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Democracy and Capitalism: The cow and the crab as a team

Column by George Sibley

Politics – November 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

OVER HERE IN THE Upper Gunnison Valley we are once again at loggerheads over private property and the public interest. A couple of years ago, after a long, convoluted and occasionally convulsive process, the conservatives in the valley — that branch of conservatives that call themselves environmentalists — got an “upgrade” of the Gunnison County Land-Use Resolution through the County Board of Commissioners.

The Commissioners were not 100-percent enthusiastic about what they were passing (think “kidney stones” for a couple of them). And it was, at the time of passage, described as a “loose-leaf notebook,” suggesting a resolution that would require a certain amount of tinkering over the years before it was truly something the whole county would be “resolute” about.

So for two years, the pressure built up. People who wanted to build huge houses found out that macro-mansions were “major impacts” and the mitigation processes could take a year or so.

A guy who wanted to put in a trailer park that might have alleviated the “affordable housing” problem in the valley found out that his proposal came under areas of the Land Use Resolution that were harder to interpret than certain Biblical verses (which is to say that they were easy for everyone to interpret in his own way). The Commissioners sweated through that proposal for months without successfully making a decision and….

Well, all of a sudden there was a group of local developers calling themselves “Citizens for Economic Revitalization” (CFER), opposed to the conservative branch of the High Country Citizens Alliance (HCCA). CFER made extreme assertions, like blaming the valley’s economic slowdown on the Land Use Resolution (LUR). But they also had some good points, like the possibility that the Commissioners were finding the LUR too difficult to interpret and enforce in any fair and consistent way.

At that point, the conservative environmentalists, who had swallowed their rejoinders when the LUR was described as a “loose-leaf notebook” in order to get it passed, suddenly saw it as something that might have been carried on stone tablets off of Crested Butte Mountain. “People worked very hard on that LUR!” was the plaintive cry, as though that made it somehow perfect.

But the whole thing got me to thinking about — well, about the kind of thing we’ll be talking about at the Headwaters Conference at Western State College in November (7-9). Pardon the advertisement: “Environment, Economy, Democracy and Media.”

So how do we work these things out? Probably just the way we’re doing it now in this valley. Both sides launched their fallacies — the stone tablets from God argument on the one hand, and the responsible for the whole economic slump argument on the other — then settled down to the noisy, dirty work of hashing it out democratically because there was no other choice; neither side — thank God — is strong enough to get everything it wants.

The way things look now, CFER is probably going to get quite a few of the changes it wants. The rules about mobile home environments are going to be clarified, and probably eased, which strikes me as a good idea in a place that wants enough people on hand to do the valley’s dirty work.

On the unnecessary side, we are probably going to allow “├Žsthetic” fireplaces out in the county. Plus, those thoroughly ridiculous — as opposed to extremely ridiculous — megamanors (up to 10,000 square feet I think) will probably be classified as “minor impacts” rather than “major.” But CFER isn’t going to get to gut the LUR.

It’s proponents, however, are going to have to live with a lot of things they would rather not. And so the democratic impetus now passes back to those who think that the valley was perfect the day they got here and wanted nothing to change.

Well — okay. As one who made his living for quite a few years in Crested Butte working construction on ridiculous second homes, I can live with that.

Besides, the first people to build a really large house up the valley gave so much back to the community that I’ve sometimes wondered if they weren’t trying to make amends for that ostentatious house. They weren’t the only big-house builders who behaved that way, either. Of course, there were some true fiends in that big-house category, but I’ve learned that it’s never fair to presume smallness in a person’s heart from the largeness of his or her house.

AS FOR MYSELF, I wish we could get beyond the misbegotten notion that democracy and capitalism go together like a horse and carriage, when they are in fact more like a cow and a crab harnessed to a carriage. They are far more incompatible than most of us want to acknowledge — even more incompatible than James Madison feared they were, when he discussed them in Federalist No. 10. The fact that the Supreme Court has decided that “money is speech” would have sent a shudder of horror through Madison, but that darkly brilliant old man would probably not have been surprised.

As Amory Lovins said here a couple of weeks ago: People who think capitalism is just about money aren’t playing the capitalist game with a full deck. He argued that we shouldn’t forget human capital (the labor and creativity that are necessary for money to succeed in investment) and natural capital (the environmental resources which are every bit as necessary as money).

Here in the Upper Gunnison, our best natural capital these days is our scenery and the sense that this place is not crowded. If we fill up our corridor like the I-70 corridor is filled up, why would anybody drive an extra two hours to get here?

To let that happen would be squandering our natural capital, and even our developers know that, but they seem to be imprisoned by the strident logic of money capital. So, sooner or later, they’ll have to squander our assets.

But perhaps we can democratically determine our true capital. Then, rather than descending once again into the quagmire of loose-leaf regulation, we could just say: “Okay, here’s what it’s worth. So if you want to liquidate a piece of our natural capital with your 10,000 square-foot manor, here’s what it will cost you.”

Calculating those costs will be my topic next month.

Meanwhile, come on over to Headwaters, November 7-9. Good noisy democracy is guaranteed. Call 970-943-2055 or email for more information.

George Sibley teaches at Western State College in Gunnison.