Monday, June 21, 2010

Politics and Compassion - Compassion Nearly Always Comes Up Short

I worked for a residential treatment center that was one of the best in the state. We had the best outcomes rate of any residential treatment center in the state at the time. We were closed twice, both times when the director was scheduled to testify before the state sunset commission that the half dozen confusing, fragmented child care agencies in Texas should be combined into one. I don't think the timing of the closures was an accident.

A consulting agency once told the governor that the child care system was a string of private fiefdoms, often working at odds with one another and the most "woefully inefficient" system they'd ever seen. Our director was right that the system needed to change and her decision to stand up for reform was courageous in that those agencies also paid our bills. Bravery can have its cost.

I will always believe that the state agencies wanted to discredit the director before the Sunset Commission met that October and that they were looking for an opportunity to do so. We took on a child that even the state hospital wouldn't attempt to treat. We took him in and it cost us dearly. They closed us over a serious incident in which the boy lost his life. The state hospital knew that might happen and simply kicked him out.  We tried to help and failed.  The agencies smeared the boss to keep her away from the Sunset Commission a few months later. The agencies managed to keep the system from being changed and survived in their fragmented condition till 2004 when the new Republican legislature combined 22 separate health and human service agencies into just 5.

I was proud to be part of the lobbying effort to get that done. I remember a guy came around to speak to a meeting of nonprofit folks.  He said that he represented a citizen group who opposed the proposed amalgamation of the agencies. He quoted scary statistics and scenarios where little old people and starving children died homeless on the street if the reorganization went through.  In the midst of the meeting, I began to smell a theme to the presentation and, possibly, an accompanying rat!  I raised my hand.
"Who do you represent?" I asked.
I'm with the Citizens Council....."
"No, no," I interrupted.  "I mean who do you work for.  Who writes your paycheck?"
"Uh, uh," he stammered.
"I mean somebody let you off work to do this speaking tour," I said helpfully.
"Well, I work for the Federal and State Employees Union," he finally admitted, "But..."
"Thank you," I smiled.  "I understand now why your organization opposes this legislation.  You guys are worried about all the state employees that could be laid off."
"Well, of course," he explained. "Without all those employees, who will deliver the services?"
"How about if we just have to only go to one office to get services we need instead of to 4 or 5."
He scoffed at me. I think he actually gave a little snort of derision.
I love bureaucrats. It's so easy to make 'em snort.  
I once went to a transportation stakeholder's meeting (trust me, you don't want me to explain what that is. We had about 50 social workers in the room, all complaining that about half their clients couldn't drive and couldn't find a way to get to the places where the services they need are delivered. The rural transit manager kept interrupting us to tell us that her organization could provide that transportation. If we'd just call the 800 number, she insisted, we'd have all our clients' transportation problems solved.
I raised my hand.
"If you have all these transit services," I asked, "Why is it that I'm sitting in a room with 50 social workers who don't have any idea that these services are available?  Why don't you market or advertise?  Let people know you have all these wonderful transportation services."
Her eyes grew wide with horror, I kid you not.  "Oh, we couldn't do that," she snorted derisively, "We'd be swamped!"
"So, let me get this straight," I said, scratching my head. "You deliberately don't advertise because you couldn't handle the demand?" I sat down. "Then you ain't got the transportation stuff what you just said you got."
I used to get hate mail from their agency. I later discovered that they demanded old people living out in the country build circular drives before they'd send a bus after them. I used to have to call the transit provider to remind them that they actually did have to deliver the services their grant called for them to deliver, I don't care how inconvenient  it might be.  They used to complain that I "didn't understand how transportation worked" and suggested I shut up in meetings.  They hated me so much that when I served on the state rural transit advisory committee and tried to triple their budget, they opposed it.  
And there is the problem.  Politicians and bureaucrats may say they are all about helping people and that they are the Grand High Poobah's of compassion, but where the rubber meets the road, where compassion is stacked up against power and position, compassion turns to something that looks vaguely like compassion, but primarily serves the need of the apparatus rather than the folks the apparatus was intended to help.
I'm just sayin'
Tom King

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Resetting the American Dream - Another One Bites the Dust

And another one gone and another one gone.....

Chris Brogan's post this morning ponders whether it's time for a "housing reset" in America.  Is the American dream of home ownership - that little place in the country, Mr. Blanding's Dream House - is it obsolete?  Should we all be renting from big property companies or lobbying for more government housing.  In this "energy starved", increasingly mobile society, is home ownership a good investment. For that matter, do you really need a car.

Wow, two American icons slapped down in one shot!  The video is interesting.  Richard Florida, correspondent for The Atlantic, says it's time for a RESET in our thinking about home ownership if we're going to fuel future growth. He maintains we ought to think about giving up the "burden of home ownership".

This man is right in tune with the whole "sustainable" communities movement.  It's important to know where the sustainable communities folks come from.  Environmentalism and socialism are the mom and pop of the concept of the so-called sustainable community. The cultural RESET on home ownership is an idea straight from this movement.

Sustainable communities are highly planned, green communities.  Home ownership is not important to these folks and is actually considered, an out-of-date idea in the sustainable community.  The idea is to get rid of the suburbs, get everyone into piles of housing that uses the least amount of acreage for the greatest number of people possible.  Reminds me of a phrase in Habakkuk 2 where the prophet talks about the enemy of God's people would "heap up people". 

That pretty much describes it. It fits the goals of the environmentalists, the progressive socialists and the sustainable communities people -- more people in less space (also easier to control).  Home ownership becomes extinct. You don't even need a car anymore.  You get where you want to go on public transit. And don't worry, the more people forced to use public transit, the better it will become. So what if it's less convenient?  We all must sacrifice for the greater good of the planet.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm all for keeping the planet clean and green.  I just don't think piling up folks in apartment buildings and crammed together rent houses is the best way to do that, I don't care how many trees you plant around it.  Too many people in one place is just too many people in one place.

Seventy five or so years ago, there were two visions of the future.  One was what I call the "Happy Sardine" view in which great human hives with shining steel and glass structures that spiraled up into the sky. There would be communities within these great masses of apartments, entertainment, easy travel, work assignments for everyone, health care and a regular food allotment.  Happy folks living all squished together in automated, pampered socialist bliss was to be the world of the future.  Unfortunately, a couple of decades of watching the socialists idealogues march up and down Europe and Asia, rather tarnished the whole Happy Sardines of the future idea, despite a brief revival with the whole Star Trek series which assumed such an Earth society existed, but never quite explained how humanity had achieved bliss as a human hive on Earth.

Another vision put forward was of a human future where we spread out virtually anywhere we wanted to go. Some posited the virtual end of cities and assumed that as technology allowed us to become more interconnected and independent, we'd naturally gravitate toward quiet havens in the country, that we'd travel less, that roads would become obsolete in favor of personal helicopters or flying cars and that communications advances like visi-phones would mean we could work without ever leaving our homes.

It seems that we stand on the brink in this day and age. We aren't certain which way society should go. The youth in our culture seem to be rejecting the idea of ownership in favor of a use and discard worldview where you move fast, embrace change and newness and avoid getting tied down to land or goods. Why should you? You can always rent a new place or buy new things.  The career's the thing. Like the guys who last lived in the rent house I just moved into. They lived here 8 years, let the place get progressively nastier and filthier till they finally moved - three doors down the street where they will likely start over.  My landlord spent 6 weeks repairing and rebuilding the place.  After he saw what my wife, son and daughter-in-law did to the place when we moved in, he thinks he's died and gone to landlord heaven.  Two way of thinking about things.  Me, I know the place is not mine and I should be especially careful not to mess it up.  The last guys believed, "Hey, it's not mine, who cares if I mess it up?"  I think that dichotomy of philosophies about caring for your rent house, illustrates why I don't want to move to an all rented model of housing.  It only encourages the latter kind of thinking.

The generation that is busily dying out right now believes we ought to work hard, buy a home and a car and provide some stability for the next generations. They still think they should leave something behind when they go. They still buy into the old-fashioned American dream. I've been told recently that my generation needs to "get over it" and accept that our time is over.  Apparently, we're supposed to lie down and quietly expire so our kids can take our money and use it for rent and a trip or two to Cabo.

The question becomes, "Which way do we want our society to go?" Do we reduce the cities and spread out or do we make the cities bigger and bunch people up closer together so it's easier to control them?

Well, first the whole idea that heaps of people are easier to control is ridiculous.  I just moved into town from the lake.  I didn't even remember half the time to lock the doors out there.  In town, the first thing we did was install a security system. Ask the cops about which is more peaceful, suburban communities, rural villages or apartment dense neighborhoods. There's a reason the cops take 40 to an hour to get to my house in the country.  There are not that many of them and they have to drive a long way.  There isn't enough trouble out my way to justify heavy patrolling out there.

Here in town, the cops are never far away.  There's a reason for that!

Oh, there are advantages to living in town.  I can get tons of low-paying jobs here in town and with the reduction in my driving costs and time of commute, I can probably get along on less money and consume far fewer resources living here.  I'm in a "walkable" neighborhood.  So long as I don't go too far north where the gang territories are clearly marked, I'll be okay.  The noise never ends, but then you never feel lonely because you can always hear the sounds of people.  You can't see the stars at night, so you never have to have that feeling of insignificance you get when you look at the night sky.  My allergies to grass and trees isn't bothering me so much.  The carbon monoxide haze here in town isn't much fun, but hey, the movie theater is close.

I can ride public transit all over town between 6 am and 6pm so long as I walk in the street for 5 blocks to the nearest bus stop, successfully dodging cars (we don't have sidewalks here, but I've been told if we could force enough people to move back to town, the transit system would get better).   My sustainable communities buddies want fuel prices to skyrocket so people will have to move back to town and stop their wasteful commuting. Besides, if we can stop people from moving into the country, the wilderness will come back won't it?

Of course, the only problem with the "heaps of people" approach is that people are a lot like manure.  You spread them out over a large area, they can do a lot of good.  You heap them up in one place and pretty soon the heap begins to stink. Human hives are like compost heaps.  At the center they get hot and they rot.  Problems among people increase geometrically as you pile them up in one place.  Ask anyone who's ever lived in a housing project or apartment dense community. My son and his wife lived in a nice apartment complex on the southeast side of town.  They couldn't sit out on their 6 by 6 balcony for fear of witnessing a drug deal in the parking lot and becoming a target.  At night, they sometimes slept on the floor when gunfire erupted in the neighborhood, lest a stray shot pass through the walls as it did in a neighbor's apartment.

Makes you just want to run right out and rent something don't it? There are so many advantages.  You don't have to worry about what colors to paint your walls.  The landlord tells you!  He also tells you what you can plant in your yard (if you have one), when to mow your grass (if you have any or he doesn't mow it himself and charge you extra rent).   

But, hey, we're saving the planet aren't we.

Just one thing that troubles me, though.  Ever notice what happens when all these smart guys heap us all up into nice controllable piles so the central planners can plan our lives and how we live and work and dress and act. Within an incredibly short time, the central planners manage to achieve remarkable results in reducing the number of people they have to manage in those "heaps of people". Population reduction, by the way is the wet dream of environmentalists, so they should appreciate these numbers from the following rock stars of the "heaps o' people" movement.

  • National Socialists achieved an overall population reduction of somewhere around 6 million superfluous persons and 84 million evil militarists and unneeded civilians among their allies.  Overall it is estimated that the National Socialists of Germany aided or inspired nations around the world to reduce their populations by nearly 2 billion people overall.
  • Soviet Socialists achieved a population reduction on their own and without National Socialist aid of 20 to 50 million persons - an overall 20% reduction of their population.
  • Chinese Communists nearly matched their Soviet mentors by lowering their own population by some 40 million while achieving a massive "cultural" revolution.  
  • Other socialist states have also achieved remarkable results in reducing the Earth's overpopulation of humans. Folks like Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Kim Il Sung, and other progressive socialists in places like Nicaragua, Rwanda, Laos, Yugoslavia, Chad, the Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia.
The sustainable communities folks will, of course, call me a nut for comparing the sustainable green communities movement to all those nasty folks above. I think I have a valid reason for making the comparison and I don't think I'm too terribly hysterical for making it.  Lord Acton once said, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  There is a problem with the idea of forcing or even "encouraging" people to cluster in pre-planned cities by using social engineering techniques like jacking up fuel prices, heavily taxing suburban or rural dwellers or discouraging automobile ownership.

Once you get folks all heaped up, the problems inevitably start.  Because you have successfully eliminated any other option for a living space than the human hive, there is, then, no way to effectively valve off the discontented population. The police are forced to resort to increasingly draconian measures to maintain control. Then it occurs to some bright social planner that the way to valve off the problems caused by too many people in too small a space under too tight control is to actually reduce the number of people in that space. Laws ensue that conveniently include death as a consequence and the leaders begin to whittle down the population and at the same time, frighten the rest into quiet submission.

Can anyone name one single successful hive city?  Detroit was supposed to be the poster city for the triumph of urban planning.  Tons of federal money has been poured into Detroit since the 1960's than into virtually any other city in the country to help Detroit to create the perfect urban utopia. Since then, Detroit has been governed by an unbroken string of progressive mayors and city councils.  Today it is an impoverished, broken down disaster of a city.  But, hey, look what they did accomplish you gloomy Gus.  They successfully reduced their population by nearly 900,000 since beginning it's expensive federal renewal program in the 60's - better than 35%. 

Does anybody besides me find the folks who want to RESET our culture a little creepy?

Just one man's increasingly paranoid opinion.

Tom King