Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Growth Deconstructed

Sophism - noun - an argument apparently correct in form but actually invalid; especially : such an argument used to deceive

Sophism is today's word of the day. Interestingly enough, the Greek philosopher Plato is responsible for the modern interpretation of the word: Plato viewed these teachers who took cash payments as greedy, using rhetorical sleight-of-hand and ambiguities of language in order to deceive, or to support fallacious reasoning. That comes from Wikipedia, that high bastion of online academic research. Put in plainer terms, sophists are folks who are willing to say whatever comes to mind in support of an argument they really want to win.

In even plainer terms, sophism is a polite way of saying bull!#$@.

One of the key tenants of sophistry, and of modern politics, is that if you repeat something enough times, people will come to believe it. Here in Queen Anne's County, we have a population of interest groups that actively chant 'growth,' at every possible opportunity. These groups will call for more 'growth' whenever any argument comes up: Have a bad case of arthritis? The county needs more growth! Crops didn't fare too well in the drought? The county needs more growth! The roads are crumbling! We need more growth!

The last one should pluck a particularly humorous chord. Who would ever dream of fixing a problem by making it worse?! Balderdash!

But of those three questions, the third one is the one we should take most seriously, because these interest groups do indeed believe that if the roads are crumbling (and they are), the only reasonable solution is to put more cars on them. Keep that in mind as you head to the polls in the coming weeks.

And this argument applies to more than just roads. The development interests in this county want you to believe that crowded schools just need more students; an over-extended law enforcement agency simply needs more territory to cover. A polluted river just needs more pressure from lawn fertilizer and stormwater runoff.

Perhaps all of this seems overly-simplistic, to be so breezily dismissive of an argument that is made so earnestly by people with enough money and enough skin in the game to buy ads promoting growth as a cure-all for anything and everything that ails the county and her citizens.

The simple fact of the matter is that continuing to repeat that growth, and any kind of growth, is good for the county, is sophistry in its purest form. The success of their argument, in getting you to vote the way they want you to vote, hinges on your believing several things.

1. That the county isn't growing. This is simply false. Since 1980, the population of Queen Anne's County has essentially doubled. The size of the county budget is (despite recent exceptions) on a very upward trend. County revenue is growing. Our emergency services capacity is growing, our schools are growing. In short, look around you. Anyone who has been here any length of time can see very clearly that the County is not stagnating, and is certainly not shrinking. But it is essential that developers make you believe (against all obvious evidence) that the County isn't growing.

2. That growth pays for itself. Every day you wake up in Queen Anne's County, you are participating in a longitudinal study that is virtually proving that growth doesn't pay for itself! That is why the county had to raise taxes in fiscal 2012. The population we have now is insufficient to pay for the services that population currently demands; the idea that more population would somehow nudge us over the tipping point, and somehow create a revenue utopia where each additional person pays taxes but demands no services is ridiculous. Let me say that again, for emphasis: it's ridiculous. Suggesting that we need more growth to pay for the growth we already have, but that the new growth won't have costs of its own is suggesting that we are hamsters on a wheel; hamsters that better never stop running.

3. That somehow more growth in the past would have insulated us from The Great Recession. This is perhaps most frustrating, because there are countless examples of how untrue this statement really is. All around Queen Anne's County, particularly to the west of us, are counties that are chock-full of office complexes, retail strip malls and redundant Big Box establishments. Every single one of those counties felt the impact of The Great Recession as did Queen Anne's County, and most felt it even more acutely. Most of them had deeper unemployment and larger budget deficits than ever faced Queen Anne's County, and have been much slower to recover than Queen Anne's, a process which of course is still ongoing.What's more is that no other economic sector has recovered more quickly, and more robustly, than the rural economy. Agriculture is leading the way towards a national economic recovery, and it just happens to be the county's number one industry. 

4. The future health of the county depends on growth. It is likely that making every possible concession to developers would increase the county budget; you will get no debate from this writer on that point. But with every increase in revenue comes a required increase in expenditures that will often outstrip the revenue, leaving you in the same type of mess you are in now, only deeper. The current population (both commerical and residential) of Queen Anne's County requires a budget of X dollars. The added population will require a budget of X + dollars, but won't contribute all the + necessary to even the ledger; and alas, the pressure for more growth will continue apace, using the same tired arguments.

What the future demands is to find sustainability in budgets, from both a revenue and expenditure standpoint. If we predetermine that any growth is good growth, we will certainly assure that future county budgets will expand at a clip far beyond revenues ability to keep up. If we continue to peg our budgets to assuming that housing values will always increase, and retail sales receipts will always get bigger, then we are doomed to repeat not only the mistakes of the past, but the mistakes we are making even as I write this.


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