City voters reward officials for failure

Marta Mossburg says little has changed, yet voting patterns remain the same

November 22, 2011|Marta H. Mossburg

Ronald Reagan famously asked Americans, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" in a 1980 debate with then-President Jimmy Carter.

They weren't, and Reagan, a Republican, went on to win the 1980 election in a landslide.

Baltimore City residents are not better off than they were two years ago, or four years ago or even 10 years ago. In the last decade, tens of thousands of people have left, along with their jobs, shrinking the tax base. And poverty is at 26 percent, up 20 percent from a year earlier.

Instead of doing something about it, however, residents keep electing the people whose policies hastened the decline. It's almost as if we are suffering as a collective body from "bystander effect" — the psychological term for people who do nothing while witnessing a crime. Research shows the more people present when something awful or evil happens, the less likely anyone will intercede.

New York Times columnist David Brooks posits this as one explanation for why no one took responsibility for stopping Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky's alleged rapes of young boys in his charge.

More likely to me, in the case of the city, is that human nature makes it hard for people to accept facts that do not correspond to their reality. This prevents the city's liberal electorate and elected officials from questioning the ideology behind the policies decimating the population and its vitality. To contest the welfare state orthodoxy could, as "The Daily Show's" "Senior Black Correspondent" Larry Wilmore has joked, could lose one his or her "black card" — and worse, invalidate so many people's reason for being.

It doesn't have to be that way. Former President Bill Clinton is a brilliant politician because he does not suffer from myopia. When Democrats were trounced in the 1994 midterm elections, he moved right and championed welfare reform, to the great benefit of himself, the country and so many individual lives. President Barack Obama, however, disdains self-reflection. He's called Americans "soft" and U.S. business "lazy," told black Democrats to "Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes," and called for ever more government spending as the antidote to economic decline — but never questioned his policy prescriptions.

Our city's elected officials also hold intransigence as a badge of honor. When property taxes did not bring in enough money, they raised rates to levels that are now at least twice that of the rest of the state. When a minimum wage couldn't prevent poverty, they created a living wage. When a bottle tax didn't bring in as much as expected, they now propose to more than double it — yet almost nothing has changed. City schools remain broken, people and jobs keep leaving and leaders face massive budget deficits with no hope of growing out of the mess.

For these results, we have rewarded them through both our apathy at the ballot box and with electoral support by the few who show up at the polls.

This makes perfect sense for those familiar with the work of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. "Moneyball" author Michael Lewis sums up their work this way in December's Vanity Fair:

"They convinced a lot of people that human beings are best understood as being risk-averse when making a decision that offers hope of a gain but risk-seeking when making a decision that will lead to certain loss."

So, according to their work, it would make perfect sense for the electorate and its leaders to follow a known path that will lead to likely ruin rather than take a chance on new ideas and people who hold out the possibility of improving the quality of life in the city. This would be true regardless of which party was in charge.

Messrs. Kahneman and Tversky's research also shows that most people, even the smartest, often use the wrong data to make decisions, filtering information based on prejudices and presumptions.

That intellectual blindness is so widespread should not surprise any observers of American politics and culture.

But let's hope we don't become Detroit before the wool is pulled from our collective eyes and reality in all of its cold glory becomes too obvious to deny.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her email is martamossburg@gmail.com.

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