My turn: Thin ice is here now

Posted: Tuesday, July 08, 2008

On thin ice, you move very carefully. Gail Phillips and Arliss Sturgelewski offer "Big Ideas for Alaska's Future" (Empire, July 6) and imply that problems are figured out. To the contrary, forces beyond current management threaten us: a warming ocean, melting permafrost under interior villages, high and increasing fuel costs, fish and game under pressure from habitat loss and over-harvesting, and forests vulnerable to warming and invasive species - to name a few.

The former legislators propose that because the state now "has the money," it can proceed with massive projects such as dams, roads and ports that help "develop our resources." While the proposal sounded good 40 years ago, if it happens to be the wrong call just now, non-renewable resources will be lost, another boom-and-bust cycle will occur, and renewable resources will be worse off.

Serious, rational, disciplined, non-ideological, grounded thinking is due.

A book to read is Richard Florida's "Who Is Your City?" It documents how people choose their location mainly by where they feel they can "be themselves." An outlying conclusion to draw from it is that instead of focusing on macro-projects, planners with money to burn might cautiously examine the state section by section and inquire of people already there, "What makes you want to live here, and how could a little assistance make it better?"

Another clue is in "Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy." A study of what made regions prosper in Italy (after its reorganization in the early 1970s) found that it wasn't the expected conditions such as abundance of resources, farm land, housing, education, or government services. What mattered decisively was the strength of communities, their "patterns of associationism, trust, and cooperation." True leverage lay in how people worked together with others around them to think through what was best, not what distant policy-makers did to them.

A third worthy source is a speech by Maurice McTigue, "Rolling Back Government: Lessons from New Zealand" (Imprimis, Feb. 19, 2003). From an abysmal education system, high national debt, spending out of control, poor environmental practices, and widespread subsidies, the country rebounded. A reform slate in 1984 chose observation and measurement over ideology, competence over political correctness, and results over hunches and guesses.

They reduced the size of government by two-thirds, paid off most of the debt, and simplified and reduced the tax rate by half. By turning school spending decisions over to true local control, no strings attached, national test scores went from 15 percent below comparable nations to 14 to 15 percent above.

Environmental regulations and laws stacked 25 inches high were reduced to 348 pages without minimizing values, and they now lead in achieving environmental goals while the United States ranks around 28th.

Their ministry of environment pursues sustainable development on the basis that non-renewable resources are finite, ecosystems have limits, interaction between different spheres of society can have significant impact, and that they must plan for both current and future generations.

Experts were asked to pretend that there were no pre-existing laws about the tax code, farm acts, and occupational safety and health, and to write new ones to create the best possible conditions for industry to thrive. They solved deer overpopulation by allowing people to farm them and now supply 40 percent of the world market in venison.

Speaking to the Alaska legislature, McTigue noted that they reduced the number of people on welfare significantly just by spending 45 minutes instead of six minutes with each person when they first signed up. The issue is a way of thinking. Good ideas well managed succeed.

The lessons from New Zealand that can work anywhere are replacing cronyism, partisanship and power-seeking with an expectation of competence and accountability. Market and non-market values both must prosper. Old patterns aren't sacred but must be examined rationally according to evidence. Changes must be given their requisite time, and all need to share a common understanding of who - the individual, private sector or which level of government - is responsible for what, and benefits must reach all.

A fourth source is my own book, "Finding Your Inner Lenin: Taking Responsibility for Global Change" (Xlibris, 2007). In it I explain four troubling tendencies in U.S. society that together account for most of what's gone wrong in recent years - the cowboy problem, short-term self-interest, group think, and moral confusion-and how we remedy them by seeking "the good of the whole" with rationality and mutual consideration.

What could sink Alaska into a morass requiring generations to recover from is simply mediocre thinking dominating when high-quality thinking is due. Let's hope our leaders take the time and reflection to produce it, and exhibit the courage to apply it.

• John Jensen is a Juneau resident.

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