Consensus – Austin as a community, not just a political jurisdiction


(Community Matters) Civics once taught us to look for the intersection of interests and sensitivities of the minority in crafting public rules. It hurts my head and tears at my heart that we’ve become such a divided society where consensus has been replaced with a Ninja fighter, Samurai warrior, adrenaline-winning strategy – how to beat the other side, execute the win-loss strategy and make it hurt. Ha, I hear myself and acknowledge I have subscribed to that path in business and find it unhealthy in civics – hmm questioning whether always right in business but that’s another post.

The echo chamber we hear in national politics is alive, appears growing, in local politics, even Austin’s. Since so many of our friends and colleagues are from rather homogenous communities (industries, economics, educational attainment, geography), it’s too easy to confuse the echo chamber for a jurisdiction’s consensus. I hear dear friends proclaiming . . . but we’re the high tech/entrepreneurial city . . . not realizing that this moniker is not proudly shared by all Austinites – certainly not by many struggling under income inequality, rental pricing spikes, a slowing growth (or decline) in wages, gentrification and other worsening affordability. And, friends who resent any regulatory obstacles, any questioning of their entrepreneurial ambitions. . . Austin didn’t become the city you love without pushing the limits of regulation, ordinances allowed under Texas jurisdiction and public/private partnerships. If neighborhood and environmental activists hadn’t won SOS, there’d be a whole lot less green space. If government, the universities and businesses hadn’t collaborated and intervened to bring to town IBM, Tx Instruments, IC2, ATI, MCC & Sematech, and the various fabs, it’s doubtful we’d be the high tech hub you see today. Nor if artists and musicians (several who resent our, the high tech community’s arrogance, and who endure the spikes in prices we’ve brought) hadn’t built such a thriving arts and creative arts scene, it’s quesitonable whether we would be such an attractive resettlement location given the reputation of our state among young progressives where it not for a very progressive local government, green spaces, the thriving economy and the arts scene.. And, hey, yes, these other stakeholders are enjoying some of the fruits of the high tech/entrepreneurial world’s labor. Before we take such strong positions, shouldn’t we consider the other side – who are the least empowered in this argument and which decision might favorably impact their outcomes? Those most enthusiastically arguing the other side, what, how can we understand their perspective, is there something other than a win-loss here? What’s the win-win? The questions might or might not yield different answers, different positions, but what if in Austin we strived for consensus over an up or down, win/loss. We must tend to our civic culture as it were a delicate, precious living creature – it is.

[edit: a friend pointed out the inconsistency of framing our state as neaderthal-headed in an essay about civility]

2 responses to “Consensus – Austin as a community, not just a political jurisdiction

  1. We’ve been having this conversation on a local non-profit board I’m on. I’m not sure citywide consensus is the answer. Big-picture leadership certainly helps, but I’m increasingly of the mind that meaningful solutions are best (and likely only) achieved at the neighborhood level. Just look to housing costs for the only example you really need to see this. Everybody is “for” solutions, as long as they occur in another zip code. Smart people argue for an “all of the above” strategy for transportation, while knowing full well that induced demand makes road congestion an inevitability in a fast-growing market like Austin, no matter how much money you spend on expanding highways. Tech leaders, many who proclaim to be libertarians, acquiesce to the rent-seeking behavior of TNCs (and taxis) and allow it to hijack city council work for weeks, taking time and energy away from other challenges and undermining public trust in our local government. We have plenty of outstanding civic leaders here, but true citywide, consensus-driven innovation is not the most effective approach–way too easy to be “for” everything without giving up anything. True innovation is only going to happen at the neighborhood level, and we need to set up the proper incentives to invest in neighborhoods that are willing to innovate.

    Until we finally give in and admit that we need a strong-mayor form of government, that is. Then we can revisit this conversation.

    • Brennan Griffin

      I’m not sure I believe in neighborhoods as a source of innovation, Brian. I haven’t seen much evidence that good practices from one neighborhood transfer to others, for instance. I actually think that a better model is the development of advocacy communities that can bring innovative solutions to the front of the conversation, either adapted from other places or wholly new. These can occasionally be controversial, but think about payday loan reform, homestead preservation districts, workers defense project inspired rules, etc.

      Of course, as a founding member of AURA and an employee of Texas Appleseed, I have some biases…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s