Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Coming to 'Yes' on New Buildings and Demolition

June 30, 2015, 10:30 a.m.

And see: "But Seriously Folks . . . Preservation Policy," March 9, 2015.

Building Consensus on Iowa City's Vision, Future

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 30, 2015, p. A9

When it comes to building new structures, and preserving the old, Iowa City needs a process that produces consensus.

Iowa City’s downtown was laid out in 1839. Like Iowa’s 99 counties, it was literally designed for a horse and buggy age. One hundred years later, even with automobiles, the downtown neither had nor needed parking garages or parking meters. Its department stores, hardware stores, five movie theaters, barber shops (for the weekly “shave and a haircut”), Sears, Montgomery Ward and others with farm supplies, served Johnson County’s farmers on Saturdays and residents every day.

Today that function is served by the Coral Ridge Mall, with more than 100 businesses and 5,000 free parking spaces. There’s no way downtown Iowa City can regain its 20th century role in competition with that mall. And no way could it handle the crowds if it did.

For years I’ve advocated a vision for our downtown of a small, quaint, walkable, livable, residential center of history, entertainment and restaurants — along with the minimal number of banks, grocery stores and other businesses to sustain that resident population. That’s something downtown could become.

And because it is a vision shared by Marc Moen and the City Council, it is what it is becoming.

That’s not to say everyone agrees with every detail. There are disagreements about building design, height, and location; the housing balance between those living in half-million dollar condos and minimum-wage residents in low-income housing; and the destruction of historic structures, such as the Civil War cottages. (Photo credit: Josh O'Leary. Photo caption: "Three brick cottages, dating to the mid-1800s, stand in 600 block of South Dubuque Street in what was once the city's rail district. The Historic Preservation Commission deemed the cottages historically significant at its meeting on Thursday [December 11, 2014]." Andy Davis, "Panel: Dubuque St. Cottages Are Historically Significant," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 12, 2014.)

Then there’s the taxpayer funding of private ventures with TIFs and other benefits -— my major disagreement. See, http://tinyurl.com/pntu8gr. But even on that I agree with Moen, whom I also appreciate for his civic commitment, aesthetic creativity — and patience. As he said at the June 8 council meeting regarding the TIF decisions, “I know there’s a lot of controversy about this. ... It’s a political decision whether it’s a good idea or not.”

When a developer is invited to accept taxpayers’ money, whether from Congress or a city council, she should no more be criticized for accepting a foolish TIF than when she takes an irrational, legal, federal tax deduction. If blame there be, it should be laid at the feet of the politicians.

Moen is right. It is a political decision.

But political decisions call for political process. Democracy has never been perfect; it’s just the least worst of the alternatives. Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote in 1958, “I am waiting for someone to really discover America.” Now at 96, he’s still waiting — and so are we.

Historically legitimate, traditional, public building projects, such as schools, libraries, court houses and jails, do have a democratic process. Governments can’t build them unless voters approve the sale of bonds — bonds repaid with taxpayers’ increased taxes.

Ironically, there is no similar democratic process to control government’s use of taxpayers’ money to fund for-profit, private building projects. It may be “a political decision,” but there is no political democratic process for arriving at that decision. Listening to citizen complaints after the decision has been made is not a meaningful democratic process.

The historic preservation process is worse. Many cities receive economic, as well as aesthetic, value from historic preservation. In Iowa City, with enough developer pressure, the council simply overrules the best judgment of historic preservation groups, zoning boards and previous planning documents. (Photo credit: Andy Davis. Photo caption: "Crews from Iowa City-based Noel’s Tree and Crane service work Wednesday [May 27, 2015] to tear down two cottages at 608 and 610 S. Dubuque St." Andy Davis, "2 remaining Civil War-era cottages on Dubuque St. torn down," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 29, 2015

Imagine if the council voted all the money necessary to preserve the homes and buildings we agree should be preserved, and the developers had to hold bake sales to add more floors to their high rises.

Maybe we need to vote. Maybe quality polling would be sufficient. What we must have is a better, more democratic process for evolving consensus regarding the Iowa City we want — and the “political decisions” about destruction of the old and building the new to get us there.
Nicholas Johnson, a native-born Iowa City resident, once served on the local school board, and maintains www.nicholasjohnson.org and the blog FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Bernie's Media Challenge

June 19, 2015, 11:40 a.m.

See also, Bernie!, June 1, 2015.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Radio Station
Our corporate media's approach to politics in general and the presidential primaries in particular [is] as a horse race, and delights over their gotcha presentations of candidates' gaffs. When Sanders is mentioned at all it's usually to compare him with Hillary. Seldom has any report devoted even a single sentence to each of his policy proposals -- most of which, polls show, are supported by a majority of Americans.

However one might characterize what the media is currently doing, it's not an effort to inform and involve the American people in a discussion and debate regarding the "best practices" approach to our nation's challenges. Since that's what Bernie wants to do, no other candidate seems to, and therefore ought to be one of the most newsworthy elements of his campaign, the fact that it's impossible to report his exciting platform in the media's 20-second sound bites is a substantial campaign challenge.

-- Bernie!

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting's research discloses that between January 3rd and May 3rd of 2015, Meet the Press (NBC; host, Chuck Todd) made no mention whatsoever of Senator Bernie Sanders, notwithstanding 16 mentions of Hillary Clinton, 13 of Jeb Bush, 12 of Scott Walker, 11 of Chris Christie, and 10 each for Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee. In total, 24 presidential candidates received mentions during this four-month period. Bernie? Zero. "Meet the Press Breaks Its Silence on Bernie Sanders," Extra!, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), June 2015, vol. 28, no. 5, p. 3 ("Meet the Press host Chuck Todd . . . declared on the show's May 3 episode . . . 'I'm obsessed with elections.' Yet the one major candidate who had announced he was running that week -- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who declared on April 30 he was running for the Democratic nomination -- was strikingly ignored on that same broadcast.")
Bernie Sanders is the only avowed "Democratic Socialist" serving in the United States Congress. Defeating both Democrats and Republicans, he served as Vermont's only member of the House of Representatives for 16 years (1990-2006). Sanders has now served in the United States Senate for more than nine years (2006 to the present). As acknowledged by Todd himself . . . , in all those years, Meet the Press never saw fit to have Sanders appear on "America's most watched...Sunday morning public affairs program" until September 14, 2014 when Sanders was interviewed about his "possible" run for the Presidency. (One month earlier than the October date initially cited by Todd in response to FAIR.)
Ernest A. Canning, "Bernie Who? Media Watchdog Documents NBC's 'Meet the Press' Marginalization of Sanders," The Brad Blog, May 11, 2015

Only following FAIR's report was an invitation extended, which Bernie accepted. "Meet the Press Transcript - May 31, 2015." While it certainly counted as an after-the-fact "mention" of his candidacy, it was scarcely an effort to explore his past and approach to the issues.
As one of Sanders’s first nationwide appearances as a presidential candidate, you might think that Todd would take the opportunity to probe more deeply into the senator’s not uncontroversial policy proposals, such as providing free tuition to students attending public colleges, or raising the marginal tax rates, or how he might deal with ISIS. But you would be wrong. To begin, Todd spend the first part of the program discussing the unfolding Dennis Hastert scandal in a not-so-subtle effort to tell us what it says about Congress as a whole. (Answer: nothing, but that’s not newsworthy, so….) When Sanders finally made his appearance about midway through the program, Todd begin with one useful question regarding whether the senator would support the House bill to extend the USA Patriot Act, then under debate in the Senate. . . .

At that point, the interview degenerated into full horse-race, candidate-personality mode. Specifically, Todd sought Sanders’s views on a topic arguably of far less relevance to the senator’s qualifications to be president: Hillary Clinton. He began indirectly by asking Sanders to weigh the relative merits of Bill Clinton’s presidency versus Barack Obama’s. When Sanders appeared to praise Obama more than Clinton, Todd pressed further: “You singled out President Obama for praise but not President Clinton. Why?” You might wonder why Todd raised this issue, since Bill is not a candidate for higher office, but Todd’s intention soon became clear when he asked Sanders to comment on Hillary Clinton’s apparent leftward movement on a number of issues, including “same-sex marriage, on immigration … on NAFTA, on trade, on the Iraq War, on Cuba. She has moved from a position, basically, in disagreement with you, to a position that comes closer to your view. So I guess is, do you take her at her word?”

Cue the horse race! To his credit, Sanders refused to take the bait. Instead, he expressed hope that “the media will allow us to have a serious debate in this campaign on the enormous issues facing the American people” and tried to move the conversation to his policy views. Todd, however, had no interest in having a serious debate on the issues; he followed up with: “Do you trust these changes that Hillary Clinton has made? Or do you think she’s been doing it just for primary politics?”

When Sanders again refused to engage Todd in a discussion of Clinton’s motives, the MTP [Meet the Press] moderator closed with his zinger: Sanders’s 43-year-old essay discussing women’s “rape fantasy.”
Matthew Dickinson, "Bernie Sanders and Chuck Todd's 'Meet the Press' fiasco: 50 shades of bad; Bernie Sanders deftly refused to engage in media-generated controversy and expressed hope that 'the media will allow us to have a serious debate in this campaign,'" Christian Science Monitor, June 1, 2015.

Earlier this week I heard a radio call-in talk show addressing the matter of the media's coverage of politics. A professional journalist, one of the formal guests, was offering as advice to journalists that they should not just repeat what the candidates say (however fairly and accurately they do so) but go beyond that to the candidates' experience, consistency and credibility, dig into the issues that really made a difference for ordinary Americans, understand and explain candidates' positions on those issues from Americans' perspective, and provide the information that will enable voters to participate more intelligently in the democratic process.

Realizing that the story of the media's treatment (or non-treatment) of Bernie Sanders, told above, was dead center on topic, and that somehow Bernie had not even been mentioned by name during the first part of the program, I decided to give the station a call. I was asked my name, city, what I wanted to add to the program, and was left with the impression I would soon be up. While placed on hold, I could listen to the program. Soon the person I'd spoken to came back on the phone. Although there did not appear to have been any caller ahead of me, I was told that I would not be put on the air anyway. Explaining that I'd be happy to wait through the break, I was told that the topic was going to change. So I thanked her and hung up -- but continued to listen on the radio.

For some reason my mind wandered back to my time as an FCC commissioner, when most networks and local stations seemed anxious to put the "controversial commissioner" on the air. (Apparently I was good for ratings. Following my appearance on CBS' Sunday show, Issues and Answers they told me it produced the most mail they'd ever received for the show.) When scheduling permitted, I'd usually accept.

The networks all had their late night shows, too. Dick Cavett hosted the one on ABC show, Merv Griffin was on CBS, and Johnny Carson on NBC. Cavett and Griffin both had me on their shows. Carson did not. But it was not for his young staff's not trying.

I'd get an invite from some young producer inviting me on the Tonight Show. I'd accept, but add, "However, you may find yourself calling me back in a couple weeks and uninviting me." "Why do you say that?" she would ask. "Oh, never mind," I'd reply, "let's just wait and see." Sure enough, the call would come, "Oh, it turns out we'll not be able to have you on that night." "Well, how about another night then?" I'd reply, knowing what was coming next: "There just don't seem to be any open right now." Someone had slipped me the information much earlier that NBC had an internal memo indicating that neither Ralph Nader nor I was ever to appear on the Tonight Show. Apparently, the newest assistant producers for the show "never got the memo."

There was another occasion in a station's studio, when in the middle of an interview, ranting on about the abuses brought on the American people by the AT&T telephone monopoly, the station's phone lines suddenly went dead.

It's true that AT&T was then everywhere. They had one lobbyist just devoted to me. They were in the White House, the Congress, governors' offices, state legislatures, and city councils. AT&T had eyes and ears everywhere. I used to joke that they probably supplied most of the scout masters and den mothers for scout troops. So they certainly could have cut off the service because of what I was saying. But I really think that was unlikely; that it was probably just a coincidence. But it makes a good story regardless. (As Mason Williams once ended a song lyric, "This is not a true tale, but who needs truth if it's dull?")

So it is with my recent radio experience. I think the irony makes a good story; "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Radio Station" (with apologies to the Broadway show, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum").

What's the irony? Not only does the media not give Bernie his due, ignoring him completely, or refusing to permit him to discuss the issues he is raising -- which is the real "news" of his campaign, making him unique among the army of candidates -- but a citizen is kept from even raising the media's failure during a program discussing the media's inadequate coverage of politics.

FAIR and others, such as Project Censored, have amassed considerable evidence of the impact of big business, the wealthy, media owners, and advertisers on what subjects are covered at all, and how they are covered. More than one broadcast journalist has done a mea culpa or two over their cheerleader presentation of President W. Bush's "preemptive war" in Iraq. Even as lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as a threat to women, MS magazine continued to carry cigarette advertising and no articles about the dangers of smoking. There are hundreds of examples. So it is not surprising that the same forces from the outside, and self-censorship on the inside, would result in some favoritism toward the candidates with a pro-corporate ideology and Wall Street contributors.

Consider: ""During his campaign kickoff Saturday, [candidate Martin] O'Malley referenced reports that Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein had told employees that he would be happy if either Bush or Clinton were elected. 'I bet he would,' O'Malley said '. . .. 'I very much was supportive of Hillary Clinton the last go-round,” he [the Goldman Sachs CEO] told Politico last year. 'I held fundraisers for her.'” Ali Elkin, "Martin O'Malley Uses Goldman Sachs to Hit Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush," Bloomberg, May 31, 2015.

In fairness, as with my AT&T story, I need to make clear that this week's radio program is one of its network's best, hosted by one of its finest hosts. (I don't mention names because I don't want to risk this blog essay being interpreted as criticizing either.) My call did come toward the end of the program's first segment. And while the second segment also dealt with politics, it did switch from the media coverage issues.

I could make fun of its second segment choices: Clinton, Bush, and the Republican's clown, Donald Trump -- and ask why Sanders is not at least as important as Trump. But there was a rationale to the program's choice: those three were the most recent additions to the field of 20-plus. Moreover, before the second segment was over, however insignificant, Bernie did get one mention of no more than his name, and another in the context of how his positions (not identified) might have influenced Hillary's move to the left (both mentions together probably totaling less than 10 seconds).

It's still kind of a wonderful irony. It illustrates the point that no one on the radio program mentioned Bernie's treatment as one of the best examples of media failures in political reporting, and that when it was offered the information from a caller, it chose not to put it on the air.

Oh, and that when I tried to upload this blog essay just now Google told me, "An error occurred while trying to save or publish your post." Et tu, Google?! Maybe later.

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Saturday, June 13, 2015

Chauncey's TIF

Written June 8, 2015, 7:00 p.m.; posted (with preface, and link to video of entire Council session), June 13, 2015, 5:15 p.m.

I know there's a lot of controversy about this. . . . These projects are simply not possible without [TIFs]. It's a political decision whether it's a good idea or not.

-- Marc Moen, Chauncey developer, City Council Hearing, June 8, 2015 [starting at 2:08:45 on City Channel 4's video, below]


This blog essay is a "for the record" preservation of the text of my remarks before the Iowa City Council on June 8, 2015. The business before the Council involved its approval of the zoning and financial details of a proposed 15-story building on land owned by the City on the eastern border of the downtown district. Public comments from the business community tended to support the project; comments from those associated with a church across the street, and those speaking for the poor and working poor of Iowa City tended to oppose the project. [The photo gives some sense of the contrast -- for good or for ill -- between the proposed building's height and that of the surrounding community.]

My remarks focused on the propriety of TIFs in general -- a subject I have written about in this blog on over 40 occasions. "TIFs: Links to Blog Essays." The Council meeting, with its opportunity for public comment, seemed an appropriate occasion to outline briefly some of the categories of reasons why TIFs are a bad idea -- something I had never before directly presented to the Council members.

Because that was my primary purpose, because even partial discussion of the TIF issues would have required a half-hour to hour, and because I had been informed public comments were limited to five minutes (and it turned out to be a four-minute limit), the remarks were limited to a quick itemization of a sampling of TIF topics with neither elaboration of the TIF issues nor even the barest mention of non-TIF issues.

Therefore, a fuller record requires revelation in this blog essay of some of my thinking about the Chauncey project generally.

There are a number of issues with regard to such a project. The TIF-related issues are such things as use of public money, taxpayers' money, to assist a for-profit, private venture -- especially one providing expensive condo housing for the wealthy in a booming downtown area. These are the issues as to which my position has been clear.

Other issues involve the project itself -- regardless of how it is going to be financed: (1) with exclusively private funds (capitalism), (2) a mix of public and private funds (corporatism), or (3) exclusively public funds (socialism). Those issues include such things as location, compatibility with the neighborhood and any city plan, its height, "green" construction, adequate parking, impact on traffic and safety, removal of historic structures to make way for the new, a pleasing aesthetic quality and artistic design, contribution to the city's great need for low income housing, and similar matters.

Some may assume I am opposed to all such downtown development. They would be wrong.

In 2009 there was local debate about where to locate a new Hancher auditorium to replace the one constructed on the Iowa River bank and destroyed by flood. The downtown area was one option. (Since then, large structures -- a student physical recreation facility, music building, art museum -- have been, or will be, located downtown. And the replacement Hancher is being built only a short distance up the river bank from where the former one flooded.)

In discussing the downtown Hancher option, I noted that downtown Iowa City was laid out in 1839 with the same spaces and streets it has today, and I wrote:
Iowa's 99 counties, and their "capitals," were located to serve an agricultural population -- with no farm more than a day's horse and buggy round trip ride along dirt roads to a county seat, with its markets, and entertainment for that weekly shopping "trip to town." . . .

We didn't have "malls" in the 1930s, but downtown Iowa City provided much the same function, with drug and hardware stores (for farm equipment and supplies), Sears, Wards, J.C. Penney, five movie theaters, barber shops for the weekly shave and haircut, grocery stores, and so forth. There were no parking meters or parking garages, and no need for them. There was still the occasional horse, and not that many automobiles.

Coralville's Coral Ridge Mall, and the Tanger Outlets west on I-80, provide those functions for most shoppers today. . . . The former was soon doing a $100 million dollar a year business. It offered free, easy access parking, and a cluster of stores, restaurants and entertainment (including a childrens' museum) to satisfy a variety of needs and desires in one place (not to mention the additional dozens of facilities nearby).

Today that 1839 county seat of Iowa City, originally designed for less than 1000 people, has an 2008 estimated population of about 68,000 -- and is the principal city in its own Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA) of nearly 150,000.
Hancher - Part I," September 14, 2009.

So what did I then think we should do with Iowa City's downtown?
Let me say at the outset that I tend to agree with what I gather is the vision of downtown business persons such as Mark Moen and restaurant genius Jim Mondanaro. That is, Iowa City as laid out in 1839 cannot be turned into a 21st Century Coral Ridge Mall and it's self-defeating to try. . . . What it should aspire to be is a small, very livable, quasi-residential, quaint, walkable, center of entertainment and restaurants (along with the minimal number of banks, grocery stores, and other businesses to sustain that resident population). We may differ about the value of the number of scofflaw bar owners encouraging undergraduates' illegal binge drinking, I don't know. Frankly, I think that phenomenon detracts from, rather than supports, their vision. But we basically agree about the rest of it. And putting Hancher downtown is consistent with that vision -- it's just 170 years too late.

Aesthetically I prefer natural settings for entertainment venues. . . . But it would be a much closer case for me if it were 170 years ago, and we were just now laying out Iowa City.
Hancher - Part V," September 18, 2009.

Oh, if I was doing it I might put the Chauncey building elsewhere -- say, in the area the Council wants to redevelop south of Burlington.

I might have fewer floors. Marc Moen, quoted at the top of this blog essay, may or may not be right in saying that, "These projects are simply not possible without [TIFs]." But whatever these projects require financially, there are certainly other, somewhat more modest, but equally aesthetically pleasing, green projects that would be "possible without [TIFs]."

My downtown vision involves not just "affordable," $200,000 condos (five are planned for the Chauncey), but a much greater availability of low income housing mixed with the proposed (and already existing condo units selling for multiples of that price). I'd even be willing to support the idea of City-owned housing for the poor and working poor in the downtown area. After all, that goal, along with redevelopment of blighted urban areas (which the downtown definitely is not) was the original idea and purpose of TIF funding.

And I would not have demolished the Civil War homes, and the Unitarian Church (which is coming). Because when I propose, above, a "quasi-residential, quaint" downtown I'm thinking of the charm that attracts Americans to some European communities (think Bruges, Belgium, pictured here). Even Manhattan has its Nineteenth Century buildings among its skyscrapers. If we really want to attract residents and visitors to Iowa City's downtown, we too need to preserve among the glass and steel what little charming history we still have left, while also building vertically. [Bruges photo credit: Petrophoto.net]

But those are the details if I was doing it; and I'm not doing it. Moen and the City Council are. I just wanted to make clear that I have for some time shared the general vision of Mark Moen -- whom I greatly admire and appreciate for his patience, aesthetic creativity' and civic commitment -- the City Council, and their staff.

Marc Moen put it right about TIFs in his characteristically soft spoken presentation to the Council, as I've quoted at the top of this blog essay: "It's a political decision whether it's a good idea or not." It is a political decision. I admire capitalists who reject Congressional earmarks and tax breaks, and city councils' TIFs. (As another developer from another city put his attitude about TIFs to me, "I pay my taxes.") But so long as the City Council has made the political decision to give away taxpayers' money to developers, as they have, I would no more fault Marc Moen for accepting it than I would fault him for taking a perfectly legal tax deduction that Congress has unwisely made available to him in the Internal Revenue Code.

My primary argument is with the politicians, rather than the recipients of government largess, for all the reasons an I have repeatedly laid out over the past decade, and are severely truncated in the brief summary below.

Iowa City City Council meetings are cablecast, videotaped, and available for streaming from the City's cable channel on the Mediacom cable system, "City Channel 4." The Chauncey discussion during the June 8, 2015, meeting is available for streaming in its entirety: 2 hours 52 minutes. Video of the statement, below, appears from 01:09:58 to 01:14:42. Special City Council Meeting, Item 2, Development Agreement [Chauncey]," City Channel 4, June 8, 2015.

Here is KGAN-TV's report of the hearing on their June 8, 2015, 10:00 p.m. news, which includes a brief clip from the statement, below:

Statement of Nicholas Johnson
Regarding TIF Funding of the Chauncey Building

City of Iowa City City Council
Iowa City, Iowa
June 8, 2015

Mr. Mayor, and Members of the Iowa City City Council:

Are there benefits to a given TIF? One would certainly hope so.

But benefit-cost analysis requires we examine the harms as well.

Consider an organization of teenage drug dealers. It provides them experience working in teams, providing customer service, the math challenges in weighing drugs, calculating prices, and making change, designing a business plan.

But no one here this evening would say, “Gee, I guess drug rings really are good for kids.” And certainly no one would propose we support their business with taxpayers’ money.

TIFs, like teenage drug rings, are a really bad idea.

Here’s a summary; some of the reasons why.

Corporatism. Putting taxpayers’ money into private, for-profit enterprises is seldom a good idea regardless of how it’s done. In Italy during WW II it was called fascism. In Washington it involves billions of dollars, in Des Moines hundreds of millions, in Iowa City it’s called TIFs.

Ideological hypocrisy. How can those supporting free private enterprise, capitalism, and marketplace forces, who think “government is the problem” and want it “off their back,” justify taking money from the public collection plate?

Anti-democratic. We’ve got it backwards. There are legitimate, traditional government expenditures for things like roads and bridges, parks, public schools and libraries, or jails. Democracy dictates that governments often need voters’ approval of bonds for these legitimate government projects. Yet City Councils can give our money to their friends’ private projects on a whim – even over the opposition of taxpayers. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Opportunity costs. Spending money on one thing costs the lost opportunity to spend it elsewhere. Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan once found a diversion of $700 million of property off the tax rolls. As a result, either we pay more taxes or schools and neighboring communities have to cut needed programs.

Unfairness to competitors. TIFs tilt the playing field. They unfairly upset a free market, punishing honest competitors and benefitting no one except the TIF recipient.

Risky business. Money’s always available for good deals. If an entrepreneur, family, friends, investors, venture capitalists, and banks aren’t willing to fund a project, maybe taxpayers shouldn’t either.

TIFs are unnecessary. The Corridor is one of the fastest growing, lowest unemployment areas of Iowa. We already have what businesses want: skilled labor, transportation and communication infrastructure, quality education, cultural attractions and outdoor recreation. If that’s not enough we don’t need them.

The subsidy-grantors' record is not great. Elected officials are more skilled at keeping contributors and constituents happy than at evaluating taxpayer-funded business proposals. TIFed projects have gone belly up, missed deadlines, and new jobs goals. And TIFs in Iowa have more lenient provisions, and less oversight, than in most other states.

“Need” is unknowable. Many projects will go ahead without subsidy. If tax breaks are available, of course developers will say they need them. Maybe this is blackmail. Maybe they need to look harder for funding. Maybe they need to cut back on the project. There’s no way to know.

There’s more. But that’s all I have time for.

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Sunday, June 07, 2015

The Price of Our Freedom to Waste

June 7, 2015, 8:00 a.m.

Note (from The Gazette): Members of the Writers Circle met in Iowa City last month to discuss the topic of “waste” — an issue proved to be more complex than it might have seemed at first blush.

The discussion kicked off with a handful of questions: What do we mean by waste? Where do we see waste in our lives and community?

What harm is there in wastefulness, and if it’s so bad, why does it continue to be a problem? What are some possible solutions?

Today, three members share their reflections about our discussion. [In addition to Nicholas Johnson's column, reproduced below, the other two are Bob Elliott, "Waste: It's Not Simple Anymore," p. C1, and Wilf Nixon, "Resources Looking for a Purpose," p. C4, all three currently available in The Gazette Online.]


Curbing Waste: Bad News, Good News

Nicholas Johnson, Writers Circle
The Gazette, June 7, 2015, p. C1

“Wasted” can refer to our money, health, food, building materials, garbage, last year’s fashions, lives of the most desperate of our fellow humans — or a binge drinking college student. [Iowa City Landfill; photo credit: Sujin Kim/IowaWatch)

Do corporations’ products built-in obsolescence, or their encouraging conspicuous consumption of “the latest thing,” create “waste”?

Rudyard Kipling advised us to “fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run." Are minutes less filled a waste of time?

This column leaves those questions to others while focusing on next steps. Once there’s agreement on what “waste” is, what can we do about it? How, if at all, can Americans be motivated to change?

Here are some illustrations.

Last month we celebrated “Bike to Work Week.” Compared to car costs (running over 40 cents a mile), bicycling is virtually free. For short trips, with easier parking, they can be faster. They don’t require drilling in the Artic wilderness, or military protection of “our oil” under others’ sand. They don’t pollute or accelerate climate change. Biking keeps you trim, happy and healthy, reducing your (and our nation’s) health care costs.

One member of this Writers Circle walks, bikes, and seldom drives over 400 miles a year. The Sierra Club calculates that even far less — substituting a couple short bike rides for car trips each week — would save 2 billion gallons of gas, its impact on climate change, and billions of dollars.

Future wars will be fought over water. The best shower? Get wet. Turn off the water. Suds up. Rinse off. It’s both more effective and efficient than running water for 20 minutes. If millions would do it, billions of gallons would be saved.

The same can be said for turning off the lights when you leave a room, or throwing cans in a recycling basket rather than the wastebasket.

The literature is replete with hundreds more examples. We know what to do. And it takes little time or sacrifice to do it.

The problem? Americans don’t have to be Libertarians to believe the Constitution guarantees their right to act in ways a majority considers stupid — if they don’t harm others. As President Lyndon Johnson used to say, “I don’t shove worth a damn.” What we need is better understanding of how to motivate such people without criminalizing their behavior or denying them their choice.

But how?

Bad boys, for devilment, used to tie a tin can on a dog’s tail and watch it try to outrun the noise. It gave rise to one Writers Circle member’s insight: “tie your reform to the tail of greed, and watch it run off down the street.” Otherwise put, “You get what you measure,” or what you incentivize — whether the standards for faculty tenure, or the installation of seat belts once they’re mandated for the federal government’s cars.

We can be motivated by education, information, appeals by celebrities — whether public service announcements, such as anti-smoking TV spots, or programming. When the Harvard School of Public Health asked Hollywood producers to include shots of drivers fastening seat belts in their films, lives were saved as public compliance followed.

Informed discussions among those chosen as scientific polling samples produce more thoughtful responses. What’s called “deliberative democracy polling” could radically alter the public’s and politicians’ views on public policy.

The five-cent deposit on cans and bottles encourages recycling. Lower auto insurance rates for the accident-free encourages safer driving. “Cap and trade” pollution reduction (income for reduced pollution; choice to pay to pollute more) seems to work. A restaurateur’s smoke-free restaurant (before legally required) actually attracted more customers.

Some major corporations are discovering it’s profitable to move from a linear economy (raw materials to manufacturing, to sale and use, to landfill) to a circular economy (raw materials to manufacturing, to sale and use, to reuse of products’ raw materials through restoration and resale). This not only reduces waste of non-renewable resources. Unilever’s 240 factories in 67 countries now send zero waste to landfills. The sale of an electric car transportation service (rather than “a car”), for a monthly charge, with “new” rebuilt cars and batteries every three years, would be a win-win-win for manufacturers, dealers, drivers — and the planet.

No matter how we define “waste,” the bad news is there’s no groundswell of support to stop it, given the protests of those who profit from it. The good news is that we can be motivated to change.

Nick Johnson is a former Federal Communications Commissioner and author of Test Pattern for Living, writes at www.nicholasjohnson.org and FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com

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Monday, June 01, 2015


June 1, 2015, 3:45 PM

Why the 99% Should Support Bernie's Campaign


Who is Bernie Sanders?

His Campaign's Challenges

What is Socialism?

Is Bernie's Platform "Socialist"?

Reference Sites

Who is Bernie Sanders?

Senator Bernie Sanders is a solid, widely experienced, accomplished, popular, and well-regarded student of public policy, legislation, and spokesperson for the people.

Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from the state of Vermont, raised $1.5 million during the first 24 hours after his announcement -- more than any Republican candidate did in a comparable time -- and is getting wildly enthusiastic crowds of ever-increasing size in Iowa and wherever else he appears. We witnessed this phenomenon at close range here in Iowa City this past Saturday (see video of presentation, below). Trip Gabriel and Patrick Healy, "Challenging Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders Gains Momentum in Iowa,", New York Times, June 1, 2015, p. A12.

[In Davenport, where Martin O'Malley announced his candidacy to a "crowd" of 50, Bernie Sanders had earlier attracted 700 -- the largest crowd for any presidential candidate in Iowa this year. In little Kensett, Iowa, population 261, some 300 turned out to hear him. His Vermont kick-off drew 5000; his post Iowa stop in Minneapolis, 4000.]

Neither Democrat nor Republican, he's sufficiently well regarded by his Senate colleagues that they've given him the coveted position as ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. He often caucuses with the Senate Democrats, and will be running as a Democrat during the forthcoming caucuses and primaries. He is sufficiently well regarded by Democratic Party voters that 15% of them are already leaning his way in what had been predicted to be the Party's Clinton coronation nomination process.

A part of his appeal is his authenticity. He tells his followers what he thinks, not what some campaign manager told him to say. Part of the reason he comes across as genuine is that he says the same things in Iowa that he does in Washington or Vermont. Another reason is that he's been saying the same things all his life. This is no etch-o-sketch candidate, changing the message as the audience, times and polls require.

Bernie is a graduate of the University of Chicago, 1964, who has been winning elections since 1981:Mayor of Burlington, 1981-1989; U.S. House of Representatives, 1991-2007 (in Vermont a statewide office); and U.S. Senate, 2007-present -- most recently re-elected with 71% of the vote. [Photos credit: Nicholas Johnson. These three photos of most of the crowd inside the hall (though not all) give a sense of the numbers. All chairs were taken by 9:20 or so for the 10:00 a.m. event. I was tasked with monitoring the mob outside the only entrance -- glass with a view of some of the lobby. Although I could not see the entire area, if there were over 300 inside the hall there were possibly as many outside as well. -- N.J.]

Not only does he have proven popular appeal, the political professionals give him comparable reviews. This is no ineffective, isolated, independent, iconoclast, shouting from the sidelines. The Almanac of American Politics calls Sanders a "practical and successful legislator." Last year, when he succeeded in his efforts to pass legislation reforming the VA health care system, the Congressional Quarterly said Senator Sanders was able “to bridge Washington’s toxic partisan divide and cut one of the most significant deals in years.”

His Campaign's Challenges

His personality, presentations, and positions on the issues are such that every member of the 99% ought to be supporting him. Why isn't everyone there -- yet? There are two challenges.

Central is our corporate media's approach to politics in general and the presidential primaries in particular -- as a horse race, and delights over their gotcha presentations of candidates' gaffs. When Sanders is mentioned at all it's usually to compare him with Hillary. Seldom has any report devoted even a single sentence to each of his policy proposals -- most of which, polls show, are supported by a majority of Americans.

However one might characterize what the media is currently doing, it's not an effort to inform and involve the American people in a discussion and debate regarding the "best practices" approach to our nation's challenges. Since that's what Bernie wants to do, no other candidate seems to, and therefore ought to be one of the most newsworthy elements of his campaign, the fact that it's impossible to report his exciting platform in the media's 20-second sound bites is a substantial campaign challenge.

The other major challenge is Sanders' association with what for many Americans is the dreaded word "socialist" -- the modern day equivalent of Senator Joseph McCarthy's irresponsible use of the label "communist."

What is "Socialism"?

Socialism might be loosely thought of as government (federal, state, county, or city) ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, the provision of services or facilities. "Capitalism," by contrast, suggests a system in which these things are the province of private individuals or corporations.

Thus, our interstate highway system might be characterized as "socialist highways." Privately owned toll roads and bridges (there are a few) would be "capitalist highways."

In the real world there are few pure "communist," "socialist," or "capitalist" countries. China is ruled by a "Communist Party" and yet is best known today for its galloping capitalist advances that are providing a real challenge to the rest of the world's economies, including ours.

Like China, ours is also a mixed economy. Americans may not be unanimous, but most seem to like the idea of socialist roads and bridges; national, state, county and city parks; public K-12 schools and state universities; and public libraries. They like cooperatives, whether for farmers, rural electricity, grocery stores, or credit unions. They don't seem to mind -- at least not enough to abolish them -- the blend of government and corporate institutions known as"corporatism" that transfers taxpayers' money to private "capitalists" (in the form of grants, tax breaks, TIFs, subsidies, price supports, earmarks, and other creative schemes -- limited only by the imaginative abilities of business persons and those whose campaigns they fund).

So I think it's a little silly to treat "socialist" as a "slur word" when we're all living in the midst of it and liking it -- the sidewalk and road in front of my house, the trash collection truck that just drove by on it (and the recycling truck that will soon follow), the water plant and main that just provided the water I needed to make tea, the fireplug on the corner of our lot, the public library book that sits on my desk as I keystroke this blog essay, the park across the street, the street cleaning machine that drove by the other day.

Besides, I think living a life of labels -- whether of ethnicity, gender, race, religion, or political ideology -- is dangerous, limiting, and not very productive. When it comes to public policy, we're better off evaluating the challenge, the data, and the options for solutions than to accept, or reject, proposals on the basis of ideological labels. Of what relevance is it to adequate funding for our roads and bridges whether the tax, and the projects it funds, are labeled "capitalist," "socialist," "libertarian" -- or "communist"? A pothole, or a falling bridge, has no ideology.

Is Bernie's Platform "Socialist"?

It would be amusing if it were not so serious that anyone would want to use "socialist" as a pejorative in trying to diminish Senator Sanders. He's as American as Vermont maple syrup. He is brighter, more creative, compassionate, accomplished, experienced, and committed to his constituents than most. But aside from that, he is otherwise merely engaged in the same kinds of political and legislative activities of other U.S. senators since the beginning of our nation.

Those who do find labels useful would probably consider the Cato Institute either "conservative" or "Libertarian" or both. Here's what it has to say about Senator Sanders:
According to the National Taxpayers Union, 42 senators in 2008 voted to spend more tax dollars than socialist Bernie Sanders. . . . Meanwhile, the American Conservative Union rated 11 senators more liberal than Sanders in 2008, . . .. The Republican Liberty Caucus declared . . . Sanders voted better than 31 colleagues in support of personal liberties.
David Boaz, "Is Bernie Sanders the Most Liberal Senator?" "Cato at Liberty," Cato Institute, April 30, 2015.

As Ralph Nader has said, "This country has more problems than it deserves and more solutions than it uses."

Bernie Sanders wants us to address those problems, search for and then use those solutions.

Here are a couple of illustrations, followed by links and a video of Bernie's Iowa City presentation to fill you in on more details.

Bernie advocates "Medicare for all," otherwise referred to as "universal, single-payer healthcare." This is not some risky, radical, never-tried-before idea of his. Variations of this idea have long been the global standard, the moderate, middle-of-the-road approach by the industrialized nations for economic growth as well as better health and associated happiness for their entire populations.Those nations' peoples have longer life expectancies, and lower rates of infant mortality, than we do, with more of their people covered, and at lower cost. We chose a costly health insurance approach, although now expanded to more Americans. They chose health care provided to all.

Bernie advocates free higher education. This is no more a radical idea than Medicare for all. As I wrote last January, "Germany is only the latest country to realize that free higher education for all world citizens promotes economic growth in each of its states ("Länder"). Other countries with similar programs include Brazil, Finland, France, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden. . . . Providing free college education to all, like the free food samples at Costco, is just good business.

"Germany is part of a global economy. The more world citizens with German ties, the more the Länders' economies grow. It's true whether students from abroad stay, or return home with networks of German contacts. It's equally true of German students otherwise without access to higher education. The German economy benefits when they stay; it benefits when they study abroad, stay, and do business from there.

Iowa, unlike Germany, does not grasp this simple truth. Our leaders believe if Washington can pay for a war with tax cuts, Iowa can create prosperity with tax cuts. Both Washington and Des Moines are in desperate need of remedial math."
Nicholas Johnson, "Free College Education for Iowans? Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 16, 2015, p. A7, embedded in, "Free College Education for Iowans? Will Germany’s Economic Formula Work for Iowa?" January 16, 2015.

For more of Bernie's proposals and their details, see on his Senate Web page, Agenda for America: 12 Steps Forward"; and for a fulsome description of Senator Sanders and his positions on numerous issues, see "Bernie Sanders Presidential Campaign, 2016," "Balotpedia," and the "Political Positions" section of the Wikipedia "Bernie Sanders" entry.

If you'd like to watch Bernie explain these ideas to thunderous applause and standing ovations, here is a video of his entire Iowa City presentation, May 30, 2015, prepared by Gregory Johnson of ResourcesForLife.com:

You owe it to yourself to learn more about this man, his policy proposals and stands, and the process he proposes to get us there.

Reference Sites

Bernie Sanders' Presidential campaign Web page: http://www.BernieSanders.com

Senator Sanders' Web page: "Bernie Sanders: United States Senator for Vermont"

Bernie Sanders' Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/berniesanders

Bernie Sanders on Wikipedia: Bernie Sanders

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