Friday, May 18, 2007

milan to mumbai runs for office

Assuming that I still have any readers, I should perhaps explain my lengthy hiatus. The latter resulted in part from foreign travels (China, Israel, and Italy, the first two of which I blogged) but also from my maiden political campaign, an effort to win a school board position as a Republican in an increasingly Democratic inner suburb in Pennsylvania. Thus far I have completed the primary but not general election stage. To make a long story short, I and my running mate--we fielded only two candidates for five total positions--were successful in the Republican primary, but finished several hundred votes short on the Democratic side, meaning that we will be on the ballot in November but face an uphill task given a 3:1 or better Democratic registration advantage. (Most candidates "cross-file" in Pa. school board elections, meaning that they run in both the Democratic and Republican primaries, a system that is intended to make elections less political but probably winds up making them more confusing; more on this system later on.)

Given the mixed success above, what have I learned from the experience? Well, a lot of things, although with a race still to run I can't put all of them in writing. But here are a few starters:

1. Policy generally, and tax policy in particular, are more or less useless in the real world. One of our ballot questions this year concerned a proposal to replace part of the school property tax with either (i) an earned income or (ii) a full-blown income tax. Any first year tax student could rank these taxes in order of policy attractiveness: the full income tax, which has the broadest and arguably fairest tax base first; the earned income tax second; and real property taxes, plagued by liquidity, valuation, and other problems, a distant third. In the real world, both major parties opposed the change, realizing that (a) old taxes are usually better than new ones (the people whose taxes are lowered are never as grateful as those whose taxes are raised become furious), and (b) the quirks of the Pennsylvania constitution mean that those residents who work in the city of Philadelphia are already paying the earned income tax, so that a new tax would be paid exclusively by those who don't, exempting many high wage-earners altogether. One extremely industrious accountant prepared a lengthy memorandum explaining the correct approach from a tax policy perspective; he got 30 write-in votes.

2. Voters, at any rate frequent voters, are much smarter and better informed than you think. The problem comes from lack of perspective and difficulty in distinguishing one's own interests from those of the broader community. On the campaign trail, I was repeatedly struck by how much people knew about the School Board--many watched the meetings on a local TV channel and could cite individual members and decisions--but also by the narrowness of some people's focus and the persistence of soft prejudices against members of other religious/ethnic groups. The latter, by the way, goes in both directions: while some people don't like Jews or Blacks, there are many liberals who return the favor, dismissing Catholic or simply white ethnics as "working class" (whatever that means) or saying that they don't share our "values," which are often undefined and easily become a surrogate for ethnic differences. I should add that my area is generally pretty tolerant, and I heard little outright racism or sexism during the campaign; but there is definitely a higher comfort level with members of one's own group which showed up in the campaign and its results.

3. Politics works a lot better in smaller than larger units. For all the limitatons in #2 above, most people seemed pretty conversant with local issues and made their choices--whether for or (often) against me--on the basis of substantive issue. The contrast with national politics, which is increasingly emotional and polarized, could not have been more obvious.

What recommendations, if any, follow from the above? #1 does not suggest that we should abandon policy studies, but rather that the political realism of a proposal should be one of the factors taken into account in evaluating its effectiveness. Perhaps simulations, in which students were asked to present a policy proposal to a group of nonexpert observers, might be part of this process. #2 and (especially) #3 suggest the importance of public deliberation and small decision-making units in the political process. (One cannot change human nature but one can make procedural adjustments designed to encourage its better side.) The recent work in republican (small "r") political theory, which its emphasis on town meetings, focus groups, and other methods of duplicating local decision-making procedures at a state and national level, is relevant in this context.

One of the most interesting lessons I learned concerned the role of race in American politics. Knocking on doors in strange neighborhoods in the middle of the day, one comes face to face with one's own prejudices no less than the attitudes of others. I learned something about racial differences--for example, many Black people are suspicious or even fearful of whites knocking uninvited on their door--but also about issues that crossed racial lines and often confounded the usual political imagery. For example, I was struck by how culturally conservative many African-American voters are, and how they like high taxes no more, perhaps even less, than their white counterparts. Yet it was also true that Black people were concentrated in the less affluent portions of the township and were consistently underrepresented at School Board, PTO, and similar meetings. In the past I have at times expressed skepticism about affirmative action and taken a conservative or at least "laissez faire" position on racial issues, attitudes that decades of exposure to liberal intellectuals did little to change. Six weeks on the campaign trail have begun to.


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