Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘The Context of Rural Consciousness’ (Part 4 of 9)

This is the fourth in a series of posts considering Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

If in Chapter 3 Cramer sought to provide the contours (outlines) of a rural consciousness,  in Chapter 4 she attempts to describe the context (the circumstances around it) of it all.

Cramer sees the obvious challenge to her work:

I know many readers will be wondering whether this thing I am calling rural consciousness is justified—that is, whether it reflects real or simply perceived disparities in government resources, concern, and attention.

(She doesn’t concede so plainly other challenges to her work, however: that a small government preference is not necessarily a rural product, any more than a socialist one might not be a rural product, that the divide in large areas is more than rural and urban, indeed more than economic, and that ample work across centuries in market theory sits outside her urban-rural framework but has nonetheless shaped life across this continent and planet.)

And yet, and yet, here’s Cramer’s answer to this question, as she frames it:

I know this because when I describe complaints of injustice among small-town residents to urban audiences, I am almost always asked whether it is actually the case, for example, that rural areas get fewer public dollars than urban areas do. In the conversations I observed in rural Wisconsin, many people thought they were getting the short end of the stick with respect to taxpayer dollars. But was that really the case?

The evidence is mixed.

That’s quite the concession. Imagine someone asking about the effectiveness of a medication, or of a parachute, and receiving that reply: the evidence is mixed.

Here’s how Cramer describes basic fiscal policy for rural and urban Wisconsinites:

In Wisconsin, rural counties do receive fewer public dollars than urban counties. In the aggregate, measures of both state and federal government expenditures at the county level in fiscal year 2010 show that more than 75 percent of this money went to counties with urban metropolitan communities (fig. 4.1)

However, there are far fewer people living in rural counties than urban ones, so a more apt comparison might be one that uses a per capita basis for comparison. Figures 4.2 and 4.3 show two correlation plots, with each dot representing a single county in Wisconsin. This pair of figures shows almost no relationship between how rural a county is and the dollars it receives in expenditures per capita from the state and federal government.1 Excluding outliers, a slight upward trend is evident, with more rural counties receiving slightly more dollars per person; however, the relationship is weak.2 But the evidence certainly does not support the notion that urban counties receive far more than their share of tax dollars per resident.

(Emphasis mine.)

Seeing this, that in fact rural residents aren’t short-changed in the amounts that they receive, Cramer must – if she believes that a rural consciousness depends on rural residents accurately and correctly observing a disparity with urban areas – find another economic explanation.

She does:

While this evidence does not back up the perceptions I heard among many rural residents that there is vastly disproporationate spending in urban counties and higher tax burdens falling on rural communities, many would also be quick to point out that what these numbers do not reveal is how effectively the money was spent. Even if the spending were proportionate across type of place, if the spending failed to meet the needs of people living there, it really would not matter. Some services simply cost less per capita in cities because of economies of scale.4

Where, though, does this economies of scale endnote (#4) lead? Here: “I am sincerely indebted to Ben Toff for these analyses and to Sarah Niebler for a similar set of analyses in the early stages of this project.” That is, Cramer’s presumably thanking Toff and Niebler for their data collection for the preceding Figures 4.1 to 4.9, not to an economies of scale analysis. She offers no such analysis here.

If Cramer cannot provide compelling data for her claim that a supposed rural consciousness rests significantly on an actual mis- or under-allocation of government funds to the detriment of rural residents, then she’s left either with (1) her own misperception of a rural consciousness, (2) rural residents’ misperception of their own condition, or (3) both.

By her own account, she cannot offer, so to speak, unmixed economic data.

That’s quite a predicament for her thesis.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, and 3.

Tomorrow: Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘Attitudes toward Public Institutions and Public Employees’ (Part 5 of 9).

Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘The Contours of Rural Consciousness’ (Part 3 of 9)

This is the third in a series of posts considering Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

The simplest way to think about Cramer’s work, by analogy, is to think of it not as a scientific poll of attitudes and preferences, but as a series of considered focus groups. Considered, to be sure, because Cramer ponders at length about how she should interact with rural residents, and has read well of academic literature on interactions like the kind she undertakes.

And yet, for it all, her work is truly the focus group work of a Wisconsinite who (at seemingly every turn) exhibits her own class consciousness, all the while insisting, in effect, that she’s suitably tamed that consciousness.

Consider how Cramer describes her role (effectually as a focus group moderator):

My obvious status as an urbanite very likely made the out-group of urbanites more salient (Turner et al. 1994). But rural consciousness was not an artifact of my presence. I say this for a variety of reasons. Rural consciousness was not just about rural versus city folks. It contained perceptions of the distribution of power, values, and resources that could not have been constructed suddenly in my presence. Second, the people I listened to revealed the perspective of rural consciousness quickly, suggesting that they used this perspective quite a bit, not suddenly when meeting me. Third, for the people who used this perspective, it was so fundamental to the way they talked about politics that when I asked about it directly they were often downright astonished that I found it necessary to do so.4

Cramer’s sure that her rural interlocutors lack awareness of their own perspective, but that her own role as an ‘urbanite’ is obvious. Perhaps so obvious to her, in fact, that she lacks an understanding of how quickly she assumes others’ imperception.

As for one rural coffee klatch she describes in Chapter 3 (jokingly named by its members as the ‘The Downtown Athletic Club’), their composition is hardly representative of must rural residents:

I quickly learned that all four of those men were former public school teachers. One had been a principal. Right away, they voiced concerns about state legislators raiding tax dollars out of the highway fund (they wanted that to stop), the liquor tax (they wanted that higher), the price of gas (they wanted that lower), and the cost of health care (they wanted someone to do something about it).

Most rural Wisconsinites aren’t teachers; many are not college educated. A focus group of retired rural teachers is not simply a focus group of rural residents.

There’s nothing unscientific about this methodology; the point is, rather, that there’s nothing exclusive (and so nothing conclusive) to it, either.

Cramer defines her terms:

“Rural consciousness” is the term I am using to describe a strong sense of identity as a rural person combined with a strong sense that rural areas are the victims of injustice: the sense that rural areas do not get their fair share of power, respect, or resources and that rural folks prefer lifestyles that differ fundamentally from those of city people….First, rural consciousness was about perceptions of power, or who makes decisions and who decides what to even discuss. Second, it showed up with respect to perceptions of values and lifestyles. Third and finally, it involved perceptions of resources or who gets what.

How is this different from other possible perspectives? A sense of oneself as a rural person, to be sure, but otherwise? One can be confident that residents of Staten Island and Los Angeles are concerned about ‘perceptions of power,’ ‘perceptions of values and lifestyles,’ and ‘perceptions of resources or who gets what.’

Cramer learns that rural residents don’t like high gas prices:

Few people like rising gas prices, but to people in rural communities—who typically drive long distances to everything—they are a major source of concern. By the time I met this group, I had come to realize that there was something important about the way many people in small communities thought about their towns in relation to more urban places.

Wouldn’t commuting – with gas or rail transit costs – be a concern just as much of suburban commuters near Washington, D.C. or Chicago? This simply isn’t exclusively or primarily a rural concern. For commuters in these areas, one might as easily come to realize that there was something important about the way many people in suburban communities thought about their housing developments in relation to more urban places. Wouldn’t transportation costs matter as much to poor urban residents without cars, without money for auto insurance, and the daily managing of public transit fares and schedules?

Cramer’s not sure how racial views play in all this:

So yes, it is highly likely that when people refer to “those people in Milwaukee” they are often referring to racial minorities. But notice how complex this is. The urbanites that rural folks were referring to were not predominantly racial minorities. When white outstaters (i.e., those living outside the major metropolitan areas) complained of the laziness in the cities in these conversations, their comments were almost always directed at white people: government bureaucrats and faculty members at the flagship public university.

In that way, antiurban resentment is not simply resentment against people of color. At the same time, given the way arguments against government redistribution in the United States have historically been made by equating deservingness with whiteness, these conversations are about race even when race is not mentioned.

Cramer believes that ‘arguments against government redistribution in the United States have historically been made by equating deservingness with whiteness,’ a claim that shows only how shallow her understanding of neoclassical economic and libertarian theory truly is. For Cramer anti-distributionist arguments rest – using the qualifier historically – on ‘equating deservingness with whiteness.’ Friedman, Hayek, et al., are here either ignored or misunderstood (likely both).

Worse, I think, is that this view of racism – that anti-urbanism is the general problem – dilutes particular racial injuries into a larger anti-urban potion. It’s an exoneration to say that people don’t dislike, let’s say blacks,  because they actually dislike urban residents. Those being subjected to stop-and-frisk in New York, for example, aren’t just urbanites; they’re disproportionately black or Latino.

(For a different assessment from Cramer’s of Wisconsin-specific views on race, consider Alex Macgillis’s 2014 essay on Wisconsin politics.)

In this way, Cramer’s concern about race is both too broad and too narrow.

That’s a bigger concern than how a group of retired, rural teachers perceives a woman in a VW Jetta.

Previously: Parts 1 and 2.

Tomorrow: Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘The Context of Rural Consciousness’ (Part 4 of 9).

Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘A Method of Listening’ (Part 2 of 9)

This is the second in a series of posts considering Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

One might think that Cramer’s second chapter, ‘A Method of Listening,’ would be a dry (but useful & necessary) description of her methodology. It’s far from merely that: it’s an oddly personal description of her own class consciousness. So much so, in fact, that I’m not sure whether it’s a confessional of sorts, or an attempt to reach out-of-Wisconsin urbanites through tales of adventures among rural natives.

Cramer describes her thoughts when presenting herself to rural Wisconsinites:

My identity as an urbanite matters for how I perceive things. But it also matters for the way I presented myself. My training, like that of political scientists in general, was predominantly positivist. In other words, much of what I learned in school was how to analyze causation. I learned that the goal of a good social scientist is to approximate the scientific method as closely as possible. In such an approach, one aims to have little or no effect on the research setting.

Reasonable enough, of course.

Yet, indeed, she goes on at some length about visiting towns in the state, despite having lived in Wisconsin for most of her life:

When I first started my fieldwork for this study, I tried to wear the same outfit to every research site in a given round, or set of visits. My purpose was to try to interact with each group in precisely the same way, to act as a scientific instrument as much as possible. But as my work went on, it seemed that it did not matter that I dressed the same across groups. Blue-collar groups in low-income communities knew I was wealthier by virtue of my job. They knew I was different because I rolled up to their diner or gas station in a Volkswagen Jetta wagon, and parked it next to a bunch of Made-in-USA pickup trucks. I learned that, rather than obscure who I am, I had to be a human being in order to be welcomed into their conversations.

When would Cramer, dressed in whatever fashion, not been a human being to her fellow residents, or thought of herself as such?

To have a certain class consciousness is, itself, no impediment to understanding. Indeed, to acknowledge as much is mere self-understanding.

(It’s fair to say that I have a sense of this, coming from a pre-Revolutionary family. Yet, it’s never been so pronounced that I thought this simple truth made my fellow residents alien to me. I’ll readily acknowledge that listening to a white resident insist that his family’s three or four generations here entitles him to something more than others is both laughable and contemptible to me: the obvious truth is that he didn’t earn his family’s arrival, and many non-white families were brought here in bondage far earlier than a few generations ago. The past is a burden, not an entitlement, but burden in ways far different from being merely a socioeconomic bugbear.)

Cramer also ascribes to her rural visits a common gender bias from men in those communities:

In my daily life, I do not experience a lot of overt ogling. But I got ogled on these visits. People asked me out on dates, despite the wedding ring on my hand at the time. On my first round, when I traveled with a visibly pregnant belly, several groups of men joked with each other about which member was the father of my child-to-be. Walking in the door to a men’s group with one of the men resulted in a pretty embarrassing barrage of comments assuming we had just had sex….”

I don’t doubt Cramer’s accounts, nor do I condone any of these remarks directed to her; on the contrary, these comments made to her or about her are wrong in part and full. I’ve no desire to excuse any of them.

It does seem to me, however, that to imply that these conditions are worse in rural areas is to understate the subtle-yet-as-destructive harassment that women experience in urban and supposedly cosmopolitan places areas.

There are countless women at university, for example, who would not describe harassment as a primarily rural problem…

Postscript:

Yesterday, in Part 1, I expressed surprise that Cramer had a narrow, distributionist outlook that ignored the complexity of economic and philosophical critiques of state power (“Cramer gives not the slightest hint that there might be a vast body of liberty-oriented theory (including a libertarianism of the left as well as the right) stretching back centuries in America and thousands of years across civilizations earlier”).

A remark from Chris Hayes, the progressive author of A Colony in A Nation, Twilight of the Elites, and MSNBC host (published just after I posted yesterday) nicely summarizes the importance neoclassical economics (an understanding absent from Cramer’s first-chapter):

The entirety of the corpus of Hayek, Friedman, and neoclassical economics. I think it’s an incredibly powerful intellectual tradition and a really important one to understand, these basic frameworks of neoclassical economics, the sort of ideas about market clearing prices, about the functioning of supply and demand, about thinking in marginal terms.

I think the tradition of economic thinking has been really influential. I think it’s actually a thing that people on the left really should do — take the time to understand all of that. There is a tremendous amount of incredible insight into some of the things we’re talking about, like non-zero-sum settings, and the way in which human exchange can be generative in this sort of amazing way. Understanding how capitalism works has been really, really important for me, and has been something that I feel like I’m a better thinker and an analyst because of the time and reading I put into a lot of conservative authors on that topic.

I wouldn’t describe these ideas as conservative, but Hayes assesses them soundly. There’s not the slightest evidence Cramer sees that they might offer insight into Americans’ economic conditions before or after the Great Recession.

Previously: Part 1.

Tomorrow: Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘The Contours of Rural Consciousness’ (Part 3 of 9).

Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘Making Sense of Politics Through Resentment’ (Part 1 of 9)

In a series of posts over the next week or so, I’ll consider Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Cramer’s a native Wisconsinite teaching at UW-Madison.

Today, I’ll summarize her thesis, as she presents it in the first chapter of PoR,  ‘Making Sense of Politics Through Resentment.’

Cramer makes five principal contentions in the chapter:

1. That there is a partisan divisiveness in Wisconsin that “reflects broader trends in the United States. The country as a whole has seen increasing partisan polarization since the mid 1970s. (Layman, Carson, and Horowitz 2006; McCarthy, Poole, and Rosenthal 2008; Barber and McCarty 2013.)”

2. Cramer asserts that these divides are, in her words, more than ‘ideology’:

Some argue that the public is not actually polarized, that people are just better sorted ideologically into partisan camps than in the past (Hetherington 2009; Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope 2010). But others observe that there is more at stake here than ideology. Divides between identifiers with the two parties in terms of religious preferences, attitudes toward race, and racial demographics themselves are deeper than ever (Abramowitz 2013, 2014). The divides are not just about politics but about who we are as people.

3. This observation leads Cramer back to another one, that is in fact political and philosophical:

These divides are also reflective of the central debate in American politics today: What is the proper role of government in society and who should pay for it (Stonecash 2014)? There are those who believe government ought to be expanded in order to deal with the challenges we face, and there are those who feel that government itself is a major obstacle that should be shrunk.

4. Cramer contends that “another key feature of the times we live in is economic inequality (Piketty and Saez 2003)” and it puzzles her that

[t]here seems to be less support for redistribution here than in other countries with similar levels of economic inequality (Kenworthy and Pontusson 2005). Why? Why is it that most voters continue to elect officials who apparently do not represent the vast There seems to be less support for redistribution here than in other countries with similar levels of economic inequality (Kenworthy and Pontusson 2005). Why? Why is it that most voters continue to elect officials who apparently do not represent the vast majority of us?6 Or if one does not believe that interpretation, why is it that many low-income voters who might benefit from more government redistribution continue to vote against it? Why, in times of increasing economic inequality, have the preferences of the lowest-income voters moved in a conservative, rather than liberal, direction?

5. Cramer offers her answer, one that is the eponymous thesis of Politics of Resentment:

Listening closely to people revealed two things to me: a significant rural-versus-urban divide and the powerful role of resentment. This book shows that what can look like disagreements about basic political principles can be rooted in something even more fundamental: ideas about who gets what, who has power, what people are like, and who is to blame. What might seem to be a central debate about the appropriate role of government might at base be something else: resentment toward our fellow citizens. This book shows people making sense of politics in a way that places resentment toward other citizens at the center….I want to know what it looks like when people use social categories to understand the political world, and how they connect resentment toward particular groups to the broader stance of wanting less, not more, government redistribution.

Cramer’s work addresses a supposed rural consciousness she discerns among many Wisconsinites, and it rests on her assumption that they approach economic concerns in a particular way, one that flows from this rural consciousness.

Candidly, an aside Cramer offers about driving a VW Jetta in Wisconsin leaves me puzzled. She writes that

As a female social scientist driving my Volkswagen Jetta out from Madison, the state capitol and the second largest city in the state, I heard a lot of criticism of cities from people in small-town Wisconsin.

Throughout my career, I’ve worked with professional female colleagues who have enjoyed driving different makes and models of foreign cars, to places across Wisconsin, without rural residents looking askance at them for doing so. Indeed, many southern Wisconsin (and Illinois) families have properties in the sparsely-populated northern part of the state, and the sight of a VW, Audi, BMW, Lexus, etc. would not be unfamiliar to local residents.

It’s a significant exaggeration to say a woman driving a Jetta would get the sort of stares from rural residents that one might properly expect for a person riding a unicorn.

Cramer may be right about a rural consciousness, at least about Wisconsin, but her analysis – one that she confidently grounds in political science – omits any consideration of political theory (what was once called political philosophy). (Indeed, for a work about political claims, it’s telling that neither the terms liberty nor libertarian appear anywhere in the book.)

In her opening chapter, Cramer gives not the slightest hint that there might be a vast body of liberty-oriented theory (including a libertarianism of the left as well as the right) stretching back centuries in America and thousands of years across civilizations earlier.

This libertarian tradition (long before the term libertarian first came into use) does not rely on redistributive goals, but then it doesn’t suppose a theory of a rural consciousness of resentment, either.

A presentation that begins with a particular economic notion (that redistribution necessarily benefits many) and presents a perspective on rural consciousness as a social identity (one that has economic views within it) seems, at first blush, too much like a survey of world religions that considers only the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism.

Tomorrow: Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘A Method of Listening’ (Part 2 of 9).

Margaret Sullivan on Great Local Reporting

Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist observes that Great local reporting stands between you and wrongdoing. (Sullivan was formerly The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of her hometown paper, The Buffalo News.)

Sullivan explains what great local reporting means:

“In only 15 years, American newspaper companies slashed their workforces by more than half — from 412,000 employees in 2001 to 174,000 last year.

But that troubling trend wasn’t on the minds of journalists at the Charleston Gazette-Mail last year as they dug deep into the prescription-drug epidemic that was inflicting mortal wounds on their community.

No, what motivated them was the West Virginia paper’s unofficial motto: “Sustained outrage.”

That phrase, coined by former publisher Ned Chilton, “means a lot to people here,” executive editor Robert Byers told me last week, shortly after the 37,000-circulation paper won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The family-owned paper (Chilton’s daughter is the publisher now) has a newsroom staff of about 50.

“You can do a hundred stories” on the opioid crisis, Byers said, “but we wanted to know where all these drugs were coming from, and how could so many pills be diverted onto the street.”

Needless to say, not all communities have newspapers like this. On the contrary, in the Whitewater area, we have papers so weak that they’d never come close to a serious journalistic nomination, let alone a real award. Many of them give each other prizes at local press gatherings, for third-tier work, on a participation-trophy theory of life. Indeed, the local climate is so weak that a small-town politician can brand his own website a news source, cover for years the political projects in which he’s been directly involved, and expect to be taken seriously for it.

If  one can say of the admirable Charleston Gazette-Mail that its unofficial motto is sustained outrage, one can say as easily of the Gazette, Daily Union, Register, and Banner that they might as well have a common, unofficial motto of sustained boosterism.

This local problem has been part of That Which Paved the Way to the weaker economic, fiscal, and social conditions that plague nearby communities. The way out will not come neither from more of the same ideas nor the same people pushing the same ideas.

What an Invitation Says (and Doesn’t Say)

 

Over at the City of Whitewater’s website, there’s a notice about a public meeting at which candidates for a city job will available to the public. Although the notice is formally correct (to meet the requirements of Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law, Wis. Stats. §§ 19.81-19.98), as a community matter there’s something sad about it.

First, the notice (http://www.whitewater-wi.gov/images/stories/agendas/common_council/2017/ccagen_2017-0329_Special.pdf):

NOTICE

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: The City of Whitewater will be hosting a reception for the candidates for the Finance and Administrative Services Director on March 29, 2017, from 4:00 – 6:00 p.m. at the Whitewater Innovation Center, 1221 Innovation Dr., Whitewater, WI 53190.

It is highly likely that quorums of the following Committees may be present at the reception:

Whitewater Community Development Authority;
City of Whitewater Common Council;
Whitewater University Technology Park Board; and the
Whitewater Plan & Architectural Review Commission.

It is possible that members of and possibly a quorum of members of other governmental bodies of the municipality may be in attendance at the above-stated meeting to gather information over which they may have decision-making responsibility; no action will be taken by any governmental body at the above-stated meeting other than the governmental body specifically referred to above in this notice.

Anyone requiring special arrangements is asked to call the office of the City Manager/ City Clerk at least 24 hours prior to the meeting.

Second, why it’s sad: there’s no mention of the applicants for the position, and no public information about them. For the City of Whitewater and the Banner, this probably makes sense, as they work on a those-who-need-to-know-basis, and for them the significant audience is their own small circle.

This is like receiving a wedding invitation where the names of the bride and groom are left blank:

Somebody requests the honor of your presence at the marriage of someone
to someone else on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, from 4:00 – 6:00 p.m. at the Whitewater Innovation Center, 1221 Innovation Dr., Whitewater, WI 53190.

Reception to follow.

The municipal notice is a community notice only in the narrowest sense, revealing that the position isn’t a community matter in the eyes of local insiders – it’s (effectually) a quasi-private meeting. The municipal government meets the terms of the law, but nothing more.

It should be a caution to sensible candidates: insiders may or may not buck up a fellow employee in difficult times, but no one inside will have much resonance with the community outside. There are two principal options: either spend each waking moment pleasing that tiny inside circle, or adopt a view that transcends the circle, and stretches much farther.

More on the Right Social Conditions in a Small Town

I posted yesterday that Gentrification Requires the Right Social Conditions, contending in part that a small city like Whitewater remains divided (and by consequence limits its own attractiveness to newcomers) because it remains divided by town and gown (and divided within the town, itself, too).

Whitewater’s problem is not that different factions do not have a sense of their own interests, it’s that these factions do not see others’ interests adequately, and so both make accommodations less likely and (worse) even misperceive full measure of the very community in which they live.

It’s much easier to be a representative of a particular group (e.g., students, middle-aged non-student residents, elderly residents). (Obvious point, still worth making: I don’t claim to represent anyone else; I’m an emissary of one, so to speak.)

A few people saying they’ve solved problems of division doesn’t mean those divisions have been solved; it means a few people think (let’s assume sincerely so) that they have been, and hope to convince many others that their assurances are an adequate substitute for community harmony.

I’m increasingly convinced that the best efforts at community harmony and progress will not come from local government, or large local institutions, but from private charitable, small business, and cultural projects. Each of these has a chance of inspiring cross-cultural understanding as good or better than any factionalized political representation.

Cross-cultural understanding is a necessary condition of community progress.

Gentrification Requires the Right Social Conditions

I’ve written that Whitewater faces a choice between decisive action now (to lessen government’s role) or years of stagnation and relative decline before eventual gentrification (at which point longtime residents will have almost no say in redevelopment). See, How Big Averts Bad. As I doubt Whitewater’s local political class has the will for near-term changes, the best option during this long period will come from community-based, non-governmental initiatives and businesses. See, An Oasis Strategy.

Yet even an eventual, rejuvenating gentrification requires more than inexpensive, dilapidated properties to rehabilitate. Emily Badger makes this clear in How to Predict Gentrification: Look for Falling Crime: some minimal social conditions have to exist before risk takers are willing to commit to a community.

She writes (admittedly about cities, not towns) that

“But a huge piece of it,” she [Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University] said, “I think is crime.”

New research that she has conducted alongside Keren Mertens Horn, an economist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and Davin Reed, a doctoral student at N.Y.U., finds that when violent crime falls sharply, wealthier and educated people are more likely to move into lower-income and predominantly minority urban neighborhoods.

Their working paper suggests that just as rising crime can drive people out of cities, falling crime has a comparable effect, spurring gentrification. And it highlights how, even if many Americans — including, by his own words, President-elect Donald Trump — inaccurately believe urban violence is soaring, the opposite long-term trend has brought wide-ranging change to cities.

Needless to say, small-town Whitewater’s problem is not urban crime (we’re not an urban area). There is, however, a level of division in the city along lines of cultural identity that is discernible to anyone observing the town with clear eyes, and that cannot be papered over with false contentions of town-gown harmony. The last thirty years have seen an increase in the size of our local campus, but city is still widely divided, and attempts at cultural harmony have gone nowhere as far as one might hope.

Lack of town-gown harmony is Whitewater’s analog to urban crime: it’s a cultural reason some people will (sadly) avoid the city.

Fixing this division will not come from public spending, nor public enforcement efforts, nor public relations. It will come, if it does, from private cultural, charitable, and business efforts.

An Oasis Strategy

There’s a wide difference between believing that we’ve difficult national or local times ahead and losing confidence. I’m as confident today as ever that Whitewater has a bright long-term future. There’s simply hard work ahead between now and then, and more hard work now than we might have hoped (national trends being what they are).

What to do? A few simple suggestions, all around the view that Whitewater can pursue an oasis strategy in which she departs from the routine and emphasizes creatively, with liveliness, the genuinely unique, apolitical accomplishments in the wider area.

Unlike a mirage, an oasis is a real place of real respite. An oasis is noticeable and desirable among its wider surroundings; it’s noticeable and desirable for what it genuinely offers. The mirage presents illusory beauty at a distance but offers nothing up close; an oasis is beautiful at a distance but even more desirable upon arrival.

1. Look away from local government. Common Council isn’t the Roman Senate (and then, the Roman Senate wasn’t what one often hears it was; there were very few truly noble Romans, to be clear about it). Forget the notion that local government sits at the peak of the city.  There is no peak; there are thousands of equally valuable spots.

2. Recognize the masking effect of commonplace background noise. Outside Whitewater are Fort Atkinson, Palmyra, Milton, Jefferson, etc. Saying the same things that other towns say in their schools, and at their local council meetings, only gets lost amid the background noise of daily life. Trying to leverage often momentary gains in particular metrics won’t catch anyone’s notice; leveraging selective parts of reports either goes similarly unnoticed, or – far worse – only alienates people already disillusioned with cherrypicking.

Behind tiresome, mundane presentations of school report cards, for example, are stories of genuine, specific accomplishment – what a student wrote, built, said, or discovered. That’s impressive, and compelling. Tell those stores with lively, graceful prose and add video to one’s accounts – short videos will add life to these stories.

3. Emphasize the uniquely creative and charming. We’ve nice restaurants, a charming City Market, an annual race to Discover Whitewater, a Community Foundation, and countless charitable work in the city. More good work is done there than in any conventional political meeting.

The City Market, for example, is charming, but that charm has no particular politics: a style, and a fine selection, are without partisanship.  There’s a playful style to the market, but the sensibility that produced that style transcends politics.  It’s not enjoyable for one group or demographic – it’s accessible equally to all.  When one thinks about something like Discover Whitewater, one wouldn’t think about the politics of the runners – they’re here to have a good time, and the city is here to welcome them.

4.  Whitewater’s not one community, nor need it ever be.  This city’s not of one culture or one identity; we’re not a homogeneous place. We’re a diverse and multicultural community. Revanchism on behalf of some won’t make the city great for any. On the contrary, that path will prolong present difficulties, and delay significantly (although not prevent) this city’s more prosperous future.

In even the most difficult times, of economic and political trouble, Americans have still produced great works, committed to charitable undertakings, and carried on admirably (all the while addressing national issues separately).  This city can do the same, as well as others before us did in their challenging times.

On Lake, McHenry, and Walworth Counties

In August, I wrote that dorm-construction wasn’t the big story at UW-Whitewater, but rather it was the federal lawsuit against former Chancellor Telfer and [then-current] Athletic Director Amy Edmonds.   Even in her mundane story of residence-construction, the Journal Sentinel‘s Karen Herzog got it wrong: the bigger story was an increasing number of out-of-state students (now about 1-6 of all students), including many from Lake and McHenry Counties in Illinois.

Why does that matter?  Because many of those students are coming from out-of-state counties more affluent than Walworth County.  They and their families are likely to have different expectations.

The figures on median household income and poverty are striking.

For median household income (in 2015 dollars), 2011-2015: Walworth County $53,445, United States $53,889, McHenry County $77,222, and Lake County $78,026.  For persons in poverty, percent:  McHenry County 6.9%, and Lake County 9.5%, United States 13.5%, Walworth County 13.7%.

The superficial answer (one that Whitewater has tried for a generation) would be to use public money to build more, in the (false) hope that the town will look better, and so be more attractive to outsiders.  (That’s been mostly the search for young families, but some of the same standards apply to young, non-married residents.)

That’s not, however, the solution if one wants to keep attracting this kind of student, or successful families. (One knows public-funding of construction isn’t the solution; if it were, Whitewater would already be Brentwood.)  The expectations and gap from them are cultural, and only a change in campus & community relations – especially in the attitude of those in authority – will assure Whitewater is a desirable destination for those accustomed to a different level of care and opportunity.

How Big Averts Bad

If it should be true that small-town Whitewater faces a choice between difficult times now or an extended decline before an out-of-town-led gentrification, that her decline will otherwise be slow but no less signficant as a result, that stakeholder (special interest) politics grips the city, and that this stakeholder politics is really an identity politics that offers no uplift, then what is to be done?

(On identity politics – it’s comfortable for a few, but only in the way that it’s comfortable for a pig to sit in the mud: the animal’s momentary ease won’t forestall a trip to the butcher shop.)

There’s the possibility of restructuring committees and city functions to assure a streamlined – and unified – direction, but the effort presents some legitimate policy questions, and more relevantly would require additional work from some who just don’t want to expend that effort. (Although I share policy doubts about the idea, if I can guess the motivation correctly – and it’s just a guess – I would say that the idea seems born of a desire to motivate the city in a positive direction. One can be opposed to an idea yet sympathetic to a perceived, underlying goal.)

Unfortunately, an alternative to streamlining is even more difficult – far more difficult – to do: the city could undertake a comprehensive review of its entire political culture, setting aside much of the last generation’s approach, in citywide meetings and supporting referendums. (Think of something like a broad-based convention and the resolutions that might come from it.)

Because this approach would require setting aside most of what has been tried ineffectually, and stubborn pride abhors a new course, the likely acceptance of this approach is about the same as convincing wolves to eat broccoli. (They might be persuaded to try some, but they’d be more likely to eat a person’s hand or arm during the effort.)

The scene: Whitewater’s local government advanced a resolution on Citizens United, but the community lacks the unity to advance a series of broad resolutions or votes on reducing local government’s size and thirst for revenue, ending government-goosed business deals, paring back even further zoning restrictions that are still too burdensome, a genuine community relations to replace adversarial enforcement, ending the transparently deceptive practice of publishing cherry-picked data and dodgy studies (a problem for the city, school district, and local campus), rather than honestly presenting the city to all the state not as a paradise but as a work-in-progress that could use every last talented newcomer we could find.

This would be a big project, but the city’s in a spot where, to avoid an extended period of relative decline, Whitewater needs big to avert bad.  The long-term future of this city will yet prove bright, but why delay for many years that better day, for the sake of a few officials’ selfish pride?

Philosophy or Identity?

Imagine a choice between living in a universally free society where one was of the racial or ethnic minority, or living as a member of the racial or ethnic majority in a universally oppressive society. Which society should one choose?

A man or woman, committed first to liberty, would choose to live in a free society, regardless of race or ethnicity. A man or woman, committed first to majoritarian identity, would choose to live in an oppressive society, for the sake of identification with the racial or ethnic majority.

It should be clear – but perhaps it’s not commonly so – that a policy of blut und boden does not bring prosperity.

A recent study finds that telling voters for whom membership in an ethnic or racial majority is important that their numbers were in decline pushed them to support an authoritarian, anti-immigrant candidate. (As is turns out, party identification didn’t change this: “Reminders of the changing racial demographics had comparable effects for Democrats and Republicans.”)

As a local equivalent of this effect, in a place like Whitewater, I’d guess that reminding some non-student residents that college students are a majority of this small town’s population rankles them similarly. Some of these non-student residents are willing to suggest that those who are different might think about moving away, or hiding away on campus, but that won’t be happening. (If an identity politics matters so much, those who are disappointed with their declining numbers may decamp at their earliest convenience.)

For the rest of us, who would choose philosophy over an identity politics, who would choose liberty over race or ethnicity, there will be neither going nor yielding, in America, Wisconsin, or Whitewater.

Anecdotes About Politics in a Small Town

I posted last week about how it’s mistaken to think that most leaders in a small town are direct, forthright (see Plain-Spoken in a Small Town? Not Most Leaders).

Here are two stories about how politics sometimes works in a small town.

At a candidates’ forum last year, I had the pleasure of seeing a few residents speaking about their candidacies for a local office. One of the questions for each candidate was what he or she thought of Act 10. (For new readers visiting from out-of state, first a welcome, and second an explanation that Act 10 is the provision of Wisconsin law by which, among other provisions, Wisconsin restricts the collective bargaining rights of most public workers.)

Act 10 has been controversial, and so there’s really no one in the state who doesn’t have an opinion, one way or the other. Among candidates for office – those who are actually thinking about politics – anyone should have a clear opinion, whether favorable or unfavorable. (I opposed Act 10 as I doubted it would save money, and more fundamentally because I believe that anyone, in any vocation, should be able to organize vigorously against government for any lawful reason. That, by the way, would be the traditional libertarian view. My opposition has been clear.)

As it turns out, the oldest of the three candidates, having been in local politics for decades, couldn’t give a straight answer. Instead, he ventured that he once supported Act 10, before the felt that perhaps it might have gone a bit too far, before his voice trailed off and he had nothing more to say on the matter.

All those decades in office, so eager to be a town notable, and on one of the biggest political topics of state politics – affecting every community in Wisconsin – nothing but an ambiguous, let’s-not-make-waves answer.

That’s a scene from small-town politics.

(An aside: After the forum, this same candidate saw me in the audience, noticed that I had a notebook, and walked over to speak to me. He didn’t bother to introduce himself, but he did point to the notebook and ask, “where are you from?” One could guess his meaning, but I decided to give an unexpected answer, so I told him the name of the street on which I live, to see how he would react. He showed no sign that I was teasing him, not the slightest sense of humor or irony, and instead replied, “No, I mean what paper are you from?”

I smiled, and told him that I wasn’t from a newspaper, but was merely taking notes. He politely reassured me that it was okay to take notes during a public candidates forum. For a moment I thought that I would thank him for his gracious reassurance, but I decided against it, as he might have taken that, too, as a literal reply.)

Here’s my second anecdote, from public ceremony, a few years ago. While introducing a guest speaker, a local politician stopped to ask how long that speaker had lived in the community, and the speaker replied that he had been in Whitewater for (if I recall) about thirty years or so.  On hearing this, the politician approvingly replied that he guessed the townies (a term I don’t use) must have thought that after so much time he was one of their own.

Now I’ve lived in Whitewater for many years, have been an American all my life, from a family that was American before there was an America (so to speak), but it would never have occur to me to think what others thought on the matter should ever matter to me.

To think otherwise is to be mired in an identity politics.  Identity politics is strong in a place like Whitewater, but such strength as that only leads to a weak economy of empty streets, empty stores, low-wage jobs, and deteriorating buildings.

If someone came here a lifetime, a year, or a day ago, my first thought would be the same: what does one believe, and how will one carry on in advancement of those beliefs?  What does one think, and what will one do?

The proper question isn’t where or when, but what.   Where should be about what, about those principles that uplift and improve.

The gap between successful and unsuccessful towns is measured in the distance between where and what, each additional inch of separation being a community loss.

Plain-Spoken in a Small Town? Not Most Leaders

localThere’s a quaint – but false – notion that people in small towns are uncommonly plain-spoken, even blunt.  One sometimes sees examples of this in films or books, where residents are depicted as folksy straight-talkers (“shucks, I don’t cotton to no one abusing nobody,” etc.).  I’ve never heard anyone in Whitewater speak so colorfully, and I’ve doubts that anyone not on a Hollywood set actually speaks like this.

Most people – and certainly most leaders – in this small town don’t often speak bluntly and openly.  On the contrary, there’s bias against mentioning problems publicly, even if they stem from intentional, grievous misconduct.

Now, and in the years ahead, one can expect that a multi-ethic community such as this one will see heightened slurs and abuse, overuse of force against a few, and (much) official quiescence in the face of it. (Some will even encourage this, convinced that pressure is justified against others and feeling that it is cathartic for themselves.)

Early on, perhaps a few officials will try to stress the positive, hiding others’ wrongful conduct from view, on the theory that the worst of all this will go away.

It won’t.  Those who keep their heads down may later find that they’ve no longer the strength to lift them up again.  A difficult near-term for Whitewater is likely to get worse.  These actions will prove wrong in-and-of themselves, and secondarily will prove an effective retardant against discerning, prosperous newcomers. Such newcomers – much sought by local development officials – will go elsewhere.

No matter, sadly: most locally will carry on as they have been.

For communities choosing the quieter response, including this one, the die is cast.

Twenty-Five Years On: School Board & City

Alternative title: Culture Advances While Beyond Politics Far Lags Behind.

Over at the Banner, there’s a new feature entitled, “A mini-look at local history – a new Banner Monday project!”  The 10.10.16 entry is about two public actions from twenty-five years ago.

I’m all for history (local or otherwise), but the entry is telling coming from a publisher who’s been in office, on either the School Board or Common Council, for most of the last quarter-century.  In fact, the entry shows how ineffectual Whitewater’s local political class has been for the last generation.  We’ve had significant cultural and demographic change, but government hasn’t kept up.

One reads that on October 10, 1991

[t]he Whitewater School Board is seeking volunteers from the community to serve on a task force charged by the board “to design and implement a student and staff training program to heighten awareness of, and skills responding to, racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in Whitewater.”

Board members are particularly interested in having strong minority representation on the task force….

These were (and are) good & fair goals, but even a generation later, Whitewater’s political class is still having trouble finding, for example, Hispanic members of the community to take part on municipal political boards.

So much so, that in 2015, twenty-four years later, Whitewater’s City Manager Clapper requested and the city’s common council “authorized forming a community taskforce to investigate possible ways for the city’s Hispanic population to become more active in civic and governmental activities and municipal committees.”  See, Whitewater to seek Hispanic involvement, August 19, 2015.

Whitewater’s Hispanic community has grown considerably during this last generation, as have other groups such as students (of diverse ethnicity), but her political institutions have not kept pace.  Whitewater’s private life during these many years – the demographics and culture of our city – have grown in ways in which a small, insular political class has failed adapt.  (Among that small class, there are some who have even been all-too-evident revanchists.)

The responsibility of successfully encouraging residents to participate rests with the leadership class that governs – especially those who have been in government for decades – in this city. There are some leaders who commendably see this, but too many who’ve not kept pace.

Whitewater is overdue for a politics that matches her community.

Origins of the ‘Comic Book Font’

Comic book culture is mass culture — even lacrosse moms and field hockey dads who’ve never been in a comic book store can recognize the “comic book font.”

But calling it a font is a misnomer — as the above video shows, this distinctive style of handwriting is an aesthetic shaped by culture, technology, and really cheap paper.

That style is just as interesting in a digital era. I spoke to the founders of Comicraft, a digital font firm that replicates the handwritten style for many major comics. It turns out that the switch from pen to pixels is an evolution — not a rejection — of a long history of lettering in comics.

If you want to learn more about comic lettering, you can explore the blog of legendary letteretime you see a comic, taker Todd Klein. Or, at the very least, next the time to mind those meticulously constructed Ps and Qs.

Via Phil Edwards of Vox.

Dorm-Construction Isn’t the Big Story

Karen Herzog of the Journal Sentinel has a story about delayed dorm construction at UW-Whitewater. At least, that’s how she’s framed the story, how many will understand the story, and how both UW-Whitewater and Herzog would, no doubt, like readers to understand the story.

Here’s what’s more significant even than the need for additional sleeping space:

This year’s freshman class is expected to be near record in size, boosted by students from nearby Illinois who have been successfully courted in part because the nonresident cost of attending UW-Whitewater is about what those students would pay to attend college in their own state.

UW-Whitewater is about 25 miles from the Illinois border as the crow flies.

Since 2009, the school has doubled admissions applications and enrollment of Illinois students. Illinois residents made up 9% of the freshman class in 2009; now they are about 16% of the freshman class, with the largest number coming from McHenry and Lake counties.

See, UW-Whitewater dorm limbo could crimp recruitment @ Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

I don’t think a large out-of-state group is intrinsically good or bad – it is, however, significant.

The composition of the class matters, and if sustained will influence the development of both the university and the city.

Culture Without Grandiosity Works Best 

Whitewater’s best accomplishments are mostly social ones, and they are most effective when they’re held simply, without grandiose local claims.  

The Independence Holiday events, City Market, Farmer’s Market, Discover Whitewater Series, semi-annual Science Fair, Make a Difference Day, art fairs, and Christmas parade, among other events, are much to Whitewater’s credit in-and-of-themselves. 

They showcase the city and university, but they do so simply, offering enjoyment or enrichment without flowery claims. 

They’re cultural events (sometimes with political or religious meaning) and they all succeed apart from local politics or grandiose local claims.

That’s the model for success: that less is more. 

Culture, Economy, Fiscal

The approximate number of working age adults, from 25-64, in the City of Whitewater proper is 4,134.

This working age population is nestled among a total, estimated population of 14,801.

See, American Community Survey, 2010-2014, 5 year estimates http://factfinder.census.gov/bkmk/table/1.0/en/ACS/14_5YR/DP05/1600000US5586925.

One can draw three broad but reasonable conclusions from these numbers.

Culturally, local publications present a skewed view of the city, in which one would think Whitewater is older, and more middle class, than her whole population truly is.

Residents eager to advance this impression will typically include nearby (but non-city) residents in local accounts, to fortify the impression of the city as one with a predominant, working-age middle class.

Economically, however, it’s clear that the cultural presumption of a unified community on either side of the city’s borders is false.

If there were genuine commonality between the city proper and neighboring towns, we would have a larger and more robust local economy. Instead, many of our neighbors shop and seek entertainment outside the city, and have done so for years.

So much time has been spent pushing the idea of One City, One View, One Future, so to speak, that when transactions go wrong cocooned local residents are surprised: How did this happen? Are we not huge and robust? Who knew?

We’re beautiful and precious, but we’re neither huge nor robust.

A word of support and distinction, here, meant genuinely: I’ve often been critical of much of the Community Development Authority’s work, but one can see (and hear if one listens) that some of those gentlemen have understood the challenges Whitewater faces. Their solutions are not mine, to be sure, but I’ve no doubt that some of them (including Messrs. Knight and Kachel) can and do assess accurately the difficulties Whitewater faces. Neither their intellect nor perseverance is in doubt.

It’s an ancient truism to say that men and women make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. Community development in Whitewater – broadly understood – has been dealt a difficult hand.

By contrast, the presentation of policy (as apart from community announcements) that one reads in the Daily Union or Banner evinces scarcely even a sketchy grasp of actual, challenging conditions. It’s all deceptively comforting, but that sort of comfort is ephemeral. 

To paraphrase a line from The Usual Suspects, the greatest trick Whitewater’s Old Guard ever pulled was convincing people that local problems don’t exist.  

Time takes her toll, far more effectively than any written reply. She’s not rhetorical, but she is instead quietly, coldly unforgiving.

This leads to Whitewater’s municipal fiscal condition. The working-age base on which the city rests isn’t especially large, and the risk of significant, infrastructure capital spending is that it will produce too little in return. The risk of revenue schemes is that they will either cost too much, produce too little even if we had the initial resources, or degrade local conditions for the state of local government’s appetite for revenue. 

Shared revenue is a weak substitute for local production.

There’s a way in which excessive local spending will do to Whitewater what it has done to other, far larger places: hollow out the city and drive more people to nearby towns.

I’m sure nearby towns are nice places to live, but I would not find any of them half so desirable as living in the city. I’d not trade residency in the city for elsewhere. 

I hope we attract many more residents. Effective attraction requires more than a publisher’s optimism.

Fiscal policies that overburden residents, or revenue schemes like waste-importation that degrade conditions so that prospective residents choose other places to live will always be the wrong policies.

Four thousand one hundred and thirty-four is not a big number, but that’s what makes it a big indicator. 

Ad Hoc Policy is Debilitating 

A municipal policy of addressing problems as they crop up, principally on an ad hoc, piecemeal basis, will wear local government down, and only produce worse policies. (Ad hoc policy, that is, literally a for this [purpose] policy.)

One should begin each discussion and problem from the vantage of a fundamental philosophy of government, adjusting that vantage only occasionally after careful consideration  (as the initial, fundamental philosophy should have, itself, been the product of careful consideration). 

In good times, ad hoc policy has limitations, in hard times it’s just jumping from one problem to another, with no overarching view to guide (and steady) one’s thinking and feeling.

If policymakers all had a clear, foundational philosophy, they’d approach a series of problems with greater confidence, with an admirable sang froid. (Some few are like this, but not enough of them.)

An example of a foundational philosophy: Individual Liberty, Free Markets, and Peace.

Instead, it’s racing from one fire drill to another (e.g., revenue, Spring Splash, a grocery, etc.).

Look at the Banner or Daily Union, and on political & policy issues all you see is an ad hoc discussion of topics, with little connection between discussions (except, perhaps, a servile approach to favored authorities).  

Policymakers can live that way, if they’d like, but they’ll tire themselves doing so, and produce worse policies as a result.

It’s a downward spiral.

We’ve several challenges ahead, and one can see the toll past & present challenges have taken, particularly on full-time staff leaders.  

They’ll likely not change, to be sure.  In not changing, however, they’ll only diminish their own prospects for success in this community.  Whatever happens, they’ll not be able to say they weren’t encouraged to adopt a better way.

We’ve already passed the point at which simply insisting on political acquiescence produces support. (Old Whitewater – a state of mind rather than a person or chronological age – very much expects, but has never deserved, this kind of falling in line.) There’s still a small group that thinks this way, but they’ve lost the present, and will fare only worse in the future.

Much of the search of full-time officials for the support of a ‘silent majority’ (the use of the term is problematic and oddly ironic) is evidence of how little support the full-time administration really has.  

Broader reach comes from a broader, articulated, clear political or policy philosophy. 

Piecemeal isn’t enough to weather consecutive challenges successfully.