Some of the stories and interviews are in and of themselves shocking, but the general theme probably doesn't feel like anything new or surprising: money powers political considerations, political considerations determine who has money. For me, the compelling parts were the simple narratives and examples of just how much time and energy the people who ostensibly represent U.S. citizens spend thinking about and raising money, and what distasteful things they have to do as a part of that.
As a pat of my role on the Palladium-Item editorial board, I have a viewpoints piece in today's paper about Sunshine Week 2012, a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know.
If you've followed this blog you know that I am a consistent advocate for transparency in government leadership, and the topic was raised a number of times during last year's election season. I appreciate the paper bringing focus to this issue, and look forward to the conversations that result.
You might open a newspaper soon to see an ad like the one at right which appeared in my local paper a few days ago. It encourages you to "Stand With Main Street" to protest "special treatment" of Amazon.com that allows them to forgo the collection of sales tax on online purchases, resulting in an unfair advantage over "every Hoosier brick and mortar retailer." I don't usually see full-page ads related to Internet commerce in a market this size, so I thought I'd investigate the issues at stake.
The question of taxing e-commerce transactions is a bit complicated to be sure. If you have a strong and concisely-worded position on it, you're probably running for national political office, or a Libertarian, or both.
On one hand we can see the clear financial and psychological advantage that an online retailer has with customers who are weighing a purchase from a local store that charges tax against an online store that doesn't, and maybe offers the item at a slightly lower price too. At the same time, that online retailer may be benefitting from the infrastructure that sales taxes others are collecting help pay for (setting up warehouses, trucking goods around state roads, etc.).
On the other hand, we know that laws around state sales taxation were created prior to the age of the Internet and that the models of online business and affiliate sales have completely changed the way the world does business, and current attempts to rewrite them in order to create short-term bandaids on ailing state economies are probably not in the best interest of business innovation, especially when they favor large retailers (online and off) and send small businesses and people who make a living as Amazon.com or eBay affiliates into a quagmire of tax collection bureaucracy.
Over the weekend Jon Bischke made the interesting comparison of a start-up company to city government in A City Is A Startup: The Rise Of The Mayor-Entrepreneur. Bischke notes that the factors that go into a successful entrepreneurial effort are similar to the ones that make for a successful city:
Build stuff people want, offer products and services people want to buy
Attract and retain quality talent
Raise capital to get fledgling ideas to the point of sustainability, create a density of "investors"
Create a world class culture that encourages people to stick around even when times get tough
These may not be comprehensive factors, but they could be useful metrics to view your city with.
If I had to rate my own city of Richmond, Indiana, I'd say we have plenty of room to grow in each area:
Today's Palladium-Item editorial "Politics cheats citizens" calls out the ways in which local political maneuvering can do a disservice to voters, in this case with the less-than-transparent approach that was taken to handling the unfortunate health issues affecting Richmond City Council's District 5 representative, Bing Welch, during the recent election campaign:
Whether it is the 2009 Christmas Eve Senate passage of a huge, and hugely controversial, health care reform measure by Democrats narrowly controlling the U.S. Senate or, closer to home, Republicans and Democrats waiting until after a general election to craft their respective political handiwork, this is the stuff that alienates and isolates the public from those who have sworn to represent their best interests.
Through any such conversation we must of course be sensitive to Mr. Welch's experience along the way. I certainly wish him the best in recovering his health, and appreciate the years of time and service he has given to the Richmond community and the residents of District 5. It's not easy to be a political figure in the public spotlight even when you're healthy, and so we know that it must have been particularly hard on Bing and his family to have health concerns and questions about his ability to serve in that role all mixed in together.
Most of the media coverage this week seems to be glossing over the significant detail that the U.S. investment in Iraq, in terms of personnel and dollars, will continue. Instead of uniformed troops from the military, we'll have 15,000-16,000 people there in the form of other government employees and private contractors. We'll be spending almost $4 billion there in 2012. These numbers are lower than what we've been investing, but they are not small numbers, and they still represent a significant commitment on the part of U.S. taxpayers, let alone on the part of the soldiers still on the ground. We can't afford to start thinking or talking as though our involvement in Iraq is through.
It also seems appropriate that when we talk about the human life lost in the course of the U.S. presence in Iraq, we avoid artificial exclusions based on nationality. The story and cost of war is incomplete if you only recognize the count of killed and wounded on one "side" of any conflict. As we consider this particular milestone, let us reflect on the totality of what has been sacrificed, taken or destroyed along the way.
The state of Indiana recently discovered it had lost track of $320 million in taxpayer dollars, payments collected from corporations over the last couple of years. This during a time when the state was cutting funding in the millions of dollars for superfluous things like education. The problem was attributed to a "programming error," presumably in the software used to manage state accounts.
Here were some of the phrases state administrators and legislators are using to describe the error:
we maybe need a "fresh set of eyes"
"bank error in your favor"
"We drew the Community Chest card"
"It did seem...those payments were light"
"Christmas came early"
"We know what happened and we're correcting it."
Am I the only one who's a little bit disturbed at this trivialization of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars being hidden away for years, even if through omission or oversight?
All elections matter in one way or another. Every elected official, no matter how unglamorous their office might seem or how routine their work is, has an impact on the lives of citizens in their communities. The City of Richmond has had many elections before and will have many to come, and they will all matter in some way.
But we can't let the shared pastime of grumbling about the machinations of politics and the wearing complexity of government trick us into forgetting that, right now, for the future of our city, this is the election that matters.
As I campaigned during the primary season and met with concerned voters, business owners and community leaders, and as I've observed the economic, social and cultural forces at work in our area, I've come to see that the next four years are going to be a critical time in the history of Richmond, Indiana:
Politicians in Washington D.C. sometimes make the issue of whether or not we raise the U.S. debt ceiling sound like an essential and complex challenge, one that only their particular brand of political maneuvering, posturing and compromise can rise to meet. But from what I can tell, there's actually some fairly simple financial math involved, and the implications for the state of our nation are fairly straightforward.
But more importantly, the conversation about raising the debt ceiling is the wrong conversation to be having.
I'd like to present those observations, but instead of referring to "the U.S. Government" every time, I'll just refer to this guy "Sam."
Please tell me if I'm wrong or over-simplifying:
Sam consistently spends more money than he makes. This means that Sam will always be short on cash, and that his lifestyle is by definition unsustainable.
(Sometimes I wake with a start in the night and think I can hear Palladium-Item Viewpoints Editor Dale McConnaughay's voice chanting in the distance, "you must take a stand, you must enter the fray!" It's probably because almost every editorial the newspaper has published in the last two months about the income or expenses of City government have included a not-so-subtle encouragement for current candidates for office to make that particular issue a part of our political campaigns. Today, I'll bite.)
The Center City Development Corporation has asked that $300,000 of the $5 million in funds available through Richmond's Certified Technology Park account be used to support renewed operations of the organization and its Uptown Innovation Center facility. The Palladium-Item covered the request today in a news article and related editorial, the latter of which painted the request as just another ask for taxpayer funded handouts to support private business efforts and essentially encourages a "no" vote by the Redevelopment Commission, the entity that approves the funding request.