Carl Graham Commentary: “Your government at your fingertips”

Why on earth is it easier to download descriptions of a Martian soil sample than it is to find out how much the Montana Department of Whatever spent on lawn care last year? The Montana Constitution guarantees us almost unlimited access to state financial information, but our state’s laws and technology don’t provide for that access. In effect, you have a right to know what’s being done in your name and how your tax dollars are being spent, but no practical way of finding out.

I have a lot of experience in this area. My organization has made countless records requests and even successfully sued the state for access to actual spending data. The overwhelming impression is that, while we have a right to public information, we don’t have a reasonable means of accessing it.

As our state government has increased in size and complexity, it hasn’t updated its rules or its technology to keep up with our right to know what it’s up to. Why does that matter? The harder it is for us to keep up the more likely we are to shrug and say things are just too complex for us to do anything about or for the knowledgeable few to game the system. Some folks like that. But it’s not how a participatory democracy should work. Informed citizens make informed decisions. Problem is, we simply can’t stay informed under the current setup in Montana.

It’s one thing to see a budget. That’s easy to find. But it’s quite another thing to see how that budget was executed: who got contracts, what was bought, how many people got hired, and how much was spent on any of those things? Article II Section 9 of Montana’s Constitution guarantees your right to know all that. But you don’t have a practical means of exercising that right. Sure, you can spend hours and hours surfing web sites from agency to agency and maybe track down some pieces of the puzzle. But you’re not likely to find information even as basic as what you have in your own checkbook.

Or you could make a written request to an agency or office asking for specific data. If you know where to ask, and if you ask for the right thing, and if they have a document that precisely matches your request, and if they don’t force you to travel to their office during normal business hours to make copies, you may end up happy with the result. But probably not.

And is that the best we can do in the Information Age?

I can find and buy a hydraulic cylinder for a Meyer’s sixty inch snowplow from my living room in ten minutes and with a half dozen mouse clicks. Why can’t I just as easily see how much was spent and who it went to for a snow blower the state just bought? It’s not a question of inventing something new. It’s a question of harnessing current technology in a way that makes our government more transparent and accessible. And Montana is one of only five states in the nation that hasn’t at least made an attempt to allow its citizens easy online access to their records.

This isn’t a left or right issue. U.S. PIRG, hardly a bastion of right wing ideology, released a transparency scorecard in 2012 describing state government efforts to put their spending online. Montana ranked second to last with a score of seven – that’s 07 – out of a hundred. Texas scored highest with a 98. That’s pitiful. Our state officials should be ashamed that they have failed in their basic duty to let taxpayers know how their hard earned money is being spent. And quite frankly our taxpayers should be ashamed that they haven’t demanded more accountability from their employees.

So why haven’t we done this? The only argument against putting the state checkbook online is the cost, and it’s a bogus one.

Spending websites have been done to varying degrees by the federal government and 45 states. Average implementation costs have been in the low hundreds of thousands and operating costs in the low tens of thousands of dollars across the board, with most much lower than even that. Even the federal site was only $600,000. This is a pittance compared to the benefits provided to taxpayers, legislators and even state agencies in running an accountable and transparent government.

Senator Taylor Brown has a bill draft out there that would create just such a site in Montana and bring us into the 21st century. It’s LC1316 and you should take a look at it if you think knowing where your money goes is important.

Imagine tracking a dollar out of your wallet from the time it goes into government’s coffers until it’s spent: the revenue source, appropriation, agency, program, contract, recipient, and anything else that dollar touches. That’s true transparency and openness that will let people engage with their government and hold it accountable. The technology is cheap and readily available. Almost every other state has done it. The mandate is in our state Constitution. What’s missing is the political will to make it happen. Tell your elected representatives that you want Montana’s government to be as transparent to you as you are to it.

Carl Graham Commentary: “The 2013 Legislative Docket”

With the 2013 legislative session about to begin I thought it might be useful to highlight some of the important issues we could see coming out of Helena over the next few months. Montana is fairly unique in that we still enjoy a true citizen legislature and, regardless of what we may think of some them individually or even in their various groupings, our legislators represent one of the last bastions of true public service, giving much more than they get out of the of process. We should thank them for that, even the ones with whom we disagree.
So, what are they going to be talking about? Well, much of what you’re going to hear in the media between now and next April will be spectacular examples of superfluous issues because that’s what makes news. The hard work and hard issues will be left to the back pages because, well, they’re hard. They’re hard to explain, hard to understand, and hard to get people excited about. But some of these issues will drive future Montanans’ ability to live, work and play here, and they deserve more than passing references on opinion pages or superficial treatment under spectacular headlines.
So let’s look at a few of them.
State Employee Pay: Montana’s public employees are not overpaid. In fact too many of them are underpaid. But they do enjoy benefit packages and job security that our private sector workers can only dream of. This simply isn’t sustainable. At some point private sector workers will see their state employee neighbors’ immunity from the business cycle as grossly unfair, especially when they’re making sacrifices to foot the bill. This is a tinder box that will only burn hotter the longer we add fuel without significant reform, especially in the area of pensions.
Public Pensions: Montana’s pension systems are underfunded to the tune of nearly $4 billion by the state’s accounting, and by closer to $10 billion using real-world accounting standards that wouldn’t land a private sector employer in jail. The state understates this liability by assuming, for example, a 7.75% return on investment while actual returns over the latest ten year period were under 5%. Everyone’s goal is, or should be, to preserve the promises we’ve made to our pensioners. But that outcome becomes less and less likely the longer we wait to reform the system in ways that make it both sustainable and fair to Montanan’s taxpayers.
Labor Reform: It’s not likely we’ll see much in this area because a GOP-led legislature and union-backed governor aren’t likely to find common ground. But if we care about growing jobs, it would be irresponsible to not demand a debate about our labor environment in at least two areas: right to work and minimum wage. Some simple facts form the parameters. First, we are surrounded by right to work states, and they are all outperforming us economically and demographically. Second, right to work states on average have lower unemployment rates, but also lower wages than states that compel union membership and/or dues. With those simple facts as givens, the remaining arguments mostly revolve around cause and effect and “fairness” issues that are inherently political. So our political leaders should be arguing them. Next, Montana’s minimum wage is significantly higher than the federal level even though our per capita income is among the lowest in the nation. It also increases automatically even with high unemployment rates. Labor is like any other good in that if you raise its price people will buy less of it. We should have a debate over whether we would rather force people, especially the young and poorly educated, onto the public dole or allow them the dignity of earning a living through the increased job opportunities that would be available at even the federal minimum wage level.
Natural Resource Development: Economic development in Montana means responsible natural resource development. It’s what we have, and it’s sustainable because it’s unique to the state. If you want Montana oil or coal or gold or wheat or recreation, you have to pay Montanans to get them. That’s not true of portable industries that can easily relocate. So while we should welcome all industries, we should also be lowering barriers, especially those that come from Washington D.C., that restrict the responsible development of what we have here in abundance.
Education Reform: Montana’s schools are good but have seen static performance at higher per pupil costs for two decades. We’re good at teaching our kids on average, but nobody’s average. Each kid deserves to be taught in a way that maximizes his or her potential, and our current one-size-fits all system simply doesn’t allow us to optimize educational outcomes for each of our kids. We need to catch up to the true education innovators around the country by providing more delivery options that address the needs and aspirations of each student, and not just accept that they do Okay on average.
What Should Government Do vs. What Can Government Do? Finally, in times of abundance it’s easy to say government should do something because government can do something. Political philosophy aside, that simply doesn’t work when taxpayers are struggling to make ends meet and can’t afford an ever expanding state. Just because government can do something doesn’t mean that it should. Whether for fiscal or philosophical or moral reasons, we as citizens will be forced to take more responsibility for our actions, for our livelihoods, and for our happiness as the math catches up and current spending levels become unsustainable. The sooner our public servants in Helena acknowledge that fact and begin to grapple with its implications the easier their decisions will be, and the better our lives will be.

Carl Graham Commentary: Philosophies on Philosophies

With stimulus packages apparently designed to just stimulate government growth, “Quantitative Easing” that’s only inflating the next bubble, and institutionalized denigration of those holding differing opinions passing for political discourse, maybe it’s time to say a few words about central planning.
Huh? What the heck does central planning have to do with any of that stuff?
Well, it’s a good representation of those differing opinions that many of us have. It exemplifies the difference in philosophy between those who think government is the only thing we all belong to, and those of us who think government actually is the only thing that belongs to all of us.
Let’s face it. Some people want to be planned for. They like having membership in a club that can make the tough calls, do the intellectual heavy lifting, and take the heat for our collective misdeeds. They’re willing to give up some latitude in their lives to not have to make those hard decisions, or maybe they think there are enough others out there who are incapable of making good decisions that somebody should help narrow their options. And of course there’s no shortage of people who think they have all the answers and gee wouldn’t we all be better off if they could just impose their ideas on the rest of us in the form of central planning. It’d be so much more efficient and, even if a few eggs get broken it’ll still be a better omelet.
But history is littered with failed attempts by states (or more accurately elites) to centrally plan all or significant portions of economies. From the French Revolution to socialism to communism, to even Plato’s philosopher king, elites have tried to tie all the pieces of society together in a way that provided for everyone by dictating the types and amounts of things (materials, ideas, labor, etc.) to keep the machine running. All failed spectacularly. Well, Plato’s wasn’t really tried but come on; can you really see your old philosophy professor with the pony tail and bong blisters in charge?
These attempts were all cloaked in good intentions but failed out of a combination of hubris and indifference: someone assumed they could know the unknowable about what people wanted and needed, and what it would take to provide all of those things in the right quantities and at the right places and times. And because enough people didn’t demand the right to make their own decisions the ruling elites were able to use powerful and centralized governments to impose their “solutions.”
Let’s see: bank lending requirements, pay caps, government-run healthcare, mass subsidies, auto bailouts…the list is growing of things that someone somewhere thinks they know more about than millions of free people making free decisions about how best to allocate their resources to pursue their own happiness. As more and more decisions and resources are centralized in Washington, the gap between haves and have-nots is being replaced by a growing gulf between those who get to make decisions about we’ll live our lives, and those of us who have live with those decisions.
And that is why, I think, we’re seeing denigration passing for opinion and demonization passing for discourse. The stakes have never been higher, and there are two broad camps out there with fundamentally different visions of what this country should look like– both with strong historical philosophical roots and legitimacy. But both can’t be right, at least not at one time in one place.
I’m getting quite tired, for example, of hearing that those on the Left are stupid, uninformed, or evil. Some certainly are some or all of those things, as are some on the Right. But just like ignorance, racism and extremism don’t define the vast majority of those on the Right; stupidity and malevolence don’t define the activating forces behind those on the Left.
Ignoring the vast malleable center for the moment – which we generally do anyway except at election time – most people fall into one of two camps, both of which have long philosophical pedigrees and solid ideological underpinnings.
Folks like me who believe that freedom and happiness flow from natural rights and having choices in our lives too often fall into the trap of casually dismissing as useful idiots or miscreants those who believe that rights are granted by governments which are in turn best led by intellectual elites attuned to the needs of the times.
It’s not necessarily gullible or malevolent to believe that some set of experts are better at adapting to the times than individuals and so they should be in charge for the betterment of us all. It sounds nuttier than a Planters Peanut factory to me, but it’s not an illegitimate view and it should be argued against, not belittled.
Likewise, many on the Left generally dismisses the new grassroots conservative movement as not worthy of their derision and so fall back on manufactured stereotypes of racists and bumpkins to explain any popularity and successes these groups attain.
What many on the Left don’t understand is that there are sound ideological and philosophical underpinnings to conservative values as well. Founding principles and religious values are legitimate in the mainstream, and so the people who hold them must be tarred with illegitimate caricatures of bigotry or ignorance to marginalize them. That is, or should be, insulting to honest people on both sides of the argument.
The thing is, if we don’t understand our opponents’ philosophies and what goes into their assumptions how can we tailor our arguments to oppose them and expose their fallacies? And if we take the intellectually lazy position of ascribing ill intent or ignorance rather than understanding their arguments then we miss an enormous opportunity to debate issues on the strengths of our own arguments. We’re seeing too much of that now, where informed and interested people are calling each other playground names instead of trying to persuade each other and educate those around them.
We would do our political system a favor, and maybe we could get back to watching boring beer commercials for a while if we spent a little more time listening and a little less time calling each other names.

Carl Graham Commentary: “Business Friendly Cities”

I see a lot of “comparison studies” in my line of work. Anyone who has a point to make can build a list of things they want to associate, gather a bunch of data, and spit out a ranking that highlights winners and losers complete with footnotes, methodology and, sometimes even, caveats. It all looks very scientific and objective; and in fact it may be both, or some, or neither of those things.

Still, I love that kind of stuff. If I were any more left brain I’d need an outrigger to keep from falling over. Numbers are good or at least, like Jessica Rabbit, when they’re bad it’s usually because they’re drawn that way.

I like to be able to tear the numbers down to objective data and rebuild them into actionable information. And I’d rather see a simple study with easily understood metrics, a clear message and distinct limitations than some monstrosity that measures everything and explains nothing; or worse yet that’s open to any explanation someone wants to concoct.

That simple approach is what we used in a city business climate comparison my organization recently published and that you may have heard about. It doesn’t measure everything, but what it does measure provides a pretty clear contrast based on some factors that we think are most important to potential job creators. What we found was limited but enlightening, and definitely actionable.

Our approach was to measure things for which objective data were readily available and easily compared: easy stuff like census, labor, and education statistics. We then grouped our data into three general categories – Economic Vitality, Business Tax Burden, and Community Allure – and applied all of those measures to Montana’s 25 largest cities and towns.

Obviously there are as many “best” places to do business or live as there are types of businesses and lifestyles. So our simple goal was to put ourselves in a generic job creator’s shoes and figure out the best places to set up shop based on the relative cost of doing business and measurable workforce and quality of life indicators. We didn’t try to answer industry-specific questions like transportation infrastructure or market demographics. Nor did we try to measure quality of life intangibles like scenic views or community friendliness because, well, they’re intangible. But we did provide a pretty useful first cut at examining how communities are more or less promising to potential job creators. And the results were interesting.

You can see the full list at our website, but a few observations are worth highlighting here along with potential explanations.

First, three of the top ten cities had more than 10,000 people – Bozeman, Billings and Great Falls – and three more of the top ten had fewer than 5,000 people – Polson, Glasgow, and Dillon. That’s a pretty even split, indicating that any community, regardless of size, can be attractive to our generic job creator. Sure, you’re not going to put a Costco in Dillon. But it looks like a nice place for a clothing, hardware, or sporting goods store to operate. Industry specifics aside, it doesn’t appear that size makes much of a difference in creating an inviting climate for people who want to start a business.

And in fact, the only one of our three indicator categories with a clear distinction based on city size was tax burden, with nine of the ten least onerous being in the low to mid-sized population range. Cities and counties have to collect revenues to provide services. But it appears that the costs of services outpace economies of scale as population grows, and smaller cities get the job done with a lower burden on those who provide the communities’ jobs.

The next interesting finding was that, depending how you define East versus West, there was an almost even split in the top ten rated cities geographically, from Polson to Sidney and Dillon to Glasgow. We’re going to keep our eyes on this one. Most people traditionally think of the western part of the state as the primary economic engine because of its larger population, relatively diverse economic base, proximity to larger markets, and abundant natural resources. That appears to be changing, though, with strong trends in agricultural prices and fossil fuel development in the East, combined with policies that result in more local, state and federal growth restrictions in the West.

It will be interesting to watch as we repeat this study in the coming years to see if a trend develops of business friendliness, economic development, and relative prosperity moving eastward. It’s far too soon to come to that conclusion, but as an unabashed proponent of reasonably regulated free markets you can be sure I’ll be watching for it.

So what are the actionable takeaways? Of the top ten cities overall, eight had relatively low business tax burdens, six had high job growth and income ratings, and five were rated highly for community allure. Part of that outcome is a result of how we weighted the various measures, but it seems reasonable to infer that potential job creators first try to control their taxes, then seek a stable and relatively affluent population to serve, and finally want an attractive place to draw and retain workers. It seems like an obvious conclusion on reflection, but my left brain likes that the numbers back it up.

Carl Graham writes on behalf of the Montana Policy Institute.

Carl Graham Commentary: “Fairness and Opportunity in Montana”

I’ve been thinking a lot about fairness lately and what that word means in our current social and economic context. People like me who believe in free enterprise and effective but limited government are often tarred with accusations that we’re uncaring or indifferent to the plights of our fellow citizens who, for whatever reasons, aren’t getting a fair share of the American dream. I think that’s both biased and inaccurate for several reasons, some of which reflect of the “fairness” argument itself.

Fairness standards are inherently subjective and, at least in their more utopian strains, have a nasty habit of ignoring basic human nature and economic laws. Nobody shakes their fist and bemoans the unfairness of gravity because heavy things fall on people’s feet. If you drop something and it breaks your toe, that’s not unfair; it’s a predictable consequence of your actions.

And yet many people argue we should ignore the laws of economics because it’s unfair, for example, for some people to have more stuff than others. If some people do more, are blessed with natural advantages, or even are just luckier than others, they’ll probably end up with more stuff. We can argue all day about whether and to what degree that outcome is or isn’t fair, but it’s going to happen in any economic or social system that includes human beings. Wishing unfairness away will no more avert it than wishing that anvils float will keep your toes intact.

All too often at the intersection of fairness and facts we tend to wish away hard choices and tradeoffs. Central planning is a great example. The former Soviet Union and China famously had five year plans designed to match the wants and needs of millions or billions of people with the production capabilities of economies that in turn produced millions of products.

Those central planners wished away the simple and immutable economic principles of supply and demand, and the free market’s unique ability to balance desires and design. The result was starvation, bread lines, shoddy goods, gulags, and generations of wasted human potential. That might be fair in the sense that everyone outside the elite was more or less equal, but it was hardly fair in the sense of allowing people an opportunity to live fulfilling and happy lives.

So how does the fairness argument play out in Montana? To me, fairness means having rules that are predictable and that don’t arbitrarily discriminate, holding everybody equally accountable to those rules, and then allowing individuals to reap the consequences of their actions – both good and bad. In other words, the rules should not stand in the way of our opportunity to pursue happiness, but they by definition cannot be fair if they artificially guarantee success to certain favored groups, especially at someone else’s expense.

This state has traditionally been a land of opportunity, whether it was prospecting in Virginia City, homesteading in Glentana as my grandfather did, or escaping the suffocation of big city life. Over the years there have been decidedly unfair circumstances – the Copper King era comes to mind – but for the most part Montanans who invested their time, talents and luck have enjoyed reasonably unfettered pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately that’s changing in thoroughly predictable ways as more and more limits are placed on our ability to pursue and achieve success in our everyday lives. And it’s been a bipartisan effort.

Since 2000, state spending has increased by over fifty percent after inflation. Government at all levels is now the single largest employer in Montana. It used to be that we sent folks off to Helena or wherever with the expectation that they would look out for our interests. But now government has become an interest group in itself. It’s not a matter of nefarious intentions or bad people. It’s simply the predictable outcome of a growing self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

The result is that we have less ability to be responsible stewards of our own lands, businesses and lives. We have a government that too often works against us in perpetuating itself rather than for us in safeguarding our rights. We have the second lowest earnings per job in the country. And, according to both Forbes and CEO magazine surveys, we have by far the worst business and job creating climate in the region. Those outcomes weren’t planned, but they were predictable.

Free people making free decisions in a reasonably regulated free market: That’s fair, it’s productive, and it will result in the greatest good for the most people, with enough left over to maintain a safety net for those who need it. Balancing rights and values will always be challenging; but along the way we also have to respect the truths of human nature and basic economics. Otherwise we’re just wishing. And wishing is not a plan.

Carl Graham Commentary: “A Revolution in Thinking”

It’s fitting that my first visit with you as a guest commentator is right near Independence Day. The mission of my organization, the Montana Policy Institute, embraces those Enlightenment ideals of freedom and liberty that our day of founding so embodies. So I get to kill two birds with one stone by appropriately recognizing the important principles that surround this holiday, and simultaneously introducing myself and the point of view I’ll be representing in this and future commentaries.

And we’ll need that brief introduction. I’m going to be talking to you from a perspective and putting out ideas that will be new to many of you, or at least that many of you will consider not in the mainstream. So sometime in the future, before you pick up your pen after listening to one of my commentaries to demand I be taken off the air or certainly before reconsidering your support for Montana Public Radio, I’d ask that you come back to this initial offering and see if maybe we’re actually not that far apart on what we want for our country, even if some of us may be poles apart on how to get there.

So let’s start by talking briefly about our nation’s independence, and what I think our revolution meant. Let me preface this by saying that I believe in American exceptionalism, we are the shining city on the hill. We’re not perfect. In a world of human beings where we all want different things we wouldn’t be able to agree on what “perfect” is anyway. Our exceptionalism comes from the fact that we allow people to define and pursue what makes each of us happy, not what makes all of us happy. We’re free, or should be free, to live our lives as we please so long as we respect others’ right to do the same. By each of us being free to reach our potential and achieve fulfillment, all of us can be better off.

The system our founders set up to allow this individual pursuit of happiness was truly revolutionary in at least two ways. First, it placed the rights of the governed over those of the government. All power originated in the individual, and was devolved to government only by consent. Nobody was above the law and our basic law, the Constitution, was designed to respect and reflect natural rights and human nature.

Which brings us to the second new idea our revolution embodied: that it is better to harness human nature than to suppress it. Rather than focus on strictures and structures that limit the harm we humans can do to each other, our framers decided to unleash the potential that each of us has and reward productive effort and cooperation. Instead of managing a life that was nasty brutish and short, freedom produced lives full of meaning by unleashing our creativity and channeling our ambition. Each of our successes became all of our successes because we were left free to define and pursue happiness in any way that respected others’ right to do the same.

So what does all that mean today? Obviously our world is far different than that of the founding fathers. Their system didn’t foresee mega corporations and their allegiance to short term profit, or the microchip and its ability to increase human understanding through massive computation, or the demands that growing populations can place on the environment. Does that mean we should throw out their ideas and start over? Or should we be “progressive” and adopt whatever methodologies or philosophies that seem to work best as things change? I obviously don’t think so. While we certainly must adapt to new circumstances in a very complicated world, the principles that made this country exceptional and luminescent in the 18th century are what can keep it exceptional and luminescent in the 21st. The truths that were self-evident in 1776 are self-evident today: that all of us are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

What’s best for all of us is the ability to pursue what’s best for each of us; to achieve happiness and fulfillment in our own lives and to improve others’ lives as a result. I am no better or worse off because somebody else is rich, but many people are rich because they made my and many others’ lives better. That’s fair because it rewards effort, and beneficial to society because of the good that is distributed.

And that’s what I think the founders had in mind: a society where each of us can expect to enjoy the fruits of our labor, to be held responsible for the consequences of our actions, and to have a government that works for us rather than rules over us. If only it were so easy. Our immediate future will require hard questions, painful tradeoffs, and a thorough examination of who we are as a country. We’ll discuss some issues surrounding the intersections of those tradeoffs with policy options during our visits in the coming months. I’m looking forward to it and appreciate the opportunity.

Discussion series on Montana Constitution’s 40th Anniversary taking place at Carroll College

A copy of the Montana Constitution as released by the Montana Secretary of State's Office

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Montana’s Constitution. Our state’s top document was ratified by the people of Montana on June 6th, 1972. The nonprofit Humanities Montana is hosting a series of discussions on both the state and U.S. Constitutions today and tomorrow at Carroll College in Helena.

It’s called “We the People: Conversations on the Montana and U.S. Constitutions”

Humanities Montana Executive Director, Ken Egan says 40 years actually shows how young the Montana Constitution really is. He says that’s worth celebrating.

“We’re celebrating the fact that they were very direct about issues such as Native rights, such as the environment, such as the right to petition the importance of local government and some autonomy for local government,” he said.

The Montana Constitution is often described as one of the most progressive constitutions in the country. It was controversial in 1972. Egan says it passed by a slim margin of just 3-thousand votes. He says that controversy carries through to today and will be addressed at the Caroll College event.

“What people will say is it was passed at a moment in Montana history in the early ’70s when the progressive attitudes did dominate and has it been a success, this constitution for Montana. And that’s what our panelists are going to debate, if you will,” he said.

 The final discussion this evening takes place at 7:30 at the Carroll College Campus Center.It’s called Representative Government and Free Enterprise: What were the Founders Thinking?

Panelists will be Carl Graham from the conservative Montana Policy Institute and Brian Kahn, host of the Montana Public Radio program Home Ground. Montana Supreme Court Justice Patricia Cotter will moderate the discussion.

Click here for the event’s full schedule