August 2nd has become an increasingly important day in the life of many Americans, and it is also an important day in the lives of the people of Troy, MI. On August 2nd, the American government will run out of money. It will be facing the prospect of having more budgeted obligations to pay for than moneys to pay the bills. Much of this obligation includes Social Security and Medicare payments, Medicare and military pay. That is coupled with interest on the debt. The last must be paid or we will officially be deadbeats, and will lose all credibility with those who own this debt. It's likely that this will be paid, but there are a lot of other payments that need to be made, from those social security checks to the sent out to the pay for our military. Oh, and then there are the meat inspectors at USDA and the security folk at our airports, Pell grants for students and more. Come Tuesday, the executive branch will have to decide which bills to pay, and somebody isn't going to get paid.
On Tuesday the people of Troy, MI will go to the polls. Standing before them will be one issue, whether or not to create a dedicated stream of income over a five year period to fund the library. If it doesn't pass, then on Friday the library will close. It's a really good library and it's used by a lot of people. In fact it's the second busiest library in the county and it's budget is one of the lowest for a full service library. The choices here are very stark. We can fund the library with a property tax assessment of 70 cents per 1000 dollar value or close the library. Oh, we could continue funding it through the general budget as some in the community suggest, but that would mean drawing rather precipitously from a fund balance that is there in cases of emergency, or it would mean cutting other important services, including public safety. Again, the choice is stark and the choice that is made will affect a lot of people.
I title this post "at an impasse?" because we seem to be at a point in our history as a nation when we find it increasingly difficult to work together. I'm not opposed to partisanship. Political parties provide us with choices. They're messy, but they're necessary. The alternatives to the American system are not improvements. On one hand you have the one-party state, where the party in power controls everything -- like China. Then there are multi-party states like Israel and Italy, but they are always facing instability. In many cases fringe parties set the terms of the debate, because even if small they are often needed to build a parliamentary majority. So, I think our 2 party system fairs pretty well in comparison. At least that was true until recently.
The current debt crisis is a telling example of what has happened in recent years to our political system. In part due to gerrymandering, very few members of the House of Representatives face a challenge from members of the other party. That means the primary is the real decider. Thus, the "base" decides who goes to Congress. In this current Congress, as we saw just last night, although a minority of members, the Tea Party inspired folks have controlled the debate. We could easily have had a deal weeks ago, perhaps a grand bargain, as the President gave as much as he could to the Republicans, knowing that he was angering or making anxious members of his own party. But a deal could not be struck, because the hands of the Speaker of the House were tied by a group of members who don't care about the political consequences, but are driven totally by ideology. They are willing to let the system crash and the economy crash because "compromise" is not an acceptable word. As one commentator pointed out last night, it's yet to sink into their heads that they don't control the Senate. So, nationally we're at an impasse, and we don't know if we can work it out. (My hope and expectation is that cooler heads will come to the front and it will happen, but we don't know if this is true).
Then locally, a small group of ideologues have chosen the library to be the focus of their anti-tax stand. Theirs is a radical libertarian message, but it's a message that doesn't bode well for the nation or the city. If they win out, and they could, not only will the library close, but they will be making it clear to those moving into the area that Troy, MI is not a city to consider. All around us communities have chosen to support their libraries with revenue increases. Those cities can say to prospective buyers that theirs is a better choice. Businesses will hear the same message. My hope is that cooler heads will prevail, that ideology will be set aside, and that reality will come to the fore, and the people of the community will pass this resolution.
Are we at an impasse? Are we so divided as a community and as a nation that we can no longer listen to each other or hear each other?
So, as we consider the future and whether we can move out of this impasse, I want to leave you with these words from Parker Palmer on the importance of reclaiming space for public life.
Ask Americans what must be done to repair American politics, and most responses will focus on "them," the people who hold elective office and the governing bodies in which they serve. It is an understandable mistake: our headline news is dominated by people and events at the centers of political power. But it is a mistake. The most important thing "We the People" can do to restore democracy is to restore the venues and vitality of the public life that we have opportunities to participate in on a daily basis. Only via local connections, multiplied many times over, can citizens hope to generate the level of people power necessary to effect political change. (Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, p. 108).
Do we want a way out of the impasse? The ball is in our court!