Friday, February 12, 2010

Longmeadow ain't what it used to be

Longmeadow became an upscale community with an exceptionally high quality of life because of its residents’ shared values, among them shared (participatory) governance and shared interests (economic and otherwise). The notion of “commonwealth” was deeply engrained in the people, institutions, and ethos of this place. The persistence of our participatory form of government (Town Meeting) serves as an institutional reminder of the Tocquevillian notions of citizenship and community that survived largely unchallenged in Longmeadow until at least the early 1980s.

The so-called “me” generation that came to the fore in the 1980s was clearly a significant challenge to the notion that community welfare should precede individual welfare; a notion concisely identified by the great French chronicler of American Democracy as “Self interest, rightly understood.” The worst misfortune to befall our close knit New England town was, however, not merely cultural, or even ideological, it was structural. It was a very permanent and very inflexible change in the rules of self governance, the unintended consequences of which are now being felt acutely in our town.

The passage of “Proposition 2&1/2” in Massachusetts, by the direct democratic mechanism of a state-wide ballot initiative, is one of the most significant sources of Longmeadow’s declining fortunes. Direct democratic procedures emphasize individual rights and the “one man, one vote” principle. They are only supportive of “commonwealth & community” when the community understands itself as sharing a moral, ethical, or values consensus. This kind of consensus mitigates the tendency toward lowest common denominator politics and mob rule that can and does tend to infect direct democratic procedures.

Thirty years ago Longmeadow was a community of families that shared an overarching commitment to the welfare of the community that was most concretely expressed in a commitment to the highest quality of public education in the region. The connection between our schools and our honor; our schools and our values, was the source of Longmeadow’s cherished identity, excellent reputation, and superior quality of life.

The imposition of this divisive anti-community political instrument has done more than any other single thing to reduce the quality of life and community in Longmeadow. The “canary in the mine” in this regard is, of course, the quality of education in Longmeadow schools. A comparison of Longmeadow schools in 1980 with those of 2010 reveals a system that has been gutted of nearly all the programs and opportunities that made our town’s schools the envy of the region.

Did Longmeadow residents gradually lose their commitment to education as the primary linchpin of community? Not exactly. What changed was not our understanding of the importance of education, it was our understanding of citizenship and community that was transformed; a transformation furthered by this radical changing of the rules – prop 2&1/2. The anti-government wave that swept over the country in the 1980s was not different in tone than similar anti-government movements that dot our nation’s history. Indeed, previous such movements were supportive, not destructive, of close knit communities that saw themselves as bulwarks against the storms of individualism and self interest “not” rightly understood.

The difference here was the imposition of an individualistic rule that would encourage residents to consider their membership in the community differently than before; not as family members, but rather as “consumers” of services produced by the “government.” Proposition 2&1/2 was the legal/political equivalent of allowing the kids to vote on the resource allocation decisions of the parents. It produced narrowly self interested fissures in the community that made rational public deliberation and decision making about the town’s long-term interests nearly impossible. It encouraged intra-community rivalries the likes of which were once only seen between communities. The now well understood transition across American society from close extended families to the dominance of closed nuclear families was playing out at the community level and was facilitated and legitimated in our town by legal sanction in the form of Prop 2&1/2. The perceived value of the “village” and its role in the lives of every family in the community has eroded to the point where we now snicker at the politicized version of this proverb with no consciousness that it was once the primary source of our town’s uniqueness and higher quality of life.

Today in Longmeadow our strong community spirit animated by shared values is little more than an abstraction found only in our rhetoric and our lamentations. To a person, I expect that residents long for a sense of shared purpose and shared values among the townspeople. In an era of economic complexity, scarcity, and risk, there is indeed strength in numbers. Ironically, today this strength’s greatest manifestations among ordinary folks- close self governing communities, labor unions, churches, social and service clubs- are too often rejected by the very people who need them most.

In 2010, Longmeadow has a form of government designed for commonwealth but a citizenry attuned to the market place. We have citizens who want consensus, but whose actions (and inaction) unintentionally foreclose that possibility. The rise of the “consumer-citizen” in our town has gradually stripped us of our unique identity and our higher quality of life.

By legitimizing, indeed mandating, that each household be enlisted to approve even modest local revenue increases, often increases that don’t even keep up with inflation, Proposition 2&1/2 has helped destroy effective collective self governance by elevating private deliberation, animated by narrow cost/benefit analysis, above public deliberation, animated by shared values and interests.

Nothing understood as a “public” good can be a source of unity, familial bonds, or even civic friendship, if its provision is subject to the norms and values of the marketplace. Our town’s beauty, safety, education, and even administration ain’t what it used to be, not because our public servants are less skilled (they are highly skilled), but because our community’s expectations are no longer expressed as shared purposes, shared values, and shared interests.

Jerold J. Duquette

3 comments:

Dean said...

Are you trying to equate the quality of education to the $$$ budgeted/spent? - if that were the case the City of Boston which spends ~$17k/student should have some wonderful results:

http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/schfin/statistics/function08_detail.aspx

Longmeadow spending ~$12.5/student in the same year

-- In general school "leaders" tend to cut off appendages (music, sports) vs putting everyone on a diet -- not how a doctor would recommend losing some weight. Put clearly overly dramatic and meant to tug at the towns heartstrings to override 2-1/2. A horrible logical argument. But local government is always best and people are not fools, present a logical argument to keep the quality and the override would pass, it has in the past.
The quality of schools has always been determined by parents and how they prepare their own, seek the best situations and pay attention along the way. If the school committee chops off appendages, those that care will find the missing opportunities outside of the government provided.

Jerold Duquette said...

Dean,

The answer to your question is no. My post does not equate the quality of learning with cost.

Ironically, you illustrated one of my actual points when you indicated that parents "who care will find the missing opportunities out side of the government provided." Here you are basically affirming my sense that many residents presently bring a consumer mentality to their membership in communities.

Communities where neighbors think of themseves as being in the same boat and as sharing values and interests don't see local government as an external agent acting upon the community. In such communities government is "of, by and for" the people, which is why Lincoln used that language in his effort to re-unite a broken community.

GANolet said...

I have often said apologetically that proposition 2 1/2 has been both a "blessing" and a "curse" to local government.

It is difficult to run a multi- million dollar business limited to a 2 1/2% per year increase. Especially, when the majority of costs are in employee salaries and benefits

Jerry