Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Special Interest Politics
distributed 8/22/03 - ©2003

I've come to know my city councilwoman well over the last couple of years.

We live across the street from a large university that has been bringing more students to the campus, expanding buildings and starting new programs. Our neighborhood is taking a major hit in noise, traffic, parking problems, and other disruptions. Our councilwoman has met often with people from the community, and been a strong advocate for us as we've faced off against the university and the city bureaucracy.

Not surprisingly, my involvement in local government increased when my own life was significantly impacted. The city deals with lots of parking issues, and I had never cared enough to take a stand. But when the opening of a new auditorium on campus meant that we often couldn't find a parking place near our home, I got involved.

Our councilwoman has been attentive to our complaints, and creative in brokering solutions that serve the neighborhood. The voters in her district feel cared about, and we like what she is doing on our behalf. Reelection does not seem to be a problem for her.

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Some of what I have deeply appreciated in my local political situation is at the heart of what frustrates me in my work for environmental and social justice causes.

Councilwoman Kathleen's work for our neighborhood shows what our political system does very well. It takes a concentrated need, and imposes some diffuse costs to cover it.

Our neighborhood's intense parking problems have been solved by restrictions on visitor parking that cause a mild inconvenience to the folk who come to an occasional concert or sporting event. The costs of meeting our needs are spread out enough that nobody will raise a fuss. Kathleen wins the committed support of her district, and the City Council never has a crowd coming to complain. The system has worked well for me.

But there is a clear problem when that approach is applied to other political issues.

From this week's news: utility companies are upset about the millions of dollars that they would have to spend to reduce pollution from power plants that are being enlarged or upgraded. Strict pollution controls would bring cleaner air to millions of citizens, but the direct benefit to each of those citizens is small, long-term and somewhat abstract.

Is it surprising that the Bush administration is reformulating the "new source" rules for power plants with terms that favor the utilities? Or that most members of Congress will concur? The utilities have a clear and direct cost. They are well organized, vocal, and they can make large campaign contributions. The citizens have a diffuse health cost, are poorly organized, not highly motivated, and are less able to write big checks to campaign funds. All of the political incentives go toward support of the utilities.

The same things happen with countless other issues: funding for health care, equity in tax reform, stricter fuel economy standards, carbon dioxide caps to fight global warming.

Economist Alan Blinder wrote: "Ours is a system of representative democracy, not direct democracy. In such a system, the people get what they want only if they mind the public business. Typically, they do not. With the majority silent and the affected minorities vigorously promoting their self-interest, the majority is in deep trouble."

Blinder talks about how our political system is very good at providing concentrated benefits to a few when the costs are diffuse. The system is horrible at imposing concentrated costs on a few when the benefits are diffuse -- even though that is often exactly what is need to bring about environmental healing or social justice.

The responsiveness of our democratic system to the needs of vocal interests can be one of its great gifts. The political incentives mean that a few dozen vocal people in my neighborhood can get help from the City Council, or that a small group enraged about a case of police brutality can bring about big changes. When the system works well, the diffuse costs are held in a careful balance with the concentrated benefits. Those who are not directly impacted can agree that the community as a whole is helped.

Part of what deeply concerns me with the current political situation in the US is the loss of balance in the workings of this system. At state and national levels, I see signs that more and more favor is being given to those with concentrated interests, and less and less consideration is being given to the diffuse public good. The basic political rules haven't changed. They just seem to be more crassly implemented.

The role of those with a direct stake in the decisions won't go away. But we can hold those in positions of political power to moderate standards of accountability in the balancing of costs and benefits. We can insist that our public officials have a strong commitment to public equity and to the general public good, even as they hear the concentrated passion of those who are most effected.

When we're at our best, the leanings of churches are reversed from those of political institutions. We are more concerned with the common good than the special interests. In today's political climate, we need to be especially vocal about proclaiming those values.

From the city council and school board to the President and Congress, we need to make our position clear. As people of faith and as concerned citizens, we don't consider it acceptable when the vocal advocates get whatever they want, and the society as a whole is stuck with unrealistic burdens.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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