Austin at Large: Everything’s Different Now
The new normal requires a lot of willpower, but also the chance to do things better
Howdy, folks. It's been a minute! My last column was in the Feb. 20 issue, when it still felt urgent to yet again discuss the Land Development Code. Remember that? Or Super Tuesday, which was only a month ago? Now everything's different.
It probably should be more different, even now. From my home office overlooking I-35, I can see lots of cars, enough to make me worry that we aren't taking social distancing seriously enough. I can also see the hospital and hear the ambulance sirens, which I hope will remain an occasional annoyance and not a round-the-clock reminder of the toll of the pandemic.
Even though Travis County has been spared the worst of COVID-19 so far – we've had two deaths as of this writing; New Orleans, about a fourth our size, has had 115 – the only thing keeping us from becoming a coronavirus hot spot is our own willpower. People want to go back to work, developers want their projects to keep going, kids want to hang out with their friends at Barton Springs and go on spring break trips to Cabo San Lucas. Landlords want their rent. Pastors want to preach.
The collective temptation to blow off these rules will always be great, and though both law enforcement and public shaming have their purposes, the only policing that will work is self-policing. So hang in there. Fortunately, Gov. Greg Abbott and the White House have finally, in their fashion, gotten with the program.
Now More Than Ever?
Of course, the state and the feds, under their current leadership, have used COVID-19 as an excuse to do the bad things they've always wanted – like banning abortion outright or rolling back fuel efficiency standards. Should progressives, and the cities and counties they lead, respond in kind – unleashing a little democratic socialism to respond to the disaster, and daring the other side to stop them?
For example, as we reported on Friday, while City Hall has placed a 60-day moratorium on evictions, it says it has no authority to order a rent freeze. Why not test that premise? Or why not use the city's resources to help tenants organize to bargain collectively with their landlords, under the threat of a rent strike? The worst that can happen is the status quo. It's in the best interest of the city as a whole if the more-than-half of its residents who rent aren't made homeless or forced to leave town.
I say this advisedly, because I generally find "now more than ever!" arguments tiresome. Over the last month, we've seen plenty of crisis-jacking to boost Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and also to boost the hard-right agenda (privatizing schools, ending Medicaid, deregulation, etc.). Right now, it's just noise, with our political systems basically on hold. But our responses to the immediate crisis should be at the scale needed to meet people's needs, which the blinkered anti-government and anti-science views of our ruling regimes clearly are not.
Maybe Let’s Keep Doing This
When the worst of the pandemic fades, what will the new normal be? My hunch is that this crisis will rattle the foundations of a lot of political and institutional edifices whose peculiar realities we have taken for granted and allowed to frame public life. Things will be a lot different, for several reasons. One is simply that economic dislocation will persist; businesses won't reopen, people will move elsewhere, debts will need to be repaid and savings replenished.
We're already hearing, for example, that the $1 billion transit investment proposed by the city and Capital Metro, which was expected to go to the voters in November, can't possibly happen now lest taxpayers revolt. That might be counterbalanced by a need to jump-start employment through infrastructure spending, and thus a larger amount of federal funding, but that's all nebulous given the lack of a functioning federal government under Orange Julius. Certainly it wouldn't be shocking if the plan got delayed indefinitely.
But another reason things will be different is that people will find some of their adaptations to COVID-19 are worth making permanent. Which could include telecommuting on a scale that Austin has tried and failed to achieve for decades; right at this moment, I think we've probably attained the ambitious mode-shifting goals in the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan. Yes, from a public health standpoint, there may still be too many cars outside my window, but for a mobility geek like myself, it looks pretty awesome.
That's bad news for some and good for others, and it may be incumbent upon us to make sure that variance of fate is directed to the greater good. It would be a drag if people got out of the habit of listening to live music and performance and keeping Austin's creative industry alive and healthy. It would be less of a drag if people realized we could live without college athletics in their current form and $5 million salaries for football coaches. But perhaps the live-streaming options that have replaced club gigs can continue as a supplement to them, and become a stable source of income for musicians. And perhaps athletes can take control of the future of their sports from useless bureaucrats and overpaid hangers-on. These are choices we get to make.
And I suspect we will make them differently, because the scope and scale of this disaster, having touched everyone in some way, will lead to different attitudes among the public at large. Having survived a deadly pandemic, we may not want to waste our time niggling over details in the Land Development Code, having seen that life really is too short. We may want to use our political and social capital for things that will matter more in the long run, to us as individuals and families and businesses, and to the world.
With the retirement of my esteemed colleague Michael King, a great friend and mentor, “Austin at Large” will now appear weekly. If you missed it, please check out King’s farewell “Point Austin” in last week’s digital issue.