Transcript

250:

The Annoying Gap Between Theory...and Practice
Transcript

Originally aired 11.07.2003

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/250

Prologue.

Ira Glass

There's a gap between theory and practice, and it's an annoying gap. Michael was learning how to box. His punches had some power. He was sparring in these little matches. He was feeling pretty tough. He was feeling really tough, actually. And then, one night, he's walking home on a deserted street and somebody picks a fight with him. Which in a way is exactly what he wanted. When you're learning to fight, you kind of dream that happening.

Michael

Because your moment will come. And I certainly thought that I was bad ass. And this guy wanted to mess with me. He was trying to mug me. He was trying to beat me up. I don't know what he was trying to do.

Ira Glass

And what he's saying to you?

Michael

Oh, he's asking me if I have any money. He's mad at me because I'm not talking to him. He's asking me if I'm scared. And he kept grabbing me. And I was certainly getting kind of freaked out, because there wasn't anybody else around. And the street was really dark.

Ira Glass

Was he a big guy?

Michael

He was bigger than I was. And I turned around, and I really kind of intended to hit him. I wanted to hit him. But I just wasn't prepared. So I slapped him. And it wasn't one of those kind of "I challenge you to a duel" slaps. It was big. It was just a big, girly slap. He looked really surprised. His eyes were really wide open like he-- I don't think that either one of us could believe that I'd actually slapped him. And I slapped him again.

Ira Glass

There was everything that his training to do in a real fight. And then there was what really happened. There was a gap between theory and practice.

Heather was eight years old, on a school trip, on the bus, and she had to pee, badly. And the bus get stuck in traffic. Here's how she remembers it now that she's an adult. She says that her eight-year-old brain came up with a theory.

Heather

I devised a plan because my little bladder was about to give out. And I decided that I was in the middle of the bus. I had a seat to myself. I thought I can pee really quietly, just kind of inch over my seat and go to the bathroom and no one will ever know.

Ira Glass

Inch over my seat, you mean like pee on the floor?

Ira Glass

Like pee on the floor. Like just kind of very quietly pee on the floor. No one will know.

That was the theory. You may be able to guess how this worked out in practice.

Heather

So I inched forward in my seat and I peed. So that's fine.

Ira Glass

Right.

Heather

It's working. The kids, the obnoxious boys, they're yelling at each other. The girls are talking, gossiping, whatever. It's actually working. I even felt a little clever. But then the bus lurches forward. I hadn't realized that the pee wouldn't stay put. That when the bus lurched forward, the pee would roll backwards. And all of a sudden, in the back of the bus, I hear, "It's pee!" All hell breaks loose on the bus. Everybody started leaping around the bus, all known bus rules were off. You didn't have to sit still anymore. You didn't have to talk quietly to your neighbor. You could scream. You could leap over the seats. And the only kid that didn't move, was me, which I realize now is what incriminated me.

Ira Glass

The whole thing pretty much cemented her position at the bottom of the social hierarchy in elementary school for a few years. Kids called her the Peeer, Peezilla. They'd leave yellow crayons for her, sitting on her desk.

From the time that we're very young, so much of our life is just making a guess at how things are going to come out-- making a little theory, taking our shot, and then living with the reality of what we've done. It happens in our personal lives. It happens in every kind of group decision. Somebody has a theory about what it will accomplish to invade Iraq, or to cut taxes, or to make a movie starring Ben Affleck and JLo, together as hit men. And they got their theory, they take their shot, they wait for the results.

Today on our show, the annoying gap that results. The annoying gap between theory and practice. We have three case examples for you.

Act One, Rock, Paper, Computer. Jack Hitt in that act explains the alarming difference between theory and practice when it comes to these new-fangled computerized voting machines. Act Two, Detroit Is in the House. An idealistic guy who's done lots of community work ends up representing for Detroit, in the state legislature, where he's witnessing the daily reality of democracy up close, for the first time. Act Three, Zero Divided by Zero Is Still Zero, What happens if you're poor and do everything right, all your budgeting, all your choices? Are you actually any better off?

Stay with us.

Act One. Rock, Paper, Computer.

Ira Glass

Act One, Rock, Paper, Computer. Since the Florida chad nightmares back in 2000, a lot of communities around the country have been speeding up their purchase of new computerized touch-screen voting machines. These are designed to streamline the process of counting votes. They're designed to eliminate potential human error. That's the theory anyway. Jack Hitt explains how it works out in practice.

Jack Hitt

With the bright clean world of touch-screen voting booths coming to so many precincts in America these days, I felt a little nostalgic walking into my local firehouse recently to vote for my mayor. It was to say the least, quaint. I brought along my two daughters. And our local alderwoman, Alfreda Edwards, was there to say good morning. Her regular opponent, Charlie Pillsbury, shook our hands too. The poll workers, about three or four of them, made a grand fuss signing me in. There were poll watchers there as well, the folks from the opposing parties, who ensure that the process moves along honestly. We all drank coffee and chatted about the raging issue in our neighborhood, the location of a new public school. Then a precinct captain pointed me to the booth. And I let my girls plink down the tiny levers. And after fighting about just who got to pull the big red handle, I won. We said goodbye to everybody and left.

But this old world is soon to pass. Sure, there will still be poll workers. But the touch-screen voting booths will eliminate a lot of what those folks did. Instead of people running around with pieces of paper, computers will talk by modem and produce the vote totals.

Jim March

It's madness. It's madness.

Jack Hitt

That's Jim March. He's a professional lobbyist by day in California. And he's been fretting a lot about the software running on these machines. Only three companies make them. And recently the biggest one of them, Diebold, accidentally left its supposedly secure voting software sitting on its web site, for anyone to download. And when people like Jim, who knows computers, looked at it, they were alarmed at how easy it would be to hack in and cause some real trouble.

Jim March

Literally alter votes, alter passwords, alter every single aspect of the file without a password of your own required and without leaving an audit trail as to what you're doing.

Jack Hitt

OK. Well, I have a computer in front of me. And I have the software, which I've downloaded from a public access site. So let's rig an election, Jim.

Jim March

Absolutely. Let's start by running--

Jack Hitt

Jim's in California. I'm in Connecticut on a friend's PC. The first thing Jim has me do is open Diebold's software called Global Election Management Systems or GEMS and go to where the password is stored. We peel the password off like a piece of scotch tape and replace it with our own.

Jack Hitt

OK. It asked me for a password.

Jim March

Yup. Under password, put in-- well, pick one.

Jack Hitt

Let's see. How about D-E-M-O-C-R-A-C-Y? OK.

Jim March

OK. And hit OK.

Jack Hitt

OK.

To demonstrate how this works, we don't hack into a real election. Instead, Jim gives me some old voter data that was part of the primary for the California governor's race in 2002. Essentially what I have in front of me is what a hacker would see if he got inside the system on voting day.

Jim March

Now go to the Slow Primary 2002.

Jack Hitt

Yeah.

Jim March

Open it. And put in the same password that you put in for Jack, which is democracy.

Jack Hitt

Wow.

Jim March

You're in.

Jack Hitt

And then we change vote totals, which was no more difficult than just typing in different numbers over the old ones. Of course, you might think the system would track such changes and they could be discovered. But then Jim shows me how to clean up my trail and make my escape. He takes me to the audit log, a spreadsheet detailing every change made to the database, every instance when someone has logged in with the date and time, down to the very second of each command. I can see all the history of what's happened here, including my own tampering, all the keystrokes I just made. Jim has me drag the mouse down the page and highlight most of this history.

Jim March

All that's now black, correct?

Jack Hitt

Umm, yes.

Jim March

Good. Hit the delete key.

Jack Hitt

Yeah. There it went. Wow.

Jim March

Oh yeah. It's glorious. Do you understand? Even though you don't know what the proper password for the file is, you can restore it to its original condition and hide your traces.

Jack Hitt

For months this software has been making the rounds on the internet, a kind of play toy for hackers. Especially since last July, when a Johns Hopkins University report on Diebold software scoffed that protections were, quote "far below the most minimal security standards." And went on to say that any insider, a poll worker, a Diebold software designer, or even, quote "a janitor" would be able to untraceably tamper with election results. In August, hackers started passing around a huge file, allegedly a collection of 13,000 pages of internal Diebold people emails written by its own employees that confirm just how easily penetrated the corporate software is.

From the beginning, Diebold has been trying to stop all this. First, they issued a point-by-point rebuttal to the Johns Hopkins report. And it said that the software being passed around the internet by people like Jim is not the version they currently use in their machines. Diebold hasn't talked directly to the press much about all this and didn't return my phone calls either. Most recently, Diebold started issuing cease and desist orders to all the internet users posting these files. They claimed to own the copyright on the 13,000 emails, while at the same time insisting that the documents may not be authentic.

All of this got seriously complicated on Halloween when a second touch-screen voting company, Sequoia, had to admit that they too had left an unprotected copy of their voting software on the internet. I called one of the country's foremost specialists on just such catastrophes, Rebecca Mercuri, the president of Notable Software, a computer security firm, and now a research fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. I wanted to find out just how much danger we're in and if there's some way to stop people from hacking in and changing votes during a real election.

Rebecca Mercuri

I don't know and quite frankly I don't care. That's not the issue.

Jack Hitt

Not the issue? Hacking into voting software when step-by-step instructions to do what Jim showed me are posted on the internet?

Rebecca Mercuri

There's a lot of hullabaloo, but in my opinion that was not as big a deal as has been made out about it in the writings that I've seen. It's not.

Jack Hitt

For Mercuri, the hacking angle is the least of it. The problem is far more fundamental. The problem is that current touch-screen technology, even when it works perfectly, can't do one of the most basic things the old analog machines did. It can't show you proof that your vote was counted accurately.

To understand why this would be difficult for a computer, you have to remember that voting machines must accomplish two slightly opposing things. First, they have to give people a way to vote without anyone finding out who they voted for. In other words, they have to provide total anonymity. But they also have to provide what is known in the voting machine business as auditability. That means if there were to be a recount, there's got to be some kind of paper trail to ensure the votes were counted correctly.

Rebecca Mercuri

Computers are not really very good at doing anonymous things that are also accurately audited. When we do an audit in the computer, we record every single action and transaction that goes along. If someone recorded down the voters in the sequence in which they went in, that would reveal how they voted. And that becomes a problem in creating the voting system.

Jack Hitt

The old voting system solved this problem in a graceful, analog way. Punch card technology literally left an anonymous paper trail, the punch card ballots. But what about those lever machines? They're just giant clicking odometers. You can't recount those votes. Are they any different in that way from the computer technology?

Rebecca Mercuri

To put it simply, it's a vast world of difference. With the lever machine, you can open it up. And you can actually see the gears and levers and you can see that they're all connected together. And then you can test it out and make sure that it works properly. And you can see whether it's working properly. You can see it visually with your eyes. When we open up these electronic voting machines, even if they have all the buttons in the right place on the front, when you open them up inside, there's nothing to see.

Jack Hitt

Strangely, it was the low techness of the lever machine that made it safe. Poll workers understood how they worked. And one of the things the poll watchers, the two representatives from the different parties, typically did at the beginning of a voting day was look inside to see if there had been any tampering. And then easily test to see that a vote goes to the right candidate. Then they'd wind back the machine to zero, and the voting day would begin. Now they're not allowed to do this.

They can't really check to see if the machines work because they no longer understand what the machines do. The computer companies do the checking for them, and provide them with a list of instructions explaining how to turn the machines on. The poll workers have no choice but to trust the company.

Rebecca Mercuri

The thing about these new machines is all it is, is a procedure. And all you can say is that you followed the procedure properly.

Jack Hitt

What you're saying is that we have the worst of both worlds. We have no paper and no way of looking at the system that's operating it.

Rebecca Mercuri

Right. Exactly.

Jack Hitt

Somehow, it gets worse. Even if we wanted to train Republican and Democratic poll workers in basic software testing so they could do what they used to do, we're no longer allowed to.

Rebecca Mercuri

The way these machines are installed, they're protected like Coca-Cola. It's a trade secret law, which says that no one's allowed to find out what's inside of them. And in fact if somebody reveals it, they'll be convicted of a felony because they're purchased under a secret agreement. It's purchased with a trade secret protection on it. They're tested in secret. And I know that all the election officials always say, well, it was tested and it was certified. Well, all that's a secret too. And so even if we want questions about how was it was tested, how it was certified, we can't find out.

Jack Hitt

How did we manage to privatize the most public thing we do in this democracy?

Rebecca Mercuri

It's the United States. What do you expect? It's capitalism.

Jack Hitt

Let's review. Our new and improved voting system has no way to do a recount and no way to look at the machines to see if they're working properly. So is there a solution to our streamlined, digital, paperless vote?

Rebecca Mercuri

Paper.

Jack Hitt

That's it. Once again?

Rebecca Mercuri

Paper.

Jack Hitt

For years, Rebecca Mercuri has been going around with her revolutionary new idea, a touch-screen that generates a piece of paper. The voter can look at it to confirm the vote was registered correctly before it drops into an old-fashioned ballot box. Then if there were a dispute, anything from a machine malfunction to a suspected hacker, we could gather up the paper and do a recount. But the industry says it can't be done.

Rebecca Mercuri

One of the things that they say is that the paper ballots will jam in the printers. And I really like that excuse since one of the companies, Diebold, makes the vast majority or a huge number of the ATMs in this country. And, in fact, none of those seem to have any problems with paper jamming. The paper is just flopping out, quite fine. Also when we come to the lottery tickets, gee, we have no problems with this jamming, even on those super lotteries where you got $100 million at stake. There might be long lines at the lottery ticket machine. But we don't hear about, oh, the paper jammed and we were unable to get our lottery ticket. I don't know anybody who's ever said that.

This idea that we need to computerize everything and get away from paper is in no other place in the whole industry other than with voting machines. And in the thing that should be most critical to our democracy.

Jack Hitt

Why would they not want to do that?

Rebecca Mercuri

Well, here's my theory. They looked at what happened in Florida. They saw a lot of paper. They saw a lot of people getting into a lot of hot water because of the way the election was conducted. And the last thing that an election official wants to have is a whole bunch of TV cameras and yelling people camped out on their front steps saying, count the votes, don't count the votes. And what did you do with your election? And so, if you make it impossible to recount the votes, then you're not going to have that problem, are you?

Jack Hitt

Avoiding scandal has already led to some strange events, one of which Mercuri participated in. In 2002, she was asked to investigate a local election where everyone agreed that the numbers for one candidate were way off. It happened of course in Florida.

Rebecca Mercuri

This guy was a very popular former mayor who was just getting back into politics one last time. And really, everybody knew him. And even if I had any doubts before I started getting involved with this case, when you walked down the street. people would come up to this guy and come up and shake his hand.

Jack Hitt

She didn't think it was vote tampering or hanging chads or anything. She just thought that maybe the machine was malfunctioning. All she wanted to do something that not so long ago was pretty commonplace.

Rebecca Mercuri

We just wanted to wind it back to where you could cast board votes and see if it was recording them all correctly. And they wouldn't let us do that.

Jack Hitt

Why?

Because it was proprietary.

Jack Hitt

What was proprietary about just practicing the vote again?

Rebecca Mercuri

They said we weren't allowed to do that. It was proprietary.

Jack Hitt

This is crazy.

Rebecca Mercuri

Tell me about it. It was proprietary.

Jack Hitt

But you're not asking to look at the code. You're just asking to like--

Rebecca Mercuri

No, I wasn't asking to look at the code. I just wanted to do a simple test of the machine.

Jack Hitt

Wow.

Rebecca Mercuri

Would you accept a car if they told you that you could test drive it by only making right turns? I mean that's ridiculous. I don't think so.

But one other thing further than that, even if it were possible to create the world's perfect voting machine that was a piece of equipment and it worked perfectly and it recorded every single vote and tabulated them correctly, every single time, I think that it is contrary to the spirit of democracy for us to trust that.

Jack Hitt

Oh yes, the spirit of democracy, the ghost in the machine. In other words, all that busyness at the local firehouse, Alfreda and Charlie out on the sidewalk, the poll watchers inside with their chatter, trading gossip, the tallies carefully noted, or the box of paper ballots carried off under lock and key. Sure, all of that can be replaced by software modems. But it assumes that voting is really just another transaction, like buying a book off the internet, which is where we're headed.

Nowadays, no one sells the old mechanical lever booths anymore, too low tech. And with the punch cards disgraced in Florida, more and more precincts are turning to touch-screen. In 2002, President Bush signed into law the Help America Vote Act, which includes $700 million to replace punch card and lever voting equipment. Most recently, the city of Boston and the entire state of Maryland have become Diebold's newest customers, buying into the dream of touch-screen efficiency. So clean, so uncluttered, and free of controversy.

Back when America first opened for business, Europeans were stunned that any country would center its founding on a piece of paper, the Constitution. They thought we were crazy. We had no monarchy, no direct authority from God, no divine right of kings. We put our faith in a flimsy piece of paper, because after all the noise dies down, that's all a democracy really is.

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt in New Haven. In elections this past week, there were new controversies for Diebold. Officials in California are saying that thousands of people may have cast their votes on software that hadn't been certified by the state, as required by California law. And some touch-screens failed in Maryland, prompting a lawsuit by Republicans.

Coming up, more theory and practice. For instance, in theory you want to give $200 million to public radio so you donate to a very fine company, very fine news organization called National Public Radio in Washington, DC, without ever realizing that there is an equally worthy outfit called Public Radio International that also puts out some very fine programs, could use a little cash. But that was your theory. In practice, we actually won't hear about this at all in the second half of the show, which you'll hear in one minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, remember the name, when our program continues.

Act Two. Detroit Is In The House.

Ira Glass

This is American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program of course we choose some theme. And bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, the annoying gap between theory and practice. We have stories of people coming face to face with that gap. And we are at act two of our program. Act Two, Detroit in the House.

Ten months ago, a political newcomer was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives, not because he had any childhood dreams of being a politician or because he really loved the spotlight or because he wanted power of any sort actually. He just had some ideas about how to make things better in his community, from experience working in the community, plus a masters's degree in public policy, and a law degree. The voters agreed that his ideas were the best. They sent him off to the government to make those ideas happen. And that pretty much was when theory and practice started to diverge. Alex Blumberg spent three days with freshman state representative, Steve Tobocman.

Alex Blumberg

Here are other reasons Steve Tobocman shouldn't be in office. His district is 80% minority, but he's white. At the time of his campaign, he didn't have any actual experience in politics and he was up against a two-term incumbent. And he ran in the most old fashioned way possible, no radio or TV ads, no special interest money. He went out and knocked on doors, every single day for four months.

Steve Tobocman

And you'd spend so many hours knocking. I mean your knuckles would be raw. You knees would hurt. Your hands would hurt. It's a tremendous weight loss program. I actually to maximize, and this is a little embarassing, but to maximize the number of doors I could knock on, I would run, I would literally sprint between the houses to save time. I literally would sprint between houses. So one day I was sprinting down the street and I kind of jogged into this guy's backyard. And he's like, "Are you OK. Are you OK?" And I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Well, I see a white guy running in this neighborhood. I figured he was under attack or something like that."

Alex Blumberg

Steve's district is a poor inner city section of Detroit. A city's whose problems are legendary, of course. It has the nation's highest infant mortality rate, lost half its population since 1950. And to give you an idea of the size of its middle class, the total number of Starbucks in this the 10th largest city in the country, three. 13 fewer than at O'Hare Airport.

Steve had been trying to fix Detroit's problems for years in various jobs with various neighborhood economic development groups. Mostly he fought slow, bureaucratic battles to get abandoned buildings either torn down or fixed up. He can tell you all sorts of modest specific ways that government could help improve things by streamlining the way federal block grants are distributed for example or selling condemned properties to community and church groups for a dollar or to groups to rehab and sell at a discount to low income families. But these ideas usually went nowhere.

Sharon Tobocman

I mean Steve would come home for years and be frustrated, like you're working, you're working, you're working, and it seems like a good idea. And you can't get anything done about it.

Alex Blumberg

This is Steve's wife, Sharon. She says that all this changed during a dinner Steve had with a mentor of his from grad school.

Sharon Tobocman

Basically he said, stop complaining and do more. Like if what's making it hard are a level of politicians or a level of bureaucracy, then get inside that bureaucracy and change that bureaucracy. And he came home and said, "I think I need to run for office. What do you think about that?" And I was like, oh [BLEEP].

Steve Tobocman

I always thought, well you run for office and that's really about ego and it's very self-serving. And somehow that conversation was different because this was a view that spoke to me in terms of making a difference.

Alex Blumberg

So in other words, it made you think by becoming a politician you could actually do some good.

Steve Tobocman

That was the thought. And every day you try and see if that's indeed the case.

Alex Blumberg

If you've ever wondered what the hell politicians do all day, I can say that if Steve Tobocman's any indication, a lot more than you do, pal. His workday begins at 7:00 or 8:00 AM. And this one includes among other things, a very dull hour plus tour of a social service facility, a 15-minute phone call with an Arab American constituent who believes her teenage son is being discriminated against in school, at the end of which Steve promises to call the principal.

Steve Tobocman

And what would be a solution in your mind to the problem?

Alex Blumberg

There's a lunch meeting with a business constituent who wants a favor, a staff meeting, some fund raising calls, and then in the evening, a two-hour town meeting in a high school gymnasium on the subject of insurance redlining.

Woman 1

I just tried to buy a brand new car.

Alex Blumberg

An angry crowd of 20 to 30 Detroit home and car owners complains about insurance rates that are almost 50% higher than rates right across the border in the suburbs.

Woman 1

The lowest I could get per month for insurance was $365 a month. The insurance would have been more than my car loan.

Alex Blumberg

Steve offers some suggestions. And one middle-aged Hispanic man, in a black satin varsity jacket and a baseball hat, grabs Steve by the arm and says, "We've never heard anyone talk so clearly about this before. You are the one who can help us. You are the light and we will follow you."

Man 1

You are the light. And we follow you.

Alex Blumberg

Steve gets home at about 10:00 PM.

Man 1

You are the light to me because I think there's treasure in every single time--

Alex Blumberg

And now it's 7:00 AM the next morning. And though it's still dark outside, the light is up and driving to Lansing, the state capitol, in his blue Saturn station wagon, where at least in theory he'll be helping the people he met last night. The problem of course is that Steve works with 110 other Representatives and they're all driving up from their own town meetings, where their own constituents have been demanding action on their own quite different grievances.

Getting elected may give you a slightly louder voice, but it also sticks you into a much noisier crowd, the majority of whom couldn't care less about redlining or community development or frankly, the entire city of Detroit. And you don't care about their issues either. In fact, being a legislator involves spending a lot of time dealing with issues you have absolutely no interest in. Sometimes though, the issues you care least about can end up altering the course of your political career, issues with names like the Michigan Controlled Shareowner statute. In the car on the way to Lansing, Steve tells me the story.

Steve Tobocman

I didn't know about it. And most people didn't know about it. Basically it was adopted in the mid-'80s to prevent hostile takeovers of Michigan companies, companies based in Michigan. And--

Alex Blumberg

Now as a legislator facing a bill you don't care that much about, you have two choices. You can A, assume someone in your party has looked at the issue thoroughly and vote how that person tells you to. Or B, you can do all the research yourself and come to an independent position based entirely on your own principles and convictions. No one does B. Well, except for freshman legislators.

Steve Tobocman

When I first got to the legislature, I think every vote, I used to sit at my desk on the floor and as every issue came up, I would study it and get as much information as possible before casting my vote.

Alex Blumberg

Do you think that like of the bills that the sort of people vote on, do you think that most of the people who are voting for the bill actually understand how it will impact once it's implemented?

Steve Tobocman

I think that you have a general gist of what the bill is trying to do. But in terms of understanding the specifics and that kind of thing and being able to articulate a detailed analysis, I think that it's virtually impossible.

Alex Blumberg

So just a month or two into his new job, Steve found himself reading up on the Michigan Controlled Shareowner statute. which had come before the legislature at the urging of the Todman Group, a private mall development company based in Michigan and owned by the Todman family. They were trying to fight off a takeover by an even bigger mall development company called the Simon Group and they needed a loophole closed in the law to do that. After a couple late nights of research, Steve decided the Todmans were right. And he agreed to co-sponsor a bill fixing the loophole. And that's when all hell broke loose.

There were probably $2 billion at stake. The Todmans and the Simon Group had each hired their own army of lobbyists. All of a sudden there were a 100 or 200 people at committee meetings where usually they're only 20 or 30. Everyone took sides, business groups, unions, and of course, Steve's own party. The Democratic leadership approached him one day and told him to his horror that he was the only Democrat who had agreed to support the bill. Not only that, the Democrats were planning to run TV ads attacking the Todman supporters as tools of big business. And then came a pivotal caucus meeting, a closed door strategy session where the whole party discusses upcoming policies and positions.

Steve Tobocman

There's one point in caucus where about five or six people have just blasted this bill. And used all of the sort of hyperbolic arguments that everybody had used against this bill, that the Todman family had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republicans and why should we be doing their business in the legislature? And this was based solely on campaign contributions. And I'm sitting there as a freshman thinking, man, do I look bad right now. And I'm going to look even worse when there's one Democratic vote on the floor. I mean boy, this is going to be embarrassing.

So basically, finally I'm about the seventh speaker. And at that point probably more out of fear than anything else, I get up and begin to talk about the bill.

Alex Blumberg

Steve's colleagues still mention that speech to him. It was the speech of his young political career. He talked about what the bill would do to protect Michigan businesses and workers. He talked about jobs. He talked about Compuware, the big company owned by Peter Karmanos, that had just built a huge high rise in downtown Detroit.

Steve Tobocman

I got very passionate. And I started talking about Mr. Karmanos's investment in Compuware revitalizing the city of Detroit. And should Microsoft come and take over Compuware that we knew those jobs were going to leave. And downtown Detroit would be vacant. And all these horrible things would happen. And the tone of my voice rose. The passion in my voice rose. And we went out onto the floor and had the vote. And 22 of my 47 colleagues ended up voting with me. And as a result, it overwhelmingly passed the House. And then because of that kind of support, it passed through on the Senate. And last week, the governor signed the bill into law.

And that when I think about what caused that much emotion, I certainly don't think it was the Michigan Controlled Shares statute. I think it was more the fear of being the lone vote for the horrible Todman bill.

Alex Blumberg

The Todman bill earned Steve a reputation as something of a rainmaker on the other side of the aisle. And the Republicans who were in charge of getting the bill signed into law were so grateful, they've actually helped Steve move some of his own legislation. But what's funny is that this vote, a vote that enhanced his political standing in his own party, gained him valuable allies on the other side of the aisle, not to mention brought about a positive change in the law, is a vote that he wouldn't have cast today. Steve no longer studies every bill that crosses his desk. He uses his time talking to colleagues, enlisting support for his own issues. If the Todman bill came before him today, he would have listened to his party, not learned anything about it, and voted against it.

Mr. Speaker

The House will come to order. I'd ask all members to take their seats.

Alex Blumberg

On the huge floor of the Michigan House of Representatives, nobody is coming to order. The 110 lawmakers, 63 Republicans and 47 Democrats, continue to mill around and cluster in small groups. There's a big fight brewing today over two bills, Senate Bill 252 and Senate Bill 560, both of which do essentially the same thing, which is impose fees on anyone who discharges pollution into the water. One of the bills deals with groundwater, the other rivers and lakes. In any event, in both of them, the more pollution you discharge, the higher your fee. For small organizations like a day camp with a septic system or a small veterinary office, the fees are in the hundreds of dollars. For large entities like the Ford Motor Company or the City of Grand Rapids, they can climb into the tens of thousands of dollars. The idea is that the bills will encourage everyone to pollute less because that will lower your fees and thus lead to clean drinking water for everyone.

Nearly every state has fees like these. Michigan is one of just eight states that don't. OK. One other thing you should know, today's fee bills were the idea of Michigan's Democratic governor. And earlier in the year, she'd worked out a deal with the Republicans, who control both the House and the Senate in Michigan by fairly large majorities. Each party had agreed to put up a certain number of votes to pass the bill. And as of last week, the bills come out of committee and everything seemed to be going smoothly. Today though, it seems that the deal might have fallen apart and that Senate Bill 252 and Senate Bill 560 are in trouble. Steve points to the computer terminal at his desk.

Steve Tobocman

As you can see from the legislative schedule, there are 10 amendments right now in the docket for 252, 13 amendments for Senate Bill 560 that are being planned. And probably an equal number from each party.

Alex Blumberg

And that's a lot?

Steve Tobocman

That's a lot.

Alex Blumberg

Generally speaking, all the Republican amendments do the same basic thing. They exempt certain groups from having to pay the pollution discharge fees.

Mr. Speaker

The Chair recognizes Representative Drolet.

Leon Drolet

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Steve Tobocman

Representative Leon Drolet, a Republican from the Detroit suburbs, gets up and makes the case. He says the pollution discharge fees are excessive and they've been foisted on his constituents by the Democratic governor.

Leon Drolet

And I'd like to review some of who these polluters are that we're making pay and what the governor is proposing in her executive fees. For one of the polluters, the Sable Valley Nursing Home, the government proposes a $6,000 fee on them. Big polluters, like the KPEC Fellowship Christian Church, will have to pay $4,000 additionally under this proposal. The Boy Scouts of America would have to pay $2,500 in new fees and redo their--

Alex Blumberg

The line between political pandering and political belief is a hazy one. As I watch Representative Drolet, it seems his opposition is sincere. People tell me he's a principled and committed libertarian. If Steve sees himself as fighting on behalf of people who just want clean drinking water, Representative Drolet sees himself as fighting on behalf of people just trying to make an honest buck, without interference from the state. Both men think that if things ran their way, the world would be a lot better. And both men think that if things run the other guy's way, the world would go to hell in a hand basket.

Watching Representative Drolet, I realize sometimes democracy is not about getting your way.

Leon Drolet

I don't support this amendment because--

Alex Blumberg

It's making sure the other guy doesn't get his.

Leon Drolet

It's the governor who's proposed these fees. It's the governor that made a deal to put them through the legislature. It's the governor that wants to charge Gene Ringley of Kleen Gene's Laundromat $2,000 additional a year. So let's let Gene Ringley, Jr. of Rosscommon, Michigan know who wants him to cough up the $2,000.

Alex Blumberg

Speeches like Drulet's make the Democrats on the other side of the aisle nervous, especially ones like Representative Jennifer Elkins, whose district is heavily Republican. She doesn't want Gene Ringley of Kleen Gene's Laundromat to think that she's taking $2,000 of his hard-earned money. And she sees that the Republicans are setting a political trap for her. Each of their amendments exempts some group of Michigan voters from this new government fee. If the Democrats oppose the amendments, the Republicans will use that against them at reelection time. She pulls Steve aside.

Jennifer Elkins

We're going to get hung on this [BLEEP]. When the Republicans were meeting, our names were brought up--

Alex Blumberg

She tells Steve she overheard the Republicans mentioning her name specifically as someone's target. But Steve tells her not to worry. The Democrats met earlier and agree there's no point falling into this trap the Republicans are setting. They won't challenge the Republicans on any of this. In other words, they're voting for all the exemptions.

Steve Tobocman

For the exemptions, we're all voting for the exemptions. They don't understand that's what we're doing.

Jennifer Elkins

Yeah.

Steve Tobocman

They think we're going to fight among them on these little nonprofits and churches. And that's [BLEEP]. We're not going to take that heat. You should vote for every exemption.

Mr. Speaker

All in favor of the amendment will vote aye. All those opposed, nay. The Clerk will open the board.

Alex Blumberg

On a big light display board at the front of the chamber, member names light up as they press their vote buttons. Red means no. Green means yes. Steve is the floor manager for the Democrats today, meaning it's his job to make sure everyone else knows how to vote.

Steve Tobocman

Recommending green.

Man 2

What do you mean?

Steve Tobocman

Why should we let them say oh, we protected you, and we didn't? That's [BLEEP]. They're all going to pass. You might as well be on there. Why should we let them vote for this and we have to take the heat on this?

Green.

Mr. Speaker

All members voted? The Clerk will close the board. Tally, display, announce the vote.

Clerk

Mr. Speaker, on the question of adoption of the Bradstreet Amendment 2D, there are 102 aye votes and 3 nay votes.

Mr. Speaker

The majority of the members electing and serving having voted in support of the Bradstreet Amendment 2D, it is adopted. If there are further amendments, the Clerk will read them.

Alex Blumberg

The debate about the fee bills drags on long after this, for four hours until 6:00 PM, well past the time session usually ends. And one of the bills ends up passing. But the other one keeps getting slammed around. Republicans continue to introduce amendments exempting various sympathetic institutions, farmers, schools, small towns. And they continue to pass with majority Democratic support. And then the Democrats turn around and introduce amendments that directly contradict the ones they just voted yes to, tightening regulations and increasing fees.

Steve Tobocman

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. This amendment to increase fees for chronic violators of the Clean Water Act serves two important purposes.

Alex Blumberg

These fail, entirely along party lines. There's a highly choreographed feel to the whole thing. People don't cheer and high-five when their amendments pass. And they don't slam their briefcases on their desks when they fail. They're not trying to persuade each other or even to win. Each vote, each amendment, each speech for the record is solely about targeting the other party's positions at election time. The Republicans are trying to catch the Democrats raising taxes on the Boy Scouts. And the Democrats are trying to get the Republicans on record voting against clean drinking water.

But not everything in the day goes according to script. There is exactly one time in the entire debate when someone introduces an amendment as a matter of personal conviction, and not as a matter of party strategy.

Jack Brandenburg

The purpose of this--

Alex Blumberg

A Republican representative, Jack Brandenburg, introduces an amendment that mandates surprise on-site inspections at companies that pollute. In other words, that actually strengthens the environmental provisions of the bill. And he does it for the simple reason that he's worried about all the bad stuff going into the water.

Jack Brandenburg

Currently, there are 600 toxins that if not discharged properly, are harmful to the health of human beings. Some of the most commonly discharged toxins are the following-- Mercury, linked to immune disorders and brain damage. Barium--

Alex Blumberg

Brandenburg talks for a long time before Steve and the Democrats even realize it's not the usual offering from the other side of the aisle.

Steve Tobocman

We should all be voting for this.

Woman 2

Well, I'll vote for this.

Alex Blumberg

The Republicans are realizing the same thing. You can hear the murmuring increase as people try to figure out what's going on.

Jack Brandenburg

Copper is the most frequently discharged toxin into the Great Lakes, but we have not yet determined if this is in any way an effect on our health. May I have a little respect here please. Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker

You may proceed, Representative.

Jack Brandenburg

All right.

Alex Blumberg

Brandenburg finishes. The Clerk opens the board. And much more slowly than on any of the other votes, names begin to appear, one after another, many of them green. Republicans voting for a fellow Republican. And the Clerk closes the board. And it looks like the measure has actually passed. But then, the Clerk doesn't tally the results. Sits quietly, watches the Republican floor leader, who's talking heatedly into the phone at his desk. Other Republican leaders circulate around their colleagues. And gradually screen names start switching to red.

Mr. Speaker

Representative Middaugh votes nay. Representative Palsrok votes nay.

Alex Blumberg

At one point, I witness a classic backroom political horse trade done right out in the open, in the most blatant way possible, in the middle of the chamber floor. Virgil Smith, a Democrat from Detroit, sees which way the wind is blowing. Sees that the Republican floor leader isn't going to close the board until he gets enough no votes from his own party to kill the amendment.

And so Representative Smith decides to help them and help himself. He gets up, walks across the floor with his arm held above his head, and his thumb pointed straight up in the air, as if he were raising his hand in school and giving the thumbs sign at the same time. He walks right up to the Republican floor leader, Randy Richardville, who's huddled on the phone, surrounded by his advisers. And he stands there, with his thumb in the air. Richardville puts down the phone, looks up at him, they have a brief conversation. And then, Representative Smith walks back to his seat, still with his arm in the air, but this time with his thumb pointed down. Whatever happened, he's now voting nay.

Mr. Speaker

Representative Smith votes nay.

Steve Tobocman

He put nay. What did you get for that, Virgil?

Man 3

He got something.

Steve Tobocman

He got something for that. Because they didn't want this to pass.

Alex Blumberg

And it doesn't pass. After a brief digression from the day's script, Republican leaders continue turning green votes to red, until they have what they need.

Mr. Speaker

Tally, display, and announce the vote.

Clerk

Mr. Speaker, on the question of adoption of the Brandenburg Amendment 2D, there are 51 aye votes and 52 nay votes.

Mr. Speaker

A sufficient number of members having not voted in the affirmative, the Brandenburg Amendment 2D is not adopted. There are further amendments--

Alex Blumberg

The weirdest maneuver of the day though, comes at the very end. After spending all day adding amendment after amendment, the Republicans introduce one final amendment. It comes at the very end. And it's rushed through on a procedural maneuver, without a record vote. Steve and all the Democrats scramble around to try and figure out what it says.

Woman 3

What did they do here?

Man 4

What did they just do?

Alex Blumberg

Even the press guy for the Republican party is caught off guard, has to head out to the floor to find out what it does. He comes back and tells us with a sheepish smile, basically it takes us back in time three hours. It returns Senate Bill 560 to its original language, stripping off every amendment the Republicans had added, undoing everything Republicans had spent the past three hours doing. Then the Republicans bring this new bill, which is now the same as the old bill, to a vote and it fails. And then the Republican majority leader, Rick Johnson, holds a press conference in which he blames the Democrats, the minority party, and the only ones who actually voted for the bill, for its failure.

In the process, they made Steve Tobacman waste half his day on a huge turkey shoot that helped no one in his district. On the car ride home, we discussed the day. It wasn't all bad. He did manage to get some minor amendment, something to do with fraudulent notary publics, through a committee earlier in the day.

He tells me that so far the best moment of his political career was the first, election night. It was early in the evening and returns were still coming in. He was standing in front of all supporters. And for the first time, he thought to himself it doesn't matter whether I win or lose. I ran a great campaign. I took no money. I spoke about issues that I believed in. I did everything exactly according to my beliefs. Driving home tonight after a long confusing day at his new job, as the rain poured symbolically down from the sky, that night feels very far away.

Alex Blumberg

Do you find it like, yesterday we drive around your district. And then we go to this like redlining meeting where it's very local. And then I come into that chamber, and then there's this like elaborate political game that's going on. It's hard to see the connection sometimes. It was hard for me. Is it sometimes hard for you?

Steve Tobocman

Oh, absolutely. I mean today's activity was a bunch of pageantry. And it really does not in my mind impact the quality of life too greatly. And that I ask myself all the time. And I continually to ask myself. You might go out there and you find yourself advocating for the Todman bill or for pollution discharge permits fees. Or you can't really produce the results to end insurance redlining that you want to produce. And you feel, wow, I'm a total fraud up here. Here I am talking about something I truly, honestly believe in. And I'm doing everything I can. But at the end of the day, what kind of impact am I having? And is there a different thing I should be doing that my life? And is all of this worth that kind of trouble?

Alex Blumberg

In Steve's freezer at home in Detroit, there's two foot long pork loin. It's been there for 10 months. It was a Christmas present sent to him by some lobbying group, right after he got elected. Steve's not sure who sent it to him or what it's supposed to get him to do, let alone why anyone thought sending a huge piece of non-kosher meat to a Jew before Christmas would help with anything. Or for that matter, why they ignored the obvious negative symbolism of sending pork to a politician.

In the end, so much of politics is about hope. Somewhere there's a guy at some pork council putting mailing labels on boxes of meat, thinking maybe this will help. And for Steve, making any connection between what he does on a daily basis and what he actually wants to do requires a similar leap of faith. But the compromises he makes now will reward him later. And that somewhere down the line, performances like the one today in Lansing will do some good for someone back in Detroit.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg.

Act Three. Zero Divided By Zero Is Still Zero.

Ira Glass

Act 3, Zero Divided by Zero Is Still Zero. This is a story of somebody trying out a new theory on how to run her life. Specifically, how to handle money. It's an excerpt from the book Random Family, in which a reporter named Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent over 10 years following some people who were living in the Bronx. One of the people is Coco, who is in her early 20s at this point in the story, in this excerpt. She has kids. She's on welfare. And at this point in Coco's story, she's living in a church-run residence called Thorpe House, trying to get her life together with the help of the nuns. Actress Liza Colon-Zayas reads the excerpt.

Lisa Colonzeas

Coco was eager to devise a plan for her future. Coco responded most enthusiastically to the workshops on money and budgeting. Every two weeks, she received $125 from welfare, by which time she was often $110 in debt. The Thorpe House covered utilities and rent. Coca hoped the budgeting workshops would teach her how to stop having to struggle-- a problem for which she blamed herself.

The day checks arrived was pickup day. After she picked up, Coco immediately accounted for one top priority-- People I Owe Money To. She always owed someone something-- $8 to Thorpe for change for washing, $6 to a neighbor for food, $15 to Dayland, a drug dealer from around her mother's way, who had lent her $200 the previous Christmas when she had no money for gifts. Coco earmarked the cash by writing the names, "Dayland's" "Sheila's"-- on the actual bills. She also deducted for subway tokens to get to appointments and put money aside for a cab in case of emergency. It wasn't unusual for her to have $5 left, which she then had to stretch for the next two weeks.

She usually owed someone food stamps. Luckily, Coco's girls were under five and still qualified for WIC-- Women, Infants, and Children-- a supplemental food program for specified items-- eggs, cereal, and most preciously, milk. What remained of the money went to clothes for the girls and necessary toiletries. Children's looks reflected the quality of mothering. Sloppiness and dirt were physical evidence of failure, of poverty winning its battle against you. Coco would keep the girls indoors rather than let them look busted-up outside. She spent hours on their hair, twisting and tugging, braiding and curling, liberally applying Vaseline. When she was done, she'd briskly rub her palms together and wipe down each daughter's face. Vaseline also kept their skin from getting patchy. "I want them to perfect. They are so beautiful," Coco said. Weeks ahead of time, Coco estimated the price of clothes she wanted for her girls, including the tax. As soon as she possibly could, she'd make a deposit and put them on layaway.

But budgeting didn't mitigate one of Coco's greatest problems-- everyone around her also needed, and Coco didn't know how to refuse. Sometimes Coco would spend down her money just so she could be the one to use it, allowing her to maintain her integrity. That way if someone asked her for money, she could honestly tell them no, she didn't have it.

The cash had to stretch further with Coco's boyfriend Cesar jailed. He needed winter boots, a coat, socks, towels, and sheets, and commissary money for his hygiene and stamps. Then he'd ask for extra things like a door-size reproduction of his favorite photograph of their daughter Mercedes with her hair in Shirley Temple curls. Coco didn't know how to tell him no. "The welfare money, that's the girls'. It belongs to the girls, not him," she would say, but only to herself.

Coco's sister, Iris, however, knew how to take care of business. Her method was a stern personality. She could ward off potential borrowers with one stony look. Coco couldn't live like that. Coco was too open. Even if she avoided being a bank for near strangers, she ended up as the neighborhood grocery store. People would be knocking at all hours of the day and night, "Coco, you got this? Coco, you got that?'"

Coco's Thorpe House case worker, Sister Christine, worried about Coco's generosity. You either made your way by hardening up, like Iris, or you stayed stuck. Coco didn't see a choice. Coco couldn't ignore the people she cared for, which is why everyone turned to her first for help. The word that came to Sister Christine's mind whenever she thought of Coco was enmeshed. Coco would have said she had heart.

One day, Coco and Iris went shopping. Although Coco had figured out her budget, she deferred to Iris, who she considered a financial whiz. Iris was the only person Coco knew who actually survived on her welfare benefits. "I'm going to give you my list of people I owe and you have to divide it up," Coco told her. At Youngland, Iris exchanged the $12.99 jeans Coco had put on layaway for a similar style Iris found for half the price. Coco would have never had the defiance to ignore the clerk's snooty look. Iris brought her to Big R Food Warehouse and suggested Coco buy the enormous packs of chicken and pork chops. Iris divided them into smaller portions and froze them separately. Coco often forgot to defrost meat in enough time for dinner. Iris had her children's school clothes pressed and laid on a chair the night before. Coco was constantly rummaging around for a hair brush or a matching sock. Coco knew she couldn't replicate Iris's strict adherence to order, but she longed for her girls to sleep in rooms like Iris's rooms. "They for beautiful people," Coco said. In her niece's bedroom, everything matched-- curtains, and bedspreads, and sheets.

But Coco's pride in her sister's way was mixed with concern. The rigidity of Iris's approach to her predicament generated its own problems. Iris lived in a housing project, where it was dangerous to take the elevators too early in the morning, or late at night, alone. She rarely ventured anywhere without her husband, Armando-- even to visit family. And the toll of their vigilance could be seen in Armando's anxious eyes or the grim set of Iris's jaw. Mainly, though, it was Iris's unhappiness that upset Coco. The family anxiety projected an unspoken, unappealing truth-- that even living right, which was what Coco called it, was just another precarious hold. Poverty pulled everybody down. Coco loosened her body to minimize the impact of the fall. Iris and Armando froze, and the chill stiffened their kids, as well. Even indoors, when Armando planted himself in his favorite chair, he gripped the arms.

Ira Glass

Liza Colon-Zayas, reading from Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's amazing book, Random Family.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Starlee Kine and myself, with Alex Bloomberg, Diane Cook, and Wendy Dorr. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Stacey Tiderington. This is our last show with our intern Stacey Tiderington. She has faced down some very fierce deadlines with us. We wish her the best.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

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WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who proves that he is a true Chicagoan every November when he calls us in and declares,

Jack Hitt

So let's rig an election.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

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