Town Meeting Matters

In America today one often hears complaints (or perhaps even complains oneself) about what ‘they’ are doing. Here ‘they’ refers to politicians and government at various levels. It is as if ‘we’ as in “we the people” no longer have any say in things; as if we are entirely at the mercy of whatever ‘they’ want. It is as if the government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” that Abraham Lincoln spoke of in his Gettysburg Address has been replaced by government “of the politicians, by the politicians, and for the special interests.”

It need not be so. For it not to be so, however, “we the people” must step up to our responsibilities as citizens and take an active interest in our government. If we do not, we ensure that not we but ‘they’ will decide how we are to live, what we may or may not do, how much our lives will be constrained, and how many of our liberties lost.

If local, state, and national government in the United States of America is permanently hi-jacked by politicians and special interests it will only be because we, you and I, as ordinary citizens, let it happen. We need to step up to our duties as citizens. We need to take an active interest and play an active part in the process. For citizens of Duxbury, Massachusetts, USA, Duxbury’s Annual Town Meeting at 9:00 AM on Saturday, March 8, 2014 in the auditorium of the Performing Arts Center is our best opportunity to turn that around.

This year’s Annual Town Meeting (and the Special Town Meeting within it on the same day) is especially crucial. Decisions by citizens on matters before it will have profound impact on the future of Duxbury, the conduct of its government, and the ability of its citizens to keep it a government of “we the people” rather than one that a ‘they’ comprised of a small circle of insiders uses as an instrument of its own interests.

Substantive matters include yet another attempt to eliminate the elected independent office of Town Clerk, a developer-friendly ‘affordable’ housing plan fraught with serious negative implications for Duxbury’s school population and tax rate, and a number of Town Meeting ‘innovations’ including electronic balloting (which will be put before the voters to decide) and various changes to the conduct of town meeting (such as requiring that amendments from the floor be submitted in writing – in quadruplicate) which will not.

We will discuss these matters in detail in further columns prior to Town Meeting. For the present, the aim is simply to note that matters before Town Meeting 2014 matter more even than they usually do. They will have profound implications for the future of Duxbury and Duxbury’s Town Government.

So even if you have never attended Town Meeting, if you care at all about what ‘they’ are doing and have even the slightest interest in keeping Duxbury’s government in the hands of “we the people”, you need to clear your schedule for Saturday, March 8, 2014 and be sure you are at the Duxbury Performing Arts Center by 9:00 AM, ready to debate the issues and make your votes on the floor count in favor of the Duxbury that you want to live in in the future.

Getting there by 9:00 AM is crucial this year because, contrary to precedent and for no obvious reason other than to get them through with minimal discussion or dissent, some of the most critical matters have been slipped into the Special Town Meeting warrant, rather than placed on the Annual Town Meeting Warrant where they belong. More on that shortly!

Laptop Lessons

Contemporary theories of education and instruction are only just beginning, once again, fully to understand and to appreciate the power of teaching by example. The examples that educators, by their own behavior, set for students are often more influential than the information they attempt to convey. What they do, in other words, has a greater impact than what they say.

This raises some troubling questions about the examples the Duxbury School Department is setting for students with its plan, in next year’s budget, to spend something like a million dollars to pay for 1200 Apple MacBook Air laptops, one for each and every student in grades 9-12, at a cost of $900 to $1000 each. What sort of lessons does this example teach to our students?

It teaches them to spend at least twice as much as really is necessary, even assuming that purchasing laptop computers for every student makes sense in the first place. In today’s market very capable laptop computers can readily be purchased at retail for no more than $400 or so.

A Hewlett Packard 2000-2d19WM laptop with a 15.6” screen, 4 gigabytes of memory, and a 320GB hard drive can be purchased today for $298. For $398 you can get a Dell Inspiron i15RV1333BLK, also with a 15.6” screen, with 6 gig of memory, a 500GB hard drive, and a built-in webcam.

An Apple MacBook Air, on the other hand, with only an 11” screen, 4GB of memory, and just 128GB of secondary storage costs $999 – $1,199 if you want a 256GB hard-drive equivalent. For a 13” screen, you must pay $100 more ($1,099 and 1299.00 respectively). This is primarily because Apple is, by far, the premium high-priced computer brand. Apple is comparable BMW or Mercedes-Benz while HP, Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo and the rest are more like Ford or Chevy.

There is nothing, however, an Apple computer does that the rest cannot do – other than cost more and maybe look a little fancier. Like Brooks Brothers with shirts, Apple charges as much for its prestige label as for the actual product. You must pay more for an Apple than for almost any other computer brand. That is why Apple’s market share is small (currently about 13%) and (is again) shrinking.

This plan also teaches our students to stay with yesterday’s technology rather than use newer, better, and less expensive alternatives now readily available. Traditional desktop and laptop computers are just so very 20th Century! Their sales are falling due to a proliferation of increasingly powerful low cost tablet computers able to do everything that traditional desktops and laptops do.

Apple’s own iPad Air tablet sells for about half the price of a MacBook Air.  Other vendors sell equivalent tablets for less (and more capable models at comparable prices). Tablet vendors, including Microsoft, have recently been slashing prices in response to an increasingly competitive, price-sensitive market. Even quite cheap tablets today provide the Wi-Fi access, web browser, programmability, and other essential capabilities required for educational use of computers in the schools.

The plan also teaches our students to go out and buy another one, even if you already have one – especially if you can pay for it with somebody else’s money. Many, perhaps most, teenagers in Duxbury already have laptops or tablets. Why should Duxbury’s taxpayers buy them another one?

Why not limit taxpayer subsidized computers to students whose families really cannot afford to buy them one? Why should hard-pressed taxpayers be required to buy additional computers for students who already have them? Does this really make sense? What sort of example is this? Do you think?

Paying the Piper

If you are a property owner and so a taxpayer in Duxbury, do not forget that your quarterly real estate tax bill is due next Monday (February 3, 2014). If your have not already opened and read your recent notice of how much you must pay in your quarterly payments this year, be prepared for some serious sticker shock. The time has come to pay the piper for Duxbury’s recent capital spending binge.

More precisely, the time has come to start paying the piper. The whopping increase in real estate taxes this year is just a first installment on the $100 plus million dollars of debt we’ve put ourselves into in order to pay for our new fire station, police station, schools and so forth. We will be paying off that debt for at least another twenty years.

“But wait,” as they say on the TV infomercials, “there’s more!” Unfortunately, in this case, “more” means more tax increases and very likely more debt as well. Now, if you are a member of the fortunate one percent, if you enjoy a nice middle six figure income, are the beneficiary of a large and generous trust fund, or have received a great big inheritance from some deceased relative, the recent increases in your Duxbury real estate tax payments may seem like little more than chump change.

But for those who struggle to pay for their children’s college tuition; for retired people on fixed incomes, incomes that do not increase anywhere near as fast as prices and taxes do; for folks who do not want to leave the homes they have lived in for decades but may no longer be able to afford; for people who turn down their thermostats on cold days to keep their gas or oil bills within their budgets; tax increases of the sort that next Monday’s tax payments require are no trivial matter.

Now one could, of course, just say: “Tough!” If you cannot afford to pay Duxbury’s taxes, you obviously don’t belong here! So what if your family has lived here for generations! So what if medical bills have eroded your savings! So what if that money you spent raising your children and paying for them to get a good college education means you do not now have enough to pay your bills comfortably! This is just the capitalist free enterprise system at work, bud! You can probably find a cheaper place to live –somewhere! Just move on and make room for someone who can cut the mustard!

After all, not only must the piper be paid for what we’ve already borrowed and spent, but we must spend even more to keep all this stuff running! We’ve got buildings to be maintain, salaries and pensions to pay, supplies to purchase, materials to buy, and unfunded mandates to spend, spend, spend on!

Then, too, we did just spend over a hundred million bucks to build new middle and high schools less than two fathoms above mean high water in a swampy area on the edge of a marsh – because we were afraid that if we put them in a sensible location in the middle of Train Field we might not have been able to persuade sports-oriented voters to approve the project! So if Global Warming is really happening, we are obviously going to have to spend lots more money to “remediate” the inevitable flooding of our new schools even before we finish paying off the debt we took on to build them!

Or, we could just step back and take a serious, realistic look at where we are, where we have been, and where we are going. We could learn from our past, from our inattention, from our readiness to accept the most obvious, most heavily promoted overly costly options. We could start to insist on getting maximum value from the money we do spend.

True, most of these cows have already left the barn. We have no alternative but to pay the piper for them. But we can, at least, resolve more carefully, more diligently to scrutinize new spending proposals brought before us, to see if they really are necessary, and to keep future increases in spending as low as possible. Duxbury’s Annual Town Meeting this March might be a good place to start!

2014: Be It Resolved!

It requires no deep political or statistical insight to see that dissatisfaction with government in the USA today is pervasive and deep. At the national level a recent CNN poll reported two out of every three respondents felt that the present Congress is “the worst in their lifetime” and nearly three out of four (73%) saying that Congress has “done nothing to address the country’s problems.” President Obama’s recent poll ratings are little better.

Dissatisfaction with government is widespread today, not only at the national, but at state and local levels as well. A still-difficult economic environment, rising prices, and even more rapidly rising taxes combine with various state and local problems to create a widespread climate of economic and political malaise. A recent CNN/ORC poll reported “nearly 70% said the economy is in generally poor shape.”

Although many grumble about it, most assume government as like the weather: Something you can complain about it all you want but that you cannot really do anything about. It is something “they” (politicians, special interests, and so forth) do and that “we” have but little hope of being able to affect or to change in any meaningful way.

Few, in effect, take very seriously Abraham Lincoln’s characterization of government as being “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It is, rather, a government of, by, and for politicians and the special interests that back them. The rest of us might as well devote our time and effort to figuring out how to make the best of circumstances we can little influence and certainly not control.

That attitude is, however, a sure way to make matters worse. History records numerous instances in which resolute determination and bold action by citizens, even in places ruled by autocratic governments without even the pretense of democracy and minimal protections for the rights of individual citizens, have brought about useful and constructive change.

We are privileged to live in a country that, despite its problems today, is far from autocratic. It is, at least arguably, one of the most successful efforts in recorded human history to put the ideals of democratic government into practice. And here in Duxbury, we are privileged to live in a local community governed by the traditional New England town meeting in which every adult resident can freely participate directly in directing the course of our local government.

Sadly, few do. Typically only a small proportion of the registered voters in the Town of Duxbury bother to inform themselves about the issues and to put aside a Saturday and a few evenings each year to attend the Annual Town Meeting in March. Sure, many like to complain about something or other that Duxbury’s town government is or is not doing (or about how it is being done). But only a relatively small number actually bother to participate in it.

How about we try to change that in 2014? How about we each of us, every citizen, every taxpayer, every voter, and every resident in the Town of Duxbury make just a little bit of extra effort to pay a bit more attention to the issues in town government and come to town meeting in March ready to participate in resolving them? How about we fill out those town talent bank forms and volunteer to serve on town committees; or maybe even take out nomination petitions and run for some town office?

How about we all think about what we might be able to contribute to improving our Duxbury town government? What better item could one add to one’s list of New Year’s resolutions for 2014?

Merry Christmas!

In recent years it has become increasingly common for some blandly non-denominational phrase like “Happy Holidays” to be substituted for a simple, honest, “Merry Christmas”. It is almost as if, in today’s overly ‘politically correct’ society, wishing someone a Merry Christmas is taken to be an implicit slight or snub to someone or another; perhaps even a sign of prejudice against anyone who is not a Christian.

When I moved into my first apartment, the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at college, I knew little of cooking. My tutor in the art was James Beard via his Cookbook, in its original edition in paperback. One of my first and most valuable lessons was Beard’s method for cooking pan-broiled steaks by simply sprinkling a bit of salt on a hot skillet, browning each side briefly to sear in the juices, reducing the heat, and cooking it until ready (just to the rare side of medium-rare for my taste).

The broader lesson I learned from this was that it is neither necessary nor desirable to smother a tasty cut of beef, or any other naturally good food for that matter, in all sorts of complicated sauces. Fresh green beans sautéed in a little butter, perhaps with a sprinkling of slivered almonds, taste as good if not better than any more elaborate preparation.

Long before the advent of Nouvelle Cuisine, Beard’s approach to cooking offered a way to appreciate the flavor of good ingredients without burying them in something else. Similarly, in painting with tempera or oil paints, parsimonious subtlety in mixing colors is required to obtain a pleasing effect. As in cooking, the best result comes from allowing the individual colors (or flavors) to retain their unique qualities, not by mashing them all together in a bland mush.

Yet that is, in effect, pretty much what one is doing by substituting “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” when one really means to be wishing someone a Merry Christmas! The same goes, for that matter, for much of the current secular ‘religion’ and stultifying moral strictures of ‘politically correct’ speech.  Its implicit assumption that recognition and acknowledgement of social, religious, ethnic, sexual, and racial differences somehow equates to bias and prejudice is, at best, faulty, irrational, and illogical thinking.

On the contrary, pretending that there are no such differences not only does nothing to overcome real prejudice and bias, but actually sustains it by papering it over with the superficial appearance of polite, politically correct speech and conduct. It simply drives it underground, to surface publicly only in the form of extremist manifestations of various sorts while leaving the bulk of it in place for most.

The notion that to wish someone a Merry Christmas is somehow implicitly anti-Muslim or anti-Jewish, or anti-Hindu, or anti-Buddhist or anti-whatever is just plain silly. Why should I be offended if a Muslim friend sincerely wishes me, say, “Eid Mubarak” or a Jewish friend “Happy Hanukkah”? How is the notion that this would somehow be ‘different’ from my wishing them a “Merry Christmas” be anything other than, itself, a manifestation of arrogant Christian prejudice on my part?

If we really mean to celebrate the diversity of our world and the openness of our society, free from prejudice and bias, tossing everything into the bland blender of ‘political correctness’ is surely no valid way to do it. Only by acknowledging and accepting the rich diversity of humanity do we truly step beyond our individual contexts into the broader world represented by the classical Greek notion that “to the wise, nothing is foreign.” So let’s strike a blow against prejudice and for real tolerance by wishing everyone a Very Merry Christmas – and a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year as well!

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