An Elemental, Traditional Part of the Solution: You

The people of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Saint Paul region consistently rank among the twenty most productive workforces in the country. So why have we stumbled from one episode of apparent scarcity to the next? How do we explain the development of an ongoing, structural deficit that leaders are now saying threatens the state with fiscal “meltdown”?

We have grown to view the payment of taxes as our primary way of contributing to key shared assets: Education, health, transportation, and housing, to name a few. That’s important and valuable. We cannot purchase materials for replacing aging sewer pipes with anything but dollars, for example. To pool dollars, we need to levy taxes. And the process of how we choose to collect and invest tax revenues is of critical importance and provides a reflection of what’s important to us as a commonwealth.

Still, taxes are not the only way we provide shared assets. And for good or ill, our system of paying taxes is an at-arms-length transaction. For many of us, our property tax payments – the main way that cities, school districts and counties raise revenue – are embedded in our mortgage payments or rent. As Harry Boyte of the Augsburg Center for Democracy and Citizenship has long argued, we remain disconnected from the reality of what happens once we make those contributions to the commonwealth. We become consumers of public goods in an exchange for our taxes.

We’re primarily consumers, not producers, of public goods – but it doesn’t have to be this way. Beyond paying taxes, citizens have nearly endless capacity to identify and address challenges they face every day: Minnesotans do so as volunteers at a rate that’s unmatched nationally. Yet, we have a body of skills and assets that aren’t fully utilized in our roles as volunteers. Our schools need energy improvements, and there are those among us who can install insulation, more efficient boilers, solar panels and geothermal heating systems. We can redesign, renovate and maintain parks in need of repair, and build stormwater management infrastructure like rain gardens. If this seems arbitrary or onerous, remember that many of us already manage public spaces on boulevards and in alleys. Expanded opportunity to engage in community design and operation would harness expanded contribution of citizen skills.

When citizens are involved at this level, it follows that results will be improved through the matching of those who have the most experience with a given place to those with the responsibility and authority to manage it. It builds civic muscle, taking underused capacity in the form of citizen expertise and labor and investing it locally. 

Of course, we’re busy. Those with work are working more hours than before, and over 14% of us are unemployed or underemployed in the wake of a brutal recession and so far largely jobless recovery. But even a modest commitment of time and expertise present an astounding resource. The region’s population over age 18 numbers roughly 2.4 million people. If just 10% of us gave an additional one hour per month to a shared purpose, this would represent the equivalent of 1,500 people working full time to design, build and repair public assets we all use. If "work" and "volunteerism" were not segregated in our minds and on our calendars, would we view today's environment as scarce?

These aren’t radical ideas. They’re traditional.

Tom Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, has called for restoring the role of citizens as a way to strengthen public systems. He’s written an article (and is currently working on a book) on the subject, called “Fracture Critical.” In his writing and in an interview last month, Fisher called on the metaphor of the polders of Holland. 

Polders are land areas organized centuries ago, to manage dike systems to keep the Dutch lowlands from catastrophic flooding. Building and maintaining one of 3,000 Dutch polders is a local enterprise. Historically, the high stakes of failure served to involve monasteries, merchants and Dutch farmers alike in the design, construction and ongoing management of the dikes and pumps. Polders, becoming the seat of decentralized government decision making, also served as training grounds for people to learn the craft of handling waters, protecting the land, and forming democratic decisions. In so doing, skills and local know-how are also distributed through local communities, and across age groups.

One of the reasons that scarcity has become the backdrop of public debate nationally, is that we’ve been leaving the assets of citizens underused. Our deficit is structural because we bring in less revenue than we expend each year, and also because we do not channel the resource of citizen skills, labor, and ingenuity into Minnesota’s vitality. 

When we exchange our taxes for those public services on which we rely, it appears to be a bargain to an objective eye. We are unlikely to learn new skills from the transaction of paying taxes, nor does this bring people together in communities. In fact, the acrimony caused by some citizens’ antipathy to paying for services they consume – through taxation – has become a paralytic distraction to meaningful governing at the local level as well as the state and federal levels. Imagine the power of a system we create that would provide resources for the shared needs we have through tax revenue, but also through ourselves as a resource.

This line of thinking can not terminate in a conclusion that we can continue to demand tax cuts and expect a vibrant, effective public sector. This promises to fail our future as it has our present. The point is that our future prosperity depends on our willingness to invest in our places and our people, using dollars collected as taxes, and committing another body of assets – our skills, our experience and our time. 

We don’t live in a place of scarcity, but we’ve learned to ignore the plenty represented by our citizens. So let’s get busy blurring the lines between public and private, between taxpayers and tax collectors, and between volunteerism and citizenship. This will help us take a productive workforce and make a more productive society.