Monday, August 18, 2014

Can Ferguson Happen Here?

Posted By on Mon, Aug 18, 2014 at 10:31 AM

Ferguson can theoretically happen anywhere, obviously. But there are some structural differences between metro St. Louis and metro Nashville in the way local and satellite governments are configured that are important to understand. An insightful New York Times op-ed today by political scientist Jeff Smith (previously a Missouri state senator from St. Louis) explains some of the history behind the geographic and demographic configuration of inner suburbs in St. Louis — history that is quite different from ours here in middle Tennessee:

Back in 1876, the city of St. Louis made a fateful decision. Tired of providing services to the outlying areas, the city cordoned itself off, separating from St. Louis County. It’s a decision the city came to regret. Most Rust Belt cities have bled population since the 1960s, but few have been as badly damaged as St. Louis City, which since 1970 has lost almost as much of its population as Detroit.

This exodus has left a ring of mostly middle-class suburbs around an urban core plagued by entrenched poverty. White flight from the city mostly ended in the 1980s; since then, blacks have left the inner city for suburbs such as Ferguson in the area of St. Louis County known as North County.

This governmental fragmentation, Smith notes, translates into large numbers of small towns with independent police forces and too much reliance on traffic stops for revenue:

St. Louis County contains 90 municipalities, most with their own city hall and police force. Many rely on revenue generated from traffic tickets and related fines....Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees; for some surrounding towns it approaches 50 percent. Municipal reliance on revenue generated from traffic stops adds pressure to make more of them.

Ninety! And that's in a county whose population outside of the city of St. Louis is roughly the same as Davidson County. As Smith explains, because the white-to-black shift in racial demographics in many of these suburbs has occurred only fairly recently, "fewer suburban black communities have deeply ingrained civic organizations," which is part of how it comes to be that places like Ferguson have majority white power structures (city council, school board, police force) in majority black communities.

Smith sees a remedy, one that should sound vaguely familiar to Nashvillians: consolidation.

Consolidation would help strapped North County communities avoid using such a high percentage of their resources for expensive public safety overhead, such as fire trucks. It could also empower the black citizens of Ferguson. Blacks incrementally gained power in St. Louis City in part because its size facilitates broader coalitions and alliances. Another benefit of consolidation is the increased political talent pool. Many leaders just aren’t interested in running a tiny municipality....Consolidation could create economies of scale, increase borrowing capacity to expand economic opportunity, reduce economic pressures that inflame racial tension, and smash up the old boys’ network that has long ruled much of North County.

Obviously the kind of consolidation that might bring surburban communities together in 21st century St. Louis County doesn't mimic the experience or the experiment Nashville and Davidson County launched 50 years ago. And certainly there are other factors that make St. Louis and Nashville very different places. But it is instructive during a period of searing civic tension in a metro area that in many ways qualifies as a peer city to think about structural similarities and differences when pondering the inevitable question: can it happen here?

A version of this post also appears at

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

So Who Are These People Who Want to Move Here?

Posted By on Tue, Jun 17, 2014 at 9:00 AM

We know that Nashville's hot, and that as a result people want to move here. And we know from Census Bureau data that they are moving here, the numbers putting Nashville among the fastest growing large metro areas both in the last few years and since 2000. That's great ... we love newcomers, right? But who are these mooks relocating here?

Demographers don't call it relocating; they call it migration, and The Atlantic's CityLab project is out with a nifty new analysis of migration in and out of U.S. cities — specifically, a look at the education level of people coming and going. So are we attracting smart, educated humans to Nashville? Can't really speak to "smart," but here's what the analysis says about the education level for domestic migration to Nashville (which means it excludes immigrants):


It's data from a single year, so just a snapshot, but that snapshot suggests that on net we are losing our most educated residents, with the inflow of newcomers looking like a balanced mix of college educated and non-college folks. How does this compare with other cities, especially those with whom we like to compare ourselves? The answer in the form of, yes, lots more bar charts after the jump.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Scalia Watch: Which Nino Will Show Up for Hobby Lobby?

Posted By on Tue, Mar 25, 2014 at 5:30 AM

The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, a case about whether for-profit businesses can, on religious grounds, avoid a legal requirement that employer-provided health insurance include full contraceptive care. The owners of the privately-held corporations that brought the suit are, to be sure, religious people who run their businesses in part on religious principles. But this case isn't about their individual beliefs so much as whether the entity they own and operate can itself as a corporation claim a First Amendment right to religious free exercise, and in doing so avoid complying with generally applicable law having secular intent. This case made it to the Supreme Court after a mix of rulings in different federal appeals courts, and where the high court will go with this one is seriously open to question.

With that in mind, it will be entertaining to see how Justice Antonin Scalia plays this one out. On one hand, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Hobby Lobby wins without Scalia in its corner. On the other hand, Scalia did write the majority opinion in the important 1990 case Employment Division vs. Smith, ruling against a couple of guys in Oregon who sought exemption from a particular application of drug laws on religious grounds after ingesting peyote as a sacramental ritual at their Native American Church. In Hobby Lobby, one of the issues the court will ponder is whether the contraception requirement, which as a regulation has no religious character or intent, substantially burdens religious exercise to an extent that would justify letting some evade the law.

So what does Scalia think about situations in which public policy created through a democratic process collides with individual claims to a right to religious free exercise? It is instructive to read some of the things he had to say in 1990 in the Oregon case:

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Questions for Tennessee’s Marriage Equality Foes

Posted By on Fri, Mar 14, 2014 at 5:30 AM

A new poll last week showed a striking continuation of the dramatic shift in national public opinion toward broad acceptance of same-sex marriage. The trend is hard to miss:

  • Washington Post-ABC News poll

This latest Post/ABC poll also finds that 61 percent favor allowing same-sex couples to adopt children, and 81 percent say businesses should not be allowed to refuse service to gays and lesbians. And there’s an accelerating body of judicial opinion to go with public opinion: In the wake of last summer’s Supreme Court ruling on DOMA we’ve seen federal judges striking down gay marriage bans in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah and Texas, along with state court rulings in New Jersey and Mexico.

Here in Tennessee, of course, a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage enacted in 2006 remains in effect, although a federal lawsuit of the sort that has worked in these other states is in process.

All of which has us wondering: What is going through the minds of stalwart opponents of marriage equality as they digest these developments? The Family Action Council of Tennessee’s David Fowler is among those trying to stop the tide from coming in. We’ve got some questions for Mr. Fowler.

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Monday, November 4, 2013

Lamar Planning Bigoted Vote Today

Posted By on Mon, Nov 4, 2013 at 10:15 AM

One of my guiding principles is federalism. Another is discrimination. Yet another is pandering.
  • "One of my guiding principles is federalism. Another is discrimination. Yet another is pandering."
The U.S. Senate is slated to vote later today on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a common-sense measure that would outlaw employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. ENDA has been floating around Congress in various forms for almost two decades, and a version of it actually passed the House by a pretty good margin in 2007. In today's action Democrats need five Republican senators to avoid a filibuster, and as of this morning five sensible GOPers have signaled support for ENDA. Might those five be joined by either of Tennessee's supposedly not-right-wing-crazy senators? Not bloody likely.

Lamar Alexander is already on record with his disdain for the rights of LGBT workers, as Politico reported last week:

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a bipartisan deal-maker who faces a primary challenge in his 2014 reelection bid, said the bill amounted to “too much federal overreach.” ... “One of my guiding principles is federalism,” Alexander said. “I don’t think we need an additional federal law to regulate it.”

How refreshing — federalism as a pretense for bigotry! Where have we seen that dance before? Given that we already have federal law engaging in regulatory "overreach" with its ban on employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, one must conclude that Lamar stands firmly for repeal of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Top that for GOP primary season unhingery, Joe Carr!

I can find no clear evidence of Sen. Bob Corker's intentions on today's vote, but in an op-ed over the weekend, Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project surmised that Corker won't support ENDA either. Our two allegedly business-friendly senators might want to get on the same page with Apple CEO Tim Cook, who backs ENDA with the observation that "embracing people’s individuality is a matter of basic human dignity and civil rights.”

A version of this post also appears at

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Friday, November 1, 2013

My Last Marsha Post. Promise.

Posted By on Fri, Nov 1, 2013 at 2:00 PM

I demand to be taken seriously.
  • "I demand to be taken seriously."
I recently promised myself no more Pith posts about the festival of witlessness that is Rep. Marsha Blackburn's cognition. But alas, I just can't help myself after her latest public work of self-parodying performance art: the Kathleen Sebelius hearing in the House Energy and Comerce Committee this week.

Asserting that "some people like to drive a Ford and not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red solo cup and not a crystal stem,” Blackburn argued that people should be free to keep the cut rate insurance they have rather than be compelled to buy some of that highfallutin' Marxist-Leninist Obamacare coverage. Sally Kohn at Salon captures it well, summing up Blackburn's argument as a brief for the principle that "Americans should be free to hold onto their inadequate, costly and reckless insurance policies that throw them off at the slightest sign of illness while forcing costs up for the rest of us."

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Poll Dancing: How Marsha Blackburn Misreads the Numbers on Obamacare

Posted By on Wed, Sep 25, 2013 at 9:00 AM

Poll this, you hippie.
  • "Poll this, you hippie."
I get it: they really hate Obamacare. It's worse than Stalinism and kidney stones combined. But how do they look themselves in the mirror after spinning such bullshit in print — nonsense that is so readily checked and so easily debunked? That's what I wondered when I saw Marsha Blackburn's op-ed in The Tennessean yesterday. In Marshaworld, one look at the polls and it's clear the thing won't work and everyone knows it:

It has become very clear that this law is unworkable. A recent CNN poll shows support for the president’s health care law waning, with only 39 percent of Americans now in favor of it, down from 51 percent in January. With the Obama administration’s decisions to delay several parts of the health care law, including the employer mandate, it is clear that even the White House now recognizes what the rest of America already knows: “Obamacare” is a train wreck.

The problem with Blackburn's position is that while poll results may find that Americans are skeptical about on the Affordable Care Act, the polls also show that Americans want Congress to make it work, not kill it. Yes, the CNN poll she mentions does find only 39 percent of respondents favoring most or all of Obamacare, and a Pew poll completed around the same time (early September) locates approval at just 42 percent, with 53 percent expressing disapproval.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Required Reading for State House Lawmakers on Nullification

Posted By on Wed, Sep 4, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Devoted followers of conservative mayhem at the state house will recall one of the finer moments of legislative insanity last winter: a bill aiming to nullify federal firearms legislation by making it illegal for federal agents to enforce those laws in Tennessee. In the wake of an AG opinion that the measure was probably unconstitutional and indications that Gov. Bill Haslam was disinclined to sign the thing, the bill narrowly failed to make it out of committee back in February.

GOP-dominated state houses elsewhere have pushed this gun law nullification thing further along, with Missouri's in the spotlight this month. That state's legislature overwhelmingly passed a nullification bill earlier this summer, which Gov. Jay Nixon promptly vetoed. Now the show-me legislature is planning a vote to override the veto when it reconvenes next week. A successful override will require fewer votes than there were in favor the first time around. (And we duly note that while the bill was largely a GOP effort, it passed with the support of 11 Democrats in the Missouri House and 2 in the Senate.)

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Overregulating Worker Speech

Posted By on Mon, Aug 19, 2013 at 11:04 AM

A Washington Post op-ed last week told the story of a woman who decided to quit her job at a physician's office because her employer wouldn't let her keep a hoodie image as her computer desktop's wallpaper. Brenda Howard had selected the image as a show of support for Trayvon Martin's family in the wake of the Zimmerman trial. She writes of the boss's disapproval:

On Aug. 1, at the end of a long work day, my boss called me into his office. Apparently, during the two weeks since I had selected the hoodie image for my computer desktop, some of my co-workers had complained. They felt that this image, which could be seen only when I logged in or minimized all the windows open on my screen, was inappropriate. My boss, looking distressed, told me that I had to change it.

There was no room for discussion between him and me or me and them. There would be no way to explain, to anyone who felt frightened or threatened by what I had done, that I wasn’t making some call to arms, or a black-power salute, or in fact trying to express any anger at all. It was merely an image of a piece of clothing worn by a young man who was wrongfully killed. By displaying it, I was simply saying that I was sad.

Obviously the boss's position is legal — an employer gets to decide what is or isn't displayed in a work space, including on the desktop of an office computer. But just because an employer can regulate expressive activity doesn't mean it must do so. Howard's situation is precisely the kind of overreaction I had in mind when I wrote about managerial regulation of expression in my book on the First Amendment and the workplace:

It isn’t all that hard to think of situations where employee expression poses a genuine threat to legitimate employer interests, and a functional free-enterprise system need not require employers to tolerate speech of that sort. It’s alarming, however, when people are punished on the job not because their speech concretely jeopardized employer interests, but because their actions trigger needless employer fears about the effects that might possibly occur. We have built in the American economy a management culture so dependent on predictability and control that even remote “threats” to the established order are treated with suspicion and dealt with harshly. The American legal systems of employment law and corporate governance largely excuse employers from worrying about how their actions square with constitutional values or human rights.

Howard says she left the meeting with her boss knowing "that he had every right to ask me to take it [the image] down, but I would not have respected myself if I had." In this instance a silly managerial decision needlessly put a long-term employee in an untenable situation, all over the simple matter of harmless personal expression.

A version of this post also appears at

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Monday, June 3, 2013

Another Reason to Love Nashville: Cheap Colonoscopies!

Posted By on Mon, Jun 3, 2013 at 9:54 AM

A New York Times piece Sunday on the absurdly high price of health care in the U.S. compared to other countries zeroed in on everyone's favorite medical intervention — the colonoscopy — as a particularly compelling example. We learn in the piece that colonoscopies cost a lot more in the U.S. than in other developed nations, but we also learn that the cost varies widely within the U.S.

Nashville, it turns out, is clearly a destination of choice for the cost-conscious colonoscopy shopper. An analysis by Healthcare Blue Book looking at the highest amount paid for the procedure shows Nashville among the lowest of various metropolitan areas examined. Compared to our number, the upper bound price is more than double in Atlanta, Chicago and Denver, and more than triple in Austin. Only Baltimore was lower, and while they do also outperform us as a city in the all-important crabcake category, let's face it ... who really wants to live in Baltimore?

Here's a map from the Times piece summarizing the analysis:

Colonoscopy Map
  • Each number shown is the highest amount paid for a colonoscopy in that metropolitan area.
    Source: The New York Times

Finally, something we do better than Austin. But can we leverage this competitive advantage? Colonoscopy tourism! In the Music City Center!

A version of this post also appears at

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