Wednesday, May 04, 2005

COLUMN -- Putting a human face on the Twin Cities' best 'villain'

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:37 AM |  

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

David Strom, President, Taxpayers League of MinnesotaMost people know David Strom, president of the Minnesota Taxpayers League, as the "conservative liberals love to hate." Or the Twin Cities' "Best Villain." He's been compared to Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. The State Troopers Association president linked him philosophically to the violent Posse Comitatus.

Few know he was once a shy, vaguely socialist lad, a total intellectual geek from a family barely right of communism. He was a McGovern Democrat. He attended that Wellstonian Mecca, Carleton College, yet he speaks fluent Aristotle, Locke, de Tocqueville and Rand.

Last week I sat down for a wide-ranging 90-minute conversation with Strom in his Plymouth office. Wedged amid piles of reports and studies, bags of microwavable Chinese meals and a couple of Rolodexes about the size of truck tires, I found a kindler, gentler David Strom.

We talked about the concept of "justice," about the conservative conundrum of moral values vs. political philosophy, the messiness and arbitrariness of governing, sledgehammers, blunt instruments and the mission and strategy of the Taxpayers League and the controversial "No New Taxes" pledge.

A thoughtful David Strom questioned the "prudence and morality" of budget cuts falling on low-income families. He waxed eloquently on the proper role of love and compassion in government and society and about the waning compassion of modern liberals.

The conversation was not without its political jabs.

Liberal politics is "willful ignorance married to moral superiority," Strom said. The Central Corridor proposal is "a terrible idea." Our public transit system in general is "horrible." But he gave his best shot to "new urbanists."

"I think new urbanists are just out-and-out con artists," he said. "They see the same numbers, and they go out and say things they know are false. At some point you just have to say [to them], 'Well, you're just a BS artist.'"

As Aristotle says, "A is A," and Strom is what he is. As much as he ticks off today's liberal elite, David Strom is a conservative "Happy Warrior" with a populist message.

He has Hubert Humphrey's biography on his bookshelf and the man's exuberance, love of pontification, political courage, sense of history and sincere concern for individuals burned into his character. The means may vary, but like the Happy Warrior, Strom is out to empower the people of Minnesota.

"Whether you define other people as ends in themselves or as means to an end is how you determine if something is moral or not," Strom reflected. "I think that is the legitimate, fundamental question about how we create government.

"Most people, when they look at government, don't see [the left's] grand collectivity, or 'common expression.' The common American understanding about government is still the Founding Fathers' understanding, which is that of a social compact. When people quit getting the sense that they are getting something out of it, they rebel."

Viewing "social compact" as a dynamic concept, not a piece of dogma, puts Strom at odds with some on both the left and the right.

"Government has to be there," he added, speaking of "vulnerable" individuals. "Not as the nurturer, that's where I think the left has gone astray, but it must recognize that the nurturing role has to exist.

"On the left, they believe that the proper role for government should be guided by love. That's a mistake. If you want to express love in community affairs, you have to do it yourself. You can't do it by simply writing a check to government and expect some vast bureaucracy to do it."

Nonetheless, Strom observes, "government tries to replace the family, the church, the neighborhood, the community with a benevolent bureaucracy. The benevolent bureaucracy cannot do what [civil society] can do, but it has pushed civil society aside. It's said, 'This is our problem. Just go away. By the way, go work some more so that we can do more of this.'

"People are actually quite willing to pay for a better Minnesota," he added. "But they are skeptical that they are paying for a better Minnesota when they pay higher taxes."

And therein lies the essence of the man, the message, and the mission of the Taxpayers League — empowering people, not government.

"Ultimately our success or failure is entirely driven by the public's willingness to buy into what we're saying," Strom said. "If people didn't give a crap what we said, then politicians would simply ignore us."

Read the entire interview here


Following are some key excerpts from the interview, located here. The concept of “justice” is clearly the dominant theme that underlies Strom’s philosophical comments, but comes into play in his questioning of budget cuts affecting the most vulnerable as “prudentially and morally questionable” to his condemnation of “new urbanists.” Below are highlights from the interview.

On Social Justice

Strom: The first political campaign that I remember vividly, because I participated in it, was McGovern-Nixon. I went around and handed out bumper stickers and collected little bits of money . . .

CW: For McGovern?

Strom: For McGovern. So the “vague socialism” was probably based upon a belief that the primary political virtue was justice, and that human decency toward each other was one of the highest political goals.


On Ayn Rand

I am by no means an Ayn Rand guy now, but at the time, you know it was kind of like a slap in the face, because you have all of the background having to do with social justice, racism and everything else, and now suddenly here’s someone questioning the basic premise about of our obligations to each other -- who really provides the motive force behind society? -- all those things.

While like most people in the conservative circles, I have sort of left some of the more extreme aspects of Ayn Rand behind, I’d have to say she provided a kind of an intellectual slap in the face to a lot of the things I just thought were unassailable.


On wealth redistribution

What happens is when you take wealth away from these people who have lots of it and give it to these people who don’t have a lots of it, you actually start destroying wealth. This was a tremendous revelation to me at the time -- that something I had assumed was a constant was actually a variable. When you talk about people’s worth, you’re not just talking about labor, you’re talking about creativity, you’re talking about a vastly dynamic system. There’s justice associated with creating the division of wealth -- which had never occurred to me.


On the political spectrum

I like to argue that there is just a vast number of people who define the spectrum entirely incorrectly. They think that one end of the spectrum is communism and the other end of the spectrum is fascism, which I think is entirely incorrect. The spectrum is really from statism to individualism. That is the defining element of the spectrum, so I put communism and fascism in pretty much the same spot.


On libertarians

One of the arguments I always have with the libertarians, with whom I’m very sympathetic, is over the question of the helpless. And one of the arguments of the libertarians that seems to me to be weakest is that they presume something that I think is actually kind of a social creation, and that is the rationality of human beings, their ability to make good decisions.

CW: And this is also where you depart from Rand

Strom: Yes, very much so. This is why I think ultimately there is a serious weakness in her thinking. Government has to be there, not as the nurturer, that’s where I think the left has gone astray, but it has to recognize that the nurturing role has to exist.


On same-sex marriage

I think ultimately on a principled basis, government should be out of the marriage business. I understand and have tremendous sympathy for people who are disturbed by government recognition of same-sex marriage and all of those issues, and in particular how tight government is tied into the education of our children.

You aren’t talking about letting these two people do their thing. You’re really talking about a whole infrastructure that trickles down to the education of our children. Ultimately to the extent that there is a solution to that, it’s getting government out of the marriage business.


On the role of government

Actually one of the most difficult things for me, because of my own background has been that you have to recognize that government is not really in the justice business. That’s where I started; justice was the highest principle. But, government isn’t in the justice business. In my own life I’ve seen this where you deal with the (quote) “justice” system. Government is in the “conflict resolution” business.

That’s what government is about. It is resolving conflicts. Trying to satisfy, trying to find the solution that everybody can live with. There is absolutely no way to dispense justice. And people don’t want justice. They say they want justice -- What they want is mercy for themselves; they want “justice” for the other guy.


On distrust of government

I think a lot of it [distrust of government] is driven by mostly legitimate feelings. It has noting to do “community feeling.” Most people, when they look at government, they don‘t see what people on the left see, which is sort of this grand collectivity, our “common expression.” They see government as essentially another big organization. The big difference [between government and other organizations] is they don’t have a choice. They have to participate in this one, because if they don’t, they go to jail. And they’re willing to participate because they see benefit for that.


On Minnesota’s “most vulnerable

You know, it’s all well and good to say that parents should be out there working and earning their keep and they don’t have a right to other people’s money and all that stuff, but one of the things that does very much seem to be a part of both our social compact, and in some ways more importantly, a legitimate role of government is to ensure that those people who are vulnerable are protected, at least to a minimum extent.


Defining the “moral hazard” line

Have we gotten to a point where the protections we are providing people actually encourage behaviors that are bad for them?


On the current budgeting process

I will say that I have not been -- I have not gotten into this in any of my public pronouncements or anything -- but I have not been 100 percent sympathetic to the approach that has been taken in the reshaping of the budget. I think they [Pawlenty administration] are doing everything they can to minimize the political damage, which is rationale from their point of view. But to minimize the political damage, they are also grappling with the fact that the fastest growing part of the budget is health and human services. And they’ve got a huge political problem; the places they should be looking at are middle-class entitlements, but those are politically very risky places to go. So, the easiest place to go is to rejigger things for the most vulnerable. I think that is both prudentially and morally questionable.


On his political “enemies”

One of the things I’ve found is first, those are fascinating people to be around, and I have had the great opportunity over the past eight years meet a good chunk of them and become friends with them. So, for instance, David Lillehaug is a friend; Ember Reichgott Junge is a friend; I’ve had fascinating conversations with people like Steve Kelley, and Dick Cohen . They are fundamentally decent people, and I have found -- and I think they have found -- that we have a lot more in common than we don’t.


On the success of the Taxpayers League

The defining characteristic of the League has been our ability to break into the mainstream media. A lot of that had to do with saying exactly what we think and say it in such a way that people in the media can use it and also have a level of comfort they are not handing the microphone to a Posse Comitatus. [Laughs]. That’s the irony there, if I really were for the Posse Comitatus, I’d never wind up in the newspaper as much as I do, because reporters are actually pretty good at filtering those people out.

Ultimately our success or failure is entirely driven by the public’s willingness to buy into what we’re saying. If people didn’t give a crap what we said, then politicians would simply ignore us. The key to our success ultimately is our ability to persuade people.


On government efficiency

I think this captures it almost perfectly -- the options that have been give to people before when you looked at government in some kind of financial restraints have been [ticks off on fingers 1] pay more and get the same -- just raise taxes so you get to pay more for exactly the same services that you had before; [2] pay more and get less, which is the preferred solution usually, which is raise taxes a little bit, cut spending a little bit; or [3] pay the same, and get less, which is, relatively speaking, the path by government in these last financial crunches -- pay the same, your taxes don’t go down, but your services do.

Well those are three crappy choices. I mean, excuse me, but those are bad choices and the thing is, in other parts of your life, things aren’t bad like that at all. People are used to paying less and getting more.


On the “No New Taxes” pledge

So what the “No New Taxes” pledge is all about is saying “This is the line in the sand. Now you guys have to figure out how to do what you’re suppose to do.” It’s essentially a substitute for competition. The “No New Taxes” pledge is really about saying we don’t have any competitors for them [government], but we do have financial restraints. That’s my conception of it.


On love and compassion in human society

This may be too excessively philosophical, but I want to get this out. This goes back to the “kindler, gentler” Taxpayers League. If I had to find the one sort of defining difference between our point of view and the point of view of a lot people on the social justice left, or the economic justice left, it has to do with to do with the vastly different understandings of the proper role of love in human society.

On a very practical level, no matter how generous you are, if 30 to 40 percent of your income is going to the government, you’re going have less. You’re going to have to work more, you’re going to have less interaction with your fellows. Government actually crowds out the proper realm where love can be expressed by displacing it.

For me that is an extraordinarily troubling thing that has happened because you’ve crowded out the actual place where things can happen.


On political strategy of the Taxpayers League

There is absolutely no question that, again looking at it prudentially, the instruments we have are only slightly less blunt than those the government has. So you look at the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, you look at Taxpayer’s Satisfaction Survey, you look at most of the other issues we’ve dealt with -- several of which funnel down into sort of microcosms, the transit issues . . . I’d love to actually talk about the transit issues because I think it’s the perfect microcosm of the problem government has . . . but all of them in one way or another are putting together those restraints I was talking about as a substitute for competition.


On the Hiawatha light rail line

It was a perfect example of bureaucratic imperative overriding everything else. Absolutely, everything else.

Anyone who has sat down and looked at the numbers, looked at the cost/benefit analysis, looked at alternatives can see, not after lots of research, but after very little research, this is a very bad idea. The one argument for it is, it’s cool. That’s it.


On Twin Cities’ public transit

It is the perfect bureaucratic system. They designed it not actually for your need to get around; they designed the system for their need to have an easily definable system.

When you look at something like this -- the proper questions are “Why do we have a transit system?” To help people get around. “Well, why do we have this particular transit system?” Because it’s the easiest for us to design and maintain.

Those are two very different goals and outcomes. I do not think anyone can consistently argue that this system serves the people it serves well. Particularly when you’re looking at non-choice riders.


On the Central Corridor project

Horrible. A terrible idea. I know Par Ridder [publisher, Pioneer Press, which supports the plan] will be very disappoint for me to say that, but it will be probably an economic development tool in the sense that what you will do is displace -- that is a business incubator area specifically for minorities -- and you are going to displace those people somewhere else and you’ll get local gentrification along the way.

First, that’s simply displacing economic activity that would have taken place someplace else.


On “New Urbanism” and gentrification

But it goes with everything the “new urbanist” movement is all about, which is ironically in a lot of ways the abandonment of the project of dealing with the poor and disadvantaged and going for what they call the “choice rider” and a tool for gentrification. And not a very good tool for gentrification.

In a lot of ways what I think of the new urbanism as baby boomers wanting to move back to the city and those “really unpleasant, nasty to deal with minorities and foreigners and all these people are in our way -- they ride the bus, so we don’t want to ride the bus, so we want a nice bright shiny train.”

Essentially it’s an attempt by all the white-flighters to take back something they thought they didn’t want. But now that they’re getting older -- they’re empty nesters -- they want it back, so they either reproduce it in the suburbs, which some of them do, or they want to take the city back and sort of gentrify this area -- not through economic means, but by the government imposing it on people. “You go away. We take it. And we make it how we want it. And you pay for it, by the way.”


On lust in his heart

Read the entire interview here.