A Conservative Trend, To Where?

I was sitting at work and thinking too much, again. On such occcasions, my thoughts naturally drift toward particular topics. I got to thinking about government, as I’m a government employee, albeit a mere minion. How government operates in the practical sense is a personal preoccupation.

I’ve been with the local city government for more than 15 years now (along with having lived in this town off and on since the mid-1980s). My civil service position offers perspective on certain issues. It forces me to think about local community a bit differently. I regularly see my coworkers and I know people who work in other departments. Most of my coworkers are union members. I even work along side my union steward a couple days a week. In talking to various people, I get a bit of the inside scoop on what is going on in the department and in city government (plus, I get a sense of what is going on in the community in general). This is fodder for my mind.

Right now, the parking department is doing repairs to the ramps. Another coworker told me that the ramps were only built to last a couple of decades. Some of them are now several decades old. They’ve built new ramps over the years, but the old ones remain. To get an idea about how old they are, as one of these ramps has been worked on, a large chunk of concrete came loose in a different section of the ramp and it landed on a car. If that had landed on a person, that would have been a quite the lawsuit. Obviously, repairs are needed and have been needed for a long time… or maybe entirely new ramps built to replace the old, but that would cost even more money.

Not being privy to the decision-making process, I’m left curious about what goes on behind the scenes, beyond what little info I’m able to gather. Many changes have been happening in recent years and it is sometimes concerning or simply perplexing.

Like in many other cities, a particular kind of conservativism has taken hold here, in spite of it outwardly being a liberal college town. The city council, from what I can tell, has always been dominated by local business interests, most especially the Downtown Business Association. It’s certainly not the supposedly ‘left-wing’ university professors and other intellectual elite running this town. Then again, local business owners around here don’t seem to be as right-wing as you’d expect in some places. This is still a liberal town and, as data shows, liberals have high rates of small business ownership. The conservatism that has taken hold has a vein of liberalism running through it (or is it the other way around, that this liberal town has a vein of conservatism running through it?). Besides, conservative-minded liberals aren’t all that rare, especially in a fairly small town in a rural Midwestern state, but that is another issue.

One aspect of this conservatism has been seen downtown. That is where can be found the pedestrian mall, the main public space. It has a permanent stage, a fountain, playground, and adjoining public library. It’s a popular gathering place, the heart of the community. But the idea of the public, all of the public, not just shoppers, freely using this public space has bothered many of the downtown business owners.

Through the Downtown Business Association, their voices get heard by local officials and their demands often get heeded. They helped push through a number of changes to discourage the low class people from hanging out too much downtown (by “low class” I mean average people, the common folk; not just bums, punks, and “ped rats”). They banned smoking in the pedestrian mall, banned people from setting their belongings down around them, and for a while banned dogs as well. They constricted the areas where panhandlers could do their thing. They made it illegal to lay down on a bench.

Still, that wasn’t enough. They removed a large number of the benches and picnic tables where the low class people convened and ‘loitered’ about. The place where that seating used to be is called the People’s Park because some decades ago, before the pedestrian mall was built, it was created by the public having demanded public space downtown (now it is part of the pedestrian mall). A new expensive, TIF-funded I might add, highrise was built and the People’s Park is now basically the front yard for rich people. That was also where a drum circle had met weekly for decades, but one of the rich people complained about the noise and the police made them leave, never to come back. I half expect to discover homeless spikes around one of these new fancy highrises popping up around downtown.

So, that is the mood right now of the local economic and political ruling elite. I should note that none of these changes were protested by any of the local liberal activists, and they have been known to protest about many other things (I’ve occasionally joined them, radical that I am). I suspect it’s the boiling frog scenario. These changes were put into place in a slow process stretched out over a number of years, many of them done covertly. For example, the seating was removed during some construction work and they were conveniently never put back. My brother at the time was working in CBD (Central Business District) as part of the Parks and Recreation Department and, according to him, management said this was done on purpose to destroy this community space.

That gives you the context for my thinking. My direct focus at the moment, however, is on fiscal conservatism. It’s a strange beast. Most people are familiar with it at the federal level, i.e., big government. Reaganomics used the rhetoric of fiscal conservatism. But what is that rhetoric supposed to mean? It’s hard to take it at face value.

In the eighties, Republicans had plenty of control (with a majority in the Senate for the first 6 years of the Reagan administration) and the Democratic Party wasn’t being obstructionist (some key Democrats were Southern conservatives who later became Republicans, which meant that Reagan began with a “working conservative majority” in the House). The Reagan administration was able to act according to their own vision and agenda. Many cuts were made to taxes, only to later raise taxes again. Some government funding was slashed, while other government funding was increased massively. All of this was done according to Reagan and his advisors. Republican budgets were passed and Reagan basically got the spending he requested; actually, slightly less. The national debt almost tripled in Reagan’s eight years in office. This is how the Reagan administration created the permanent debt that we still have. Worse still, along with a bigger military, big government in general grew bigger still, including an increase of public sector jobs.

It’s not as if this happened on accident. They knew what they were doing. No one was forcing their hand. The question is why did they want to do this. Obviously, Reganomics was the opposite of acting fiscally responsible. If fiscal conservatism doesn’t mean fiscal responsibility, then what does it mean? I’ve read about suggested theories. For example, some see it as Starve the Beast. It’s seen as a way of attacking government by forcing it into debt. In reality, this just means attacking the social safety net and public services. It certainly hasn’t led to the shrinking of big government, as that was unlikely ever its real purpose.

It’s not just an issue of big government at the federal level. Even small local government is attacked using this same rhetoric and the same tactics. I’ve seen this firsthand in this town where I live and work. Although a liberal town, the business-friendly city council hired a fiscally conservative city manager. He has been the city manager for a while now, long enough to implement his policies. This includes a number of things:

1) They’ve been decreasing city employee numbers through attrition. However, at the same time in the department I work in, the number of office and management positions has increased. Also, one of the problems in the parking department is that they even decreased the number of the parking enforcement attendants (AKA “meter maids”) who actually bring in money, and so they are bringing in less money through tickets while also having less presence in enforcing the parking laws, the latter of which (parking enforcement) one presumes is or should be the main purpose of the parking department.

2) Decreasing employees has been made possible through several means. Unsurprisingly, they’ve privatized much of the work city employees used to do.* I’m not sure this actually saves money, but it sure helps to weaken the labor union. It really just seems like the city is doing less, rather than being more efficient or whatever. The contracted workers don’t do a lot of the work that city employees used to do and neither do the remaining city employees. All the workers are stretched more thin. So, basic maintenance often goes undone. Here are a few examples: the stairwells in the ramps are dirtier, parking lines get painted less often, weeding is low priority, large areas of green space are no longer mowed, and some of the multi-use trails weren’t plowed this past winter; not to mention repairs such as to the ramp were long overdue. It’s all very basic work that isn’t getting done.

They’ve sought to get rid of employees through other means as well. One method has been to mechanize particular jobs, such as putting an expensive (both expensive to buy and maintain) automated system with pay stations in the ramps to replace cashiers, but the system is too unreliable and so they still need to keep some of the cashiers around. I assume that the main justification for the new system was to save money. Did it save money? It is far from clear, as the financial investment in this new system is massive. Basic parking for a smaller town like this easily could be operated with a much smaller budget than is required for these high tech improvements. Parking cars doesn’t necessitate some of the most advanced and expensive technology around. Such things can be nice, but they are far from essential. There is nothing fiscally conservative about investments so large that they may never pay for themselves in savings.

* Let me offer some interesting backstory.

There is a company that does the contract work in the former departments of Parking, Transit, and Central Business District—all combined into a single department now. It might be the same company that also is contracted by the Parks and Recreation Department. The company was hired by Parking/Transit management before there was ever any bidding. Then bidding took place, but management said it decided to go with that company because they were already doing the job. So, basically, it was a no-bid contract and the bidding was just a legal formality.

I don’t know that anything fishy was going on behind closed doors, but it is quite suspicious. It makes one wonder if there was cronyism going on. Of course, at the federal level, they often don’t even have to pretend to go through a bidding process and blatantly give contracts to cronies. More covert behavior is maybe required at the local level… or maybe I’m just being paranoid.

3) They have consolidated a number of departments.* This means there are fewer departments and so fewer department heads. However, in practice, this just means the remaining departments are much larger with more responsibilities and more staff (along with more expensive computers and other technology; specifically why they need more office and tech staff to operate/maintain it and more supervisors to oversee it all). Plus, this makes the remaining department heads all the more powerful in their greater authority and territory, especially as they are working closely with the city manager in making these decisions and implementing them. Isn’t it interesting that fiscal conservatism ends up growing the size of government departments and further concentrating power in the hands of a few? How does this shrink government or necessarily even save money?

* By the way, one coworker told me the best theory for some of the recent department consolidations.

The guy who was the head of the Parking Department is still the head of the new consolidated department, which is now called Transit, the former name of the separate department for buses and vehicle maintenance that was incorporated into Parking. Now, Refuse has also been brought into the fold, which is truly bizarre. Neither this department head nor any of the Parking/Transit staff below him knows anything about Refuse. Plus, going by what I’ve heard, it seems there may have been a number of occasions in the past when OSHA regulations were broken in management’s dealing with chemicals and waste disposal, although no investigation ever occurred. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

The only explanation that made sense of this departmental consolidation is that there was one commonality between Parking, Transit, and Refuse. They all receive major federal funding. I was told that the department head is highly skilled in getting federal funding, one of the most important skills of all for a bureaucrat.

4) The issue people in the local area are most familiar with are TIFs (Tax Increment Financing). It’s a way of giving temporary tax cuts to builders for specific building projects in order to incentivize development where it is needed. It’s original purpose was for blighted neighborhoods, but Iowa City has no blighted neighborhoods. Nor does Coralville, the adjoining town (essentially, the suburb for Iowa City) that has used TIFs to an even greater degree. All the TIFs go to major projects, such as upscale highrises (for expensive apartments and expensive stores). Also, a recent upscale grocery store also got a TIF. My father is the president of the local chapter of Kiwanis. He recently heard a city official speak (I think it was the assistant city manager or something like that). The city official admitted that every major project (i.e., big biz) expects a TIF to build anything. It’s become an expectation. Of course, no small business owner or low-scale builder received a TIF in this town. It’s become yet another form of cronyism via big biz subsidies.*

* This is odd and irritating for more than the obvious reasons.

If you give it a sleight amount of thought, you realize this means that these TIF-funded developers aren’t paying the taxes that pay for the services that the local government provides. Someone has to pay for them. So, already established businesses and smaller developers end up footing the bill, and in doing so essentially subsidize their competition.

This is at a time when the city government has lost revenue from other tax sources, because of a change in Iowa tax laws involving rental properties. This is the whole reason for tightening the public belt by reducing services, eliminating staff, privatizing work, etc. From the perspective of fiscal responsibility, this makes no sense. These TIF subsidies are in essence the giving away of money that will have to be offset somehow… or else the city will go into debt.

Furthermore, it’s not even that this TIF-funding is going to all big biz developers in a neutral fashion, as a favoritism has formed where TIFs have mostly gone to one particular developer, the Moen Group. The city council says it gives TIFs to this developer because he is reliable, but few other reliable developers would even bother because they know they’re systematically being excluded.

My father told me about one guy who wasn’t local and so had no crony connections. He wanted to build a hotel here. After dealing with endless red tape and other bureaucratic obstructionism, he gave up and decided not to build at all. Developers who have connections get TIFs and those who don’t have connections can’t even get their plans approved, much less get massive tax breaks through TIFs.

I suppose all of this is standard politics in this plutocratic and corporatist era. I’m used to hearing about this on the national level or even the state level. But it is so much more disheartening to see it with my own eyes at the local level, in my own community. This isn’t even a big city. It’s just a little college town surrounded by rural farmland.

The point I’m trying to make here isn’t to argue for cynicism. I’m genuinely curious what it all means. Where is this coming form? What is motivating it? Why is fiscal conservatism so fiscally irresponsible in practice and it seems intentionally so? What is the link between fiscal conservative rhetoric and social conservative rhetoric? Furthermore, what is the close tie between conservatism and cronyism or even outright corporatism?

It feels like there is some larger force or vision behind all of this, transcending any single place and government. Particular policies and government actions don’t seem all that significant taken in isolation. Yet when put all together, it points toward something. What exactly?

None of this is necessarily intended as a criticism toward those who genuinely believe in conservatism, and certainly not intended as criticism toward those who genuinely believe in fiscal responsibility and good governance. My point is that conservatives themselves should be mad most of all. Even ignoring the fiscal irresponsibility, actual functioning conservatism so often seems unconservative and anti-traditional, especially in its embrace of laissez-faire capitalism with its privatization of the commons and undermining of the public good. If that is conservatism, then conservatism has nothing to do with traditional values and social order.

To be fair, some conservatives are bothered by all of this or at least parts of it. My conservative father has complained about what he sees here locally. We both live in the same town at present and so it comes up in discussions on a regular basis. Although my father fully supports fiscal conservative objectives, he doesn’t see this town as a shining example of fiscal conservative success. It doesn’t bother him that city employees are eliminated or that work is contracted out. Still, even he can’t shake the feeling of a cronyism that runs this town.

This is something that should bother all local citizens, across the political spectrum. Where is the outrage? Where are the protests? Heck, where is the local media to report on any of this?*

* One coworker I know well, my union steward, has wondered about that last question, in particular.

He has noted some of the close personal ties between city officials and those who run the local newspaper. He has also observed that the employees of the local newspaper get a special parking permit that no one else has, not even other permit holders from downtown businesses. The best coverage,  for example, of local TIFs came from a small alternative publication and not from the main local newspaper.

But that is me being paranoid again.

It would be simple to see this as good versus bad, as evil cronies against the common man. But that misses the point. All of the people I’ve met who work in city government, including management, seem like nice people and many of them are quite dedicated to their jobs. I’d say the same thing about local business owners I’ve met, some of whom are part of multigenerational family businesses.

I think it is more of a systemic problem. It’s how our society functions. It’s how present capitalist systems are designed, especially as they transition into brutally competitive globalization. It’s a particular social Darwinian worldview that is built into our culture, but is taking over many other societies as well. One could argue that most people are simply acting in the way that makes sense under these conditions and according to these biases.

Maybe most of the people involved really do hope to shrink government, lessen costs, and cut taxes. If so, why does that rarely materialize? Neither Reagan nor any other conservative has accomplished any of these things. It’s not clear that they even seriously tried. Still, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment. As these policies don’t lead to what conservatives claim to want, then why do they keep pushing them in doing the same over and over? Is this really a failure? Or is there some other purpose? If so, what and whose purpose? Do conservatives (and the conservative-minded) even understand their own motivations? Do they know the master they serve? What is this vision and what is driving it? Also, why do so many Democrats and liberals seem to go along without any fight?

More importantly, what kind of society is being built in the process? What will the end result look like? Is it a world that I’d want to live in? Is it a world most people would want to live in? Do any of these changes make the nation and local communities better in any way?

The most problematic part of all this is that almost none of this has been part of public debate. In Iowa City, no plans were publicly presented to be considered and voted upon. No reasons were given for what government officials are hoping to accomplish. There is obviously some vision or agenda, but apparently only insiders know what it is. Even in the department I work in, management rarely explains much of anything. Changes just happen.

All of this is being forced onto an unwitting public. Maybe it’s the public’s fault for not paying enough attention, but still that isn’t much of an excuse for those who take advantage of this state of affairs. Certainly, there is nothing democratic or even libertarian about any of this. It’s simply people with power doing whatever they want without transparency or accountability, that is to say realpolitik.

What is happening in my town is a microcosm of what is happening all across the United States and in many other countries as well. The changes are too wide-ranging and concerted to be dismissed lightly as just politics as usual. Many have argued that the culture wars have been an intentional distraction, for all Americans across the political spectrum. No matter which side wins on the social issues, the monied elite will always win on the fiscal issues.

This is why it is in a sense irrelevant what people think about gay marriage, marijuana legalization, or whatever else. It doesn’t matter that the town I live in is socially liberal (nor that my state was one of the few to legalize gay marriage before it became a federal decision). It doesn’t matter that the entire country is becoming ever more socially liberal. None of that touches upon the fundamental social order or challenges the entrenched power within the system.

On top of that, fiscal issues are harder to grasp and to use for rallying people, even though most Americans are also rather liberal on many fiscal issues (e.g., according to polls, most Americans believe that the distribution of wealth is unfair and something should be done about it, including raising taxes on the rich). Despite its importance, it is rare for a straightforward public debate to happen about fiscal issues and hence few seem to notice what is happening and what it all adds up to.

There is something about fiscal issues that makes people feel so powerless and apathetic. Part of the problem is that fiscal issues often seem boring and maybe are intentionally portrayed by the corporate media in boring ways. I don’t know. It seems strange that all of society can be transformed before our eyes and most people act as if they don’t notice or can’t be bothered to care.

* * *

Update (5/20/19): The city manager has left. Some of the department heads have changed. Yet the same pattern of political behavior continues on as before. Let me share a more recent example.

The city hall was located on a square city block that is prime real estate almost entirely owned by the city government, other than one small corner. City Hall was built when the town was smaller and soon will require a larger building. They had plenty of property surrounding the building to expand. So, what did they do? That prime real estate was sold to build yet another highrise for rich people, presumably TIF-funded as well. This will eventually force a new city hall to be built elsewhere, at a less optimal location. But what really matters is that a local crony was able to make immense profit from gaining control of public property for private gain.

There is another example also involving the pedestrian mall. They finally got around to replacing some of the benches. What the city council chose as replacements are benches specifically designed to be impossible for the homeless to sleep on (or anyone else to take a nap), what is referred to as “hostile architecture” (such as homeless spikes). The city council lied about their motives. When a local Christian group did a freedom of information request, they were able to get the meeting notes where city council members openly stated this was their purpose. On this one incident, there was finally some public backlash. The city council was shamed into undoing some of their moral depravity. They promised to put back some of the old old-style benches.

Part of the backlash probably has to do with a shift in public mood with our being several years into the Trump administration. The average American is beginning to make the connection between local problems and national problems, a sense of widespread moral failure. For all that remains the same, even this small change in public awareness is more than welcome.

* * *

Public Good & Democratic Government (pt. 2)

The Mechanized City

TIFs, Gentrification, and Plutocracy
(more on local gentrification)

Shame of Iowa and the Midwest

Paranoia of a Guilty Conscience

John Bior Deng: R.I.P.

Officer Shoots Homeless Man: Comments

Iowa Biking & Rural Politics

Old Forms of Power

* * * *

Bonus article:

‘By the People’ and ‘Wages of Rebellion’
by George Packer