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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Death knell, part 2

I left before the FNSB Assembly had voted — in fact, at least an hour before public testimony had finished — but word has it that Ordinance 2011-32, a soft-pedaled version of a zoning ordinance defeated 4-4 a few months ago, was defeated by a vote of 6 to 3.  Voting against were Natalie Howard, Michael Dukes, Matt Want, Tim Beck, Joe Blanchard, and Diane Hutchison.  Voting for were Nadine Winters, Karl Kassel, and Mike Musick.  I give my thanks to those last three.

I do not feel civil this morning.  I fear that Fairbanks is a damned town, again and again making itself a less fit place for a civilized person to live.

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I am angry and heartbroken tonight.

By a 4-4 vote, the Borough Assembly just failed to pass Ordinance 2010-09, which would have created two new zoning types: a “retail hot spot” and a “supporting commercial district”.  These new zones — which would have been merely codified, not even applied — were one of the key governmental tools for encouraging businesses to invest in quality retail building downtown.  And now it’s fucked, thanks to Michael Dukes, Matt Want, Natalie Howard, and Joe Blanchard — none of whom owns a god-damned square foot in downtown Fairbanks.  (According to the FNSB Assessing property database.)

I can’t get into the particular arguments the detractors used — I’m too heartbroken right now — but I do want to thank Assembly members Nadine Winters, Diane Hutchison, Karl Kassel, and Mike Musick, for their “yes” votes, as well as Mayor Luke Hopkins for putting the ordinance forward, David van den Berg of the Downtown Association for his ongoing work with downtown business owners and the revitalization effort, and everyone who testified in favor of the proposed ordinance, including the near-unanimity of downtown business owners who supported it.

No doubt the detractors are comforted by their free market and anti-government ideology.  My curse on them is that all their cars break down, and then they can see how much they like their WalMart shopping and their living out on Chena Fucking Hot Springs Road.

It’s enough to make me want to ditch this Borough, this un-community, for a place civic-minded enough to say, “We will take these restrictions on ourselves and impose them on others who may sometimes be unwilling, because public will is sometimes more important than some individual jackass who might want to stand in the way of 100% consensus” — and then to torch this fucking place on my way out.  (Please understand, I do not mean the “torch this place” thing literally.  It is an expression of my disappointment and my feeling of hopelessness for Fairbanks’s future.)

Vivat communitas!  Stadtluft macht frei!

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Tomorrow (Tuesday, October 6) is a day of local elections in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.  I’ve done a little work on one campaign, enough to make me sad for the state of electoral politics.

I spent one evening and one morning recently (in separate weeks) working for a particular local candidate.  (I’ll say that he’s male, because it makes the pronouns easier.)  On the first occasion, I was “phone banking”: doing voter identifications from a list of registered voters.  We were to find out whether each voter supported The Candidate or not, and, if not, whether the person would like more information about The Candidate, or whether they supported another person.

Having done voter ID calls on an issue campaign before, the tactic seemed familiar to me: we wanted to figure out whom to call on election day with a reminder to get and vote, and whom to leave alone (with the hope that they’d forget).

On the second occasion of helping The Candidate, I did a “literature drop”: leaving leaflets about The Candidate on people’s doorknobs.  Again, I worked from a list of registered voters.

There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about targeting voters.  But what troubled me was that our lists were already targeted: at least one major party affiliation was entirely absent, and our job as phone-bankers or lit-droppers was to narrow it down further to those not hostile to The Candidate, and ideally only those likely to support him.  These people we would hit with more literature and phone calls, so that as many of “our” people would get out and vote as possible.  Thus would The Candidate win: by getting out his supporters in greater numbers.

What’s so wrong with that? you ask.  How else are candidates supposed to win?

Well, it’s not the idea that a candidate should get his or her supporters to the polls in greater numbers that bothers me.  It’s that, from a pretty early stage, we were targeting voters and focusing only on those most likely to support The Candidate.  Where, I asked The Candidate on day two, was the place for people to discuss what the important issues were and whose solutions were best?  There was nothing in what we were doing that was meant to convince people of the urgency of our issues or the suitability of The Candidate to address them better than any of the others.  “Right,” The Candidate chimed in.  “Where’s the public discourse?”

The problem, he said, was that there wasn’t much of that going on anyway, so we were stuck with “get out the vote” tactics.  The candidates get to answer a questionnaire that’s published in the News-Miner, and there are a handful of radio appearances and candidate forums where they may get a two-minute opening statement and then forty-five seconds to answer any questions.  There really is no chance for substantive debate or discussion.

So, here’s a question for everybody: in an age when political strategizing has been reduced to “getting out the vote” (of those who already support your candidate), how do we foster public discourse around elections?  Given a number of candidates about whom we may know little to nothing, how do we learn meaningfully about their views and intentions?  How do we discuss the issues in a way that leaves us open to learning and persuasion?  And whose responsibility should it be to see that this civic discourse takes place?


Up for election are: Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor; FNSB Assembly seats A, F, and G; Fairbanks City Council seats A and B; North Pole Mayor; North Pole City Council (two vacancies); FNSB School Board seats A, B, and G; three Borough-wide bond and ballot measures; and two city-wide ballot measures.  Read the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner‘s 2009 Municipal Election overview for stories on the candidates and their answers to the News-Miner‘s questionnaires, and on the ballot measures.

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Today’s challenge: Can you think of five ways that government spends money better than you could?

There is an oft-used conservative talking point — or rhetorical flourish — that we (the “taxpayers”) know how to spend our money better than “the government”.  It is a talking point that masks selfishness and reeks of anti-civicism, and it deserves to be challenged whenever it is brought up.

First, I should say that “conservative” is a woefully imprecise word.  A person can be conservative about any number and variety of things, and “liberal” (its presumed opposite) about any others.  It is an injustice to the endless variety of human thought to put each person into one of two camps.  Nonetheless, those well-known politicos who claim that “you know how to spend your money better than the government” tend to fall into the political camp that gets called conservative — so, for lack of a better and well-accepted term, I’ll use that one.  By no means am I trying to demonize those who call themselves conservative or attempting to categorically dismiss “conservative” values (whatever they may be).

The first thing I dislike about such a viewpoint is that it presumes a divide between the people (or “we the people”, as many like to say when affecting a patriotic idiom) and their government.  It presumes that “the people” and “the government” are two separate entities, with conflicting agendas.  Now, I agree that institutions often make self-preservation and self-aggrandizement their primary missions, and that they do not always serve their constituencies with perfect selflessness or efficiency.  Yet I don’t think that means we have any call to take an adversarial posture toward government.  In fact, just the contrary: an entrenched adversarial posture toward government will only incline people to pay closer attention to its shortcomings and abuses and to ignore its many advantages and triumphs.  It will incline them to disengage from the political process, rather than to put their energy toward its improvement.

My wife and I both enjoy the married life: in both the short term and the long term, we receive advantages.  Although at times we feel constrained by our mutual obligations, there are plentiful opportunities we can pursue because we have each other’s support.  When conflicts arise, we often feel the urge to withdraw from each other and avoid whatever difficult topic got us into trouble in the first place.  However, our experience (and that of countless others; I’m not pretending to be unique) has been that engaging with our difficulties helps us to become “re-enfranchised”, while disengagement only allows problems to fester and lets us continue believing the worst of each other.

Whether you believe government is “us” or believe government is “them”, you’re taking part in a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Unfortunately, since the belief is held individually but the effect on government only comes from large collective action, it’s easy to be convinced of your own powerlessness and to take the government-as-adversary stance.  Collectively, we have the power to prove ourselves right — though only in the long haul.

The second thing I dislike about the position that “you know how to spend your money better than the government” is the excess to which people take the idea of “their” money.  I am all in favor of private property and private enterprise.  But too often people are of the opinion that, because something is “theirs”, they (1) are not indebted to others for it and (2) have no responsibility toward others with regard to its use.  This is a philosophical question that I don’t have time to address adequately here.  Suffice it for now to say that those who hold the extreme form of this belief suffer deficits of gratitude and social responsibility.

The third thing I dislike about that belief is that it is just plain ignorant.  There are absolutely scads of things that “the government” (that is, the people acting collectively) can accomplish better with “my” money than I can.  Here are five:

  • Mail delivery.  For all its faults, the United States Postal Service does a marvelous job of delivering letters and packages with good speed.  I cannot deliver all my mail by myself — who has the time? — and private industry would exclude many small, out-of-the-way places, or charge exorbitant fees for mail delivery to or from Fairbanks.
  • Public transportation.  Helping people get from home to job to shopping to recreation and back home is a fantastic investment in economic development.  If I had to get everywhere on my own, I would spend extra hours each day between work and home, or spend extra hours’ worth of my labor to afford the private automobile to take me back and forth in a timely fashion.  Private enterprise would try to make ridership as expensive as possible, thus shutting out the young and the poor.  Of course, even a private auto is worthless without…
  • Transportation infrastructure.  The buses I enjoy — or, in other cities, the trains, trams, and other means — would go a lot slower over trees, rocks, and mud, as would our private automobiles.  Do you think that private industry would do so well at laying down and regulating streets, roads, and tracks?  Do you think I could do it on my own?
  • Safety regulation.  One relationship that I think is naturally more adversarial than that of citizen and government is that of employee and employer.  Businesses showed for too long (and they continue to do it!) that they would imperil employees to no end while it resulted in corporate profits, absent the regulation by and sanctions from government.
  • Disease tracking.  I shudder to think what levels of disease (or other public health hazards) might ravage our communities without the information gathered and processed by the CDC.

The above have three things in common: (1) I couldn’t do them on my own.  (2) Private industry could not be relied on to do them.  (3) Were there non-profits in charge of providing the same, high-quality services, and were they reliant on voluntary donations, they would flounder.  Fall flat.  Perish.  People are too short-sighted to give voluntarily and sufficiently to all the agencies that would do them and their societies good.

Can you think of ways that “government” can spend “your” money better than you can?  Go on — just name five.  Let them be large or small.  Have fun with this!  If you approach government with an attentive mind and a grateful heart, it shouldn’t be hard.

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This October 9, we’ll elect a new mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, three members of the Borough Assembly (seats A, F, and G), and two members of the Fairbanks City Council (seats A and B) .  I’d like to make some endorsements — but I’ll need your help, first.

It may be naïvely hopeful, but I’d like to put out questionnaires to the mayoral and assembly candidates, asking their philosophies, knowledge, and goals about issues addressed in this blog.  I would publish the results and make endorsements here; I would also try to publicize these results in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.  As I say in my “About this blog” page:

The Fairbanks Pedestrian is a discussion of community-building, social capital, downtowns, neighborhood culture, city planning, domestic and civic architecture, public and private transportation, and the pleasures and difficulties of city living in Fairbanks, Alaska.

On that page, I also lay down five ideas central to this blog; you may want to refresh yourself.

Here’s an example of one possible question:

Social capital, which is written about most notably by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, is considered a source of personal and social wealth.  It is measured by the density of an individual’s and a community’s social connections, by the degree of organizational membership and social or civic participation.  Greater social capital is linked with greater health, increased public safety, improved educational outcomes, and less corrupt, more efficient local government.  (More here.)

What have you done, in a political capacity, to foster social capital?  And what will you do as [mayor / assembly member] to foster the growth of social capital in the Fairbanks North Star Borough?  Please refer to actions within the purview of the [Mayor's office / Borough Assembly].

So… What else would you like to know about your local candidates?  What would you want to ask them, with regards to civic life, city planning, urban architecture, transportation, neighborhoods, public space, and rights of the car-free?

The filing deadline is August 17th.  I would like to have list of questions ready by then.  Let hear them!

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A quick news flash, because I’m tired: Jerry Cleworth’s resolution, which I think would have kneecapped the downtown revitalization effort,  failed — though only through a tie-breaking vote by the mayor.  The final vote: For, Cleworth, Roberts, and Stiver; Against, Bratcher, Gatewood, Eberhart, and Mayor Strle.  (News-Miner story here.)

As I posted Saturday, City Councilman Jerry Cleworth proposed a resolution (no. 4353) that would have halted the use of city funds for the conversion of Cushman Street from one-way to two-way.  This conversion, however, was the linchpin of Vision Fairbanks, according to the city planners hired to draft downtown’s revitalization plan (Crandall-Arambula of Portland, Oregon).

From the start of Citizens’ Comments on Monday evening to the final vote, four and a half hours passed.  At least three of those were spent on public testimony, including a little testimony on another other resolution before the Council.  The testimony was largely in opposition to Cleworth’s resolution — though not so overwhelmingly as it was in favor of Vision Fairbanks’s passage at previous meetings.

Despite the good case that existed in favor of the resolution — and Mr. Cleworth seemed to make that case beautifully — it seemed plain to me that most of the citizens testifying in favor had not attended any of the original visioning meetings, had not read the final plan approved by the Borough Assembly, or had heard only spotty details through the newspaper or word of mouth.  Of course, you could also say that most of the supporters had merely drunk the Vision Fairbanks Kool-Aid and that their testimony didn’t address the meat of Cleworth’s concerns either.  Frankly, I was tired enough when he finally spoke that I couldn’t keep all the pieces together.

There was a relatively brief grilling of Fairbanks Public Works director Mike Schmetzer, City Engineer Bob Pristash, and Donna Gardino of FMATS (the Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation System).  They covered the history of certain appropriations and projects, and discussed the sources and allocation of various monies.  It’s probably not over my head in principle, but it felt like it at 10:45 at night.

Councilwoman Vivian Stiver had what I thought was the most sensible suggestion of the evening: postpone the vote on the resolution until Wednesday’s work session and later public meeting with Crandall Arambula.  If we can present our concerns to them, she reasoned, they may have a good explanation of how various projects will work, or at least convince us of the utter necessity of this current project.  Cleworth was the only other person to support her, so it failed.

Some comments made by Stiver and Chad Roberts concerned me: they both seem to think Fairbanks’s chance of attracting major retail downtown is low to nil.  They seem to think that, since the explosion of big-box chain retail outlets at Steese and Johansen, the City of Fairbanks has missed the boat.  Of course, attracting a major anchor store on Cushman Street is supposedly critical to Vision Fairbanks’s success.  If they’re right, then the plan is largely screwed — I hope not irredemably.

(This makes me wonder: Why, when V.F. was before the Council earlier, did they cower in fear at its suggestion that one regulatory tool of encouraging downtown retail might be to restrict big-box retail development elsewhere for a time?  Why did their resolution’s otherwise tepid language condemn the inclusion of such a suggestion in the plan?)

I should mention that some of the City Council members seemed genuinely torn about what to do, most notably Bernard Gatewood and John Eberhart.  And, when I talk about Jerry Cleworth “kneecapping” or “deep-sixing” Vision Fairbanks, that’s not really being fair to him.  I think he’s a responsible public servant with a clear understanding of the budget, and he has responsible stewardship at heart.

My only real distrust — and this just as far as a vision for vibrant civic and commercial space — is for Chad Roberts.  He seems genuinely to believe that downtown is just fine as it is.  Also, during the Council meeting ten months ago, he expressed an admiration for the free market that seemed to preclude a community’s having any power to say what it wanted in a city center.  Whatever his other virtues, he seems to disagree with me that communities have a right of collective self-determination that, where city planning is concerned, should usually supersede the right of the individual to build whatever civic monstrosity he likes.

I’m happy for now that Vision Fairbanks lives to fight another day.

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I’ve just finished a book that leaves me troubled over the future of civic engagement in the United States — and puzzled over whether it’s even worth worrying about.

Cover for "The Big Sort" by Bill Bishop Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort: How the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008) has one central thesis: since the mid-1970s, Americans have been voluntarily sorting themselves, physically and socially, into like-minded communities.  Members of these communities have an increasingly difficult time reaching any consensus or common understanding with those of different opinion, and it has rendered our politics ever more rancorous and ineffective.

Exhibit “A” for Bishop is a pair of electoral maps, from 1976 and 2004, that break down the presidential popular votes for those years by county.  But, instead of two categories (Republican and Democrat), he uses three: (1) Republican landslide victory (20 or more percentage points), (2) Democratic landslide victory, and (3) competitive race (within 20 points).

On a national level, the popular vote was very evenly split in both elections.  But the big difference is that, in 1976, the United States was full of competitive counties.  In 2004, competitive counties were few and far between: almost every county was a place where the electorate was overwhelmingly of one opinion or another.

Not only that, but 2004 saw far fewer places with Democratic landslides than with Republican landslides.  Since the races were close on a national level, that means that those few places with Democratic landslides had a tremendous concentration of population.  Democrats, largely, have moved to the cities, while Republicans have moved to the suburbs, exurbs, and farmland.  (The pattern is ubiquitous, but not universal: in some places, Democrats prefer the suburbs.)

Bishop finds that we have segregated ourselves not only by counties, but by cities and even by neighborhoods.  And not only by place, but by churches and other civic organizations.  If we are, say, Methodists, we no longer simply attend our local Methodist church; instead, we drive to the gay-friendly (or gun-friendly) Methodist church across town, where we feel at home because the people are just like us.  Rather than belong to broad-based civic groups like the Loyal Order of Moose, we are far more likely to join issue-specific groups like the NRA or the ACLU — where we can find easy consensus and be uncompromising in our goals.

One positive side of this is that, among our groups of sameness, we’re much better able to agree on goals and work together to meet them.  With such a high degree of comfort, we’re able to make more strong connections with people.  The down side of this, of course, is that so many of the decisions our society has to make — on a city, county, state, or national level — involve working with groups not like us, and, if “they” are just as polarized and uncompromising on their principles as “we” are, then the lot of us will have not only a hard time agreeing on what actions to take, but a hard time just agreeing on what the basic issues are.

As Bishop points out, we usually don’t cluster ourselves this way out of some conscious desire to eliminate difference from our lives.  We do it because the community we’re considering moving to just “feels right” — maybe we like the wide, open spaces between people’s houses, or the bustle of activity in the downtown, or the availability of public transit, or the friendly people we meet.  It just turns out that, when we select a place for a good “feel”, we’re unconsciously selecting it for its politics.

I don’t know what to think about this.  On one hand, it saddens me, because it signals a collapse in the potential of civic discourse.  It heralds the extinction of a sense of the common good.  And that means, ultimately, a loss of cohesion in our states and in our country.

On the other hand, I want to live in a community where buses and light rail are valued, where people appreciate public space and civic art, and the vision of the good life includes meeting your neighbors regularly on the street.  As much as I love Fairbanks, I get tired of feeling like some kind of pervert for thinking private goods should carry a high premium when they infringe on public goods.  I get tired of the emotional struggle: God, do I have to tell these people again why the Steese-Johansen shopping complex is a civic monstrosity? I yearn to go someplace where they’ve already come around, where it’s easy — don’t we all?

Well, since Americans are so mobile, most of us really have that chance.  And what should stop us?  The sense of some abstract “greater good”?  That seems like a 300-million-player game of the prisoner’s dilemma: Maybe society will be better off if we all stay put and work out our differences, but, since everybody else is relocating, wouldn’t I be a sucker not to do the same?

Against the backdrop of mass migration and communities of increasing like-mindedness, what possible argument could you make to keep people where they are?  Why should they?

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