Saturday, August 09, 2008

Floodplains, Art and Celebrities' Affairs

August 9, 2008, 6:10 p.m.

[Note: The "Sexual Assault Update," July 19-August 8, 2008, blog entry remains at its former location; however, any updates to it following August 8, 2008, will be found, along with the blog entry as of August 8, at a new Web site, Nicholas Johnson, "University of Iowa Sexual Assault Controversy -- 2007-08."]

Now . . . Back to a Range of Subjects

Floodplains and Flood Planning

There were more than a couple of lines in Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth's op ed this morning that caught my eye:

"Continued development in the Iowa River Landing will include generous areas of open space along the river . . .. We will work toward dedicating that area [the banks of Biscuit Creek] to green space in the future.

"The Iowa River is one of our greatest assets, and incorporation of green space is a dual-purpose project, allowing us to provide access to the waterfront while also practicing floodplain management."

Kelly Hayworth, "Coralville's post-flood development; Progress will be 'mindful of the flood but not ended by it,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 9, 2008.

What I'd like to see is for Coralville, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids -- all of Iowa's communities along rivers -- to come up with 30-to-75-year plans regarding their flood plains.

Building roads, parking lots, malls, suburban and businesses in floodplains just multiplies the disastrous consequences of floods. Not only does it mean the economic losses will be greater when floods occur, but the rapid runoff it accelerates also means that the floods will occur more often, be of greater seriousness, and the water will run off and rise faster than with consciously developed floodplains.

We need to have recreational areas, wildlife habitats, prairies and pastures, biking and jogging trails, and wetlands somewhere. And Iowa is virtually last in the nation at the moment in our set-asides of land for such purposes. By using land in the floodplains along our rivers for these purposes we get a dual benefit -- radical reduction, if not elimination, of the economic losses from flood damage, and access to these multi-purpose acres that shouldn't be used for anything but recreation and wildlife habitats anyway.

So why a 30-to-75-year plan? Because I wouldn't want to pull off something like this in five or ten years even if we could -- and politically we simply can't. Like using attrition rather than firing when a workforce needs to be reduced, giving owners incentives and as much time as possible to arrange for moves makes it easier on everyone.

Whether we want to provide humanitarian aid to those ravaged by floods (as distinguished from funds for rebuilding) is a subject I'm open to discussing but need not now address.

But it seems to me kind of obvious that we should (1) clearly define the 500-year-floodplain for the relevant rivers; (2) draw up a plan as to how that land might best be used once our project is concluded; (3) forbid any new building (or expansion of the footprint) of homes, businesses, parking lots or roads in floodplains; (4) use every available incentive (such as buyouts) to discourage rebuilding or repair; (5) prohibit the construction of public buildings on such land; (6) prohibit the use of any public money, or tax incentives such as TIFs, for for-profit or non-profit businesses operating in floodplains, and (7) immediately begin the process of conversion, by removing buildings and roads where we can, planting prairies, pastures, trees, and the grasses with root systems that can operate as filters near rivers, and start the demonstration of what wise floodplain planning and stewardship can look like.

Selling the Pollock

The Press-Citizen got it right this morning in its Editorial, "Don't sell priceless 'Mural' to pay off flood damages," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 9, 2008 ("Although [selling Jackson Pollock's 'Mural' painting] might make sense to business school professors, we said it recognized neither the historic importance of Pollock's painting nor how "Mural" has been identified with UI for three generations. A gift to UI from art collector Peggy Guggenheim in 1953, 'Mural' predates the museum itself -- which opened in 1969 -- and is arguably the most important item in the museum's permanent collection. . . . Last year, we said neither Iowa nor the university should surrender the great in order to purchase the mediocre."

There are a couple of issues here -- aside from the old line about "those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

(1) I'm reminded of a case some years back when the UI Foundation was given a farm -- with stipulations. Can't swear I've got the facts right, but as I recall them the donor wanted to insure that the tenant on the farm could continue to farm it. The Foundation took the position that once it got the property it could do with it what it wanted -- and what it wanted did not include carrying out the donor's wishes.

I don't know what Ms. Guggenheim had in mind when she donated the Pollock, but knowing something of her commitment to art I can't imagine that she thought the great gift she was giving the University was nothing more than the equivalent of shares of stock, something to be sold whenever the University decided it would rather have the cash the painting could bring at an art auction.

(2) It's not like major gifts of this kind were purchased by Iowa's taxpayers -- who could subsequently legitimately decide to sell them for the money. These were gifts. But for donor generosity we'd never have had the property in question. And the more we unilaterally treat such gifts from the past with such disrespect the less likely we are to receive such gifts in the future. Selling the Pollock is self-defeating over the long run.

(3) Anytime the state, or one of its universities, wants to sell something of extraordinary and irreplaceable value -- I recall the sale of WOI-TV -- I think about how much cash we could get from a sale of Iowa's topsoil. I'm sure there's some guy in Arizona -- or the Middle East -- who would give us big bucks for it. Provide a little water for irrigation and it could create some of the world's best farmland in a desert anywhere on earth.

(4) There are "values" that exist separate and apart from what something will sell for. Have you ever had the experience of reaching for the Phillips screwdriver, or ballpoint pen, in the place to which it was supposed to be returned, and found it wasn't there? Was your reaction affected by the fact that you probably couldn't have sold the ballpoint pen at auction for even 10 cents? Is the home you live in affected by the fact it's now worth 10 times what you paid for it -- when it's the same square feet, with the same view out the front windows -- aside from the fact that you're paying many times more in property tax? So it is with a painting; the quality it has, the pleasure it gives you, the skill of the artist it reflects, is not a function of its dollar value.

So what do I really think? Yeah, I guess you'd have to count me among those -- a group that includes UI President Sally Mason ("I do not want to sell the painting. Let me be fully clear") -- who think we ought to keep the Pollock. Brian Morelli, "Regents to Put Value on UI's Pollock Painting," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 7, 2008.

The John Edwards Affair

I have little or no interest in reading, or commenting, about the August 8 story, and ABC Nightline interview, regarding the details of a 2006 affair of John Edwards.

But there's a quote from his interview that I do think worth repeating:

"I went from being a senator, a young senator to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice presidential candidate and becoming a national public figure. All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You're invincible. And there will be no consequences."

Rhonda Schwartz, Brian Ross, and Chris Francescani, "Edwards Admits Sexual Affair; Lied as Presidential Candidate; In an ABC News Nightline Interview, Edwards Reveals He Cheated, But Didn't Father Child,"
ABC News, August 8, 2008.

It's not an exculpatory statement, certainly, and I have no reason to believe it was intended to be. But I do think it is revealing and insightful, and perhaps of some use to those -- whether intrigued or repulsed -- by the behavior of celebrities, whether athletes, politicians, TV/movie stars, rock musicians, corporate executives, or those merely famous for being famous.

The remarkable thing is not that so many public figures seem to fall ill to the condition/attitude he describes but that there are so many who do not.

It's a quality, a characteristic, a kind of pressure on public figure, that should be of interest to all of us in the business of picking our public officials in primaries and elections -- from school board to president -- as well as a subject for study by psychologists and psychiatrists, and political scientists.

It's a notable comment because that kind of self-diagnosis is rare from anyone, but especially those who, by dint of their position, end up having to make very public apologies for their behavior.

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