Sunday, May 27, 2012

Reagan, Blue Jeans and the End of the Middle Class

We spend a great deal of time trying to figure out whether to blame the rich or the poor. But as the debate rages on endlessly, the middle just keeps getting squeezed. Which matters for one incredibly significant reason: the middle class is the single most important engine powering the US economic train and has been for at least a hundred years.

There have always been rich and there have always been poor, just like now. But there has not always been a middle class and the sad reality is that both its growth and needs have exceeded its capacity. And make no mistake about it: a middle class is not a guarantee.  There is absolutely no evidence to prove it can survive for any longer than it already has.

I often argue it started in the 80s, when Reagan’s pro-private sector policy agenda led to a fundamental change in not just our economy, but how we thought about it. There are three main underlying factors to this cultural shift:
  • Union busting. Destroying the air traffic controllers union was the final, definitive statement on how the public would henceforth think about the one thing that actually helped create the middle class, the union movement.
  • Deregulation. Reagan didn’t just believe in and implement deregulation, he instilled henceforth into the public psyche the concept that regulation and jobs were mutually exclusive concepts.
  • Trickle down.  Reagan didn’t just believe in trickle-down economics and he didn’t just promote policies to accomplish it. He did something far more astonishing: he created a new economic “law” that said corporate power, increases in profit, and belief that the rich get richer were synonymous with economic prosperity for all.
It’s actually fairly simple. In the name of private sector profits and corporate growth, government has been saddled with the responsibility to do what the private sector once did. And that is too large a responsibility for taxpayers to bear for several reasons.

First, the shift in burden leads to commensurate and seemingly never ending tax hikes, which put politicians on the defensive and, in a sound bite political environment, makes intelligent policy debate on the issue entirely impossible.

The second reason is that middle-class-supporting programs are simply unsustainable after a generation long era of stagnant, and often decreasing, real wages.

For the middle half of the 20th century, wages increased right alongside productivity. In the 1980’s, that all ended. We live in the most productive nation in the history of the planet, and yet our wages continue to mean less and less. Stock values increase in lockstep with exported (often quality) jobs and, their inevitable after-effect, layoffs. A successful economy simply cannot be built on principles that would allow that to happen.

That is the reality we have both created and nourished. So it may be time to face an ugly truth: wages in the United States are not going up again. First of all, there are simply not enough good paying jobs to match our population growth. Second, the only good paying jobs that remain require an advanced education.

Third, and, arguably worst of all, however, is that there aren’t even enough good paying jobs for people who actually do have an education. What that means is that graduation from a quality, four year college with a degree can often guaranty nothing. This is the first time in history that is the case.

Think about what that means for those who can’t access an education, regardless of the reason. It means they have virtually no chance to earn a family supporting wage.
And in the end, it all comes down to blue jeans.

There was a time when a pair of blue jeans was relatively expensive. Most people could afford one, maybe two pairs.  Someone made a decent living making those jeans. The goal of the buyer was to keep those jeans for as long as possible. The goal of the manufacturer was to make the jeans last as long as possible. The goal of technological advancement was to make the process more efficient, thus driving down prices, while simultaneously increasing or at least maintaining the quality.

Over time, the jeans got more accessible. More people could afford their first pair, or maybe their third. And one could argue that reality was starting to achieve an economic harmony, a balance in which buyer and seller shared some basic understanding that allowed both to flourish.

For the last thirty plus years, however, prices have plummeted right alongside quality and any expectation of such. It is commonplace to assume that ten pairs of jeans are perfectly normal, and that ten new pairs next year would be just as standard a practice; for every member of the family. But as we all know, a middle class cannot be paid sufficient wages to support those prices, so the jobs are gone.

In other words, it was not just the economic policies of the 80s. Those policies shaped our behaviors and we have essentially converted ourselves into a throwaway society insanely obsessed with low prices. Those assumptions and behaviors, I’d argue, have done just as much to destroy our economy as any economic policy. The two realities have fed each other, and there is no reason at all to assume we’re capable of change.

Consider this: the slow recovery from the Great Recession has actually seen the stock market work itself back to health.  This has occurred without the jobs and certainly without the wages. If the stock market can soar with fewer jobs and lower wages, what possible incentive would our market based economy have to create jobs or increase wages? Is there any chance of either coming back, without dramatic changes to all our basic economic principles?

So we’ll keep arguing about taxes, trade agreements, prices, inflation, savings, the stock market, and whether or not our educational system is failing because it’s not creating sufficient batteries to power the low wage / low benefit machines that power our economy. But none of that will matter in the end. In the end, we are simply not capable of buying $100 Made in America jeans in a ten pair per person world. Neither our behaviors nor our wages allow us to be capable.

Until we are willing to address that fundamental issue, the middle class will keep right on disappearing and government will keep right on struggling in its impossible mission to keep the crumbs afloat. Until we address this issue, we should not only assume that 200 years of growing economic prosperity, built entirely and quite uniquely upon a growing middle class, is no longer a guarantee, we should start preparing for the not so pleasant economic reality most likely to replace it.

Perhaps it’s not the future at all. Perhaps the seeds that were planted 30+ years ago, and nourished ever since, have already matured. Because here’s my tragic prediction: until we fundamentally break down the behaviors and economic assumptions that have led us here, and figure out an entirely different model, neither the wages nor the jobs are coming back.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kill the Bill or Stop the Train

I was at the Allied neighborhood association meeting on Saturday thinking about my kids. Then Association President Selena Pettigrew called on me. It was time for my alder report. I looked around the room, at these great and amazing people with whom I’ve grown these last four years. These people who would give the clothes off their back to help a neighbor in need. These people who live in a community socked with poverty, violence, and what often feels like an anchored cloud of hopelessness. Generations of poverty just weighing down upon themselves. I looked around and felt a wave of love for them, as I often do.

And then I got mad. “How many of you have been to the Capitol?” I asked. I knew the answer. I started in on my disgust with everything. With our attacks on the poor and the middle class. With our inability to see the injustice in poverty, in cheap jeans made by kids in China, in cheap food with no known origin, in middle class workers being pitted against each other because some get health care and some don’t. All while our schools get more crowded, our black kids get more incarcerated, and our country swells with more debt. Banks get bailed out and taxpayers get impaled. Property tax relief, which at least pretends to be progressive, gets replaced with the most regressive things possible: higher food costs and gas at four bux a gallon.

The private sector wants to drag down the public sector for their glorious benefits and we all blame the poor, who keep reaching out their grubby little fingers for Pell grant loans, energy assistance, and community action programs. All about to be cut, by the way. While the richest 1% of Americans control more wealth than over 200 million people. While CEO’s ring up 400 times the salary of the average worker. While corporations gain more and more rights.

On the other end of the spectrum, the minimum wage remains stagnant, as it has for half a century. Worker rights and protections are being eaten away. Productivity climbs higher and higher and wages stay flat. Tomato pickers fight for years to get an extra penny per pound.

I fired them up, my friends on Allied. Thirty minutes later we were planning our “Allied Fights Back” campaign. It’s coming soon…

The next day, I spoke to a national teleconference of Ethical Society members about worker rights and what’s happening in Wisconsin. They are ready to fight back too.

Here we are at ground zero. My biggest fear about this whole exercise was that we were fighting for the wrong thing. That we’d let this moment slip away, that we’d trade a victory in the battle for continued devastation in the war. And friends, I’m not trying to hyperbolize here, but we’re getting devastated. Crushed. I mean this ain’t even a fight. Until two weeks ago, in Madison, Wisconsin, I’d argue we haven’t even shown up. But now that we’re here, the question is what are we going to do about it? How far will we go? We have been on a high speed train since 1980: a train of corporate profits and privatization. But all yawl struggling to pay your mortgage? Don’t blame the wealthy. They aren’t asking for anything. They are just hanging out on their yacht, eating caviar and drinking $500 bottles of champagne while trading blood diamonds with each other. C’mon man. We know who’s to blame: those dang welfare queens down on Allied, down on Cicero, down sneaking across the Mexican border, sitting around, having kids, getting their nails done, and wanting nothing more than to take us for all we got. We’ve voted to slow the high speed train down a few times. But to stop it? Or change direction? Not for a second.

But now we have a little momentum of our own. Now we have "a thousand people in the streets, singing songs and a-carrying signs." Stomping their feet. Reminding us what democracy looks like. Are we going to win the battle for public union collective bargaining and nestle back into our materialistic, tunnel visioned slumber? Or are we going to keep it up? Demand a new direction?

Chris Rickert, in a State Journal article last week, asked why the unions aren’t out supporting the poor. That is not the question. The question is why aren’t all of us. We are going to get Allied folks to the Capitol. We are going to get more people from around the nation to join Progressives United or We are going to get more people listening to Democracy Now instead of “fair and balanced” that’s neither.

We’ve been asleep for too long. Its time to wake up, to show up, to stand up, to speak up. No more sneaking around democracy. No more hoodwinking the middle class into blaming each other. No more hatred for the poor. No more tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful, while everyone else crawls around with their tongues out hoping that a drop or two will trickle down.

As my good friend Eric Sundquist pined earlier this evening, “the best antidote to despair is action.”

Its not about killing the bill. Its about killing the train. 100,000 people is a great start. But we need 100 million.

It starts tomorrow, with a rally at 8 am. Wisconsin Capitol Building: Madison Wisconsin. Where it ends, is up to us.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Madison, WI: A Prelude for Economic Justice

As Bob Dylan once sang, “The battle is outside raging.” Thousands protest daily and Madison and Wisconsin have made national news once again. Wisconsin: the state that produced Fighting Bob LaFollette, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, and suffrage for women. Madison: the city that produced lasting images against the Vietnam War and in favor of civil rights.

We all struggle to conjure the vocabulary to describe tens of thousands of people – young and old, black and white, rich and poor – descending daily upon the Capitol, standing side by side, carrying signs, protesting peacefully for what they believe in, chanting and singing and dancing and refusing to back down. It is inspiring beyond words. It is historic. It is beautiful and meaningful and, hopefully, consequential.

But it is not enough. And the joy and pride I feel for the battle we are fighting remains sadly diminished by thoughts of the war we continue to ignore.

The war has been around since the beginning of humanity, but one could argue that it became full fledged at the beginning of the industrial revolution. 130 years ago, partially in response to the Pullman strike to organize the railway industry (and partially to buy back some domestic capital after calling out troops to suppress the strike), President Grover Cleveland took a New York City workers rights parade and turned it into the first Labor Day.

Fast forward to the 1930s. The National Labor Relations Act was passed to encourage collective bargaining and protect the rights of both employers and employees. The Fair Labor Standards Act was also passed, establishing a minimum wage and a 40 hour work week, prohibiting child labor, and guaranteeing overtime for certain occupations. There are strong arguments that these laws, along with Social Security and other New Deal protections, helped pull America out of the Great Depression, cement the middle class, and initiate the greatest period of sustained economic growth in our nation’s history. This led to the 1940s, where 35% of the American labor force was unionized.

Many have forgotten the details of the 1981 air traffic controllers strike. Thirteen thousand walked off the job to protest long shifts and mandatory overtime. Two days later, President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 of them, imprisoned union leaders, abolished their union, and hired permanent replacement workers. And, I would argue, set off a chain reaction that continues to unravel the progress of the last hundred years.

There is a battle raging right now in Madison, Wisconsin. But what is the goal? How do we define victory? Imagine the following: Governor Walker backs down and allows collective bargaining to continue in the public sector. The crowds diminish, victory is declared, and America settles back into the comfortable slumber to which we’ve become accustomed.

But guess what else happens?

  • Minimum wage remains at a 50 year low.
  • A full century after Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, occupational health and safety standards are weak and growing weaker.
  • Union membership hasn’t been lower in three generations.
  • Almost all worker protections of the last half century have been dissolved.
  • As reported last year, the “gap between rich and poor last year grew to the widest amount on record (14.5:1, double that of 1968).
  • 12 million Americans, mostly unskilled single mothers, were pushed into the labor market by welfare reform. Most continue to make minimum wage, like low income workers throughout the nation, working two or three jobs just to meet ends meet.

For the first half of the last 50 years, there was a basic bargain: work harder and become more productive and your wages will increase. Starting in the 1970’s, this bargain went haywire. Had the trend continued as it had through the 50s and 60s, some estimate that the current minimum wage would be $19 an hour. Call it class warfare. Call it wage warfare. But make no mistake: this is the war. And if we don’t fight for better wages for all workers, public and private sector, blue and white collar, skilled and unskilled, then there are a few guarantees we can count on:

  • The gap between rich and poor will continue to grow. The only way to address this chasm is to raise wages.
  • The economy may keep improving but not for the poor or the middle class. Don’t believe me? The stock market is back to pre-recession levels with high unemployment, low wages, and decreased benefits. If the stock market can succeed under those conditions, there will be no incentive for those conditions to change.

Economic justice is, arguably, THE modern day battle for civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr, remember, was assassinated not during a rally for racial justice. He was assassinated while participating in a strike of sanitation workers. And as MLK said, “In a real sense, all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

I was listening to the radio today, on my way home from another day of protesting, and heard an angry caller bemoaning the support middle class public sector employees are receiving while he toils in unemployment. “These are my taxpayer dollars,” he screamed into the phone, “and I can’t afford to pay them more.”

And in the end, that sums it up. We have been hoodwinked. In one of the greatest scams in American history, middle class American’s fight against each other and vilify the poor, while corporations grow stronger and the income gap grows wider. Middle class tea partiers rally with the Koch brothers because they believe government is the problem, instead of the billionaire oil barons with whom they unite. Don’t believe it? Then why would President Obama propose a budget that cuts community service block grants, energy assistance for the poor, food stamps, and Pell Grants? Because we blame the poor for our economic problems. If we didn’t, these proposals would never have even been entertained by a sadly desperate President.

We are in the midst of something incredible and astonishing. An opportunity that is both historic and tragic, if we let it pass. Where are you, low income workers? Minimum wage earners? Unemployed? Private sector employees working harder than ever, without raises, so that corporate profits can go up and the stock market soar?

Because if we don’t let this battle become the defining moment in the war, we will have let an historic opportunity pass us by. And while we might have a chance in this battle, we are losing the war. We are being bamboozled. Its time to wake up and realize that helping the poor is not what’s killing the middle class. Remember, it wasn’t teachers, nurses, 911 dispatchers, fire fighters, police, home health aids, migrant laborers, immigrants, or welfare moms who caused the Great Recession. It is time for a Fair Labor Standards Act, Part II. A time for us to remember: everyone in America making less than $100,000 a year has far more in common with each other than with those who do. Workers do not gain wages, benefits, or rights at our expense. A gain by one is a gain for all.

This is the time for all workers to unite. We number in the millions. We are the backbone of the nation, of the economy, of the electorate. We have an opportunity to stand up strong, build on the momentum that is underway, and renew the path of a half century ago, the one that built an American middle class, rewarded hard work with dignity, and created the strongest economy on earth. May this battle awaken us from our three decade long slumber. May the protests currently underway serve as the momentum for something bigger than their origins: a real victory in this real war.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Entertainment? Politics? Or Both.

A few weeks ago, I jumped in the car and drove to Chicago to meet my lifelong friends for a weekend of sightseeing and reconnecting. Chicago and the chance to get together were good draws, but the main attraction was Monday night's Roger Waters show. For those that don't know, Roger Waters was the creative force behind Pink Floyd for most of the 1970's, when their popularity was at its peak. But Roger Waters has always symbolized much more - his lyrics had both meaning and message - catapulting him to the upper echelons of great singer songwriters.

The Chicago show was special. It wasn't just a concert; it was a performance. In it, Roger Waters perfomed "The Wall," from beginning to end. No opening act. No encore. Just "The Wall," one of the most significant influences on our young lives when it was released in 1980. But "The Wall" is not just your average, every day album. It was one of the original and great concept albums, a rock opera stringing and layering multiple messages and themes - political, social, intellectual - from the first note to the last.

I was mesmerized. Energized. Reborn in my commitment for social progress, my desire to make a difference, to effect change. Recommitted to nonviolence, peace, justice, and unburying my anger at the horrors of war. In other words, I walked out remembering why I fell in love with Pink Floyd in the first place. Why their music was one of the most significant influences on the person that I would become.

I floated out of the concert, hoping that the power of Waters' message was able to change one mind, to energize one more person to get involved in making a difference, to mobilize a small group of couch potatoes into soup kitchen volunteers or war supporters to rethink the insanity, and inhumanity, of unending violence.

It didn't take long for my beautiful moment to clash with reality. I asked my friend Rob what he thought, and he said it was "good." The understatement of the millenium, IMHO. The retort was instantaneous: "Good? That's all?" His response was firm and confident: "I go to a concert to be entertained. What's with the political message? I really don't like when politics and entertainment get mixed. Its not appropriate."


Days later, I was still bothered. So I emailed my boys and gave them something to think about. I started by reiterating Rob's distaste for mixing entertainment and politics. And then my thought on the matter: "Mixing entertainment and politics is the only kind of entertainment I have any respect for." And then a nugget from a Rolling Stone interview with Roger Waters. Waters:

"There are huge, huge profits to be made from war and that, by and large, is why they happen so often. This show is unashamedly about all those big questions - and the success of the work I did with [Floyd] gives me the power to have a platform. Some people think that people shouldn't use the platforms that they have because of their celebrity of success. I don't subscribe to that view at all. I always loved Hanoi Jane. I love it when Sean Penn comes out and says something or takes part and John Lennon or any of the other people who stood up to be counted… I have the same responsibility to put on this production as Picasso did to paint 'Guernica.'"

(Most folks know that Picasso painted Guernica in response to Germans and Italians bombing Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The painting shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts, primarily on innocent civilians.)

Alan wrote back: "How can you go to a production of The Wall and not expect the entertainment to be mixed with a political message? But, Brian, do you really not respect entertainment that's just meant to entertain?"

And my response:

"To answer your question. I do not mind entertainment at all. In fact, I like it. But I am a bit strange on these things, as you’ve undoubtedly noticed over the last 25 years. I hurt inside, daily, at the injustice and suffering, especially needless suffering, that occurs in our world. It fills me up, it motivates me, it drives me, sometimes it comes close to consuming me. I still manage to smile a lot and have a good time though, right? I’m impressed with myself, anyway.

As you’ve noticed, this can still cause me to be a bit of a downer sometimes. Or a bit intense. Guilty as charged. While most in society might respect a businessman that makes a lot of money and a football player that sets records and a movie star that wins academy awards, sadly, I don’t give a shit about any of that. If you have a voice or make lots of money, and want my respect, you better damn well make a difference. So while I might love lots of music and lots of movies and lots of sports, I don’t have any actual RESPECT for ANY of them unless they stand up and use that fame to make the world a better place. To promote non-violence, alleviate suffering, and speak to justice, equality, and compassion for others.

So I can go to a rock concert and have a blast. But if the artist delivers a message – whether it be through the music, through the video, or through a speech between songs – that might cause ONE PERSON in that crowd to go home and do something meaningful, well then I’m going to walk out proud to have been a part of it."

Think Bruce Springsteen playing for John Kerry, despite the loss of millions of fans. Think Dixie Chicks speaking out against George W Bush, despite a clear understanding of how much it would hurt them.

Or think Ben Harper. I saw him open for Barak Obama a few weeks ago and watched as he sang “With My Own Two Hands” as a rallying cry to support the President in trying to “make the world a better place.” With our own two hands. Amen brother; now that’s what I’m talking about.

Power and Humanity: Common Council Version

Something fairly irregular happened a few weeks ago at the Madison City Council meeting and while it brought up many issues and thoughts, the most poignant were those related to our humanity. To who we are, who we think we are, and who we want to be.

For those of you that missed it, Alder Thuy Pham-Remmele had separated a number of items from the "consent agenda" which allow her to speak about those items when the items could have otherwise been approved in a single motion. It is general practice to separate as few items as possible so as to shorten what are already very long meetings. At the same time, every alder has the right to separate whatever they want, for whatever reason. Alder Pham-Remmele has made a bit of a habit of separating items to ask questions of staff that could have been asked prior to the council meeting. Those items would normally not be separated.

This is time consuming not only for the alders, but for everyone at the meetings from citizens to staff. In fact, once an item related to their agency is separated from the consent agenda, staff have to sit around waiting for the agenda item to come up just in case questions are asked. If the very important “gentlepersons agreement” about separating agenda items is abused, efficiencies are sacrificed, the billable hours of City staff that are paid for at taxpayer expense pile on, and alders who have researched their questions in advance of meetings are left with frustration.

At the meeting in question, with five items remaining on the agenda, all separated by Alder Pham-Remmele and all, most would argue, unnecessarily, a few alders got fed-up and decided to walk out of the Council meeting in protest. The meeting was instantly adjourned as quorum was lost the moment they walked out. This whole experience has been disturbing me for weeks.

On one hand, we all celebrate the unique spirit of an alder who beats to her own drum. I agree with Alder Pham-Remmele on almost nothing - politically or in most other ways. But she definitely beats to her own drum, and I have a grudging respect for that.

However, having listened to hours of “wasted” questions for what seems to be self-serving political motivations, I can completely understand the urge to fight back, to protest, to make a statement that what is happening is annoying and we do not like it. In other words, I understand the desire to protest and send her a strong message to adhere to our unwritten agreement to separate agenda items only when necessary and to adhere to protocol by doing homework ahead of time and trying to avoid political grandstanding that holds everyone hostage to her court.

On the other hand, we probably need to look in the mirror before we cast too many judgments. I don't use the same strategies as Alder Pham-Remmele, and I am not much into posturing for political gain, but I have my values and my principles and I articulate them when I feel like it. I would like to believe that I am passionate, concise, and convincing. I'd like to believe that every ear in the room is riveted, hanging on every word, that every person is shaking his or her head in amazement at the vast depth of my reasoning, and sitting in deep contemplation about how my rhetorical skills have forced them to reconsider their own opinions. Reality likely falls somewhere far short of that image. At what point does my soliloquy move from convincing to meaningless, from concise to verbose, or from interesting to annoying? I wish I knew that sweet spot, because I'm sure I'd hit it more often.

There are other alders on the Council who like to talk. Occasionally their speech is like that of an orator; something passionate and meaningful and gripping - resulting in a beautiful discourse that hones in on a target like a raptor on prey. But equally as often, it is a rant. A tirade. A preachy, moralizing, sermonizing lecture that changes no minds and accomplishes nothing more than giving the speaker an opportunity to hear his or her own voice. Ask anyone who follows the Council, and they'll tell you. Ask anyone on the Council. My predecessor was fond of saying, "Everything has been said. It just hasn't been said by everybody."

Which brings us back to the point. Where is the line? Who gets to determine it? If we all annoy each other so regularly, are we just taking our frustrations with everything out on the one alder who happens to be the recipient of our invective? And if so, isn't that just a bit unfair?

As I said earlier, Alder Pham-Remmele’s methods are frequently frustrating. But please believe this: she is far from the only Council member who frustrates her colleagues. She deserves just as much right to speak as the rest of us, even if its about things we all agree are unnecessary or even ridiculous. We have options. Just as she has the right to separate items, others have the right to protest. They can "call the question" and force a vote. They can vote to put items back on the consent agenda. They can speak up about the frustration. They can pull Thuy aside or send her an email. They can move to District 20 and run against her in the next election. Or, clearly, they can stand up and walk out of a meeting. Just as each of us has a right to talk as long as we want or separate items no one else wants separated, we also have the right to just walk away from a meeting.

So, in the end, I don't think its about what we can do. Maybe its more about what we should do. Honoring each other’s humanity, respecting each other even if we feel its not deserved, recognizing our own weaknesses, and thinking about how we treat each other and how we would like to be treated, are great places to start.

When people talk about politicians, they talk about power. But taking power back, especially when its been taken from you, is a human trait, not a political one. And when someone is thrown in a corner, shamed, bound, and gagged, his first instinct is to take his power back whenever and however he can. Thuy lost a lot of power when she stopped working with her colleagues and when the Mayor pulled her from her committees. She’s taking her power back, however she can. But that’s exactly what alders are doing when they protest her behavior. Taking their power back. In the end, this is all basic human nature.

But the council is a family, dysfunctional as we are. And like most families, we have our issues. The question is: do we want to air them for the world, or try to address them internally? Because one thing is certain: the family that gathers together and tries to resolve their differences at the family meeting, all things being equal, has a better shot as resolution than the one that requires the televised intervention of Jerry Springer or Dr Phil. Maybe we owe our constituents, and ourselves, a little more of the former.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Trip to the Dentist

Who would have thought that a single hotel project would come to represent much of what is wrong in our city? If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know exactly what that statement means: meddling alders, outdated ordinances, historic preservationists, and neighborhood activists raising one barrier to progress and economic development after another. Right?

Well, no. The sad reality has absolutely nothing to do with whose right or whose wrong. Why? Because no one is wrong. The sad reality is that you’d never know that with everyone acting like children fighting over space in the sandbox.

There is no question that too many people, including some pretty powerful interests, drew lines in the sand on day one. I guess that’s to be expected, but am I really that na├»ve in asking why? Why would anyone come out dead-set against an exciting, job- and tax-base creating investment in our city? And equally mystifying, why would anyone come out fully supportive of a very expensive project with questionable public benefit, neighborhood concerns, undeniable impacts on our lakeshore, and real questions about size and massing related to the historic district in which the project resides? Because once sides are chosen, once the lines are drawn, then we just end up waging a war where there once lived democratic process.

And sadly, that’s where we now find ourselves.

I am weary of the constant barrage of blogs, statements, editorials and emails decrying those who would, “stand in the way of progress.” I am equally weary of those who resist change because of change’s inability to achieve perfection. But I’m most weary of those who blame the process, those who insist something is terribly broken, and those who would silence the voices of opposition in the name of political expediency.

Democracy is more frustrating than a visit to the dentist after a six month sugar binge. It is painful and maddening and everyone can easily agree that it’d all be easier if we just didn’t have to go through it.

Maybe next time we have a major project, with solid, defensible reasons to see both sides, maybe we will actually be able to do exactly that: see both sides. And maybe we can have a civil discourse that allows us to move forward and accept change, as we must, with an assurance that every voice is heard and respected.

And maybe we’ll be willing to recognize that opposing voices may feel like a trip to the dentist, but in the end, our teeth are worth it. Democracy is too.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Edgewater: Democracy vs Development

I have gotten more emails and phone calls on the Edgewater hotel project than any other issue since I’ve been elected. I want to begin by thanking the hundreds of constituents and Madison residents who contacted me about the Edgewater project. It is that kind of engagement, by our non-elected citizens, that make this community such a wonderful place. I also want to thank the Landmarks Commission for their hard work, and apologize for the inappropriate things that have been said about them lately.

Contrary to what the Wisconsin State Journal editorial staff may believe, I didn’t run for alder to be a "typical politician" or to kill economic development in Madison. In fact, quite the opposite. I ran to make a difference. I am certain that most Madisonians can appreciate that big projects are big decisions. And despite the promise of fortune and economic prosperity at the end of the rainbow, the hard realities of major projects are often much more complex (think Overture, Union Corners, or the hotel project at the corner of Monroe and Regent). My vote on the Edgewater wasn’t about “dodging responsibility,” as claimed in the WSJ editorial. It was about being responsible.

Before anyone turns the four other “no” votes and me into the "Edgewater Five" and brands us responsible for the economic downfall of our city, I ask you to consider a few points:

  • We voted on a referral amendment that would have let the project proceed to the next committee bodies and return, but that was voted down by the Council. If that had been supported, this project could still be moving forward.
  • This project is about balance between preservation and growth, the interests of the developer and those of the public, and infill development and respect for downtown neighborhoods. In making my decision, I had to ask myself if the Landmarks Commission was correct in their interpretation of the law. I thought they were. But our law only allows us to overturn Landmarks if their decision renders the property unusable (clearly it did not, the Edgewater Hotel continues to operate) or causes serious hardship for the owner, as long as that hardship is not self created. First, this developer could have submitted a proposal that would have made it through Landmarks. Second, the developer could and CAN STILL revise the project so as to better fit into the historic district. Third, another developer could come along with a plan that works. There is honestly zero evidence to support that the action of the Landmarks Commission creates serious hardship for the developer that was not self created. Without that, a vote to overturn violates our own laws. Also, a Landmarks decision has never been overturned by the Council. Ever. Before we jump into the “we need to fix our landmarks law NOW” waters, are we even sure this process is broken?
  • In many ways, this project has been a concern since the beginning. It has thwarted many typical city processes in the name of expediency. The Mayor, council leadership, and the media signed on early. I do not believe that the ends justify the means. This is a significant project - isn't getting it right worth the time and analysis?
  • Do we really want to function in a world that says, "take it or leave it?" Where a single question or iota of skepticism is greeted with disdain and vitriolic commentary about the broken process? This is not the way to craft good public policy. We are investing $16 million in taxpayer dollars to support a massive private development on one of our absolute primest pieces of real estate. Don't we want to make sure we get it right?
  • I worked with a few other alders, during budget debates, to get some jobs guarantees into the TIF set-aside. The goal was to get some quality estimates about the number of jobs to be created, the average wages, and the number of jobs with benefits. We don't really just want jobs in this city. We want good paying, family supporting jobs with quality benefits. However, the inclusion of this language was not to be. We were told that requiring this information would kill the project. Then we were told that not setting aside $16 million in TIF, in advance, would kill the project. Now we’ve been told that not overturning Landmarks will kill the project. How deep into the rabbit hole do we have to climb before we can no longer see the light? I ask you: Do you really want to live in a city where your elected representatives are given a pill and told to swallow it without question or else they'll be held responsible for "killing the project?"

The State Journal and the developer's own press release said that Common Council killed this project. I am blamed by name. I killed this project by not voting to overturn one of our committees? Really? This is not hard. Landmarks voted the project down. The developer should listen to what they said and re-apply, just like every other developer. Get it right and keep moving forward. Just like every other development project.

I have received emails – some thanking me for my vote and some promising never to vote for me again. I take my job as alder very seriously and I have a great deal of respect for our citizen committees, our laws, and our historic districts. But I also care very much about jobs, economic development, and the prospects that the Edgewater project continues to present. This is a very important - and expensive - project for our city and it will have a tremendous impact on our waterfront and a treasured historic district.

Let's do this project. But let's do it right.