online                                       Thursday May 8, 2008

 

   

The View from Here

by Tom McLaughlin

 

Organizers of the arts conference yesterday at The Prizery struck a chord with a capacity crowd from around Southside (and beyond) who heard experts from painters to academics talk about making over battered towns by capitalizing on — of all things — the arts.

It rated an A on the inspiration meter.

Now comes the dicey part of seeing whether local power brokers will buy into the notion that arts and arts education can yield meaningful economic growth. Notable by their absense, by the way, were members of our local and regional legislative delegation.

But for those fretting about our future, the strategy set forth for Southside Virginia’s future was music to the ears.

More later. 

***

It’s a great gig, this punditry business. You sit in front of a computer all day in a never-ending quest to type up cogent arguments. Sometimes lightning strikes, sometimes it doesn’t.

My brother Tucker, who gets out and about a lot more than I do, received an e-mail from a friend who is a pretty smart observer of the local political scene. The reader, who leans conservative, wanted to pass on news of “a frightening event”:

“I read your column on land use and found myself in agreement with you!”

The e-mailer continues:

“While some sort of mechanism to preserve open space may be needed in the County, the proposal as put forth by the County Administrator and Ag Development Director is not it. Their proposal appears to be a ‘cut and paste name’ remake of some other jurisdiction with demographics wholly unlike Halifax.

“A key point of contention for me, and a point I don't think you articulated, is the proposal is heavily weighted in favor of large landowners. Sure, an owner of 10 acres is eligible to participate, so it looks like the proposal will also benefit the "little guy," but the economics are not there.

“Our Supervisors need to look at the math and decide if this proposal as it exists is remotely fair. Two examples:

“Farmer A has 50 acres. Assuming land prices of $2,200, he will save taxes by devaluating his tax base by $60,000. At $.44 per hundred [dollar] tax assessment, he will save $264 per year, so it will take him just at two years to recoup his $500 application fee.

“Farmer B has 500 acres. With same prices of land, his tax base will be reduced by $600,000. He saves $2,640 a year in taxes, thereby recouping his application fee in slightly over four months.

“And the 10 acre landowner who qualifies, well, it will take him over nine years to recoup his $500 application fee.

“These inequities exist within the population of those wishing to take advantage of Ag/Forestal Districts. This says nothing of how the county will make up for the lost tax revenues.”

The reader makes excellent points that so far have been lost in the debate over the county’s ag district tax plan. (Thank goodness consumers of editorial opinion are frequently more knowledgeable than purveyors of the same.) Lots of people are probably in favor of doing something to help out the proverbial little guy, but as our e-mailer points out, the economics of the county’s proposal weigh heavily in favor of large landholders. Is this how Halifax County should use its limited resources, so a handful of the wealthiest people in the county can receive a tax break?

I’m all for ideas that increase the viability of farms and open spaces. But the benefits — and the costs — ought to be fairly shared. Sorry, this plan doesn’t cut it.

On that note, I was glad to see the Board of Supervisors postpone action this week on ag/forestal districts after members raised questions about the potential budget impact. It’s certainly true that any eventual decision on land use taxation will involve a fair amount of guesswork, but that doesn’t excuse the supervisors’ apparent inclination to enact this policy without gathering the facts on what it might mean for taxpayers who don’t qualify.

By the way, it’s hard not to be struck by the comments of Supervisor Tom West, who argued Monday that land use taxation might impose short-term costs on the county but would save money in the long run. West argued that ag/forestal districts will head off a lot of future development, thus families won’t move into Halifax County, schools won’t need to be built, and the county will be relieved of the burdens of collecting trash or building roads (since when was the county in the road construction business anyway?) Taking West’s argument to its logical conclusion, I guess we should do everything in our power to depopulate Halifax County. Seen in this light, the Board’s decision to woo a wood-burning power plant by selling it a tract of land — for $1! — next to several residential subdivisions makes a perverse kind of sense.

Of course, the big problem here is that West’s cost/benefit analysis suffers from the same flaw that has marked the land use debate from the start: Without actual data, what does he really know?

 

***

I caught the tail end of Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday night after clinching the Democratic presidential nomination and, as usual, was transfixed by the multitude of the Illinois senator’s political gifts. While I realize this sort of talk only feeds the nutso view among some that Obama is the Antichrist, to cite just one smear floating around the Internet, sane members of society should derive satisfaction in seeing a candidate with such rhetorical gifts whether you support his views or not. Personally, I would be quite happy to have a president with a decent command of the English language after the verbal train wreck we’ve had in the White House for the past eight years. It also helps that I think Obama’s ideas would be good for the country and that’s more than good reason to vote for him.

Sometime after midnight I was watching MSNBC when one of the house pundits, Tucker Carlson, started droning on about how there was no way Obama could possibly fulfill all the promises he made in Tuesday’s speech. Guys on TV actually get paid to make such keen insights? I want a job like that. Here outside TV Studioland, people long ago figured out that politicians say a lot of things and deliver on just a few of them, at best. If Obama reaches the 20 percent threshold he will go down as one of the greatest presidents in American history. I’d probably be satisfied with five percent. Similarly, I’d be happy if a certain bow-tie-wearing twit who had his talk show cancelled because no one could stand to watch the thing would refrain from offering advice to a man whose political skills and intelligence  far surpass his own, but then I’m just naive that way.

One of my favorite bloggers, Matthew Yglesias of the Atlantic Monthly (matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com), wrote about Obama’s victory this week and did a superb job (without maybe meaning to) of answering the hackneyed criticisms of Tucker Carlson and his ilk. This passage just nails the Barack Obama phenomenon in every way:

 

 

 

The fact that Obama's had this kinda sorta wrapped up since March 5 has tended to obscure the fact that his primary victory has got to be the greatest upset in the history of American presidential politics. In retrospect, whatever happens looks obvious and somewhat inevitable, but back in the day all that was obvious was that Clinton had the party locked down. Obama's entire meteoric ascent from the State Senate to the cusp of the presidency is just a very, very, very unlikely story. And it's a story driven by the fact that unlike a lot of other promising young politicians, Obama's been consistently willing to take risks. In both his 2004 Senate campaign and his 2008 Presidential campaign, Obama would have to count as a longshot …. A lot of "promising" guys horde their promise so jealously that they never manage to actually deliver. It took a good deal of luck for Obama to make it to the top of the pack, but nobody succeeds without some luck, and nobody gets lucky unless they're in the arena.

It's a fundamentally bold, hopeful brand of politics. And I think it's no coincidence that that theme's been at the center of his campaign. Relative to Clinton, you see two people with similar policy agendas. But Clinton comes from a school of politics that says liberalism can't really win on the questions of war and peace, identity and authenticity, crime and punishment. It says that we live in a fundamentally conservative nation, and that the savvy progressive politician kind of burrows in and tries to make the best of a bad situation. It's an attitude very much borne of the [Clintons’] brutally difficult experience of organizing for McGovern in Texas and running for governor in Arkansas at the height of Reaganism. Relative to McCain, Obama thinks it's possible to accomplish things in the world. He thinks the United States faces a lot of serious international challenges, but doesn't see them as primarily driven by menacing and implacable foes. Obama thinks that a combination of visionary leadership and shrewd bargaining can greatly improve our ability to tackle key priorities without any great expenditure of our resources.

All in all, the pessimist in me sees it as an approach to politics designed to set us up for a hard fall when it fails. But in a deeper sense I find it incredibly appealing. To me, it's incredibly frustrating to hear that ideas "can't be done" not because they won't work, but because people know — just know — that they're not politically possible, even though they're things that have never been tried. I think almost every worthwhile accomplishment of progressive governance — from the UN and NATO and the NPT to Medicare and Medicaid and Title I school aid to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act to the ongoing feminist revolution that's completely transformed American society in a generation and a half with no sign of slowing down — is the kind of thing that before it happened, a lot of people would have said that it couldn't happen. And of course sometimes the pessimists are right, but unless you sometimes assume they're wrong then nothing's ever going to happen.