Can It Happen Here?

It — 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 appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Who Are These Folks Moving Here?

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):

citylab_nashville_500x282

It’s data from a single year, so just a snapshot, but that snapshot suggests that Nashville is losing its 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?

Here are two sets of comparison cities. The first is a set of three sunbelt metro areas we often either compare Nashville to or benchmark against:

cityset1

These pictures show two big things that separate Austin and Charlotte from us. First, those cities are attracting more highly educated migrants — large net inflows of people with bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees. And second, although those two metro areas are similar in size to Nashville, look at how much bigger their raw numbers are: Charlotte’s net domestic migration is three times Nashville’s, and Austin’s almost four times. Atlanta, by contrast, is attracting a markedly less educated influx of new residents than Nashville, and is actually may be having problems holding on to its educated workforce.

The second set of comparison cities are tech-centric metro areas out west:

cityset2

These comparisons show just how far out of the big leagues Nashville remains in attracting the kind of very educated talent influx that some cities are enjoying. Putting together the two sets of comparison cities, we can see that Austin and Charlotte are approaching this level of well-educated migration; Nashville isn’t.

A prior CityLab post broke down flows of population in and out of metro areas in 2013 into their international (inflow of immigrants) and domestic components. Nashville, like most cities, showed net inflows in both categories. The exceptions were the largest cities: net migration was negative — more people leaving than coming — in New York, L.A., Chicago, Philadelphia, and Miami.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


The Ring of Neurofire

JC_and_RMN2From the world of medicine, and specifically the academic journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, comes news that a successful neurological treatment for severe obsessive-compulsive disorder can trigger a curious side effect of the Nashville kind. From the published paper’s abstract:

Recently, neuroscientists have discovered that music influences the reward circuit of the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), even when no explicit reward is present. In this clinical case study, we describe a 60-year old patient who developed a sudden and distinct musical preference for Johnny Cash following deep brain stimulation (DBS) targeted at the NAcc.

The patient, identified as “Mr. B,” is said by the team of Dutch neuroscientists who published the paper to have had broad musical tastes before the treatment, “covering Dutch-language songs, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.” After making no progress with conventional treatment, he was treated with deep brain stimulation, which is known for its use with Parkinson’s patients. Months after the DBS procedure Mr. B. happened to hear “Ring of Fire” on the radio and that’s when the man in black made neuroscience history:

Mr. B. reported that he felt good following treatment with DBS and that the songs of Johnny Cash made him feel even better. From this moment on, Mr. B. kept listening simply and solely to Johnny Cash and bought all his CD’s and DVD’s. When listening to his favorite songs he walks back and forth through the room and feels like he finds himself in a movie in which he plays the hero’s part. He reports that there is a Johnny Cash song for every emotion and every situation, feeling happy or feeling sad and although Mr. B. played almost simply and solely Johnny Cash songs for the following years, the music never starts to annoy him.

Okay, maybe a little lingering OCD there. Side benefit for the docs who wrote the case up: best academic journal article title ever — A case of musical preference for Johnny Cash following deep brain stimulation of the nucleus accumbens.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Right Track? Nation’s Worst? What’s the Diff?

CFCoverTennessee state house speaker Beth Harwell picked an odd week to write an op-ed (in this morning’s Tennessean) declaring that “Tennessee is on the right track” — unless she equates “on the right track” with “among the nation’s worst.” Because “among the nation’s worst” is precisely and appropriately how Tennessean reporter Shelley DuBois sums up the state’s standing in a new Commonwealth Fund report comparing states on dozens of measures of health care access, quality, costs and outcomes.

The report titled Aiming Higher (full text pdf here), which covers the period 2007-2012, finds widespread gains among states in areas that were getting a lot of policy attention, such as child immunizations and hospital readmissions, but on the down side rising costs and declines in access to care. In comparisons of states, Tennessee comes out rather badly. Skimming through the report’s various charts and graphs (pdf), this is easy to see.

Exhibit 12: Percent of adults who went without care because of cost, Tennessee ranks 10th from the bottom, unchanged from 2007.

Exhibit 16: Mortality amenable to heath care, Tennessee is in the bottom 10 for both black and white residents (they do that one by race).

Exhibit 8: Tennessee has the 16th highest rate of Medicare 30-day readmissions.

Exhibit 3: An overall state scorecard summary of health system performance across five dimensions (access and affordability; prevention and treatment; avoidable hospital use and cost; health lives; equity) ranks Tennessee’s 40th, in the bottom quartile.

Two bright spots: Exhibit 6 shows Tennessee ranks 11th in percent of children receiving all recommended vaccine doses, and Exhibit 11 shows Tennessee in top third of states in percent of children with insurance.

Perhaps these weak results mask improvement, making it possible to couch them in Harwell’s “on the right track” optimism. Is that plausible? Not so much. The CF report captures trends in Tennessee on 34 indicators, and finds improvement on 12 of them, worsening on 10, and no change on the rest — pretty much a wash. With the state’s ongoing stubborn refusal to entertain Medicaid expansion, it’s hard to look at the data here and predict upward movement in Tennessee’s health care quality and outcomes anytime soon.

“Right track” indeed.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Moose Headlines

moosignNews from the world of moose…

There’s a moose at large in Vermont.

In New Hampshire, a brain worm was apparently the culprit.

Moose on the upswing in Michigan.

Up in Maine, Max the moose calls it quits.

Last but not least, a moose flip on video. Reportedly ok.


What Democracy Looks Like

Republicans around the country have put a lot of effort in recent years into enacting laws that limit voter access to the polls, with the GOP accelerating these vote suppression efforts in swing states in time for year’s midterm elections. So in other words, for the modern Republican Party, making it harder for people to vote (especially those who aren’t likely to vote for you) is what democracy looks like.

I stumbled onto a different view of what democracy looks like as I was ambling through Terminal 3 at Perth Airport in Western Australia last week. I happened upon Gate 22 — which had been temporarily converted into a polling place for early voting in upcoming state elections. Voting at the airport!

perth22

It is worth noting that Australia has a system of compulsory voting (if you don’t have an acceptable documented excuse for failing to vote you pay a fine), and that arguably obliges the government to make voting as readily available as possible. Also, Western Australia’s economy with its reliance on mining and energy spread over a large territory has a lot of so-called “fly-in, fly-out” workers who come and go to work by air for lengthy intervals. The opportunity for these workers to meet their voting obligation at the airport makes good sense, as Perth discovered in last fall’s Australian federal election.

It turns out, though, that airport voting isn’t unique to that western side of Australia with its mining economy; in the most recent federal election early voting sites were set up at major airports (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and others) in every Australian state.

In the U.S. right now, democracy (in the view of one major political party) means rigging public policy to keep people away from the polls. In Australia, democracy means creating opportunities to vote that reach people where and when they are. Making it hard to vote vs. making it easier to vote … hich smells more like real, functioning democracy?

[Plus in Australia you get to choose on the ballot among all these groovy political parties!]

ballot22

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


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

ninoscaliaThe 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:

“The government’s ability to enforce generally applicable prohibitions of socially harmful conduct, like its ability to carry out other aspects of public policy, cannot depend on measuring the effects of a governmental action on a religious objector’s spiritual development.”

“Respondents urge us to hold, quite simply, that when otherwise prohibitable conduct is accompanied by religious convictions, not only the convictions but the conduct itself must be free from governmental regulation. We have never held that, and decline to do so now.”

“Our cases do not at their farthest reach support the proposition that a stance of conscientious opposition relieves an objector from any colliding duty fixed by a democratic government.”

“It is horrible to contemplate that federal judges will regularly balance against the importance of general laws the significance of religious practice.”

Quoting with approval a 19th century case: “‘Laws…are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices…Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.'”

Which Scalia will show up today for Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby? The one from 1990 who understood the proper balance between democratic government and religious freedom? Or the twenty-first century version who just seems to make it up as he goes to suit his ideological whims?

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


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