A post on “Taking Secession Seriously” at the Front Porch Republic blog, written four months ago, is still sparking vigorous debate in the comment thread. Commenter CJ Foley remarked on the impossibility of managing political and economic affairs on the scale of 300 million people, or of exerting outside democratic control over the political and economic units. It might be necessary, he said, to scale things down to where they can be effectively controlled.
But given my experience with local government, I responded, that might require scaling things down a lot further than he imagined. By the time I got a couple of paragraphs into my rant, I realized I was composing this week’s article for C4SS.
In just about any city with a population in or above the low tens of thousands, the local government is a showcase property of the local real estate industry.
In Fayetteville, Arkansas, three years ago Mayor Dan Coody (who’d been elected by the “green” faction, on a “smart growth” platform, to rein in the real estate interests) proposed a one cent sales tax to fund expansion of the overburdened sewer system. Now, the cause of the problem was the new housing developments and strip malls springing up all over the place, built primarily by billionaire real estate developer and Trump-wannabe Jim Lindsey. But Coody said the “only alternatives” were the sales tax or a 30% increase in sewer rates. That’s the way it works, see: he tells us what the “only alternatives” are, and we good little voters choose from what’s put on our plates. Increasing sewer hookup fees to cover the costs Lindsey and the other hogs at the trough were imposing on the system was never even considered.
The voters, convinced by Coody’s hint that “out-of-town” shoppers would bear much of the burden (it’s always easier to cheat a greedy man), voted for the tax.
Then, next year, sewer impact fees came up as a local ballot issue. You’ll never convince me the timing and the wording of the proposal weren’t a deliberate strategy of the real estate interests. Since the proposal came after the voters had already approved the sales tax, and not before, they were obviously likely to reject it as double taxation. And they’d have been a lot more likely to approve it if it had been proposed as a replacement for the sales tax they were already paying.
Now, the “progressive” element in Fayetteville have a better shot than anywhere else in NW Arkansas. In most other towns, whatever the good ol’ boys want just gets quietly passed without a peep of public debate. In Fayetteville, a college town with a large contingent of “back to the land” hippies who settled there in the ’70s, there is at least grass-roots organizing and heated debate over everything–before the good ol’ boys win.
And Coody was the fair-haired boy of the “progressives,” put forth as David to the Chamber of Commerce’s Goliath. His election was the closest thing to a victory the “progressive” and “green” coalition was or will be ever likely to see. And in the end, he was just another greenwashed good ol’ boy. All the stuff he could have legitimately done to stop sprawl — eliminating barriers to mixed-use development, making new roads pay their way with tolls, making developments pay utility hookup fees — he didn’t have the political guts to do. So instead, he focused on aesthetic regulations, bike paths, anti-smoking ordiances, and other forms of nannyism — basically just greenwashed gentrification.
At the level of the Northwest Arkansas region as a whole, the Washington-Benton County area (with a population of several hundred thousand) has an organization called the Northwest Arkansas Council. It’s a nominally private shadow government, made up of representatives of local corporate powerhouses like Wal-Mart, Tyson, J.B. Hunt (and of course the above-mentioned Jim Lindsey), along with ex officio representatives of local governments and the University. Its primary purpose, civic-minded lot that they are, is to promote the building of regional “infrastructure” for “economic growth,” and all kinds of other “government-business partnership” (In other words, line up at the trough, corporate welfare piggies!). I think there’s a similar organization in just about every metropolitan area in the country of the same size or larger.
For decades, regional elites had attempted to railroad through a regional airport to serve their interests, only to have it fail when it came up for a vote.
In 1990, the NWA Council changed its strategy. Like a filthy sneak-thief skulking about under cover of darkness, it quietly lobbied five city and two country governments to create a regional airport authority. You’d expect such an authority to be the topic of extensive public debate, considering that under state law such authorities have power to condemn land and levy taxes, and are immortal corporations so long as any two member governments remain parties to them. You’d expect wrong. The seven local governments, under secret pressure from the REAL GOVERNMENT of Northwest Arkansas, voted to create the authority as an “emergency ordinance” — without any prior notice, multiple readings, or chance for public debate. The Northwest Arkansas Council, in partnership with the NWA Regional Airport Authority, immediately began a campaign to suppress opposition. “Leadership Fayetteville,” an elite annual seminar in the city Chamber of Commerce, devoted its primary focus to strategies for combating the “anti-growth” faction that had “hijacked” Fayetteville’s progress. Shortly after, under pressure from local movers and shakers, a popular radio DJ and the editor of the Northwest Arkansas Times were fired (they’d both been active proponents of a public vote on the airport issue). In the end, the airport was railroaded through. We now have a regional airport at Highfill, serving the interests of Tyson, Wal-Mart and J.B. Hunt.
I can cheerfully contemplate the people who did this taking up eternal residence in the Ninth Circle of Hell, with an apartment in Beelzebub’s rectum and Judas Iscariot for a roommate.
And so it goes. Democracy doesn’t work, at least not above the level of face-to-face direct democracy. The problem is, regardless of how formally democratic the system of representation is, no matter how “progressive” the controls on campaign finance (or even public financing), government is by its very nature a centralized machine whose day-to-day operations must be carried out by a few people. And by the nature of things, there will be a close affinity between them and similar elites running the corporate economic system, and other centralized institutional networks like the big charitable foundations and universities. By the nature of things, the average person has only limited energy and attention to devote to public issues, and to keeping an eye on those engaged in public business. The average person, by necessity, will always devote the overwhelming share of his energy and attention to work, family, and friends. But for the insiders actually running the large institutions, the politics and policies of those institutions ARE their work and friends. So the insiders, and the small circles of wealthy outsiders whose pecuniary interests depend most heavily subsidies and protections, will always have an advantage in time, energy, attention, information, and agenda control. Democracy is and must be a sham, because the public’s attention will always be the first to wander.
At the national level, Obama is probably the closest thing to a “progressive” president ever likely to be elected — a sort of national Dan Coody, in fact. A friend of Alinsky and “community organizer,” he came across last year as a sort of Jerry Brown knockoff, the outside-the-box alternative to Hillary Clinton (who was almost a parody of establishment managerial liberalism). And what has he done?
He’s pursued a Wall Street bailout policy that’s a direct continuation of Paulson’s version of TARP, based on the uber-Hamiltonian project of using taxpayer money to (at least partially) reinflate the value of the plutocracy’s investment assets.
He’s pushed through a “stimulus” whose primary goal is to restore the suicidal and pathological economic model of running overbuilt industry at full capacity. That, in turn, can only be done (given its present capacity) through consumer debt and planned obsolescence–the latter extending to actually paying people, via the latest “Cash for [insert name of subsidized industry here]” program, to throw stuff away and replace it. Well, THAT’s certainly a sustainable economic model. Should work out great, as long as the government can afford to run a $2 trillion deficit indefinitely. In any case, nobody who promotes an intensified version of the 20th century economic model of throwing shit away fast enough to keep the assembly lines running, should be passing himself off as “green,” in any way, shape or form.
He’s designed a “progressive” healthcare reform whose overall paramaters were fixed at the beginning by the insurance and pharma industries.
Political activism within the system, at best, may make the system a little more bearable to those who suffer under it while it lasts. If you want to put energy into that, good luck. But fundamental change can only come from outside the system. That’s why the primary focus of my C4SS research papers has been on the outside forces beyond the control of the people running the system, that render it unsustainable, and on alternatives being built outside the system that don’t require anybody’s permission.