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MARTIN GILENS SPEAKS AT PLYMOUTH STATE

If the “central characteristic of democracy is responsiveness of government toP4070011 the interests of citizens,” as Martin Gilens says,  then ours is failing miserably.

Professor Gilens, prime author of a much-cited article showing that the US government responds to the interests of wealthy individuals and corporate lobbies, not to ordinary people, presented his findings tonight at Plymouth State University.

Gilens, a professor of political science at Princeton, analyzed responses to 1779 survey questions collected from 1981 to 2002 to test whose opinions mattered.  With his co-author, Benjamin Page, Gilens examined the views of average citizens, defined as those at median levels of income, the views of wealthy individuals, and the positions held by the most powerful interest groups (https://i0.wp.com/cdn2.vox-cdn.com/assets/4315381/Gilens1.png“Most of them are business oriented,” he said.).  Then they looked at the outcomes of policy debates.

What they found is that the preferences of ordinary people have virtually no impact on policy.  The opinions of wealthy individuals and organized interest groups, however, have a considerable effect. 

“People with resources call the shots and ordinary citizens are bystanders,” he said. 

It’s not a matter of political parties and which one is in power.  If one looks at issues such as trade policy, tax cuts, or financial de-regulation, politicians of both major parties have enacted policies favored by elites.  “Priorities the public expressed are https://i2.wp.com/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/assets/4315397/Gilens2.png

not the priorities of our government,” Gilens said.

Gilens’ research was reported in “Testing Theories of American Politics:  Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” published in 2014 in Perspectives on Politics.   Frequently referred to as “the Princeton study,” the Gilens and Page paper has been used to state the USA is now an oligarchy. 

Not so fast, Gilens says.  Yes, it’s true that ordinary people are largely ignored and that high percentages of the rising amounts of cash flooding the political system come from a relatively small collection of wealthy individuals.  And it’s also true that running and winning elections demands ever larger campaign funds.   But Gilens  holds onto hope that a movement like the early 20th century progressives can rise up to challenge the policies of the New Gilded Age.   

“No single reform” will do it, Gilens believes.  But campaign finance reform, lobbying reform, electoral reform, and the rise of civil society and labor groups just might stop the trend toward oligarchy.  That will be “a decades long task,” he says.

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This morning’s Concord Monitor had a letter to the editor from Tonya Angwin, president of the Shaker Regional Educational Association, the union representing teachers and school staff in the district where we live.  As she reported, the union had reached an agreement for a new contract with the negotiating team for the School District, but the school board voted it down. 

“The school board has placed us in a difficult situation by refusing to include money for our contract in its proposed budget. As a result, the SREA must ask district members tonight to amend the budget to include money needed to support a reasonable contract,” she wrote.

Like traditional New England Town Meetings, the annual meetings of New Hampshire School districts are small-d democratic.  We often skip School District meetings, but tonight we decided to go.

A couple hundred people gathered in the Belmont High School gym.  At the beginning of the meeting, Roy Roberts, the Moderator, asked everyone present who was not a registered voter in Belmont or Canterbury to raise their hands so we would all know who was not entitled to vote.  Otherwise, we were on the honor system. 

The budget was Article 4, a proposal for $19,837,324 for the year ‘”for the support of schools, the salaries of school district officials and agents, and for the payment of statutory obligations.”  A member of the school board explained this amount constituted a 2% increase over the previous year, but noted there was at present no collective bargaining agreement with the employees.  He also noted the uncertainties associated with the chronic debate over education funding in the state legislature.

Discussion pat piscetta shaker schools 3-18-11began with Pat Piscetta, who identified herself as a Belmont taxpayer and a school district employee and asked the school board members why they rejected their own negotiating team’s collective bargaining agreement.  Speaking for the board, Sumner Dole said the proposed contract “did not meet the long term interests of what we were trying to attain,” but said he couldn’t be more specific due to confidentiality agreements. 

Pat Piscetta was not mollified.  How can voters understand what is going on if the board refuses to tell them, she asked, then called for money to be set aside for the contract.

Michael Guglielmo followed with a motion to add $213,380 to the budget to settle the teachers contract and michael guglielmo shaker schools 3-18-11 restore custodial and technical positions which had been eliminated.  “I’m just here to support the teachers and all our children,” he said.  

A bit of debate followed, and Pat Piscetta returned to the microphone. “We’re not asking for a raise, just for the step increases,” she said.  

We voted by a show of hands, counted by the supervisors of the voter checklists.  The outcome was a tie, 94 to 94.  The moderator broke the tie with a “no” vote, but then said he would entertain a motion to reconsider.  Thashaker schools 3-18-11 012t motion was made and adopted.

Moderator Roberts wisely decided the re-vote would be by ballot.  After again asking those who were not allowed to vote to identify themselves, we stood and filed to the voting booths, where the checklist supervisors gave each voter a green slip with two boxes marked “yes” and “no.” 

This time the vote came out 116 for the amendment, and 114 against.  We’re glad we were there.

Now it was time to vote on the amended budget, again by secret ballot.  The budget passed, 156 to 75.

 

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