A view from a then-suburbanite

Despite an absolutely gorgeous day, I’m spending the afternoon in front of my computer, poring over old writings still resident on my hard drive. What strikes me about what I used to write is that it doesn’t differ much from what I write today, both in temperament and topic. I attribute this continuity to the political environment, which reflects a mass dysfunction, no doubt intended by the powers that be. If you’re rich and comfortable, you don’t want a vibrant, viable opposition threatening your hegemony at every turn.

The piece below (slightly revised) was written sometime in the year 2000, when I lived in Marysville. I’ve also attached  the March 1999 issue of The Observer, printed version. The subjects are similar.

________________

It seems to us that it is individualism, and not equality, as Tocqueville thought, that has marched inexorably through our history. We are concerned that this individualism may have grown cancerous—that it may be destroying those social integuments that Tocqueville saw as moderating its more destructive potentialities, that it may be threatening the survival of freedom itself.

Robert N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart

The Culture of Separation

When I started my small publication, a journal of opinion, in 1994 I called on several local individuals from varied backgrounds and occupations to serve as an advisory group. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of selecting people who were active in many organizations and causes. But on those few occasions we met, the discussions were lively, intelligent, and informative.

On one such occasion I had asked the group to consider the question: What does Snohomish County, Wash., just north of Seattle lack above all else? The answer was unanimous. Snohomish County, we concluded, lacked a sense of community. Instead, we were so many disparate individuals with little to bind us with one another. Why? Several members of the group suggested that most people who live here have no identity with place—what some call roots.

From my perch—high above the city’s distant sewer lagoon—I can see hundreds of roof tops, over which mostly young families live. On Sundays, many of these families attend church. From Monday through Friday their days are filled with school, work, soccer, and Little League. Saturdays are spent mowing lawns and pulling weeds. In a word, these families are busy; too busy, for the most part, to glance at a newspaper or read a magazine; far too busy to attend hearings and public forums. They travel from house to school and from school to office, then back home again. Quality time means an evening in front of the television. Their routines exist in a middle-class cosmos replicated in every suburb in America. Demographically, the people who occupy the single-family homes in Marysville look, act, and think much like the people who live in Sparks, Nevada; Urbana, Illinois; or Beaverton, Oregon.

Who are we? Ironically, we are where we are, but the ‘where’ has little to do with place; it has everything to do with real estate; and that real estate is increasingly suburban in character.

Suburban living isolates us, which used to be a handicap but is now a preference. We feel comfortable surrounded by folks just like us, as long as they remain impersonal ‘neighbors’ and not distinct Joes or Marys or Toms.

As parents we may run into one another at the baseball diamond or soccer field, but our perfunctory conversations serve only to affirm the suburban principle of homogeneity. Some of us feel good being together at church. Indeed, we believe that we’re basically good all the time, and the world would be a better place if everyone else had values just like ours.

But none of this survives as real community in which diverse people connect through invigorated, shared interests. The rare accidental encounters between essentially isolated beings are not the stuff of genuine democracy.

Consider William Greider’s prescription:

To create a democratic reality with any substance, active citizens have to engage others across…boundaries. They have to search for real bridges that connect one class perspective with another in common goals. They have to define goals that fuse the broad moral meanings of their politics with the visible self-interest of everyday citizens. This undertaking would put them at the messy center of a democratic dialogue—the arguments between ideas and values and the real experiences of real people. It would entail taking up the burden of teaching and listening and searching patiently for collective resolutions.

Genuine democracy is very difficult to do, regardless of the issue or context, and citizens understandably shrink from a challenge that is so hard. [Who Will Tell the People]

Habits of the Heart, a disturbing book written during the height of the Reagan era by Berkeley sociologists, took its title from Alexis de Toqueville, the French aristocrat who visited the U.S. in the early 1800s then wrote an extensive critique called Democracy in America. Toqueville admired Americans’ penchant for forming associations. Based on shared interests between any number of individuals, these countless associations served as forums for discussion, debate, and, above all, action. Toqueville noted that every association published its own newspaper, so that people never lacked for ideas or something to talk about. But, as the sociologists remind us, Americans no longer get together to talk about the things that should really matter: the stuff of genuine democracy.

The American search for spontaneous community with the like-minded is made urgent by the fear that there may be no way at all to relate to those who are too different. Thus the tremendous nostalgia many Americans have for the idealized “small town.” The wish for a harmonious community…is a wish to transform the roughness of utilitarian dealings in the marketplace, the courts, and administration into neighborly conciliation. But this nostalgia is belied by the strong focus of American individualism on economic success. The rules of the competitive market, not the practices of the town meeting or the fellowship of the church, are the real arbiters of living. [ Habits of the Heart].

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam studied the twenty states of Italy between 1970 and 1990. Some of these states, especially in the north, are politically healthy and financially prosperous; others are not. Putnam found that in the relatively prosperous states, citizens were actively engaged in social and political organizations. In the poorer regions, people stayed home.

Across the United States membership in civic organizations has declined since the mid–1970s, from the Lions Club and the Elks Lodge to the League of Women Voters and Business and Professional Women. Even political party membership has fallen. Those who remain are typically the elderly. “Among the DNC’s [Democratic National Committee’s] 100,000 regular contributors,” writes Greider, “the average age is seventy years old.”

But consider the obstacles to public participation, not the least of which is, once again, real estate. Can you think of any worse distribution of people to accommodate accidental encounters than suburbia, where one needs a car for nearly everything, even to retrieve a loaf of bread? In suburbia there are no public squares, parks, community centers, or coffee shops within walking distance where people can gather and chance to meet.

With tragic irony, suburban residents vote Republican, which further contributes to the isolation of the white middle class. Consider the words of Newt Gingrich: “Now [this was 1988] we have a way of dividing America,” Gingrich told the Washington Post. He was talking about the “value-laden” issues of crime, family, and education. The Democratic liberals, he charged, were responsible for all of society’s ills. “These people are sick,” he said. “They are destructive of the values we believe in.”

However, the Republican party, Greider continues, “deliberately coaxes emotional responses from people—teases their anxieties over values they hold important in their own lives—but then walks away from the anger and proceeds to govern on its real agenda, defending the upper-class interests of wealth and corporate power.” After suburbia’s anti-liberal ranting subsides how long will it take before white middle-class America realizes that the Republicans have no intention of helping anyone other than their wealthy clients? It took voters twelve years before they discovered that Reagan and Bush did nothing to reduce government (the federal bureaucracy and budgets expanded), nothing to lower the deficit (which grew larger than in all the previous years combined), and nothing to help the middle class (whose taxes increased, whose wages declined, and whose children’s college tuition costs skyrocketed)—all traditional Republican promises. Under this troublesome duo the rich prospered, the poor multiplied, and the gap between them widened.

And if the Clinton Administration has done anything it has aped the Gingrich recipe for political success in increasingly suburban America. That means lower taxes on the rich, increased spending on defense (where’s the enemy?), punishment of the poor and minorities, the watering-down or the complete elimination of environmental regulations and their enforcement, and the jailing and killing of more criminals.

But issues and political performance no longer guide the few who bother to vote. The increasingly angry and cynical electorate casts ballots against politicians, rarely for a candidate. We base our judgments on how we feel, not on how we think. The most successful purveyor of political feeling, Adolph Hitler, gave people permission to hate. In Germany it was the Jews. Today in America, Republicans and Democrats have expanded the list to include liberals, people of color, and the poor.

Despite their dollars and ownership of the media, the two major parties represent just a small segment of the population. After all, the very rich among us constitute only a few percentage points. To assume legislative power, then, Republicans and Democrats must appear to align themselves with other interests. In 1980, Ronald Reagan appealed to the conservative Catholic vote to claim the White House. In 1994, Republicans welcomed Christians to their fold by talking about school prayer, crime and bashing gays, the ideological glue of white suburbia. In 1996, Clinton turned right and has never looked back.

So, as more of us take up residence outside the cities, Republicans and Clinton Democrats will proliferate. The Republicans, the party of “rancid populism,” as Greider calls it, will continue to push the “values” button, ably assisted by the Christian Coalition, which is neither. Fueled by a thinly-veiled racist hysteria, Republicans and their Democratic partners in crime will continue gutting programs for the poor and people of color while they slash taxes on the wealthy.

But what about the rest of us? Only twenty percent of eligible voters determine presidential races. It’s tough to call any of these elections a ‘mandate.’ Most of us, nearly half nation-wide, stay home. Thomas Paine wrote , “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” (He also said that his mind was “his church.”) Yet, with so many opting out of the minimal political act of voting, what is our future and who are the “we” in Paine’s maxim? Given our abysmal voting record, it seems a bit scandalous for the U.S. to be trumpeting democracy. Indeed, those wretched developing countries we tend to feel sorry for (as we plunder their natural resources and exploit their workers) have much to teach us about the sacredness of the polling booth. After all, many of their citizens risk death to cast a ballot. In America, we just can’t find the time. How remarkably hypocritical and, in the end, self-destructive.

_________

Today’s postscript:

There is a small silver lining to the dark mess we’re in. The suburbs as a way of life may finally be doomed. Also, I am less critical now of those who abstain from voting. There are no real alternatives.

 

Meanwhile, back in ’85

I wrote this letter to the Everett Herald in 1985. It was never printed, for obvious reasons.

As you will read, I was quite upset about nearly everything, but most especially the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who, at the time, was busy trying to dismantle the Soviet Union and otherwise scare the hell out of us. He was all about boosting the Pentagon’s fortunes, already luxurious.

Reagan came and went, along with the Soviets. But his legacy lives on in too many hearts and minds.

________________

Dear Editor:

I have always envied the many who are “apolitical”: those who manage to get through each and every day without either a concern for, or indeed, a knowledge of the least thing political. Their lives cannot be “bothered” by talk of candidates, issues, or elections; of whether we should be worried about the rising national debt; or should trouble ourselves with thoughts of “Star Wars.”

Unfortunately, I am one of the accursed who cannot avoid reading the newspapers, or the magazines, or listening to television news broadcasts. And after I have read or listened I can’t help reacting: I am a victim of a peculiar chemistry between the world as it apparently is and my self as it was somehow created.

But to read and listen today is to invite an awful melancholy, for I feel completely helpless (most of the time) to effect any change in this world I find so disagreeable. I perceive this world as a juggernaut, moving inexorably toward its ultimate destruction at the hands of its own citizenry with no visible means to stop its progress.

In this most recent presidential campaign, Mr. Reagan chided the “prophets of doom and gloom” for not heeding the call of an America that was once again reclaiming its traditions of patriotism, strength, and God. All right, I am guilty. I am guilty of believing that the greatness of this country, or any other country, is determined by the wellbeing of its people and not by the quantity of its armaments.

Yet, what has Mr. Reagan proposed to counteract those prophets of “doom and gloom”? Quite simply, he has embarked on a most draconian enterprise of domestic spending cuts, which, if successful, will do more to undermine the strength of this nation than the abandonment of any of Mr. Weinberger’s weapons systems. We will be witnessing no less than the destruction of the democratic (and, yes, liberal) ideals which have so long formed an integral part of this nation’s social and political fabric. In the wake of this destruction we will see the emergence of a bold aristocracy, no longer restrained by notions of civil liberties or egalitarianism, that will unflinchingly impose its will on the swelling ranks of the disenfranchised.

Let us consider some specifics. Mr. Reagan, who readily admits to a disinclination to most things intellectual, has just proposed that funding of loans for college students be reduced by 27%. Concurrently, our newly elected governor, despite sympathetic appearances, recently told a group of frustrated college students that this state’s Basic Education Act encompasses only K—12, and that there would be little money available for student assistance. If the better jobs in our society require ever-increasing intellectual skills, skills that are presently taught only at the college level, then ultimately only those who are already wealthy, it would seem, will go on to possess the better jobs, and the inequality will not only be perpetuated but exacerbated. College will become strictly elitist. The growing numbers of students who will be unable to afford a college education will be forced to seek employment in lesser-paying positions, if there are any.

Increasingly, those better-paying jobs will be in the defense sector of the economy, where engineering and computing skills are much desired. Already, over half of our engineers and computer scientists are engaged in defense-related industries, building weapons and weapons systems that we desperately hope will never be used. It requires no feat of logical reasoning to conclude that to continue to manufacture “goods” that are not consumed leaves an ever-widening gap in the whole business cycle: bombs do not feed the hungry, clothe the poor, or educate the young. Moreover, as we add to the weapons arsenal we also increase the supply of those who are hungry, homeless, and ignorant.

Where will people live under the aristocracy? To fund the increase in military spending, this nation has incurred an astronomically high deficit, which, in turn, has kept interest rates inordinately high. So high, that fewer and fewer of us can afford the mortgages to acquire a home. Consequently, fewer and fewer homes are built, and the ones that are built are so expensive that only a tiny fraction of the population can purchase them. Again, it is not difficult to draw the conclusions that a greater number of people will be forced to live in inadequate housing or no housing at all; and that jobs in the home construction sector of the economy will grow increasingly rare, which will have a disproportionate affect on our state’s economy and on those thousands who will lose their jobs. Meanwhile, Mr. Reagan will have dramatically curtailed social assistance thereby reducing the total of public housing units in the country. I foresee more and more people having to exist “on the streets”, where they will be susceptible to enticement of drugs and alcohol, and where they will be at the mercy of what charity is available.

Mr. Reagan, on his way to establishing the aristocracy, has said that government should not be in the business of charity. Recently, however, as part of his budget proposal, he has advocated a decrease in the amount of charitable contributions that can be deducted from personal income taxes. In other words, if Mr. Reagan gets his way, all of us will be less inclined to give money to United Way, or the Red Cross, or the Millionaire’s Club, which are just a few of the many agencies that are helping the poor. If contributions subside, then these agencies will not survive, and the poor will be in an even worse predicament.

What underlies this ultimate establishment of the aristocracy, and what initially makes it possible, is everything which is bound up with the question, “What about the Russians?” We are told by many in and out of the current administration that the existence of the Russians justifies, in effect, poverty, homelessness, and ignorance. The Russians are perceived as a flood-like horde that would completely inundate the “free world” were it not for the dikes of our nuclear defense systems. And the more menacing the Russians can be made to appear, the greater the need for larger and more numerous nuclear weapons. At this moment in our history, of course, the Russians are viewed as possibly the worst people who ever lived on this earth. Collectively they are the “evil empire,” and if we are not careful, they will take God out of our classrooms, rape our women, and force us to join long lines for our daily bread.

But suppose the Soviet Union’s designs on our lives are not quite that extravagant. Suppose its people are as afraid of us as we are of them. Suppose that their history is replete with invasion after invasion (which is true) and that their primary objective is to preserve the sovereignty of their nation. Suppose further, that such a history goes a long way to explain their actions in international relations; that their interventions in eastern Europe and Afghanistan, reprehensible though they may be, are intended to create and maintain buffer zones against potential invaders. Certainly our interventions (e.g., Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Grenada, Chile) are not so readily explained by our stated foreign policy objective of protecting “our vital interests.” And let us suppose that the Soviet Union and the United States, for all of their animosities toward one another, really do have the capacity and the common interests to behave less belligerently toward one another. Maybe, just maybe, it is not in the best interests of each country to arm itself to the teeth in the name of defense. Quite possibly, despite the many significant items which serve to divide us, there do exist broad areas of agreement that could form the basis for an enduring peace based on mutuality of purpose rather than on reciprocated fear of one another. (I don’t think that I am far afield here. Carl Sagan, along with his counterparts in the Soviet Union, has long advocated joint efforts in space exploration as not only ends in themselves, but also as means to achieve harmony between two disparate nations.)

If it were possible to dramatically reduce the defense budget, commensurate with maintaining the peace (and I think that it is possible to do so), then the billions of dollars we are now spending on MX and cruise missiles, Trident submarines, and Star Wars research, could be channeled into the domestic economy for the production of consumable goods. If we are to remain a democracy rather than become an aristocracy, should we not endeavor to educate all men and women at their highest possible levels so that they will be in a better position to act responsibly as informed and enlightened citizens? If we subscribe to notions of liberty and equality should we not be concerned with the enfranchisement of all of our people by ensuring that their rights to adequate housing and employment are protected? If we justifiably fear crime and domestic violence, would we not be more secure in our property and in our selves if we created environments in which the tendency toward criminal behavior were dramatically reduced? (At the moment, more and more money is being spent on the construction of jails and prisons to accommodate the increasing numbers of those who feel compelled to violate the rights of others. Study after study has shown that jails and prisons, although built with the stated intention of at least temporarily withdrawing the criminal from society, are, nevertheless, the fertile ground for the multiplication of criminals. Will more jails and prisons, then, be our answer to criminal behavior?)

I realize that I may be accused of merely reaffirming the traditional liberal agenda, much as the Catholic bishops were in their recent economics pastoral; but what does decency require? Messrs. Weinberger and Reagan ask if we can afford not to arm ourselves to the limits they advocate. For me, I wonder if we can (literally) afford to do so, and still call ourselves a nation whose government is of the people, by the people, and for the people.

 

 

Hark back to Bush

This essay first appeared in the Marysville Globe, July 2002.

In a much anticipated speech before Wall Street “wrongdoers,” George Bush the Second vowed to restore confidence to investors by doing “everything in [his] power to end the days of cooking the books.” The P-I cartoonist, David Horsey, used the occasion as an example of “simile”: the president talking about corporate ethics was like Monica Lewinsky talking about chastity. The next day, Bush announced that he would make it illegal to use the book-cooking schemes that he himself had employed as a director of Harken Energy in his Texas “bidness” days.

Against the backdrop of “Corporate Responsibility,” Bush’s unctuous words to a roomful of stockbrokers had all the markings of a Cotton Mather sermon. The answer to corporate corruption was to be found in thousands of bathroom mirrors, as if the CEOs of America need only discover one morning, preening themselves for another day at the office, that they were really good people doing bad things. Bush urged “higher ethical standards” on those who would lead the country’s economy—and woe to the few who would stray.

Then he uttered the mother of all fatuous phrases: “There is no capitalism without conscience, there is no wealth without character.” Bush’s claim on Americans’ ignorance vastly exceeds his understanding of U.S. history. The great fortunes of Rockefeller, Ford, Vanderbilt, Astor, Weyerhaeuser, et al. were amassed by unbridled greed, immense political power, and the kind of conscience and character that forces wage-slavers to toil long hours under miserable conditions for nearly nothing. The nation’s first Gilded Age spawned the Progressive Movement, some notable reforms, and even a man in the White House who railed against “the malefactors of great wealth.” Today, the second Gilded Age yields even worse economic disparities, but instead of TDR we get a preacher with soiled hands.

When the modern-day fortunes of WorldCom, Xerox, Enron, Global Crossing—the list keeps growing—are forced to restate billions of dollars of earnings because they were “cooking the books,” an editor of Fortune magazine, the preeminent chronicler of capitalism, responds: “Phony earnings, inflated revenues, conflicted Wall Street analysts [who were promoting stocks that they themselves would never buy], directors asleep at the switch—this isn’t a few bad apples we’re talking about here. This, my friends, is a systematic breakdown. Nearly every known check on corporate behavior—moral, regulatory, you name it—fell by the wayside, replaced by the stupendous greed that marked the end of the bubble. And that has created a crisis of investor confidence the likes of which hasn’t been seen since—well, since the Great Depression.”

Yet, here was George W. Bush, the man of privilege and scion of old money, lecturing the nation like a hypocritical parent: don’t do as I do, do as I say. Junior, as he was known in the oil bidness, can recognize ill-gotten gains because they were a staple of his pre-political career and most assuredly propelled him into office.

After leaving Harvard with an MBA, Bush the Son returned to Texas in the 1970s with some play-money in his pockets and the expectation of striking it rich drilling for oil. With some financial backing from Salem bin Laden, brother of Osama and close friend of Saudi King Fahd, Bush formed Arbusto (“shrub” in Spanish) Energy, then, when his father became vice president, changed the name to Bush Exploration, which promptly lost money before being acquired by Spectrum 7, a company run by several of his daddy’s friends. That company also lost money. But the son of the vice president possesses a certain amount of cachet, not to mention obvious connections to the pinnacles of power. To the rescue came Harken Energy and 600,000 shares for Junior. In addition to the free stock, Bush the Second received a salary and low-interest loans—later forgiven—for serving as one of Harken’s directors and a member of the company’s audit committee.

However, Harken did no better than Bush’s previous ventures. It was spending more money than it was taking in. In 1989, Bush and other directors created a supposedly independent group that paid a wildly exorbitant price for a Harken subsidiary, Aloha Petroleum, which Harken reported as a capital gain of $10 million. But the purchase was financed using Harken money; there was no real sale and no real purchase, just cooked books. The reported “profit” from the transaction masked a bleak bottom line while inducing investors to bid up the price of Harken’s stock. By 1990, the company owed creditors $150 million and had no source of revenue. An internal memo to the company’s directors from Smith Barney warned of a rapidly deteriorating financial  situation.

Junior had set his sights on an expensive new house in Dallas. So he sold some of his stocks at the artificially inflated price of $4 a share to net over $800,000.  That was in June. In July the company reported a net loss of $23 million. The next month Bush’s father launched the Persian Gulf War, which, along with ailing finances, sent Harken’s shares plummeting to less than a dollar. The Securities and Exchange Commission required Junior to report his insider sale by July of that year. He didn’t get around to filing until March of the following year. The SEC, when it learned of the Aloha Petroleum farce, also forced Harken to restate its earnings to reflect a net loss of over $12.5 million for 1989. U.S. News and World Report wrote: “There is substantial evidence to suggest that Bush knew Harken was in dire straits in the weeks before he sold the $848,560 of Harken stock.”

Of course, Enron and “Kenny Boy” Lay turned fraud into an art-form, making the Bush schemes seem like petty kid’s stuff. Along with WorldCom, Merck, and other corporate darlings of deception, Enron parlayed one accounting trick after another into bilking investors and shafting thousands of workers—with the official blessing of Arthur Anderson.

But these are Bush’s people, making money the old-fashioned way—they steal it.

Follow the money

This essay first appeared in the Marysville Globe on Oct. 10, 2001

What a tangled web we weave,

When first we practice to deceive!

  • Sir Walter Scott

In the early 19th century, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, having spent several years in the newly formed United States, cited, in particular, Americans’ “love of money,” which he thought to be a necessary engine “to clear, cultivate, and transform the huge uninhabited continent which is their domain.” Tocqueville observed somewhat haughtily that Americans attached nobility to the pursuit of wealth whereas “our medieval ancestors would have called [this] base cupidity.” While Tocqueville and his European contemporaries had evolved beyond the ordinary desire for money, it is altogether clear that the modern American has not; and wealth is still extracted by clearing and transforming the landscape.

Today we call these individuals developers. They buy raw land, scrape away the trees, fill in the damp spots, mark off lots, lay asphalt, then erect in hurried fashion rows of bland-looking houses that stretch from one tract to another as far as the eye can see. And just as quickly, young families fill the new enclosures and add their numbers and their vehicles to the public infrastructures.

In the movie All the President’s Men, the energetic reporters for the Washington Post were urged to “follow the money.” Even in little old Marysville, the same prescription reveals a tangled web of interlocking interests spun by the usual suspects who earn their fortunes by building subdivisions.

Let’s look at some public officials who draw their political sustenance from the development industry. There are two incumbents on the council who do not face re-election this year and who have sided with the developers on a number of votes, in particular those involving impact mitigation fees. Mike Leighan has been openly hostile to the Marysville School District’s repeated efforts to increase developer contributions to funding new schools. John Soriano has sat beside and voted with Leighan on this issue. Both Leighan and Soriano have contributed to the campaign of Tom Grady, who is running for city council this year. Grady’s campaign treasurer, Katherine Smith, also served as Leighan’s treasurer when he ran for re-election in 1999. Leighan and his wife make most of the political signs for growth machine candidates.

Shirley Bartholomew, whom I ran against four years ago, has decided not to seek re-election. However, she has contributed to the campaigns of Grady and Jon Nehring. Council member Donna Pedersen, whose term ends this year, has contributed to Nehring’s campaign.

As of October 4, the day this column is being written, Nehring had raised $2,534. Of this, $500 came from Shelby Construction; $100 from a principal of Belmark Industries, a major local developer and generous contributor to the group Concerned Citizens of Marysville, of which I’ll have more to say later; $200 from Harv Jubie, a prominent local developer; $200 from Stephen Leifer, who is in “construction”; $200 from Jess Darling a local developer; and $200 from Mr. & Mrs. Porter, developers from Clinton, Wash. The Porters also gave $500 to Mayor Dave Weiser’s 1999 re-election campaign.

And speaking of the Mayor, we should spend a little time reviewing his 1999 contributors. They include: $500 from Boyden and Robinett, extremely active developers in Snohomish County; $2,500 from the aforementioned Shelby Construction company; $350 from Jess Darling; $200 from Jim Mulligan, a retired developer; $250 from members of the Leifer family; $500 from Norman Tubbs, who is with Pacific Rim Development in Everett; $300 from Douglas MacDonald, whose father, Arch, left a sizeable estate from development activity; $100 from Michael Leighan; $100 from the Washington Association of Realtors; $250 from the law firm that represents the City of Marysville; and $250 from Tom Grady.

As for Mr. Grady, he has so far reported $5,776 in contributions this year. The largest contribution is from Concerned Citizens of Marysville, which gave $2,000. He has also received $250 from the Affordable Housing Council, the political action committee of the Master Builders Association. Douglas MacDonald contributed $500, and Mike Leighan and his wife have given $250.

John Myers, who quit the council a few years ago and is now running for his old seat, has filed only a declaration of candidacy. He has yet to report contributions or expenditures, even though his signs have been posted all over the city. His campaign treasurer is none other than Kathy Weiser, the Mayor’s wife.

Now for Concerned Citizens of Marysville, the group that is “out to get” incumbent NormaJean Dierck. As of October 4, the group had raised over $18,000—forty percent coming from developers outside Marysville. I’ll list a few of the group’s major contributors: Belmark Industries ($2,000); Barclay’s North, Inc. ($2,000); Darling Investment ($1,000); Bill Roberts, a local developer, former city councilor, and current member of the planning commission ($1,000); Mainline Construction ($2,000); Pacific Rim Development ($4,000); Harv Jubie ($1,000); Gott Construction, a principal of which also contributed to Jon Nehring’s campaign ($200); Pacific Logging ($750); Jim Mulligan ($500); and Ken Baxter, former city council member who also contributed to Mayor Weiser’s 1999 campaign ($200).

Concerned Citizens has reported only two expenditures: $2,000 to the Tom Grady campaign, and $1,000 to the Marysville-Tulalip Chamber of Commerce to fund candidate forums. The $15,000 left in the account will begin to flow to the favored candidates, who are Nehring, Grady, and Myers. As you drive around Marysville, you can’t help but notice the huge Grady signs with smaller Nehring and Myers signs either attached like barnacles or residing underneath.

Four council members compose a majority. Soriano and Leighan are already on board. Donna Wright, the quintessential stooge of all developers, faces no opposition this November. (Nevertheless, her campaign continues to receive contributions from developers.) The growth machine needs to win only one of the three contested races. I’ll have a bit more to say on the races next time.

MR. WILSON’S MISERABLE WORLD

Note: This essay appeared in the Feb. 20, 2002, edition of the Marysville Globe.

The erstwhile publisher of this paper and former professional politician Sim R. Wilson made the mistake of expressing his views in a recent letter to the editor. In so doing, he revealed a mental capacity generally associated with people who think the environmental movement is a communist plot and the Master Builders Association a benevolent society dedicated to the public good. Besides, he gets his facts wrong.

The late Hank Ketchum’s cartoon featured a Mr. Wilson menaced daily by his young neighbor Dennis. Our Mr. Wilson is evidently troubled by a “small group of malcontents led by an overage hippy from Berkeley”—a not-so-subtle allusion to this writer, although to those who know better, I am hardly their leader and I’ve never inhaled. In particular, Mr. Wilson doesn’t like people messing with his local government, the one he has helped purchase. This group of “malcontents” has the audacity to circulate petitions in an effort to abolish the mayor’s position in favor of a competent city administrator. For disturbing Mr. Wilson, the signature-gatherers are deemed guilty of “fraud.”

In Mr. Wilson’s view of the world, a city administrator is nothing more than a “boss,” a school superintendent “works full time to bamboozle the board [of directors],” the administrator or superintendent is a “dictator” and both city councils and school boards function as “a rubber stamp for the administration.” An independently elected mayor bossing, bamboozling and dictating does not fit the Wilson Weltanschauung; so the possibility is ignored.

The blooper-prone Mr. Wilson plays footloose with uncomfortable facts. Contrary to his assertion, the city of Snohomish still employs a council-manager form of government and the Snohomish County executive, like Marysville’s current mayor, is elected by the people and not appointed by the council. In each case, the mayor and the executive do not answer to their respective councils: they are free to set their own agendas, manipulate government to serve their benefactors and selectively implement council policies as they see fit.

The “malcontents” who dare upset Mr. Wilson work their butts off to build a better future. They have no pot of gold awaiting them at the finish line. They receive no funding from deep pockets. They earn no congratulations from Mr. Wilson’s government. On the contrary, at every turn they are ridiculed by the likes of Mr. Wilson, and too often they face defeat at the hands of a populace kept ignorant and distracted by propagandists working in and outside of a carefully purchased government. How many of you, after all, fell for the banal campaign images brought to you by the disingenuously named group Concerned Citizens of Marysville? Nearly half of the group’s contributions came from outside the city and the members’ “concern” extended no farther than their wallets. This group, which included our Mr. Wilson, must have known about Tom Grady’s difficulties in distinguishing between Albertson’s bank account and his own. Yet the group sold the almost-felon to unsuspecting voters like Crest sells toothpaste. This comparison is hardly fair to Procter & Gamble, but shame on those who don’t bother to look beyond the labels. You may be unable to buy your own government as Mr. Wilson and his friends do, but you can open your eyes and use your noggin. Nor would it hurt to turn your ears in the direction of the “malcontents” and away from those who feign concern for your behalf.

The Marysville School District: a pressurized container

After so many years of collective neglect by successive school boards, administrations, city councils and the citizens of Marysville, the school district threatens to explode in a torrent of acrimony and mistrust. While an alleged lack of communication between administration and staff may serve as the proximate cause, the protracted failure to adequately accommodate growth is the real culprit.

The school district has been suffering a torturous transition from the comfort of small to the bureaucracy of big. District classrooms are overcrowded, the schools congested, and campuses scarce. And soon after passing a seemingly generous maintenance and operations levy, the school district faced a multi-million-dollar budget shortfall that required painful cuts, which helped precipitate the latest round of employee unrest. This sorry state of affairs emerges from decades of dereliction.

The city’s 1996 Comprehensive Plan expresses the following goal: “Include school districts in land use planning to ensure adequate facilities to handle growth.” Whether or not district personnel have participated in the planning, the school facilities are clearly inadequate. City policies “encourage” (a terribly vague and ineffectual word) the location of schools “close to existing or proposed residential areas” and to use schools “as focal points for neighborhoods.” But the school district’s Capital Facilities Plan describes development of its own land inventory as “restricted due to significant wetlands, limited site sizes, high utility costs, and/or inappropriate locations.” In other words, the school district has property, but it’s too far away, too small, or dominated by marshlands to adequately serve a burgeoning student population.

During the most recent debate over school impact mitigation fees, council member Michael Leighan, diehard Tom Grady supporter and adamantine apparatchik of Mr. Wilson and Friends, resolutely defended the interests of developers against the vastly more important enterprise of public education. He wrongly asserted that it was not the council’s responsibility to assist the school district in accommodating the thousands of new students imposed on the district through the developer-friendly policies championed by Mr. Leighan and his colleagues—so easily purchased by Concerned Citizens and their ilk.

Meanwhile, as the city council was denying the school district critical funds for capital construction, a succession of school boards obsessed with things sexual, ignored the proliferating portables and never bothered to tell the community that it was running out of room to perform its statutory function. In the midst of employee turmoil and the aftermath of sloppy accounting the board will ask voters for over a hundred million dollars to build some new schools—schools that were desperately needed years ago.

HOW AM I DOING?

Note: This essay appeared in the Feb. 13, 2002, issue of the Marysville Globe.

It would be better not to know so many things than to know so many things that are not so.

  • Felix Okoye, The American Image of Africa (1971)

In my last column I discussed the disparity between textbook civics and democracy’s discontents. What we may learn in the classroom about how governments work bears no resemblance to the way things really are. We do not practice democracy, as evidenced by our dismal voter participation rates, because we don’t know how to practice democracy. As children, we obey our parents. As students, we obey our teachers. As employees, we obey our supervisors. As adults, outside of school and work, we may obey our god. In home, school, and at work, someone else tells us what to do and how to do it. Only after we are magically transformed into “citizens” of a city, county, state, and country are we expected to practice democracy. By then, we have become obeisant, certainly, but find it nearly impossible to appreciate what Abraham Lincoln had in mind when he said that democracy is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Ah, but who are the people? The term is vague, because it seems to imply everyone. If it does, how do we-the-people determine which way we-the-people want to go? Well, we could try voting, which brings us back to where we began. But most of us don’t vote, the minimum act of democracy. That means a fairly small minority of us determines who represents the people or whether or not car owners pay lower automobile license fees. It also means that we don’t have much of a democracy in the United States, although we seem willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year to make the rest of the world “safe” for it.

* * *

Comes now our representative Reardon [now the Snohomish County executive] in search of answers. He wants you to tell him how he is doing in Olympia. But how would you know, and isn’t it awfully presumptuous of him to ask? Could you observe him in action to judge his mettle, his legislative adroitness, his erudition before his colleagues? His mailing, entitled “What do you think?”, asks for “candid feedback” and calls for “an end to partisan bickering.” As a Democrat, Mr. Reardon would surely want those on the other side of the aisle to support his party’s agenda. He talks of working “to make our values Olympia’s priorities.” Whose values? Let’s take a vote. Never mind.

From the other side of the country, Second District representative Larsen writes: “Dear Neighbor.” He, too, has enclosed a survey; this one on transportation. He says that the responses he receives “will help me draft legislation and educate members of Congress about how best to improve traffic congestion in your neighborhood.” Do you see how simple it is, all you civics teachers? Just tell your representatives how you feel about their performance and the traffic mess and, voila, instant legislation along with some education from Mr. Larsen’s Neighborhood.

* * *

If you saw last week’s headline in the Globe, you know that something’s afoot in Marysville. A group of citizens is gathering signatures on a petition that, if ultimately approved by the voters, will change the form of city government from mayor-council to council-manager. The mayor’s position would be abolished, and the council would select a city manager to run the city.

I am not a disinterested citizen in this process. A year ago I did some preliminary research on the subject of changing the government and produced a report, which was circulated to a few other citizens. I am not, however, gathering signatures and I am otherwise staying in the background, save for what appears in this space. (Note: If you wish to receive an electronic version of the report, please let me know by e-mail.)

It’s important to know that last year—and long after I had finished my report—the state legislature revised pertinent procedures. The old law, which had been in place for several decades, required an immediate election of new councilmembers once the voters had changed the form of government. In its revised form, the law states that current councilmembers serve out their terms of office and the mayor automatically becomes an eighth councilmember until his mayoral term expires. Who breaks the tie? The legislators hadn’t thought that far.

* * *

Worried about losing retail dollars to the Tribes’ Quilceda Village, the Marysville city council has hired a consultant to evaluate potential economic development opportunities this side of I-5. The consultant has quite a challenge: He will have to accomplish something that the Downtown Revitalization Committee could not do.

I have long described the city as an “ugly, dysfunctional burg.” I am not alone in that assessment. Several years ago many county residents participated in what was called a visual preference survey. We studied dozens of photographs of cities, towns, farmlands, and countryside, then ranked them on the basis of what we liked and disliked. Several of the photos depicted locations in Marysville. All were disliked. Over the last decade the ugliness has gotten only worse, save for the splendid city library.

So, how does one attract anything other than another fast-food joint, real estate office, auto parts store, or housing development? Whatever the answer, it must happen soon, or their will be a giant sucking sound of Marysville dollars rushing over the freeway. I can hear it starting already.

EDUCATING AGAINST IGNORANCE

Note: This essay appeared in the Jan. 30, 2002, edition of the Marysville Globe.

There is in America a subject called civics, in which, perhaps more than in any other, the teaching is expected to be misleading. The young are taught a sort of [textbook] account of how public affairs are supposed to be conducted, and are carefully shielded from all knowledge as to how in fact they are conducted. When they grow up and discover the truth, the result is too often a complete cynicism in which all public ideals are lost; whereas if they had been taught the truth carefully and with proper comment at an earlier age they might have become [adults] able to combat evils in which, as it is, they acquiesce with a shrug.

— Bertrand Russell, “The Functions of a Teacher” (1940)

Before his death in 1971 at the age of ninety-nine, Russell had compiled a massive body of writing that touched on a multitude of subjects—from the foundations of mathematics to the benefits of adultery. And while he stood several times for public office, founded and operated a private elementary school, lectured frequently around the globe on a variety of topics, married four women, fathered several children, engaged in many protests for which he was arrested, spent time in prison, opposed with equal fervor both fascism and communism, and lobbied Russia and the western powers to abolish nuclear weapons—Russell was above all a writer and received the Nobel prize for literature in 1950, despite having earned his initial fame as England’s foremost logician, mathematician, and philosopher.

Russell actively opposed World War I by working against conscription, speaking at rallies, and writing shrill warnings about the impending “ruination of civilization,” which he believed to be the probable outcome of the bloody conflict. During this period, one event had a particularly profound effect on him. On a walk to one of many rallies, he was accosted by a very hostile and unruly pro-war crowd that would have struck him had it not been for police intervention. Russell returned home “in a mood of deep dejection,” writes his biographer Ray Monk. His optimism for and strong desire to preserve civilization had been vanquished by a mob committed to the violence of war, if not also against him. He attributed this barbarism to ignorance, which, he believed, could be eliminated only by education. Sobered by this nasty experience, Russell resumed his philosophical studies.

In totalitarian regimes, the heads of state can simply impose their will on the citizenry. Under democratic governments, in which people have freedom of expression and the right to vote, public officials must rely on the power of persuasion—that is, propaganda. The ease with which this succeeds in America is astonishing.

Political scientists who study these things have pointed their fingers at television. Those of us who get our news from TV are generally more ignorant of current events and have lower voter participation rates than those who read daily newspapers and weekly periodicals. A recent study by Columbia’s School of Journalism concludes that local television newsrooms provide little useful information to citizens but increasing quantities of entertainment. More often than not, a bleeding story that leads the six o’clock report will be appropriately buried in the pages of next morning’s paper.

But I side with Bertrand Russell in also faulting our education system for concealing the truth and failing to help students mold what linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky calls “intellectual self-defense” against both corporate and governmental propaganda. The stuff of “civics” is largely fictional; governments do not function, if they function at all, according to the textbooks. Being taught how a bill becomes law affords no student the knowledge of who introduces legislation and why. And should our representatives decide to protect the environment, for example, will they provide any dollars to ensure that it happens? In the classroom there is little, if any, discussion of the monied interests arrayed on two or more sides of an issue or of the ideological forces that compete within the deliberative body. Growing up in the suburbs of Northern California I had no teacher who spoke about local governments, the issues that divided them, or which group of people almost always got their way.

A folk song from the sixties written by Tom Paxton asked “What Did You Learn in School Today?” Here is one answer from the song:

I learned that government must be strong;

It’s always right and never wrong;

Our leaders are the finest men

And so we elect them again and again.

The last few lines would have been tragically ironic in Russell’s time. Unfortunately, they still ring true today, especially under present circumstances:

I learned that war is not so bad;

I learned of the great ones we have had;

We fought in Germany and in France

And someday I might get my chance.

In last November’s general election just forty-six percent of Marysville’s registered voters bothered to cast a ballot, despite trainloads of dollars spent and considerable press coverage. Arlington’s figures were worse, with only forty-three percent voting. Against the number of eligible voters, the turnout, as usual, was appallingly low. Only a third of those persons of voting age in each city showed up at the polls.

Russell argued that the biggest obstacle to educating against ignorance was religious belief. Studies have shown that the citizens of the United States are an especially ecclesiastical breed, with nearly half attesting to the existence of Satan and twice as many believing in the Almighty. America prays on Sunday mornings while Europe catches up on much-needed sleep. As the Marysville city council begins each session with a nod to God, our children are being tested in their seats. They may escape their confines knowing that two plus two equals four and that it’s important to obey authority, but they will lack the tools to educate themselves and will have no idea what democracy really means. After all, they will never have practiced it.