Charture Institute director and author of the JH News & Guide’s Corpus Callosum column Jonathan Schechter posed some questions to the candidates this week. It was edited for space in the NaG, so I’m posting the full version here. -Pete Muldoon
The Industrial Revolution began in England in the 1760s. In the ensuing 250 years, I know of no city, state, or region that has developed an industrial or post-industrial economy while also maintaining the basic health and integrity of its surrounding environment.
There is perhaps one exception to this blanket statement: Jackson Hole, which enjoys both a highly-advanced economy and a relatively healthy ecosystem. This exceptionalism is captured in the Vision Statement of the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan: “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.”
Parsing the Vision Statement, it has two components. The first is the vision itself: “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem…” The second is the rationale for preserving and protecting the ecosystem: “…in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.”
The past 250 years of history suggest it will be difficult for Jackson Hole to achieve the Comp Plan’s Vision, for do so will require us to blaze a new approach toward how a community interacts with the ecosystem in which it lies. This challenge underlies the following four questions, ones I am posing to all of the candidates for Mayor, Town, Council, and County Commission.
1a) Do you believe that preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem is the foundation of having “…a healthy environment, community, and economy for current and future generations?”
I believe it’s necessary, but not sufficient.
1b) Why do you feel this way?
Our ecosystem is obviously important to the health of our environment, as it’s a component of it. Our community is united by an appreciation of and respect for our natural resources, and stewarding them is therefore important to the community.
Our ecosystem is also extremely important to our local economy, which depends to a large degree on exploiting its presence for locals and tourists alike. I use the word “exploit” with intent, as the impacts of our dependence are undeniable and often negative.
But while we rightfully celebrate our role as a national leader in conservation, we sometimes ignore the bigger environmental picture when it comes to climate change. Our community is full of often empty large second homes, the construction and maintenance of which have an outsized impact on CO2 emissions. We have an airport which caters to large numbers of extremely inefficient private jets, which contribute as well. Our economy is based on transporting tourists to a remote part of the globe, and that tourism has a huge carbon footprint. We have the highest wealth inequality in the country in Teton County, and as a December 2015 Oxfam report states, “climate change is inextricably linked to economic inequality.”
If we are going to continue to view ourselves as a global leader on the environment, we must acknowledge and address these issues as well.
2a) Is there a limit to Jackson Hole’s growth? If so, what is it? If not, what can local government do to ensure that additional development does not compromise the Comp Plan’s vision of preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem?
There are physical and legal limits to our growth. We’ve not yet reached those limits. But we are nearing the limits of growth envisioned in the Comp plan. Many people think those limits are too high, but they were a result of compromise that acknowledged the political realities of the time.
The most important things our local government can do is to consider the external costs of all development when creating new land use regulations, and to ensure that those costs are born and mitigated by the developer. The public is currently subsidizing much of our new development by not requiring proper mitigation and ignoring external costs that aren’t easily calculated.
2b) If you are elected, some decisions you face may pit preserving and protecting the area’s environment against supporting the community or economy (e.g., against developing more housing or commercial space). In such cases, how will you decide what to do? What sources of information will you rely upon?
I don’t believe that “the economy” is a monolith, and the distribution of economic growth is as important as the rate. So I’d say that in many cases, that’s a false dichotomy, and our choices will often involve far more complexity. I’ve made a commitment to putting community first, and (as discussed earlier) the environment is of great importance to the community. In a properly functioning economic system, environmental stewardship is aligned with the community interest. I’ll be looking for policies that can help with that alignment.
3a is for candidates who have not held office; 3b is for candidates currently in office. Both are based on the fact that an organization expresses its priorities through its budget.
3a) When in office, how much funding do you pledge to vote for that will directly support the Comp Plan’s vision; i.e. that will directly support preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem? What do you want that money to be used for?
I’ve committed to spending the Town’s share of the 1% local option sales tax on housing and transportation, which I believe will directly support the Comp Plan’s vision in this area. Beyond spending money directly, I’ve committed to adhering to the Comp Plan’s limits on growth, and I’d like to explore the possibility of having the Town purchase commercially-zoned land for conversion into workforce housing as a means of further reducing potential commercial growth and increasing our affordable housing stock. I support the Comp Plan, and in general I’ll be making sure that all Town expenditures align with its vision.
3b) During your time in office so far, how much funding have you voted for that directly supported the Comp Plan’s vision; i.e., that directly supported preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem? What was that money used for? If you are returned to office, how much funding do you pledge to vote for that will directly support the Comp Plan’s vision? What do you want that money to be used for?
4a) The Comp Plan’s vision clearly focuses on “…the area’s ecosystem…”, which extends well beyond local political boundaries. Within that ecosystem, Teton County and Jackson are by far the wealthiest jurisdictions. Given this, should Teton County, Wyoming and the Town of Jackson take steps outside Teton County’s borders to “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem…”? If your answer is “yes,” then what steps should our local governments be taking? If your answer is “no,” then how will the town and county be able to meet the Comp Plan’s Vision of helping “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem..”?
I addressed this in question 1b, but I’ll expand on it a little here. As I pointed out earlier, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard when it comes to CO2 emissions and climate change than we currently are. Yes, we’ve made some changes locally with energy efficiency and promoting alternative modes of transportation. But we’ve been unwilling to address the elephant in the room – wealth inequality.
Much of that local inequality is a result of factors beyond our control – the global prevalence of neoliberal economics, free movement of capital, tax sheltering, economic policies written by and for the rich and much more. Wyoming’s lack of an income tax is a huge factor. But there are things we can do here locally. We can advocate for a state income tax on the super-wealthy, or for real estate transaction fees, or higher property taxes and mitigation rates on large second homes. We have a limited number of options available to us, but we should be using the ones we have.
Questions for specific candidates
As is true in every election, there is a lot of grumbling about candidates. This year, I have heard different criticisms directed at each of you. Rather than let them fester, I would like to offer you the chance to directly address the most serious criticism I’ve heard about each of you. These criticisms form the foundations of the following questions.
You are running for office to make rapid and dramatic changes in local government and, more broadly, the community as a whole. That noted, you have no experience in local government. Further, as a self-styled gadfly, you’ve ruffled a lot of feathers in the community. Given these two qualities, how will you be able to lead and make the dramatic and rapid change you advocate?
It’s true that I haven’t held elected office before, but I’ve been a student of government for a long time. I’ve written extensively on political economy (my former blog was on the blogroll for Baseline Scenario, which was run by a former chief economist of the IMF). I’ve been an activist for years, and I’ve always been passionate about public policy. The perception that I came out of nowhere to win the primary is simply not true. Nor is the perception that I’m a gadfly, which implies that I criticize but have no intention of stepping up and doing the work. I’m ready and willing to do that hard work.
Two of the most essential qualities of leadership are the willingness to expend political capital on things you believe in, and the ability to clearly communicate what it is you’re doing and why. These are some of my best attributes. I speak the language of policy, but I also speak the language of the working class that I belong to. And I have no interest in using public office to further my career.
I’ve probably ruffled a few feathers. But the truth is that we don’t all want the same thing. The practice of politics involves conflict, and it’s the resolution of that conflict that is its goal. That conflict exists whether we acknowledge it or not. But only by acknowledging it can we move forward.
I don’t expect to make everyone happy, and I don’t expect everyone to like me. Our community faces tough challenges, and if our electeds wait around for everyone to agree with them we’ll never address those challenges. Disagreement and criticism are important parts of a healthy political discourse. I expect to receive that criticism from people who disagree with me, and I won’t take it personally. Civility is important, but so is honest debate. I think we can have both.