Better Government

An Older, Poorer America Is Coming

For at least one demographic group, the War on Poverty has been pretty successful. The percentage of older Americans living below the federal poverty line has decreased by two-thirds since 1966. That year, according to data from the Pew Research Center, 28.5 percent of Americans age 65 and over were poor. By 2012, that number had declined to just 9.1 percent. 

But we may be at the end of that happy trendline. I think that over the next five to 10 years we will see a dramatic reversal in the economic fortunes of millions of our oldest residents. That has profound implications for governments at all levels. READ MORE

The Poisoning of Our Politics: Partisan Elections

When Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York City, Francis Barry was his chief speechwriter and director of public affairs, and he was deeply involved in Bloomberg’s various charter review efforts. Barry is clearly ticked that the political parties and the self-styled good government groups had defeated a proposal in 2003 to institute nonpartisan elections. He channeled that annoyance into a book. The Scandal of Reform uses New York City’s election laws and history of election reform as a starting point for a powerful, well-researched analysis that seems to me to refute every objection to nonpartisan elections.

That doesn’t keep the same old objections from being raised, as they were in Oregon in 2014 when voters there considered, and ultimately turned down, a proposition to create a nonpartisan open primary election system. But the tide has been turning on the issue. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York -- a Democrat and as partisan a politician as you will find -- wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in July 2014 in support of open primaries. Party-controlled primaries, he asserted, “poison the health [of our political system] and warp its natural balance.” READ MORE

Patriotism and the Power of Public Spaces

When Joseph P. Riley Jr. first ran for mayor of Charleston, S.C., in 1975, he wanted to heal racial tensions in a deeply Southern city where the Civil War began. Visiting older European cities, he found his signature strategy. He saw people of all socioeconomic classes enjoying these cities’ fine public spaces. Riley became convinced that when the public realm -- streets, squares and parks -- is built well, the bonds of citizenship are reinforced. People know that everyone owns it.

Riley, who last month concluded four decades as Charleston’s mayor, calls himself a disciple of the urbanist William Whyte, who first came to prominence as the author of The Organization Man in 1956. While working with the New York City Planning Commission, Whyte pioneered the use of direct observation to study pedestrian behavior, work that led to two influential books: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in 1980 and 1988’s City: Rediscovering the Center. That last book, which I read shortly after it came out, pulses with energy and is still as vibrant and relevant today as when it was first released. READ MORE

A Better Way to Attack Inequality Than Redistributing Wealth

Many government leaders are justifiably concerned about our country’s huge and widening gaps in wealth and income and are looking for ways to reduce economic inequality and improve social equity. What surprises me, however, is how often, on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum, the discussion turns to the idea of redistribution -- taxing the rich to give to the poor by increasing social welfare payments.

In this scenario, as The Washington Post’s Robert J. Samuelson wrote a few weeks ago, “redistribution becomes an engine of social justice.” He cites a recent Brookings Institution study showing that increasing the top federal individual income tax rate from the current 39.6 percent to 50 percent would raise about $100 billion in tax revenue annually and that distributing that money to the poorest fifth of Americans would amount to an average of $2,650 per household. READ MORE

A Homework Assignment for the People Running Public Universities

The sharp decline in state funding for higher education in recent years may have brought tuition increases and rising student debt, but it also has been accompanied by a reexamination of what the role of our publicly funded colleges and universities should be. Not everybody is happy about that, but this is a conversation we need to have.

Some governors and legislators have been rightly criticized for what seems like a short-sighted and anti-intellectual assault on higher education, but I think a significant portion of the blame for this new and critical scrutiny of public higher education falls on the institutions’ faculty and administrations. To many elected officials and members of the public, they seem arrogant and out of touch. READ MORE