Pay No Attention to the Trainwreck on the Left

Reluctantly, very reluctantly, and after much pleading from the organizers, I agreed to show up to a meeting entitled, “What’s Up With The Left in Madison.”

My reluctance was based in my long involvement with Progressive Dane from its inception (’93?) until a couple of years ago. For all of those years I tried to get the party’s leadership as well as elected officials to understand the economic & environmental trainwreck around the bend if they didn’t start applying the brakes to all of that car-mandatory development out in the ‘burbs. I even worked hard for countless candidates — many of whom won — who promised to do something about all of the bad planning.

All of those efforts were to no avail.

Not only did they not listen, but PD alders & county supervisors actively accelerated the paving at an alarming rate.

The result:   An economic and environmental policy trainwreck with one train piling into the next in a fog of bad decisionmaking.

Trainwreck #1: Foreclosures. Housing in Madison’s ‘burbs, extending out into rural subdivisions and horsey-doggie sprawl, is now so far flung and anti-pedestrian and anti-transit that the poor, the young, the elderly and the conscientiously carless cannot access it. And for those who just value a human-scaled place (regardless of their socio-economic demographic pigeonhole), it has no value. This destruction of value was brought about by a widely recognized lack of universal access planned into these developments. Walls of distance and speeding car traffic as it were.

In a sense, cosmic justice prevailed as the foreclosure crisis hit car-mandatory places the hardest. Unfortunately, however, it is hurting us all, as the cratering real estate values out there are devastating Madison & Dane County’s tax base.

These economically unsustainable development patterns were heartily supported by elected progressives with nary a peep from party membership (yours truly excepted, of course).

Did the price crash have to happen, given the national foreclosure crisis? Nope. Most of our walking/biking/transit-friendly ‘hoods have either a) maintained their value or b) actually increased in value. This same trend has occurred across the country with human-scaled neighborhoods holding their value while cul-de-sacs tank in the same region. Instead of seeing the foreclosure crisis for what it is — a disaster for all — progressives see it as an opportunity to…squat! (Yes, this is the next direct action actually proposed at the meeting.) So ok, it will make for great theater. And I like theater. But then what? Do we sit there all self-satisfied that we have stuck-it-to-the-man while continuing to support policies that continually drive down our tax base?! What sort of vicious cycle of insanity is this?

Trainwreck #2: The abovedescribed tax base destruction (developers churning out soulless subdivisions -> 1960s-educated planners collaborating -> ‘progressive’ elected officials wielding rubber stamps approving every car-mandatory subdivision ->  gullible homebuyers (or, perhaps more likely, homebuyers given no choice) -> crazy bankers -> (soon) crazy squatters) is now squeezing every city & county department, including those departments forming the social safety net advocated for by the good progressives. At today’s meeting, progressives at first stood stunned, then started casting about for scapegoats. People, only one department has continued to receive double digit year-over-year budget increases, and it is the very people who brought the housing crisis to you in the first place: The highway department! Pavement expansion is raging at 10 times population growth + inflation. TEN times! That’s good money chasing after bad, folks. We’ve been there, done that…and crashed. Yet we keep piling the people’s cash into the same bad land use patterns. It’s not a goat you’re looking for, it’s a hog; and the hog sits in the chief of highways seat. And your endorsed ‘progressive’ elected officials continue to slop that hog.

The car-mandatory nature of our elected leaders’ policies has created trainwreck #3: Increasingly filthy air, thanks to city-mandated driving (a direct result of car-mandatory places). The air is getting so filthy, in fact, that Madison is soon to be designated a dirty air zone by the EPA (‘non-attainment’ in the jargon). This will seriously damage Madison’s ability to attract & retain good jobs, as potential employers will recoil at the extra hoops mandated by the feds when air pollution exceeds the allowable levels.

And while progressives perseverate mightily about the need for good, family-supporting jobs, they fail to see the environment as anything but a white environmentalist/elitist/hobbyist’s concern. (Emphasis on white; there was much hand-wringing about the overwhelming whiteness of the progressive community.). Folks, dirty air is bad for everybody. But the poor — disproportionately non-white — will be disproportionately hit. Those jobs the poor need? Gone thanks to dirty air. (Milwaukee and other rustbelt cities, perpetually under the EPA’s thumb have been hemorrhaging jobs since the inception of the Clean Air Act. Coincidence? Me thinks not. And no, it isn’t the Act’s fault, it is the fault of short-sighted local & state leaders who worship cars more than their constituents’ economic and physical health.)

Then there are the children of the poor. We know that they will suffer disproportionately from air pollution-induced asthma (do I need to go into how bad this is for the developmental progress of a child?).

Fighting against dirty air is not a hobby. Nor is it only a concern of only white enviros.

Trainwreck #4: Dirty drinking water. So much land is paved over that our aquifers are no longer recharging as they should, thus rendering increasingly contaminated water. Combine the paving with constant leaking of petrochemicals onto that pavement (tire & brake grit, exhaust that settles on soil & pavement, oil leaks, etc.); then, after a rain, that filth rushes across that pavement, to sewers, then directly to our surface waters (which now feed the aquifer thanks to paving over of infiltration zones) and you’ve got a recipe for hydrologic disaster…. Case in point: the combination described here has put the kibosh on developing a well for the industrial southeast side, perhaps imperiling hundreds of jobs. Jobs, people!

The biggest trainwreck of all is upcoming: energy. The $4/gallon summers of 2007 & 2008 were the first dominos to set in motion the housing market catastrophe. (In car-mandatory places families faced 2 choices: fill the SUV or pay the mortgage; in the end, neither was economically sustainable.)

But that is nothing compared to what we will be facing soon.

So far, the military has been able to keep the oil supplies open, but the endless wars over oil are proving to be costly in lives, treasure, constitutional rights and basic justice. Social justice advocates often bemoan the de-facto military draft (crushing economic necessity forcing individuals to ‘volunteer’ for the military, etc.), but they typically fail to see first causes: Most of our military is now dedicated to fighting for oil. The world’s #1 consumer of oil? The military. For what? Fighting for oil. The snake is eating its tail.

That is to say, expect even more of the above.

Unless. Unless, we get a handle on our resource consumption and the fouling of our own nests. Because folks, if we don’t, there won’t be any justice left to attain. For anyone.

But this was entirely too mind-blowing for the good progressives to grasp at the meeting Saturday. When we were asked to write down our vision for the city if we achieved a progressive majority on the city council, most people dreamed their dreams as the exercise intended. Affordable housing for all. Racial harmony. Family supporting jobs. Full funding for social services. A strong Regional Transit Authority. And on & on, the same litany we’ve come to know & love about the progressive vision. (And yes, I do love it. As far as it goes. Which isn’t far enough to do any of the above….)

My response to what Madison would look like with a progressive majority? Massively increased paving over of rich, precious, Dane County farmland. Dirtier air. Filthier water. More car traffic. Poor people cut off from jobs due to walls of distance. Planning that plans universal access out of our urban landscape.

Face it, our ‘progressive’ elected officials voted for all of the above in the past and continue to do so. There is no evidence it would change with a majority.

Thus, many of us have simply quit working for any candidates. (At least until we see some evidence of real change.) With the loss of key electoral volunteers, progressives have continued to lose strength on the council.

For no amount of pressure from organized groups seems to have any bearing on their decisions. Neither 20 hours a week of volunteer labor….Nor being a ward captain turning out margins of victories….Nor cold hard progressive cash…Nothing seems to work with these people. (This was, thankfully, alluded to by several other participants).

Many at the meeting lamented the high level of apathy in Madison. I strongly disagree. This city is so organized around mutually supporting — and countless — progressive causes that it should be clear to our elected officials that we do, in fact, want progress. Not Detroit’s vision of a city-enforced car mandate. Not the Teabaggers’ vision of an unstable, grindingly impoverished and violent future. We have stated over & over that we want something better. In fact, I view Madison’s strong civic culture much like a venerable Roman arch, with each organization forming the arch & wall (each brick in the pillar or stone in the arch representing an organization) mutually reinforcing neighboring, allied organizations.

We all hang together or....

But when the keystone element at the top is missing/weak/lacking in conviction, the whole edifice falls apart. In this metaphor, the keystone element is each of our elected officials. Given that they are universally AWOL with regard to the desires of their constituents, the whole edifice falls apart, just as a Roman arch would.

In the case of Madison, the people are doing a yeoman’s job of holding things together, pulling together the increasingly tight resources they have in their non-profits to make things work as best they can for those who have very little. Yet there was a lot of self-flaggelation/blaming ourselves for this sorry situation. Again, I vehemently disagree; the hardworking, civically-engaged people of Madison are not to blame. What is missing is that strong keystone element, starting with the out-of-touch mayor, but including every alder — yes, the ‘progressive’ ones inclusive.

There is no hope of getting through to the current crop of elected officials. In their hands, our destiny lies in gluttonous energy use, car-mandatory land use patterns, transportation only for the well-wheeled, dirtier & dirtier air  and filthier & filthier water.

They simply do not have the capacity to get it.

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