Thursday, July 3, 2014

Tennessee, You're Not So Bad. You Just Need Someone Who Can Understand You

Posted By on Thu, Jul 3, 2014 at 5:30 AM

I'm way late talking about this David Sirota piece where he explains why Tennessee is just a cesspool of corruption, but I've been thinking a lot about it, because I feel like it ties with a lot of the conversations we've been having lately.

Sirota explains about our corruption:

One analysis comes from researchers at Indiana University and University of Hong Kong. They compared data from 25,000 convictions in public corruption cases with state spending data. As Governing magazine reports, the researchers document that the most corrupt states like Tennessee “tended to spend money on construction, highways, and police protection programs, which provide more opportunity for corrupt officials to use public money for their own gain.” Governing adds that those “states spend less on health, education, and welfare, which provide less opportunity for officials to collect bribes.”

Tennessee's budget appears to confirm these findings. According to various studies over the last few years, Tennessee has ranked near the bottom for per capita spending on education. Additionally, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that Tennessee has enacted some of the deepest cuts to higher education funding of any state in the country.

Of course, an earlier study found one other major way a corruption can shape state policy: through taxpayer subsidies. According to that 2011 analysis from researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank and the University of Michigan, “Cities and counties in states with troubled political cultures demonstrate the greatest willingness to offer business development incentives.” And again, comparing Tennessee’s corruption with its economic development policies seems to confirm this.

And he didn't even mention the Jones Lang LaSalle nonsense!

But I'm going to say, I don't feel like we live in a corrupt state. I feel like I live in a state full of uptight, hypocritical bozos who do all the things in secret they try so hard to prevent me from being able to do in public. But it doesn't really feel corrupt to me.

I've been giving a lot of thought to why that is. And I think part of it is that the kind of corruption Sirota is talking about isn't people blatantly giving jobs only to their friends or people openly taking bribes in order to steer legislation how the bribers want it to go. Hell, I'm a political junkie and I can't completely tell you exactly how I'm supposed to understand this Supreme Court justice trouble as corruption. The corruption we have feels like the errors of nitwits, not the elaborate plan of someone determined to do wrong.

Also, Memphis works a lot like the pretty girl in a magician's act. Corrupt politicians need only be all "Oh, come on. We're not like Memphis" and all eyes go to the Bluff City, as if that's the locus of every bad thing in the state, when really it's just a distraction so that you don't see where politicians really have their hands.

But I've also been thinking a lot about the situation with Judge Moreland and I think people's response to it tells us a lot about how we are where we are more broadly. A number of people straight up asked me some variation of "But don't you think he can be redeemed? How can we leave room for him to change?"

And, you know, that sounds like a legitimate line of questioning. If a person screws up and is really sorry and genuinely committed to changing, why shouldn't we give him a chance? It seems reasonable. Tie in some religion and it seems almost like a Christian duty (for the majority of us who are Christian) to assume the best in people and to not write them off just because they make one mistake.

Our hope that people can be redeemed, that they can be genuinely sorry, and thus change, our willingness to give people multiple chances, leaves us very susceptible to corrupt public figures. It's our duty to forgive and, boy howdy, are these guys willing to do things that need forgiveness.

I also think there's another way people's sincerely-held beliefs make it harder for us as a state to clean up our acts. I'm going to use my mom as an example because she is literally one of the best people I know — sweet, brave, kind, adventurous, loving, and very faithful in her religious beliefs (no, I'm not sure how she ended up with me as a daughter, either).

Sometimes we'll be talking and she'll say something like, "Well, X got arrested for beating a man to death with a puppy! The puppy died, too. It's so terrible. I heard he might have eaten the puppy before the police got there," and then she'll pause and say something like, "but, you know, I'm a sinner, too, and I shouldn't be talking about how bad X is because the Bible says all sin is bad."

And every time I'm like, "Come on, Mom. You're the last person on earth who would beat a guy to death with a puppy! You are a better person than X by any measure." But all sin is bad. So, I always feel like I lose that argument with her.

I've had similar talks with other devoted Christians, so I know my mom is not alone in this theological belief. And I think it's a really wonderful and generous way to to look at the world.

But how, if you won't say, "Yep, that dude is bad," do you ever vote bad dudes out of office?

I'm really torn, because I believe that people can change and that it's not good for people to unreflectively think of themselves as better than others. These qualities we see in so many Tennessee voters are good qualities for people to have. But how do you let those qualities guide your life and still protect yourself from the kind of corruption we've just become acclimated to?

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