Monday, June 25, 2012

John Strinka has guts

Posted by on Mon, Jun 25, 2012 at 9:00 AM

I don't know John Strinka. We've never met. But this guy's got guts.

Strinka has filed as a Socialist candidate for the Indiana House of Representatives in, of all places, District 39 - a swatch of the northern suburbs that includes parts of Carmel and Fishers. Jerry Torr is the incumbent there. He's an insurance man who voted for what Strinka calls "Right to Work For Less" during the last legislative session.

In a press release, Strinka is touted as the first Socialist candidate in decades to qualify for the Indiana ballot. This is worth thinking about. Indiana, after all, plays a distinguished part in the short and largely forgotten history of socialism in the United States.

Terre Haute was the home of Eugene V. Debs, the labor leader who ran as a Socialist candidate for president five times, between 1900 and 1920, garnering as much as 6 percent of the popular vote during the race in 1912. Debs was a memorable orator who fought for a society based on the common good instead of individual striving. "I want no advantage over my fellow man," said Debs, "and if he is weaker than I, all the more it is my duty to help him."

Debs understood the way capitalists used their power to divide people into competing interests, enriching a few at the expense of many. "Competition was natural enough at one time, but do you think you are competing today?" he asked. "Many of you think you are. Against whom?Against Rockefeller?About as I would if I had a wheelbarrow and competed with the Santa Fe [railroad] from here to Kansas City." On another occasion, Debs said: "In every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the people."

Debs was arrested and did time for organizing workers and then for his opposition to America's entry into the First World War. Upon being convicted of violating the Sedition Act he said, "Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind then that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

Debs said he opposed a social system, "in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence."

Debs was part of a populist rising in response to the vast income inequality and exploitative working conditions associated with Gilded Age capitalism. The labor movement he helped foster improved wages and benefits for industrial workers and was key in the creation of an American middle class.

But Americans are famous for historical amnesia - and capitalists publish our history books. So it wasn't long before Debs' idea of socialism - a social system, as the Republican Abraham Lincoln said, of, by and for the people - was lumped in with what communist dictators were doing to the Soviet Union and consigned to the dustbin of our collective memory. Socialism became a dirty word.

It still is. Today Republicans use it to smear President Barack Obama, whose policies - from reforming health care in favor of big insurance companies, to bailing out Wall Street tycoons - look for all the world like the works of such Cold War Republican presidents as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

Socialism is the kind of word people today use to kill debate or, for that matter, thought. We place our faith in the profit motive and call that freedom. This is not to say that socialist policies offer a silver bullet. The current mess in Europe, where socialism has long been part of conventional political discourse, suggests it is no more immune to corruption and ineptitude than any other means of social organization.

But, in a political season when candidates from both parties seem eager to downplay the idea that government is actually us, a public tool meant to serve public needs, socialism's moral argument that if we fail to hang together as a community, our community is bound to fail even the best off among us, deserves to be part of the mix.

"The power of the state can be used to create jobs, provide living wages, and provide healthcare," says self-proclaimed Socialist John Strinka. "We must simply find the political will to use that power to improve the lives of all our residents."

If a Socialist getting on the ballot in Indiana seems strange, what's even stranger is that it takes a Socialist like Strinka to stand up for a common sense understanding of government's role. That's why my hat's off to him. In times like these, common sense takes guts.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Making the most of a local asset

Posted by on Mon, Jun 18, 2012 at 4:00 AM

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When people talk about Indianapolis, they almost always mention the fact that the city doesn't feature mountains or a seacoast

When people talk about Indianapolis, they almost always mention the fact that the city doesn't feature mountains or a seacoast. I'm doing it now. It's like we can't help ourselves.

This fixation with our lack of monumental views, the sorts of images that postcards and cable TV travelogues are made of, has had the effect of causing too many of us to overlook the very real assets Indianapolis is built around — our waterways, for example.

For generations, Indianapolis, like many other American cities, looked at rivers and streams as a mixed blessing. They were arteries for commerce, bringing people and business, but they were also a menace and blight, due to flooding, and insofar as waterfronts were known as hardscrabble places where raw materials piled up and workers drank too much.

Indianapolis was especially cursed when it came to its river, the White. Like all rivers, the White was subject to the occasional, catastrophic flood. But unlike the Ohio or Mississippi, the White proved to be innavigable. It wasn't deep enough to float the types of boats capable of turning a river city into a boomtown.

Frustrated with their river's lack of profitability, Indianapolis' early movers and shakers hit upon a bold scheme. Rather than be victims of their geography, they would master it by building what nature failed to provide: a system of canals linking Indiana with eastern markets. In Indianapolis, the Central Canal began construction in 1836.

The railroad made this idea obsolete before it could be completed. To make matters worse, the Panic of 1837 all but bankrupted the state treasury. Funding for the canal, shall we say, dried up.

Eight miles of the Central Canal were dug in Indianapolis before the project was abandoned, running from Broad Ripple to Downtown. Local urban legend has it that a canal digger is buried every 20 feet beneath the towpath.

In 1971, this stretch was declared to be an American Water Landmark by the American Waterworks Association. A large portion of the city's water supply flows between its banks.

In 2010, as Citizens Energy Group prepared to take charge of the city's water, Eden Collaborative, a local urban planning and landscape architectural firm, thought the time was right to come forward with a proposal aimed at turning the canal between the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Indianapolis Art Center into a "world class outdoor recreational arts facility unlike any other in the country." They called it Art2Art.

In a city that often seems transfixed by its seeming lack of natural attractions, A2A is a bright flash of good news. The idea was first brought forth at an urban brainstorming conference last year. It has drawn praise from Mayor Ballard's office and a planning grant from the Central Indiana Community Foundation. Its cost has been estimated at about $10 million.

This money would be well spent. As it is, the canal represents one of Indianapolis' most distinctive features, combining historical resonance with environmental beauty. It represents a chance to make the most of a great, if underutilized, local asset.

The A2A proposal might also be thought of as a kind of preemptive reclaiming of the canal before it falls prey to the clueless conniving of dutiful engineers. It wasn't that long ago that we learned managers responsible for city water wanted to chop down trees along the canal and cover its banks with broken stone in an attempt to prevent erosion. This would have turned one of Indianapolis' most attractive urban amenities into the equivalent of an interstate highway ditch. Fortunately, the public got wind of this dimwitted excuse for resource stewardship in time to raise a ruckus and generate some second, better, thoughts about how to manage the situation.

A2A represents a breakthrough in terms of the city's cultural resources. It marks the first truly substantive association involving the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Indianapolis Art Center. Both institutions have invested heavily in showing connections between the arts and nature — the IMA with its 100 Acres and, over at the IAC, ArtsPark, a riverside sculpture garden. Reimagining the Central Canal as a link between these sites will not only build greater access to both, it will also amplify public understanding that the arts and nature have overlapping stories to tell about the ways we humans can relate to where we live.

Linking art with recreation, as A2A would, seems a particularly good fit for Indianapolis. It's a legitimate way for the city to continue the process of establishing a distinctive creative identity of its own, building on the Cultural Trail, as well as the continuing creation of new bike lanes and the establishment of an ambitious Greenways system during the 1990s.

Most of all, A2A is an inspired attempt to find and celebrate the beauty that already exists in Indianapolis. We may not have those postcard views of mountains and seashores, but we have gems like the Central Canal. Places like these speak to where we've been and who we are. It's time we made the most of them.

For more information about A2A, go to: http://reconnectingtoourwaterways.org/neighborhood/midtown

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Monday, June 11, 2012

The Wisconsin debacle

Posted by on Mon, Jun 11, 2012 at 4:00 AM

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Change ain't what it used to be.

That's the take-away from last week's recall election in Wisconsin, where a sizeable majority of voters decided to retain the services of Gov. Scott Walker for another two-and-a-half years.

Walker was first elected governor in 2010, narrowly beating Democrat Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee. Although the election was close, Walker chose to regard his win as a mandate to restructure his state's government. He and his allies in the legislature quickly passed Act 10, a bill designed to cut the state's budget deficit by limiting the scope of governmental activities and compensation.

Act 10 provoked outrage among public employees by taking away their collective bargaining rights. Workers streamed into the capitol building in Madison to protest. Soon they were joined by throngs of other Wisconsinites who saw what Walker was doing as an attempt to dismantle a longstanding social contract between Wisconsin's government and its citizens in the name of a balanced budget.

The situation in Madison gave full-throated expression to national anxieties about the country's seeming inability to fully recover from the Great Recession of 2008. Corporate profits were breaking records, but these profits were neither creating new jobs nor better incomes for average workers. The financial industry on Wall Street was being bailed out with taxpayer money at the same time that families across the country were losing their homes in record numbers to foreclosure.

The people gathering in the rotunda of Madison's statehouse sent a message that resonated with many more of us across the country. They were sick of being told that they were the ones to blame for the poor economy. They wanted a government that could take their side in tough times and bargain on their behalf. Gov. Walker, it seemed, was telling them something else: Their government was there to encourage business. After that, everybody was on their own.

National media jumped on this story. And when the protesters turned their anger into action, gathering more than 900,000 signatures calling for Walker's recall, it looked as if Wisconsin might be proof that people didn't necessarily want less government, as right-wingers and tea partiers claimed, but better government.

Well, so much for that.

Walker beat back the recall challenge with 53 percent of the vote. His lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, was also victorious. "Years from now," she proclaimed, "they will say the campaign to save America began tonight in Wisconsin."

Democrats did manage to win one contested senate seat, giving them a one-vote majority in the state senate. This puts a theoretical bump in Walker's legislative road. But the legislature doesn't meet until after this November's election, where that seat will once again be in play.

Progressives have nevertheless grasped at this lonely glimmer of good news. They have also cried foul over the stupendous amount of outside cash that right-wingers used to virtually wallpaper their state with pro-Walker advertising. Barrett was outspent by a ratio of 7-1.

In the end, though, there is no getting around the fact of Walker's victory. Wisconsin is a state with a long progressive history. That Walker won in the first place was a signal that progressive politics were losing traction with local voters. This second victory shows the extent to which progressives risk becoming irrelevant.

Events appear to have overtaken the left's ability to rally people around a common cause. People are working harder, making less, and feeling more insecure about the future. But the left — or, for that matter, the Democratic Party — has failed to convey a vision of how we, as a whole, can make things better.

Meanwhile, right-wingers like Walker (and his prototype, Mitch Daniels) have distilled their message down to a simple formula — business is good and government bad. They use government inefficiency to make their case and give it an added twist by claiming their hatred for taxation and debt gives them moral superiority.

In Wisconsin, the attempt to recall Walker tripped over itself. Rather than being about a vision for the future, it became about preserving the status quo as defined by union workers — in this case Wisconsin state employees.

The union movement has played a vital part in progressive politics for generations. It has been used to share power between labor and management, making it possible for workers to earn more money and make a bigger contribution to the overall economy.

But that economy has changed. We don't make things like we used to. Unions have lost membership and the clout that comes with it. In Wisconsin, The Wall Street Journal reported that membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees fell from 62,818 in March 2011 to 28,745 in February 2012.

Like the economy, the nature of power and how we share it is changing. Right now, too many people feel powerless. Politicians like Walker have provided them with something progressives have not — a chance to vote against things as they are.

The trouble is, the only thing these votes affect is government. The less there is of that, the more we'll see who really is in control. They won't be subject to recall elections, either.

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Monday, June 4, 2012

Steve Libman has a point on nonprofits

Posted by on Mon, Jun 4, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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I've got to hand it to Steve Libman. Libman, you may recall, is the former head of Carmel's Center For the Performing Arts, the centerpiece of which, the Palladium, looks like it was teleported here from the set of "My Fair Lady."

Libman lost his job in Carmel last July. Why, exactly, seems a subject of some dispute. Whatever the reason, the guy demonstrated a sense of entitlement rare among local arts administrators.

In April 2010, before the Center was even open, Libman asked Carmel's City Council for $2 million for "one-time costs necessary to open the center." This was in addition to the approximately $150 million the good burghers of Carmel were already shelling out for this cultural shrine. As I pointed out at the time, the $2 million Libman wanted for walking around money was more than the entire public arts budget for the City of Indianapolis.

The Carmel Council gave Libman the dough, but when he went back to the well last summer it was a different story. At that time, it was reported Libman wanted as much as $4 million from the city council — a number he later claimed was "speculative." Eyebrows, however, were raised, jaws dropped. Libman handed in his resignation shortly thereafter.

Many people in Libman's position would have hightailed it out of town. Libman, though, has stuck around. He started a performing arts consulting business and, according to his website, was recently hired to help plan a performing arts center in Bermuda.

Last week, Libman published an op-ed piece in The Indianapolis Star, "Arts organizations don't fit mold of for-profit businesses." Given his history here, you could be excused for seeing this column as an exercise in self-justification. But it also turns out that Libman has some trenchant things to say about how we manage our nonprofit enterprises.

Libman begins by observing that performing arts organizations in Central Indiana are never able to live on the revenue generated by ticket sales. They must rely on public and private contributions in order to survive. This not only defines what is meant by the term, "nonprofit," it points to why it is misleading to think that we can run such organizations as if they were businesses.

Libman writes that he thinks the Great Recession of 2008 caused the boards of directors of many arts organizations to focus on "return on investment" as a benchmark for measuring success. Although I think it is demonstrable that this way of thinking dates back at least to the boom years of the 1990s, when corporatism and market-think were all the rage, Libman is right on the larger issue that nonprofit culture has been effectively subsumed by the very value system it was intended to counter-balance.

"Return on investment is an appropriate measurement for the performing arts," writes Libman, "but it happens outside the organizations' balance sheets."

Libman argues that applying business metrics to nonprofit organizations prompts us to ask the wrong questions about why and how creative enterprises work. Rather than wanting to know whether or not the arts are breaking even, we should be trying to determine the acceptable amount of financial support necessary to help arts organizations efficiently deliver a return on investment that consists of "communities reached, students served, lives transformed, inspiration shared and stories told."

Many nonprofits suffer from a kind of cultural dissonance that starts at the top, with the composition of their boards. Board members who are recruited because of their business prowess may actually see nonprofit values as obstacles to be overcome. Here, Libman is bracingly frank: "Trustees of nonprofit arts organizations who do not subscribe to [these values] should consider resigning and apply their talents to generating more profit for the companies that employ them. And arts organizations need to do a much better job of vetting potential trustees to avoid electing individuals who do not comprehend the nonprofit model."

Libman might just as well be talking about the current wave of politicians whose claim to office is based on their wanting to run government as if it were a business. In this model, a forest is only worth preserving so long as its timber can be logged. The value of nature itself plays little or no part in the equation.

These are the same folks who will demand to know why certain types of performance should be exempt from the vicissitudes of the marketplace. If they don't go to the symphony or enjoy modern dance, they don't see why their tax dollars should be spent in these venues. They might say the same thing about public schools if they don't have kids, libraries, if they don't read books, and welfare, if they've got theirs.

What these folks refuse to accept is that communities are complex organisms, made up of interrelated and overlapping parts. This can be aggravating at times. The various elements don't always fit and some are weaker than others. Sometimes they don't even speak the same language. It's tempting to want to simplify this situation, reduce everything to a common formula — a business model, if you will. It's not until the trees are gone that you realize you've lost a forest. I'm glad Steve Libman pointed this out.

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