We Don't Grow by Fiat

Last night the state legislature, in a bipartisan vote, passed the gun control legislation it drafted in response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook. Some, felt that this was a process that took too long, and in some ways the outcome falls short of our expectations. However, we should not be disheartened. The legislation is a positive step forward, and Speaker Sharkey was right to build a bipartisan bill.

Laws make a difference, but they will not change the culture. We can ban assault weapons but we cannot ban gun supporters obnoxiously yelling at our legislators as they go to vote. We can regulate what kinds of magazines gun owners use, but we cannot regulate what magazines they read before they distort the meaning of the Constitution. Certain things are not the province of law making, but of the conversation we have around our laws when we make them. Connecticut and the legislators needed to listen and speak with both sides to build the buy-in on sweeping gun control legislation.

There were many rallies, conversations, and public hearings before they crafted something that truly reflected the values of the Connecticut people. Through these we saw the contrast between responsible firearm owners and those that are more extreme in their views. The firearm lobby was at the state capitol spreading fear, their favorite marketing fuel, on more than one occasion. However responsible gun owners and Republicans understood the importance of imposing certain limits on ownership while allowing people to hunt or go to the shooting range. Lawmakers listened to both sides and managed to balance their needs. The final bill is something our legislature should be proud of.

Instead of using their super-majority to create a bill that would anger a lot of constituents Democrats worked with the Republican minority to craft a bill that the majority of Connecticut people could get behind. Neither side is going to be completely happy with what passed, but I think most people agree it is a positive step forward, and that is what is important. Our legislators showed us that when the goal is to make things better instead of creating partisan gain, they can accomplish great things. Members of the federal legislature could learn a lot if they took a day to drop by and see how we do things under the gold dome in Connecticut.

My Testimony Supporting House Joint Resolution No. 3 (Urging Congress to Overturn Citizens United)

Below is the text of my remarks that I delivered in front of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Government Administration & Elections Committee hearing today.

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, I thank you for taking the time to listen to me this morning. My name is Matt Zagaja and I am an attorney and professional political operative. As someone who has worked on campaigns I have seen first-hand the impact money has on elections. That is why I am here today to share three reasons I support House Joint Resolution 3:

Corporate Involvement in Elections Erodes Trust in Government

According to a poll conducted on behalf of Prof. Larry Lessig 75% of Americans believe money buys results in Congress.1 That belief erodes trust, which erodes participation. In 2010 Rock the Vote conducted a poll of young people who were not planning to vote in the upcoming election and found that 62% of them were not planning to vote because no matter who wins, corporate interests will still have too much power and prevent real change.2

However I do not need polls and data to know this is true. I see it every day. I do not make my participation in politics secret, but I still hear from family and friends that they do not believe things will change regardless of who is in power. When I knock doors for candidates or talk to friends, even some from law school, I still hear a gospel of cynicism that suggests people have lost faith in their leaders.

We Should Incentivize Innovation over Policy Manipulation

At my last job I had the privilege of helping entrepreneurs formulate strategies for their businesses here in Connecticut. When I did this I learned start-ups do not make their money by convincing the government to give them tax breaks; they make their money by innovating. Whether it is a smartphone or personalized genomic medicine, profitable companies make our lives better by engineering new technologies and solutions.

Yet a recent study shows that the return on investment for lobbying can be as much as 22,000%.3 That is a lot of money being made without providing any new value. This kind of return distorts the market and causes companies to waste capital on policy manipulation instead of innovation. Nowhere is this more evident than in healthcare. Last year Aetna inadvertently disclosed more than $7 million in donations to political groups that opposed the Affordable Care Act.4</a> This lead the New York State comptroller to file a shareholder resolution demanding greater disclosure and oversight of Aetna’s political spending.5</a> I think that the message is clear: shareholders would prefer Aetna make money by finding ways to more efficiently deliver healthcare rather than by spending money to change the laws.

Corporations Have a Disproportionate Impact on Elections and Policy

As you can see I am a fan of free markets and free speech. I believe that everyone should have a voice in the market of ideas, but loud megaphones can cause us to all go deaf.

As someone who has worked on campaigns I understand the importance and pressure of raising funds. I also understand the fear of outside interest groups that might bombard a candidate with attack ads. This fear leads candidates to need to build large war chests for protection. For better or worse the amount of money in these war chests is influenced by the relationships the politicians have with interest groups and this impacts policy.6

While overturning Citizens United will not put an end to policy advocacy by corporations, it will curb some of the excesses. Hopefully it will clear up bandwidth and give people without millions of dollars an opportunity to have their voices listened to. Maybe it will allow our public servants to sleep better and live bolder. Thank you.

  1. Larry Lessig, The Problem with Money in Politics, http://blip.tv/lessig/the-problem-with-money-in-politics-644519

  2. Rock the Vote, 2010 Rock the Vote Nationwide Baseline, http://www.rockthevote.com/assets/publications/research/2010/2010-rock-the-vote-nationwide-baseline.pdf

  3. Raquel Alexander, Stephen Mazza & Susan Scholz, Measuring Rates of Return for Lobbying Expenditures: An Empirical Case Study for Tax Breaks for Multinational Corporations, 25 J. of Law and Politics 401 (2009), available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=137508

  4. </a> Charles Riley, Oops! Aetna discloses political donations, CNN Money, http://money.cnn.com/2012/06/14/news/economy/aetna-political-contributions/index.htm

  5. </a> Thomas DiNapoli, DiNapoli Leads Coalition Demanding Aetna Disclose Political Spending, Office of the New York State Comptroller, http://www.osc.state.ny.us/press/releases/dec12/122012.htm

  6. </a> Alex Blumberg & Andrea Seabrook, When Lobbyists Pay to Meet with Congressmen, NPR, http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2012/04/20/150984304/when-lobbyists-pay-to-meet-with-congressmen

Working from Home v. Working from an Office

It is surprising to me how much the debate over working at home versus an office has blown up in recent days. For years different companies and organizations have had varying policies and positions on this issue, but once Yahoo!’s new CEO Marissa Mayer issued an edict ending work at home policies for a small number of employees, there was a strangely large backlash. Business owners, employees, and management theorists all wasted a lot of energy trying to convince people who there was some kind of answer to this. They are wrong. Working from home is something that will work for some companies and employees, but not for others.

The overreaction and public debate about this issue make little sense. I understand why workers that previously were allowed to work remotely would be upset about being forced to haul themselves into their office every day. However this policy move does not impact anyone outside Yahoo. Companies like Aetna and government organizations like the USPTO continue to offer and even encourage working from home. The change has little or no bearing on whether remote work policies are right for companies that are not Yahoo.

Even stranger, the press pegged a minor policy change at Best Buy as being related to Yahoo’s change. The headline and analysis are poor in two respects: Best Buy did not claim that Yahoo’s change influenced their position, and Best Buy did not end remote working like Yahoo did. They simply changed it from a decision the worker makes to one that they have to consult with their manager about. One company making a minor change does not make a trend that is worth writing about.

Ultimately this debate is full of filler and noise for the media. Companies and organizations will continue to adopt policies that work best for them. Decision makers should not be afraid to try one mode of operation or the other, and then switch if one works better.

My Review of Code School and Thoughts on Online Learning

Now that I have completed the majority of lessons on Codecademy I decided to head over to another online learning platform, Code School, to learn the Rails framework for the Ruby language. So far I have completed three lesson sets at Code School: Try Ruby, Try Git, and Rails for Zombies. These lessons were good, but in some places it was harder to navigate than Codecademy.

The big difference between Code School and Codecademy is that Codecademy uses only text to walk you through the lessons step by step. The instructions are available for easy reference as you move along. Code School plays a video before you try challenges that demonstrate you have mastered your material. (Though Try Git works in the same manner as Codecademy.) Since one of my weaknesses is a bad short-term memory, I found retaining all the information from the Rails for Zombies video difficult as I moved onto challenges. A friend astutely suggested I take notes during the Rails for Zombie video the way I did for class lectures in law school, and that significantly improved my retention along with giving me a nice reference as I worked on the challenges.

Unlike Codecademy Code School uses a freemium model. This means you can try free lessons and then must pay to continue to the more advanced ones. While I enjoy the fact Codecademy is free, I can accept that Code School has to pay its employees and they kindly give you a $5 certificate towards your subscription when you complete a free course. Since I am impressed with the free lessons overall, I probably will subscribe to it for a month or two.

Overall I am finding these online learning platforms great for wetting my feet in the various programming languages. I have also been refreshing my spanish using DuoLingo. I do not believe that on their own they will replace classroom type learning, in spite of the optimism of people like Tom Friedman about MOOCs and other forms of online learning I think it helps to have peers working on these things with you. It also lacks that feeling of “whoa, I did it” you get after doing a final exam or project. So after I finish learning Rails I will probably try making my own Ruby on Rails project as a personal capstone.

If you are not a computer person, or are looking to expand your programming knowledge, I recommend these online programs as good starting points. However it will be up to you to take the next steps. You can read and watch all you want, but it is up to you to take action and make these skills real.

E-Government in the 2013 Connecticut Legislative Session

Recently I discovered a great website for viewing bills as they are proposed in the Connecticut General Assembly. One area that the media has not been covering but where the legislature and governor are not slacking is in integrating technology with government. The shifting of government practices from paper to electronic records is now commonly referred to as e-government. The primary advantage of this besides increasing efficiency is it also makes government more easily accessible to its citizens.

Both the Governor and Sen. Doyle and Rep. Guerrera have been proposing bills that make progress in this area. One bill creates an e-government board. It directs that an e-government plan be created and that a user survey be developed for the state website. I think this bill is a great start and I hope that in addition to the user survey the people in charge of the website utilize techniques like A/B testing to optimize user experience as well.

A bill proposed by the Governor orders the creation of an eRegulations system. It further directs that, “[t]he eRegulations System shall be easily accessible to and searchable by the public.” It is my hope that “easily accessible and searchable” includes the creation of an API and allowing bulk downloads of the data. Currently certain regulations and advisory opinions are available online but only in PDF. While PDFs are a universal format, they are not great for searching or building applications on top of.

Another bill expands the mission of the Commission for Educational Technology to encompass technology throughout the state. It renames it the Commission for Technology Advancement and adds the following to its mission:

(A) Increasing the availability and usage of technology that promotes efficiency in operation and increased digital literacy across the state; (B) Increasing and improving usage of high-speed, cost effective network technology to meet collaboration demands of state and local government and private industry;

On the other end of the spectrum Sen. Musto proposed a bill to allow agencies to remove information from their websites. While I can understand the desire of agencies and administrators to want flexibility in their website design, it is not a best practice to remove information from websites because it can break external links from places like Wikipedia. The cost of storing and providing information is extremely low and the benefit of making it available is high. We need not require the agency to keep every bit of information on its front page, but it should keep the information on the server and be accessible through search and direct links.

Another good bill is one proposed by Rep. Alberts that limits the charge for documents that are scanned and sent electronically to $0.10 a page. The cost of transmitting electronic records is minimal, and is mostly a factor of the labor that goes into doing so. By building systems that allow users to access electronic records without employee intervention, the government can help minimize and eliminate the labor cost. However many older records have not been made electronic yet. I believe this bill strikes a good balance and promotes access to public information.

I will keep tabs on these bills and keep an eye out for other interesting e-government bills as well. Feel free to share your thoughts on these in the comments.

Follow Zagaja.com posts: RSS Feed
This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.