The Imaginary Common Good

Back in junior high school, when dinosaurs roamed the earth – it does seem that long ago – we all had to take Civics, so we’d understand how our government works, how we elect people who disagree with each other about almost everything and send them to Washington to sit down and hammer out what’s best for everyone, not just the folks on their side. There is the greater good, and we have a system where each side gets a bit of what they want, but not all of what they want, a law is passed to spend big money on what they’ve hammered out, and America then prospers and becomes even more wonderful. The details of how legislation originates and who gets to say what about it, and when, were boring, but we got the general idea. The adults worked these things out, but we were kids. What did we care?

Eisenhower was president back then. He seemed like a nice man, and the big deal back then was what changed the country, the new Interstate Highway System. Everyone was going to be able to drive everywhere. Cool, but it wasn’t that simple. Eisenhower had to sell that to Congress as an issue of national defense – we needed to move troops and equipment around fast, or might need to, and that was something the federal government simply had to spend money on – the rail lines wouldn’t do.

There was opposition – this was just a giveaway to the automobile manufacturers in Detroit, to help them sell more cars and get even richer – private enterprise should build the roads they need, when and where they need them, and the free market should take care of such things, because the market is always more efficient than the government – but Eisenhower won that one. National defense is always the trump card.

Those arguments have been going on a long time, ever since Henry Ostermann and a bunch of rich businessmen came up with the idea of the Lincoln Highway – our first coast to coast road, with a lot of missing pieces. He and his friends wanted to sell cars, a lot of them, and move product, but building roads is expensive. The whole idea was to get the government to pay for what would make them rich, and Ostermann knew exactly what to do:

In 1917, he piloted a convoy of Packard trucks that had been purchased by the US Army, guiding them from Detroit to a port in Baltimore, headed from there to Europe for the Great War. In 1919, Ostermann led another convoy of Army vehicles, this time westward from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, most of it along the Lincoln Highway. This convoy of around 80 vehicles carried 282 men and the supplies and equipment necessary to support them, but little else of material value. It was, like the 1917 convoy, largely a publicity effort, designed to encourage the construction of transcontinental roads and spur interest in the use of motor vehicles. It did so largely by proving how difficult it was to get a convoy of 80 vehicles and 282 men across the country. The trip was by all accounts a horrible slog: trucks mired in mud, slid into ditches, sank into sand, and broke down repeatedly as they limped their way to San Francisco over 62 days.

Despite the physical difficulty of the trip – or quite possibly because of it – the 1919 Army convoy was a success in exactly the way that the Lincoln Highway Association had hoped when they lent Henry Ostermann to what was ostensibly a military endeavor. The trip’s difficulties helped convince Congress to pass the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, under which federally funded highway construction in America began in earnest.

The convoy had longer-lasting effects, too. Among the travelers in that 1919 party was Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower, who took the lessons of that trip (along with war-time observations in Germany) to the White House 30-some years later, where he pushed for and signed the legislation that began construction of the Interstate Highway System that bears his name.

No one told us that in Civics class. Privately funded publicity stunts can work wonders, and make certain parties rich, using taxpayer money – but no matter. The Interstate Highway System was good for everyone, and perhaps Eisenhower knew all along that the benefits of the thing went way beyond national defense. It was just hard to sell that at the time.

What they didn’t tell us is that selling something as if for the common good is always hard. They didn’t tell us that with our system of government there was a danger that one day nothing would get done, a time when different positions about the common good would harden and no one would agree on just what that was. Maybe adults were more reasonable back in the fifties and did sit around and work things out, but we hadn’t sat around and worked things out with the British in 1776 and we did have that Civil War less than a hundred years later. Eisenhower had to send federal troops to Little Rock in 1957 – Orval Faubus had ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent black students from enrolling at Central High School. There was no reasoning with him. Something fishy was going on. Adults didn’t work things out.

Well, sometimes they do. With our highways now falling apart, something was just worked out:

Congressional negotiators have agreed to a $305 billion measure to fund highways and mass-transit projects for five years, the longest in almost two decades – and an unexpected show of agreement after years of clamoring by state transportation officials for money for infrastructure projects. …

The agreement was made possible when lawmakers identified a collection of strategies to offset the costs. Among other things, the measure would raise revenue by selling oil from the nation’s emergency stockpile and taking money from a Federal Reserve surplus account that works as a sort of cushion to help the bank pay for potential losses.

There’s an oil glut now. Sell off the reserves. The banks won’t fail again. Use the fallback money reserved to save them. Kevin Drum explains what has happened here:

The “strategies” here are necessary because the gas tax has declined over the past two decades, and unlike in past eras, inflationary erosion is no longer being offset by a rapid increase in miles driven. As a result, the highway trust fund doesn’t have enough money to pay for all the stuff Congress wants to do. This is being fixed by funding highways partly by gas taxes and partly by other revenue sources, which destroys the principle that “people who use federal transportation systems should pay for the projects.”

It doesn’t matter:

This is a dumb principle anyway. Lots of people benefit from transportation infrastructure who don’t pay gas taxes. We should just ditch this principle for good and instead fund the government like this:

Collect tax money from various sources. Put it all in the general fund. Spend the money as Congress directs.

See? Easy peasy. We still have the problem of matching revenue and spending, of course, but at least we get rid of all the nonsense about funding specific programs from specific sources and worrying about trust funds “going broke.” Nothing is going broke. We’re just raising money and spending money. If we’re worried about a balanced budget, then we have to raise taxes or reduce spending, and it doesn’t really matter which taxes or which spending we target. It’s all just money. So I’m perfectly happy that Congress is ignoring the “principle” of funding transportation projects only via gas tax money.

On the other hand, the revenue sources they’re tapping in order to pass this bill are probably pretty ill-considered. Both are in the nature of emergency funds, and both are one-time deals that can’t be repeated. But in a world in which taxes not only can’t be raised, but can’t even be kept the same, I guess there’s little choice.

At least something got done for the common good, more or less, but highways are easy. Healthcare isn’t. Greg Sargent points that out:

It looks increasingly likely that sometime in the next few days or weeks, the GOP Congress may realize a longtime dream of Republicans: Pass something that seriously guts Obamacare. The health law won’t actually be repealed, of course, since President Obama will veto such a measure. But that alone – forcing Obama to veto a repeal bill – is deemed a worthy goal in and of itself.

However, there’s a catch. Some Senate Republicans are apparently willing to vote for this measure precisely because Obama will veto it, sparing them the political fallout they might suffer if they actually did succeed in repealing the health law.

This gets tricky, as Politico is reporting – Mitch McConnell would repeal the Medicaid expansion and the Obamacare subsidies that help make coverage available to lower-income Americans through a simple majority vote using the “reconciliation” process:

McConnell presented a plan to Senate Republicans on Monday evening that centered on winding down the expansion of Medicaid in Obamacare for low-income Americans over two years, according to lawmakers. The proposal would gradually phase out Medicaid expansion in preparation for the next president to enact a new health care reform law. It would also scrap a medical device tax and so-called “Cadillac tax” for high-cost plans… the bill would eliminate the subsidies available to help consumers buy insurance.

A number of Republican senators are a bit queasy about what that means, taking coverage away from their own constituents, but they’ve got that covered:

A number of Republican senators from states that have expanded Medicaid voiced concerns about the message the party would be sending to the thousands of constituents that would lose their healthcare under the GOP’s bill.

On Monday, GOP leadership offered reassurances that there will be a two-year transition period that keeps federal subsidies flowing until the next president passes a plan, sources in the room said. And senators were reminded that the president would veto the repeal bill anyway, meaning Republicans could vote on the measure without having to deal with the political risks of actually making major changes to existing law.

In other words, Republicans need not worry about the politics of voting to take Obamacare from their own constituents, because their vote won’t actually end up taking Obamacare from their own constituents.


It is notable that a number of GOP Senators who are vulnerable in 2016 also come from states that expanded Medicaid, such as Illinois (Mark Kirk), New Hampshire (Kelly Ayotte), Ohio (Rob Portman), and Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey). Democrats are likely to attack them for voting to take insurance away from their own states’ residents, in the form of repealing the Medicaid expansion. However, these Republicans won’t have to deal with the political fallout of that actually happening.

There’s another dimension to this that’s worth appreciating. McConnell is reassuring nervous Senators about this vote not only by pointing out that Obama will veto the measure, but also by promising that the subsidies will continue temporarily, until the next Republican president passes an alternative for those who’d lose them. Thus, taking the subsidies away is also apparently deemed politically problematic, requiring a Republican alternative for those people. But the beauty of this is that, since the measure won’t actually become law due to Obama’s veto, Congressional Republicans won’t actually have to produce this alternative.

That wasn’t covered in that Civics class long ago, and it gets odder:

Of course, the GOP presidential nominee is very likely to campaign on a promise to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a concrete plan of his own. Yet the current machinations in Congress have hidden implications for the politics of Obamacare in the context of the 2016 presidential race. The health law has hit some problems… that have its foes (again) confidently predicting doom for the law and concomitant showers of political riches for Republicans.

But the GOP nominee’s repeal-and-replace plan is likely to offer a significantly less generous coverage expansion than Obamacare does, for the simple reason that Republicans don’t want to spend as much government money to cover as many people. A GOP president probably means fewer people covered. And the current repeal scheming by the Congressional GOP implicitly concedes that a basic dynamic still holds true: taking away Obamacare’s benefits from people is likely to prove politically problematic for Republicans.

Spending less money, or none, on the elderly and disabled and the working poor, is for the common good – we spend too much money and all that. Eliminate the subsidies available to help consumers buy insurance too – they get no help, and the insurance companies lose a whole lot of paying customers – but that’s for the common good too. These guys need to explain what they think the common good is, but luckily Obama will veto whatever they pass – but then President Trump won’t let them off the hook. Around fifteen million people will lose the healthcare. Go ahead. Tell them that’s for the common good. Use that line from Shrek, what Lord Farquaad says – “Some of you may die, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”

That may not work, and now their planned legislation on Planned Parenthood is in trouble:

Days after a gunman killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, the House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, said that Republicans were not planning to force a showdown with the White House over cutting federal financing to the group as many conservative lawmakers had been demanding just a few weeks ago.

“I do not hear people shutting the government down over it right now, so that’s the bottom line,” Mr. McCarthy said at a news conference at the Capitol on Monday, where he was pressed about whether a measure cutting off Planned Parenthood’s funding would be attached to a must-pass spending measure later this month.

Mr. McCarthy did not retreat from his party’s criticism of Planned Parenthood, but his remarks on Monday signaled a recognition by Republican leaders in Congress that a renewed debate over the organization would be ill advised after the shooting in Colorado Springs on Friday, in which a police officer and two civilians were killed.

Democrats accused the Republicans of creating a hostile atmosphere that provided context – if not direct instigation – in Friday’s attack.

Ramping up the outrage isn’t for the common good when unbalanced folks start shooting people dead, even if some conservatives are angry:

Some conservative critics of Planned Parenthood urged lawmakers not to be deterred in seeking to end financing for the organization. Those funds are mostly Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood for providing health services to low-income Americans; federal law prohibits funding of most abortions and nearly half of Planned Parenthood centers do not perform abortions.

Those basic facts don’t seem to matter – but for the record, the Hill reports that House Republican leaders are determined to avoid a government shutdown and but hope to keep House Republicans united – by keeping in the budget at least some policy riders that conservatives want. Politico notes that those riders could include a defunding of the program to resettle Syrian refugees, which Democrats say they cannot accept, so some kind of confrontation is inevitable. Democrats are vowing to hold firm against the refugee rider and others that are targeting environmental regulations. There will be a messy shutdown fight, for no reason in particular.

But at least the Mayor of Chicago did something for the common good:

Chicago’s police chief was ousted on Tuesday after days of protest over a white officer’s shooting of a black teenager 16 times and the department’s refusal to release a video of the killing for more than a year.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced during a news conference that he had asked Garry McCarthy, police superintendent since May 2011, to resign. Emanuel also said he was creating a new police accountability task force.

The white officer, Jason Van Dyke, was charged a week ago with first-degree murder in the killing of Laquan McDonald. The video, from a patrol car’s dashboard camera, was released on the same day.

That had to happen:

Emanuel, a Democrat and former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, said he was responsible for what happened in the case, the same as the police superintendent. He said the creation of the task force was meant to rebuild trust in the police department of one of the country’s largest cities.

The mayor said McCarthy had become “a distraction.” In an editorial on Tuesday, the Chicago Sun-Times had called for McCarthy’s resignation. The Chicago City Council black caucus and some protesters had also called for him to leave. The Conference of National Black Churches applauded his dismissal.

But Dean Angelo, president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, said: “We’re surprised that at this time, with everything that was going on, that a change at the top would occur. We thought the mayor was supportive of the superintendent.”

Yeah, well, something is fishy here:

A week ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy stood together, shoulder to shoulder, as this city released long-sought video of a white police officer shooting a black teenager 16 times along a Chicago street last year. But after nights of demonstration that followed the video’s release and growing calls for changes at the city’s Police Department and beyond, Mr. Emanuel stood alone at a lectern on Tuesday to say that he had dismissed Mr. McCarthy.

It was a sudden shift for Mr. Emanuel, who had brought Mr. McCarthy to Chicago more than four years ago and had expressed confidence in his work as recently as last week. And it highlighted the intensifying public and political pressure Mr. Emanuel faces over the shooting of the teenager, Laquan McDonald; the integrity of the department’s handling of his death; and the city’s resistance to releasing the video. The footage became public last week only after a judge’s order.

Facing pointed questions on Tuesday about why the city had not released the video early this year, when Mr. Emanuel was in a heated re-election battle, he said, “We have a practice, not unique to Chicago, that you don’t do anything as it relates to material evidence that would hamper, hinder, compromise an investigation.” He added: “Yet it’s clear you all want and the public deserves that information. There are two conflicting principles.”

Don’t believe it:

Mr. Emanuel’s problems with black voters and community leaders predate the shooting of Mr. McDonald. He was forced into a runoff election this year in large part because of anger in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods over the decision by his appointed school board in 2013 to close nearly 50 public schools in Chicago. High crime in some of those neighborhoods and longstanding complaints about police brutality also fueled opposition to the mayor. Now, many black residents say they are troubled by the shooting of Mr. McDonald and the treatment of young black people by the police.

Even as Mr. McCarthy’s dismissal was announced, critics of the city’s handling of the McDonald case pushed for more change, and some leaders demanded additional investigations. Lisa Madigan, the state attorney general, called for a Justice Department investigation into the practices of the city’s Police Department, like one conducted in Ferguson, Mo., after a police shooting there.

Some critics called for the resignation of the local prosecutor for waiting 13 months to charge Officer Jason Van Dyke with murder last week in Mr. McDonald’s death. Others said Mr. Emanuel should step down or at least be subject to an outside investigation for his administration’s handling of the case.

“The mayor has to hold himself accountable,” said Ja’Mal Green, an activist and leader of a community group here. “We wanted McCarthy gone, but he’s just the lesser of the devils.” Mr. Green described the superintendent as having to “take the fall” on behalf of a beleaguered mayor.

Emanuel may have done something for the common good, and done it badly:

The Rev. Corey Brooks said some black Chicagoans were concerned about the city’s efforts to keep the video from becoming public as Mr. Emanuel was running for re-election. Mr. Emanuel was re-elected on April 7; the City Council approved a $5 million settlement for the McDonald family on April 15. The settlement included a provision preventing the release of the video until state and federal investigations of the shooting were complete.

And then there was this exchange:

CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin called out the network’s law enforcement analyst, Harry Houck, on Tuesday for referring to a black activist from Chicago as “you people.”

After Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he had fired Police Supt. Garry McCarthy over fallout from Laquan McDonald’s shooting, Baldwin asked Houck and NAACP Youth President Stephen Green for their reaction.

Houck took the side of the outgoing police chief, saying that Emanuel should have been made to resign instead.

“This mayor should be impeached, he should resign,” the former NYPD detective opined. “The National Guard should go into Chicago, take that city back from the thugs.”

Green explained that activists had called on the Justice Department to do a “top-down investigation over the overall patterns and practices of the Chicago Police Department.”

“This isn’t new,” he pointed out. “When you have a police department that has its own domestic Guantanamo Bay [Detention Center], when you have neglect on the South Side of Chicago, when you have cases that go unheard as it relates to young black children and queer and transgender voices, we have a problem in the city of Chicago.”

Houck charged that Green was refusing to call for Emanuel’s resignation because both men were Democrats.

These two aren’t going to work things out:

“The only way to take back the inner city of Chicago is for police to go in there with aggressive police work,” Houck argued. “You’ve got to be able to point the fingers at the bad guys.”

Green, however, observed that Chicago’s “system” of oppression had “gone on for generations.”

“You want to talk about policing?” Green said. “Let’s also talk about education, let’s also talk about poverty, let’s also talk about housing. It is more than one issue and so we’re asking for complete and overall reform. Your message is very singular.”

“Maybe,” Houck shrugged. “I’m just tired of the police getting the brunt of everything that’s going on inside the inner city of Chicago.”

“You people,” the law enforcement analyst continued before he was interrupted by Baldwin.

“It’s not ‘you people,’ Harry,” the CNN host sighed. “Come on.”

“You people who live in Chicago,” Houck shouted, “should start voting for maybe another person, maybe a Republican, instead and see how he – a Republican – can come in there and straighten that city out.”

That might involve coming in and beating the crap out a good number of young black men and scaring the rest silly – for the common good. Stephen Green has an entirely different idea of the common good, and this sort of thing goes on all the time – because there may be no such thing as the common good. The founding fathers thought we would find it, time and time again, because we were reasonable men. That’s what we were taught in our Civics class long ago. We’d smile and agree. It’s just as well most of us dozed off in that class, or stared out the window at the real world.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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