Older readers, especially those from Minnesota, might remember when the issue of Time with this cover came out and the accompanying feeling of pride. Everything that’s happened to Minnesota politics since then – the shutdowns, the budget trouble, the elections of which the results take days to weeks to determine – has probably made those same people wonder what the hell has gone wrong since then. Former state legislator Tom Berg, who was in the thick of it when the Time cover came out, has identified exactly what has gone wrong, and spelled out the national implications in his book Minnesota’s Miracle: Learning from the Government That Worked.
The eponymous “Minnesota Miracle” refers to a 1971 bill that restructured state fiscal policy to share state tax revenue with local governments, to make sure schools and other basic services were properly funded. Today, the long-term effects of that plan are still being felt and debated and could possibly be reworked, to meet modern fiscal realities. The “miracle” is less the bill itself than the political goodwill it took to achieve it.
Berg’s recommendations for making politics work again are fully detailed in the back of the book, and are, thankfully, too numerous to list here. Since the virtues of compromise, avoiding buzzwords and teaching civics are well-known (yet largely avoided), I will focus on a couple that often go unmentioned. First, the value of local government. We have fallen into a trap in which we see federal and state matters, but no others. Why not cities, countries, even neighborhoods? All are capable of helping meet state and federal objectives, if they are involved.
Second, the use of the term “national interest.” While we have centralized too much in our application of politics, we have decentralized too much in our rhetoric. Even as they consult with smaller governments, the federal government needs to argue vigorously for changes that benefit the nation, provided that efforts to make those changes are indeed constitutional. Not all federal action or discussion is overreach, and we shouldn’t think of it that way.
Third, the policy implications of government procedure. They’re dry – not even Berg can make them sexy – but vital. For example, when are pay raises for legislators better than the alternative? (When it’s more feasible for them to have two jobs.) What kind of staff should they hire to achieve the best legislative results? (The non-political kind.) When is it appropriate to rework legislative scheduling and voting process in order to get something done? (Surprisingly often.)
The book could have benefitted from an extra round of copy editing, but I’m just nitpicky. Overall, everything Berg wrote is necessary to his narrative, and his book could not be more timely. I deem it shelf-worthy.