11.14.2009

Old Post: On Local Politics

[Originally posted December 2005]

Dear Diary,

I find myself unusually nervous about speaking at tomorrow’s gathering of the Felstown Neighborhood Association. I don’t doubt that it was a good idea for me to set this up, but I’m uncertain about what to say and how I’ll be received. I’ve already rubbed a few of the members the wrong way. I think they think I look down on them. Maybe I do: it’s hard for me to hide my contempt when they mention their big SUV’s and their credit-maxing shopping sprees. What can I say – my parents taught me to conserve energy and to save every penny, so of course I’m going to bristle up. Maybe I should give up trying to fake it, and just light into them tomorrow night: “Of course you can’t be a check on our profligate township; you’re too busy being profligate in your personal spending!”

I have a feeling that won’t go over well. I don’t think I can even appeal to something more noble: “Just like presidents who run up huge deficits are socking our kids with a huge bill, we’re doing the same when we let our township’s spending get out of control!” After all, while I don’t doubt these guys care about their kids, it’s hard to see them being able to think that far ahead in their fiscal discipline. Plus, when it comes to government spending, pushing our financial obligations into the future has lost most of its stigma. Another new resident tried this approach a few months back, so I was told, and was met with blank stares. So guilting people into cutting costs isn’t going to work, either.

Ironically, I heard from an old Fels classmate of mine who moved back to Oregon and successfully got her neighborhood association to work with their commissioners to get their costs under control. And she used the exact same lines of thinking I described above. I guess the people there see their township’s budget as a public trust, and it’s their job to ensure those funds are prudently spent for the township’s long-term good.

Here in Felstown, of course, we have an entirely different set of rules. Politics here is individual and it is transactional. Even political influence is transactional: if I want to persuade someone to do something for me, I have learned that it is not by selling them on the merits of my position as much as it is by framing my request in such a way that the person I’m asking will get something out of the deal.

So here’s a thought. Rather than trying to appeal to an innate thriftiness that isn’t there, or make impassioned but empty pleas to “think about the children,” I should frame my points so that people can clearly see the benefits that accrue to them from supporting a more restrained spending posture. I could talk about how too many years of spending more than you take in will inevitably lead to rising taxes. I could relate horror stories of townships who went down this path and found themselves in a vicious cycle of higher taxes and deteriorating services. I could tell people their house values could plummet.

Most of all, I could stress to my audience that spending out of control will invariably lead to a loss of control. Felstowners may not care about conserving natural resources or saving for their children’s college tuition, but they’ll get riled up if they think they’re losing control over their government. That’s a fear that translates in any political culture.

Once I’ve gotten their attention, I have to talk some specifics. Even though I’m a penny-pincher, I get that it’s easier to spend a dollar than save a dollar, especially when there are so many agencies and activities that could use that dollar. Felstown is a tight-knit community, so everyone has heard firsthand that the police needs a new interrogation room, the recreation department has to upgrade its pools, and the commissioners want to install videoconferencing equipment in their boardroom. No one wants to be the one who says we shouldn’t pay for this or that, lest they find themselves needing help in the future from someone who had their budget slashed and who wants to return the favor.

Maybe I can win some points with my audience by acknowledging this fact, and asking for help in figuring out how to work towards more disciplined spending while limiting anyone’s exposure to being perceived as the bad guy. After all, I’m not asking the association to lobby for a swing to the other end of the spending pendulum, just enough of an adjustment to ensure we don’t go down that slippery slope of higher taxes and poorer services. If I can be persuasive enough about how overspending will cost us dearly, they have to be willing to make some tough political decisions, right?

Going through this process has made me more thankful for my parents, who taught me well about spending and saving money. I just wish I could convince my neighbors and my commissioners to be as fiscally disciplined as I am, but I know that’s not going to work. Having written out my musings above, I feel a little better that tomorrow’s speech will help mobilize enough support in the township for more controlled spending. But just to hedge my bets, maybe I’ll encourage some of the local pastors, rabbis, and imams to talk to their congregations about being good stewards of their financial resources.

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