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Is there hope for cutting through gridlock? John Brandl shows us a way

John Brandl

Yesterday at lunch a colleague asked me, “Is this going to be a good couple of years or not?” He was referring to the results of Tuesday’s election and the prospects for getting anything productive done in terms of economic policy during the next two years.

If he had asked me on October 28, my answer would have been quick and short: no, there’s not much chance we’ll get anything done in the next two years. On the 28th, we were nearing the end of a campaign featuring erroneous assertions about Minnesota’s job growth, unemployment rates, and economic policies compared to other states and a generally low level of literacy on economic policy. The bitterness seemed palpable in the mail filling my St. Cloud mailbox.

Then, on October 29, I attended the annual celebration of John Brandl and his “Common Quest for the Common Good” and regained my optimism. I listened to Don Fraser and Al Quie, went back to John’s writings, and hope returned.

John Brandl graduated from St. John’s University in 1959 and earned a Ph.D. in Economics at Harvard. He worked as analyst in the McNamara Defense Department of the 1960s and then served as a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare under President Johnson. John then returned home and joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota, where he served as a faculty member and dean in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. From 1977 through 1990 he served in the Minnesota Legislature, first in the House and then in the Senate.

I had the privilege of getting to know John after his retirement from the U of M, when he came to St. John’s and St. Ben’s to teach students and mentor those of us on the faculty who were trying to get students interested and involved in public policy. He is buried in the St. John’s cemetery and when my office was at St. John’s I would regularly take a walk out to his grave to say hello. Sometimes, if I was thinking about a thorny problem, I’d ask, “What would you do, John?”

I continue to ask this question because John’s starting point for public policy was that “only competition and community can dependably channel the efforts of free people to public purposes.” Further, he argued, “competition and community do not substitute for government. They are the instruments through which government facilitates the working out of public purposes by a free people.” (Both quotes are from John’s book, “Money and Good Intentions Are Not Enough, or Why a Liberal Democrat Thinks States Need Both Competition and Community.”)

I push this idea with my students because this is at the heart of economics more generally. Our discipline studies how societies allocate their scarce resources across infinite needs and wants, and we use both competition and community to carry out this task. Economists emphasize competitive markets, but I always point out that markets are instruments to an end, not the end itself, and that building community can be as effective or perhaps even a better way of providing the things our society values.

This is where Democrats and Republicans should start when they think about economic policy. What mix of competition and community will work best to close Minnesota’s racial achievement gap and promote our state’s long-run economic growth? How can tax policy be formulated to encourage Minnesota’s businesses to focus on delivering great products and services in competitive markets rather than using the tax code as their primary route to increasing profits?

But can or will our elected officials do this? I don’t know if they will do this, but listening to Don Fraser and Al Quie I heard how they can do it.

Fraser told us that a good policy maker starts the process by figuring out where he or she stands on an issue, not triangulating their position relative to party or constituents. Only then can you talk to members of your own party, the other party, and your constituents about it and learn from them.

Quie pointed out that good policy is like a child: it has DNA from both parents. And, the way to get that mix is to Listen, Think, and Love.

Laura Bloomberg, associate dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said that John Brandl had both “a powerful intellect and a big heart.” If we follow John Brandl’s lead and build our policies on competition and community, if we learn from Don Fraser to know where each of us stands on the issues, and we listen, then think, and always love as Al Quie teaches us, then my answer to my colleague today is “Yes, we can do great things.”

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Comments (10)

Light Bulb

This reminds of the old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light blub: One. but the light bulb has to want to change.

One side was rewarded Tuesday for it's role in grid lock. Why would they want to change?

I thought the Democrats

I thought the party who caused the gridlock lost on Tuesday. I mean the GOP tried to lower taxes, reduce regulation costs, minimize welfare fraud, drive efficiency and effectiveness into the public sector, etc, but the Democrats prefer to do nothing.

Gridlock On The Way

"We're not going to be debating all of these gosh darn proposals, like raising the minimum wage."

-Sen. Mitch McConnell, addressing his base, er, the Koch Brothers recent pre-election summit, on his priorities should he become majority leader.

Gridlock Can be Good

And look at how the the Democrats stalled out the efforts of the GOP.

My point is that it takes 2 parties to cause grid lock. You see the GOP blocking higher taxes, legislated wages, more regulatory laws, etc as stopping progress, I see the Democrats blocking lower taxes, lower government spending, reducing bureaucratic regulations, etc as stopping progress.

The cause of gridlock is a matter of perspective...

We'll See What We'll See

Brandl was right, of course. But Brandl's been gone too long. I'm afraid that the Republicans in the House may take the national model for how to behave and not try to carve out a "Minnesota Way." If they do,they'll oppose anything the DFL wants. That's not governing but after seeing what has happened nationally they may think that it's the way to take over the state government as well. We'll see by the end of the session whether we now have a non-functional state government as well as a non-functional national government.

"If we follow John Brandl’s

"If we follow John Brandl’s lead and build our policies on competition and community, if we learn from Don Fraser to know where each of us stands on the issues, and we listen, then think, and always love as Al Quie teaches us, then my answer to my colleague today is “Yes, we can do great things.”"

Maybe, but let's note that the respective roles of competition and community are what we disagree about. In effect, what is being suggested here is that the way to agreement is to stop disagreeing. True, possibly, but not very helpful.

The role of the market

“…markets are instruments to an end, not the end itself, and that building community can be as effective or perhaps even a better way of providing the things our society values.”

Though not original to Mr. Johnston, this is an idea worth holding on to, especially the first pair of phrases.

I also had the privilege of knowing him

I was his campaign treasurer while he ran for and served in the state Senate. I know he took some heat from his south Minneapolis liberal constituency for demurring on some of their hardened ideological positions -- for example, supporting some funding for parochial schools and not carrying the hottest pro-choice torch on the abortion issue. Regretfully, I think our current situation reflects the calcified ideological positions on both sides of the great divide.


We tend to overestimate the power and importance of markets. How much time do you spend in markets? How often do you buy stocks? How much time do you really spend in grocery stores? Do you bid for your job every morning before driving to work?

Broad experience...?

I am sure that a man who has recieved a paycheck from the public for his entire life and was Dean of the Humphry School of Public Affairs has much to offer the big-goverment establishment.