UNC Economics Professor on Why He Got Arrested

Mass civil disobedience at the NC Legislature has drawn attention in recent weeks, drawing attention to a unique, faith-based movement dubbed “Moral Mondays.” As with any awakening, the most important stories are those about why particular people decide to get involved, putting their own bodies on the line and in jail. Patrick Conway, a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote the following letter to his parents to explain his decision. When he shared it with us, he noted that he and his parents share a Catholic faith, which has always impressed upon him a special concern for the poor.

Dear Mom and Dad:

I’m about to be arrested.

This just isn’t done in our family, I know.  You raised us all to know right from wrong.  We never discussed arrest – I suppose it was just assumed that we wouldn’t take part in any activity that would end with us arrested and thrown in jail.   Now I find myself in a quandary, because knowing right from wrong has put me in this position.

You’ve always been staunch Republicans, and you’ve brought us up with that as well.  I remember the subscription of National Review you bought for me as I went off to college, and I suspect that you were happy that I spent my college years working for our Republican representative in the US Congress.

Now our Republican governor and legislature in North Carolina has gone on a binge of new rule-making, and my sense of right and wrong tells me that they’ve gone too far.  No, they aren’t targeting me – in fact, they’re making my life more comfortable by cutting my taxes.  Rather, they are penalizing the poor and disabled and rewarding the better-off citizens (including themselves).  Some of the things they’ve done are:

  • Rejecting the Medicaid expansion to those just above the poverty line.
  • Rewriting the Unemployment Insurance laws to cut payments to recipients and to disenfranchise some who would have continued receiving payments.
  • Proposing a reform of the state tax system that will increase the cost to the poor and reduce the taxes of the rich.
  • Voting a tax deduction on the first $50000 of net income of small businesses, when many of those sitting in the legislature will benefit directly from this.

There are far too many individuals in poverty in this state, and the Republican legislature doesn’t seem to see them.

This is very disappointing, because North Carolina over the last 50 years has grown in income and economic sophistication due to a covenant between the legislature and its citizens.  The legislature did its part:  targeted public investments in education and public infrastructure.  The citizens did their part as well, participating in the economy and bringing about rapid economic growth concurrently with a fall in the poverty rate.   Why did the legislature go along?  It recognized an obligation to the citizens of North Carolina and to the public good.  The current state government has defaulted on this obligation – and has in fact turned it around.   The current legislature seems to espouse an obligation to subsidize the private good with the public’s contributions.  Just look what they are doing in the public schools:

  • Creating a separate school board for charter schools – schools that can choose their students.
  • Providing vouchers for parents to use in paying for private schools for their children.
  • Removing teacher assistants from the public-school classroom.
  • Proposing to remove tenure from all K-12 teachers.

I don’t want to blame everything on the current legislature, since some of the current economic difficulties pre-date it.  For example, the Unemployment Insurance system in North Carolina was thrown into crisis by years of tax cutting and underfunding of the Unemployment Insurance Fund in the period 2001-2007 – a period of Democrat leadership.  The crisis worsened during the Perdue administration, as state leaders proved to be unable to address the obligation of replenishing the Unemployment Insurance Fund.  This legislature has, however, defaulted on the obligations of Unemployment Insurance – reducing maximum monthly payouts, and reducing the number of weeks of support the unemployed can claim.  This is a solution that tears up existing law and replaces it with a rule that largely shelters business from any contribution to restore the system.  The contribution, unfortunately, comes from those least able to make them:  the unemployed themselves.

I can just hear your objection:  “There are less extreme ways to make your point.  Why don’t you just sit down with the legislators and make your case?  If it’s that compelling, we’re sure they’ll come around.”   Excellent advice, but difficult to implement.  These legislators are happy to meet with lobbyists and contributors.  Come in as a spokesperson for the poor and unemployed, though, and there’s little time for you.  Quit your whining!  Let these people pull themselves up!

So you see, Mom and Dad, I face a quandary.  Getting arrested isn’t cool – in fact, it’s something you’d never expect from a son of yours.  Staying silent in the face of this rule-making is a “crime” as well:  it violates everything that you taught me about fairness and compassion for those less well-off than us.  Jail it is, then, and I’m confident that you’ll understand and approve.

Love,

Pat


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