On the Politics of Civic Engagement

Boulder faces an interesting decision in the wake of an Ignite Boulder talk by Code for America’s Becky Boone, exhorting a relatively young, tech-savvy audience to engage in the city’s civic sphere. Some have objected to her use of profanity, but given the positive response of the 21 and over crowd and the content of past Ignite talks, these concerns are overblown. Daily Camera columnist Steve Pomerance and neighborhood blogger Kay MacDonald have tried to level a more substantive criticism: they feel that Boone’s presentation was pro-growth, and that such advocacy would be inappropriate for even an off-duty city consultant.

I’ve watched the talk repeatedly, and transcribed it word-for-word.  Boone clearly takes no such stance.

She highlights the accessibility and value of participating in our local democracy, and gives a couple of positive examples: the Fairview High Net Zero Club’s campaign to implement a grocery bag fee, and an unidentified citizen group gathering signatures for a fall ballot measure whose content is unmentioned. She also asks her audience their thoughts on whether Boulder’s housing issues result from too many jobs, or insufficient housing — a question that’s been raised by Boulder Housing Partners commissioner Dick Harris, among others.

None of these statements is political advocacy.

Rather, the political content of Ms. Boone’s presentation resides with her choice of audience. The Ignite crowd and Boulder’s startup community are younger and newer to Boulder than those traditionally engaged in city governance. They’re also probably more likely to be renters. Despite the city’s laudable efforts to recruit representative citizen working groups, these demographics have been woefully underrepresented in our housing policy process.  We know this because we’ve collected demographic data at the city’s housing events. Engaging the Ignite Boulder audience makes our discussion more representative of our citizenry. This is good for our democracy.  It also has political implications.

By definition, rallying a disinterested population to participate dilutes the power of those who are already engaged. To their credit, and despite this difficult set of political incentives, the city has prioritized “developing new approaches and tools that support more inclusive, transparent, collaborative, and interactive community engagement” in the development of our Comprehensive Housing Strategy. This is exactly the job that Becky Boone was hired to do, and which she has apparently done a bit too well for the comfort of some incumbent interests.

We now have a choice, and it’s an unavoidably political choice.  Do we want to cultivate a representative democracy in Boulder that proactively seeks input from as broad a population as possible, or would we prefer a narrowly targeted discourse that is intended, through its choice of media and venues, to preserve the status quo?

If we choose to limit our communications and data collection to serve incumbent interests, then we must admit that Boulder has become a fundamentally conservative place. The choice to collect or avoid data or is often political. When congressional Republicans vote to de-fund NASA’s work documenting climate change, or block the use of statistical sampling in the census, they are advocating an Orwellian world in which Ignorance is Strength.

Boulder should be better than that, and so I favor proactive engagement, as I believe much of City Council does. They need our support to make the right choice: to stand behind Ms. Boone and build upon her valuable work in Boulder going forward. We should live stream and archive any city meeting taking place in Council chambers on a well used platform like YouTube. We should subtitle the archived versions in Spanish. We should expect our elected and appointed policymakers and city staff to participate competently in social media, and use it as the incredibly cost-effective and democratically empowering platform that it has become worldwide. It’s been a long time since the Internet was the exclusive domain of a technological elite — today it is the people’s platform, much more so than Wayne’s World style public access cable TV, or even our beloved Daily Camera. Newer digital platforms that are accessible to parents with young children and full time jobs need to be weighed heavily in our policy discussions, right alongside inconvenient, time-consuming public meetings.

Given last week’s firestorm of activity in support of Boone on Twitter I suspect that going forward, Boulder politicians and policymakers will ignore the digital realm at their peril.  Just because you do not take an interest in social media, does not mean that social media will not take an interest in you.

Give a Fuck About Local Government

Last week, Ignite Boulder held its 25th event, with a sold out Boulder Startup Week crowd in the Boulder Theater.  Becky Boone (@boonrs), a Senior Fellow from Code for America, gave one of the talks.  Yesterday it was posted online in all its ever so slightly #NSFW glory:

Predictably, such a blunt and impassioned call to action, presented to a currently mostly unengaged Boulder constituency (about 850 of them…) has pissed some people off, and some of them want Becky’s head to roll, because she had the gall to try and get some folks to give a fuck about local governance.

That, quite frankly, is bullshit.

The whole point of getting someone from Code for America involved in outreach related to the city’s housing strategy was to engage currently underrepresented constituencies in the city (as reported in the Daily Camera), yes, with a focus on using technology, but talking to our local technologists and getting them engaged seems like a good way to make sure this important work continues after the 6 month fellowship ends this summer.  We’ve got the demographics on who participates today, and the crowd at the Boulder Theater that night isn’t showing up to tell the city what they think.  Given that, this talk might even have made sense as part of Becky’s work for the city — but she didn’t do it as someone working with the city, a fact she points out right at the start of the talk.  She did this on her own time, to try and get a community she’s part of to participate in the governance of their own city.

Some members of City Council and the Old Guard politicos might not find the tone of the talk “appropriate,” but she wasn’t speaking to them.  The tone was calibrated to the audience, which by all (Twitter) accounts received it quite well.  The talk, like all Ignite talks, was extensively vetted by the event organizers, who have little interest in offending their attendees.

No Expertise Required!
No Expertise Required!

So far as I can tell, the only overtly partisan statement in the talk was when she noted that no particular expertise is actually required to participate in local governance… while a photo of Sarah Palin was displayed.  The talk was almost entirely factual in nature, with a few jokes (mostly poking fun at the audience itself) and a few questions.  It included:

  • Demographic information about who currently participates in city meetings and processes.  She noted that renters are woefully underrepresented, being about a quarter of all housing meeting attendees but making up about half of the city population.  She also pointed out that while 65% of Boulder’s population is under the age of 40… only 17% of housing meeting attendees are in that age range.
  • A brief explanation of the structure of Boulder’s city government — that we have a City Council who appoints a City Manager, rather than a directly elected “strong mayor” acting as the city’s executive authority.
  • The fact that only about 1/3 of registered voters participated in the last odd year election (which she shamed the audience over).
  • Information about how much City Council gets paid for what is essentially a full time job… a whopping $11,000 a year.  Good luck living on that in Boulder! (at least… without illegally sharing housing and eating dumpstered food… now if only we had someone on Council who did that!)
  • The factual statement that 5 of the 9 City Council members are up for re-election this fall.
  • She gave a little back-story on the successful Fairview High School Net Zero Club student campaign to get a paper/plastic bag fee implemented.
  • The factual statement that a community organization (which was not identified) is collecting signatures for some ballot measures this fall, which would “add some additional hoops.”
  • A query to the audience as to what they think of the statement “Boulder needs fewer jobs, not more housing.” which is a position that has certainly come up more than once in our recent housing and development policy discussion.
  • A call to the audience to get involved and get their friends involved, to tell Council and the rest of city government what they think about that position, and generically, other governance issues.
  • Statements highlighting the relative ease and high value of engaging in local governance, compared to larger jurisdictions.
  • A call to the audience to bring their skills and ideas to the table in support of local governance.
New Era Baby
New Era Baby

Stripped of the F-bombs, this is some pretty reasonable, wholesome stuff.  The audience didn’t seem bothered by the language, and truthfully, it was meant to rile them up.  This wasn’t an official (or even an unofficial!) city communication.  The calls Council are receiving calling for Becky to be fired are couched in terms of “appropriate” language and professionalism, but those norms vary widely between different populations in the city.  It’s also worth noting that New Era Colorado has in the past made extensive use of the slogan “Vote F*ucker” in their attempts to get young voters to turn out… e.g. in support of Boulder’s bid to create a municipal electric utility.

vote-fucker
Strong language… apparently warranted for the Muni campaign!

Response to the Ignite talk online, amongst the constituency it was designed to reach, has so far as I can tell, been overwhelmingly positive, if you go look through the mentions of @igniteboulder and #igniteboulder @boonrs on Twitter.  In fact, it might just end up getting some more young folks engaged in city governance. That’s the real reason people are calling for Becky’s head. They know that broader engagement by young people, renters, and the tech community will result in the erosion of their political power.

Becky Boone is doing a way the fuck better than average job of getting young people engaged with the city. Certainly a better job than a communications department that won’t let staff use social media as the spontaneous, interactive tool it’s got to be if you want it to be effective (all while forcing employees to wear ties. In Boulder. As if that adds credibility.  Personally I get suspicious whenever I see a tie…).

If City Council and the City Manager’s office give in to the totally inappropriate, unreasonable demand to fire someone who is actually doing a good job of getting unengaged people to participate, it would be a brazenly partisan act, an act in favor of Boulder’s incredibly conservative status quo, and in direct opposition to the goal of creating a more broadly representative civic sphere in the city.  It would also be in direct conflict with the stated goals of getting a Code for America fellow involved in the first place.

Free Speech*
Free Speech*

Additionally, this type of speech — by a citizen, on their own time, related to a matter of obvious public concern — is the most strongly protected speech in the US.  Any disciplinary action related to this talk would raise grave issues related to freedom of speech, and might warrant involvement by the ACLU or other organizations interested in protecting the rights of citizens to freely express views related to issues of governance.

I trust that City Council and the City Manager will stand by this citizen, who has been working hard to make Boulder’s democracy less worthy of the curses I’m sure I and many others will end up hurling at it between now and November.

Okay, actually just kidding.  I don’t trust them.  Which is why you need to support this kind of outreach, and call bullshit on the people who want to shut it down:

Email: council@bouldercolorado.gov, and copy the City Manager, Jane Brautigam: brautigamj@bouldercolorado.gov.

Tweet it from the fucking rooftops, using #BoulderCouncil and mentioning council members who are part of ye olde Twitterverse: @MaconCowles @JonesZan @Shoemaker4City @sampweaver @tim_plass @LisaMorzel

Post a link to this blog on your goddamned Facebook, and express your dismay by mentioning the City’s Facebook.

Don’t make it easy to ignore you, or they sure as hell will.

Less Than Revolutionary Finance

I’ve gotten some good natured pushback on the idea of buying oneself out of corporate servitude.  The objection seems to come in two general forms.

  1. Contingency of Financial Autonomy: Deriving financial autonomy from investments in corporations whose operations are fundamentally destructive creates a morally corrosive dependency — your interests end up being aligned with theirs, because your autonomy depends on them remaining profitable.
  2. Opportunity Costs: Even if investing in corporations doesn’t actually give them financial support, there’s an opportunity cost: the same money could be used to invest in small local businesses or social enterprises.  Wouldn’t that be more powerful and potentially transformational?

Continue reading Less Than Revolutionary Finance

Buy Yourself Out

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.
— Tyler Durden (Fight Club)

A slave: someone over 40 who makes more than $100,000 but still has a boss.
— Nassim Taleb

A couple of weeks ago I ran a workshop on retirement investing for some other co-op folks.  I’ve run this workshop before, but lately I’ve been thinking about it differently.  Turns out calling it “retirement” investing can be a turn-off when you’re talking to a bunch of mission driven people who are working on things they love, and think they’ll never want to “retire.” The word can have a connotation of hedonism or idleness.  The permanent worthless vacation.  Or just sitting around waiting to die.  “Early retirement” serves no purpose when the work you do is done primarily because you believe in it.  There’s also a sense with “retirement investing” that you can’t touch the money until you’re old.  Which is a long-ass time if you’re in your early twenties.

So I’ve started thinking about it as “autonomy investing” instead — becoming financially autonomous quickly, so that you can do the work you’re compelled to do. Without having to worry about whether your political activism will put your job at risk.  Without caring if your mission is compatible with the Nonprofit Industrial Complex and their funding metrics.  Without having to work a soul-sucking day job that leaves you too fried to spend your evenings and weekends on civic engagement and organizing. Or alternatively… without having to beg investors to pay your living expenses while you work on the early stages of your startup idea.

This is, essentially, the project of buying yourself out of corporate servitude.

Continue reading Buy Yourself Out

Is profit driven affordable housing possible?

DSCN7956

Last week at the Better Boulder Happy Hour (B2H2) we tried to talk about affordable housing.  The little nook at the Walnut Brewery was so packed that it was hard to even have a face-to-face conversation with folks, let alone do any kind of presentation that didn’t sound like an attempt at crowd control.  Which is good I guess… but not exactly what we’d planned.  I think a good chunk of the attendance was due to all the buzz generated by last Tuesday’s City Council meeting, and the talk of a citywide development moratorium.  Anyway, it was a learning experience.  We want these events to be informative, but also to get people talking to each other, and have it be more fun and social and network-building than a brown bag seminar or lecture that’s mostly going to appeal to the Usual Suspects, who are already engaged.  We need to get more “normal” people to show up and engage on these issues.

In any case, Betsey Martens, director of Boulder Housing Partners (the city’s housing authority) got up and said a few words to the assembled crowd.  She made a point which is in retrospect obvious, but that got me thinking anyway.  The costs of creating additional housing in Boulder (or anywhere, really) can be divided up into three categories:

  1. Hard development costs — the cost of actually building the housing.
  2. Soft development costs — e.g. the financing and permitting costs, carrying costs associated with regulatory delay, organizational overhead, etc.
  3. The cost of land.

She pointed out that you can do all the work you want to reduce hard and soft development costs — using standardized designs, prefabricated buildings, streamlined permitting for affordable housing — but ultimately those optimizations just nibble around the edges of affordability.  The real driver of housing costs in a desirable place is the cost of the land, which is pretty irreducible.  If you’ve got a funding stream (as we do here from our inclusionary housing policy), then you can buy up a bunch of land and create housing on it, but there’s still an opportunity cost to be had for using the land inefficiently — the same money might have created more affordable housing.

The obvious way to attack this problem is to spread the fixed land cost across more dwelling units.  You may not be able to reduce the price of the land, but you can share it with more people, decreasing per unit costs, and increasing density.  Naysayers are quick to point out that all the density in Manhattan and Tokyo has not made them cheap.  A common response is that they’re cheaper than they would have been if they hadn’t been more densely developed, but I’m not sure this is really the right answer (even if it’s true).

Continue reading Is profit driven affordable housing possible?

Humans as Curators in Troubled Times

We had some of that golden evening light tonight just after house meeting.  The kind that makes you think maybe an apocalypse is just over the horizon.  That the mountains are on fire.  That the gods are angry.  This Saturday I went for a long bike ride up to the Peak to Peak highway with Amy from Picklebric.  At the Sunshine Saddle she pointed out the cheat grass — an invasive species that she works on.  Studying disturbed ecosystems, and how to assemble new approximations of the originals from the parts at hand.  You can’t get rid of the invasives, but maybe you can influence which ones thrive.  Just beyond the divide above us, the mountains covered with red trees, a forest being transformed in a lifetime.  500 years from now will they be the Aspen mountains?  Tim applied for a job at the Nature Conservancy as a landscape ecologist in a similar vein — understanding and managing wild and semi-wild lands for their own sake.  Like the Colorado river pulse.  All this made me think of the ecopoesis that Kim Stanley Robinson portrayed in his Mars books, especially Green Mars.  Humans as gardeners of the no longer quite wild.  From here on out, it’s all gardening. Mandatory gardening.  It’s just what kind of garden do we want?  What will grow in this climate?

Continue reading Humans as Curators in Troubled Times

Alone in the Wilderness

I’ve been thinking a lot about risk tolerance and discount rates lately, and how they profoundly shape our perception of the economic costs associated with minimizing climate change.  Basically… if you’re willing to vary your preference for the present over the future or the level of uncertainty you’re willing to accept, then you can make mitigation cost whatever you want.  All else being equal, low discount rates and low risk tolerance make taking action cheap, while high discount rates and high risk tolerance make it expensive.

Unfortunately, we live in a society with high discount rates and high risk tolerance.  Or at least, that’s what you’d infer from our collective behavior.  It’s also what you’d gather from a lot of the rhetoric around climate action, and our obsession with trying to make it “economically efficient”, to the point of maybe not doing it at all.  Our risk tolerances and discount rates aren’t really objectively measurable.  They are fluid, and context sensitive.  The same person in different situations will not behave consistently.  Different people in the same situation may come to different conclusions.  How we deal with uncertainty and the value of the future is a personal as well as cultural decision.

For some reason, I find myself with a low pure time preference, and an aversion to many kinds of risk.  This is part of why I find our unwillingness to act on climate infuriating, and why I’m working on climate policy.  I got to wondering, how did I end up this way?  Why isn’t it more common?

Continue reading Alone in the Wilderness