Good to be wrong


If you make it your business to understand the world around you, as I do, it’s only fair to make a few predictions. Predicting what will happen and then going back and evaluating it later is the only real “reality check” that I have to see if I’m on the right path or going off on a long trip to nowhere. Naturally, I’m often wrong about things. Not just little things on a daily basis – that would be a tedious and long list. I’m talking about the big things that I think I understand but end up in one big “D’Oh!” moment.

The start of the summer campaign season seems like a good time to confess a few of my predictions that were not only wrong but happily so. Here are three that I missed bigtime.

Faith Based Initiatives Back in the Gingrich years of the 1990s, there was a push to farm out a lot of what government does to nonprofits and other groups that were closer to the people that they served. That made sense to me. The part of this movement that seemed like a recipe for disaster was the inclusion and even emphasis on “Faith Based Initiatives,” a fancy way of saying churches, synagogues and mosques.

I predicted loudly to anyone that would listen that this would wind up blurring the lines between church and state, funneling money to people who did little more than push their own religion. That just hasn’t happened.

Why is that? The biggest mistake that I made is a classic middle-class one. A community of people on the fringes often has trouble getting organized. They pull together around what really matters to them and gives them strength, often nothing more than their faith. For example, Somali immigrants often rally around the local mosque as the center of daily life. Latinos might look to their Catholic church for things like day care and connections to health care. Why shouldn’t they?

What went especially right with faith based initiatives is that the Feds obviously found a way to allow the lines to blur without getting mired in details. I didn’t think this was even possible, but the clear lack of any serious problems shows that it must have happened. It’s all turned out good.

Concealed Carry In 2003, Minnesota changed the law that authorized local Sheriffs to issue concealed handgun permits from a standard where they could reject anyone for any reason to one that requires them to be issued to anyone who has a clean criminal record. I predicted disaster for what I thought were two very good reasons: It was a big change, and changes like this rarely go down smoothly, plus the new standard didn’t include any proof of competency like a license to drive a car.

What I predicted, specifically, was that there would be an event or two of horrible slaughter with a concealed handgun. That simply never happened. It’s also worth noting that crime hasn’t changed much, either, but if people feel they are safer with a gun it’s not worth taking away their rights without a good reason. There apparently isn’t one. I still bristle at the signs that say, “Our Business Prohibits Guns,” but I’ll get over it. This law hasn’t harmed anyone and made a few people feel safer. The gun owning community has clearly proven themselves very responsible with almost no supervision at all. Boy, was I wrong.

LGA One of the cornerstones of the mythical “Minnesota Miracle” is Local Government Aid (LGA). This is the money that is collected by the state and distributed to cities and towns in a way that is supposed to even out the burden of local revenues, generally property tax. It addresses inequities between cities and help those with the greatest needs for services stay afloat.

I’ve been challenged to write more about this by a commenter (I think it was you, Dan!) and I will do this next week. But first my confession.

Starting in 2003, this has been slashed as much as 40% in real terms. I predicted that the resulting decline in services and rise in property taxes would quickly slaughter cities and trigger flight to suburbs just when we could afford it the least. I am very happy to report that our cities have proven far more resilient than I thought and appear poised to be the first to rebound from the devastating burst of the housing bubble.

The increase in property taxes has been a terrible hardship that has caused terrible inequities that I think need to be addressed, I realize. But our cities have found amazing ways to economize. For example, Saint Paul’s Parks and Recreation just decided to focus more on static fields and ballparks rather than buildings and programs, the latter coming more from community partnerships and cooperation with the School District. This will probably create stronger communities where it works as well as saving some serious cash.

As we move ahead and fix the terrible mess that is our state budget, I think we should seriously consider clearer lines of responsibility than the old system of aid created and have the state focus on initiatives that address inequity between communities – like helping the vacant housing problem with renovation grants and tax deferment as per the “This Old House” program that expired in the 1990s. This, coupled with some new tools for local governments to raise money, might be a more effective and stable system for the next 40 years.

These three things are far from the only predictions I’ve blown. They’re probably not the biggest either. But they are three things I could think of where I’m glad that it didn’t go anywhere near as badly as I’ve feared – and I think I’ve learned something.

Sometimes, it’s just good to be wrong.