With all the debate over government spending and what constitutes socialism raging across the land, perhaps it’s a good time to shed some perspective on how government really works. And it all centers around running.
The town where I live is only 30,000 or so residents. It’s a mixed community of modest and even small homes, but there is wealth as well, tacked onto the edges where people with money built larger places. We’ve had the same mayor for about 30 years. The school district is well-respected if not elite, and people have generally supported referendums to build schools.
About eight or nine years ago, more than 75 community members joined a committee to study the needs of the high school. Proposed components included much-needed classrooms, a theater for music, drama and community events, and a fieldhouse.
The rather large committee broke into smaller groups and over a period of 10-12 weeks, conducted discussions about what was needed in Batavia, and what was not.
When all was complete, the chairman turned to the audience and said, “Now we need someone to write the summary.”
A friend who coached the football and track teams had recruited me to participate on the committee. He knew I’d served as Chamber of Commerce and Rotary President in Batavia. He also knew I could write. And he gave me a look at that moment that told me I should step up and volunteer to write the summary.
So I did, and the chairman offloaded binders and folders created by the committee. It was my job to take it home and make sense of it, then come back with a report for review by committee leadership.
Chuckling as I sat that stack of folders down, I said to myself, “This can’t be how this happens.” It was a bit stunning to think that from all that community input, it came down to some guy in his kitchen writing up the summary. But I dug in, and by the time Sunday evening rolled around, the thoughts and goals were congealed into a narrative that made a case for the committee’s recommendations.
That report was the foundation for a more formal set of documents. And that was what generated a $75M referendum for additions and upgrades to the Batavia High School campus and some work in other schools as well.
The referendum passed. The transformation of the high school took a year to complete.
Now the local running community is beneficiaries of an indoor track on which we can train during the wintertime. But that is just an ancillary need to the entire governmental process that drove the community input, the referendum and the pursuant educational and experiential benefits of the high school campus. The facility is used by students from literally dozens of other communities in the region. Batavia stepped up to stand out as a community that believes in investment in the public good.
My son and daughter were both participants in the music and drama programs at Batavia High School. Unfortunately, they graduated before the new theater was built. That meant their performances were held in a room called the Cafetorium. The high-quality plays in which they participated were held on a low stage and the packed house often had to crane necks to see over other audience members. The same held true for the orchestra and band concerts, where acoustics fell short of the quality of music being played.
So it was time for the community to step up and provide better educational and growth experiences for its youth. Yes, the household tax bill went up a bit, but not by much. It would be nice if industrial development paid all the bills for the town, but that’s not fair to businesses either. Yet those businesses would not benefit from the water and utilities if the community did not provide them. All healthy communities depend upon collaborative investment. Without that bit of socialism to drive the process, there would be no cities. No counties. No states. No America.
I have friends and family that have home-schooled their children. Some do a great job. More often they’re frustrated or disappointed with what public schools (and even private) have to offer. All it takes is one bad teacher and some folks want to toss the whole system down the drain.
That means some people hate the notion of public education altogether. They’d rather send out school vouchers and let people pick and choose where they go to school. The idea to privatize public education is appealing to them. Perhaps they don’t like the idea that their kids will hear ideas that do not agree with their own ideology. Or perhaps there’s a hope that their tax dollars would not be required to support public education. I recently heard a comedian tell a quick joke that resonates on the issue of public financing. He said, “When someone starts a sentence with the phrase ‘my tax dollars’ in it, you know you’re listening to an asshole.”
But if you look at what public education has done in society by raising the general level of education, and providing opportunities for people of all backgrounds and income levels, it is perhaps the greatest expression of democracy and equality ever achieved. In fact, that’s why countries around the world have decided to make even college educations free. Instead, we force young people to take out lifelong mortgages to finance their educations, and place far more emphasis on the value of a successful football or basketball team than the reputation of a school or university. Sport is great, but it is ultimately limited in what it can give back to society.
And we should really study the subject of whether the very same segment of society that claims to hate paying taxes aligns with those most susceptible to the rah-rah world of college and pro sports. If so, it powerfully illustrates the fact that America’s priorities and its knowledge of what makes the country truly great is way out of whack.
I have a few proudly conservative friends on Facebook, and their main point of contention on just about every issue is taxes. They all claim to be self-made. Dragged themselves up by the bootstraps, they did. And no one helped them. Don’t take any of their money or their guns. That’s liberty to them. That’s America.
Well, all of them went to public schools. And many went to public universities. Even private colleges depend on national infrastructure, government loan programs and other methods of sustenance to run their operations. No organization exists in a void.
That’s all that men like Barack Obama and now Bernie Sanders are saying. It’s not about turning America into a socialist country. It’s about using socialist methods in line with a capitalist financial system to create a better nation.
But the fiercely conservative viewpoint is that none of this public support has helped them at all. They made it all on their own, they say. So don’t take any of their money or their guns. That’s liberty to them. Liberty to be an asshole. And that’s America. And that’s why Donald Trump is leading the Republican election race. Assholes recognize their own kind.
But Trump has been bankrupted three or four times. He’s worked with cities like Chicago in order to build tall buildings and slap his name on them. Even the world’s leading asshole did not get to where he is without public help, forgiveness and collaboration. And still he seems ungrateful. Egotistical. An asshole.
Contrast that example with the people that spent twelve weeks meeting to exchange ideas on what our community needed and what it didn’t in the high school tax referendum. Anti-tax participants were as welcome in that group as were pro-referendum. All sides of the questions were heard. The idea of constructing a natatorium (swimming pool) was tossed out. The committee decided that might be better left to the park district.
And it was even discussed working collaborative with the park district. But that might have bloated the referendum and caused some genuine needs to blacked out. That’s both the problem and power of compromise, a principled manner of discourse that is sorely lacking in America.
So we culled the referendum to some needs and wants and it passed. The community had a chance to vote. It elected to fund additions and improvements to the schools. That’s a clear statement that the community not only believes in a better education but a better experience for students coming through the school system. That’s a socialist attitude if you want to call it that.
In truth we’re letting greedy, fearful assholes run things too often in America. We spend more on our military than the next seven countries combined. Yet they claim we’ve gutted our armed forces. What kind of asshole says something like that?
Yet we’ve allowed the nation’s infrastructure like roads and bridges fall into disrepair because a collection of strident assholes in Congress don’t want to fund bills to pay for basics like that. They took a pledge to some nutjob to never raise taxes, and that’s how they run our government. And our nation is getting run down as a result. It’s becoming one giant tarsnake.
And we’ve also allowed our healthcare system to get so out of balance there is no way to tell what the real costs of treatments should be. So we let insurance companies dictate that.
It’s a dangerous game we’re playing with our way of life. But I think the example of community investment displayed in our little town goes a long way toward explaining the virtues of public support, good government and collaboration. It was a little crazy that the efforts rested in my hands that one weekend, but it was a truly American feeling to give up that time for no compensation and do the right thing. That’s what it means to give fully to a cause.
And this morning as I ran around the indoor track on a day when it was 13 degrees outside, it made perfect sense to believe in the brand of socialism that drives the Republic in America. If we all give fully, the world is a better place. No exceptions.