Point Austin: Seeing Double

Curious political parallels on the Potomac and the Colorado

Point Austin
And here I sit so patiently

Waiting to find out what price

You have to pay to get out of

Going through all these things twice

– Bob Dylan, "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again"

Perhaps it's my overheated Texas-in-July imagination, but I've been struck by recent connections between D.C. and Austin politics – mostly by the way our public officials seem determined to act out the same symbolic politics over and over again, all the while repeating the same answers to the same questions. So it is, spectacularly, with the "debt ceiling" circus currently onstage in Washington, a manufactured crisis that yet threatens to derail the fragile economic recovery already undermined by a bipartisan consensus that the nation's first priority should be lowering the federal deficit. As we go to press Wednesday, it remains unclear whether a "compromise" – i.e., a determination of how much to cut from essential services – will be reached before the bond markets punish the whole country for the artificial stalemate.

I have no idea what will happen, but the battle was essentially lost when President Obama and the Democrats allowed the deficit – instead of jobs – to become the priority problem, despite the economy still staggering and unemployment unacceptably high (and now growing again). The limping recovery thus far we owe mostly to the barely adequate and now-fading federal stimulus. To shut down that economic driver and start slashing more public programs and employees will have its inevitable depressive consequences. Yet all the institutional Democrats are offering in response are variations on "maybe it won't be too bad." That, and the argument that the Republicans are intransigent and we therefore have no choice until we get rid of these tea partiers in 2012. After another year of deepening recession, I wish us all luck.

The New York Times' Paul Krugman puts it concisely: "We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating – offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion."

Krugman calls it "the cult of balance, of centrism," delivering an imaginary, middling resolution that is in fact a capitulation to those insane demands. Condemned as a "socialist," Obama has in fact governed as a moderate conservative, most especially regarding his painfully incremental health care plan. "And everything else," Krugman continues, "including the wrongheaded emphasis on austerity in the face of high unemployment – is according to the conservative playbook."

Ratepayers 'R' Us

And here in Austin? Although our municipal politics have long thrived on the illusion of nonpartisan consensus, that image is about to be tested in the latest incarnation of City Council. Our own Everlasting Gobstopper is Water Treatment Plant No. 4, of course, the endlessly debated and re-debated project to upgrade and modernize Austin Water's treatment and delivery system. Although it was barely a blip in the rancorous Place 3 council election – taking a distant second to demonizing the Formula One racetrack – WTP4 will move front and center this week at council as opponents try once again to derail the project by calling for staff projections of the cost of mothballing the plant and five or 10 years of additional delay. Whatever those numbers turn out to be – on a project already well under construction and contractually committed in excess of $300 million, setting aside all opportunity costs – rest assured they will evoke a whole new round of outraged counterpoint, ad nauseam, ad infinitum.

I don't know how that argument will turn out, either – why stop now when we're having so much fun? But like the debt ceiling, what should have been a debatable matter of rational public policy has been turned, over time, into a relentlessly polarized question of moral absolutism, derived from a particular brand of demagogic environmentalism. Particularly absurd is the sophistry maintaining that the best way to help Austin's working people ("ratepayers" here standing in for the tea party's "taxpayers" – within this tendentious lexicon, never are we "citizens") is to cancel a major public infrastructure project in the middle of a recession, even though the project's real costs have diminished accordingly.

By all means, let's lay off hundreds of workers now – for their own good, and just as the state (and soon the federal government) is doing them the same favor in spades – and resume the project when the need is much more urgent and the costs much higher. We can call it both environmental stewardship and fiscal conservatism.

That undoubtedly will help the "ratepayers."

More of the Same

Whatever that logic might be, it's a far cry from what once was considered progressive politics. In fact, our noisiest local "progressives" of the moment have undertaken an unlikely alliance of enviro-libertarianism, whereby any amount of money and energy spent on environmental mitigation (however dubious or speculative) is applauded while any other sort of public expenditure is guilty until proven innocent. The latter now includes the kind of public/private economic development which enables the entire community to thrive (not to mention sustain) the sort of truly progressive programs Austin is known for and has defended against state reaction in recent decades.

Much of what will happen in Austin in the coming decade is already being decided over our heads. The Capitol has just delivered a spike in local unemployment – that is, real people in need of real jobs – that seems likely to get worse in coming months as it ripples through public and private institutions. Now in D.C., the governing class has succumbed to the same remorseless illogic – that slashing government spending will somehow magically revive an economy that is still contracting from lack of demand.

It would be nice to believe that neither the public officials nor citizens of Austin would fall for the same self-defeating arguments. Judging from the prevailing political winds, there is little reason to sustain that belief.

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politics, Washington D.C., City Council, Water Treatment Plant No. 4, debt ceiling

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