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Fred Allebach
Connecting the Dots
Fred Allebach

Government by whom for what?

I find myself dissatisfied in large degree with how I see government working, city, county, state and federal. I believe government can do better. Sustainability is our critical generational challenge and it is being danced around, not actively and honestly engaged. When I see government hidden behind inscrutable layers of bureaucracy, wasting money, turned in upon itself and apparently beholden to rich special interests, my hopes of widespread public benefit are shot. Very disappointing.

I want government to do good but it is becoming increasingly hard to defend it. Changes I'd like to see are to have government be more transparent, accountable,  proactive, idealistic, just, and democratic.

For accountability, the complexity and inaccessibility of budget processes make citizen's ability to follow the money near impossible. Opaque accounting leaves the door open to reasonable suspicions of ineptitude and corruption. What results is public cynicism and a loss of governmental moral authority. Tremendous waste of tax dollars is of concern to all citizens. If a budget is so complex no one can figure it out to even see where waste is, this is not good. To be effective in the ways I hope, government must regain public confidence as an arbiter of public, collective good. In order to do this government must make accounting easily understandable and accessible.

For example, I simply don't buy that there is not enough money to pay health workers $15 an hour.  I don't believe it. I believe the money is there but is being wasted/ mis-spent in various ways. One suggestion, take the high salaries of some and average them off to pay a just wage to health service workers, simple, just do it. There's the money, reallocate it.

Lack of both accountability and transparency are problems in public and private spheres, no one is watching the watchers. Foxes are always angling to run the hen house. Unsupervised and unregulated, people tend to cheat and become corrupt. This is a common human problem, not an inherent property of government or private enterprise. Cheaters and manipulators are embarrassed by others knowing of their selfish machinations. Thus, abuse of power, privilege and control can only be fixed by lots of daylight.  Thus there are things like the Brown Act, stop signs and regulations to publicly manage the tendency to cheat.

Transparency boils down to instilling confidence, in money management and decision making, What the public wants is to see clear, honest action, not biased, unfair action, not an inertia of mediocrity. Fairness leads to more democracy  (actual representation) and less out-of-proportion representation of special interests. This inevitably points to a need for campaign finance reform, i.e. how to take undue representation of special interests and Big $ out of elections and thereby, out of the political calculus in general. In Sonoma County, the wine-tourism-hospitality combine has an insidious influence beyond what democratic representation would seem to allow.

Fair and proportional representation is important to democracy. People are supposed to be represented, not the most wealth. We already had a revolution to do away with aristocracy. This is the point of this whole essay, to encourage government to perform its functions in a transparent, accountable way so the desires of the people are heard and acted upon.

Government has developed self-imposed,  unnecessary impediments placed upon it that restrain the ability to do good and provide public benefit. One of the primary impediments is government being in the pocket of Big $ interests. If Big $ was an actual public good, there wouldn't be the type of unequal distribution of wealth we see now world wide. Government and politicians have to stand up, to limit special interests, not enable them to further dilute the public good. Indeed, what is even seen as good or bad is spun so as Big $ obfuscates the issues beyond all recognition.

What I see is a numb bureaucracy that allows almost anything to go as long as the money is coming in. Mediocrity and adherence to “rules” is rewarded, not inventiveness, idealism and creativity. In a bureaucracy, rocking the boat is undesirable; excellence is frowned upon as it makes others look bad. This is the sense I get from the city of Sonoma, basically unresponsive, going on of its own accord.

In some county agencies I do see individuals manifesting idealism: the Sonoma County Water Agency, the Ag and Open Space District, PRMD, Health and Human Services, various assitants. This is great, to see ideals at work, a desire to perform public benefit. Hopefully department directors and the Board Of Supervisors will validate these individual's creative, idealistic ideas. Often enough though, what I hear is all the reasons why things can't be done. I'm tired of that. We need ideals put into action, period. I'm tired of serious suggestions and ideas going into a black hole and witnessing a profoundly unresponsive inertia that seems to address none of the salient issues I see as calling for attention. All the while government appears to keep on catering to unsustainable Big $.

The priorities seem misplaced. Sustainable is not even defined in a publicly meaningful way even though this is the biggest challenge to our race ever.

I know I am not alone. The man and woman on the street validates my exact sentiments; politicians appear to listen but then nothing is done. My associates and I put together a 1000 signatures, others commission a serious independent study, yet we are ignored just the same. We write, we talk, we attend meetings, to what effect? Something very undemocratic is at the root of my dissatisfaction here: an opaque government unresponsiveness, and this from the very people I hope to manifest public good and benefit. I don't see action where it appears necessary, only an endless process of meeting after meeting with few results that are then jobbered by 1% players. Every issue I have been for has been voted down by the Sonoma City Council, The city has not engaged actual sustainability at all. There are major socio-econmomic-environmental problems at the county level and it's like pulling teeth to get anyone to speak of actual sustainability.

Sustainability is cutting edge science-based stuff, what's the problem? These are real, serious issues; I'm not making this up just to blow steam. How many times do I have to blow the whistle?

What I object to is that when confronted with a clear slate of serious problems that call for a true, full-cost accounting: lack of affordable housing, runaway boutique inflation, environmental degradation, unaccounted for carbon footprint, unfair low wages, the greatest inequality maybe ever, how do politicians then have the nerve to say how great everything is?! What planet are they on? Who and what are they representing?

The only reasonable explanation is that these politicians are primarily representing the Big $, or are fearful to alienate it. Everything is indeed great to Big $ because they at the top are running off with all the marbles. Those at the top have the money and power to swing an election to politicians who will not rock the boat. Thus we have a fear of telling it like it is. Tell it like it is and politicians will have the big money mobilized against them and they won't get re-elected. What I'd like to see is an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders type; look at where we are, this is the Bay Area for God's sake, they would win big. Instead we get unsatisfying Hillary type stuff, people who say idealistic things but sell out to big money when we aren’t looking.

Bottom line, the combine of consumption, of which the tourist-wine-hospitality machine is our local version, this is running our planet and our country into the ground, and no one in power seems to want to say one word of acknowledgment about it.

If democracy is government by and for the people, then Houston, we have a problem. If a lot of people desire things to be different but government appears to be in the pocket of the few, I can't advocate for this sort of government. This is what you expect from Kansas and Texas, not California.

Government needs to be proactive. If there are obvious problems, go after them; prioritize, handle it. If there are cost of living and housing problems, if we are ruining the environment, step up and fix it. If the system is no good, be honest, reeveal then problems, change them. If the money is not there, get it, tax it, procure it from those who have sequestered it all.

This incremental, go along with the status quo, hew to the rules style, this is no good. We are in hard times in multiple ways and serious leadership is called for. Where is the call to action? Where are the leaders we can really get behind? This is why I have to write things like this. If the Bay Area cannot produce a national leader in sustainability, we may be screwed. The inherent ideals and creativity of this region have been boxed in and check mated by Big $; this is unacceptable.

I say, in a democracy we the people have to be responsible for generating heat from the bottom, to put wind in the sails of politicians at the top. We obviously cannot count on politicians on their own to lead because they are too busy trying to please everyone, and pleasing none. We have to create the leaders we want and this starts with voting out the ineffective ones and getting ones in there that represent the desires of the majority. The majority here has to wake up and stop falling for lobbyist spin and obfuscation of real issues.

A democratic system can't be one where only only the richest have the power to define the agenda. As I see it, the will of the people is to have a well stewarded environment, good education, good health care, decent housing, healthy food, and all of the latter affordable and accessible. Instead we have out of control costs and unacceptable negative externalities for everything because foxes have been allowed to run the hen house. Junk food, market rate housing, insane health care costs, a $100,000 debt for a four year college, cars with bad mileage, no carbon tax, on and on, areas that could work well and serve a widespread public benefit instead have resulted in our way of life going down the tubes. What gives? Who has the “right” to ruin the whole country's commons and fail over and over to steward?

The only reasonable conclusion, the system is rotten. We need it fixed and fast. And this for a county that is supposedly on the cutting edge of sustainability in the country? Everything is not just great. Where is our Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders?

In an interdependent society, every dog for himself is not a just or functional premise. As I sit here and hope for government to be able to do good, I find myself very disheartened. I see that certain “freedoms” and “rights” have been enshrined to the business class and these have resulted in a systemic lowering of the common bar to the advantage of a few who then work the system to keep such advantage, consequence be damned. Government has been vilified and in many ways, deserves it for being complicit in allowing greed to rule the land. I still hope that if accountability and transparency et al are taken care of, that government can be trusted to provide widespread and comprehensive benefits. And that these benefits will be meted out in such a way so that we endure as a species, steward life's commons and that we are able to effectively plan for the future benefit of all.

When government is seen to be doing good, in a reasonable cost-benefit analysis, people will not mind paying high taxes as there will be a quid pro quo, a contract, you work, you contribute, you get taken care of. Obscene rewards and incentives are not really necessary for people to excel and do good. We already have internal ideals, a sense of justice, morality and ethics. Frankly now we are up against survival itself, what more incentive do we need? For those who need incentives, throw them a bone, but they don't need the whole bag.

We are at a point where a tragedy of the commons of major proportions is about to overtake the whole planet. Yet Al Gore's inconvenient truth is still tempting to deny. When are we going to wake up and stop being paralyzed by the status quo and business as usual? It is perfectly clear business as usual is what has led us to a very bad place, environmentally, socially and economically. If government is even going to speak of and engage in sustainability, it first has to get its own house in order by being accountable, transparent, proactive, just and democratic. Any three votes by the city council or county supervisors could direct staff to change course and shape up. Why not make such a vote?

With the pressing seriousness of systemic consequences of global warming, we need eyes-open, science-based, actually objective planning and policy to realize a sustainable path into the future. At one time these principles may have been seen as “environmentalism”, as ideological; no more; now a spade must be called a spade. Triple bottom line/ three pillars models are called for and true cost accounting/ full cost-benefit analysis needs to become a regular, baseline feature of the government decision making process. The Right has pushed back too far against environmental protections, civil, women's, labor, and voting rights. It's time to turn the tide back to sensible public policy.

Ideology can no longer stand up to science and indicator-based policy. Ideology increasingly has no place in our collective, governmental decision making process. Common good is collective good, is good policy and planning. Ideology-based policies that enshrine values that contribute to more tragedy of the commons, these need to be eliminated from the public sphere, period.

Planning policy regarding land use, well permits and monitoring, population density, traffic, housing, business use permits, preferred economy etc., these types of decisions call for the taking some hard stances to conform to a systemic sustainability. Planning departments are in a position to guide our systemic architecture to a place of survivability. What we don't need is more mindless, status quo inertia to “mitigate” what must be fundamentally changed along multiple critical levels. If the rules don't serve, change them; these things are all constructs of our own making. Planning needs to incorporate a sense of stewardship, conservation and preservation, of common good, public benefit. And this goes straight against “rights” to enable entities to do whatever they want or can get away with on the commons. Let's see somebody stand up and be counted here.

An ideal government is forward thinking, enlightened, accounts for and takes an honest look at what we've done wrong and is not afraid to make painful choices to limit unsustainable individual prerogative in favor of long term common good of #1, nature and the environment and #2 how people will fit into that. Government is the gate keeper of collective good and it should act that way. A good place to start, institute carbon pricing immediately, this will make the true cost of our economy and way of life painfully apparent. Then we make choices from there.

A lot needs to be fixed in order for government to be respectable enough to lead and be a force for the good. Impediments to public trust need to be fixed and removed. To restore the reputation and ability of government to serve the public good we need real democracy, agitation from the bottom and listening at the top. Electeds need to tell staff what to do, not vice verse.  If government can't be accountable, can't listen, can’t respond to real needs and serious issues then we will have to find ways to replace the current actors or carry on without them.

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