Saturday, February 20, 2016

From Hunter-Gatherers to the Kansas Legislature: The Power of Transparency

Hunter-gatherers will sometimes resort to public criticism, ridicule and other sorts of shaming to deflate the egos of individual members who put their own benefit ahead of the larger group. Often these individuals try to hide their selfish actions, and if these more benign forms of social control aren’t effective, group members may resort to shunning or even exiling the offenders from the group. I must confess I’ve fantasized about exiling some of our political leaders here in Kansas.

The tug of war between transparency vs. chicanery or shadowiness likely goes back to the dawn of homo sapiens, if not before. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors no doubt used varying degrees of transparency to discourage behaviors that would have been considered “selfish” relative to the families and larger groups they were a part of. While hording food or other resources may benefit you or even your immediate kin, it isn’t particularly helpful to your larger hunter-gatherer group.

Our behaviors and actions, if visible to others and if viewed as “negative” relative to our friends/family, to our community and/or to society as a whole can result in the application of social pressure intended to both a) stop the behaviors of the offenders and b) serve as a warning to others. Social pressures may be informal in nature, such as the loss of family support, the loss of friendships or “public” forms of shaming.

More formal examples of such pressure include laws and regulations with varying degrees of attached punitive consequences. Social pressures can also be positive, reinforcing those behaviors considered beneficial to the group. And the greater the visibility of our actions, whether they’re noble or nefarious, the more effective are the various forms of social pressure. Visibility, or transparency, is enabled through social phenomenon ranging from gossiping to a free press.

Transparency is certainly a necessary component of a successfully functioning democracy. It ensures the decisions and actions of government officials remain visible and available for public scrutiny. Without transparency we lose the ability to verify if public officials are being honest about their actions and if those actions are in the best interest of the general public.

However, in Kansas the ultraconservative legislative leadership’s degree of transparency hasn’t been consistent over the last several sessions as they’ve assisted Governor Brownback in his march to zero income taxes, slashing and burning public services along the way. This last week, the House Education Committee’s ultraconservatives didn’t feel the need for transparency, doing their part to undermine the democratic process.

On Wednesday, February 17, it was published in the weekly agenda that the committee was having an "informational" hearing on the "history of education". In actuality it was a presentation (some have reported it as a rant) by an anti-common core advocate with no opposing side presented. Then, without notice, a “gut-and-go” procedural move was performed, taking the contents of this year’s anti-Common Core House Bill 2676 and stuffing them into last year’s anti-Common Core House Bill 2292.

The “gut-and-go” procedure was developed a few sessions ago by the ultraconservative leadership. It allows a previously approved bill to be “gutted” of its original content and replaced with new legislation while still retaining the status of the “shell” bill. In this case, they inserted far more damning anti-Common Core content into the shell of the older House Bill 2292, which had previously undergone a hearing in committee. As such, they could pass it out of a committee on a voice vote without the need for an additional hearing, which House Bill 2676 would have required. Chicanery at its best.

I should also note that the legislative leadership has been busy replacing the moderate Republicans on key committees with ultraconservatives. The remaining Democrats and odd moderate here and there don’t have the numbers to prevent the passage of bills out of committee. And the lack of moderates on those committees speeds up the process, reducing outside attention and further reducing transparency.

Another exampled occurred on Tuesday, February 16. The agenda indicated the committee was having a hearing on House Bill 2596 - creating the classroom-based funding act. Yet Chairman Highland also brought up House Bill 2199 from last year (with no previous notice) requiring parental or legal guardian permission before a student could take a human sexuality class (changing from opt-out to opt-in). Rep. Barton moved to approve and Rep. Macheers called for the question, stopping further debate on the issue and sending it immediately to a vote. It then passed out of committee on a voice vote. More chicanery.

On Monday, February 15, the agenda indicated there would be a discussion and possible action on House Bill 2207 - development and implementation of ethnic studies in schools. The original bill was intended to promote the education of aspects of social justice, ethnic awareness and diversity. However, Rep. Lunn, inspired by concerns from Rep. Kelley and others put forward amendments to a) limit ethnic studies to a few specific categories, excluding others such as Islam and other religions, and b) prevent the teaching of social justice remedies in the classroom. The purpose of the bill was fundamentally changed from its original intent, without notice, and passed through the committee without a chance for anyone outside of the committee to weigh in. Chicanery.

However, these ultraconservative legislators aren’t always secretive; sometimes they’re particularly blatant. When the committee’s chairman, Rep. Highland, was asked afterwards why the anti-common core bill wasn’t on the agenda, he simply quipped “That happens every day around here” (Anti-CommonCore measure could do away with AP, IB programs in Kansas), implying that transparency isn’t needed. The ultraconservative leadership knows best and doesn’t have to answer to Kansas citizens. Now there’s an ego in need of deflating.

Such blatancy occurs because transparency is only part of what’s required for effective social pressure, whether we’re talking hunter-gatherers or large scale democracies. Transparency must also be coupled with accountability, or at least a perception of accountability. If government officials don’t feel accountable because they’ve successfully limited transparency and/or because most citizens aren’t paying close attention, then their actions sometimes aren’t in the best interest of the public as a whole. They may act to benefit themselves, their donors, and others they identify as part of their in-group, at the expense of the general public.

But when effectively wielded, transparency and accountability can make a difference. After receiving over 600 emails opposing the earlier school district consolidation bill, Chairman Highland decided to pull it from further consideration this legislative session. He folded, just as if he were a hording hunter-gatherer suffering public ridicule and shaming from his fellow group members.

This should inspire all Kansans to action. You can make a difference. Contact legislators about specific legislation. Demand that they be transparent and let them know you will hold them accountable. Particularly for the ultraconservatives, let them know the following:

We’re watching you. We’re aware of your actions. We’re aware of your votes. We’ll be aware if you try to hide your actions and votes. AND we’ll hold you accountable, both now, as we share your actions with others, and in the fall of 2016 when we vote…

When we exile them from the Kansas legislature


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