Trust, City Life–and a Meditation on Branding

One blog I follow is CityScope–an ongoing conversation about urban life and innovation around the globe. A recent post there focused on one of my preoccupations, the importance of trust in building social capital and facilitating city life, from a fresh perspective.

Obviously, trust has always been a social dynamic in cities. (So has mistrust. See Ferguson, Missouri.)  Today, some combination of technology, austerity and social transformation seems to be changing the conversation. The rise of mobile apps, social media and other web-enabled forms of communication are a big part of what’s going on. These platforms don’t create trust, but they do create new ways for us to discover trust and put it to work in cities.

The author of the post quoted Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, who described how his service, which lets people rent out their homes or spare bedrooms to strangers, had expanded to more than 34,000 cities in 190 countries in a mere six years.

“At its core, the thing that we invented wasn’t the ability to book someone’s home,” Chesky said. “What we invented was a very streamlined mechanism for trust.”

“Before us, essentially everyone was a stranger,” Chesky continued. “The only thing you could buy was from companies — those companies had brands, and those brands said the companies could be trusted. A person — you couldn’t trust. The moment identity got attached to people, suddenly the playing field was level. People could act as businesses. They could act as microentrepreneurs.”

I hadn’t really thought about the role of branding in creating trust, and reading this gave me one of those “aha” moments. Of course! That’s why people stop at a Wendy’s or McDonalds when they’re on a road trip–they “trust” what they’ll get; they’ll know what to expect. That’s why my husband orders his khakis from LL Bean when he buys on the internet; he knows what he will get in both quality and fit.  Creating and then fulfilling expectations is what “branding” is mostly about. (I do recognize that a large part of the preference for upscale appliances and identifiable designer clothing among those who can afford such things is not reliance on the inherent quality of the goods, but the message sent by flaunting the brand.)

Keeping one’s brand trustworthy is incredibly important to commercial enterprises. Public relations professionals sometimes specialize in “crisis management”–handling events that might reduce brand trust and thus loyalty. (NFL, anyone?) Companies that cannot manage these PR disasters find themselves in deep trouble.

Politically, we are about to see what happens when a political party’s brand becomes toxic to the nation as a whole, but the dynamics of the organization prevent cooler heads from “managing” the problem.

Recently, a Republican high in the party hierarchy admitted to a friend of mine that there is no way today’s GOP can win the Presidency; absent residential sorting, gerrymandering and voter “ID” laws, the party would not be able to win House seats. It may take another couple of election cycles, but the “brand” is increasingly toxic to younger voters, who “trust” it to take positions that are anathema to most of them.

When the old white guys who can be relied upon to support the brand no matter how repellent it has become die off, the Grand Old Party will face a choice: abandon its current radicalism and return to the center-right brand that sold well, or become irrelevant.

 

 

Out-of-State Money

Ah, campaign finance!

Anyone who follows politics–even slightly–knows what a mess our campaign finance laws are, and the multiple ways in which money has screwed up our politics and confused even the most local of campaigns. The most recent example of the latter is debate over the upcoming Indianapolis’ School board races.

Full disclosure: our daughter, Kelly Bentley, is running for her former seat on that Board. (She previously served three terms, then didn’t run four years ago.)

Kelly and other candidates have been endorsed by an assortment of organizations–among them the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, and a national group called Stand for Children. As I understand it, the Chamber made contributions to the campaigns of its preferred candidates.  Stand for Children did not–instead, it has done mailings urging support for those candidates that its local membership (consisting of IPS parents) endorsed.

As an independent organization, Stand for Children is legally prohibited from coordinating with its endorsees, and those candidates have no say in what Stand for Children does or says on their behalf. (I don’t like the current law, especially the fact that independent organizations don’t have the same reporting requirements as candidates, but it is what it is.) Stand for Children has given Kelly’s campaign exactly zero dollars, and has never even informed her of its activities on her behalf.

This endorsement by a national education reform organization has generated a broader discussion–in blogs, on Facebook and elsewhere–about the propriety of accepting “out of state” money.

My favorite example involved a $2,500 gift from a mysterious “New York based” donor, Stephen Suess, to Kelly’s campaign. Stephen, of course, is our son–Kelly’s brother. He’s a web designer, and the $2,500 in-kind contribution was the value of the work he did creating her campaign website.

More to the point, this is yet another debate generating more heat than light. Politics in 21st Century America is increasingly nationalized around philosophical issues: a woman’s right to choose, same-sex marriage, minimum wage….these issues play out in local arenas, but they are anything but local. My husband and I are not wealthy, but we often send small contributions to national organizations working in other states on issues that matter to us, and I’d wager that many of the folks raising red flags about out-of-state contributions do likewise.

If a candidate for a local office were to be entirely funded by people from elsewhere, that would tells us something useful, but when–as here–the bulk of the candidates’ contributions come from local folks, refusing to accept support from people living elsewhere who agree with your positions on the issues–or refusing help from your brother because he lives in New York– would be pretty silly.

If you live in IPS District #3 and you don’t agree with Kelly’s positions on education, or the path that IPS should be pursuing, don’t vote for her. But I can vouch for her integrity, her passion for focusing on the well-being of children, and her grasp of education policy.

Is a parent’s endorsement also “improper”?

 

 

Politics as Usual

Contemporary politics has a lot in common with tantrums in a nursery school classroom. So it is understandable, although not very helpful, to see every dispute between the City-County Council and the Ballard Administration characterized–and dismissed–by local pundits as “politics as usual.”

Not every difference of opinion between the Council and the Mayor–or between Congress and the President–can be dismissed as “playing politics.” Some reflect genuine disputes over what constitutes good policy.

Take the current dispute between the Mayor and Council over funding for expanded preschool. That dispute is not over the value of preschool or the need for expansion; it is about identifying a funding mechanism that is both reliable and fiscally responsible. It is about how, not whether. Both sides have principled arguments worth weighing; it would be nice if we had local journalists willing and able to help readers understand the different perspectives.

Instead, we get naive admonitions to “play nice.”

Which brings me to yet another unfortunate consequence of lawmakers’ decision to constitutionalize property tax caps.

A couple of weeks ago, this particular dispute sparked a friendly argument. I didn’t understand the Council’s reluctance to approve the Mayor’s funding proposal by eliminating a local property-tax credit. Why not? I asked. It’s not a biggie, and if it would fund preschool, great. My friend insisted that elimination of the credit would cause a revenue shift that would end up costing both IPS and the Library significant revenues, and would cost township schools nearly 3.9 million. But he couldn’t explain why.

I couldn’t see how that would be true, and refused to believe him, so he sent me an analysis by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute that confirmed those shifts, which are a result of whether individual property owners have or have not hit the cap.

Here’s the thing: I read the analysis, and another posted by Ed Delaney, several times. Call me dense (many do), but the operation of the tax caps on local property taxes is so complicated, I am still at a loss to understand precisely how it works. I gave the analyses to a colleague whose area is Public Finance, and he patiently explained it–but only after even he’d struggled to work through the formula.

When the operation of tax law is so complicated that even former lawyers and professors of public finance have trouble figuring it all out, you have a prescription for mischief–and worse. Transparency in government doesn’t only mean that citizens need to know what their elected officials are doing, it also requires rules that are comprehensible to most of us.

Until I looked at the issue, I simply did not believe the Councilors who said the proposed funding mechanism would shift money–would create winners and losers. Now, it may be that funding preschool expansion is worth doing even if it does take revenue from other units of local government, but that is a very different argument than the “should we/ shouldn’t we have preschool” debate portrayed by local media.

The moral(s) of the story:

In the absence of clear and understandable laws, We the People simply cannot make intelligent decisions about policy and policymakers.

In the absence of a local media capable of analyzing and reporting on the reasons for disagreements, we lack any basis upon which to render democratic judgments. We the People are not well-served by a media that characterizes even legitimate differences over policy as “playing politics,” and fails to do the hard work needed to understand and explain the arguments .

 

Turning Over the Rocks?

In response to yesterday’s blog post about residential “sorting,” one of this blog’s regular readers sent me a report about a study that confirmed that sorting, but also confirmed a disquieting element of contemporary American life:

According to Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford University, often the most divisive aspect of contemporary society is: politics.

“Unlike race, gender and other social divides where group-related attitudes and behaviors are constrained by social norms,” writes Shanto — with co-author Sean J. Westwood of Princeton University — in the recently published report Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization, “there are no corresponding pressures to temper disapproval of political opponents. “

The study’s conclusions mirror my own research, and I’m persuaded that they are accurate, but I think the quoted paragraphs raise a different–and even more troubling– question.

Is our brave new world of Internet interactivity and social media eroding those “social norms”?

I recently had this discussion with the editor of a local “niche” paper. He was bemoaning the tone and content of comments left on the publication’s website, and posited that the ability to speak without having to identify oneself–the ability to remain anonymous or at least feel that you are shielded by the medium–has weakened those social norms, and thus our reluctance to share unpopular and socially disfavored opinions.  The expression of bigotries has become less constrained. (The recent Facebook rant by Charlotte Lucas is just one of hundreds of examples.)

There’s no doubt that online nastiness is at its worst when the discussion is political, but it is also increasingly–and distressingly– common to come across racist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic sentiments as well.

The real question, I suppose, is: has the Internet simply operated to shine a light on the nastiness? Has the advent of this new communication medium operated to “turn over the rock” so that we now see things that have always been there, but have been less visible?

Or has the ability to go online and find fellow bigots who will confirm your resentments and displaced hostilities actually increased their numbers?

I don’t know. But I worry….

 

Have Americans Gerrymandered Ourselves?

On Tuesday, I attended the “Pancakes and Politics” breakfast hosted by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. It was a lively and informative panel. One exchange that really struck me was a brief discussion of redistricting.

Everyone on the panel–Republican, Democrat and Statehouse reporter Ed Feigenbaum (who was officially neither)–agreed that noncompetitive elections are bad for democracy, that they pull parties to the extremes, encourage lazy legislators and reduce electoral participation.

The question was, what can be done about it?

The Democrat on the panel endorsed nonpartisan redistricting; the Republican on the panel (I should be better about names!) disagreed. He pointed out that Americans have been “sorting” ourselves into Red and Blue enclaves–voting with our feet to live in places where our neighbors agree with us about values and priorities. True enough–anyone who’s read Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort would recognize the accuracy of his observation.

His second argument against nonpartisan redistricting was less persuasive. Basically, he pooh-poohed the notion that we can really take partisan politics out of the process. The success of nonpartisan processes in Iowa and elsewhere suggest otherwise.

The truth–as is so often the case–is likely somewhere in the middle: eliminating partisan gamesmanship and gerrymandering will not solve the problem of underrepresentation of people living in overwhelmingly blue cities in red and purple states. But it would be measurably fairer than the current system, in which representatives choose their voters rather than the other way around, and that fairness would ameliorate at least some of the cynicism and apathy that depresses voter turnout. And it would increase the numbers of competitive districts–perhaps not as much as advocates hope, but certainly more than the panelist conceded.

Common Cause, which has made redistricting reform a high priority, has announced a contest that highlights one of the reasons that challenges to highly gerrymandered districts have failed: the Supreme Court has consistently declined to get involved unless the districts can be shown to have been drawn to disenfranchise minorities. The Court has said that partisan districts (districts drawn to unfairly benefit a political party) are “justiciable”–that is, that such challenges will be heard by the courts–but they have routinely declined to overturn political decision-making unless racially discriminatory motives can be demonstrated.

Common Cause has invited lawyers and political scientists to propose a new definition of partisan gerrymandering that might allow citizens to win such challenges, promising money prizes, publication of the winning paper and a trip to Washington, D.C.

It will be interesting to see what that contest produces.

Hope springs eternal…..