Think Students Are a Tough Crowd? Try Voters
Associate Professor of Economics Sean Flynn’s campaign for Congress
By Joshua Kamensky
A campaign car should be totally nondescript, so that nobody attending an event will ever be able to remember what car the candidate drove up in,” says Sean Flynn as he walks toward a white Honda, made in the U.S.A. and appropriately tame. Flynn, 43 years old and an associate professor of economics at Scripps, has just finished his first foray into politics, running for the House of Representatives in the Inland Empire’s 31st Congressional District, a compact crescent located just northeast of the Claremont Colleges that stretches from Rancho Cucamonga to San Bernardino.
He pops the trunk and finds a campaign mailer, a matching door hanger, and a copy of his 246-page manuscript, The Singapore Solution: How Singapore Delivers the World’s Best Healthcare While Spending 75 Percent Less Than We Do.
Flynn, a scholar of behavioral economics, author of the best-selling Economics for Dummies, and now an experienced Congressional candidate, is that increasingly rare breed in politics, an engaging wonk. “I learned over the course of the campaign to use stories,” he says. As much as he might enjoy giving every registered voter a copy of The Singapore Solution, his pitch is nicely tailored to Rotary luncheons and door visits. “Compare a Michael Jackson nose job with a current nose job,” he says, by way of illuminating the 30-year drop in price and rise in quality of the kind of surgeries that fall outside “our complicated and burdensome insurance schemes.” Stacking anecdotes and statistics, he builds an intriguing case. “What matters are outcomes,” he says, more than once.
A search for better outcomes from an economist’s perspective also animates his plan to slash student loan debt. “After the Baby Bust slashed college enrollments in the 1970s, colleges and universities started begging the federal government for a solution. Unfortunately, the government’s solution was to start pushing the federal loan system.” Today, Flynn says he sees “brilliant students of modest means carrying debt burdens in the hundreds of thousands” (though not, he hastens to add, at Scripps, which has a strong record of pushing down students’ debt burdens). The easy availability of federal loan dollars not only let college costs balloon, but they also disproportionately increased the number of administrators due to numerous accompanying regulations and mandates. Flynn’s plan would divert the money currently set aside for loan financing and spend it “increasing supply, not demand”—requiring it be used strictly to hire faculty, while slashing the regulatory burden that requires colleges to bulk up on admin.
But isn’t lowering the cost of college a Democratic Party plank? Are we in Bernie territory? Here, the economics lesson comes out. “There’s cost and price. Cost is the amount of resources you have to take away from other things to produce something. Bernie only wants to reduce the price, no matter the cost. And that’s missing the point.”
Flynn jumped into the race for CA-31 only six months before the June 7th primary. And he only began considering a run a couple of months earlier, in November 2015. An old friend who had considered running for office herself convinced Flynn that he would be better suited for the hustings than she would. He booked a two hour appointment with a Burbank- based political consultant. Two hours turned into eight, “most of which was him trying to talk me out of it.” A trip to visit the National Republican Congressional Committee in Washington, D.C., exposed him to the tiny rooms with phones and desks where members of Congress spend an average of four hours a day raising funds for their next elections. “This may be the worst part about politics right now,” says Flynn. “It’s not even that the vast amount of money causes political corruption per se. It’s the likelihood that everyone’s elected representatives spend so much time calling for money that they can’t actually write good legislation or even know what’s in the bills.”
Flynn had weeks of sleepless nights staring at the ceiling. “But then I woke up one morning and decided I was angry enough to do it.” He called the dean. He called his department chair. They were surprised, but they were encouraging. A behavioral finance class, already part-enrolled, and a Core II class on gender economics, co taught with art and gender studies professor Nancy Macko, had to be postponed.
All of a sudden, Professor Flynn was a candidate. He recruited a campaign staff of five and dozens of volunteers. He dialed for dollars, he knocked on doors, he refined his stump speech. The Michael Jackson line got a good response.
“The mainstream apparatus of both parties,” reports Flynn, “is filled with thoughtful people who are not extremists in any way, which was great to see.” On the campaign trail, he learned a key difference between voter and student interactions. “As a politician, most of what you do is listen,” he says. “I’d say, ‘crazy election year, huh?’ to a voter I’d just met, and it didn’t matter what their politics were, they’d agree. Then I’d ask what the government could be doing better for them. They’d be talking for 90 to 95 percent of the interaction, which is 100 percent different from lecturing.”
California uses the “jungle primary” system for all non- presidential primary elections. A voter may cast a ballot for any candidate, regardless of registration. The top two vote getters in the June primary proceed to the general election in November.
In the right district, this system would favor Flynn. He calls himself a conservative, but he rhapsodizes about having lunch with every single colleague in the House in search of common ground; the Grand Old Party he champions is the one formed to end slavery, out front on women’s suffrage, and part of the anti–Jim Crow coalition. You could see him winning in a solidly Republican district as a Republican whom even Democrats could support. You could see him finding his footing on the House floor, floating the kinds of policy proposals that might strike common cause with Washington’s business-friendly “Mod Caucus” Democrats.
But political observers call the 31st “solid Dem”—incumbent Pete Aguilar led the primary returns with 43 percent of the vote—and in the Year of Trump, its Republican voters favored Tea Party– affiliated Paul Chabot with 23 percent and the runner-up slot. Flynn came in last, clustered with “Bernie Democrat” Kaisar Ahmed and party-switching former Congressman Joe Baca.
Unfazed by the loss, Flynn says that he might consider running for office again someday. In the meantime, he’s excited to return to Scripps, where, “as far as I know, I’m the only ‘out’ Republican [faculty].” Flynn, the son of a Japanese mother and a Caucasian American father who moved to the United States so that his mother could pursue medical school free of Japan’s patriarchal limitations, offers a friendly critique of Scripps’ latter-day approach to single-sex education. Citing evidence that women’s educational attainment has outpaced men’s, he says, “What I would like to see at Scripps is an assumption that our current students, when they are 50 or 60 years old, will be running the world. I think we are now overly focused on fighting battles against patriarchy that, thankfully, are well on their way to being resolved. The focus needs to be put on preparing women to govern, preparing them to be in charge—which they will be.”
This fall, Professor Flynn is scheduled to teach Democracy in Theory and Practice, a millennium-spanning Core III class. It’s one he’s uniquely qualified to teach.
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