Archive for the ‘Civic participation’ Category

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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Cigarette butts in a driveway in my neighborhood.  Click to enlarge.

Cigarette butts in a driveway in my neighborhood (Click to enlarge)

I went out this Saturday morning with my daughter for Cleanup Day. We decided to work on our immediate neighborhood rather than on one of the main streets.  Our neighborhood needed it badly.

(For those not in Fairbanks, Cleanup Day is an annual ritual here, where hundreds — if not thousands — of Fairbanksans — come out to pick up all the garbage that has been revealed after the snow has melted.  It is sponsored by United Way of the Tanana Valley.)

Just to pick up the garbage on one block adjacent to our house took us an hour.  Now, granted, my older daughter is five years old and couldn’t be expected to pursue garbage pick-up with the sustained vigor that an adult might.  But, still, there was plenty: candy wrappers, plastic toys, broken bottles, small metal scraps, fast food boxes, aluminum cans, and of course cigarette butts.

In fact, the block might have taken us only half an hour, had it not been for the cigarette butts.  Not only were they plenty in the gutter alongside the nearby apartment buildings, but there was also a major stash of them at the base of a telephone pole — a makeshift ashtray, it seemed.  Sensing that my daughter’s enthusiasm was waning, I ignored the butts for our second, longer block — though that still left us enough to do.

Why so many butts?  Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Cigarette butts are far more plentiful than other forms of litter because they are small — so small that the offending smoker thinks they’re negligible.  I don’t really believe that the person who throws cigarette butts on the ground would also pitch phone books, coffee grounds, and torn clothes.
  • People only believe that cigarette butts are negligible garbage because they spend insufficient time outside, walking in the same places.  When public spaces like streets are thought of by the vast majority of people as little more than conduits for cars, it’s easy to disregard them.  Who can see a cigarette butt (or any small piece of trash) from inside a car moving twenty miles an hour?

The sad thing my daughter noticed (and I’ve noticed it for years) is that the first block we worked was vastly messier than the second.  The connection she didn’t mention is that the first block is where a quintet of low-rent apartment buildings are located — and that the garbage level is always higher on all sides of that block.  This block tends to confirm our worst stereotypes of the poor.

I can see a few causes for this — and I’m happy to have people suggest others.  (1) Renters do not have the same kind of investment that homeowners do in the appearance of their property or their neighborhood, so they’ll tend (not all, of course, but as an aggregate) not to care about the level of trash.  Transient renters have even less cause to care.  (2) In all shared spaces (like apartments), it’s easy to assume that the mess belongs to the other guy, which makes it easier to ignore — especially if dirty yards and streets won’t affect your monthly payment.  (3) The apartments themselves are old and falling apart.  While the lawn is mowed, there is sad little other maintenance done (that I can see from outside).  That kind of living space invites people not to take care of their buildings or neighborhoods.  (4) The low-rent apartments form a sizeable cluster; the few other properties on the block take up about a quarter of its area.  This tends to concentrate all the other factors.  If housing for the poor were instead spaced out evenly, it would diminish the concentration of ugliness and dignify the living situations of those have to (or choose to) live there.

Two announcements:

In case you didn’t know, this week is Bike to Work Week.  Leave your car at home!  If you live too far from work for bicycling to be feasible… why?  Isn’t that in itself too great a price?

Also, tomorrow — that’s Tuesday, May 12 — the Northern Leadership Center Lecture Series is presenting Lewis Feldstein, president of the New Hampsire Charitable Foundation and co-author (with Robert Putnam) of Better Together: Restoring the American Community.  The lecture title is “Better Together: Community Leadership and Social Capital” and will be presented at 7 p.m. in Schiable Auditorium (part of UAF’s Bunnell Building).

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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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Good news, city-dwelling neighborhood-lovers!

Weed & Seed is organizing a fall Clean-Up Day, next Saturday, Sepetmber 13.  This is a great chance to make our neighborhoods look great before the snow falls.

According to their Fall newsletter (pdf, about 1.45 MB):

Weed & Seed partners are hosting a Gathering of Neighbors for the first annual Community-wide Fall Cleanup Day. Join us between 11am and 2pm at First and Barnette Street and we will provide coffee and cleanup supplies.

Weed & Seed neighbors will round-up volunteers, trucks and rakes to help tackle the clean up before the snow falls this winter. If you need help, call us. If you can help others, join us. For
further information call 322-8516.

There is also a planning meeting for the clean-up day on Wednesday, September 10th, 1:30 p.m., at the Salvation Army building at 10th and Lathrop (across 10th from Denali Elementary School).

According to the website of our local United Way,

Weed and Seed, a community-based strategy sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), is an innovative, comprehensive multiagency approach to law enforcement, crime prevention, and community revitalization. The strategy involves a two-pronged approach: law enforcement agencies and prosecutors cooperate in “weeding out” violent criminals and drug abusers, and public agencies and community-based private organizations collaborate to “seed” much-needed human services, including prevention, intervention, treatment, and neighborhood restoration programs. A community-oriented policing component bridges the weeding and seeding elements.

The four Weed & Seed Strategies are implemented via four working subcommittees, plus some special project teams. Approximately 100 people and 30 partners comprise the working groups. These subcommittees and teams meet regularly and are eager to have your involvement.

Involved community residents and businesses are key to this program’s success. To learn more or to volunteer, Cathy Persinger at weedseed@ak.net or 322-8516. For Law Enforcement, Officer Alana Malloy at ajmalloy@ci.fairbanks.ak.us or 450-6469.

The Weed & Seed area is bounded by 17th Avenue on the South, the Chena River on the North, Barnette Street on the East, and Wilbur Street on the West — which, according to the 2000 U.S. Census (the latest for which 100% block-level data is available), makes it one of the most densely populated areas in the Borough.

As I’ve said before, having more people outside and walking around their neighborhoods can only benefit civic life: our working together as neighbors and citizens absolutely depends on our rubbing elbows with each other and with those different from us.  And one of the prerequisites for lively pedestrian activity is that the streets and other public spaces be clean, comfortable, and inviting.

On Cleanup Day, we have a chance (although this is only one of many) to make our neighborhoods good places — not just for driving through and retreating to our houses, but for people.  So, get out next Saturday (Sept. 13) and make your neighborhoods look great!

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This Saturday (May 17), join me at Clucking Blossom for a discussion on the future of neighborhoods and city planning amid rising gasoline prices.

Clucking Blossom is an annual festival of music, art, and ideas. It is absolutely free of charge — in fact, no cash is allowed to change hands on the day of the event. It will have over 50 bands playing, activities for children, art projects, a community picnic, workshops, and more. This year’s Clucking Blossom will be at the Birch Hill Recreation Area this Saturday from 10 a.m. to midnight.

Here’s the description I’ve submitted for my program:

Fairbanks After $10-per-Gallon Gasoline: The future of neighborhoods and community planning.

Paul Adasiak, author of the blog The Fairbanks Pedestrian, will talk about neighborhoods, downtowns, and city planning. What benefits are there to living in neighborhoods? How does current land use make us isolated and car-dependent, and how might we use land differently to help equality, encourage community, and save money? How can we keep access to untouched wilderness as our population grows?

I’ll be leading the discussion at 1:00 in a venue called “The CluckHaus” — I don’t know just where that is.

Please join me — or if you can’t make it to my discussion, come later in the day! Naturally, feel free to bike, jog, or carpool there.

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As you may know, I’ve been reading Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. (In fact, I’ve been reading it for months. Now that I’ve started biking to and from work rather than riding the bus, it’s taking me longer. But I’m near the end.) It’s full of delightful passages. In lieu of a real review, I’ll give you some:

One of the most laughably erroneous characterizations of contemporary American society is that it is a “convenience culture.” Convenience is a persistent theme in our lives and in advertising media only because there is such a crying need for it. But only by confusing trivial conveniences with essential ones could we delude ourselves. In a genuinely convenient culture, the necessities of life are close by one’s dwelling. They are within easy walking distance. In a convenience culture, one’s European guests would not remark, as ours do, “My God, you have to get in the car for everything!”

(p. 287)

The more that class of people who used to provide community leadership turn their back on community, the worse things “public” become, with people finding more and more cause to retreat from them if only they can afford to do so. The rejection of responsibility for facilities all are meant to share and, beyond that, the identification of the “good life” as an escape from common Americans, may well be the system flaw that can cause the collapse of the American experiment. What was it Lincoln said about a house divided against itself?

(p. 222)

Some time ago, at one of those holiday gatherings of the clan, a relative was describing to me the problems with the teenagers in his community. The community in question had grown up around new mining technology and didn’t have any places for kids to hang out that older traditions supply elsewhere. The man complained that the youth of the community were a “bunch of ingrates.” They did not appreciate the special hangout that had recently been constructed for them.

After listing to his lament, I asked him two questions: Was the place right smack in the center of town–right in the middle of things? And, “Do the adults go there, too?” The answer in both instances was no. The place was “especially” for the youngsters and nobody wanted such a place right in the middle of town. As in so many cases nowadays involving both the very old and the young, the desire is to sent them aside. The old accept their lot more gracefully. The young resent their undeserved shunning by the community, and they have ways of showing it.

(p. 114)

An unsuitable habitat fuels the desire to escape it. Private acreage, offering as much “splendid isolation” as one can afford, looks doubly good when viewed against the deteriorated condition of the public domain. But will an unsuitable human habitat also, eventually, fuel the desire to change it?

(p. 285)

By the way, I’ve now added The Great Good Place to my “Further reading” page.

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