Hello and Happy 2021!
To state the obvious, I’ve not sent out a newsletter in some time.
Why? In part it’s because I’m such a damned perfectionist. I don’t feel good about asking someone to read my musings unless said musings meet two basic criteria:
- I feel I’m saying something important; and
- I feel I’m saying it in a clear and well-written fashion.
Nothing I’ve tried in the past couple of months has cleared both of those hurdles.
Perfectionism is a horrible quality for anyone in the public arena, where life is messy and the social media-driven political marketplace thrives on inciting angst – with pun intended, it’s an environment where quantity and passion trump quality and restraint.
Which is unfortunate for me, as I’m on the losing side of that formula. But since I’m also pretty bad at trying to be someone other than who I am, I’m going full Popeye with these newsletters: I yam what I yam.
The larger reason for the newsletter delay, though, is that, around Thanksgiving, I embarked on what I thought would be a quickie project to determine why the Town of Jackson seems to be so stressed out.
Ten weeks later, I think I’ve figured it out. At least the basics. Some of them.
As I view the job, we on the Jackson Town Council are ultimately responsible for the well-being of all things Jackson – not just town’s residents and infrastructure and laws and the like, but also the town’s employees. From this perspective, over the past year it’s struck me that Jackson’s residents and businesses and employees and even our tourists were all becoming increasingly stressed, in some cases to worrisome levels.
Clearly COVID-19 has played a role in this. My sense, though, was that more was going on. My findings are summarized below, and there’s a link to the resulting paper.
Complementing that work is some observations about my first two years on this job, and what the next two might hold.
None of this focuses on specific issues per se, but instead offers some meta-impressions. I hope you find them of interest.
- Meta-impressions I: Four Crazed Years
- Meta-impressions II: Elected Officialdom
- Meta-impressions III: 21st Century Community; 20th Century Operating System
As always, thanks for your support and interest. And here’s to a future hallmarked by great optimism and hope!
Meta-impressions I: Four Crazed Years
For the past four years, I’ve believed what the world really needs is an uber-effective adrenal gland rejuvenator. Our species just isn’t wired to be constantly agitated, yet that’s been our fate.
Worse still, Mr. Trump not only led us on a crazed and stressed-out ride, but one whose craziness and stress were ever-accelerating.
Here’s my summary of Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride:
- Act I – “Getting to Know You”: Mr. Trump unleashed three-plus years of unprecedented chaos and angst.
- Act II – “Hello COVID”: From March-December 2020, COVID-19 synergized with the ongoing chaos and angst, compressing three years’ worth of dis-ease into just ten months.
- Act III – “Trump Unbound” – In the first half of January, 2021, all the chaos and all the angst of Acts I and II were hyper-compressed into just two weeks.
The cumulative stress was so great that it overwhelmed a lot of people and institutions, and nearly overwhelmed our governance system.
So now what?
For starters, I think the most important thing we can do is embrace empathy.
Underlying everything that has gone on the last four years has been fear. For some, it’s been the fear of losing their job or business. For others, it’s been the fear of contracting – and perhaps dying from – an awful and mysterious disease. For still others, it’s been the fear of losing America as they understand it, or their place in an increasingly incomprehensible and dysfunctional society and world, or their plans for the future, or…
Whatever the causes, the symptoms manifested themselves as fear, and none of us is at our best when we’re afraid. As a result, we’ve “enjoyed” a steadily escalating pattern of untoward behaviors, culminating with the storming of the US Capitol.
Jackson Hole hasn’t been immune from this, of course – we may be special, but we’re sure not unique. A recent example is one that occurred at a local restaurant, Moe’s Original BBQ.
A couple of Sundays ago, the restaurant hosted a number of Buffalo Bills fans watching their team’s first playoff game in decades. When the Bills won, that maskless, closely-packed crowd went crazy, whooping and hollering and celebrating in all sorts of ways completely unacceptable in our COVID-19 era.
Unfortunately for Moe’s, all of that whooping and hollering and inappropriate celebrating was captured on a video that quickly made the local rounds.
I was infuriated when I saw it, for the film struck me as basically a self-indulgent homage to a bunch of narcissistic, self-absorbed folks who couldn’t care less about our community’s already-strained COVID situation. Abetted, of course, by a restaurant prioritizing its narrow profit interests above the health of the community.
Judging by the e-mails and calls and texts I received, I was not alone in that impression.
Historically, part of Jackson Hole’s character has been shaped by the sensibilities of the young people who flock here each year. Those folks aren’t coming to Jackson Hole to take monastic vows, pursue celibacy, or otherwise lead a life of quiet contemplation. Quite the contrary. But just because they’re young doesn’t mean they don’t have fears, including the age-appropriate fear that they’ll miss out on the things that brought them to Jackson (fears intensified by the energy and hormones of young adulthood…).
Similarly, as the graph below shows, Jackson Hole’s restaurants have been hit hard by COVID-19 – in fact, no other industry’s woes come close. If I’m the owner of Moe’s or some other establishment, I’m scared I’ll lose my business. And rightfully so.
And if I’m Moe’s landlord, I’m worried about my rental income. As are Moe’s suppliers about their revenues. And the chain continues…
Does that make what happened at Moe’s excusable? No. But if viewed with empathy, it does make it understandable. Everyone involved in the incident was, at some level, operating from a place of fear (including Bills fans afraid their team would somehow figure out a way to lose).
Reflecting on all that, and wanting to find out more before I rendered judgement, I reached out to Moe’s owner to get his take on everything. Sounding profoundly distraught, he expressed deep remorse, saying that what occurred reflects neither him nor how he sees his business. And it certainly doesn’t represent what he wants his business to be in the community.
In response, I opined that what he does next will speak volumes.
On the one hand, he could fire some folks, cry some crocodile tears and then, after things blow over, resume flouting the rules and implicitly daring someone to stop him. And that wouldn’t be too hard for him to do, for under Wyoming law and given Wyoming’s approach to COVID, local government doesn’t have many options for dealing with those putting their own interests above the community’s health concerns.
On the other hand, he could become a model for how a business acknowledges, owns, and reacts to making a mistake. He could educate his employees and patrons, and take the lead in figuring out how to reconcile the many opposing forces unleashed by COVID-19 and, more broadly, fanned by the madness of the last four years.
Will Moe’s succeed? I don’t know. But because I’m tired of being in a defensive crouch, I’m choosing to be optimistic. As I am about how we – the community, the nation, the world – will emerge from the extraordinarily pressured, fear-inducing cacophony we’ve been subjected to for four years now. It won’t be easy, and we won’t be the same, but if January 20 didn’t mark a carpe diem moment, then I don’t know what possibly could.
Meta-impressions II: Elected Officialdom
Mario Cuomo observed that, in a democracy, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose.
Locally, I’ve come to see that observation as a Venn diagram. In one circle are the issues and concerns candidates run on. In the other are the issues and concerns of running the community. In my experience, there’s little overlap.
The reason is two-fold.
One is legal. There are many things the Town of Jackson is legally required to do and, critically, much it is legally enjoined from doing. The former encompasses much of the prose, and takes up a lot of the town’s time and money. The latter encompasses much of the poetry, and includes many of the things constituents want the town to address.
The other is resource constraints. If you combine the things that the Town of Jackson is mandated to do and has historically done, it doesn’t leave a lot of time, money, or human resources to get at the things candidates run on and constituents ask government to do.
Saying that in campaigns doesn’t get voters excited, though…
I mention all this because, during my time in office, one of the things I’ve come to believe is that this poetry/prose disconnect is crushing the Town of Jackson as an organization.
As with so many other important local trends, this crushing was occurring before COVID-19 struck. COVID has acted as a major accelerant, however, clearly exposing the disconnect between what elected officials and their constituents want the town to do and what the organization actually has the capacity to do.
To help shape my thinking, I developed the “Iceberg Model of Town Government” (below). In Cuomo terms, the poetry is the stuff above the water line: the “Programs” and the “Potential.” This is the stuff candidates run on, the stuff constituents care about. It is also the stuff of newspaper articles and letters to the editor.
“Potholes” – i.e., the Core Services the town provides to its residents, businesses, and visitors – is the stuff below the waterline, the stuff that draws attention only when it doesn’t function. But as the illustration suggests, this is the stuff that consumes the lion’s share of the town’s financial and human resources, leaving very little for addressing all the other issues people want the town to address.
The disconnect between “Potholes” and “Programs and Potential’ is growing. Rapidly. As it does, the town is trying to bridge the gap by asking its staff to do more and more. And, God bless ‘em, they’ve been doing it. But it’s grinding them down, and can’t continue.
As a result, something has to give – the town can’t keep operating the same way while hoping for different and better results.
Going forward, there are three possible paths for better aligning resources and activities: reduce activities, find more resources, or fundamentally retool the system so it can produce meaningful productivity gains.
None of these approaches is easy or straightforward. And from a campaigning/poetry perspective, none is a political winner. But until the Town of Jackson faces this reality, it will dis-serve not just its constituents, businesses, and visitors, but all those who work for the town.
Pursuing this reality will be one major focus of my time the next two years.
Meta-impressions III: 21st Century Community; 20th Century Operating System
In the previous section I discuss the tensions created by the fact that Jackson’s residents, businesses, and visitors want the Town of Jackson to do more than it has the resources to actually do. I’ve spent the last many weeks taking a closer look at that issue, and have reached a few basic conclusions.
My one line summary? Jackson Hole is a 21st century community with a 20th century operating system.
By “21st century community” I mean that in its values, mores, systems, and beliefs, Jackson Hole is firmly implanted in the 21st century. By extension Jackson Hole’s residents, businesses, and visitors want local government to address the community’s very 21st century issues, including affordable housing, mass transit, and ecosystem stewardship.
In contrast, by “20th century operating system” I mean that, in the way Jackson Hole’s local governments operate – particularly in the way they generate revenue – they are thoroughly grounded in the mid-20th century.
The result is the profound stress washing over the town, one exacerbated by COVID-19.
There are three basic facets to the 21st century community/20th century operating system dilemma.
Facet 1: 20th century revenue generation versus 21st century economy
Wyoming’s method for generating government revenue is firmly based on Wyoming’s 20th century economy. In contrast, Jackson Hole’s economy is firmly based in the 21st century.
“Location-neutral income” is income that can be generated anywhere with an internet and cell phone connection. The two primary sources of location-neutral income are investments and tech/professional services, making location-neutral income the quintessential indicator of a 21st century economy.
Arguably, Teton County leads the nation in dependence on location-neutral income. Yet our governmental funding system is based on anything but.
50 years ago, Teton County’s residents generated 69 percent of their income from salaries and 27 percent from investments. Today, it’s completely flipped: in 2019, residents earned 27 percent from wages and 70 percent from investments. And a growing chunk of the wage income is from tech/professional services. Yet none of that location-neutral economic activity directly benefits local government. Nor do real estate sales, recreational activities, or many other types of economic activity. As a result, local government’s revenues are derived from taxing no more than one-sixth of local economic activity, and likely less.
Facet 2: 20th century revenue generating capacity versus 21st century revenue needs.
Jackson Hole’s 21st century residents expect far more of local government than the governmental funding system can generate.
Wyoming established the foundation of its governmental funding system in the early 20th century, and the last major update occurred around 1970. In that era, people asked less of government than they do today. For example, 50 years ago in Jackson Hole there was no public transit or affordable housing program, the town had far fewer miles of streets to plow, and far fewer buildings needed water pumped in and sewage pumped out.
Wyoming’s governmental funding system was set up to generate the money needed for this lower level of services, and not much more. Certainly not enough to fund the higher level of services expected by people spending millions of dollars on homes. And certainly not enough to fund the increasing socio-economic strains facing the county with the nation’s greatest income inequality.
Facet 3: Jackson Hole’s self-imposed unfunded mandates
Jackson Hole has imposed several unfunded mandates upon itself.
In particular, the 2012 Comp Plan committed Teton County and the Town of Jackson to addressing a series of thorny issues, including ecosystem stewardship, addressing climate change, developing complete neighborhoods, developing workforce housing, and creating a multimodal transportation system.
What it did not do is develop a system to pay for these commitments.
It also did not develop a system to pay for the extra burdens these commitments place on the Town of Jackson, which generates far less revenue than Teton County.
Ultimately, the only way to properly address this 21st century/20th century dilemma is for Wyoming’s state government to create a 21st century governmental funding mechanism. Thanks to coal’s demise, this day of reckoning is coming sooner rather than later. Given the increasingly anti-tax bent of the legislature, though, it’s going to take a while.
Until then, the community is going to have to become more creative in how it identifies and funds its needs and wants, including building on the success of efforts such as the “Save the Block” campaign that kept intact the Café Genevieve block east of the Town Square.
As a first step, though, my hope is that, by at least properly understanding and diagnosing the problem, my colleagues and I can begin to better align what our constituents want us to do with what we actually have the resources to do.