 5 percent, say—to borrow money, and the bank will in return pay the city cash based on a floating, variable interest rate. (This is determined by some underlying source, like the LIBOR rate for short-term lending.) The point of a swap deal is that, when the economy was booming, cities could borrow from banks on the cheap, because their fixed payment rate was on par with or better than the bank’s floating rate.

In principle, this arrangement was intended to make borrowing cheaper for the city. What it did in practice, when interest rates fell after the crash, was create a new debt for the city when the floating interest payments it took from the banks fell far short of the fixed interest it owed back. The gap peaked at $439 million last spring, though rising interest rates have lowered it to “only” $350 million. In perspective, per Preston and Christoff, the burden of these swaps on Detroit in the form of

underwriting expenses, bond-insurance premiums and fees for wrong-way bets on swaps…. almost equals the city’s 2013 budget for police and fire protection.

But wait! one might argue. The city borrowed from banks to pay its bills, and thought that a rate swap was a good way to do it on the cheap. It didn’t work out, but them’s the breaks. Matt Taibbi’s report of similar swaps in Jefferson County, Alabama reflects not a good faith deal made between two informed parties, but

a billion-dollar predatory swap deal cooked up at the highest levels of America’s biggest banks, across a vast fruited plain of bribes and felonies — “the price of doing business,” as one JP Morgan banker says on tape — all the way down to Lisa Pack’s sewer bill and the mass layoffs in Birmingham.

Although Taibbi uses a lot of naughty words and colorful metaphors and accuses powerful bankers of fraud and other felonies, he’s still the best reporter covering this issue, and the one most willing to cut through the complex jargon of the financial sector so that the layman can grasp what’s happening in these kinds of complex transactions. Please, read the whole report, and this other one about the rigging of interest rates on municipal bond offerings. Interest rate swaps have been a disaster for cash-strapped municipalities across the United States, a way for Wall Street to pick the bones of local governments already desperate for cash that frequently creates even worse obligations that have pushed local governments to bankruptcy.

As for Detroit? As Preston and Christoff report,

The city makes periodic swap payments from money generated by casinos.

If it weren’t so horrifying it might be poetic.

Detroit’s problems aren’t wholly attributable to interest rate swaps, of course; the city’s finances have been in a conjoined decline with its industrial economy and population for decades. But the amount that Detroit owes its counterparties in these swaps purely as a result of the difference between the interest rates on money flows from the city to the banks and the banks back to the city exceeds the larges annual deficit that Detroit has run in the last 10 years. It’s a theft from a city that needs every dime it can scrape up to fund its other obligations, and the failure to discuss interest rate swaps as a part of Detroit’s problems borders on criminal. When the history of the economic crash and its effects on communities around the United States is written, interest rate swaps are going to rank with the automobile, the Federal Housing Administration, and urban renewal as forces that remade metropolitan America.

In the immediate future, will Orr’s plan of attack include seeking legal authority to extricate Detroit from its predatory swap arrangements? Or will the residents of Detroit be forced again to bear the burden of decisions made by others?

Voting Rights Challenge to Metro Atlanta Municipal Incorporations Dismissed (and the right wing notices!)

A three judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of the voting rights suit Lowery v. Deal on February 4. This decision was not unexpected, but skirts many questions about the suit, the historical context of racial (and “post-racial”) conflict under which the cities in question incorporated, the ethics of allowing residents of a small privileged locality to decide unilaterally to incorporate without regard to the effects on the metro area as a whole, and the proper interpretation of vote dilution in a metropolitan context. Continue reading

Thomas Friedman and Bad-Faith Technological Utopianism

Thomas Friedman’s enthusiastic embrace of MOOC [Massive Open-Enrollment Online Courses] as a fix for the problem of higher education costs is troubling, because a Friedman endorsement generally signals both that an idea has become part of the establishment consensus and that it’s completely wrong. I’m not here to conduct an extensive critical mockery of Friedman; It can be left to the professionals or to random content generators, and I don’t have the time. Nor am I here to explore the politics of online education as the latest utopian fix for the inherent contradictions of providing a labor-intensive service on a mass scale on the cheap. That task is expertly handled by Jonathan Rees at his place.

But I do want to highlight Friedman’s lede:

I just spent the last two days at a great conference convened by M.I.T. and Harvard on “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education” — a k a “How can colleges charge $50,000 a year if my kid can learn it all free from massive open online courses?”

We’ve all got room to improve as writers, myself included. But even I feel competent to make an intervention as an occasional ad-hoc teacher of writing and argument (and more on that in a bit). You should revise your essay if you lead with a rhetorical question that can be immediately turned back on you in a way that exposes the illogic of your entire case, like so:

So, Thomas Friedman, if your daughters Orly and Natalie were today preparing for matriculation at Yale and Williams, would you pay a half million dollars of your wife’s shopping mall fortune to enroll them, given that they could just enroll in a Coursera MOOC for free? 

Presumably, Friedman’s answer is “yes,” so unless he’s a fraud or a fool, he owes some accounting of his reasons to his readers, who, possessing the mental capacity to turn on a computer or flip the pages of the Times, most likely arrived at some variation of the question I just posed within nanoseconds of reading Friedman’s first paragraph.

But Friedman can’t or won’t provide those answers because he’s deliberately obfuscating a crucial point. His kids, the ones whose educations cost $50,000 a year, are not the market for the Glorious MOOC Revolution, and never will be. Mediated encounters with a small number of elite professors will be the product that non-elite institutions offer to their students at discounted tuition (but not for free) in place of actual encounters with actual professors, with whom they might converse, joke, build relationships, or even disagree.

I’ve gained some perspective on this because I’m currently on a visiting faculty position at one of the $50,000-a-year institutions that Friedman would have us believe are the bloated supertankers of higher education, the dinosaurs ripe to be slain by the tsunami of online courses (is that an adequate simulacrum of Friedmanesque mixed metaphor?). The institution I’m visiting has had its own brushes with infamy lately, but it certainly doesn’t feel threatened by online courses. Rather, it sees itself as jumping on the train before it gets too far out of the station, placing its brand on the products that institutions further down the ladder will license when the MOOC revolution matures.

One thing I can say with certainty is that these courses will not be the courses fetching top-dollar on campus. I had a wonderful exchange today with my upper-division undergrad students in “Making Modern Atlanta.” The context was Kevin Kruse’s argument in White Flight that the political consciousness whites formed in resisting integration in Atlanta and ultimately in fleeing to the suburbs was the foundation for contemporary conservatism. We discussed the rhetoric of equality of opportunity and its imagined counterpart equality of outcome, the overt and hidden elements of public policy that undermine this equality and sustain suburban privileges as social entitlements, the mechanisms by which the overtly racial oppressions of history are reproduced as problems of human and social capital that happen to map onto racial segregation. My students referenced historical and sociological insights, elements of critical race theory, and populist politics. One of my favorite moments of the whole semester happened today when a student upended our whole discussion by pointing out that Kruse’s arguments about how suburban whites found their affinity for Republican Party policies, though quite compelling on their own, did little to help us grasp how elite interests might be implicated in this political change. I’m continually amazed by the connections my students draw across the readings. I could be convinced that this kind of exchange is theoretically possible in the context of a MOOC, but I will never be convinced that it is particularly likely.

I don’t say this to boast about my particular skill as an educator. I take pride in facilitating this discussion, but the credit for making it happen lies with my students. I and they just happened to be connected by mutual presence, face to face, in a small classroom. At this institution, my labor is an input that is valued highly enough to be considered cost-effective in a class of 13 enrolled students. Because these are the conditions under which I teach–because the institution and its tuition-paying stakeholders, including parents of Thomas Friedman’s social class, accept small classes and interaction with faculty as value-added propositions–I can learn from my students. I can build relationships with them that allow one student to respectfully challenge my choices in crafting the syllabus, prompting a discussion about the role of multiple agents in social change. They can know each other. I suspect that on occasion they can walk out of class, out of earshot, and discuss my outdated popular culture references or agree that I might possibly be full of  it.

I will return in the fall to teaching at an institution where faculty labor fetches a lower price on a per-student/hour basis as an input to education. This is a pragmatic choice my home institution makes as a compromise to avert tuition hikes or increased demands on state support (mostly the latter). I can respect that the institution’s leadership makes choices in a context of constraint, and I work very hard to make the kinds of interactions I enjoyed today part of the class experience there, even with several times as many students. If the powerful political constituencies who are aligned behind the drive for a bachelor’s degree that costs the same as a used pickup truck have their way, however, universities like my home institution may be not only tempted but compelled to replace time with me with time in front of a screen, observing lectures by a professor whom students will never meet in person. Again, I don’t want to boast, but I think my students deserve more of me. Or, if not of me, more of a professor with a personal investment in their educations, who might someday read their name out loud as they cross a stage at graduation, or who has to look them in the eye if a day’s lesson falls flat, or who can engage in an in-person eyeball test to determine if a concept is understood. They deserve education done well above education done cheaply.

Friedman writes that

We demand that plumbers and kindergarten teachers be certified to do what they do, but there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach. No more. The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.

This is the most pernicious deception Friedman perpetrates. There is competition afoot here, but it’s not about the professor in the classroom. The profs who will be providing the content when the MOOC becomes the MFTOC (Massive For-Profit Tuition-Paid Online Course) will be those fortunately affiliated with an institution whose brand is commercially valuable to Coursera or other providers. Contracts signed between university administrators and software company executives will certify which faculty are qualified to replace dozens or hundreds of others.

It’s odd, isn’t it, that the difference between my pedagogical value today and in five years time could depend not on what I do with and for my students but on who signs my checks?