Early Days

We’re in the early days of Trump, and we’ve likely a long and difficult way to go. (My daily count runs from 11.9, so it’s not as early from my vantage.) Even now, however, a solid resistance is forming across the country, including in red states that Trump supporters might otherwise consider unshakably Trump’s. (There is little, in the end, that will prove unshakably Trump’s.)

Clare Foran reports that The Anti-Trump ‘Resistance’ Takes Hold in Red States (“This isn’t a fad, it’s not going away, and there’s nothing coastal or elite about it.”):

Last week, videos went viral of people expressing anger and dismay over the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act during the town hall in Tennessee, a state Trump won by a double-digit margin. So did footage of an angry crowd yelling “Do your job!” at Republican congressman and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz at a town hall in Utah….

In the end, GOP lawmakers will likely be more motivated to act if they believe the demands are coming from a significant number of their constituents. Aguirre, who said he never attended a protest before the election, noted that Utah Indivisible is composed of Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians. “We’re a group of people who are all extremely pissed off,” he explained. Amanda Gormley, a 34-year-old Arizona Democrat and spokesperson for PN Tucson, which formed in opposition to Trump’s election, said her organization is “open to talking to conservatives.” But she clarified that’s not the group’s first priority. Instead, members will focus on encouraging people who voted against Trump to step up their civic engagement.

A few quick points about all this:

  1. For some who oppose Trump (myself included) opposition has nothing to do with being a Democrat, but rather with independent views. Opposition will require a grand coalition from among many, regardless of party.
  2. Foran’s article describes one method of active opposition – one that looks like the Tea Party protests in some respects – but one method is only one method. For every person who attends a rally, there may be many others who write letters and emails, who walk door-to-door, publish posts, etc.
  3. Local, small-town politicians often assume that how they have done something is how others should do something. So, if there’s never been a rally, they react with alarm to a rally (“this can’t be!”) and if no one nearby has ever written a blog, they insist that it’s simply impermissible to do so. (For an aspect of the latter from here in Whitewater, see An Anecdote About an Appeal to (but not of) Authority).
  4. Very few human events move in a straight line; resistance to Trump can expect setbacks and significant losses along the way. One should be Neither Shocked Nor Awed.
  5. For the most part, I believe that Trump, His Inner Circle, Principal Surrogates, and Media Defenders should be the key focus of opposition.
  6. Significantly, this leaves unaddressed the problem of local officials who are, in effect if not avowedly, Trump surrogates. A resistance to Trump nationally that lets local officials carry on as Trump does is a half-resistance. Forming principles for opposition both nationally and locally is necessary.

There’s so much work – good work – to be done.

Where Reaction Leads

What happens when the municipal officials of a small college town repeatedly malign – in print and on camera – a private business and college residents for the conduct of unrelated third-parties?

This is what happens:

The City of Whitewater Clarifies Recent Comments Regarding Spring Splash, Encourages Residents to Celebrate Responsibly 

Whitewater, Wis., February 11th, 2017 – For several years, many residents, primarily students, have come to look forward to gathering and celebrating together in early spring. Since 2013, Wisconsin Red has joined in the celebration through the organization and sponsorship of Whitewater’s Spring Splash. Spring Splash 2016 was, quite possibly, the most successful event to date; drawing more participants than prior years for what was a very well-run event.

While Spring Splash 2016 was well organized and free of problems, many other parties and events hosted elsewhere in the City [sic] were not. Due to the magnitude of visitors, many parties outside of Spring Splash outgrew their designated space resulting in large mobs of party goers roaming the city. Many groups quickly became unruly and dangerous.

In recent meetings with city staff, Wisconsin Red stressed that the events that transpired outside of Spring Splash were in no way representative of the organization’s mission or values. However, many officials believed that the successful promotional campaign on the Wisconsin Red website and social media pages had contributed to the large turnout of visitors and the mobs that continued throughout the day and night.

City staff met with Wisconsin Red representatives earlier this month to discuss its plans for Spring Splash 2017. While Wisconsin Red displayed great respect and organizational ability, anxiety over what could happen outside of the event prompted city officials to express continued concerns. After discussing the anticipated negatives that could result from a repeat of last year’s ancillary events, all parties agreed that it would be in the City’s best interest to cancel Spring Splash 2017 and consider revisiting in 2018.

“All the reports I’ve received regarding Spring Splash 2016 have confirmed that Wisconsin Red’s event was well organized and well run,” says Cameron Clapper, Whitewater City Manager. “It is the other parties and the meandering mobs we’re concerned about. Everyone deserves a chance to relax and unwind but no one can be excused from their civic responsibility to exercise good judgment, avoid dangerous behaviors and be respectful of our neighbors.”

The City of Whitewater recognizes most of the negative behavior that occurred last year was not from Whitewater students. The City does not want to limit celebrative opportunities for any group or individual but rather encourages safe and controlled gatherings.

The City of Whitewater and Wisconsin Red would like to express a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all those who celebrated responsibly last year and who assisted with the clean-up following the day’s activities. Thanks to the volunteer efforts of many community members, including UW-Whitewater students, the city was cleaned-up in less than a day.

“We hope that if an individual or group chooses to celebrate and have gatherings throughout the year, they continue to do so in a safe and respectful manner as Whitewater students have been known to do,” Clapper says. “Encourage party hosts to be respectful of their neighbors as well as their guests by not promoting bad behavior or inviting those that would. We are proud of our student body and want to continue to support them in hopes they can support and care for the city they live in.”

The City of Whitewater provides efficient and high quality services which support living, learning, playing and working in an exceptional community. Visit www.whitewater-wi.gov for community information and updates.

Via http://www.whitewater-wi.gov/residents/recent-news/3257-spring-splash.

The simple truth is that Whitewater’s town-gown divide is debilitatingly wide, despite empty insistence to the contrary, her municipal officials shuttle between support of one contesting faction within the city and another, overreacting to events, with over-wrought assertions and language, and without the detached and dispassionate view that would prevent the need for printed clarifications.

At Whitewater’s Planning Commission: ‘Have you heard any rumors about..?”

There’s a brief discussion about a rumor that a new convenience store might come to small-town Whitewater that illustrates not only the problem of rumors, but others’ unwillingness to point out the problem of rumors. It’s the latter problem that is, in fact, the more serious one for Whitewater.

First, I’ve transcribed the exchange from the video segment above. (The full 12.12.16 meeting of Whitewater’s Planning Commission is online at https://vimeo.com/195844505.) Here’s the discussion:

Commissioner: Chris, have you heard any rumors about Kwik Trip?

Neighborhood Services Director: I, I have not heard anything about Kwik Trip.

Commissioner: ‘Cause I have.

Neighborhood Services Director: Well…

Commissioner: I heard somebody that works for Kwik Trip, they work in, like a big Kwik Trip, and they said that Kwik Trip, it has been approved to come to Whitewater, but not ‘til nineteen, ‘til twenty-nineteen or twenty-twenty.

Neighborhood Services Director: I generally don’t get involved unless…

Commissioner [interrupting, over-talking]: I’m just sayin’…

Neighborhood Services Director: No, I’m letting you know [unintelligible] I generally really don’t get involved until they’re they’re coming in for drawings, like that’s when they contact me because otherwise they’re contacting somebody like Pat [Cannon, contracted Community Development Authority director] so…

Commissioner: I understand they said they have approved it, it just needs to come later. It’d be nice.

Neighborhood Services Director: Yeah, it’d be lovely.

One can guess the problem the commissioner’s remarks make: they’re not just a rumor, but a rumor so light and trivial one might attach string and a tail to it and fly it on a breezy day. It’s that somebody heard that someone who works for… It’s undependable as offered. Relying on something like this would be relying on the unreliable.

There’s a second problem, though, that’s more important than a single commissioner’s over-credulous view of information. The more important problem is that no one bothers to state, clearly and on the record, the difference between substance and baseless speculation.

(It’s not enough to address this difference afterward, off camera; a firm commitment to sound thinking and credible evidence is a declaration to be made then and there, in opposition and correction to a shoddy case. Good reasoning need not – indeed must not – hide timidly in the shadows while rumor takes the center stage.)

There’s also a sign from this exchange that turning over more of the city’s meetings to the direction of common council members (however well-intentioned) will not work. It was, after all, a common council member who ran this meeting, and he made no effort to argue publicly for solid standards of evidence, and indeed made no response at all. There’s no point in having council members chair all meetings if, as in this case, most of them wouldn’t contribute where a contribution would be usefully instructive. (The Neighborhood Services Director does respond by explaining how a proper process runs, but she can’t be expected as an appointed employee to handle all of this.  The sensible course would have been for other commissioners to address the underlying lack of credible information.)

Rumor ruins policy, in small towns as well as large; the damage is worse when others (especially those elected to office) shirk from the obligation to contend for a better practice.

Trump Will Force Choices the Local Press is Too Weak to Make

A sound critique of the national print press says that it has a limited time left. See, concerning the work of Clay Shirky, A Prediction of Print’s ‘Fast, Slow, Fast’ Decline. Market forces will also take their toll on the local print press, and even now local papers are useful only for The Last Inside Accounts (rather than inquisitive reporting).

(I’ll share a funny story from a local school board meeting touching on this topic. Some months ago, during a discussion of points the district wanted to make sure were in print, a school board member saw a local stringer in the audience, and called out to him, ‘did you get that?’ Locally, whether in print or online, most local publishing is publishing-as-stenography. Significantly, local reporting in this area is access journalism, designed to give officeholders an unquestioned say in exchange for an interview.)

The national press will not be able to carry on this way, to the extent they did, as Trump is an existential threat to the free exercise of their work. Margaret Sullivan’s right: The traditional way of reporting on a president is dead. And Trump’s press secretary killed it. (Credit where credit is due: Trump, himself, made access journalism unsound in a free society before Sean Spicer ever took the podium.)

It’s possible – one hopes – that through digital publications the national press will find new life in a battle for solid reporting in opposition to an authoritarian administration. (I subscribe to quite a few solid digital publications, and am always on the hunt for more. One can and should criticize weak publications and while firmly supporting inquisitive ones.)

But there’s a local angle in all this: the local press is weak & dysfunctional, living in fear of both dissatisfied advertisers and aging, give-me-happy-news readers. They’re to timid to take a firm stand on Trump, for or against.

On the biggest national (and international) story of our time, the local press is too timid to say much at all. It’s head down, eyes averted, for them.

That makes their work this year even less significant than it was last year. They were already stumbling about, but Trump’s rise demands someone who can walk, determinedly, in a particular direction. They can’t do that.

Trump didn’t set out to make the local press even less significant, of course, and yet, he’s done just that. Those who’ve bet on hyper-local have made a bad bet. (Local affairs through application of national standards was always a more sound approach.) Trump divides all America in ways that force stark choices, and an anemic local press lacks the vigor, let alone the courage, to address the fundamental topics of our time.

More on Local Problems Now Gone National

I posted in November that Fake News Was a Local Problem Before It Was a National One. (That post described “local fake (or low-quality)” news, but strictly speaking fake news isn’t merely of low quality or error; fake news is deliberately manufactured to deceive. See, How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News.)

Some of the worst aspects of our new national politics have been present in many small towns for years: (1) grandiosity, (2) news stories from weak reporters or indifferent stringers who are mere scribes for those in power, (3) ceaseless conflicts of interest, including news sites from incumbent politicians, (4) distortion of facts to turn crud into caviar, (5) low-quality, lazy work passed off as though it were Newton’s Principia, and (6) a top-down condescension in which a few decide that their work is ‘good enough’ and so the many should settle for that lesser standard & lesser product.

The overwhelming majority of people in these communities are sharp and capable, and deserve more than compromised standards.

Our new national scene brings myriad challenges, but there are many who’ve lived with small-scale versions of these challenges for years.

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.

At Whitewater’s Planning Commission: Millions But Still a Politician’s Unsatisfied

Last night, Whitewater’s local government conducted its (mostly) monthly Planning Commission meeting.  It’s mostly because there aren’t always enough new projects each month to justify holding a meeting.   At Item 4 on the agenda, the commission held a public hearing “for consideration of a conditional use permit for an automotive shop at 113 E. Main Street.”  The commission granted wisely the permit.  (One wishes the applicant the best for his new business.

One Thirteen East Main Street, Whitewater: it’s a spot near a recently-completed two-million-dollar road improvement project, on the east side of this rural city.  Much of this work was truly road beautification, on the possible theory that if we sank enough public money into a small intersection of the town, then we’d all be putting on the Ritz.

When last night’s applicant received his approval, it came with a suggestion (from a member of the commission and also on the city’s common council): perhaps a bit of landscaping might make the area look nicer.

Oh, dearie me: were those millions not enough to transform the city?  After it all, all of it being public money, should a private businessperson have to pay another cent at government’s suggestion?  If he so chooses, of course; it’s just that having taken so much public money for a project that evidently hasn’t beautified, one might have hoped for a bit of official humility.

Nothing of the sort; instead, a suggestion for more, at private expense.

My point is not that the public project should have cost more, to add better plants; it’s that having cost what it did, it should have been plain that the cost was too much, for too little gain.  (I opposed the project, but at the time conceded that the architect’s illustrations were attractive.  Even that concession, while otherwise in opposition, too generous to the project.)

The millions were a waste in a city that could have found a hundred better uses for them.

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?

The Simplest Explanation for Whitewater, Wisconsin’s Politics

In my last post, I mentioned Noah Rothman’s perceptive post on the failings – and they are many – of a non-ideological politics, a politics without principle.

Whitewater’s politics, unlike that which Rothman describes, certainly isn’t a politics of radical populism; there’s no radicalism in Whitewater whatever. (Those who see radicalism here likely see unicorns and pink elephants, too.)

Whitewater’s politics is, however, non-ideological (with a few exceptions). So-called stakeholder politics here is primarily an identity politics, of some cohorts over others, where the town is imagined in terms of identity: students, non-student whites, non-student Hispanics, elderly whites, etc. Old Whitewater – a state of mind, not a person or chronological age – very much sees the city this way.

In fact, Old Whitewater mostly sees one group (non-student whites).  Others, by this narrow way of thinking, aren’t really here, or should think about moving away, etc.  Occasionally newcomers who want to advance quickly will parrot the worst of this thinking, to ingratiate themselves as truer than true, so to speak.  Reminding that a majority of the city’s residents are students, and that many others are Hispanic, for example, only rankles those who think the town belongs to one ‘true’ cohort. (There are some who find a Census table too much to bear.)

When Old Whitewater looks for influential stakeholders, it’s really looking for familiar, leading members of particular identity groups.

That’s why Whitewater has had, for well over a generation, a paradoxical big-government conservatism: precisely because ideological and principled views matter less than what particular identity groups insist that they want and need.  Millions for this, millions for that, without an ideological framework to any of it.

The irony is that this spending is not championed by the poorest residents of the city, but by a parochial, mostly-mediocre (but well-fed) clique aching for The Big Thing.  (No matter how few the Next Big Thing helps, any more than the Last Big Thing helped, this small faction must have as an ornament to its pride yet one more project.)

They are sure they are owed these things, as self-appointed guardians of a particular identity group, as the real residents within a city of many kinds of residents.

Arguments for multiculturalism and diversity are arguments, in this context, of a city without a fixed identity politics, where many groups will combine in ideological & principled ways, without barriers to participation based on identity, but instead based on clear views.

Look around, and one sees the rack and ruin from an identity politics, as the city stagnates, and thus declines relatively.  See The Local Economic Context of It All, Offer, Cooperation, Gentrification, and Stability and Stagnation, Differently Experienced.

This sort of politics cannot succeed, and so descriptions of it will, at bottom, be descriptions of error and loss.

Indolence Over Something as Simple as a Parking Lot Repair

Here’s a simple observation: if full-time department managers in a small town’s government can’t develop and execute repairs to the city’s parking lots without repeated prodding from the town’s part-time council members, then there’s not much that city government can do.

Full-time, publicly-paid leaders should have enough pride in their town to act quickly without repeated prompting, excuse-making, hemming and hawing, etc. (Then again, those same full-time leaders should be able to see that oil’s leaking into a downtown city lake without learning of the fact from city residents, and taking two days’ time to act on the problem. See Pavement Project Causes Lake Contamination in Whitewater.)

There are many people in the Whitewater area who get up every morning, to work long hours in factories, dairies, and egg farms who do so with fewer excuses than the average city department leader. The people who work those long hours also do so without taxpayer-supported salaries.

The malaise or indolence that grips those leaders degrades the quality of life for residents and makes the city unattractive to visitors and newcomers.

Stakeholder’s Just Another Word for Special Interest

local In a small town like Whitewater, there’s much emphasis on finding and listening to stakeholders. In fact, local policymaking is mostly stakeholder policymaking.

As stakeholders aren’t merely and exclusively residents, but are more often influential residents and local special interests (business groups, business people, etc.) there’s a double-counting of connected residents, as though one gets a vote as a resident and again as a resident business person, for example. Stakeholders are mostly longstanding incumbents. A stakeholder politics is like nepotism, with longstanding, cozy connections instead of blood ties.

Officials in Whitewater will complain about a same-ten-people problem, but stakeholder politics rests on the same ten people, not as problem, but as a cardinal feature.

The benefit to officials is that the same ten people are well-known, and unlikely to present surprises. The disadvantage is that the same ten people exercise authority under conditions of dirigisme and so of stagnation. Familiarity brings a price tag of insularity, stagnation, and relative decline. See, along these lines, The People in the Room.

To get a sense of how addled stakeholder politics is, consider an account of a meeting two years ago to find a new chancellor for UW-Whitewater. (See, from a local newspaper, UW-Whitewater chancellor session held.)   The story – written not by a reporter but a ‘correspondent’ with university ties – describes a search consultant’s question to the assembled town notables:

[Search Consultant] Kozloff stated, “We really want to get a sense from all the various stakeholders of what you’re looking for in this new leader.”

“Many of you have known Dick Telfer for a number of years,” Bellman said. “We’re also interested in characteristics, attributes, strengths and skills that Dick has displayed over the years … things that you felt were particularly positive in integrating and understanding what is important in the community.”

….Much of the discussion focused on characteristics of Telfer that the group believes would be essential in a new chancellor, including high energy, being approachable and a good listener, understanding that the university is one of the major economic anchors in the community, and being a visible and active member of community life.

[Whitewater City Manager] Clapper said he hoped that the new chancellor would, like Telfer, “think about not just what’s going on in the office — not just what’s going on on campus — but how those those are going to impact the community that surrounds it.”

If one read only the story, and believed it as written, one wouldn’t guess that Telfer was passed over as chancellor more than once, pushed state capitalist schemes in opposition to any evident understanding of economics or entrepreneurship, presided over a campus with a large number of sexual assaults, two of which led to federal complaints against the university, and would later find himself a defendant in a federal lawsuit from a coach who would claim defamation and that the coach’s firing was the result of reporting a sexual assault to the police.  (I’ve a link to a long list of posts describing Telfer’s disappointing career.)

It’s wholly possible that every stakeholder in the room that day believed everything that he or she said. Meaning, of course, that it’s wholly possible that every stakeholder in the room that day lacked the discernment and judgment expected of an ordinary person.

The truth of stakeholder politics is special interest politics, and the result of special interest politics is weak judgment that produces inferior results.

Fake News Was a Local Problem Before It Was a National One

localThere’s post-election consternation about the amount of bogus news sites on social media.  This concern pairs with the worry that fact-checking from major news organizations doesn’t work well when candidates simply lie and refuse either correction or apology.

This may be a recent national development – at least on this scale – but local news for small towns has been dishonest (mostly by omission), conflicted (so much so that sometimes the same people make and write the news), or simply mediocre (where cheerleading replaces analysis) for years.

(Obvious point: this is a site of commentary, not traditional news reporting. Always has been, always will be.  There’s a difference between the two;  I’ve never had a problem seeing as much.)

I’d describe the emergence of local fake (or low-quality) news like this: (1) local print publications wrote and reasoned poorly, (2) print began to decline, (3) advertisers grew anxious, (4) these same print publications and their imitators went online, (5) publications still wrote and reasoned poorly, (6) publishers also had trouble making money online, (7) so print had fewer advertisers than ever, (8) remaining readership skewed old and down-market, (9) publishers focused on keeping the low-quality readership that they had left, (10) producing weaker  analysis but stronger cheerleading to comfort aged, complacent, or undemanding readers, (11) local digital became a mere imitation of low-quality local print journalism, (12) the local level of self-deception and confusion became so great that local politicians styled themselves as newsmen, with notebooks and voice recorders, (13) community leaders pushed wasteful, counter-productive projects with no legacy-press criticism, (14) as conditions grew worse, community leaders demanded more cheerleading, facts-be-damned, and (15) here we are, with communities facing stagnation and relative decline.

[For a discussion of whether national publications handled the transition to digital properly, consider the exchange about whether investment in digital was a good idea between Jack Shafer (What If the Newspaper Industry Made a Colossal Mistake?) and  Steve Buttry (The newspaper industry’s colossal mistake was a defensive digital strategy).  I’m with Buttry.  The newspaper industry was & has been too cautious about digital, as he describes from his experience:

The few times I heard truly creative ideas for reporting news and generating revenue in the digital marketplace, they met with huge skepticism and open resistance. The newspaper industry settled for repurposing and extending editorial content in a marketplace that demanded and rewarded visionary new products.

(Emphasis mine.)]

Poor reasoning, dodgy data, heapings of the insistence that all is well (one’s lying eyes to the contrary) make up the local fake news that small towns have consumed for years.

If one is worried (rightly) that national politicians lie with impunity, it’s fair to say that the residents of small towns across America have experienced, and some have become inured to, political lies and deceptions for many years.  The national scene is experiencing, sadly, what’s been true locally a long time.

The Local Economic Context of It All

localOver a generation, Whitewater’s big-ticket public spending (where big ticket means a million or more per project in a city of about fifteen-thousand) has come with two, often-contradictory justifications: (1) that residents needed to spend so much because Whitewater was the very center of things, or (2) that residents needed to spend so much to assure that Whitewater would keep up (something hardly necessary for a city that was already the very center of things).   Over the last thirty years’ time, the city’s residents have spent hundreds of millions on public projects.

(This tiny town might have saved up enough over the last thirty years to buy a gently-used B-2 bomber.  New ones go for $700 million each, but a used one would be less, and no one – no one – ignores a city with a genuine B-2.  Nearby towns like Palmyra or Fort Atkinson wouldn’t be laughing if Whitewater had its own strategic bomber.)

We also have a public university in town, supported with hundreds of millions in state funds spent to keep the campus going.  The claim that the state doesn’t reimburse the city for the full cost of services in a university town skirts the clear truth that the university brings more to the city than she costs.

One hears now from town officials what any reasonable person would have surmised years ago: that the City of Whitewater and Walworth County are low-growth communities (“we do not have a lot of growth like a lot of communities, like the those adjacent to Madison or Milwaukee”).    That’s disappointingly right – Whitewater is a low-growth community, as is Walworth County.

And yet, and yet, much of this spending was meant to spur growth, either to catapult Whitewater to new heights or assure her supposed position in the stratosphere.  Despite all that’s been spent, here Whitewater is – belatedly but admittedly – economically stagnant.

If proximity to Milwaukee or Madison were the key to success, and if (as is true) Whitewater’s still at the same place on the map as a generation ago, then why did anyone bother touting the city for all these years?

It’s because neither vast public spending for a small town nor proximity to Milwaukee & Madison were assurances of economic success.  It’s because public spending on whatever comes along accomplishes little, nothing, or worse than nothing (worse than nothing – that is, both stagnation and debt).   It’s because closeness to Milwaukee or Madison is not necessary for success.  (There was a time when policymakers insisted we would succeed precisely because we were relatively close to those bigger cities; now, when this town is obviously struggling, the same distance to the same destinations has become an excuse.)

We’ve reached – and we reached them long ago, really – the limits of public spending as a so-called catalyst for private growth.  It’s not impossible that such schemes might initially work elsewhere, but it’s next to impossible that more public money in a small town already saturated with public money will achieve solid, sustainable growth for residents.

American prosperity rests on private enterprise and initiative.   A useful project over the next few months will be to outline ways to liberalize Whitewater’s economy.

The National-Local Mix

localI’ve written at FREE WHITEWATER for over nine years, and I’ll be writing here for far longer to come.  A good friend asked me today if I’d given up on local coverage, and the easy answer is…not at all.  We’ve a small and beautiful city, well worth talking about and contending over.   A few quick remarks for longtime readers, and for some new readers who’ve come to FW since the election —

Plain Views.  I’ve written plainly before, and I’ll do the same now.  My views are libertarian, from a family that was liberty-oriented before the term libertarian became popular. (Dean Russell sometimes gets credit for boosting the word libertarian in 1955, but of course the ideas involved are far older.)  My family came here before the Revolution, and they and many others have held liberty-centric political views throughout their time on this continent, using other descriptions for their politics before libertarian took off in the second half of the twentieth century.

One could say less in the hope of pleasing more, but that’s likely futile.  I would happily decline an invitation to a gathering that favored acceptance over conviction (in the improbable & unwelcome event that anyone would send such an invitation to me).

The Limits of Local.  One of the themes of this site is that towns like ours accomplish the most when they embrace American and not local standards for politics & economics.  In fact, hyper-local standards in politics & economics are lesser standards, easy and comfortable for the myopic but inadequate for a competitive people.  There are a few websites or newspapers nearby that are hyper-local in focus.  That makes sense if one’s writing about a sewing club; it’s both sad and laughable as one’s way of considering political, economic, or fiscal policy.  If hyper-local politics were enough, then one might as well embrace a small village in authoritarian Russia as a small town in democratic America.

Putin’s not detestable because he speaks Russian; he’s detestable because he’s returned oppression to Russia.  The undeniable prettiness of particular Russian villages lessens Putin’s many sins, and Russia’s hardships, not in the slightest.

In same way, Whitewater is not beautiful simply because, so to speak, she’s beautiful; she’s beautiful because America is a free country of which Whitewater is one part.  Hyper-localism at the price of national standards reminds of nothing so much as Socrates’s remarks on the unexamined life.

Whitewater’s Near Term.  I’m an optimist about Whitewater’s longterm, but these next several years will prove difficult for this small, midwestern city.  Whitewater has significant poverty (especially child poverty), and limited growth.  Considering the principal possibilities of a drastic change of course now or a renaissance after continued decline, I’d guess we’ll prove an example of a city that chooses poorly, declines relatively, and rebounds only afterward.   (It needn’t have been this way, but too many mistakes have taken us past the point of a different course.)

Many have enjoyed the James & Deborah Fallows American Futures series on thriving small towns, and it’s disappointing to write that Whitewater’s near future probably will not be like that of those growing towns; there’s much that’s disconcerting about surveying a city – however naturally pretty – that’s a cautionary tale of what not to do.  Disconcerting, but not hard – the hardship of the wrong course will not fall on someone writing about our city, but on the many vulnerable people within it.

The future will write the history of the present; with few exceptions, it will be unkind to the last generation of local policymakers.

Logo.  When I write about local topics, I’ll add the logo that appears in the upper-left corner of this post.

The Mix of National and Local.  Most people in our city, or any other, are naturally sharp.  It’s a libertarian teaching – because it is true and always has been – that the overwhelming number of people are capable and clever (and so need less governmental meddling than they receive).  People who voted for one major party candidate or another are not worse for doing so.  It’s impossible that Americans were fundamentally good until a few weeks ago.

Voting for Clinton or Trump did not make the average person better or worse.  I don’t write this to ingratiate – that wouldn’t be my way, one can guess – but because saying so is consistent with what I have always believed about people.  (In any event, if someone who voted his or her conscience needs reassurance now, he or she should think more carefully.)

Trump is a fundamentally different candidate from those who have come before him.  Not grasping this would be obtuse.  Writing only about sewing circles or local clubs or a single local meeting while ignoring Trump’s vast power as president – and what it will bring about – would be odd.

Someone in Tuscany, circa 1925, had more to write about than the countryside.

One may think otherwise, of course.  It’s simply unrealistic to expect a libertarian to think otherwise (at least if the term is to have any meaning).

I’m not worried about posting both national and local topics, as though some nationally-focused posts will detract from local coverage.  The local die has been cast.  Describing near term local events is now careful narration more than advocacy.  There’s much to say, and in detail, but for local policymakers in this town there’s little room to move.  Perhaps the shifts they can make in the near future will still help those in need.

These will prove, I think, challenging times for those both near and far.

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.

‘He Said, She Said’

Alternative title — False Balance While Dealing with Liars, Exaggerators, and Other Political Miscreants.

There’s considerable consternation in the national press that traditional ‘he said, she said’ political coverage, where each side of a question gets an equal, unchallenged say, doesn’t work when one candidate is an inveterate liar:

A certain etiquette has long governed the relationship between presidential candidates and the elite media. Candidates stretch the truth, but try not to be too blatant about it. Candidates appeal to bigotry, but subtly. In turn, journalists respond with a delicacy of their own. They quote partisans rather than saying things in their own words. They use euphemisms like “polarizing” and “incendiary,” instead of “racist” and “demagogic.”

See, from Peter Beinart, The Death of ‘He Said, She Said’ Journalism @ The Atlantic.

The journalism of equivalance and balance doesn’t work when one candidate is unbalanced and without a contemporary equivalent. The national press is learning this now, although perhaps too late to address effectively the new conditions presented in this election.

Locally, however, we’ve not even had a weak balance, we’ve not had even a sham equivalence.

In Whitewater and towns nearby, it’s one view, sometimes that of a politician, presented as news.

It’s true that the national standards of presumed balance no longer work, and that papers like the New York Times have had to become (as Beinart tells it) more direct in response to lies, exaggerations, and crass political self-promotion.

That’s a cause of national political concern, but at the local level communities have been plagued with lying, glad-handing notables & a sham, lickspittle press for years.

National publications are right to abandon a false equivalence, right to abandon a delicacy of description that only emboldens connivers.

It’s unfortunate, yet true, that these publications now find themselves fighting the kind of fight – without real balance – that’s been ongoing for years in towns across America.

Local Government’s Not a Profession of Faith 

Local government, in its existence, is not a profession of faith, the way a credal religion is. 

It’s a limited delegation of popular sovereignty to produce definite, specific results.  Words alone are insufficient.

(Needless to say, that’s true of religious belief, too: the Church rightly expects that faith leads to care for the poor and disadvantaged, not mere words on their behalf.)

Love is like this.  How many times a man says he cares doesn’t justify him if he staggers home drunk and neglects his spouse and children.  Love requires practical care. 

Local officials have a lot to say.  What should officials do

Improve town-gown relations, keep costs down, provide basic services for which the many common people in this city pay taxes, stop distorting data for self-promotion, avoid flimsy public schemes, and respect that the foundation of this society’s prosperity rests on private property and private enterprise.

When they’ve done those things, they’ll have fulfilled their obligations satisfactorily; if they haven’t done those things, all the words in our language won’t be satisfaction enough. 

 

Pavement Project Causes Lake Contamination in Whitewater

WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports
 

WKOW-TV of Madison reports on what everyone in Whitewater can see: that oil from a paving project has spread from that project. See, Pavement project causes lake contamination in Whitewater @ WKOW-TV.

Three key points:

1. Unobservant: city officials took two days to discover this. WKOW’s Gordon Severson reports that “the City didn’t know about it until Friday, two days after the rainstorm came through.” Honest to goodness, in this small city, where conditions should be easily visible to anyone, it took two days for city officials to learn of this, and then only from residents rather than from their own observations.

How far away is the municipal building that no one walks the distance to Cravath and the Mill Pond? (Answer: Three-tenths of a mile. A person in normal health and vigor could walk this distance in only a few minutes.)

2. Other, larger projects. If it takes Mr. Clapper’s administration days to notice oil running down a path into the lake, what hope is there that he will monitor adequately his project to import outsiders’ waste into the city?

Even at scheduled meetings, he often forgets key figures (the price of things, for example) or supporting documents.

3. City officials have neglected Cravath and the Mill Pond previously. Cravath was not in proper condition for the Fourth of July events, and a ski show had to be canceled. Independence Day visitors could easily see the lake was unusable for recreation that weekend.