The Magic that was this Journey

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

13 – 4/19/11: E pluribus unum

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (Preamble, United States Constitution)

You’re a little man in a little town who has to go hat in hand before your alderman to beg for the bullets in your gun and the paper in your copier. You have no idea of the power money can bring to bear, Chief Van Alstyne. None at all. (Julia Spencer-Fleming, One was a Soldier, 2011, p. 365)

I had to come to Wisconsin to find people talking about the unprecedented level of inequality in the U.S. And, I had to come to Wisconsin to find people talking about the power of money.

I finished a blog two posting ago with this statement:

I am outraged that those in power, in some powerful states like the one I am currently visiting, are not willing to interrogate the excesses of early 21st century capitalism to generate revenues by closing loopholes contributing to the historically unprecedented inequality in our country. And, I’m outraged that so few people are outraged by this.
As it turns out, nearly everybody I talked to in Wisconsin, in Madison and Ashland, are outraged by this. As most readers know, Madison, Wisconsin has been a hot-bed of democratic action for the past few months.  In January, their new governor, Scott Walker, proposed a “budget repair” bill that required public employees to pay more for pensions and benefits, severely restricted collective bargaining and cut many safety nets. The “Fab 14” or the “Wisconsin 14” Democratic senators left Wisconsin for Illinois in an attempt to delay voting for lack of a quorum.  These senators returned to the legislature the week I was in Wisconsin, after six weeks away.

The governor was practicing his interpretation of representative democracy; he claimed voters elected him to office to enact the kinds of reform he was proposing. The Fab 14 were practicing democratic action by inhibiting quorum with their absence. And, perhaps the most newsworthy practices of democracy came from public employees and union members including teachers, firefighters, police, and all flavors of city, county and state employees.  The Capitol was mobbed with protesters for weeks on end.  The legislature and Governor did pass/sign the budget repair bill without the absent Democratic senators but the day before I was in Madison, the Democrats returned and action was taken on a revised, somewhat softer, bill.  The important point here is that all of these actions were part of the democratic process, flawed as it may be, not just the protests. Remember Winston Churchill’s famous quote about democracy:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

When in Madison, the girls and I walked downtown to see what was going on at the Capitol and to interview a few folks.  The first person we approached was one of the few people still protesting outside the Capitol building – he calls himself “Dennis the Menace.” Dennis’ response to the question, “What comes to mind when you think of government” was to recite the preamble to the United States Constitution. He also quoted the often misquoted Bible passage: “the love of money is the root of all evil.” In popular culture, we’ve shortened the passage to “money is the root of all evil” but, as one can see, the actual passage means something very different.  When asked if he separates politics and administration, Dennis said that money separates the two and that the love of money is the powerful’ driving addiction in politics. While he wants little from government (he has embraced a simplicity lifestyle), his mission is to be as much of a menace as possible, fighting against the “fight against people who make less than a million dollars a year.”

I also talked with a graphics designer who was taking her daily lunch-time walk around the Capitol grounds. She was an observer of the protests, not a participant. She said government is not “we the people,” that it is becoming an oligarchy and that is very dangerous.  She was hopeful and excited after the last presidential election and is deeply disappointed at what appears to be folks “not willing to play with others.” She used school yard metaphors for the way politics is played nowadays, talking about not sharing and bullying. What she wants from government is some balance and, like Dennis, wants government to be looking out for those who don’t make millions as much as we look out for those that do. She called on another metaphor for balance: a floating boat.  If one side is overloaded, the boat tips and everyone falls in the water.  She thinks we are all falling into cold, un-swimmable waters.

My most remarkable conversation was with Carole, a woman taking a break from her job as a housekeeper at the nearby YMCA. What comes to mind for her is shame: Madison has always been a town divided, but the divisions now are caustic.  In the past, the divisions were moderated by doing the right thing for the people of Wisconsin. And she feels shame that this is not happening anymore, especially in her beloved, chosen home of Wisconsin.

She felt that if Walker would have just proposed cutting “Badgercare,” without including the assault on public employees’ collective bargaining rights, then the bill would have passed with little protest.  Irrespective of our political and social leanings, Carole said, working for the rights of the impoverished does not tend to bring many folks together. And here’s the bright spot in what happened in Wisconsin; she found the response to Walker’s plans encouraging, en-heartening and enlivening.  Everyone was standing together. The protest was a form of what sociologist Elijah Anderson calls a “Cosmopolitan Canopy,” a space where diverse peoples, who are otherwise segregated culturally and socially, come together and get along.

When asked what she wanted from government, she asked for fairness and equity.  She doesn’t want the budget balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable. The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer and she wondered when this was going to stop.  She said, ironically, the poor already know how to cope with loss because they’ve lived it their entire lives.  She is worried about the middle class – those that “have.” – that we won’t be able to cope with the kind of loss coming down the pike.

She thinks Governor Walker could have avoided much of the political upheaval if he had just had a public forum and talked and listened to folks.  She pointed to both the deep disconnections between government and the people and the deep disconnections between people, disconnections that were bridged, at least for a moment, in the protests. Like many others interviewed for this project, Carole is very sad about the way things seem to be going.

As I drove from Madison to Ashland (home of ex-Greener Sharon Anthony, her partner Pat and daughters Sarah and Hailey), the nation was a flutter about a possible shut down of the federal government and NPR had several stories about the implications of such an event.  In one interview, the (female) federal worker said: “this is not real life; this is politics. It’s them flexing their muscles. This has nothing to do with my government service.”

Ashland sits on Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay. It’s a small, funky, rural town.  Home of Northland College, a small, private liberal arts environmental college and many really big pickup trucks. A friend of my friends gave me a bottle of his homemade maple syrup. He tapped the trees and filled the bottles; his 85 year-old father did everything else, including cutting the firewood to boil the sap.

Pat took me and his girls to the Black Cat CafĂ© on Saturday morning so I could talk with the locals that regularly gather there. We rode our bikes – the snow melt was cause for acting like it was spring (the temperature didn’t verify it til late in the day). Over a breakfast of herbed biscuits in wild mushroom gravy (one of the many excellent meals I had on this trip – I really should do an entry in praise of excellent food!), I talked with a number of people over several hours. While I talked with conservatives (in particular, a self-described “outdoors man” whose hobbies involve firearms and small combustion engines) and liberals, all were progressive in one form or the other, living up to Wisconsin’s historically progressive reputation. As with other folks across the country, most said government is not what it is supposed to be.  It is not the collective will of the people, it is not competent (and privatization is not the answer), honest and just.  It is too controlling and too much shaped by corporate greed and moneyed interests (which is one of the reasons why privatization is not the answer).  Folks did not differentiate the political and the administrative.  One person said she may do so under other circumstances but under current conditions, the entire system is failing and failing us.

One man discussed a theory he heard about in college which goes something like this (I modified it using a three-legged stool metaphor – apologies): government sits on a three legged stool – each of the legs represents the three major interest groups which are always vying for power and control of government: the people (citizenry), businesses (the market) and professionals (the bureaucracy). Ostensibly, politics falls on the citizen leg.  I’d argue this stool (or whatever metaphor we are using) needs another leg for politics although one may argue that politics is what you get when you combine the three legs.  If any leg is longer or shorter than the others, the stool is either unsteady or it falls. And, our stool is falling.

One other thing occurred while I was in Wisconsin: an election. The Supreme Court justice race, in particular, was the race to watch.  The sitting justice campaigned as a “yes man” for Governor Walker.  His opponent campaigned as a reasoned judge, one who will not be ruled by politics.  While she didn’t state it outright, she represents interests opposite of Walker’s. Supreme Court seats are nonpartisan, but the battle lines were clearly drawn in this election. 

This election was to be a test of the recent political times – would Wisconsin citizens rubber-stamp Governor Walker and re-elect Prosser or would they “throw the bum out” and elect Kloppenburg? A Kloppenburg win would be seen as a win for grassroots politics. The razor thin margin between the two widened when uncounted ballots were added to the mix a few days after the election.  Prosser, the incumbent, is now winning by a several thousand votes.  While the major cities saw turnouts of a bit greater than 50%, turnout in the state was about 33%, which is high for a mid-term election.  If we look at the percent of eligible voters who are registered, then the participation rate drops even lower. 

Oh, and by the way, Madisonians voted out “Mayor Bob” and replaced him with “Mayor Paul” (who has served two previous, and long, terms as mayor).The two men appear virtually identical in terms of politics and positions. For some reason, Madison voters wanted to “throw one bum out” to replace him with an identical bum.  As my host in Madison, Michael Mucha, had to say: “we all seem to be looking for a hero, for someone to get us out of the messes we are in. Projecting that out to another, instead of taking responsibility ourselves, seems the easy route.”

What’s my point?  Wisconsin seems an apt microcosm of the U.S. and a good description of the results of my talks with folks across the country: we are pretty clearly split on issues, almost 50/50.  EVEN WHEN THERE IS SIGNIFICANT POLITICAL FOMENT.  There are no clear mandates. And, only a small percentage of the eligible population is actually registered and voting which means this dramatic, almost 50/50 split is not, necessarily representative of the majority of all people in the U.S. So, really, forget about these “mandates.”  And, what are the other 50 or so percent of the country doing, if they are not participating in elections and contributing to the political life of their communities?

We do seem to be looking for heroes – for super-action figures who can get us out of our messes by flying faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive…

Which brings us back to the epigraphs of this posting: the Preamble and the quote from Julia Spencer-Fleming’s new novel.  Clearly, we all need to be more aware of the power money can bring to bear and, perhaps, to speak and act against this kind of power (if we all aren’t already doing so). And, we need to remember that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil, not money itself. Finally, perhaps everything we are looking for with regard to designing a government by, for and of the people is encapsulated in the prescient Preamble, to note:

·         We the people
·         Establish justice
·         Ensure tranquility
·         Provide for the common defense
·         Promote the general welfare
·         Secure the blessings of liberty

I’ve mentioned in other postings that there is a group of young academics in the field proposing some very interesting ways to think about government and public administration.  It seems to me that these preamble elements are encapsulated in their work. More on this in my next, and final, posting.

p.s. I’ve safely returned to Olympia.  The road home from Wisconsin was a blur because all the members of this expedition were road weary and home sick. Except for some time in Bismarck, North Dakota (and what a contrast with Madison, more in my next posting!), we stopped driving only to eat and sleep. It was a grueling homecoming but it sure is good to be home.)

p.s.s. I know long blog postings are the kiss of death but I’ve been sitting on too much information for too many days…a successful blogger I probably will never be.  I am, however, deeply appreciative of those of you who have followed this blog, taken an interest and even posted a few comments!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

12 – 4/10/11: In Praise of Public Goods and all Things Great

Two people I interviewed in Ashland, Wisconsin (more on Wisconsin interviews in the next blog) had this to say about government:

When functioning the way it is supposed to be, government is the collective effort to provide what we need for civil society: police, roads, drivers’ licenses, support for the poor, clean air, water, etc.

The economy doesn’t work without government; government provides the common-wealth.  If the road to your business is not plowed, you will have no business. Government does what we need for the common good –those things that private industry does not, or cannot, provide (like defense).

I’ve wanted to write in praise of the public goods (and all things great) I’ve availed myself of while on this epic journey and these two folks handed me the opportunity to do so.

In the ten weeks I’ve been on the road, I’ve:

·         Traveled over 6000 miles of public roads and highways, including a section of the original Lincoln Highway (see post #1 - unfortunately, the Lincoln Highway segment felt like it was the original, it was so pocked and cracked. Infrastructure deficit!).
·         Availed myself of countless public restroom facilities.
·         Drove two National Parkways, highways in the National Park System (Natchez Trace and Blue Ridge).
·         Visited and/or camped in two national parks (Joshua Tree in California and the Cuyahoga Valley in Akron, Ohio).
·         Visited and/or camped in three county parks.
·         Visited and camped in 11 state parks.
·         Visited two National Lakeshores, Indiana Dunes (Lake Michigan) and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Lake Superior).
·         Ate fish that came from a recently certifiable “ok-to-eat-fish-caught-here,” Lake Erie (no small feat to clean that lake).
·         Took two public (and free) ferries: one from Mustang Island, Texas and one across the Mississippi River.
·         Filled my water tanks from public water sources.
·         Dumped my RV tanks at public dumping stations (including one at a service area on the Ohio Turnpike, a remarkable thing).
·         Breathed clean air.
·         Ate safe food.
·         Treated my migraines with drugs regulated and tested for safety.
·         Walked my dogs on trails built and maintained by public entities.
·         This trip was possible because of a sabbatical, provided by a public college.

Like the business that can’t do business if public goods aren’t present (roads, snow removal, water, sewage), this journey would not be possible without this long, likely incomplete, list.  In fact, if it weren’t for public schools, libraries and public student aid for college/university, I would not be here, doing this trip, doing this work.

So, today, I sing praises to public goods and wonder how we can spread the word to others that public goods, literally, provide foundation and ballast to our lives.

I also sing praises to all things Great as I find myself, in Ashland Wisconsin (visiting former colleague and friend Sharon Anthony and her family) on the shore of yet another Great Lake. 

I’ve found myself during this trip, on the shores of three (really great) Great Lakes: Lake Erie, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.  As the pictures show, Superior is still working on giving up its ice.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

11 – 4/2/11: The Accidental Traveler

(Tipping my hat to Ann Tyler, author of The Accidental Tourist)

In The Accidental Tourist, the protagonist, Macon Leary, writes travel guides for people who don’t like to travel and are forced to do so on business.  Like his readers, he hates traveling and does so only "with his eyes shut and holding his breath and hanging on for dear life" (

I’ve become, it seems, the Accidental Traveler. Not because I’ve come to hate this traveling (although I am still complaining about the quality of roads in the East and the density/aggression of drivers) but because I am having many accidents with this old RV.  Shutting my eyes, holding my breath, and hanging on for dear life while in reverse is obviously not a good strategy. The most recent was a scrape with a large, stately maple tree in my mother’s yard.  This scrape, or conflict, resulted in the driver’s side back corner being mutilated and a goodly amount of the fiberglass torn off.  It is temporarily repaired with the handyman’s secret weapon: duct tape.  Indeed, anything is possible with enough duct tape.

Like the dark day in Fresno when I backed into a sawed off tree limb (still attached to the tree, mind you) and cracked my back window, it was a dark day in Toledo.  A very dark day, indeed. I’ve been rethinking my primary relationship with this, or any, RV.  Perhaps it is not in my destiny to be an RV owner and operator. Or, as a friend said, maybe this is my “training RV.”

Still, me, the girls and this old injured RV need to limp on home and will be starting West/Northwest on Monday. The weather on the northerly route looks mild (read: no snow) and presuming Interstate 94 through North Dakota and into Montana is open, this is the route we will take.  Skirting Chicago, through Wisconsin (with a stop in Madison, of course), and across the northerly plains/mountain states back home to Washington.

I’ve taken time off the “American Crossings” project while visiting family in Toledo but I did have an interview with two remarkable people while in Akron: colleagues and co-authors, Kathy Feltey and Bridget O’Neill Susel (we coauthored the 1998 Public Administration Review piece on authentic public participation).

When asked what comes to mind when they think of government, they said: “big” and “polarized.” 

When asked if they differentiate between the political and administrative sides of the house, Bridget said, “yes, because I live it and have the conversation about the differences with constituents 2-3 times a week” (she’s working for a city government). She went on to say that the political side of the house is not representing constituents; rather, they are representing themselves. Both said that the degrees of machinations and positioning that happens at the political level creates a huge disconnect between politicians and citizens.  “Us” is an afterthought, is not central in the political processes and there is no sense of a political collective.  Instead it’s “us versus them.” And, depending on who is in power, administrators get pulled from one side or the other. 

When asked what they want from government, Bridget said, “I really, really, want a whole paradigm shift.” Kathy wants, “a move to true representative government with the priority on how to create communities where people can live and thrive, where the focus of government is on shaping/regulating what is needed for people to thrive (food, water, air, education, infrastructure, etc.). And government needs to be organized with living and thriving as a priority.  Bridget wants the political side of the house to get out of the way of administrators who are trying to do just what Kathy wants. They want administrators to have the tools they need to do the work needed for the public. Central to this is recognizing that public goods and services need to be managed and implemented in the public sphere, that privatization sucks the public out of public goods.

Interestingly, neither want a more direct democracy.  Both want a representative system that works and working requires more than a two-party system.  A two-party system sets everyone up to see things as an “either-or,” or a “this-or-that” instead of seeing a spectrum of possibilities.  They also think the two party system pits citizens against each other in either-or situations, causing more conflict and incivility than is necessary or really there. A paradigm shift would involve moving to a multi-party system.

And, a paradigm shift would separate politics and administration in some significant way so that administrators could do their work without the push and pull, or back and forth, of the vagaries of the (two-party) political system.

I’ve heard some politicos say that our two-party, “this or that” system works because, in the end, the pulling back and forth averages out to something moderate and stable.  I’m not sure about this, as I watch worker and human rights being thrown upon the budget pyre as a result of what appears to be a national shift toward fiscal conservatism. I’m not outraged that we have to change the way we spend public money—this is a hard truth. But, I am outraged that those in power, in some powerful states like the one I am currently visiting, are not willing to interrogate the excesses of early 21st century capitalism to find ways to generate revenues by closing  loopholes that contribute to the historically unprecedented inequality in our country. And, I’m outraged that so few people are not outraged by this.

Perhaps, like Macon Leary from The Accidental Tourist and like me as I reverse this old, injured RV, most of us (save those relative few protesting in the streets) are living life with our eyes shut, holding our breath and hanging on for dear life.  It’s time to open our eyes and breathe.