Rain tax: Noble goal, unfair execution.

Kim Coble of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation laments that Maryland county officials are considering rolling back their stormwater remediation fees. (“‘Rain tax¿ is rolling back,” Jan. 26.) In 2012 the Maryland General Assembly passed HB 987 requiring nine Maryland counties and Baltimore City to enact a stormwater remediation fee, the so-called “rain tax.” Fourteen counties are exempt from the state mandate.

In lauding the benefits of the rain tax, Ms. Coble fails to recognize that the fundamental flaw in the rain tax lies not in its goals but in its concept. The wildly uneven manner in which the rain tax has been implemented by local jurisdictions since 2012 is a direct consequence of the inequitable concept upon which the tax is based. The inequity strikes a particular nerve in Maryland, not entirely dissimilar to the nerve struck by the British import tax that resulted in the burning of the Peggy Stewart during the Annapolis Tea Party in 1774.

There is a long and reasonably successful history of Marylanders sharing more or less equally in the solutions to problems that are deemed to be of importance to the entire state. The rain tax departed from this principle and is based on the concept that only some citizens of the state should bear the burden of funding the infrastructure needed to better protect the Chesapeake Bay from stormwater runoff.

By way of contrast, the taxpayers of my county, Anne Arundel County, contribute to the subsidies paid by the State of Maryland to operate subways in Baltimore and Washington, although ridership studies indicate that very few residents of Anne Arundel County benefit directly from those systems of mass transit. Tax money leaves the pockets of Anne Arundel County citizens and goes to support public education in Baltimore City because the well being of the state’s major urban center is deemed a matter of statewide concern. Apparently, the health of the Chesapeake Bay is not.

Although property owners in Ocean City are not required to help pay for stormwater treatment in Anne Arundel County, property owners in Anne Arundel County are required to help pay for beach restoration in Ocean City. Also, the Chesapeake Bay apparently is important enough to impose a unique tax on the residents of its Western Shore but not important enough to impose the tax on the residents of its Eastern Shore. In this light, why is it so hard to understand the resentment of the rain tax as conceived by the General Assembly?

Extending the rain tax to the other fourteen counties of the state would not have a significant impact on the financial burden imposed on Baltimore City and the nine counties to which it now applies, but that misses the point. Unfairness causes anger, and once emotion becomes involved numbers become secondary; no one likes being taken advantage of. Finally, if the General Assembly does conclude that the entire state should participate in protecting the bay, then why not take the next step and make State revenues available?

The goals of the rain tax and the needs that it serves are not at issue. The flaws lie in its concept and design. It is time to stop blaming county citizens and their officials for being angry about the inequities of the rain tax, and time to start fixing them.

[Published as a Letter to the Editor by The Baltimore Sun on January 29, 2015.  I did not post the letter until May 31, 2016; the date of posting listed above was backdated to place the letter on the blog in the order it was written.]

The social context of religious extremism.

The phenomenon of the self-radicalized jihadist or home-grown terrorist who launches an attack on his or her own society cannot be understood if viewed solely as a problem with the Islamic faith.  It must be seen in its social context if is to be combated successfully, and the key to that context is that in the minds of these terrorists they are attacking not their own society, but a society that is hostile to them.

Indeed, the semantic debate over whether the terrorists who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris properly are referred to as “Islamic terrorists” or “radical Islamists” misses the point entirely.  As profiles of the terrorists emerge, they fit a pattern.  The terrorists did not grow up as particularly devout Muslims.  They “found religion” for the same reason that many people find religion:  To give meaning to lives that they found empty and meaningless.  The terrorists turned to jihad to find purposes in their lives that otherwise were absent.

There is a profound and well-documented disaffection from French society of a significant number of French citizens of North African descent.  As long as that alienation continues France will remain fertile ground for the recruitment of terrorists from this group.

As it happens, the consequences of such disaffection in a society were best described by a French sociologist, Emil Durkheim.  The signs and symptoms of what he described as a state of “anomie” are unmistakable.  With the sense that French society in general has rejected them, these unemployed, hopeless, and angry young men and women are drawn to an ideology that allows them to attack that society without remorse.  Attempts by Muslim clerics to persuade these terrorists that this ideology is contrary to Islam will fall on deaf ears because the terrorists simply do not care.

France and much of the rest of Europe were well ahead of the United States in relations among the races before the middle of the 20th Century.  Discrimination and the denial of opportunity for black Americans eventually were confronted, sometimes violently, but progress was made.  The United States, however, had an advantage not enjoyed by France.

Although Americans tend to identify certain social values as distinctly American, most tend not to suffer from the conceit that there is a singular or superior “American” culture.  As various immigrant groups arrived and were assimilated, bits and pieces of their own cultures were added to the American culture, changing and enriching it.

It was another Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who first described an egalitarian quality to American culture not present in France.  The various waves of immigrants were both allowed and encouraged to assimilate, although not always without some initial resistance from those already here, and assimilation did not mean abandoning the immigrants’ own religious beliefs and customs.

In the United States, many African-Americans may not feel like full members of American society.  In France, however, too many citizens of African descent do not feel like they are French at all.  In that context, Islam is less attractive as a belief system than as a justification for violence against French society.  It is even more attractive to second-generation immigrants, who view themselves as trapped in an unwelcoming society that they did not choose.

Terrorism has no single cause nor is every terrorist who murders in the name of Allah from the margins of society.  As the late Professor Donald Flaherty of Dickinson College was prone to point out, reality is multi-faceted but issues tend to polarize.  If the discussion about terrorism continues to polarize along religious lines we may lose sight of the reality that the main bulwark against home-grown terrorism in the United States is the acceptance and assimilation of immigrants into American society regardless of their race, religion, or ethnicity.

It is easy to blame mainstream Muslims for not speaking out against the misuse of Islam by these self-radicalized jihadists, and it does seem that Muslims across the globe react more strongly to offensive cartoons than to the senseless murder of innocent people.  The reality, however, is more complicated and the solutions include attention to the manner in which immigrant groups are treated within a society.

January 27, 2015

Longer summer vacations.

I agree with the editorial board of The Capital that the proposal by Comptroller Peter Franchot for a State mandate requiring that school districts delay the start of the school year until after Labor Day is misguided.  [“School year’s start isn’t an economic issue,” 1/17/15.]  I disagree that the problem with his frivolous proposal is that it would usurp “local control” of primary and secondary education.

Instead, the problem lies in the fact that the governance model used in Maryland and most other states for primary and secondary education is obsolete, incapable of establishing useful long-term goals and objectives, and even less capable of implementing them.  Against the backdrop of a crisis in educational performance in this country the best that we can come up with is a plan to make sure that Maryland students can go “down’e ocean” on Labor Day?  If we had an effective system of governance for public education the debate over the school calendar would be driven by evidence on the calendar that best promotes learning rather than by what best serves the interests of boardwalk vendors.

Maryland may be among the best of the worst, but the United States now consistently ranks in the lower third of developed nations in the mathematical skills of its secondary students, generally considered the most important measure of an educational system.  As described in the most recent OCED (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) survey, American students “have particular weaknesses in performing mathematics tasks with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems.”  Stated another way, we are going to be increasingly dependent upon the immigration of scientists and engineers from Asia and Europe unless something changes.

The governance model consisting of 24 independent school districts run by local boards of education under the loose supervision of the State Board of Education may have been adequate in the 19th century but it is not adequate today.  The “American exceptionalism” described by de Tocqueville in the 1830’s had to do with the pragmatism of its citizens and their willingness to try new approaches to old problems.  Today’s hidebound educational bureaucracy is anything but exceptional, dominated by teacher and administrator unions and run by school boards with minimal educational expertise.  School districts lurch from one educational fad to the next implemented by peripatetic superintendents rather than focus on establishing and achieving meaningful goals and objectives.  They are incapable of making the changes necessary to improve educational performance.

The 2013 report of the National Foundation for Educational Policy disclosed that 70% of graduate students in electrical engineering in American universities were foreign-born; 63% of graduate students in computer science were foreign-born.  Universities simply cannot find enough qualified students from the United States for those disciplines.  The numbers are astounding.  Fortunately for Maryland, however, our State leaders are working to ensure that students and their parents can go to Ocean City or Deep Creek Lake on Labor Day.

January 17, 2015