Dec 05 2012

Much is required

Posted by Steve Ross in National Politics

I don’t normally write about national issues, but this fiscal cliff thing is one particularly dumb set of concern trolling on the part of the national media so it seems like a prime target.

Beep! Beep!

Its dumb because as the Wonk Blog explains this is anything but a cliff. It’s a slope at best. A slope to recession, sure, but it’s not as if this is a Wyle E. Coyote moment. Nope, Just a leisurely stroll down Recession Lane.

To be clear, I don’t want to see a recession happen any more than anyone else, but considering the players involved, and the lack of real governance from the Tea Party caucus that rules the roost in the House, there’s no real reason to believe anything other than a pull of the trigger, or an extension of the deadline is on the immediate horizon.

Now I’m sure some of my more moderate friends are screaming compromise right about now. Compromise is a two way street. Getting rid expensive tax cuts for 2% of the American populous at a time when everyone (wrongly) seems to think deficit reduction is what we need to do is the definition of compromise. 98% of the people benefit and there’s some new revenue to satisfy the deficit chicken hawks. Seems like a good deal. If you don’t get that, your definition of compromise involves a great deal of ankle grabbing.

Ward, don’t you think you were a little hard on the Beaver…

Not my idea of a good time, but to each his own.

Of course, ankle grabbing compromise has defined the politics of the past 30+ years. As Nick Kristof candidly explains in this NY Times editorial we’ve been screwing up the future for, by his estimation, 50 years now with cheap tax rates for folks who didn’t need them, that were supposed to create jobs and growth and didn’t. That strategy hasn’t worked and its not going to work. Its time to bring back a new look at an old strategy that did work. 1950’s era tax rates here we come!

In the 1950′s top earners paid as much as 92% on everything they made over $400,000/yr. Don’t believe me? Here’s the chart from the IRS.

Of course, no one’s asking that from the top 2%. Just a return to the 39.6% marginal rate of the Clinton era. You know, the Clinton years, where we had that huge recovery and 4% unemployment? Yeah, doesn’t sound so bad does it?

Republicans are losing their minds over this because according to the funders of their campaigns, any kind of tax increase is devastating. But if the GOP wants a return to the 1950′s, which is something they’ve been saying essentially for 30 years, then why not the tax rates that went with them? Seems to me you can’t have one without the other.

Because, more than anything else, that’s what Republicans want right? A return to a simpler time that never really existed. Remember the coded language of the 1980/90′s GOP? A return to a “simpler” time when “family values” were values and the world was a picturesque reflection of “Leave it to Beaver”.

Honestly, the GOP rhetoric hasn’t changed much since. The difference now is that rather than “Family Values” the right is pushing Prosperity doctrine. If you’re not familiar with prosperity doctrine here it is in a nutshell:

“If you believe/give to the church/etc. more you will succeed”, which by implication means that because you haven’t succeeded, you therefore do not believe enough.

Sounds just like GOP rhetoric doesn’t it? They built it!

Interesting that they ignore the gospels when they quote the bible. Probably because its just too inconvenient. Here’s what Jesus had to say about people who are without want.

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more. Luke 12:48

See, if you read the gospel literally, and I understand that’s all the rage these days, folks that are without want are REQUIRED…called by God, to do more to help people. If they actually did it, then maybe we could talk about some of the rewards they’ve received over the years. But since those guys don’t seem to be holding up their end of the bargain, only bringing mythical job creation, imaginary investment, and the like, I guess its time to return to the prosperity of the distant past to pressure them to do their part for society. We won’t get there by continuing tax cut policies of the past 40 years.

Here’s the dirty truth: tax cuts don’t drive expansion, they drive savings…and we’ve seen a mass expansion of savings for those who have something to save. The rest of us have been limping along barely keeping up with inflation.

He’s so sensitive about saving the wealthy

If it continues, we’ll have the first generation of folks since the Great Depression that didn’t see an appreciable increase in their standard of living or quality of life. That’s something you’re going to be hearing from me a lot over the coming months, because that’s what’s at stake.

As for the fiscal cliff, we’ll just have to see, but I’m not that worried. House Republicans have made their counter offer, weak and repackaged as it may be. Now the Kabuki Theatre can start in earnest. Chances are, they still will not vote for any tax increases, even if it only impacts the top 2% of earners.

That’s right, they’re ready to throw the other 98% of us under the bus for the 2% that pay for their campaigns…like Sheldon Anderson.

Jesus may have said For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required but you’d be hard pressed to convince the funders of the GOP that their assault on tax equity over the past 40-50 years makes them anything other than victims of the majority, all while they’ve benefitted from our collective 30+ year slumber.

So, you have a choice. You can choose to be scared as hell about this fiscal cliff and all the rhetoric that’s being bandied about, or you can look at what we’ve been doing that’s not working, what we’ve done in the past that did work, and make an intelligent choice.

One thing should be clear. After 30 years of tax cuts for people who don’t need it amidst declining incomes and lower standards of living for millions of middle class Americans, you need to ask yourself if you’re better off than you were, or your parents. If you aren’t, maybe its time to do something different.

Jul 13 2011

10 Things

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

Leadership and Vision to Move Memphis Forward

This is my 700th post. I started blogging for real in December of 2006. In the time since, I’ve written on a whole lot more than I ever imagined, transitioning from mostly national politics, to a kind of local advocacy that I’m really happy with, and proud of.

When I moved here 7 years ago, I thought Memphis would be a stopping off place on my way somewhere else. I was certain that within a few years I would find an opportunity elsewhere and find myself on the west coast.

After a few years I bought a home and decided to settle down. I couldn’t be happier about that decision. I have a beautiful girlfriend who has enriched my life. Our daughter is an amazing little girl that both baffles me and brings a great deal of joy into my life. I’ve made friends here, in a way I never thought I would.

Memphis wasn’t my first choice, but over the years it has become my city of choice. I can honestly say that I want nothing more for my city than to make it a city of choice for other people to come to, live, work, raise a family and ultimately retire.

That said, Memphis has some particular challenges. Addressing those challenges can seem daunting. I know from both my research, and my work in creative focused businesses that people have a hard time visualizing change. They long for it, because we all want something better, but understanding what change might really look like, and the path to effectuate that change is difficult for many folks to conceptualize.

At the end of my previous post I said this:

In the end, it is the way it is because we allow it to be, either through inaction, of lack of information or just not giving a damn. If we don’t start thinking and talking about ways to change it, many of the issues facing this City will never be resolved…and that’s really sad to me.

No one can change our city alone…we have to start changing it together.

For my 700th post, I wanted to talk about things that I believe will make Memphis better for all Memphians, and the 800,000 people in the area who rely on Memphis for their survival. The truth of the matter is, we can’t make Memphis better to their exclusion, no matter what we do. So rather than trying to punish them, we should work to better our city. That work, if successful, will cause them challenge their assumptions about us. Here are 10 things I believe we should do to get that ball rolling.

1. Accountability – Government must be more accountable for its actions. That means that problems cannot be shuffled off until the last second. The way budget issues have been handled over the past several years demands reform. Both the Administration and the City Council behave as if they had no idea there would be problems, even though many of these problems are structural and have been known for some time. Government must be willing to be honest with the people even when it is not politically popular so we can all work together for an equitable solution.

Furthermore, both the Administration and the City Council have to work harder to take and enforce accountability for their actions. While there may not be the same kind of checks and balances in City Government that there are in State or Federal government, the City Council must do more to ensure the public is informed and aware of the actions of the Administration, and vise-versa. By holding each other accountable, these two bodies who ultimately represent all of us can better serve us.

2. Transparency – Transparency has become a buzz word meaning nothing. Elected officials use the word transparency all the time, but don’t actually engage in transparency enough for it to be effective. There are several things that transparency is, and is not. Transparency is not making sure that everyone knows what’s going on, it’s making that information available for discovery. However, far too often the information is hidden away in a byzantine manner making the discovery of that information not only unlikely, but impossible. The city should work to make information flow more freely. This applies to the administration and its divisions and the City Council, including implementing a better system for vote and issue tracking and policy changes.

3. Efficiency – Efficiency is a word that can mean many different things. Workers may see the word efficiency as tantamount to layoffs. Business leaders view efficiency as lowered liability in the form of taxes or additional revenue streams. In reality, efficiency is using what you have to its greatest potential. Because of the lack of accountability and transparency in city government, there is no real way to calculate its efficiency. Without real and independent calculations, people are left to their own perceptions of how well or poorly government is operating. By conducting both independent and internal audits of the 17 City divisions, both policy makers and the public can be better informed about the efficiency of government operations, and seek ways to make that government more efficient to ensure we as citizens are getting the maximum bang for our tax bucks.

4. Restructuring – There are two areas of our government that need to be studied: Appointed Boards and Commissions and the lay out of City Divisions.

The City of Memphis website lists three pages of city or city/county boards and commissions. I challenge you to try and name them and what function they serve without the benefit of that link. Memphis needs to restructure both the duties and number of these appointed boards the relationship between them, the City Council and the Administration. Many things happen in these meetings that few if any people outside of the room actually know about. This is a drag on accountability, transparency, and efficiency. By streamlining the number of boards and commissions, the city can better help serve the public interest by dismantling a structure that no one truly understands and replace it with one that is more accountable, transparent, and ultimately efficient for the people of Memphis.

Much like the Boards and Commission, the City of Memphis has 17 divisions with 17 directors, and additional administrative staff to support the functions of those divisions. Quite honestly, this is simply unmanageable. It is nearly impossible to figure out what each does without doing a great deal of poking around, that most folks aren’t willing or don’t have time to do. This makes our government less transparent and creates unnecessary barriers to public information. By reforming the division structure, you may not gain much efficiency, but you can help remake a structure that has become a hive of micro-missions that are hard to navigate, and hopefully restore the people’s connection to the ultimate mission of these divisions.

5. Opportunity – One of the roles of government is to create an environment where its citizens can thrive both in their personal and professional lives. For thousands of Memphians, their professional lives are the small businesses they own or are employed by. Small, locally owned businesses are the lifeblood of any city. The health of those businesses is key to ensuring long-term growth and sustainability. While Memphis has a vibrant community of small businesses, few of them have any real interaction with the city outside of administrative contact mostly dealing with licensing and zoning issues. The city should reach out and work to forge partnerships with these businesses by providing assistance with the RFP/RFQ process and by creating a database of businesses to send notifications of these business opportunities. This keeps our tax dollars in Memphis and ensures our tax dollars are put to the most productive use possible. While certainly, there are areas that local businesses may not be able to service at this time, by communicating the needs of government to business, and setting forth a mechanism for those businesses to help meet those needs, businesses will adapt and expand to include those areas which helps us keep more of our tax dollars in our city and strengthens our local business community.

6. Inclusiveness – Cities that build walls or other barriers cannot grow. It costs too much to expand because too many people have too much invested in this old infrastructure of exclusion. This is not only true of the walled cities of medieval times but also the cities of today. While the barriers may not be bricks and mortar, the investment in terms of conventional wisdom and custom remains.

Memphis has several constituencies who, for more reasons than I can name, are relegated to the margins. In order to be a truly strong city, Memphis must reach out to these groups and work to provide the assistance necessary to remove the boot of want, poverty, and prejudice from their necks. We can’t say on one hand, we want to be a vibrant, inclusive city, and on the other hand work to further marginalize these people. They are people after all, and deserve our respect and assistance. While the city may not have the funds to correct these problems, it can set the tone and create opportunities to address them.

7. Quality of Life – Safe, secure, and healthy neighborhoods are one of the strongest features of a vibrant city. Great neighborhoods are to cities as the baseball field is to the movie Field of Dreams… if you build them, they will come. This is shown over and over again in cities across this country. Policy initiatives, driven with an intentional eye on creating or maintaining a great place to live, attracts people to places they might have otherwise not considered.

In order to build and maintain great neighborhoods in Memphis, we have to be more diligent and intentional with code enforcement, zoning and other land use decisions. We have to stop merely building for now, damn the consequences later. We have to stop allowing property owners to sit by while their properties crumble. We have to keep our eyes forward, and ensure that the decisions we make today won’t negatively impact the great neighborhoods we already have, and we have to make sure they’re making neighborhoods that need help better.

In addition, we have to make sure that all our neighborhoods have equality of access to city services. From fire and police coverage to mass transit, when one area is left unserved, it negatively impacts all others. This will require a comprehensive re-evaluation of many city services, something that focusing on greater efficiency will bring with it.

8. Building Equity – Equity has two primary definitions. It can mean fair and impartial, and it can relate to value. In this sense, building equity means both. We have a great many stakeholders in this community. In order to be truly strong, we work in a fair and impartial manner with those stakeholders to help bring value to our community.

For too long the interests of some have been held hostage by the interests of others. Life does not have to be a zero sum game. While the city can’t afford to be all things to all people, it can help shepherd a process that ensures we all benefit by bringing stakeholders together to work for solutions to issues they both face. Boats don’t sink when the water rises, they rise with it. By addressing our many stakeholders in a fair and impartial way that brings value to our city, we can all benefit.

9. Core Growth – For decades our city’s core, the areas inside and around the Parkways have been suffering. While some neighborhoods have managed to thrive, others have been left to fend for themselves, leaving blighted and poor living conditions. It is important for our city that all our neighborhoods, regardless of wealth be maintained and treated with the same respect. It is also important for the efficient use of city services that we drive population to our city core. All city services, from police and fire protection, to sanitation and mass transit can become more efficient if our population is less dispersed.

But people won’t just move because we want them to, we have to give them a mission, and the tools to implement that mission. Implementing a comprehensive homesteading program to help build up neighborhoods in and around our city’s core can help drive population, and the businesses that serve them back inside the Parkways.

While doing this, we must also be cognizant of the investment in infrastructure that we have made outside the 240 loop. Any homesteading program cannot be implemented to the exclusion of another neighborhood. Further, there may be areas that would benefit more from a re-development that may or may not include homesteading. The City must look at ways to use the land that has been left vacant by our 30 year eastward expansion, and seek solutions to bring people and businesses back into the city core and work intentionally to ensure that the kind of blight seen in many of these areas never re-emerges.

At the same time, we have to be cautious that we not spur another great migration. We have to grow smart and look for more areas of great potential to help rebuild our core and strengthen our revenue streams both in the form of property taxes, sales taxes and infrastructure investments.

10. Unity“No one can change our city alone…we have to start changing it together.” That’s how I ended my last post, and that’s how I’ll end this one. We can’t do this alone, or at the exclusion of anyone. We have to do this together, as Memphis, as a city that understands the depth of our challenges and is willing to fight and work together to address those challenges. It will be frustrating, and it will require all of us to make some sacrifices. But if you’re not willing to make sacrifices, then you’re not bought in in the first place.

I am willing to fight to make the city I love better. I’m willing to sacrifice. I hope you are too.

Thanks for reading.