Nancy Pelosi's secret mesage to voters
A few days ago I received a secret message from the Speaker of the House. Secret in that it was shared only with the residents of California's District 12, even they save perhaps a handful are unaware of its contents. Because they didn't read it. And the few who might have didn't absorb its implications.
Nancy Pelosi's words, as usual, say virtually nothing. She mailed us four pages of full-color platitudes, such as "thankfully, because of the leadership of Congress..." and "lifeline to businesses" and "put food on the table" and "help is on the way!"
But peel back a platitude, and you'll find explosives. The subtext of her message is "No need to look over here, Citizen. Washington has the finest intentions and a sense of urgency. We're pouring numbing hundreds of billions into vague but virtuous-sounding plans. You can trust us to get these problems sorted out in a jiffy. Go back to sleep."
The message is hypnotic. While Trump was in office, she eagerly denounced him as The Problem and fanned the flames of Resistance. Now that the Democrats are back in power, she neither needs nor wants citizens asking questions about what's going on in Washington. While Amazon invites you to reflect on and publicly review the goods you bought, Nancy is subtly discouraging your gaze. Why might that be?
Nancy's heavy-sleeping base
Consider the context of her message. Progressives look to government to solve society's problems, which they take--or at least claim to take--very seriously. They got their first man in the White House 120 years ago. Not many of sociey's problems were getting ticked off, so fourscore and seven years later San Francisco's progressives sent Nancy Pelosi to carry on the Lord's Work on their behalf. That was 1987, back when there was no such thing as a web site, a cell phone, or Zac Efron.
Not only did Nancy and her colleagues not get any further down the list in the subsequent decades, problems if anything got worse. And worse still since the global financial crisis of 2008, despite Washington's bailouts, stimulus programs, and other supposed fixes.
Then in early 2020 the government took over virtually everything. Which is to say it shut down everyone's lives while politicians strutted nonsensical public health plans and issued absurd, contradictory edicts. The ongoing wreckage is too big to ignore, even for progressives used to looking elsewhere for culprits.
If there's one issue progressive parents will have a hard time overlooking, it's what happened with public schools this past year. Politicians ordered schools closed and then found they couldn't reopen them because of opposition from teachers' unions. Whether government talking heads instructed to terrify the public about the risks of covid had overachieved, or whether the unions spotted political leverage and leveraged it, the stalemate has kept school bells silent for a year and counting.
School closures hit parents where it hurts. Many in blue counties like the Bay Area moved here, took on rapacious mortgages, and pay eye-watering property tax bills just to live in a good school district. The "closed" sign in the school window not only meant juggling kids between Zoom meetings, it called the school's value into question. If even school officials reckon kids' negligible covid risk outweighs the value of attending classes, they're sending a sobering message about the classes.
Closures forced many parents to find alternatives. California public school enrollment dropped by 160,000 as families moved or started homeschooling or sent the kids to private schools. Many will not be coming back.
Although the kids may not have learned much in 2020, the risk to Nancy Pelosi is that their parents might. The school failure points an institutional inadeqacy of government, double underlined and circled in red pen. Government offers citizens' resources up for grabs if you can build a strong enough coalition. So a politician cozies up with a special interest, in this case a Democratic politician and a teacher's union, and promises a share of the ongoing booty in exchange for political support, in this case monopoly control over what was supposed to be a public service. There is no "customer" or "taking your business elsewhere" in this picture, just government employees lobbying and negotiating with each other over how much of your money to take and on what terms.
Nancy's constituents understood at some level that this is how government works, but they're getting smacked in the face with it like never before. Even half-reforms like charter schools or vouchers have struggled in California, because at the end of the day the people who might benefit are just hypothetical inner-city kids. Now schools are failing your kids by closing entirely, because of political patronage.
So when will you get your refund?
That's a trick question, of course, because Nancy's rescue plan is to bribe the government's truant employees to return to work. When kids ducked school, Vice President (then California Attorney General) Kamala Harris prosecuted their parents. But never mind the details. You'll be paying more. For the kids.
Every sentence in this plan, upon a moment's reflection, is incendiary. "Making up for lost learning" sounds nice, but does she mean to say schools were on medium all these decades and now she's going to turn them up to high? What specific changes will enable kids to catch up? The kindest possible interpretation is that these are barefaced lies she repeats three times but hopes you'll you'll gloss over.
Does "$800 million for children experiencing homelessness" mean 100,000 kids will each receive an $8,000 check? Perhaps a $400 check? Or is that money slated for entirely different adult pockets?
She promises another $19M to San Francisco to "address" homelessness. The city spends a half billion dollars on the homeless every year, but tents with no addresses still crowd the sidewalks. On the one hand another $19M merely ripples a brimming bucket, on the other it reminds us how little impact or accountability these huge sums yield.
What on earth is this $40B higher education hunger "and other hardships" crisis? A pretext for a whole list of earmarks she would prefer we not ask questions about? Plus $29M for San Francisco's City College despite its chronic mismanagement scandals?
The unspoken truth
If you want to keep a secret, don't tell anyone. The most important secret of Speaker Pelosi's message is what's missing from it. In any other context from a company annual report to a conversation with your spouse or even your dentist, you'd expect some basics:
Some acknowledgement of past decisions and how they turned out. Warren Buffet has plenty of successes to talk about, but he also acknowledges failures. Nancy Pelosi first became Speaker of the House in 2007, but her brochure reads as though she was just hired last week, is shocked at how bad things are, but will quickly set it all to rights.
* essons learned. Whether you're running the country or scanning groceries at a check-out aisle, career development is about getting better at what you do, usually by making mistakes, developing scar tissue, and raising your game to avoid that particular failure in the future. What lessons did Nancy, or Democrats, or Washington, learn from the events of 2020? Or Trump's term in office? Or the GFC? Or the War on Terror? Or the War on Drugs? I wouldn't expect testimonials in a four-page brochure, nor probably trust them if I found them, but I would expect policies to adapt. I can't see the difference in 2021 from the 2019 plan, nor the 2008 plan, nor a colorized plan from 1938: get a larger hose of taxpayer money and douse any corner where Democratic loyalists claim to smell smoke.
Input goals versus output goals. My health is an output goal I can't directly control. What I eat is an input goal I can control. The difference between the two is a critical management principle, and evasions like "addressing homlessness" highlight its absence in Nancy's brochure. Reducing homelessness is an output goal, not directly under Nancy's or anyone's control. Lavishing money on programs that claim to "address" homelessness is an input goal which may or may not change the outcome. If you care about an outcome, you will take an interest in which inputs move the needle. She doesn't, here or anywhere else.
Costs and tradeoffs. Everything here could have been written by the Prosperity Fairy, who showers good things upon us all with no drawbacks or moral hazards or costs. It not just childish, even on its own premises it doesn't make sense. If Nancy can materialize $130 billion from nowhere and make students jump ahead a year in school, why would she stop there? Why not $200 billion, or $500 trillion? Was she undone by the Mean Republican Gnomes?
Nancy provides none of this. No looking at past decisions, no root cause analysis, no acknowledgment of involement in Washington's decisions these past 34 years. No specifics about what inputs she will change to produce better outputs, no acknowledged shifts in strategy, just dumping more money in the same dark holes. More money could be a great answer. If San Francisco's Department of Homelessness had a machine for turning $50,000 and a homeless person into a productive citizen with a stable job, an apartment within their means, and clean clothes, they'd be heroes.
Could lead to dancing
After veering so wildly in 2020, especially on tender issues like schools, Nancy and Democrats are in uncharted water. For decades, through platitudes and promises and prevarications, they've kept progressives dreaming about utopia rather than holding the public sector to even the most modest expectations.
But a few are being jostled awake. Between boarded-up businesses and homeless encampments and kids home jumping on the furniture all week, they're starting to ask questions they've never asked before. Why has my school been closed the past year? What review processes led local officials to conclude they had the need and the legal authority impose lockdowns? What was the exit plan at the time? How much am I actually paying for my local school? Am I comfortable with my Congresswoman talking to me like I'm six?
What will happen to the governors, mayors, sheriffs, judges and other officials who took and reneged on an oath to defend the Bill of Rights? Will the oath be retired as no longer relevant, or will the government indemnify officials against prosecution when it finds occasion to have them violate it? W
Once you start asking gateway questions like those, they could lead to the harder, more addicting ones. Since we learned how cumbersome the Bill of Rights is when you need to shut down everyone's lives this instant, will mayors, governors, and sheriffs no longer swear an oath to uphold the Constitution in the future? How many military conflicts is the US involved in right now, and what measurable goal is each committed to? On what date will the drug war end? Who will be prosecuted for the FBI's federal crimes framing citizens and misrepresenting evidence to FISA courts? How effective is the TSA, and under what conditions would it be shuttered? What has the Department of Education accomplished since it was started in 1979? Why did Obamacare fail to meet its universal coverage goals? Why does the US have 800 military bases overseas? Why is Edward Snowden in exile?
Especially if you're a progressive, you should ask those questions. Or indeed any questions that assert your expectations of government. (Hopefully your vision includes responsible government providing meaningful answers to citizens' questions?) Reflect on your personal expectations of the public sector, and place possible outcomes on a rating scale. Maybe your kid coming home from school a super genius is a five-star outcome. How about school officials lying to you? How about the school closing for a year because reasons? How about politicians doubling your property tax to lure--not better teachers, but that same crop from 2019--back to their classrooms?
Form some questions, and send them to...well, whoever you feel entitled to an answer from. I've written to Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein, and their non-answers were in a way very responsive. You can file FOIA requests. You can tweet. You can ask other progressives, if only to make it okay to have expectations.
Let me know how it turns out.