All Politics is Local

“I always get a little queasy,” I began my speech, “when a group of people gets together to spend other people’s money.” Last night was my first attendance at a homeowner’s association meeting, and I was there to defend my wallet. At stake was one thousand dollars, more or less, from every family in the neighborhood, to pay for an entrance monument.

Before you choke over that price tag, let me assure you that the ladies of the Monument Committee have worked with an expensive design firm to cook up some monument possibilities that are, well, monumental. Copper-roofed cupolas. Eight-foot high chiseled stone walls. We’re not talking shrubs and a picket fence like those pikers down the street.

And that thousand dollar per home figure is really just a wild guess, the Monument Committee ladies assured us. It’s probably exaggerated. Quit thinking about the money, they implored us. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

So the meeting began with breathless talk of cupolas and stone walls, and several boards with architectural renderings were passed around. I had never been quite sure what a cupola was — it’s one of those words I breeze past when reading, like clerestory, or embrasure — but I can tell you now that a nicely built cupola is stunning, especially when the imaginary sunlight hits its imaginary copper roof.

But a thousand bucks is a thousand bucks, and beyond the money, there was my contrarian streak kicking in. Something just didn’t sit right about this, about the way they were steering us while pretending that we’re just talking, about their assumption that a vocal minority somehow represents the folks who have too many life and business commitments to burn two hours on a Monday night gazing at cupola drawings. So I stood up and made my impromptu speech.

I told them that I was sure the monuments were lovely indeed. But, I said, we’re talking the price of a Habitat for Humanity house. We’re talking about fifty percent plus one of those present forcing our neighbors to pay for something that some of us believe will be pretty to look at. It’s not as if we’re looking to spend money on an important safety item, like scraping the ice from our roads (which we don’t), or fixing that drainage ditch that breeds mosquitoes in the summer (haven’t gotten around to that either). In those cases, I said, it makes sense to ask everyone to pay his share.

But a big monument to make some of us feel better about our neighborhood, I said, is not a necessity. And forcing people to pay for things which aren’t necessary, but which some of us happen to want, is just wrong. It’s the mentality that has gotten us in trouble as a country, and as a state, and I don’t think we ought to be doing it in our own back yard.

I ended with an entreaty for voluntarism. If enough of us think this is worth having, I said, then let’s raise money for it. But let’s not force our neighbors to pay for something just because some of us happen to like it.

There was considerable applause. People smiled and clapped — except for one of the Monument Committee ladies, who saw in me a cupola-hating devil — and congratulated me on my pretty speechifying. Then most of them voted to take bids for building a monument.

But at least they were kind, all except for Monument Committee Lady, and an attorney with what appeared to be a permanent smirk smeared across his face. He was firmly in the monument coalition, which became clear when the monument ladies waged a sudden coup against the Treasurer (who apparently was not so fond of the monument idea), by nominating Smirking Attorney to challenge him for office. Suddenly, what was supposed to be a routine re-election of officers became a pitched battle between the surprised Treasurer and Smirking Attorney.

Like any good politician, the attorney and his comrades had done their ground work. It was reminiscent of Ralph Reed’s boast, back before he became a hack lobbyist getting rich from both sides of the gambling lobby, that his Christian Coalition would put the political opposition in body bags before they even knew what hit them. A quick vote later, and Smirking Attorney was the new Treasurer. The outgoing Treasurer, a long-time resident of the neighborhood, tried to put on a good face about the whole thing. Apparently these positions mean a lot to some people, though.

And perhaps they should. As much as I gripe about my state and federal government, neither has ever hit me with a special tax equal to 250 percent of my regular tax. Maybe the real political power isn’t in the halls of Congress, but in homeowner’s associations. For all their bullying, the Feds usually don’t meddle in your choice of window shutters, or send you a snippy letter if your grass gets too long. Sure, occasionally they may break down your door and kill you because they think you have some weed on the premises, but for the most part they leave you alone, except for that slow, steady suck on your wallet.

It seems to me that if we want to reform our political culture, and break the mentality that one’s fellow citizens exist to serve one’s needs, then perhaps we should start not in Washington, but in the basement of the Equity Bank in Andover, Kansas, where my local HOA illegally held its meeting outside our county of residence last night. Not that I’m suggesting that any of my non-smirking attorney neighbors use that transgression of bylaws as grounds for voiding the meeting’s decision-making. Because that would just be underhanded.

No, the democratic thing is to go door to door, building my own coalition of anti-boondoggle neighbors, and load myself up with enough of their proxy votes to block any further waste of money. It would only take, say, 80 – 120 hours of effort from start to finish, along with about a hundred interactions with other people, which we introverts always find so energizing. Given that I struggle most weeks to get my own children bathed on a regular basis, I don’t think my neighborhood anti-tax revolution is going to happen. I’m afraid the ladies on the Monument Committee have an inherent advantage over me.

And this, in the end, is the real problem with politics. The people who want our money for this trinket, or for that massively expensive permanent entitlement, have more time on their hands than the rest of us. This is why I believe a community filled with large families is a good thing. If your house is full of children and grandchildren — and you’re doing your job as a parent or grandparent — then you just don’t have time to spend your neighbor’s money, unless it’s for something really, really important.

In the end, however, I hold the ultimate trump card, because I don’t have to live in this neighborhood. I can seek out my own tribe, someplace where monuments are less important than scraping ice off the streets. It’s the beauty of our federal system of government. The citizens of Colorado get a limit on their state’s spending, and the people of Massachusetts experiment with Socialism Lite. It’s choice, baby.

As I watched my well-meaning and mostly kind-hearted neighbors gaze longingly at pictures of cupolas and engraved stone, and listened to them fall prey to at least three errors of logic, two errors of fact, and four procedural transgressions, it struck me how much we owe to our Founders. We’re not one of the most prosperous and free nations on earth because we are inherently smarter or better than the unfortunate citizens of other countries. We have prosperity and liberty in spite of ourselves. We are blessed because a couple of centuries ago a bunch of cantankerous guys got together and bound up our government with all kinds of inherent divisions and checks.

People like to complain about government not getting anything done, but I think we ought to celebrate gridlock. I remember reading once that the Peruvian legislature had passed 40,000 new laws in its latest session. That’s a lot of monuments. Instead of lambasting our legislators for not getting enough done, maybe we should ask them to take more time off. Perhaps that would work in my neighborhood as well. I wonder what it would cost to reward the Monument ladies for their hard work, perhaps with an extended trip to our nation’s capital. There are great restaurants, wonderful museums, and loads of history. Plus I hear they have a lot of lovely monuments.