The values-policies dialectic; or, the boundaries of the possible, filtered through a Corvallis town hall meeting


I know that this isn’t exactly groundbreaking thinking here (and absurdly, Photo Booth was easier than Photoshop and I’m lazy), but I’ve been thinking about it a bit this weekend, particularly after I attended a League of Women Voters-sponsored (hilariously sincere people, by the way, especially towards people who are 30 or 40 years younger than the majority of them; you’d think the sight of someone under 40 was akin to finding an oasis in the desert) Town Hall meeting with four local elected officials on Saturday morning at the Benton County Library.

I’d heard about the town hall from a brief item on the GT’s website, and I was getting bored of the coffee shop I was sitting in, so I figured it couldn’t hurt.  I didn’t give much thought to what the town hall topic was; I just knew it was the first of several that will occur between now and June.  Plus, I figured, the library had* to have free wireless, right?

Briefly, I think I can summarize the town hall meeting as the four officials – Sara Gelser, Andy Olson, Frank Morse, and Jim Thompson – telling the audience that the economy is really, really bad, and that things are going to suck in Oregon for at least the next two-three years in ways we can’t yet imagine.  Though there was some minor variance among the four – predictably, Gelser was the only one that didn’t call for ‘fiscal restraint’ or decreased spending at some point, though she was also – by far – the most forceful in acknowledging the level, severity and harm of the cuts that are necessarily coming – the tone was very civil and polite.  The four also did a pretty good job being open and answering audience questions, even when it was clear the audience was not liking what the Reps and Senator were saying.  In other words, it was sort of how local democracy in the US is supposed to work.  (Ah, Corvallis: with effort, a bastion of the functional in a time of absurdity.)

But what got me was the sense of constraint about the whole thing.  Anything I’d consider as even remotely out of the box (including, at this point, genuinely progressive taxation) wasn’t really even mentioned.  Instead, I heard the same old stuff from Thompson, Morse and Olson:  Public employee unions must be willing to cut wages and benefits!  No, we can’t tax corporations!  We should be cutting down more trees!

It was almost funny, it was so quaint  Oh, and it does not bode well for HB2508.  Crap.

The thing I didn’t hear, except given a very charitable interpretation of Thompson’s offhand comment about Iceland, was anyone making a link to globalization/the global economy and the ways in which that is so much a root cause of the last 15 years of the US struggling to continue to fund human services (or, needless to say, any mention of military spending whatsoever, but since that happens at mostly the federal level, the omission was understandable).  The belt has been getting slowly tightened for a few decades now, and yet there seems to be no conscious or public acknowledgement of just how different the economic world is that elected officials are trying to craft budgets and run government in.  I can’t decide if I think that’s because it’s taken as a given by many elected officials, or, more likely, because they aren’t putting the pieces together and coming to the conclusion that trying to do the same old thing in such a different world is not only well-nigh impossible, but sort of foolish.  They are hanging on for dear life to some old assumptions just like everyone else.

So what does all this have to do with the crappy image at the top of this post?  Well, I alluded to it with the comment about the lack of out-of-the-box thinking, but I think what I was really getting at is not the ways in which values inform policies – that much should be painfully obvious given not only the last eight years of politics, but the painfully stupid debate going on over stimulus at the federal level (for why this debate is so painful, I will refer you to the OG post by Solidcitizen that I linked to below) – but the fact that existing policies can become boundaries for people, boundaries that eventually constrain people’s  values and their sense of the possible (setting aside for a moment the tremendous effect that rhetoric has in this area).  Again, while I don’t think this is in itself a shocking realization, I do think it has some bearing on the current political reality in the US, at both the local and national levels.

Moreover, I’ve been thinking that since in the last eight years, we’ve had a boatload of hateful, short-sighted, greedy policies in place, it has actually caused a shift in something else, and I want to label that something else ‘values’ (and here I am thinking of both things like the security state – ‘report your neighbor!’ – and the indirect link between, say, US torture policies and the letter-writers in local papers that decry any talk of being hopeful).  Though this has been somewhat reversed with the Coming of Saint Obama – and though my tone might be mocking, I do think there is something very good about a public admission that hoping and dreaming for a better world is not only possible but a good thing – I still think it’s case that the dialectic can be pushed even further, that public policies (which are really just functions of state control, anway) can be used to promote other values, like democracy, freedom, sustainability, and justice.

The question I arrived at, then is how to do this.  Which policies would be effective at promoting what kinds of values?  Certainly it has been done before – the New Deal and Great Society are, I think, examples of this – but I want to push the question a little further and start asking how public policy can be used to promote participatory democracy at the grassroots level.

I sense a Master’s thesis, or at least a starting point.

*as it turns out, the free wireless was completely incompatible with a non-Windows computer.  How this happened in a town like Corvallis, I have no idea, but that’s just wrong.
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