The Fear of Knowing

If 'Knowing is half the battle', we're sitting in a foxhole sucking our thumb and clutching a bankie
Tuesday, the Memphis CIty Council took up an issue that would require a supermajority to raise property taxes in the City of Memphis. The measure, which was supported by Councilman Kemp Conrad, operates under the premise that spending by the City government is either out of control, or could be at one point out of control, and to keep it from getting any worse, let’s tie our hands to ensure we don’t act too rashly.

I would say the measure itself was rash, and I agree with my friend Steve Steffens, that this is a cheap political stunt. Its unfortunate that some of my friends on the council chose to advance Conrad’s meme that is both purely hypothetical, and politically motivated. But rather than yell at you, I want to give you some food for thought.

If you go back to the FY2011 budget (I don’t have the 2012 one in front of me), and look at page S-11, there is a list of the tax rates for Memphis. Since 1979, it’s been relatively stable. By and large, since 1979 taxes in Memphis have been about 3.25, with a few drops and spikes along the way. So if you think your Memphis City taxes have gone through the roof in recent years, you’re wrong. They’re right around where they’ve always been.

Looking back to the year 2000, it’s Shelby County government tax rates that have been expanding, not City rates. That’s just something people should consider before they complain about how high taxes are in Memphis.

Of course, there’s another tax that impacts every single one of us, the sales tax. While Memphis’ portion of the sales tax is relatively small compared to the state, reforming that would take a good deal of burden off the working poor, many of whom are employees of the City if Memphis, despite Councilman Conrad’s claims to the contrary during the Sanitation privatization battle. Making $30k a year may be a “livable wage” in Memphis TN in 2011 if you’re single, but if you’re trying to raise a family and support your children, it ain’t that much.

But I think this whole infatuation with limiting the ability of government to increase revenue is actually something else. It is, in reality, operating from the same level of thought as every other sector in Memphis…fear. More specifically, the fear of knowing.

Just as the members of the City Council would privately complain about the time it was taking to redistrict the city’s 9 districts, none of them sought to confront, hold accountable, or take any public measure to expedite the process. It was either the fear of knowing that the process was being dragged out intentionally and then having to do something about it that stopped members, who rightfully had their own concerns, from raising them publicly. Or dragging the process out was the plan all along. Either way, this is not leadership, it’s followership.

So fast forward to today, in the wake of an ill-advised charter measure that thankfully failed, we find ourselves in the same position as the redistricting issue, and so many other issues. The fear of knowing, the fear of true accountability informs the the political presuppositions of Council members rather than, you know, real data. I say this because to my knowledge there is no real data.

The city, for instance, has no way currently to quantify how much it costs per house to pick up trash from the curb and deliver it to a landfill. Nor does the city have any way to measure how much or less more it costs to service the areas currently covered by private contractors. They don’t know because they don’t have the data. They don’t know how many times they have to send an additional truck into the areas served by these private contractors to pick up yard trash, or how much that costs. There are no accountability measures on that level in City Government, anywhere.

It is this fear of knowing that hamstrings efforts to collect, study, and adjust accordingly to this data, but that fear is not just where some would have you believe. Both the Administration, and individuals who share Councilman Conrad’s ideological worldview would have you believe that it is labor and labor alone that hamstrings efforts to collect this data. That’s a convenient scapegoat, but the reality is, it’s all of us: The City Council, the Administration, City worker, and citizens, that keep this data from being collected, and it all goes back to fear, the fear of knowing. All of us are afraid of knowing the truth because knowing that might challenge the presumptions we have clung to so tightly over the years. Knowing might prove us wrong, and no one wants to be wrong.

Here’s an example: As a guy, I, like so many other guys, am loathe to go to the doctor. I hate it, and most of the time, no matter how sick I am, I can self-treat and I’m fine. Also, not having health insurance has a lot to do with this decision. So on the surface, I look fine. I’m healthy, well fed, and seem like I’m in pretty good shape for a 40 year old smoker.

But something could be really wrong with me medically, and I’d never know it. There are any number of problems that I could be experiencing, lurking in the background that, without trained medical treatment, could take my life. Neither I nor anyone else would know until it got too bad to treat. It is my fear of knowing, in part, that keeps me from going to the doctor.

The same can be said of the City of Memphis. Since the efficiency study, published in 2007, this city hasn’t been to the doctor, despite significant concerns raised in that very study. What’s worse, even though we went to the doctor in 2007, we didn’t seek a second opinion, or take any substantive corrective action. We, as a city, chose to ignore it. In that choice we have continued a pattern of relying on conjecture and finger-pointing as a solution to our “problems”, which are themselves conjecture. It is this condition that continues to divide our city along racial and socio-economic lines. It is this condition that is killing us.

It is intellectually dishonest for anyone to claim they “know” how much more or less anything costs in city, county and state government, because that data isn’t collected in a manner that would allow such analysis. Further, it is even more intellectually dishonest to claim to “know the solution” based on this incomplete and highly circumstantial data. Yet, that is how we’ve been operating because it’s easier to not do anything that to do something.

I think its time to do something.

With this in mind, I call upon the members of the City Council, the Administration, Labor leaders, and the citizens of Memphis to come together and formulate a treatment plan with the aide of professionals. The plan, in the form of a charter amendment, would mandate that the administration, in conjunction with the stakeholders listed above, formulate and execute an annual performance review of each division of City government and report those findings no later than 6 months after the end of the fiscal year (right around budget time). This review would detail the costs associated with each function of government. The review would include a detailed accounting of the resolution of citizen complaints and concerns across categories, and be able to associate a cost per incident analysis to identify real problem areas impacting the city.

I have more thoughts about a way to make a full and accurate accounting of the services our city government provides, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll stop here.

In order to restore faith in government, we have to rely on facts and that requires data. We have rested our faith in faith, and clearly that’s not working. Failing to act on this issue means that we will continue to be swept up in intellectually dishonest at worst, or painfully misinformed policy decisions at best, that have been a feature of our city government for decades. Every boondoggle, every ill-conceived policy decision is, in some way, a function of this condition. And while data collection and reporting may not prevent boondoggles or poor policy choices, we can at least have the information necessary to spot such shenanigans in the future.

It’s time to stop letting fear paralyze us as a city, and go to the doctor. As for me, I’ll be doing that very thing tomorrow.

2 thoughts

  1. Many years ago I worked for a popular restaurant in New Orleans. The owners could not figure out how they were not making money when the place was packed every night. The chef called for an audit of food prices. Every time a pound of vegetables was prepped, the waste was weighed and recorded before the peels and stems went into the trash. Every spilled item was logged, and every batch of something that had to be tossed was logged. After a month of this, the chef found that the cost of the waste was actually slightly higher than the actual product used, and that the prices did not reflect the actual costs of the ingredients.

    The owners had two choices. They could raise the prices to refelct actual costs, whcih would have almost doubled the cost of every menu item and killed business. They could eliminate some of the waste, which turned out to be a better idea. They then looked at which products were being made in large batches that had to be tossed because they were perishable, and cut the amount prepped each day to limit the waste. They renegotiated some contracts and got new suppliers for items that saved them on costs. They ended up reducing costs by almost 30%, and were able to make a profit without sacrificing quality, firring staff, or raising prices.

    Every business has to take a hard look at costs. As any business grows, waste accumulates as a byproduct of the system, and should be eliminated wherever possible. Often the costs of waste are hidden, like the pounds of vegetable peels in that restaurant trashcan, and only by investigating the actual costs and accumulating reliable data will the business find those hidden costs.

  2. Ross, you have no idea how little city government understands its expenditures, both on the city and county side. Like Han Solo, you may be able to imagine quite a bit of ignorance, but trust me it is worse than you can imagine. What you are bringing up is dangerous though. If people understand that government does know anything, then “majesty” of government disappears. Once that happens, you got anarchy.
    Another thought to chew on, mechanisms that prevent understanding within government. If you have a murky system, then you have corruption and those corrupt agents will resist change. AC knows there is specific corruption in municipal government, but he isn’t doing anything about it.

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