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Marin 2016 - Part IX: Regionalism

"A man who hasn't decided what is enough is lost forever."

As the pressure to “grow our way out of our problems” builds, the consequences of our government’s head-in-the-sand attitude about cumulative impacts are becoming inescapable.

In a stunning example of this, the City of San Jose recently sued the neighboring Santa Clara over its approval of the $6.5 billion CityPlace project. This is a situation where San Jose is suing Santa Clara because Santa Clara has approved a mega-project that is inconsistent with San Jose’s General Plan. Their argument is that the Santa Clara project will have too many negative impacts on San Jose, so they want it stopped.

According to the attorney for San Jose,

The project is irreconcilably inconsistent with the City of Santa Clara's General Plan in material respects that create profound environmental impacts which, unnecessarily, have a regional effect.

This may be one of the first times a city has tried to enforce its General Plan provisions on another city. However, it’s the same reason why so many Marin residents have been concerned about impacts from over-sized development in Marin.

Clearly, some kind of inter-governmental coordination is desirable. However, the only “solution” governments are offering us is the wrong kind: top down regionalism. It’s wrong because the push for regional planning control by major government agencies is not about creating better local planning coordination, or doing better data driven analysis, or increasing communications and collaboration between autonomous municipalities. The powers that be are not really interested in any of that.

Regionalism, heavily favored by government agencies, big labor, major corporations, and variety of special interests, is just another form of centralized planning that requires the further dilution of local government control… the very antithesis of what we need. It’s really all about the concentration of power, money and decision making.

When asked recently, to comment on the problem of allowing the Association of Bay Area Governments (“ABAG”) to continue to do planning for the San Francisco Bay Area, as opposed to MTC taking control, MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger said, “When I ask MTC planners to do something, they do it. When I ask ABAG planners to do something, they don’t. We’re going to fix that.”

A Bay Area oligarchy

In order for there to be any real change in regional planning, our elected representatives, their counterparts in unelected regional agencies, and the cadre of so-called "stakeholders" would have to want it to happen. Considering how much political influence and wealth they'd stand to lose, what’s their incentive to do that?

The answer, of course, is they have no incentive.

ABAG, long the bad guy in the regional planning arena, has now been eviscerated by its own hand. It is unlikely it will even exist in any recognizable form, five years from now. As carefully documented by investigative journalist Zelda Bronstein in her Marin Post pieces entitled ABAG Leaders Betray Local Cities, and Regional Government Sells Out Bay Area Cities, earlier this year, ABAG’s Joint Committee took a major step forward to fold ABAG into the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (“MTC”), allowing MTC to take control of all its planning staff, and make ABAG a vestigial planning organization that is fully dependent upon MTC for funding. In return for selling out Bay Area taxpayers, ABAG staff got to move into a brand spanking new, high security office compound in San Francisco, complete with plush carpeting, nice views, and Herman Miller furniture.

The handwriting is on the wall and the floor and the ceiling: Money talks and everything else walks. MTC, an unaccountable, unelected state agency now holds all the purse strings. In addition, MTC is philosophically joined at the hip with HUD in Washington DC, and most of the so-called stakeholder groups, locally, and none more than major regional employers. Among these are most of the larger Silicon Valley tech giants and their multi-billionaire founders and CEOs.

MTC’s vision of the future is all about urbanizing suburbs and forcing counties like Marin to do their “fair share.” The translation of that term is that Bay Area municipalities should be forced to build massive amounts of high density housing for the employees of major corporations. This kind of private benefit at the public’s expense suits the MTC and corporate growth vision very well.

Meanwhile, tech giants like Apple and Google pay hardly any state or federal income taxes to support that housing need (their revenues are mostly off-shored because, didn’t you know, operations are actually “located” in Ireland or the Cayman Islands).

Apple, as just one example, is hoarding over $200 billion dollars in untaxed profits overseas. The taxes on that money could help address a long list of housing, social justice and equal opportunity challenges in our region. Those profits come from manufacturing our beloved IPhones and MacBooks in massive factories in China, one the size of 90 football fields, where working conditions are so bad that the buildings have to be surrounded with suicide nets to catch all the workers trying to kill themselves.

But, apparently, Apple doesn’t seem to concern itself with such things. It’s just business.

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Apple CEO, Tim Cook, noted that the company would consider repatriating some of its massive amounts of money from overseas, if it is taxed at a “fair” rate. In other words, he’s saying that until his corporation gets to dictate to the U.S. government, unilaterally, what tax rates are “fair,” he feels no responsibility to contribute to the welfare of our country as a whole or to give back to a system that made his success possible.

I find this remarkable. These companies would not even exist had it not been for the 50 years of efforts that preceded them, when our Post WW II infrastructure (highway system, electrical grid, water and utility services, public education system, etc.) was built on the backs of taxpayers who labored for almost 30 years, under the weight of marginal tax rates of 90% on earnings over $1,000,000.

Apple and other corporations like them are apparently content to continue to benefit from our democratic institutions, our national defense, our strong capital markets, our intellectual property and patent laws, our justice system, and so much more, yet feel no obligation whatsoever to pay the income taxes, which make that possible. Yet, they seem to have no problem expecting the rest of us to pay for what they need (i.e., affordable housing).

Gentrification and displacement

The increasing concentration of political power and influence, personified by organizations such as the Bay Area Council[1] and the mega corporations that support them, is creating what might aptly be called a cabal of oligarchs, whose goals and interests bare little relationship to those of the average Bay Area resident.

Through the regional organizations they influence, wealthy companies now apparently feel they are entitled to decide how and where the Bay Area should grow. They are all strong supporters of urban solutions and the “build, baby, build” mantra, which they deceptively wrap in a cloak of promised affordability and environmental benefits.

San Francisco, for example, has embraced this approach and as a result, the displacement of the poor and the middle class there is accelerating, rapidly. The South of Market neighborhood is a perfect example. Once filled with a diverse population of lower income residents and small family owned businesses, it is now a canyon land of soaring, characterless, high rise condos.

Armed with this vision for the Bay Area’s future, Marin County, with its expansive open space and enviable quality of life, is likewise directly in the cross-hairs of the cabal’s ambitions.

However, there’s even more to this picture than what we can understand through a regional lens.

The news says things are really bad

In these politicized times, many candidates and pundits are bad-mouthing everything about our economy and our government. It’s easy to fall into that trap. It’s not the whole story.

There’s no question that our society suffers from a variety of serious ills directly resulting from our unresponsive state and federal government. These need to be addressed. However, the economic problems we’re facing are complex, causing our much reported “recovery” to be increasingly fragile, lumpy in its distribution, and built on a mirage of accounting shenanigans and leveraged debt. The Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury, with their concerted effort to artificially keep interest rates close to zero, while simultaneously running the printing presses 24/7 to devalue our currency, is not helping matters. It is likely they have already bankrupted generations of savers and they’ve certainly created a casino atmosphere in global equity and real estate markets.

So, what does this have to do with Marin?

Well, all of the aforementioned financial maneuvering has made the pressure for return on investment enormous, leaving real estate development as one of the only places to stash all the cash and make a decent return. And, real estate development in Marin can be very lucrative, particularly in luxury properties. Combine that and our easy money environment with our Bay Area housing shortages and wage imbalances, exacerbated by the spec building hiatus from 2008 to 2012, and you get a pro-growth fervor, driven more by the hunt for return on investment than because growth is a solution to our affordable housing challenges.

At some point, as a nation, we’re going to have to face the fact that we need to spend more effort on the wages and wealth side of the equation, so people can afford to have a place to live. Because if we limit the discussion about affordability to just being about supply and demand pricing, we’ll have to build millions of units to impact pricing in any positive way. And that scale of development would be impossible without urbanizing the SF Bay Area suburbs, many times over.

What the Bay Area urbanization “solution” fails to address is the greater problem of too many people being left behind by the gigantic paradigm shift underway, regarding the definition of “work” in this 21st century, and which skills and what kind of education is needed to participate. At the same time, the costs of natural capital and human capital remain inadequately compensated for in any reasonable way, producing unequal wealth distribution and environmental destruction around the world that is unprecedented.

For all the hope for our planet and our future welfare that came out of the environmental and social justice movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, it seems we’re now going backwards. Instead of embracing the potential for scientific and technological advances to address our planning challenges, we appear to be stuck between pretending we can live like it's the 1950’s again and unhelpful platitudes that cars and suburbs and western culture are all evil.

So where does that leave us?

People can ruin anything

In the short term, economic challenges and income disparities (a major factor in what is or is not “affordable”) have been exacerbated by the legacy of the 2008 Crash, the unsustainable debt load that’s been building since the 1980’s, the advent of the internet, the globalization and mechanization of manufacturing, and a host of other things. Reasonable people could debate this forever, but all of these are only the “factual” side of the problem.

The truth of the matter is that sustainable solutions will also require a change in attitudes. As it stands, we are currently in great danger of taking what has surely been the greatest cultural achievement in human history, an incredibly dynamic, democratic, free market, capitalist, wealth and welfare creating system, and turning it into a whorey caricature of its former self, polluted by apathy, ignorance, greed and short-sighted thinking.

Acting honorably when it comes to making a buck, or how our government spends a buck, is now apparently considered quaint. And, solving affordable housing and growth challenges at the local level have always been highly correlated and dependent upon how funding is allocated at the national and state level, and even with our income tax laws. It’s all connected.

Truth in advertising, whether it’s a politician running for office or a corporation trying to sell yet another thing you don’t need, is equally becoming even a bigger joke. Half the initiatives on the California ballot in every election cycle result in the exact opposite of what their promoter’s sales pitch claims. A voter needs a PhD in spin to even decipher the choices.

Incorporating the welfare of the existing community at large into decisions doesn’t really seem to be part of the governmental or corporate conversation, anymore. In fact, existing residents being impacted by “growth” and “progress” are generally treated as an annoyance.

Meanwhile, our oceans are being emptied of life, our forests in California are drying out and dying and our world is being filled daily with untested poisons and carcinogens in consumer products… and for what? Just to make more money? Just to consolidate more power?

I’d say we’re “screwing the pooch.”[2]

In this type of political environment, governments become increasingly defensive even as their capabilities begin to break down. Can any of us really afford to look the other way and let this vision of the future play out? Will government take the lead in fixing things? Have they ever? I think we’d better do something about it ourselves, because the last thing we need is government telling us where we have to live and how much money is too much to make.

I think it’s up to the public and the private sector to lead the efforts to address social equity, affordability, preservation and sustainability, if only to appeal to shared, self-interest and the benefits of living in a civil, prosperous, diverse and educated society. The more people there are who feel disenfranchised, and that they don’t have anything to lose, the less likely they are to care if the whole thing falls down around them.

This is not a healthy situation. If we don’t get involved, it will be a tragedy of our own making.

The best place to start is locally.

In his book, Citizenville, Gavin Newsom commented that community organizations and local government are the last and only hope to push back on dysfunctional government and fix the things that need fixing. In his view, our political and economic system, which has given us all so much, may be messed up beyond redemption. But, he’s not suggesting that regionalism and mega agencies dictating housing quotas are the solution. He’s talking about collaborative, technologically enabled, bottom up democracy, without which the downward slide will continue to gain momentum.

Read Part I – Is representative government slipping away?

Read Part II – Will the suburbs be hunted to extinction?

Read Part III – Dispatches from the front – Mill Valley

Read Part IV – Dispatches from the front – Hamilton Field

Read Part V - Dispatches from the front - Corte Madera

Read Part VI - Dispatches from the Front - Marin County Government

Read Part VII - What will you do when Marin is no longer Marin?

Read Part VIII - Hide the ball

Read Part X - Endgame

[1] As noted in Part II

[2] A phrase originally used by U.S. Naval aviators to mean, “Crash one’s plane into the water.”