Guest Column

Joe Freeman


Rain Dance


The myth making generated by Virginia politics isn't addressing our dysfunctional development patterns. Perhaps it's time to arm citizens with the data they need to make rational decisions on their own.


Like the marauding barbarians in that TV credit card ad-- “Whot’s in yurrr wallet?”--the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial campaigns are descending upon us. Fear, greed, ignorance, pandering and two-bit moralizing will roam the Commonwealth at will. Alas, there is no magic plastic card to stop them. A few innocent souls may look for rational discussion, somewhere, of public policy and its effects, but they will seek it in vain. Bombast and image-fabricating will crush any other form of human communication that crosses their paths. There will be no stopping them.


Political scientists at our prestigious institutions of higher learning will struggle bravely to find something coherent to say about what transpires, but the spectacle probably is better suited to comparative anthropologists. Trained to observe outlandish and power-centered rituals in hostile environments, anthropologists could interpret the noisy sham battles among the Elephant tribe, the Donkey tribe, and the tributary clans that migrate between them.


They could record and decipher the tales the shamans of these primal groupings tell their warriors. But any researchers so inclined had better get moving. The warriors are gathering already around their respective campfires and waterholes. The eerie chant “Unmet Needs” is already echoing from the shadows, as is the counter-chant “No New Taxes.”


The spectacle could be entertaining if one could overlook the fact that $20 billion dollars a year (just counting the state) and activities that affect our daily lives (sometimes at great personal cost) are at stake. Unfortunately, myths and mythmaking are all we can expect from our political discourse.


The columns on myths and mythmaking by Jim Bacon and Ed Risse in the December 13, 2004, edition of Bacon’s Rebellion laid down a challenge. Because the myths don’t work--“Hmm. We sacrificed to Rain God, but it hasn’t rained….”--they argue that it’s time to ground some of the discussion of public policy in the world that we actually live in. Their argument stands in such sharp contrast to the policies the political campaigns will propose that I repeat a short version of it:


How we build things and how we move among the things we build have created dysfunctional settlements. We have become dependent on more and longer vehicle trips for every daily necessity. We are cut off from readily accessible recreation, daily shopping, worship services, and social opportunities. This is becoming progressively more expensive for us. The quality of life for all but the quite rich is steadily degrading. And don’t expect government to do anything about it, because politics is fundamentally broken.


I hasten to add: Don’t expect any political figures to talk about this in public. Do expect the campaigns to retail formulaic repetitions of the myths that haven’t brought the rain.


This is a truncated version of a much broader argument. It is enough for now to point out that, as the campaigns pick up momentum, all of us will be targets of messages that tell us to believe the myths, to expect government (in the hands of right people) to do something other than what it’s been doing.


Take for example the “unmet needs” chant about traffic congestion, basically an assertion that more expressways should be built or expanded. In the context of the poor-mouthing that marks most discussion of state government and the actual fact of the clogging of our roads, it might even sound plausible. Someone might think “Gee whiz, maybe we have been too tight-fisted on roads….” But according to my only slightly out-of-date US Statistical Abstract Virginia ranks 11th among the 50 states in miles of interstate, 13th in miles of other expressways, and 14th in miles of arterial roads. Not quite the bottom of the heap. On the other hand, Virginia shows up in 27th place in those roads counted as “collectors.”


Could it be that we could use more attention to networks of smaller roads? Take some of the pressure of multiple local trips off facilities built for through traffic by integrating local development with local infrastructure? We’ll never know, at least not from the campaigns. Or, for that matter, from our functionally fossilized formal governments; they’re completely absorbed in what they are already doing.


Their responsibilities are not necessarily simple or easy. But the political class shouldn’t get too much sympathy for overseeing routine tasks. And it’s not just that they are already preoccupied. Governmental activities are tightly defined by law and tradition. Functions that are intimately connected on a mutual cause-effect basis in the world that we live in can be separated in the world of government by level of government, by politics, and by legal authority and finance. In a word, they can be “stove-piped,” and they are.


For example, land use and transportation are intimately related in the real world, but in the legal-historical world of Virginia governance and the perpetual campaign world of Virginia politics, they are separated, linked only by those who know how to play the gap between them and have the incentive to do so. The public, of course, is left out of this. If you are persistent and informed, you can go to a VDOT hearing, though the final decision-makers likely won’t be in the room. You can go to a zoning hearing, and if it is the one that is before the municipal governing body, the decision-makers will actually be in the room. But you can’t go to a hearing where there is any chance that the land use decision makers and the transportation decision makers are in the same room, because no such meetings exist.  


So, what’s a body to do? It is not the American way to roll over and play dead. The answer must lie in figuring out how to deal for ourselves with the effects of the mess, if not the mess itself.


And we do have a stake in it. For most of us, our house is our biggest single investment. But much of the “information” about real estate comes from the real estate industry, which is dominated by guys for whom their principal dwellings are not their biggest single investment. We need information geared to the millions of property owners in the state that will help them make the best decisions possible. To that end, a small group of dissenters proposes to launch a research/information dissemination group tentatively called Property Dynamics.


We would like to develop a Web-accessible database of information that is not readily available at present. One broad set of concerns revolves around identifying information that would help homeowners make better decisions in purchasing real estate--more specifically, to calculate the various costs and benefits associated with particular locations. Would it help homeowners to know the real estate assessments on a given parcel over a number of years? How about information about other property values? What is the trend in value for the functional (not legal-historical) setting of the property? How about crime and health data? Should potential purchasers have the tools to compute the transportation costs associated with a given location? What should a potential purchaser make of representations from government about traffic congestion?


Another set of concerns entails making better use of existing development and infrastructure. What information could make it more attractive to improve existing housing (for which the necessary infrastructure is already in place) so that homeowners create value in their own property? How could do-it-yourselfers get reliable information on design options, identify reliable contractors, navigate zoning bureaucracy, get financing, and cope with the other problems of redoing existing housing?


The third of the three spheres of information and tools centers on the data and processes citizens need to evaluate proposals for change in their dooryards, cluster, neighborhoods, villages, communities, regions and across the Commonwealth. These include not just draft changes in public plans, land use controls and incentives but proposals for new development projects and the demolition of existing elements of the landscape, both natural and man-made.


Answers to questions like these, as well as more involving the rational assessment of policy alternatives, will not be simple to generate. They require sets of data that are not gathered at the relevant levels. They will require fresh thinking about what information can actually be used. They require putting together what is separated by governmental stove piping and artificial local government boundaries. They involve finding ways for more effective public participation in crucial governmental decisions that affect property values. They will require some sympathy and skill in presenting information to non-specialists.


Therefore, our small, dispersed group is looking for potential myth busters, particularly from those with the skills and interest to participate in research that will have to withstand critical scrutiny (and probably public abuse). Of course, it would help to find those who can financially support myth busting, as well. The very broad context of the work is outlined in Ed Risse’s columns which have appeared here regularly. Check "A Summing Up," December 13, 2004, for a summary update on his work. (His treatment of regional metrics indicates, for example, where an industrious mathematician is needed.)


So, dear reader, if you are interested and can do something to help, contact me at josephfreeman@ Be sure to put “Bacon’s Rebellion” or “Property Dynamics” in title box of the e-mail and tell me what you can do. This effort is very much in the fledgling stage, so you should be prepared to be patient. But then it generally does take time to bring a little light to a dark age.


-- January 4, 2005


























Joe Freeman is a political science professor at Lynchburg College. He can be reached at: