An Iowa City Manifesto for the Future

A call to the people of Iowa City to consistently apply the liberal and progressive ideologies which they pay lip service to.

Outsiders and critics of Iowa City politics and culture often refer to our community as the People’s Republic of Iowa City. The insinuation here is that we operate on the principles of communism, which most conservative Iowans consider to be anything more radical than 19th century values, virtues, politics and socio-economic ideologies.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

While we do tend to be more tolerant and inclusive in many ways than other Iowa communities, although not so much in our institutions as evidenced by disproportionate arrests and prosecutions of minorities, the comparison to any leftist ideology mostly ends there.

Look at Iowa City today, especially downtown, and what do you see? What I see are endless development projects robbing our community of it’s history and heritage while funding the local economic elites who have become wealthy through tax dodges & privileged contracts doled out by allegedly progressive local politicians.

These local elites are parasites, opportunistically targeting the Iowa City market to exploit the vibrant economic activity boosted by a student population who bring in money from outside the community. Yet even with this economic advantage, we have not been able to figure out how to insure that everyone in our community has their basic needs met.

And the rich get richer.

Meanwhile our local politicians seem to be stuck in some kind of strange non-player character script loop. Our most progressive politicians still list among their talking points things like ‘economic growth’ and ‘development’. These sound like good things. They sound like progress. But who are they good for and what is progressing?

What seems to be happening here is the endless growth model of industrial capitalist economics. It is a blend of Reagonomics and neo-liberal ideologies. We are told that growing our community will lead to more resources and opportunities. But those resources and opportunities always get recycled directly back into more economic growth, creating a feedback loop in which wealth disparity and inequality is heightened.

Even when we do invest in our community, those investments are generally cosmetic; and if I am being less generous in my appraisal what they really amount to is gentrification. It is a Chinese fire drill of development projects through which the ruling elite constantly try to remake Iowa City in their image. We are held hostage to the ambitions and vanity of the most privileged members of our community.

When you look downtown these days you are looking at the vision of a few prominent members of our community who have exploited our economic advantages to their means.

And when you listen to politicians, whether campaigning or in office, their goals all do little more than to feed into this scheme.

To be honest, I do not think most of them mean to. Most of them seem to be genuine, well-intended people with big hearts who truly desire progress. But between being railroaded by political pressures, a culture of glad-handing non-confrontation and entrenched conservative traditions – they seem to be little more than pawns in the pockets of profiteers.

When local candidates list their qualifications for office they never include radical new ideas concocted from their own imaginations. Instead they list evidence that they have been able to work in group projects and be a team player.

Perhaps we have come to value that just a little too much. In our desire to give the appearances of civility, we have thrust out those who would push beyond our comfort zone into actual progress. We have created a Frankenstein’s monster of feel good groupthink in which opportunistic developers have easily taken advantage and thrived.

Iowa City will continue to grow and thrive under such direction. It will not be the end of the world, but it makes our progressive pride hypocritical.

Here is a radical proposition. How about instead of being dupes for developers while paying lip service to ideologies we are afraid to actually institute, we make our community and local government a support system for the many human beings who live here, instead of an easy target for exploitation by the few.

I recently considered running for local office. Not because I actually want to do that job, but because I have several great ideas about how we steer this community into the future and see it and its residents thrive in a quickly changing economic and technological environment. However, while I contend that Iowa City would profit greatly from some confrontational zest, I am probably a little too extra for most people, but I am dead set on championing real change by creating local dialogues.


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Here are the top ten things I would do to change Iowa City.

1: Explore a local basic income.

2: Create the conditions necessary to support self-directed learning in place of compulsive, regimented schools.

3: Reduce policing by expanding on community services to mediate issues that do not require immediate force. Use police to solve crimes of violence, property theft or destruction and white collar crimes including contractor collusion. Process and investigate all rapes asap.

4: Decriminalize drugs and provide harm reduction and dignified and community supported abuse services.

5: Make incarceration humane and rehabilitative. And for victim crimes only.

6: Universal wi-fi to spur self learning, reduce economic strain and draw economic growth in tech sectors that will be of more importance as we progress into the future.

7: Exploring better options for sheltering the homeless and providing services for the disenfranchised, mentally ill and helpless; short and long term – without restriction or legal repercussion. Including exploring tiny home structures integrated throughout the community.

8: Free public transport.

9: A law which requires grocers and other food producers, sellers and distributors from throwing out edibles; which could be donated to free distribution services for those in need of food assistance.

10: Universal medical care for residents.

Yeah, I know, that is a pretty tall order. Not only are the ideas radical, but let’s face it, they are expensive. And I am not naive enough to believe that the local elite are going to fund it through taxation on their profits, or allow any political power to take hold which threatens to. But I do have a solution.

Much of the talk about economic growth is done under the banner of job creation, as though more labor opportunities are a solution in a world in which automation is taking over. But automation need not be our enemy. In fact by pre-empting the threat it entails by employing automation in our service, we can use it to thrive outside the old WASP work ethic and value system.

Instead of revamping the pedestrian mall, building more obsolete compulsive schools aimed at producing laborers in an environment evolving towards automation, or any of the other painfully naive, unnecessary and anachronistic ways we divert our community resources – how about we build something that works for us?

By investing in automated facilities that produce goods which can be sold within and outside of our community, we can generate funds to pay for these humane developments.

Imagine that, a clockwork factory working to create wealth so that no human in our community is left behind. And by using some of the profits to invest in more automated facilities, we may even be able to free ourselves from the necessity of collecting taxes, which will not only sound great to those rich developer types, but will make our community an attractive place for outsiders to make purchases.

As automation technology becomes more capable and reliable we may even be able to source out community labor like construction, street maintenance and other jobs done by humans to machines so that we can focus more of our resources on the many, rather than on the few lucky enough to make a living on the communities wealth.

I am not saying this will be easy to accomplish. Nothing worthwhile or sustainable ever is. But the other choice is to ignore future trends and continue down the same tired path we are on until it reaches its inevitable dead end.

Automation is not a maybe. It is happening. It will continue to happen. It will change the very nature of human existence in numerous ways, some of which we cannot even yet begin to imagine.

At the same time it is also an incredible opportunity which can be employed to support other areas of human progress.

Now the only question left for Iowa Citians is: Are we going to be on the forefront of the future and become a maverick community helping to lead the rest of the world? -or- Are we going to remain caught in the momentum of policy and ideology that keep us anchored to the past and the inequalities intrinsic to it’s structures?

The choice is ours, but the future won’t wait for an endless stream of bureaucracy and indecision, so either we expedite the exploration of these ideas or end up scrambling to pick up the pieces when the old ways become obsolete.

And they will.

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Iowa City Manifesto – An Outsider’s Response

The following is a detailed and researched response to my piece – An Iowa City Manifesto for the Future – written by my friend Cassius.

Having been completely ignored by the extremely conservative local media, and largely derided in social media by the dull and unimaginative, I was glad to have finally received a worthy response to my efforts. Unfortunately it came from an old friend in the state of Washington, and not one of the members of this supposedly open-minded, progressive and intelligent community.

While Cassius suggests that many of the items on my list face incredible challenges, that is not something I did not already know. Of course such a grand scheme would be difficult to pull off. But nothing is impossible, and even if it is, you don’t know until you try.

Meanwhile the trends in automation and employment will continue to lead us toward a huge problem. Iowa City has already gone to great efforts to attract as many new residents as possible, with no long term plan for how to sustain that population in the face of these growing issues.

You may not have liked my plan, but there is no other plan. There is no way an attempt to implement my plan could be any worse than having no plan at all.

Here is Cassius response to my manifesto. It is well researched and well written. It provides specific issues and challenges, giving us a place to look at those challenges and figure out how we might overcome them.

If you plan to respond to this manifesto, take a hint from my friend Cassius, and do so respectfully with intellectual rigor instead of the reactionary naysaying I received before. That is not how intelligent people respond, and if we are to carry on the charade that Iowa City is an intelligent place, then at least get in proper character.

Part 1

As the income gap in the US continues to widen, it is certainly far past time for citizens to do something about it. The General government and the various State authorities have shown no real interest, so it falls upon the communities to do what they can. The problem is that they have been stripped of their traditional authority, and have become mere administrative units, whose main responsibilities are things such as libraries, buses and waste removal.

About a decade ago, I worked with a local university and a global consulting group on comprehensive community development models. My small part was looking at the effect various schemes had on internal migration patterns in China–specifically on non-Hukou low skilled labor, and the resulting two-tiered citizenship problem. This is one of the biggest problems with community development.

When a community decides to institute broad social programs, it is faced with the problem of either grandfathering in existing residents at the exclusion of others, trying to control population influx, or facing a deluge of newcomers who arrive to exploit the system–eventually leading to its insolvency. None of these are good options. The Chinese decided on a combination of grandfathering and restrictions on internal immigration and this has caused massive social problems.

This has led many to believe that truly comprehensive social reform can only be implemented at the General level, especially when it comes to guaranteed minimum income and health insurance.

Although the main focus was Chinese community development, we looked at many other models across the globe as points of reference. Below are some of the main findings:

1. Overly ambitious projects failed because they went bankrupt and/or became politically toxic. Usually the former was the reason for the latter. Also, overly coercive measures, as well as corruption, sometimes turned the populace against the various projects;

2. Projects needed to be implemented slowly and incrementally. Pluralistic forms of government did not seem to do as well with this, since high political turnover made long term planning extremely problematic;

3. Projects need to be well funded, either through grants, philanthropy or FDI that was given significant tax incentives;

4. Communities needed to be given high levels of political sovereignty, or the projects would be stalled and ultimately ruined by bureaucratic red-tape and interference from higher levels of government;

5. There was no magic solution that would work in all circumstances. Some communities were for the time being essentially hopeless, and successful plans were specific to time, place, as well the community’s inherent strengths. There are no pure analogues in the physical world, and many failures were the result of bandwaggoning; and

6. Diligent research and competent local leaders were obviously essential to success.

Many of the Chinese plans worked. Beijing set up Special Economic Zones as test cases. Local officials were freed from most interference from the dozen or so levels of government (and parallel party institutions) above them, and capital gains from outside investment was taxed at very low levels, often not taxed at all. In 1980 there were 4 SEZs, and now there are thousands.

As I see it, the main problem with implementing such programs in the US is mostly political. DC and the various state governments are jealous guardians of their political control, and I don’t see them allowing local communities the freedom to experiment with ambitious community improvement. They lack the intelligence, foresight, ambition, drive, vision, and perhaps most importantly the power of the post-Mao government, and seem perfectly willing to muddle along until the current situation develops into an eventual existential crisis

Part 2

I have never visited IC, and therefore cannot possibly know what its citizens could do to try to improve their collective lot. Another problem is that the large proportion of non-permanent student residents makes the data difficult to analyze. For example, the huge spike in poverty in the 18-25 cohort is probably a result of the University of Iowa. These students technically live below the poverty line, although I am quite skeptical that they really should be included among the ranks of the poor—at least not yet. I do however have a pretty good idea of what some of the potential problems might be. A few follow:

1. Most importantly, at this time, IC lacks the necessary political autonomy to effectively create significant social change. Power is concentrated in Des Moines and DC. This is especially true of the legal and educational systems;

2. IC currently lacks the money to fund ambitious projects. Both the US and the Iowa already impose onerous taxes—Iowa has the highest corporate tax rate in the nation (20% above 2nd place), a state income tax, as well a state sales tax—and, after DC and Des Moines get their cut, there is little left for the city. IC also has a low median income, median wealth, and GDP/capita—well below the national average. IC has no true elite class that can be used as a revenue base. Local elites are not truly elite by national and global standards, and would be more accurately described as relative-elites or petty-elites;

3. There is the obvious problem of getting the local population to agree. Unlike China, the US Midwest has a populist, pluralistic tradition where local governments can be replaced very easily, sometimes for trivial reasons. Obtaining consent for ambitious projects will be difficult at best. Dissenters are free to amount opposition campaigns or simply leave;

4. True clockwork factories do not exist—yet. They all need people to fix and maintain them. The closer they get to true clockwork, the more expensive and complicated they become. They fail often, and are forced to operate at a loss for years before ever turning a profit. To remain competitive, they are forced to operate at a massive scale and could easily cost the equivalent of several years of IC’s entire GDP. With a capital budget of around $40M (The largest automated factories cost 1,000 times that), and a very small population, they are entirely out of reach. The only way to remedy this would be to appeal to outside funding. This would also be difficult since IC is not allowed to issue anywhere near that amount of municipal paper, venture capital and wall street are probably going to look at the initial conditions as far from ideal, and government grants of that size are extremely rare, and even if they were available, would probably go to more qualified candidates; and

5. While IC has a nominally well-educated population, with a relatively high percentage of bachelor’s degree holders, the economy is heavily skewed towards moderate to low end tertiary bureaucratic and technician positions, especially in the fields of healthcare and education. The secondary economy accounts for only 8% of economic output, and does not lend itself to export driven manufacturing. Also, IC has a very large transient university population that does bring in a considerable amount of outside money, but does not contribute to the community in the same way that the upper-middle class and industrial workers do.

Given these limitations, it seems to me that IC might want to start modest and work its way up. Although challenging, your ideas for reducing homelessness, free or extremely subsidized transportation, as well as wifi are probably doable. While IC certainly has more than its fair share of limitations, it also has its strengths:

1. IC is fairly homogenous in many demographic dimensions. This helps since it is very difficult to get highly diverse populations to agree on anything substantial. Despite all the preaching in the public brainwashing institutions, diversity is overrated.
2. IC is relatively compact, and this would make an improved transportation system easier to build and maintain.

3. IC citizens have a decent base of education, and this makes them easier to retrain if necessary
4. IC does not have a large sector living in extreme poverty who are essentially wards of the government. This means that social programs would be less expensive per capita than they would be in some of the nation’s larger slum-ridden cities.

5. IC does not have the significant crime problems that many other cities have.

Well that’s my take on things. Again, I would suggest starting small and working up. Instituting more modest improvements first gives community leaders valuable experience when it comes time to get more ambitious.