Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Tonight's Ethics Town Hall Meeting

Perhaps some of you will be attending the Tennessee Alliance for Progress's Town Hall Meeting on Ethics tonight at St. Ann's Episcopal in East Nashville. I will not be able to because of my long-standing commitment to my neighbors to serve on the Salemtown Citizen Advisory Committee, which meets tonight at the very same time.

That does not mean that I won't be interested in hearing some impressions about it or at least seeing somebody blog about it. But I am particularly interested that Ben Cunningham of Tennessee Tax Revolt is slated to serve on the panel of speakers. I am so interested that I e-mailed TAP and asked them why Mr. Cunningham was put on the panel when he seems to me to be more of a leader of the anti-tax lobby than an ethics wonk. I also asked why Barry Schmittou, who figured so prominently in getting the question of ethics raised in the legislature was not on the panel.

I got a reply back from the TAP Coordinator, Nell Levin, saying that Mr. Cunningham, though primarily known for "his opposition to tax reform," has also been "involved in ethics reform." She also added that TAP wanted to have a balanced panel, since it sees ethics reform as nonpartisan. With regard to Schmittou, she wrote that he was invited to attend and to address the panel during Q&A.

These are all ostensibly valid reasons. But hold on a minute. Progressives need to take a step back and think very critically about the linkage between ethics reform and Tennessee Tax Revolt that Mr. Cunningham's participation engenders. I know that Mr. Cunningham has taken a personal interest in ethics reform enough to do his own research and make specific proposals via TTR's website. And I respect anyone with renaissance interests and the energy to pursue them.

However, we must not forget the functional service that marrying an unqualified taxation opposition to ethics reform activism provides for Mr. Cunningham's lobby group: it keeps public attention on TTR before, during, and after tax debates; it might even keep the resource pipeline from sympathetic donors and volunteers flowing after tax tempers stop unfraying. Ethics is a perennial hot-button issue; public attention to TTR arises during debates on tax referendums or legislation. Hence, linking ethics and taxaphobia reminds the public of TTR's presence. Otherwise, there is no necessary connection between TTR and ethics reform. Linking the two is a bold strategic move to drive TTR's momentum.

The machinations of Metro Council already show us that ethics is both significant enough to consider and trivial enough to render moot the recommendations of independent, nonpartisan ethicists. To a certain extent, ethics at every level of government seems to be a partisan football that becomes the possession of whoever catches it next. So, TAP is sort of caught flat-footed themselves; their interest in having a representative panel leads to inviting a TTR spokesperson, which reinforces the unfortunate link between anti-revenuism and ethics reform. Upon Googling, I found that several mainstream media sources have christened TTR as the source for conservative activism on ethics, which evinces TTR's effectiveness and flexibility. Mr. Cunningham was astute enough to come down with possession of the football during the legislative tip drills of the past season. So, he's the one on the TAP panel now. Progressives and other tax reformers should not delude themselves into thinking otherwise.

A typo appeared in a Tennessean article on Ben Cunningham last spring. That typo came across more as a fortuitous Freudian slip to me: "Dressed in jeans, tennis shoes, a shirt and jacket during the interview, Cunning volunteers for Tennessee Tax Revolt several hours a day." Cunning, indeed. Let's just hope that folks who listen to TTR on ethics are as cunning.


  1. Some who tried to pass an income tax a few years back used some very unethical tactics to do so. TTR has a right to be involved in the ethics debate, just as "progressives" do.

    TTR doesn't support an agenda you like, but they have just as much right as you do to particpate in the ethics reform debate.

    One of the big problems with the ethics rules the legislature operates under right now is they were written by one party - the Democrats, the party in power - and written to advantage incumbents over challengers.

    I'm guessing you'd like that to continue?

  2. By the way, TTR doesn't lack for ways to keep itself in the spotlight. It is and has been and will continue to be involved with county-level and city-level tax reform and tax-increase-blocking efforts in many locals across Tennessee, ranging from its current petition seeking to reform how property taxes are increased in Nashville to helping citizens who want to stop wheel tax increases in their counties to helping stop legislation in the General Assembly last Spring that would have stripped out of state law the people's right to use petition drives and referendums to negate wheel tax increases.

    S-Town, do you think the people ought to have that right - to vote on wheel tax increases - or no?

    If you say no, why?

    If you say yes, then, do you think they ought to also have that right when it comes to property taxes?

  3. As to the first question about unethical Democrats: if you visited my blog more often, Mr. Hobbs, you'd see that I don't spare my criticisms according to party line. I am loyal to principles; not to party or persons. That's not exactly a popular kind of loyalty nowadays.

    I don't question the right of conservatives to be involved in ethics debates. I just don't believe that TTR should be portrayed as it has in the mainstream press at times as an ethics reform organization, when it is primarily an anti-tax lobby. Likewise, it is entirely fair for me, as a citizen journalist if nothing else, to ask TAR why they invited Mr. Cunningham to serve on an ethics panel and why Mr. Schmittou was not so invited. If this had been a tax panel and TAR invited a liberal medical ethicist to speak on abortion, the very same question could be asked, even if that person could speak to the need for more tax dollars to support abortion clinics.

    The same reasoning applies to Mr. Cunningham's comment in the Tennessean article that I mentioned: he said that he prefers that TTR be considered not so much "anti-tax" as "pro-taxpayer." This taxpayer does not feel that TTR is pro-him, so anti-tax was the more realistic, if not accurate moniker. What any reasonable person--right or left--can agree on is that TTR opposes taxation. I see TTR's positive spin for what it is: spin.

    Not only do I believe that people should have the right to sign petitions and have referendums, I believe that in this great country they do. And in this great country, we also have the right to question the wisdom of some referendums. I also believe that this is a republic, not a direct democracy where an electoral majority--mobilized by special interest groups--rules. Americans enjoy the right to vote their conscience when they elect representatives, knowing the platforms and priorities of those officials. As I argued previously:

    Politics is no longer merely the brokering of deals between professional politicians in smoke-filled rooms. It is a contentious fight between well-funded special interest groups like TTR. The winners are those who do not necessarily represent the common good of all of Davidson County residents, but those who are able to amass enough signatures on petitions in support of lightning rod issues so to mobilize a critical mass (rather than a representative mass) of people to the polls on election days in fine electoral-majoritarian style (that is, not just a majority of all voters, but a majority of the minority of voters who turn out to vote).

    Hence, rather than attempting to destroy a republican form of government with endless referendums subject to the politics of special interest groups, I think we should hold our elected officials to higher ethical standards, knowing all the while that if we don't want to pay higher fees and/or taxes, we can vote for someone who commits not to raise them (unless of course, they sign the TTR Metro Council No-Tax Pledge, which did not mean very much when the Councilmember who signed it voted for the Council's tax package).

    Finally, to the Monroe link you put up: it is a rare thing to witness a conservative blogger appeal to the principal of bipartisan cooperation. If my post in some small way caused even one such blogger to embrace the bipartisan spirit, then it was worth all of my efforts.

  4. Strike "you" from the first sentence of the last paragraph that begins with "Finally, ....".

  5. You describe TTR as a "well-funded special interest group."

    Please document. My understanding is they are a shoestring-budget operation.

  6. I believe that TTR's successes and growth indicate that it is funded well in terms of social, political, and monetary capital. I don't have a spreadsheet nor the will to haggle your terms, but it stands to reason that they are well-funded in every way that successful organizations are. Organized money and organized people = well-funded. Geez, you would have thought I called them "wealthy money-grubbers," for the cross examination I'm getting.

  7. In other words, you have no idea if TTR is "well funded" or operates with very little money at all - you just used the phrase "well funded" to make them sound like the are a front group for some Big Money corporations and individuals.

    Have you seen their website? Design-wise, it's atrocious. A "well-funded" organization would have a better website.

    My understanding is that TTR gets by on a few thousand dollars a year, and has been successful largely because they figured out how to leverage the Internet to disseminate information quickly and to organize petition drives and other efforts very very cheaply, and they have a lot of volunteers who don't need to be "well funded" to go down to the legislature to talk to legislators.

    One reason TTR is so effective without having gobs of cash is they represent the views of a rather large number of Tennessee taxpayers. They wouldn't have "social and political capital" if they didn't.

    TTR didn't need to be "well funded" to notice, last Spring, a piece of legislation that would strip out of state law the right the people now have to overturn wheel tax increases via a petition drive and referendum. They just needed one set of eyes to read the filed bill and one set of hands to type an email and hit "send." Once they did that, we bloggers started digging into the legislation and peeling back the truth of who was pushing it - the well-funded lobbyist for the county mayors association - and legislators who had sponsored the bill after being lied to by that lobbyist as to what the bill would really do quicly dropped their support.

    We were not well-funded, but we were armed with the truth, and we beat back the well-funded lobbyist and his well-funded clients who were trying to take away more of our money - and one of our statutory political rights.

    The Internet is fast leveling the playing field in politics and enabling poorly funded grassroots groups like TTR to have major impact.

    I think that's a good thing.

  8. As I said, I don't have the will to parse terms with you. I lost the will to haggle terms with you, Mr. Hobbs, when you threw with loose abandon the term "slander" at me in August. At that point, I realized you speak a language incommensurable with my own.

  9. Blake: reading negative connotations into my ostensibly neutral descriptor, "well-funded interest group," is your perogative. If it helps you, I would describe Common Cause as a "well-funded interest group," too. If it doesn't help you, then I'm out of ideas.

    I'm not using "progressive" to make "liberals" sound better, because I've used both interchangeably on Enclave and elsewhere. I don't think that my arguments that liberals or progressives--or whatever the heck you desire to call them--should be both conscious and vigilant about the artificial link between anti-revenuism and ethics reform contains some ulterior hatred for TTR or for Ben Cunningham.

    Again, to have someone who advocates wedge politics on other issues call me divisive and bitter is ... how did Brittney put it? ... "Pot, meet kettle."

  10. Ben Cunningham emailed me about this and noted that Dick Williams, who was on the same panel that S-town is writing about, not only represents Common Cause, but is also the leader of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation - the yin to TTR's yang in that TFT favors higher taxes and "reforms" that TTR opposes.

    So, both Cunningham and Williams serve as advocates for a policy positions in addtition to their concern with legislative ethics.

    Says Ben, "Seems to me it is a good thing that we have common ground on the ethics issue."

    Well, yes.

    S-town, do you think Dick Williams should have been on the panel?

  11. I appreciate your honest sentiment, Blake, and it's taken into advisement. While we lock horns on issues, I appreciate your contributions to Enclave (although I’d still like to be off your blogroll!).

    However, I will add that the purpose of Enclave as you see at the header does not include popularity in the political blogosphere, left or right. I write and report on issues that I think ought to be of concern and interest to people in the North End. If my style does not sit well with some liberal bloggers—none of whom have identified themselves to me—then so be it. That doesn’t mean that I won’t listen to critics who want to comment, to e-mail me, or to talk face-to-face. But I cannot get too consumed by not pleasing all the people all the time. I am most definitely not one of those rare birds who can please everyone.

    The metaphor of burning-all-bridges assumes that bridges were there to begin with. I can't help but go back to your channelling of another blogger's insult of adding liberals to some "pro-looter" list back after Katrina or the beating that Brittney Gilbert takes from time to time from some in your conservative cohort who disqualify her blogging as liberal and thus illegitimate and untrue or the way rightwing bloggers used Sharon Cobb’s reports on Phil Bredesen as grist for impugning progressives in general. I can’t help but recall the times when conservative bloggers equate criticism of Bush with anti-Americanism. As we speak, Bill Hobbs has blogged that I blogged that Ben Cunningham should have been kicked off the panel. If the several liberals to whom you allude consider those “bridges” to bipartisanship, then I am not bothered in the least to be accused of bridge-burning. Either way, it appears that the liberals who are dissatisfied with me don’t visit Enclave, which is certainly their prerogative.

    I have written on ethics several times on my blog, and conservatives were certainly entitled at those times to affirm the “bridge” of ethics reform in a bipartisan way at those times. Rarely did any conservative take the opportunity to say what you said above about TFT about Enclave, which makes me wonder whether you are doing it just to prove a point. Moreover, nobody, and especially not conservatives, as far as I can tell from NiT’s aggregator has written a single piece on last night’s town hall meeting and the importance of some bipartisan spirit arising therefrom. The only times I’ve seen bipartisanship advocated by bloggers in the past 24 hours has been in response to my criticism of artificially linking ethics reform and anti-tax initiatives. Even though that poor showing comes across as cynical to me, I’ll reiterate that if my post got conservatives to at least write about the ideal of bipartisanship without derogating it as “joining hands and singing ‘Kumbaya,’” then my efforts are justied, even if fellow liberal lurkers don’t like it. Cynical appeals to bipartisanship are better than none.

    (For future reference: you don't owe explanations to me or anybody else for deleting your own comments on Enclave.)