Jan 31 2010

Marbles

Posted by Steve Ross in Puke

Over the course of the past several months I’ve been reading and thinking and reading and listening and thinking some more about stuff. I haven’t written much because, quite frankly, I haven’t had much to say and I’m growing more and more frustrated at not only the way things are but the manner in which people try to effect outcomes to change things.

Maybe it’s my personal transition from a solidly middle-class income to poor college student. Maybe it’s the culmination of many things, but I’ve come to a conclusion…a truism if you will, that goes something like this:

Nothing you want to happen to you happens overnight.

Now let’s think about this for a moment. What events happen suddenly, or seem to happen suddenly? Car wrecks, deaths in the family, job losses, terrorist attacks…the list goes on. Short of winning the lottery, there is nothing I can think of that happens suddenly that you would wish upon yourself.

The truth is, even most things that seem to happen suddenly don’t necessarily REALLY happen that suddenly. It’s a perception thing. So if neither the majority of good or bad things that happen to people, or groups of people, or situations, happen suddenly, then what the hell am I talking about?

Imagine this. You roll a marble on a hardwood floor. That marble will likely travel in one general direction until something affects its travel. If the floor is slightly unlevel, it will drift if one direction or the other gradually, gaining speed as momentum takes it left or right. If there is an obstruction, it will stop suddenly or bounce off the obstruction, and likely turn left or right, depending on the conditions of the momentum that was carrying it forward. Sometimes, due to momentum, obstruction or conditions of the hardwood floor, it will just stop.

If you take the example of the marble traveling across the floor as a metaphor for anything: your life, your causes, etc., etc., then you want to make sure that your roll your marble on the flattest, least obstructed hardwood floor you can find to ensure that; 1. You get where you want to go. And 2. You get there in the shortest time/distance possible. That, at the very least, would be the smart thing to do.

But people often aren’t always very smart, and instead of looking at the lay of the land and rolling their marble in a direction or towards a goal using the least obstructed path, most people just hurl the marble out there, in the same way they always have, relying on the hope, or emotionally driven belief that because the desired destination of their marble is right and pure and true, that their marble will defy the odds and get where they want it to go.

Rarely does this ever happen.

By the same token, rarely is the floor a wide-open, unobstructed, flat hardwood floor. More often than not, for the more complicated things in life, it’s a bumpy ever-changing maze filled with all kinds of obstructions and conflicts and things that you never imagined. And more often than not, full well knowing this condition exists; we roll our marbles out there emotionally, instead of rationally, expecting some guiding hand, or the supernatural force of our righteousness or the righteousness of our cause to carry us to our destination. And more often than not, we fail.

Think about it in terms of something just about everyone has tried to do at one point or another…weight loss. You can do a crash diet, you can do the fad diet of the week, you can buy an exercise video or ridiculous device off of an infomercial, and all sorts of other things to lose weight, but in the end, most of us don’t keep that weight off because we emotionally took some kind of short cut to our destination and never REALLY arrived at the place we were really trying to get to, just a place that looked an awful lot like it. Then, a month, or six months later, we’re right back where we were, in the first place, and we feel bad about ourselves or whatever, and we give up, or lash out at circumstance, or any other number of emotionally driven reactions that really don’t get us one inch closer to our goal.

So what’s the problem? The real problem is two-fold: First, we’ve taken an abbreviated path to our “goal”, whatever that goal is. Second, the goal we’ve chosen is a shortsighted, temporary goal that ignores the reality that we should be working toward a maintaining a healthy lifestyle, rather than some ridiculous and largely meaningless “weight target”.

The truth of the matter is that whether we’re talking about marbles or whatever, we have to recognize and focus ourselves on REAL goals rather than the shortcuts, and there is a process involved in getting to our REAL goal. That process, even though it’s tried and true, is more often than not, rejected by people because it’s too hard or inconvenient or whatever it is to them. Every time we reject that process we put ourselves further and further, deeper and deeper on an island of delusion that we have created for ourselves, grounded in the belief that if we just believe hard enough, the hard work it takes to actually get stuff done will fade away and we’ll get what we want.

So when I look at people, regardless of education, ideology, or any other of the human conditions that we live in, who are doing things to get things done by doing them in the way THEY want to, as if to enforce their will on the rest of us, rather than respecting the process, a tried and true process, of getting stuff done, and they’re frustrated, or emotional or whatever they are because if people would just listen to them the whole world would be a better place, I find myself wondering just what they expected?

The process exists for a reason, and that reason is to protect and respect all of us from the small few of us who would, if we could, unilaterally enforce our will upon the whole of us, because “ if people would just listen to them the whole world would be a better place”, which, I think, is a pretty good definition of fascism, because we all know that as long as it’s OUR will, it’s fine, but if it’s SOMEONE ELSE’S will, it’s not necessarily fine, and that process is not immediate, but a long and winding and a huge pain, because if it wasn’t, it would actually suck worse for all of us because it would seem like an immediate change, and as I said at the beginning of this screed;

Nothing you want to happen to you happens overnight.

Got it?

See, you can keep doing what you’ve been doing and keep getting what you’ve always got. You can whine and complain to friends and colleagues, and get nowhere. If you’re a little more industrious, you can go to your favorite locally owned craft store, and build a sandwich board, and whine and complain publicly on a street corner and get labeled one of those “whiners and complainers”. If you’re really creative and not a total jerk, you can organize yourself into a group of like-minded people forming a “whine and complain” club that takes comfort in the familiarity of its favorite brand of bitchiness and moaniness, but ultimately gets nothing done. Or, if you KNOW WHAT YOU REALLY WANT, you can educate yourself about the issues and the process, insert yourself into that process, focus your attention on the path most likely to get you where you want to be, and slowly, and patiently build consensus around this idea until it gradually and deliberately becomes the change you wanted in the first place.

This means you don’t just hurl your marble forward and pray you don’t run into any obstacles, but you deliberately direct your marble through the maze of the process an inch at a time, knowing that the path will take you both forward and backwards, left and right, all the while grounding yourself in that ultimate goal. By doing this, keeping your perspective, and most of all, exercising patience, you WILL get to that goal eventually, despite the setbacks, obstacles, trials and tribulations that come with anything in this world that is worth a damn.

You’ve got to stay focused, and that’s hard. You’ve got to be patient, and that’s hard. But most of all, you’ve got to control your marble, and that’s, by far, the hardest part of all of it. If you do, you’ll get the thing you wanted, and if you’re really good, you’ll want something more, because the perspective you gain from the journey will make you better, and in the end, that’s ultimately what it’s all about.

Jan 27 2010

Gobsmacked

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

In an article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Governor Phil Bredesen is quoted about the current healthcare debate in Congress and President Obama’s reported decision to shift priorities to job creation:

“I think it had gotten a little off track, with the public being very, very concerned about the economy and jobs and the prospect of losing jobs, and the Congress off designing health reform to take place in the latter part of the next decade,”

This is relatively unsurprising considering the Governor’s past as a health insurance executive and his previous statements regarding the bills currently before Congress.

What is surprising is that the Governor, a Democrat, would find something positive in the Senate’s recent loss of a Democratic super-majority. I don’t care how “liberal” a Republican Scott Brown claims to be, it’s not a “good thing” for the party or the millions of people who are both currently without healthcare, or those who are in danger of losing their healthcare.

What I don’t get is why Governor Bredesen doesn’t see the imapct that Healthcare has on the job market or the economy at large. GM’s bankruptcy was due, in large part, to the weight of decisions about providing healthcare for it’s employees that were made decades ago, when insurance was a much smaller part of the economy.

In 2006, heathcare consumed 16% of the nation’s economic output. That’s a huge segment of the economy, and the costs effect the availability of jobs negatively. Even though employers have been shifting much of the burden on employees, most can ill afford the rising costs that are outpacing inflation at an alarming rate.

By focusing on healthcare, the Congress and President Obama WERE focusing on the economy and jobs. In fact, they were focusing on one of the most out of control parts of the economy.

Think about it like this. Few would argue that we live in a global economy. Most industrialized nations have some sort of national healthcare strategy. If we are to COMPETE on a global scale, we cannot expect our businesses to carry the load of out of control healthcare costs.

Both the House and Senate bills have a means to control costs, though in very different ways.

To be honest, I don’t give a DAMN which one gets passed, but it is critical that something get passed to slow down the rising cost of healthcare now. Not only for the health and welfare of our people, but also for the health and welfare of our economy.

That Phil Bredesen doesn’t see this just baffles me.

As Rep. Jeanne Richardson (D-89, Memphis) noted:

“I think the Democrats need to do whatever they need to get health care reform passed. Period. The end,” she said.

Rep. Richardson said having the U.S. House pass the U.S. Senate bill is “the right thing to do. I mean, look, this state is cutting quadriplegics out of TennCare.”

Maybe it’s not so baffling. Any administration that can propose to cut quadriplegics off TennCare, and any legislative body that thinks that’s ok, obviously has some kind of serious problem.

I guess they just don’t get it. From the looks of it, they never will.

Jan 26 2010

Where the Hell Have I Been?

Posted by Steve Ross in Puke

It’s been almost two weeks since my last post, and even though no one asked, I thought I’d take a little time to talk about what I’ve been up to since the 14th.

Regular readers know that I’m in the midst of a pretty big life change right now. I am no longer traveling like I used to, which has it’s plusses and minuses, and on the 14th I started my first day of school since December 3rd, 1992.

Needless to say, this has been a bit of a shock to my system. For months I’ve been able to wake and sleep and eat and do pretty much whatever the hell I’ve wanted to whenever I’ve wanted to.

Ahhh, the benefits of self-underemployment…

This began to change on January 4th, when I started my “college job”. Sure it’s only 5 to 7 hours a day, but it’s structure that I’m not accustomed to. Add to that, my first day of school on the 14th, and the book buying, class getting to responsibility that I haven’t had in 17 years, and it’s been an interesting ride.

I’m not complaining. I know this is what I signed up for when I made the decision to go back, and I have no regrets. That said, the adjustment thus far has been pretty wild for me. The most jarring reality that I’ve faced thus far is time management. I’ve never been particularly good at it in the first place, and while I like to read and write and do all the things that my classes require, I haven’t been put in a situation recently where I have a deadline, other than self-imposed, for much of anything.

Then there are my personal priorities. I put a lot on myself, and much of that is slipping through the cracks. I don’t have the time to research, or write, or do many of the things that I’ve been able to do for the past several years due to my new schedule, and that’s been a source of frustration for me.

In my mind, I know that there is no way that I can keep up with school, adjust to my new schedule, and do all the things I did before without a pretty substantial adjustment period. Getting the rest of me to recognize this has been, and will likely be, more of a chore.

So, I guess the point of this is that I may be out of the loop for a little bit while I get it together. I’ll be back though, I promise. If this follows the pattern of most other declarations of this sort, I’ll end up posting a whole lot in a short time and make myself look like an idiot.

But now that I’ve said that, I probably won’t…

But now that I’ve said that… you get the picture.

Cheers!

Jan 14 2010

Metro Charter Commission Commentary – The Legislative Body- Part 3

Posted by Steve Ross in Memphis, Memphis Politics, Shelby County

In my last two posts I talked about representation levels, and some of the plusses and minuses of greater direct representation in the legislative body that may come of a Metro Government. As we look at this, the question becomes, “How do we find the right fit for Shelby County?”

Let’s consider some facts about Shelby County:

Our population is greater than 6 states, our GDP is greater than 12 states and 123 countries. We have a complex and diverse economy that spills over into Arkansas and Mississippi and makes it necessary for us to operate, to the extent that we can, as a small state. We live at the crossroads of two of the most traversed highways for freight in the US. There’s a lot of stuff going on here, and that doesn’t even touch the local issues like crime, poverty and trash pick-up.

Of the four Metro Governments studied we have the LEAST representative government, in both the City and County. Further, even both of these combined into some mythical government barely reach the level of representation that we currently have in the State Government. Our systems are complicated and nonsensical to the point that it seems like an intentional attempt to disenfranchise constituents, and most importantly, it’s just not working. We need only look around ourselves, read the paper, or watch the evening news to know this.

So what’s the answer?

From my perspective, there are a lot of them, but the prescription of the Memphis Daily News Editorial from last August ain’t it. Of the 4 Metro Governments studies, the smallest legislative branch, Jacksonville, FL has the fewest, 19 members, 14 of which are single member districts. If you look at all the areas studied, you see that the “Census statistical areas” are very close to Memphis, all ranking between 33rd and 42nd largest in the nation. We should, at the very least, be on par from a representational standpoint, with the cities that we compete directly with.

So what’s the answer? The easiest is to keep the number that we have between the two governments that are merging. We are already paying for 26 Council/Commission members, why not get more bang for our buck by creating 26 localized districts. This would result in a 1:35k representation ratio, almost half the representation of Nashville, but as much as three times better than we have now.

What about the fragmentation that I talked about in the last post? Well, I personally think it’s important to have “at-large” members, someone who can look at the whole pie from a legislative standpoint. So add 5 “at-large” members to make it an odd number and make those positions similar to the way Davidson County handles it…the top 5 candidates get the seats. This eliminates the need for the 1991 Consent Decree that has allowed candidates with a plurality to win hotly contested “Super District” seats, as well as the runoff issue that spurred that decision in the first place.

For that matter, mandate Instant Runoff Voting in the charter, to ensure that the single member district and executive candidates have a majority of the votes rather than wasting money on a runoff election that no one shows up to.

Term Limits…well, I’ve gone on record in opposition to legislative Term Limits, and I’m not about to change that. Voters don’t need an arbitrary deadline to find a successor to a successful representative. Let the voters have the luxury of voting for whomever the heck they want to. If that’s someone you don’t like, or you think has been around too long, get off your ass and recruit some opposition.

The point here is, there are a lot of good answers, and I don’t pretend to have all of them. But putting something before the voters that’s less representative than we have now is a non-starter. We’re a diverse community and we need to start embracing and utilizing that diversity as an asset instead of cowering in the corner wishing it away.

It’s time, and this is one way to make it happen.

As always, I’ll be monitoring what the Charter Commission discusses on this issues in the coming months, and report what I see.

The process is in it’s infancy, it’s our job to raise it right, and make our government into the government that we want it to be.

- Steve Ross is a Co-Chair of Rebuild Government, an organization committed to build community awareness and participation in the Metro Charter process by creating and giving voice to an informed and engaged citizenry. The views expressed in this space are not necessarily those of Rebuild Government, its Co-Chairs, organizers, or affiliates.

Jan 14 2010

Metro Charter Commission Commentary – The Legislative Body- Part 2

Posted by Steve Ross in Memphis, Memphis Politics, Shelby County

Back in August the Memphis Daily News penned an editorial about the current Metro Government discission. In that editorial it recommended:

The legislative body proposed in a metro charter should not under any circumstances number more than the 13 positions now on the City Council or County Commission. The commission represents the entire county with its 13 members. Get rid of their convoluted and politically manipulative setup in which multiple positions are jammed into four of the five districts. All six suburban towns and cities are in one County Commission district with three positions. Thirteen single-member districts would accomplish the necessary goal of more and smaller districts.

As I demonstrated in my last post, we are already represented at a far higher rate in State Government than in County, or City Government for that matter. While I agree with the Memphis Daily News that smaller single member districts are needed, I don’t think limiting the number to 13, which is less than the number of Representatives we have in the State House, is the answer.

Shelby County is the largest county in Tennessee, both geographically and by population. There are many counties in the state that have legislative bodies that are the same size or smaller than ours, but there are also some like Weakley County, with a population of just over 33k has 18 Commissioners over 9 districts, and they’re not dealing with the area, population, or economy that Memphis has. The second largest county in the state, Davidson, has been a metro government since the 60’s. Their population is 70% of ours, their land mass is 66%, and their Government has some 40 council members, 35 of which are single member districts.

It doesn’t take a math wiz to figure out that the people of Nashville, and Weakley County for that matter, have more direct representation than the people of Shelby Co. In Nashville, there is one Council member for every 18,000 citizens. Compare that to Memphis, 1:96K or Shelby Co., 1:70k.

Does Nashville still have problems? Certainly. Nashville General is suffering some of the same problems that we have here at The MED. Traffic in Nashville is a disaster during the peak hours in the am and pm. They’re invaded every January by 132 crazy people, and the list goes on. But for all the problems, if a citizen wants to talk to a member of the Council, they’re one of 18K rather than one of 96K putting them far closer to their representative than here in Memphis.

Because the districts are smaller, the cost of running a campaign for Davidson Metro Council is also less than it is here in Memphis. Because there are more districts, more people can be more directly involved in government. Neighborhoods have a greater connection to government, and through this connection, are more likely to have their concerns and needs heard by the body as a whole.

But more direct representation isn’t necessarily a panacea. The Metro Council is fragmented. There are just 5 members that represent the entirety of Davidson Co. (12.5% of the Council). This means that getting things done for the good of the overall community can be more difficult due to a “what’s in it for my neighborhood” mentality. Lobbying for a project or something, like the non-discrimination ordinance that recently passed, requires interest groups to mobilize more broadly, and be more politically savvy than they might have been with a smaller council.

There are other objections to smaller and more districts that I hear from time to time. My favorite goes something like this:

More Legislative Districts will mean the Council will be full of insert name of your least favorite Councilor/Commissioner messing up the body.

That may, or may not be the case. Smaller districts mean that candidates have to have a strong connection to the community they represent. Their constituents will know them. If they don’t represent their constituents, they are more likely to get voted out of office because far fewer resources are necessary to mount a legitimate challenge.

Currently, it’s impossible for our Councilors/Commisioners to know more than a very small percentage of their constituents, and vise-versa. The direct connection that smaller and more numerous districts represent give constituents more reason to pay attention to, and buy into the body that is overseeing their community. The large, paternalistic districts that we now have, both in City and County Government, make that individual “buy in” a lot harder for people to swallow, and leads to a constituency that feels disconnected, and in some cases alienated by representatives that, try as they might, can’t adequately represent a large and diverse population that is greater than the entire city of Jackson, TN.

Mounting a challenge candidacy in Memphis or Shelby County government is SUPER EXPENSIVE. In the 2007 election, nearly every successful candidate spent over $100,000 for a City Council seat that only pays $30,000 a year. How can people possibly feel connected to their legislative body, when, in order to win a seat on that body, a candidate has to come up with a hundred large to win? The median household income in Memphis is just over $36,000. Think about that. It costs three years salary for a job that pays less than the median household income a year? That’s crazy.

Ed Note: Not trying to cast aspersions on any members of the Memphis City Council, or the Shelby Co. Commission…this is just the mathematical reality.

I feel like I’ve made my case for smaller districts in the resulting Metro Charter. The question now remains, how many? How should they be configured? In my next post I’ll talk some about my thoughts, and hopefully have some thoughts from readers. Until next time…

- Steve Ross is a Co-Chair of Rebuild Government, an organization committed to build community awareness and participation in the Metro Charter process by creating and giving voice to an informed and engaged citizenry. The views expressed in this space are not necessarily those of Rebuild Government, its Co-Chairs, organizers, or affiliates.