Wednesday, September 3, 2014

We Built This Stuff, We Really Should Take Care of It

When I was a young engineer, long before the days of electronic communication, I often found myself giving my name when leaving a message.  If the person taking the message was of a certain age, let’s say at least two decades older than me, the response upon hearing my last name was often, “Any relation to John?”

Over time, the frequency of the question waned.  The older message-takers retired and their younger replacements were from an era after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish” had disappeared from high school syllabi.  I can guess a number of reasons why Longfellow was dropped, but still miss the days when I was regularly asked about John Alden.

 (For those not familiar with the narrative poem, Longfellow writes of the early days of the Pilgrim settlement in what is now Massachusetts.  The photo above is of a replica of the Mayflower, the ship in which the Pilgrims arrived.

Miles Standish was a military officer for the colony, responsible for maintaining peace with the Native Americans.  But whatever confidence he may have shown in military affairs was lacking in his relationship with the opposite gender.

Arguing that his time was better spent in managing the weaponry of the colony, he asked his good friend John Alden to ask on Standish’s behalf for the hand of Priscilla Mullins, another young Pilgrim.  John, although he also fancied Priscilla, agreed to undertake the duty for his friend.

Priscilla, perhaps deciding that a good-natured dupe was a better catch than a preening but cowardly military man, responded with the words that were among Longfellow’s most famous, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”  Nuptials followed shortly afterwards.)

To answer the long-ago question, yes, the John Alden of the Longfellow poem is my distant grandfather, thirteen generations distant.  Indeed, John and Priscilla are the progenitors of everyone in the U.S. named Alden and a great many more also.  One estimate is that a half-million people are descended from the original two Aldens.

And so it is that a small handful of my ancestors were Pilgrims.  Starting with John and Priscilla and then counting the in-laws of their son from whom I’m descended and continuing for another generation or two before the Pilgrims began to disperse and to meld into the bigger world, there might be twenty Pilgrims of John and Priscilla’s generation in my family tree.

However, one has 8,192 ancestors thirteen generations back, so twenty would seem to have a relatively minor effect on my genetic makeup.  Nonetheless, I sometimes feel a tug of Puritanism, the belief system that drove the Pilgrims to the New World, when I ponder municipal finances.  And that tug will dictate how on I vote on a key ballot measure in Petaluma this November, a ballot measure that has its equivalents in many communities.

As I’ve often written in this blog, our modern suburban world relies on a web of subsidies.  People who live closer to the urban core, and therefore need less infrastructure to live their lives, nonetheless pay property taxes that support those near the fringe.

Buyers of new homes, through impact fees, are expected to cover the infrastructure cost of the increasing population of which they’re a part, but many of those fees go toward maintenance and upgrade costs that would have been required even without population growth.  (This is what StrongTowns calls the suburban Ponzi scheme.)

The next generation is expected to cover the costs of infrastructure maintenance that we choose to defer in this generation.

And the general taxpayers, regardless of their own reliance of petroleum, are expected to cover many of the environmental and geopolitical costs and risks of petroleum use.

The Puritanism in me, although heavily diluted, quails at benefiting from any of these subsidies.  Puritanism is about self-sufficiency, about not having a negative balance in what Tom Wolfe, in
“Bonfire of the Vanities” described as the “favor bank”, the sum total of favors owed to and due from others.  I don’t find it necessary to have a positive balance, but find that a negative balance in my favor bank is morally uncomfortable.

And thus I’ll vote yes this November on Petaluma’s Measure Q, a sales tax increase intended to restore funding for deferred municipal obligations such as infrastructure maintenance and vehicle replacement.  My vote is in keeping with my oft-stated philosophy, “We built this stuff, we really should take care of it.”

I understand that the new tax will be a burden on some.  However, that burden is the result of having built a world for which upkeep is expensive.   The challenge should be finding a way to build a world that is more affordable, not finding someone on whom to offload the expenses. 

To be fair, I should note that some of the people with I share an urbanist philosophy will be voting against Measure Q.  They aren’t trying to duck their share of the deferred costs.  However, they’re uncomfortable with the plan to use some of the proceeds from Measure Q to build the Rainier Connector, finding it unwise to build more infrastructure that we’ll struggle to maintain.

I see their point and share their discomfort with the Rainier Connector, but feel that the need to cover deferred expenses is the greater good at this time.  Also, I can hope that over the next five years, before the earliest date on which the Rainier Connector can go into construction, the community will realize the need to build a more affordable world.  Which is one reason that I’ll continue to write this blog.

Thinking back to John and Priscilla Alden, I suspect that they would have been puzzled that we even needed to discuss whether to maintain the stuff we built.  But once they understood the issues, I believe they would have also voted for Measure Q, although also being hesitant to build new infrastructure that will be financially difficult to maintain.  It was the way Puritans thought.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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