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Democracy close-up: It’s better than you may think

The process doesn’t always work perfectly. There are voting irregularities and machine malfunctions. Big money dramatically shifts the playing field. But imagine what it’s like with no voice, limited civil liberties, and no free press.

For most of us, our direct experience with American politics starts and ends with the voting booth, supplemented with what we learn, selectively, from the media. We rarely see our elected representatives in action, proposing and bargaining over bills and budgets. In general, politicians rank low on our lists of most admired professions. Nor do we know much about what happens inside those big state and federal agencies.

Recently, the son of a third cousin asked me to advise him on post-college job-hunting. We had a spirited meeting at the Duluth Coffee Company. A recent graduate with a political science degree, he’d like to find a job in an elected politician’s office or for a legislature. He has good research and writing skills and finds the political process fascinating. I found myself charmed by his ambitions.

Karl’s questions warmed my heart. Although I was mostly employed by universities as an economist, I took several breaks over my career to work for one to two years in the public sector. In each case, I observed close-hand how challenging decision-making can be among dozens, even hundreds, of elected officials, beholden to large numbers of local voters. And to their funders, often large corporations with adamant agendas.

Experts tapped for Michigan Legislature

In my first full-time stint, at the Michigan Legislature, I worked for two years for an extraordinary speaker of the House, Bill Ryan of Detroit. He had thrown out the hacks that were common in the speaker’s office and recruited an all-professional staff, each of us experts in our fields. I became the House economist! To protect us from direct pressure by House members to write for their agendas, Speaker Ryan hired a staff director through whom all requests and assignments flowed. To protect us from sexual harassment on the House floor, he ruled that members could call us at our desks but not require us to come up in person. My work was challenging. I researched and rewrote the municipal revenue-sharing formula for the state based on need criteria. It passed! I worked on solutions to the Detroit fiscal crisis, which we implemented.

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In my third year of teaching economics at the University of Colorado, I took a year’s leave to work as part of an initiative to bring economic expertise into government agencies. Our cohort of two dozen, all young economics professors, were treated to a week of federal agency leaders explaining their work and challenges, answering any questions we’d pose. We had a lot. I worked in the Policy Analysis section of the General Accounting Office, a congressional agency. I wrote about federal aid to state and local governments for everything from the costs imposed by huge military bases that don’t pay local property taxes to proposals for communities confronting an explosion of energy development: coal strip mining, oil shale extraction, pipelines. I remember being called on the carpet by a House representative from the Seattle area who was concerned that I would question existing payments-in-lieu-of-taxes for the large submarine base in his district.

A task force on steel in Chicago

A decade later, now a regional economics professor at UC Berkeley, I accepted a job with the new mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington. He was outraged when U.S. Steel, just before Christmas, announced the closure of South Works, a huge mill employing thousands of mainly African-American and Latino men. He convened the Task Force on Steel and Southeast Chicago, and invited me to become its research director. Another two years’ leave from academia! Our task force members were marvelous and motivated, including a steel company president, the president of the regional Steelworkers Union, a Northwestern University metallurgical engineer, the president of the Real Estate Research Corporation, the biggest black real estate developer on the South Side, and a black community organizer. After a day’s bus tour of South Works and its neighborhood, any illusions about upscale real estate development faded. We charted a new course for Chicago’s huge metal-working complex and kept South Works open another seven years!

photo of article author
Ann Markusen
In 2012, then a retired professor at the University of Minnesota, I received a Christmas Eve call from Minnesota state Rep. Ryan Winkler. He’d read some of my work. “I’ve convinced the speaker to create a bipartisan Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs, and I’d like you to help shape the testimony and write up our sessions and final report.” I looked at my husband across the table, and thought, “He’ll think I’m crazy, but I’m going to say yes!” It was a wonderful experience, resulting in our study, “Making Work Pay.”

Among other things, the committee’s report made the case for a substantial phased-in minimum-wage increase, adopted by the Legislature in 2014. It rose from a statutory $6.15 (trumped by the national $7.25 an hour) to phased-in hikes that will reach $10 for large employers and $8.15 for smaller employers on Jan. 1 of this coming year.

As we know, because it is a democracy, the process doesn’t always work perfectly. There are voting irregularities and machine malfunctions. Big money dramatically shifts the playing field. But imagine what it’s like with no voice, limited civil liberties, and no free press. Get engaged, make it work better!

Ann Markusen is a retired University of Minnesota political economist and resident of Red Clover Township, Carlton County.


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