Recently, some of the feedback I’ve been getting focuses on both the enormity of our the fiscal issues facing this country, and how we implement the right policies going forward to avoid getting into this mess again. It is that last issue that I have tried to address in many of my posts on this website over the last year. So to respond to this feedback, I want to summarize and amplify what I’ve tried to say over the last year.
First, I want to go back to what I said about the Founders in a recent post, and then what I felt were important actions we had to take:
To them, citizenship in a free society required active involvement in the life of the community and all its organizations; it was not a license to receive tax-paid benefits, nor a right to delegate community involvement to tax-paid bureaucrats. Democracy is what transpired in town hall meetings and town councils called or elected by the people to govern communities, in service organizations and church congregations, and in schools; while the work of elected representatives in state and national capitols was limited to a few specific tasks outlined in republican constitutions. …
… Remember that the remnants of our unique society still exist under all of the layers of government we’ve created. Those basic relationships that formed the core of our democratic communities still function every day. …
On these remnants we can re-build our unique society and re-establish limited and fiscally-sane government. But, we have to be willing to believe that the blueprints provided by the Declaration and the Constitution are still viable, and then re-commit ourselves to this project. We have to re-engage in the democratic life of our communities. We have to start and support local businesses, join our local service organizations and churches, and involve ourselves in our schools and local governments—and then demand that these enterprises shoulder the needs of our communities with our help, rather than look to Austin or Washington for action.
The skeptical questions I’ve gotten in response to these statements range from “that’s impossible today,” to “you’re advocating social revolution.” To both these sentiments, my answer is that I am no wild-eyed dreamer or revolutionary—but I am an optimist. We have examples all around us of how to make the transformations in our personal lives and in our political policies, which will be needed to accomplish this mission.
For example, here in Harris County our elected officials have established local medical clinics, and alternatives to juvenile detention, that are innovative, that involve the private sector, that improve local neighborhoods, and that provide services cost-effectively (or through private foundations, service organizations, or churches) without Austin or Washington. Our Commissioners and Juvenile Court Judges are showing that what I’ve called the Tupelo Formula works—if we’d just trust ourselves to apply it with conviction and consistency.
In an earlier post I re-told the story of how Tupelo, Mississippi pulled itself out of the Great Depression and other calamities to become a regional economic engine. I outlined the “Tupelo Formula” for local action as follows:
- The community faced a problem that appeared intractable, and that had been confounded by multiple events—not unlike the confounding factors of under-education, under-employment, chronic crime and poverty, and the impulse to be “left alone”, which exist in many of our neighborhoods today;
- One person, followed by a group of civic leaders, saw a strength within the community that created an opportunity that could be exploited to help the community address its problem;
- These citizens had the courage to take a risk with their own resources to take advantage of the opportunity and to share the gain with the community;
- These citizens involved businesses, private organizations, and local government in both the planning and the implementation of their plan; and
- The gains to the community were both short-term, and long-term, and were broadly shared—e.g., businesses were created and expanded, employment grew, per capita income grew, and schools improved.
I am confident that this model for local action will work not just in Harris County, but across the country, as the innovative former Mayors of Indianapolis and Jersey City, Stephen Goldsmith and Brent Schundler, and innovative educators like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, have shown over the last 20 years. Harris County is unique in that we are rich with innovative leaders in our private and public sectors, who could begin analyzing and addressing our communities’ needs through the prism of this formula, including:
- Our educational system, including the type of citizen we want to emerge from an elementary, secondary and college education in this state; the proper curriculum and delivery system needed to produce that citizen; and the most efficient and cost-effective mechanisms needed to pay for, account for, and administer that delivery system;
- Our transportation system and physical infrastructure, including a vision of where our citizens will live and work over the next 25 years; an understanding of how and where our goods and services will need to move; the maintenance cycle for all capital investments; an appreciation for the property rights of all Texans; and the most efficient and cost-effective mechanisms for paying for the needed infrastructure improvements; and
- Our criminal-justice and mental-health systems, including the effectiveness of such systems to protect victims, the public, and the person being held and/or treated within the systems; and alternatives that can reduce recidivism and improve the educational opportunities and long-term economic viability of the families and neighborhoods affected by the incarceration or mental-health treatment.
We should confront these issues by creating long-term strategies for addressing them at the most local level possible, but not based on the old “tax-first-figure-out-a-plan-later” strategy recently used to pass Proposition 1 in Houston. Instead, we need to start with the idea that individuals and the private sector are the first sources for ideas, action, and funding—with local government’s strategic support as a resource for mobilizing and coordinating the efforts. This approach will make government live by our principles while addressing urgent problems; and will allow us as a society to begin to address some of the most vexing structural pressures on our public budgets, which put upward pressure on our taxes and downward pressure on job growth.
To start this transformation, we have to rebuild the human infrastructure needed to implement and sustain the Tupelo Formula, by:
Starting new businesses and promoting policies that encourage small-business creation—small business creation is the easiest way to help people balance their need to make a living with our country’s need to rebuild neighborhoods. Businesses employ people, and employing people effects their lives. Every paycheck sets aside a retirement fund, pays for health care, provides for the sustenance of a family and (indirectly) for the support of the neighborhoods where employees live. Products or services generated by a business effects its customers, and those people touched by its customers. Wealth created by businesses increases the tax base and tax rolls, which in turn fund our schools—more wealth, creates better-funded schools. Programs that a business supports can enrich the lives of residents in the community where the business is located, as well as the lives of its employees. Each of us spends more time every day with our co-workers than with our family: the positive bonds you formed through this activity ripple out in every direction.
In essence, the greatest community service you can ever provide is to create or support a local business.
Starting or joining a service organization, and promoting involvement in a traditional community-based service organization—between 1870 and 1920 many of the organizations that we remember as the backbones of our neighborhoods were created, and most still exist: Rotary, Kiwanis, the PTA, and many more. These organizations were designed to help serve the needs of their communities, and provide the social networks that build and maintain neighborhoods. Most of these organizations are crying for new members, but time and other commitments keep people from joining.
Find an organization that fits your interests, your community, and your available time, and support it. Then, promote policies that shorten commutes to work, offer tax breaks to companies who give employees paid time to work for schools and volunteer organizations, and offer tax breaks to individuals to donate time to charities (and faith-based organizations) as well as money or assets.
Getting involved in assimilating our neighbors—To be a nation we must assimilate. Schools, churches, and childhood activities in the neighborhood were designed to assimilate children into our society as adults. Newcomers need the same help. We’ve argued way too long about the failure to promote assimilation. Let’s not just argue about it, let’s act.
Find an organization that is helping newcomers assimilate, and support it. Then, promote policies that give incentives to private organizations to create community centers and teach adults English and citizenship; that give children a safe place to meet, do their homework, and play; and that give families a safe place to interact and get to know and care for each other.
- Supporting organizations that help keep families and neighborhoods intact and building wealth, and promoting policies to accomplish those goals—As I mentioned before, our local GOP Juvenile Court Judges worked to create a model program, funded with private dollars and partnered with neighborhood churches, that is keeping first-time, non-violent juvenile offenders in school and out of jail. These types of programs will fight the long-term problems of under-education, under-employment, and chronic poverty that fester in communities where too many young people drop out of school and get a criminal record. We need more of these innovative programs that help rebuild strong schools, strong families, and strong neighborhoods.
By now you are thinking, “I can’t do all of that.” Well, nobody is saying you need to do all of that, but each of us can do some of the things I’ve listed to start rebuilding a service infrastructure in our neighborhoods that can sustain the needs of our neighbors without tax dollars. It is this overall effort that I’ve referred to in prior posts as Renewing the American Community. If you still don’t think it’s possible, let me leave you with a story that combines this message with my other favorite subject—Baseball.
When I was growing up as a White Sox fan in the mid-60s, one of the stars of that team was a young outfielder named Floyd Robinson. Unfortunately, a very promising career was cut short by an injury, and, in 1968, he left Baseball and returned to his home town in the Logan Heights neighborhood of San Diego, California.
Over the last 43 years, Logan Heights has come to be known as “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” Taking up where his father left off as a small-business owner after World War II, Floyd Robinson and his wife built a successful construction and real-estate development firm. With the income from that business he maintained a small grocery store in the neighborhood where he employed and mentored young men, some of whom went on to play college and professional sports. He also used his income to fill a need for a senior-citizen assisted living center, which he financed and built, and which he has continued to manage for almost 30 years. Although he could afford to move to “nicer” neighborhoods in San Diego, he and his wife still live in the neighborhood he helped to build and maintain. And for some of you, another interesting epilogue to this story is that Floyd Robinson accomplished all of this as an African American in an integrated neighborhood.
Renewing the American Community using the Tupelo Formula is not only doable, but seeds for this transformation are being planted everyday by thousands of Floyd Robinsons—some of whom we know as neighbors, and some of whom we may never meet. All we have to do is accept the challenge. In fact, I soon will be putting a lot of time and effort where my mouth is on this issue, as I am working with a group of people to launch an effort to promote the goals of Renewing the American Community, including innovative solutions utilizing the Tupelo Formula.
So with this challenge in mind, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis:
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.