GREEN FUNDAMENTALISM, GREEN REALISM, AND NASHVILLE’S BUDGET

8 07 2018

The Green Party originated in the pro-environment, anti-nuclear power, anti-war movement in Germany in the early 1980’s. That movement, both in Germany and elsewhere in the world, both then and now, has two distinct and somewhat contradictory dynamics.

The first is radically, fundamentally, and uncompromisingly revolutionary. “All these apparently separate problems spring from a common source–corporate capitalism’s determination to monetize–and own–everything. The only way to solve these problems is to end corporate capitalism.”

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Green “fundis”……

The other “wing” of the Green Party says, “Let’s be realistic. Do we have to wait until after the revolution to shut down this polluter or give people the better life that comes from better wages or stop governments from indulging in military adventures? Reforming the way all these things are done might just be an important step in that revolution in values that we both agree needs to happen. Our revolution won’t be a true success if there are people who feel that they’ve been ‘vanquished’. There’s no point in being confrontational and alienating our fellow human beings who happen to be supporters of corporate domination from acting in what, ultimately, is their own best interest.”

germany-greens-kretschmann-

…and Green “realos”

To that, the fundamentalist Green responds, “If you try to change economic conditions without altering who has the power, those with the power will find a way to snatch back whatever you take from them. Look at what happened in the US in the 30’s. Roosevelt implemented many of the economic demands of the Socialist Party–easier recognition for unions, Social Security, the eight-hour day, a federal public works/employment program, and some other things–but left business in the hands of private owners, who were coerced, not persuaded, into making changes, and who, over the last eighty years, have worked steadily at undoing all those gains. At this point, they’ve all but succeeded. It’s time for a revolution!”

Then the “realist” Green asks, “So, how are you and your small circle of friends gonna start a revolution?”

And the fundamentalist responds, “Let’s go demonstrate against nuclear power, nuclear war, pollution, and injustice, and use the contacts we make doing that to build a network of activists that embodies, or should we say who embody, the new paradigm we envision in our relations with each other and the way we relate to society at large–a culture that is equitable, ecological, responsible, visionary, and tolerant. As the corporate dominator system collapses under its own contradictions, our co-operative network will rise from its ashes.”

Then the realist says, “Sounds good to me! Let’s get going!”

Or at least, that’s the best-case scenario. Greens can be as dogmatic and obnoxious as anybody else, since we’re only human, but what tempers our dogmatic tendencies is that, often enough, these two voices are contesting inside our own heads, as much as they are across Green Party and general peace/social justice movement factions.

So, those are the two main voices in my head when I look at local issues. Recently, one of those issues has been Nashville’s budget crunch–due to the way the tax laws are written, property tax revenue stays the same, even though property values–and the need for city spending to maintain, upgrade, or create infrastructure–are skyrocketing. Metro Council attempted to raise property taxes, but that move failed, and now Nashville is facing the paradox of being “the It City”–with an austerity budget.

The fundamentalist in me fumes, “these people are all insane, acting as if the gravy train of the late 20th century in America is going to go on forever, when it clearly is not. Nashville needs to be preparing for collapse, not building more subdivisions and skyscrapers. Moreover, the wealthy and selfish have the game rigged just how they want it, and don’t care if every neighborhood in town gets gentrified and the rest of us have to live under highway bridges and scrounge food from dumpsters. Climate catastrophe can’t come too soon to sweep this sorry, so-called ‘elite’ into the dustbin of history, if there will be a future in which there are people and they keep track of ‘history’. Grrr.”

While acknowledging that there is a certain amount of “realism” in that grim outlook, the “realistic” Green in me saw some reforms, some tweaks to the system, that could nudge Nashville in a “Greener” direction, and so I wrote this letter to the at-large members of Metro Council and a few district reps with whom I have connected personally, and who seem to be the most politically open-minded members of our local governing body. Here’s what I wrote:

 

Dear Council member,

I have some suggestions to offer that might help solve the city’s budget problems.

We can’t have a graduated income tax in this town (Or can we? I confess I’m not enough of a lawyer to know. And yeah, the legislature would probably shoot it down if we tried.) But maybe we can have a graduated property tax? (Again, the legislature, which seems determined to micromanage the state’s cities, might object, but it’s worth trying, I think.)

Here’s some details. Properties worth less than, say $300K would not see a tax increase. Properties worth between that level and a million dollars would see a modest tax increase, and properties worth over a million would have the biggest increase. I think that raising taxes on those with the most ability to pay is the most compassionate way to raise taxes.

Another way to raise more revenue would be a small (one-quarter to one-half percent) tax on real estate transactions–again, with lower value transactions exempted, and a couple of brackets for higher-value properties. When I ran for Metro Council a few years back, levying such a tax, and applying it to preserving/creating affordable housing in Nashville was part of my platform, and I still think it’s a good idea.

A third way to increase the city’s revenue would be to form a city-owned bank funded by our $2B in annual tax revenue. As you may be aware, the state of North Dakota has operated such a bank quite successfully, on less annual revenue than our city generates,  for nearly a hundred years, and such arrangements are also common in Germany. The city could use its bank to help fund infrastructure improvements and other civic improvements at a lower interest rate than a commercial bank would offer–and collect that interest, not just pay it.

So there’s a couple of relatively small tweaks and a “big idea” that might help improve our city’s financial prospects. What do you think?

Thanks for your time and service,

Council member F replied:

We don’t really have a budget problem, it is a revenue problem caused by the botched reappraisal. We had projected a higher revenue and planed on a budget reflecting it.
What you propose is not legislated by the City, it is the State who decides taxation issues of that sort.
Later, he explained to me that, by “botched reappraisal,” he meant that, because the city had been concerned about raising the taxes of those who might have a hard time paying them, it had encouraged people to apply for the old-age/low income discount that is available, and so many had qualified that it decreased the revenue the city received from property taxes. Meanwhile, I wrote back
Oops! Thanks for the clarification. I’m disappointed that the state already won’t let us charge different tax rates for differently valued properties, institute a real estate transaction tax, or start a municipal bank.
the council member responded
I am disappointed by many things the State does :-(
Thanks for the suggestion

Yes, the State of Tennessee, in its infinite wisdom, has not only protected us from progressive property taxes and income taxes, but also from the dangers of  municipal mandatory living wage laws, prohibiting discrimination against people based on gender identity, decriminalizing marijuana, and municipally owned broadband systems. I should have realized that they, in their narrow-minded pursuit of government austerity and corporate indulgence, would have closed this loophole.

Councilman O gave more details:

We are constitutionally prohibited at the state level from levying an income tax.

Further, the state has strict provisions for how we collect property tax, and we do not have the flexibility to do what amount to graduated property taxes.

I know that, again, the state prevents us from assessing impact fees, so I doubt that we could do a real estate transaction tax, but it’s worth inquiring with our legal counsel.

Finally, I know that the federal government allowed states to start banks. I’m not sure whether local jurisdictions (have) this authority, but I can check.

Thanks for sharing your ideas.

Then my revolutionary mind sneered, “See, those doors are closed! the Tennessee legislature will never vote to raise taxes on the rich, because that’s them! Collapse, here we come!”
My realistic/reformist mind sighed, and wondered  at first “Am I here to do what I think I’m here to do, or to prove that we’re past the point where ‘reform’ is possible?”
Later, but before Councilperson F had explained the role of existing abatements in lowering property tax revenues, another thought surfaced: “We can’t have a graduated property tax, but it is legal for Metro to grant reductions based on circumstances such as low-income or greenbelt participation. So we can just increase taxes and increase exemptions, with the result that those with greater ability to pay more will bear most of the increase.” That is kind of what Metro Council had tried to do with the tax increase that failed, except that they hadn’t included the emphasis on increasing low-income property owners’ tax abatement.
Then my revolutionary mind reminded me that all this was a long way from addressing the ongoing collapse of our economy, our society, and our ecology.
“Great buildings are made of a million little pieces,” retorted my realist. “Let’s have a glass of ice tea.”
“I’d enjoy that, and I’m grateful we still live in a culture where refrigeration is so common,” responded the revolutionary, and so, here we sit, sipping our tea on a sweltering July afternoon. The conversation will, no doubt, continue.

Phish, “Revolution

 

 

 

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